Animal Collective is an art-pop band from Baltimore, Md., but these days they also call Los Angeles and Portugal home. Since 2000, they’ve made nine albums, six EPs, and one very freaky movie (or “visual album”), ODDSAC. Their tenth album, Centipede Hz, comes out on September 4. Animal Collective consists of four members, all of whom are friends from high school (some from much earlier) and all of whom have fake names that represent things that they’re not in real life. We talked to each of them individually and this is the third of out four conversations.
Noah Lennox is one of the founding members of Animal Collective. He also goes by the moniker Panda Bear. He gave himself the name because he liked drawing pictures of panda bears as a kid. Yes, that is the real reason. He’s 34 years old and plays many instruments, including synthesizers and (occasionally) drums. Panda Bear is the one member of Animal Collective who, based entirely on first impressions, would be the most fun to have a beer with.
No offense to the other Animal Collective guys, but you have the best pseudonym.
Thank you. I’m a big fan of the name. And the animal.
As awesome as it is, do you ever feel trapped by it?
A professional pseudonym is like a tattoo. Once you have it, it’s difficult to get rid of. Are there some days when you don’t feel like being Panda Bear?
Oh, yeah. I get really intense about naming things. And really finicky. I’m always changing my mind, always wanting to change them. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a time when I thought about changing my name.
I don’t know. Probably just my normal name. But I’m a realist. At this point I’ve stuck with Panda Bear long enough that it’s not going away. Which is fine. I’m okay with it.
We haven’t heard you drum on an Animal Collective album for awhile.
It’s been eight years.
But you’re back behind the drum kit for Centipede Hz. Was that intentional, or was everybody else in the band like, “Screw that, I’m not drumming, you do it?”
It was more about the nature of the music. For the last group of songs we did, we would play shows and not really work up a sweat. There wasn’t a whole lot of physicality to it. It was all about working with longer samples of repetitive phrases and just manipulating those sounds with a mixer and things like that. It had a sort of intensity, but there wasn’t much of an interaction on an instrument level.
But now you’re back to kicking out the jams?
Yeah, we all wanted to do something where we brought that side of music to the forefront again. For me, doing something on the drums is like a jump start to doing something really active.
Settle a bet between me and my MTV Hive editor. If there was a drumming competition between you and Richard Parry, the ginger sometimes drummer in Arcade Fire, who would win?
What? No, no, no! You would destroy him! You’re supposed to say you would destroy him!
I don’t really think of myself as a very accomplished drummer. I’m mostly interested in the musical side of drums. I like the sounds and tonalities of things. I’m not technically a very good drummer. So yeah, he’d probably blow me out of the water.
I just lost $20.
I can live with that. Sorry. I’ll pay you back. Next time I see you.
You have two kids, right?
That’s right, yeah. A son and a daughter.
Are either of them musicians?
My son responds strongly to music. My daughter not so much. She’s more of a visual person. She draws all the time. I actually used to draw a lot when I was young too.
She doesn’t like music at all?
No, no, she likes music. But she only responds to specific types of music. Usually heavy rhythm stuff, like Beyoncé or Rihanna. She’s really down with any kind of music with a rapid-fire energy. She’s kind of a fire cracker that way. Anything languid doesn’t really do it for her.
So she’s not a big Bon Iver fan?
No, that’s not her thing. But my son, his ears perk up at pretty much anything. Any kind of sound at all, he’s interested in it.
If your son started a band, which Animal Collective song would they cover?
Wow, that’s a great question. He’s a pretty progressive little guy, so probably something off the Danse Manatee album. He could pull that off pretty well, I think. He likes to break things. And punch things and kick things. That’s what he’s really into.
And that’s the musical aesthetic of Danse Manatee?
It can be reproduced with baby punches and kicks?
And yelping. You need some baby yelping.
Oh yeah, especially “Another White Singer.” That’s almost all yelping.
I remember playing some shows where something would break after the first three minutes of the set. And we would just totally improvise the rest of the show because we couldn’t play what we planned to play anymore. Something like that, my son would really knock that out of the park.
There have been various Animal Collective solo albums over the years. You’ve done four. Avey’s done one and is talking about a second. Deakin’s got a solo record coming out soon. Are your intentions similar to why the guys in KISS put out solo albums in the late ’70s?
Um, I don’t know. What were their intentions?
From what I understand, Ace wanted to quit the band and go solo because Gene and Paul were being dicks. But Gene was like, “Dude, chill, we’ve got a good thing going here.” So they all agreed to make solo albums rather than break up the band. It was just a band time out.
Yeah, it definitely feels like that. Not that we need a time out. I mean, first of all, to me, everything I work on solo, it all feels like a band thing. One thing informs the other, and it all feels part of the same creative trajectory.
But you give each other space.
Exactly, yeah. Even though we have band stuff, we also like to work on our own. We’re excited to leave space for each other to be able to do those things. But doing the solo stuff, it never felt like there was any sort of serious danger that it would fracture the band.
You’ll always get the guys back together eventually and make your Dynasty disco record.
Well, maybe not exactly that. [Laughs.]
From Strawberry Jam to the new album, the one adjective that keeps getting used when describing your music is “alien.” As in, extraterritorial. Is that an accident, or is that your target demographic?
When we were working on the new record, we had this image of an alien band. It sounds silly, but we were always like “Let’s get into that alien band place.”
Meaning, you played like aliens?
Yeah. Like we’re these aliens that are hearing snippets of radio frequencies coming out from the earth, maybe never getting a full song. It’s just pieces of different music from all over the globe. Maybe they never get a full song. It’s just notes and short flashes of melodies. And then we create our own musical landscapes based on that. We were always pushing to get the songs to that foreign place.
“I would guess that alien music is something that I can’t even imagine. I would love to be able to say, “Oh yeah, alien music sounds just like our album.” But I’m pretty sure it doesn’t.”
So on this record, you’re playing as an alien?
More or less, yeah.
What’s the alien version of you look like?
Huh. I never thought about it that way.
Does he have gills? Is he mostly amoeba? What type of life form are you?
There’s a weird kind of blue keyboard player in the cantina band in Star Wars. I always thought that guy was super cool.
The one who looked like an elephant?
Yeah, that’s him!
You’re thinking of Return of the Jedi.
Right, right. That’s the one. He’s blue, he’s got big pudgy fingers. He’s a very weird looking thing.
[Laughs.] You know his name?
Dude, I’m a nerd.
You want a new pseudonym that isn’t Panda Bear, there’s your best bet right there. Go with Max Rebo.
I’ll think about it, sure.
Let’s assume for the purposes of this interview that extraterrestrials exist.
They’re out there somewhere, doing their alien thing. Do they have music?
I think so. I hope so.
Are you sure it sounds like Centipede Hz? Maybe it’s not all trippy and spacey. Maybe they’re like, “We’re really into acoustic singer-songwriters.” Maybe “spacey” music is like their hair metal. They could be like “Oh man, that was so ’80s for us.”
I would guess that alien music is something that I can’t even imagine. I would love to be able to say, “Oh yeah, alien music sounds just like our album.” But I’m pretty sure it doesn’t.
So what does it sound like?
I couldn’t begin to have any idea. I would hope it’s something that would blow my mind with how crazy it sounds. I’m sure it’s like nothing I could even imagine. I often think about what if some classical composers, like Beethoven or Tchaikovsky or whoever, what if they were hearing music that’s being made today, how would they feel about that?
Do you have any theories? Would they hate it? Would they be like Baby Boomers listening to hip-hop?
I really don’t know. They might be impressed by some of it. I don’t think they could even conceive of a sampler. It would blow their minds to even imagine something like that. You can record a sound and distort it and create a new sound from it. That’s what I think it’d be like hearing alien music. I’d be hearing techniques and technology that we can’t even imagine. I’d be like Mozart listening to dubstep.