Panda Bear Wants You to Forget About the Old Stuff

Noah Lennox discusses Animal Collective’s thriving renaissance of excellent new music, including their latest LP Isn’t It Now?

Music Features Animal Collective
Panda Bear Wants You to Forget About the Old Stuff

Noah Lennox isn’t really into doing interviews. That’s not to say he outright loathes them, but it’s simply a part of the process; it’s a means to an end. Lennox lumps together “touring, photos [and] interviews” as a necessary aspect of being a musician. All he wants to do is make music, but that’s why he spends time talking to people like me—“no offense,” he adds—Zooming in from his home in Lisbon to discuss the actual music. He just wants to create, and everything else is completely worth it.

Between his solo work as Panda Bear and as part of indie psych-pop outfit Animal Collective, Lennox makes a lot of music. Just last year, Animal Collective released their excellent comeback record Time Skiffs; he and Sonic Boom made a collaborative album, Reset, that paid homage to ‘60s chamber-pop; and he worked with French house luminaries Braxe + Falcon on their mesmerizing single “Step by Step.” On paper, all of this sounds overwhelming, but he paraphrases a famous quote from Pablo Picasso as his modus operandi: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

“We try to keep that in mind, or at least I do: always making stuff in the hope that, even though everything might not resonate with other people, everything can be a learning experience,” Lennox says. That’s exactly how both Time Skiffs and their new album, Isn’t It Now?, came about. These two batches of songs began germinating back in 2018 at a pair of shows at New Orleans’ Music Box Village, where AnCo debuted tunes like “Defeat,” “Royal and Desire” and “Magicians from Baltimore.” Although Lennox himself was busy touring behind his 2019 solo endeavor, Buoys, he came up with 35 songs (“really minimal demos,” he clarifies) that he’d later present to his bandmates David Portner (AKA Avey Tare), Brian Weitz (AKA Geologist) and Josh Dibb (AKA Deakin). Once all four members got some free time in their respective schedules, they decamped to Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee, in 2019 to flesh out new Animal Collective material.

Of that collection of 35 demos, only a handful—“five or six,” Lennox believes—made it onto either of the two final albums. Still, despite the fact that both records share the same genesis, they sound wildly different. Time Skiffs is much more grounded, at least as far as an AnCo album can be, and maybe that’s because it was made remotely and played to a click track. Take the syncopated rhythms of “Prester John” or the studio trickiness of “Dragon Slayer.” Now contrast that with the freewheeling splendor permeating Isn’t It Now?, the band’s longest record to date, running over an hour in total. “Defeat” alone, which is approximately 22 minutes, is more structurally complex and labyrinthine than even the most esoteric songs on Time Skiffs. The way AnCo decided to break up these two collections of music, though, was whether they could play these tunes together in a room or not.

“Something like ‘Defeat’ was impossible because it relies on the movements of everybody playing their parts together,” Lennox explains. “That’s how the song shifts from verse to verse and so on.” He continues: “This one feels like Time Skiffs but abstracted. The songs on Isn’t It Now? feel more far afield. In a way, there’s an immediacy to Time Skiffs that might be on a couple of tracks in Isn’t It Now?, but Isn’t It Now? definitely feels more sprawling and inscrutable.”

However inscrutable Isn’t It Now? may be, the band-in-a-room feeling is undeniable. It’s the first time you can really glean a traditional band setup since 2001’s Danse Manatee, and the sense of blank space that they’d cram full of claustrophobic electronics on something like, say, 2012’s Centipede Hz is completely absent. In fact, Lennox makes this exact comparison himself: “[Centipede Hz] is a barrage of textures, tones and noise, whereas with this one we had the opposite approach where we were always looking for more and more space and emptiness in the arrangements.” That stillness is palpable, and the group often lets it hang, their instruments ringing out into the ether; the room they’re playing in may as well be another instrument. On “Magicians from Baltimore,” for instance, there are long pauses between instrumental phrases, and Lennox’s deft snare hits signal the other band members to move forward. Long stretches of silence ensue until he deems it appropriate to continue the song’s progression. Isn’t It Now?, consequently, is a record that rewards patience.

Speaking of “Magicians from Baltimore,” it’s a song that Lennox loves to play live because of the danger he injects into his particular performance. “Sometimes, I see how far I can push the pause, and the guys have to wait for my snare thing, which is the signal to go into the next line, and I try to trick them,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve fooled them too many times.” From a surface-level perspective, this is just a bit of harmless, onstage fun. But there’s a deeper reason behind Lennox’s duplicitous antics: He wants to add an unpredictable thrill for the audience. “It’s nice when there’s that in a show: when there’s a sense that the thing is maybe about to fall apart,” he muses. “I feel like it’s fun. It’s exciting.”

Animal Collective have never been ones for playing it safe. That’s why Lennox never likes to dwell on the past or rest on his laurels. When I ask him how he views Isn’t It Now? within the larger scope of his band’s discography, he’s transparent about his feelings. “For me, I’m all about whatever the new thing is, and any time I’m talking about old stuff, I feel like I’m selling the new thing short,” he says. “I almost wish we could just forget about all the stuff in the past. But of course, that’s impossible.” Having been a band for almost 25 years now, it can be challenging to find new avenues of artistic expression. But for Animal Collective, they’ve struck gold, entering a vivifying renaissance of creativity. Between two records in two years, scoring the A24 film The Inspection, reissuing their debut LP alongside a new EP and its members’ respective solo projects, AnCo is thriving again.

There’s a tidy metaphor sitting right there in the album’s title, as well, and it feels too glaring to ignore. “I don’t want to say we’re escaping the past, but the burden of previous stuff is a challenge,” Lennox admits. “If there’s something in the past that people really seem to like, inevitably, whatever the new thing is going to be, it’s going to be held up against that. When we’re making stuff now, whether we like it or not, it’s pre-judged in this way. It’s not approached in a vacuum. I hope that doesn’t affect what we do. We just try to do what feels exciting to us at that moment.” Isn’t It Now?, both in its live-band ethos and its focus on the present, eschews the nostalgia surrounding classic records like 2007’s Strawberry Jam and 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion. Ultimately, isn’t it now, the exact moment we’re living in, that matters most?

Grant Sharples is a writer, journalist and critic in Kansas City. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Stereogum, The Ringer, Los Angeles Review of Books, UPROXX and other publications.

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