Published Jan 07, 2015Animal Collective appeared to be at a crossroads after the release of their last LP. While 2009's Merriweather Post Pavilion, was a critical and commercial success, 2012's Centipede Hz felt disjointed and overindulgent compared to its polished and poppy predecessor. Some band members even seemed to share in fans' disappointment, with co-vocalist Dave Portner (a.k.a. Avey Tare) experimenting even further with the rough and raw side of recording found on the band's last record and releasing his experimental and energetic solo effort Enter the Slasher House in early 2014.
But while Portner and his live power trio Slasher Flicks were making vast musical strides, AC collaborator Noah Lennox (a.k.a. Panda Bear) found himself longing for his sampler, a device he had all but abandoned while working on the last Animal Collective record, and that worried him.
"The reason I stopped using samplers in the first place is I felt like I was starting to make the same song over and over again in a way," Lennox tells Exclaim! "But the character of the [new] music felt so different anyways that I felt safe going back, because I felt like I was going forward in the same way as well."
Although it may sound like a back-to-basics approach, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper (out January 13 via Domino) is anything but simplistic. Created out of a bounty of breaks, looping, lopsided melodies and heavily oversaturated production techniques taken from the past, Lennox's fifth solo album finds the Portugal-based producer toying with the dub-inflected grooves and hip-hop production of his youth, yet somehow making a sound that is both timeless and deeply his own.
To create the album, Lennox took bits and pieces of experiments and breaks created in his home studio in Lisbon and brought them to Pete Kember (a.k.a. ex-Spacemen 3 member Sonic Boom) who had helped mix the previous Panda Bear LP, 2011's Tomboy. While initially nervous about treading the same sonic ground as Tomboy, Lennox agreed to partner with Kember due to their comfortable working relationship.
That familiarity allowed the pair to flex their sonic muscles, with the duo distilling the main elements from each track, pumping it back into the system at a more professional studio and "maximizing every sound."
Rooted in production techniques originally employed by the likes of Jay Dee and early Daft Punk in the mid- to late '90s, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper feels like a long-lost relic (Lennox even admits that some of the drum breaks are taken from the same sources as the beats from his favourite hip-hop and electronic songs) but still manages to sound like the next logical step in Panda Bear's progression due to its dub-inflected sound.
"Dub music, which feels very kind of wet and watery and ocean-y to me, or evokes those types of sensations, has been the most consistently influential type of sound for me," Lennox says. "I find myself with production always wanting to push it to that sort of place… pretty much everything I've made has that quality to it."
Although he makes it clear that Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper is in no way a concept LP, Lennox is quick to admit that the album's moist production manifests itself thematically in other ways across the album's 13 tracks. Songs like "Tropic of Cancer" and instrumental segue "Davy Jones' Locker" stir up images of oceanic vistas based on their titles alone, while album closer "Acid Wash" was inspired by seafaring songs the Maryland native heard while living overseas for the past 10 years.
"Sea shanties, nursery rhymes, children's songs, old folk songs, national anthems — they all sort of have this sing-song-y but very basic and iconic nature," he says.
The everlasting power of traditional songs and tales found its way onto the album in other ways, with the mostly introspective Lennox stepping outside himself and trying to create a set of songs that transcend his own thoughts on life and the world.
"It was important to me that even though a lot of the songs started with a personal event or a personal thought to make a point of taking the songs from a narrow, personal perspective and expand it to the point that I was talking about something that was more globally concerned," he says about Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper. "A lot of songs hover around the theme of transformation, at least in the context of an identity and the way that when something dramatic or severe happens in our lives, this self image we have prior to the event dies or goes away. We're sort of forced to create a new kind of self or a new way of orienting ourselves within the universe."