Published Apr 24, 2011Few would disagree that Noah Lennox has become one of the sonic architects of our time. After producing two of the finest albums of the past decade – his solo project Panda Bear's 2007 album Person Pitch and his band Animal Collective's 2009 record Merriweather Post Pavillion – he's working at the same level as Thom Yorke and LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy. Each of his new releases is accepted as a barometer of where the rest of contemporary taste will soon venture. And yet he's not your average critically coddled musician. He still stays at his parent's house and conducts his interviews for Tomboy only after 9 p.m., after he's hung out with the family and they've gone off to bed.
One could say that the secret to Noah Lennox's success is that he's so down to earth. The release of his much-anticipated fourth Panda Bear album arrives to a devoted fan base that follows him because he's so good at articulating the antithesis of what critical adulation typically does to a person. They know it because Lennox has been so affecting and personal when putting his perspective into lyrics. "The records and the songs are just reflections of the stuff that I'm thinking about when making the songs," he says. "About being a dad and some of the responsibilities of that, because that's the stuff that's really paramount to me at that point."
More than the craftsman behind a unique and contemporary sound – something that's no longer as hard to do as it once was, given the amount of affordable technology out there – with Tomboy, Lennox has matured as a songwriter who knows how to touch people. Like Brian Wilson, to whom he's sometimes compared, his mix of harmony and deeply personal recollections offer music that could be described as atheistic choir music.
"Church music is something I'm really into," Lennox admits. "That vibe of music is something that I immediately relate to. I'm not really a religious person, but music for me is more about the transcendental. A lot of times people will say they don't really understand the words I'm saying and they'll insert their own words in there. Oftentimes that can be a really powerful thing for somebody, too."
From that perspective, it make complete sense that Lennox would work with another cult legend whose best material also mines similar territory: former Spacemen 3 architect Sonic Boom (aka Pete Kember), who mixed Tomboy. "I first met him via email," says Lennox. "After he heard the Person Pitch album, a friend of his had played it for him and just looking in the book he saw Spaceman 3 there and he just wrote to me to tell me that he liked the album and he was psyched to see that he influenced it in some way."
As a result of the collaboration, Tomboy's 11 songs present a significant move away from the sample-heavy wall of sound that was Person Pitch. The album features more open spaces, with Lennox's harmonies taking centre stage against a backdrop of echo-drenched loops and synth-processed guitar work. The imprint of Sonic Boom can be heard everywhere, and in places Tomboy sounds like an extension of the spaceman's electronic space-pop records as Spectrum in the mid-'90s.
Reluctant to repeat himself, the shift in direction is one that Lennox was rearing to take. "We spent the next couple of weeks talking about the songs and about the album. He really wanted to know everything, all the lyrics, every mix I'd ever done of every song. We went really deep before we even started mixing stuff."
More than anything, Tomboy is the start of a new chapter for Noah Lennox. Like all bona fide creative talents, he's restless to start something new. "It's the whole mental battle," he concedes. "I feel like the moment that I stop trying to do something that feels like a step in a different direction, the moment that stops happening I'll just be dead creatively. With Person Pitch, that was my first go at learning to make songs on samplers and perform with those things. Merriweather was sort of like a completion of that process for me, and once I'd done that I was kind of just finished with it."
The main thing is keeping his head straight and having the courage to follow through on his instincts. "Weird distractions and strange confidence things slow the creative wave down," he says. "It happens to me all the time, pretty much every album. I don't know if anybody's going to like this. And it's not only in terms of negative stuff, but with positive stuff too. It can all be warping in a way. You can pay attention to it up to a point, but after that it's not really constructive or helpful in any way."
When working with Animal Collective, Lennox admits, he feels those pressures less because the rest of the band insulates him. Before Person Pitch, the band used to be the big draw and, in between, he'd experiment with solo projects that never attracted that much attention. It makes not only for a complex relationship with his own music, but also with the Collective's dynamic of working together. "It's like any intense relationship. It can't always be gravy. But we're pretty good at hashing things out and making decisions. It's not always easy."
An exception to that was Merriweather, which in terms of creation, was once of those rare, irretrievable episodes where everything just ends up going right. "Merriweather Post Pavilion, from start to finish, was smooth sailing the whole time. I can't say that for any of the other albums. Not even close." The result was a classic album.
It's difficult to figure out where to go next when you're on top, and that's just the vantage point from which Lennox is releasing Tomboy. No one in Animal Collective knows which way public reception will take the band next. And so while waiting for Tomboy to drop, they've been working intensively on Merriweather's follow-up.
"We've never had so much time to work on songs before, so it's kind of new, uncharted territory in a way," says Lennox. "There were still people bringing songs to the table but this is the first time that I can remember that we're starting from zero. We really wanted to do the whole process in a different way than we're used to."
If Tomboy is any indication, then Lennox and company should have nothing to worry about.