Mar 07, 2016 6:16PM

Animal Collective's Panda Bear Talks Us Through Epic Album 'Painting With'

Animal Kingdom.

Animal Collective are a bit of a banger factory. They've been making music together for over 15 years, and during that time they've managed to put out a very impressive ten albums, the latest being their recently-released tripped out Painting With

Painting With was recorded in the iconic EastWest studio — which they kitted out with a baby pool and dinosaur projections on the wall — and was the first time they dropped an album without performing any of the songs live in concert beforehand. It's also v epic and a big testament to the longevity of their appeal.

We chatted to Noah Lennox aka Panda Bear about the new album, what recording in the EastWest studios was like and why they decided to include a sample from Summer Roberts' favourite show, The Golden Girls.

Madeleine Woon: Hey Noah. Did you know when you type "Panda Bear" into Google, you rank higher than the actual animal?
Noah Lennox: Oh really? I did not know that. They've got that wrong; Google needs to change that immediately [laughs].

So we asked the guys from Odesza last year which album changed their life and they cited it as being Merriweather Post Pavilion.
Oh, cool!

Do you have a record that has changed the course of your life?
Yeah, there's been a bunch; they're all scrambling around in my brain right now. There's a record called U.F Orb by this group called The Orb. Their first record, definitely.

Cool. And going back to Merriweather, how do you think your music has evolved since then?
I feel like it's gone in circles, kind of. Hopefully not in a way that it seems like we've repeated ourselves, but sometimes we do something and it will remind me of this thing that happened a long time ago. I feel like relationships kind of work that way with people: things go in cycles, or tend to go in cycles, but maybe that's not super remarkable. It does feel a bit haphazard; it doesn't feel like a linear progression so much, I guess.

You must be super psyched having just put out your new album...
Yeah, I am super excited for people to hear it. I'm always a little anxious and less serious after it has come out, because you kind of don't know what's going to happen with it. But yeah, we all feel pretty good about it.

You guys have been putting out quality music for so long. At this stage, can you pre-empt what your fans are going to react to, or what songs will be the standout bangers?

I used to think I was good at that, but I was almost always wrong so I stopped thinking about things that way. I feel like there are maybe one or two songs that seem a little more "obedient" on this one, but they wouldn't be my choices if I were to play one or two songs…

Over the course of 15 years, how has the creative process changed for you guys?
The start of the songs or the really initial explosion that happens is definitely my favourite part of the process. I get really jazzed up hearing something back and being excited about it. Being so geographically far apart from each other these days means there are a lot more emails and planning, and when we get together we really need to make sure every second counts. So the working times are pretty intense these days. I don't mean to complain or anything that's just logistically how we have to do it.

I read that this is the first album that you have created without performing any of the songs in concert before. How was that for you guys?
It's been kind of funny. We haven't done it the opposite way for so long, so I think all of us were just curious to see what it would be like doing it this way. The really funny thing has been putting the live versions of the songs together, 'cause we have the studio versions — this perfect version of the song that you're trying to re-create in a way or trying to live up to — and it's been interesting to see how we navigate that. Of course it can't really, and I don't think it should, sound just like the recording. Trying to find another life for a song after you have this really crystalised image of what it is has been is something very new for us.

What was it like recording in EastWest?
It was really great. Besides the fact that it's really cool because there has been so much history there, everything just sounded so good. It really made you appreciate being in rooms that had been so cleverly designed for sound. There are fantastic studios all over the place, but this one felt kind of special to me in terms of… You'd set something up in the room and it didn't really matter where you were, as long as you were relatively prudent with the mic placement, it would sound really amazing. So being in a really cleverly engineered room makes the whole process more striking.

I've read you set the room up with a wading pool and projections of dinosaurs on the walls, which sounds like a bit of a trip. Was that sensory experience really important to you guys?
I think you would probably get a different answer depending on which member of the band you asked, but it's been pretty pivotal for us I should say. Just because a lot of studios aren't the most visually engaging spaces, so we will often dress up the space in some way, nothing super funky or anything. The dinosaurs and the whole prehistoric atmosphere, that was kind of more to keep us locked into that headspace and what we talked about when we first started writing the songs, and the imagery that we were inspired by. We wanted the music to look like that. I suppose it can't hurt to have all of that stuff around. Whether it really made a difference? I guess that's hard to say.

Was it a bit of an overload at times?
The thing that was really an overload… In the control room there was this little laser projector thing and you could put a setting on it where it would move around all these little dots all over the ceiling. Sometimes we would be doing basic mixes of stuff and we'd fire this thing on, and the lights would be off, and that got a little intense, but it was funny and it changed up the environment, you know. We were in there for like 36 days straight or something; anything that brings a change to the atmosphere is welcomed.

How do you guys know when a song is properly done? When do you think you can step back and be like, "Okay, that's the finished project"?
It's more a feeling; it's the kind of thing where you listen back to the song and there isn't anything really major about it that bothers you. To get to that place takes quite a bit of tweaking, especially because the three of us are all pretty choosy in our own specific ways. Deadlines help obviously: if we didn't have those we would just keep tinkering, probably to the detriment of the song.

For you guys, what was it like working with Colin Stenson and John Cale on the album? How did you find those collaborative experiences?
They were good, they were both fairly brief. We only had half a day with each person. I wasn't super familiar with either of those guys before doing that so it's always a little —just like any kind of initial personal encounter — hard to feel each other out a little bit, but we all wanted the same thing, so it was pretty good times. I hope those guys had a good time. We sure did.

Painting With touches on everything from gender politics to philosophy to war. Did you guys consciously set out to make an album dealing with that kind of subject matter?
Before writing the songs, I can remember Dave and I both talking about not really wanting to write music that was really autobiographical, or that came from a hyper-personal space. Both of us were interested in making songs that talked about stuff that felt a little more global or worldly. And there are personal experiences that we were drawing from in some of the songs, but for the most part we were looking outward a lot more than with other stuff that we've done. To be honest we didn't really have a whole lot of conversations like, "These are the kinds of songs that I'm going to write, and this is what it's going to be about." I feel like there was a bit of serendipity to the lyrical side of things where we both… Our target feels sort of the same. I feel like we're tackling stuff in slightly different ways but we're in the same arena so to speak.

Of all the samples on the album I think The Golden Girls one is my favourite. It's such a great playful introduction into gender politics. How did you guys come to decide on that? Are you massive The Golden Girls fans?
I wouldn't consider myself a massive fan, but I definitely remember it being a go-to show when I was sick at home when I was really young. It was hard to see it because it would never play except during the day while we were at school. It's a pretty unique show in terms of the set up and the cast. You don't have too many shows out there that are strictly about older women, so it's pretty cool just because of that.

I think Dave was searching around for Golden Girl stuff just 'cause we wanted to call the song that. He found this video where it was just all of these one-liners from the one character, whose name I'm forgetting right now. It wasn't like a joke, but on the demo of the song he had that sample in there and Brian was like, "We've got to keep that in there, I really like that." I don't know if Dave actually expected it to make the final cut at the time, but a lot of decisions come about that way. You just shoot from the hip a little bit.

Photo: Courtesy 

Madeleine Woon