Panda Bear Tells The Story Behind Every Song On His New Album
A track-by-track look at Noah Lennox’s most thematically ambitious project to date.
There's a playful clarity to Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper, the new full-length from Noah Lennox, aka Panda Bear. Four years since the morose fever-dream of Tomboy, and nearly eight since his dewey-eyed breakthrough, Person Pitch, Lennox is messing around with materials typically reserved for mass-produced club music: breakbeats, hi-hats, stock reggae samples. They're cycled through his distinct-as-ever filter, though, and what comes out the other side are unmistakably Panda Bear songs: gooey, heartfelt, and distorted reflections of the man who made them.
Whether it's the "anti-love" song "Selfish Gene" or the moving, multi-tracked melodrama of "Tropic of Cancer," the separate songs on The Grim Reaper—which have been trickling out slowly via various global radio stations all week—are part of a bigger story. "It seems to me like the dissolving of an identity," Lennox told FADER of the record's narrative arc. "That's the way that I understand [the album's] sequence, but it took a while to get there." Below, the 36-year-old Portugal-based musician offers up a track-by-track breakdown of each song—that is, except for "Shadow of Colossus," a 19-second interlude that sounds like an underwater Skype call. Lennox provided FADER with a first-hand glimpse into the physical (and emotional) undertaking behind his most ambitious project to date.
"Sequential Circuits" was one of those titles that stuck around for so long that it became what the song was. It was impossible to go anywhere else with it. I feel weird about company names being song titles—maybe if I had used Sequential Circuits equipment it would make more sense. The song is about mental systems and ways of thinking—particularly, how we think of ourselves. I like that there's a really long tail at the end of the song—it's a cool way to start an album. It's like when an orchestra is warming up: there's tones in the beginning, there's silence, and then the music starts. There's this anticipation of, "Is it gonna start now?"
I was talking to this holistic healer lady in Portugal who lives down the river. She said, "Your character is represented by three spirit animals"— a wolf, a bear, and an eagle. I thought that was odd, so I thought it would be a fun exercise to write a song that was a cartoon-y image of the way I thought about myself. There's various sections of the songs that talk about elements of my character—a wolf section, a bear section, and an eagle section at the end. I've always had a thing with wolves, even though I was totally wrong about them. We think of wolves as these solitary creatures, but they're actually dedicated family beings. They travel in packs, and when they're on their own, they die. They don't survive.
"Davy Jones' Locker"
There's a couple of songs on the album that have a weird seafaring vibe—I don't know where it comes from. Any time there was a weird noise while recording, [co-producer Pete Kember] would record it. There were a couple of moments in the sequence of the album where I felt there needed to be a space in between songs. I found some weird sounds for an intermediary force, and I wanted a title to give an early indication of the album's seafaring vibe. I wanted to project a mental picture of being really deep in the ocean, which is one of my worst fears. One time, Animal Collective were in Australia, and [AC members Deakin and Geologist] are certified divers. [AC member Avey Tare] and I didn't do the training, so we just snorkeled. We plopped into the middle of the ocean, which was awesome, but kind of terrifying, too. You look down and you just see this huge expanse.
I've wanted to do something with the "Ashley's Roachclip" sample for a long time. There's a handful of tracks I really like that feature that sample—particularly P.M. Dawn's "Paper Doll"—but I felt like letting it ride for so long with a drum roll at the end. I haven't heard the sample used in that context before. I've wanted to use the drum sample for a long time—I think it might be used in the remix of Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner", which I love. That remix is sort of a totem for all these songs, production-wise. It's got a magic to it.
"Butcher Baker Candlestick Maker"
Pete wanted me to cut this song title down, but I was like, "I'm going full monty with that shit." I was really into long titles this time around. The song has a nursery rhyme feel, so I think the title works. I like that there's a line about a plug-in. You know in movies when actors look at the camera? That was my version of that.
The song sets up an animal vs. person comparison. The way animals deal with things instinctually and don't really get lost in their minds was very attractive to me; there's a nobility to that. The song talks about the dark places that people get into, and all the emotional and mental clutter that we have—but it's also about sex. There's companies that make sound packs for producers, and some of them are cheesy and lame. There's a couple sounds that I used from a reggae pack for this song. I got into using stuff that felt really common and devoid of any unique character, and tried to use stuff in a way that felt like nobody else could have made it except for me. Bringing my own personality and character to those things was something I got pretty excited about. On their own, though, the sounds are pretty cheesy. If I isolated them you'd be like, "I don't know about this."
"Come to Your Senses"
This song took forever to finish. It was definitely the hardest to mix. It was the first song we recorded, and it took way longer than any other song. After we came out of the studio, I made this little MIDI sequence for a hi-hat pattern, and it was the missing element. But it took us a while to hit on that.
"Tropic of Cancer"
I felt like all my previous songs were exercises in introspection. For various reasons, I didn't want to do that this time. I don't think introspection is bad, but after a certain point it becomes a narcissistic enterprise. So the songs would start from a very personal place, but the challenge was always to look larger or deeper. This song's a good example of that. It starts out with a personal anecdote about my father getting a disease—he had a tumor—but the song's really just about disease in general. Trying to empathize with disease, how disease is just another thing in the universe that's trying to propagate and survive, trying to be sympathetic to disease in that context. There's a couple of crests in this song where—if it's going really good [when I'm playing it live], and I'm feeling it—it will be an emotional moment. If It works.
This was one of the last songs we did right near the end of the recording sessions. Pete was talking about what he thought a successful life would be: when you're near death and you look back on your life, even though you realize you made mistakes or did things wrong, you could live with those mistakes and feel good about the decisions you made, the way you navigated your life. The song's about the concept of trying to keep that idea in your mind from day to day. If there's a big decision you have to make, you look at it like, "When I'm dying, am I gonna feel good about this decision? Can I live with this?" It's this barren, emotional desert.
Principe Real is a neighborhood [in Lisbon] that we live right on the edge of—it's this old, fancy garden zone. It means "royal prince," which I always thought was a badass name for a song. The idea for the song was to make something that had an insistent house-y rhythm, a zone I've never felt fully comfortable going to. With these songs, I found my way of working with elements that I never really felt comfortable with before. As soon as you feel you can latch onto the rhythm, it starts breaking apart. It's constantly expanding and contracting.
Similar to "Tropic of Cancer," this song's about how genes try to continue and survive, and how that influences the decisions we make and impulses we have. Obviously, sex is part of it. "Selfish Gene" is an anti-love song—I'm talking about the Hallmark-card version of love. I'm a big fan of romantic love in general, but the song's about the weird mind games we get into in relationships that aren't particularly healthy. The song is trying to wade through all that.
"Acid Wash" was recorded during our first session—that, and "Come To Your Senses." I thought it was a pretty shitty song for a long time—then, I played it for a couple of people, and that was the one they singled out as their favorite. It really fits as the album's last song—there were a couple I was considering, but "Acid Wash" felt like the best way to end it. There's a feeling of triumph to it, but also a feeling of looking back and realizing there's been a journey, and now we've finished, we can move on to the next thing.