Panda Bear Makes A Record Underground, And Out In The Open
Noah Lennox feels compelled to consider his audience now. He blames 2007 for that.
Lennox had been recording solo under the name Panda Bear for the better part of a decade, releasing a pair of records along the way in what he considers a somewhat blithe obscurity. Selling records is what he did with his band, Animal Collective. For his solo work, he says, "I never really had to think about it."
To that point, Panda Bear was pure creation. In 2004, as his father lay dying, Lennox began writing songs to tell him what a good job he had done. Lennox was able to play some rough tracks for his father before he died, then Lennox recorded the final tracks in the room where he passed. The resultant album was "Young Prayer."
"Person Pitch," the album that would change things entirely, was a personal record as well. Lennox had moved to Lisbon, Portugal, in 2005, gotten married and had a child. Along the way, he composed a series of breezy odes to the brightness of his adoptive home, drifting from folkier inclinations to looping minimalist beats, angel's choir harmonies and samples of Cat Stevens, Kraftwerk and the landmark dystopian anime "Akira." The album felt light and windswept, despite a second single that exceeded 12 minutes. "Person Pitch" sold 3,000 first-week copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, then sold 71,000 more.
Lennox's personal recordings were suddenly competing with his band's. The sales for "Person Pitch" (74,000 units) came within striking distance of Animal Collective's 2007 album "Strawberry Jam" (77,500). In terms of critical reception, "Pitch" beat "Strawberry Jam" in a handful of tastemaking best-of lists, claiming the top spot in Pitchfork's Top 50 Albums of 2007. ("Jam" landed sixth.) Animal Collective's 2009 follow-up, "Merriweather Post Pavilion," sold 182,000 copies.
Lennox says he struggled to come to terms with how "Person Pitch" made a decidedly personal project public. Todd Hyman, president of Paw Tracks, the label he started with Animal Collective in 2002, has seen it too.
"There's a tremendous amount of pressure on [Lennox]," Hyman says. "He's the kind of person who always keeps pushing himself. Not just to do the same thing, even though a lot of people were interested in hearing the same thing."
In September 2009, when the clamor over Animal Collective had died down and touring was finished, Lennox returned to Lisbon and took up residence in a studio two stories below ground. As the record was created he was mindful, for the first time, that people were intensely interested in his solo work. He says, "At this point there are two narratives: how people might receive the thing and my own personal feelings." On the phone from Baltimore, Lennox pauses, then continues, "I have total control over one and absolutely no control over the other."
For the benefit of his family, Lennox had pledged to keep regular (daytime) work hours, but ended up composing and recording "Tomboy," his fourth solo album due April 19, by the light of a single small lamp. Perhaps because of that, Lennox says, "there's this nighttime-during-the-day kind of feel to it."
Lennox has always been considered the brighter spirit among the dervishes of Animal Collective. "Tomboy," though, is his most serious work. Press on the title track lead single has been overwhelmingly positive, and the song appeared on many 2010 best-of lists.
It's clear the label is expecting sales of "Tomboy" to rival those of "Merriweather Post Pavilion," the same way "Person Pitch" matched "Strawberry Jam." Hyman says Paw Tracks is shipping 15,000-20,000 units in the United States. "It would be awesome if we could do that much in SoundScan sales the first week," he says.
That's where comparisons to previous work should end, however. "Tomboy" doesn't have a corollary to "Bros.," the jangly, bright, 12-minute ode to endless summer from "Person Pitch." The closest it gets is "Surfer's Hymn," which takes the long horizon line between sea and sky and makes it a post-dark gradient of blue to black.
"Somebody told me they thought 'Person Pitch' was an album you share with people and 'Tomboy' is something you only want to hear when you're by yourself," Lennox says. "That rang true for me."
"It was important [to me] that it came from a place that I'd never gone before and didn't have a firm grasp of," Lennox says. "Uncharted territory, I guess."