Ten Years Later, Panda Bear Explains the Accidental Genius of ‘Person Pitch'

Illustration by Efi Chalikopoulou

Great art often comes about as a matter of what’s going on around the person creating it—and so it goes with Noah Lennox’s stunning 2007 solo album as Panda Bear, Person Pitch. Lennox’s masterful, collagist arrangement of electronic textures and crate-digging samples inspired an entire generation of indie-situated artists to ditch their guitars, grab a sampler or two, and craft entire sonic worlds from the comfort of their bedrooms. In the 10 years since the album’s release, no one’s come close to nailing the beatific radiance that Lennox captured on wax—so it’s amusing to hear Lennox explain that the record’s signature sound was partially indebted to a customs mishap.

“I wasn’t able to get my guitar into the country,” he explains over the phone from his home in Lisbon, where he’s lived since 2005, while taking a break from working on new Panda Bear music (the project’s last album was 2015’s excellent Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper). “I tried to send it, and it got held up in customs for a long time.” He was able to bring a 303 sampler with him, though, which he’d already been experimenting with before making the move from New York City; inspired by hip-hop producer Madlib’s work under the Quasimoto moniker, he continued toying around with sampling and “seeing where the technique would take me,” which eventually birthed the swirling, chromatic hues that mark Person Pitch.

“That happens a lot to me,” he states regarding the circumstantial occurrences that led to creating Person Pitch. “Even crappy, cheap gear can push you in new directions.” In light of the album’s lavish, anniversary-pegged reissue courtesy of vinyl subscription Vinyl Me Please, we chatted about the groundbreaking album’s emotional underpinnings, the anxieties of playing live, and the surprise that came along with the accolades that met Person Pitch. Read on for our discussion, edited and condensed for clarity:

Noisey: You moved to Portugal while working on Person Pitch. Was there anything specific happening in your life that’s reflected on the album?
Noah Lennox: “I’m Not” was written in a sort of a pre-having-kids environment, mentally. Every time I’ve done something, there’s always this residue of what’s going on for me that makes it in there—sometimes in ways that I don’t fully realize at the time. [2011’s] Tomboy sounds different to me now than it did when I was making it. It seemed a lot more cheerful and positive at the time—but now it’s not so much to me anymore. If you’re a creative person making something, you can’t help but have these little pieces of what’s going on with you make their way into what you’re making.

On the surface, “Take Pills” seems like it has a very specific anti-drug message, but the lyrics are very even-handed—almost generous, maybe.
It’s definitely a song about trying to get over something that’s been difficult that you’re grinding up against. It’s not specifically about anti-depressant drugs, but more about trying to overcome something.

I think I can be forgiving to a fault, if that makes sense. I think I get it from my mom, because she’s even gnarlier with it than I am. I don’t like to stay mad at anybody. Sometimes I feel like I should give my opinion about stuff—especially with social media and all that—but I don’t know that that’s a strong part of my character. I’ve tried to say how I feel in ways that you might have to read between the lines a little bit more. I’m not much of a soapbox sort of dude—maybe that’s a self-confidence thing, I don’t know.

The original liner notes featured a “Thank you” list that included a wide range of musicians.
Those were people who played a big role in my life personally. I hoped [to channel] when you see an album cover that’s your entryway into the music—that’s part of the package, and I hoped to prime somebody’s brain for listening to the music. If there was stuff in there that you saw that you knew, that would color your perception of the music, in a way.

George Michael was one of the artists listed—I remember reading an interview from a while back where you mentioned listening to Wham! at summer camp as a formative influence.
My father was the doctor at a camp—I think it was in South Carolina—so every summer we partied down there. I have weird memories of hearing music playing out of people’s cabins. I can remember what it smells like and certain images from that area down there, but music is often attached to these memories for some reason.

All the Top 40 radio from that time was a big influence—just radio in general. I used to listen to it all the time. There were Top 40 radio, classic rock stations, and an oldies station. Those are my favorite zones to be in.

Do you still listen to the radio now?
No, not so much. There’s one radio station around here that I like a whole lot—they put some sort of compressor on everything, especially bongos, that gives it a really weird quality and makes me feel kind of funny. They play good stuff. I like the fact that radio is music that’s forced on you, in a way. There’s a level of exploration and discovery in that method, where you have to sit and listen to what somebody wants to play. I think that’s cool.

Were there any creative aims you had in mind while working on the album?
[Person Pitch] was just stuff that I would work on in between Animal Collective tours. I wanted to put it out, and I wanted it to be good, so I worked hard on it—but i certainly didn’t expect it to have much of an audience. I don’t want to sell it short, because I like what I do, but I didn’t think anybody was going to care. I wish that I’d had more fantastical ambitions for it, but that’s not my M.O.

Much of Person Pitch was released on 7″ and 12″ releases before the album was released in full. Why was that?
It feels overwhelming to think about a whole album of songs. It’s a weird fear of mine, trying to take on too much at the same time—[releasing songs separately first] seems more reasonable so I can focus on a couple of songs at a time. If I take it in little bits and make sure each of those bits is super strong, when you collect everything together hopefully everything improves because of that process.

The tour behind the Person Pitch material introduced a new setup for you, performance-wise.

I was definitely nervous, because it was the first time I was playing shows by myself. It’s a really different experience for me to play alone rather than with other people. This is going to sound super lame, but I get nervous playing with other people on stage, so it’s intensified when I’m going out there solo.

If I can make something in such a way that it takes me over, then I’m not thinking about being on stage in front of people. If there’s silence or I have to talk, those are the moments I freeze up—my least favorite moments of the set. I practiced for those shows to a point where I knew that, barring some sort of malfunction, I could get to a space where I didn’t feel so uncomfortable. My way of doing things is certainly not everybody’s cup of tea. There was a review of some show I did [in Portugal], and most of the review was about how unprofessional I was about my performance—I didn’t talk, there was no welcoming of the audience. The person who saw the show felt like I was ignoring people, which is fair enough. I don’t really take offense to that. The way I go about it isn’t everybody’s thing.

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