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Panda Bear tackles mortality, vintage hip-hop on 'Grim Reaper'

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Fernanda Pereira

If Salvador Dalí and Jackson Pollock got coffee and tinkered with ProTools, they might produce something resembling Animal Collective. For 15 years the band has used psychedelic guitars, splotchy synths, and slyly earnest lyrics to carve out a niche. Animal Collective’s colorful, frenetic work also has a compelling heart.

Much of that soul—and weirdness, too—stems from Noah Lennox, the Animal Collective jack-of-all-trades commonly known as Panda Bear. Lennox’s solo work often trades some of Animal Collective’s chaos for sonic and emotional immediacy, a trend that holds true on latest record, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper. The 36-year-old’s fifth album deftly runs the gamut from grimy bangers to serene ballads and tackles mortality in prosaic, thoughtful ways.

“I made a point this time around to write about stuff larger than myself,” Lennox recently told me in a Brooklyn recording studio while visiting from his Lisbon home. “Although I don’t think introspection is bad, I feel like after a certain point it kind of turns over into narcissism or just being self-centered. All the songs [on Grim Reaper] started from a personal thought or a personal experience, but the impulse was always to remove anything that I felt was specific to my experience.”

Quiet and measured, Lennox shouldn’t worry about narcissism. Grim Reaper inevitably draws upon “having children and being a middle-aged dude,” but he emphasizes the roles others played in its creation: producer Pete Kember, live videographer Danny Perez, even his friend and fellow musician Nelson Gomes who suggested Namouche Studios, the “cavernous” Lisbon space where Lennox recorded the album. Grim Reaper, however, also had a mystery benefactor.

“I found a folder online where somebody had made this collection of drum breaks,” Lennox says of the record’s origins, which were during the Animal Collective sessions for 2012’s Centipede Hz. “They were really familiar, sometimes hackneyed samples.”

Those clips largely come from old-school hip-hop and add some subtle accessibility to Grim Reaper. On the buoyant “Crosswords,” Lennox samples “Ashley’s Roachclip,” an old Soul Searchers song used by dozens of rappers ranging from P.M. Dawn to Eric B. & Rakim. “There’s a really specific swing to a lot of the rhythms from tracks from that era,” he says. “I miss that kind of swing, so that was another reason I was inspired to work with those samples. They really have a specific character.”

Lennox explains that as a teenager growing up in Baltimore he was “more of a mixed bag, musically speaking” compared to his peers who used musical tastes to define their character. Still, that’s clearly when he fell in love with hip-hop.

“I liked typical stuff like Tribe Called Quest,” he says. “I was a big fan of Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys—the Dust Brothers’ production in general are a big inspiration for me. And the first Wu-Tang record was like an explosion in my brain. That changed my life in a lot of ways.”

Lennox’s continued genre explorations could make Grim Reaper his most widely heard album yet. Two years ago he contributed vocals to “Doin’ It Right,” off Daft Punk’s smash Random Access Memories—and the French duo’s method of “stripping stuff away to really highlight the rhythm and vocal setup” rubbed off. Grim Reaper has peculiar moments, but at its middle “Tropic of Cancer” and “Lonely Wanderer” blend to form a quiet, pensive core.

“We certainly tried to keep adding stuff, but the way those songs sounded the best was keeping it minimal and simple,” Lennox says. “It seemed like all the emotion came from the singing part. God knows we tried to throw a bunch of stuff at the song, but it worked the best with a really simple arrangement.”

On “Tropic of Cancer,” Lennox sings “When they said he’s ill / Laughed it off as no big deal / What a joke to joke, no joke,” which seemingly recalls his father’s 2002 death from brain cancer. Similar moments throughout Grim Reaper prove that Lennox is still a deeply personal artist, even when he’s ostensibly addressing the general.

In a nutshell, that’s the point of the Panda Bear project. Centipede Hz’s wild sessions wore Lennox out, so he’d use the eventual Grim Reaper tracks as a respite. “I would make these things just as I was going to sleep and as a way of resetting my brain creatively,” he says. That might explain why Panda Bear’s solo recordings are insular and reflective in the way that Animal Collective’s are chaotic and bizarre.

But as monumental as Grim Reaper may prove to be, Lennox hasn’t forgotten about his more famous band. “What I like about about making music with others is that oftentimes the song will go to a place you wouldn’t have thought to go otherwise,” he says. “It’s easier to get surprised when you’re making stuff with other people.”

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