Photography FERNANDA PEREIRA
Interview ANDREW PARKS
Like many other records these days, Buoys finds Panda Bear grappling with the trappings of technology, both musically and lyrically. He’s in a unique position as a father, however, since his two kids have grown up surrounded by smartphones and screens. It’s all they know, really.
“I feel like it’s a little difficult for my generation,” says Noah Lennox, “because we saw this thing form before our eyes. Social media—that whole world—is in addition to our character and identity, whereas for my kids it’s all fused. It’s all part of how they think about themselves. I feel like I have to role play to fully understand it because it’s such a foreign thing.”
While we don’t have children of our own, who knows? We might someday, so we thought we’d ask Lennox for some parenting tips since he’s been one for 13 years now. Check out his thoughts on everything from screen time to Twitter below, along with the dates and details for the short European tour the singer/multi-instrumentalist launches in London tonight….
How old were you when you first got a computer?
Probabl 14 or 15.
Was it pretty slow?
It could get on the internet, but it was mostly just text. There was almost no imagery—just super basic, almost like a word processor more than anything else.
What did you use it for then? Did you hang out in chatrooms or just write papers for school on it?
It was mostly homework. I’m not the most extroverted or social guy so the idea of engaging strangers without having any sort of visual feedback was not something I was rushing to do. I do remember a couple times with Instant Messenger, or there was another one…. I can’t remember what it was called but you could just randomly connect with people (Chatroulette). A couple times I tried typing stuff like ‘Who’s out there?’, but I never made any real connections.
It’s interesting that you say you were introverted and still didn’t prefer chat rooms, since that’s one reason people got really into them back then.
It didn’t feel attractive to me in any way; it strikes me as odd. I don’t want to pass any sort of judgment, but even now, being a forum poster is really strange to me.
Because it’s still pretty impersonal?
I guess so. Yeah. That’s something I’ve tried to understand and be able to explain in some form with my kids. I try to understand what motivates somebody and what that feels like. I suppose I’m in a unique position, being somebody who’s putting music out into the world. I often feel like it’s sculpted both on my end and the audience’s—both privately and publicly. I feel like that gives me a unique perspective on what it’s like for a young person to engage [with the world] these days, and to have a life that’s so virtual.
It’s kind of a feedback loop. You put art out into the world and people immediately react to it. Do you pay attention to that stuff?
Yeah, man. And it takes on a life of its own in a way.
Can you give me an example?
What I’m talking about is how a character gets created that’s not entirely who I am. It’s pieces of me, but it’s also projections, or people’s perspective of the music—what they imagine my character to be. Panda Bear isn’t entirely me; t’s not completely accurate.
Do you mean how people have always viewed Animal Collective as being slightly mysterious?
Right. It happens less now than it used to, but I’ve been told in interviews, ‘I’m kind of surprised you’re a lucid person. I thought you were a crazy weirdo.’
Going back to the computer thing, do you remember when they became more a part of your everyday life?
Well, for a long time, it was something I would dip my toe in, here and there. Now it’s a constant presence. These days, it feels like the two things are constantly dancing together all the time. I’d wager that having cellphones—having computers in your pocket all the time—changed that trajectory.
Right, it went from having to physically sit down in front of your computer to this innate desire to stay connected because our phones are always buzzing at us with notifications and what not.
A lot of these apps are designed so that they’re constantly reaching to get your attention. They’re engineered to get you to look at them all the time.
Do you find that happening to you? What kind of phone do you have?
I have an iPhone.
Do you mute it, or do you have notifications going off all the time?
I turn off everything. Once I found out about that little moon symbol—the do-not-disturb button or something like that—I set a group of people that bypass those settings. Like my phone only rings if my wife or my daughter calls me. Otherwise, it just sits there.
What about social media? Were you on Friendster or Myspace when you were younger?
I didn’t do Friendster. I had a Myspace page for a little while, but even that kind of bugged me out. Having strangers writing to me just felt strange.
Was that under your own name or Panda Bear?
I think I made a Panda Bear page. I never had a personal one. I had a Facebook page very, very briefly but I really wasn’t into that. It was difficult for me to find a way to do social media until more recently; I’d say in the past year or so. And I just do Twitter.
It’s attractive to me as a news source. I followed a bunch of people—mostly basketball writers—before I Tweeted anything myself. And then, for [A Day With the] Homies, I wanted to highlight the lyrics in a way, so I made a couple of posts leading up to the release of the record. That inspired me to keep going in that direction. Usually, the stuff I do is really suggestive, often pretty cryptic and vague. I guess tracing back to my very first experiences with communicating with people via the Internet made me super wary of the whole deal.
So Myspace would have been the first time strangers reached out to you as if they knew you?
Uh huh, yeah.
Did any positive interactions come out of that? Sometimes it must be like when people used to come up to you after a show and say, ‘Good set, man.’ Now they can have that five-minute conversation whenever they want.
That’s kind of the crucial difference to me. A person would give me one version of themselves after a show, but on the computer, they may say the same thing in a completely different way, you know? When you’re standing with somebody, there’s body language and all of this wordless communication that takes place. The way you engage with somebody face-to-face is also really different. I’m not sure it’s a positive or healthy thing to not have that kind of accountability—to be anonymous. There’s positives and negatives. I don’t mean to suggest it’s all bad.
I also wonder whether we’re at a place with the Internet where it’s this global mind everybody is connected to. Sometimes I feel like it’s an infant—this baby brain that’s gonna evolve and mature in some form. I’d wager we are at the juvenile stage of the global brain, so to speak.
Do you feel like that global brain has almost devolved in a way? When we’re on something like Facebook, it seems like we’re always given one perspective of the world because everything is about the algorithm. It’s even like that with Spotify. Once a record is over, it suggests another record like it right away.
It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the algorithm thing. It seems so complicated. It’s like trying to understand how someone gets paid by streaming services. It’s so convoluted and hard to decipher. It worries and scares me because it’s unknown.
How do you read the news or keep up with what’s happening around the world, especially since you’ve lived in Portugal for so long? Is it through Twitter usually?
I try to go all over the place because I’m scared of echo chambers and that whole thing. I hope that I get as diverse a perspective on things as possible. I feel like that’s kind of the best way to do it, but it’s hard to know sometimes.
So you’ll actually make an effort to read diverse opinions, even ones you may not agree with?
Not just with politics?
With everything. Perhaps it’s cheesy to say but there really are two sides to every story.
I read somewhere that the new record explores the idea of a global family rather than your personal one. That kind of relates back to a lot of what we’re saying, doesn’t it? Because we really are this weird, dysfunctional Internet family.
Yeah, it’s some of the stuff we’re talking about, like what drives somebody to write something on the Internet, especially something that’s really kind of nasty. It’s what I would call human software. I try to take an objective look at what’s really going on in my own body and brain, assuming that’s taking place with everybody else.
Is that something you’ve always thought about?
More so since I’ve had kids, for sure.
Why is that?
I’m just trying to understand what’s going on for them, so I can help them with problems of their own—help them be happy.
Do you find that it’s hard for them to relate to other kids now since so many of their interactions are through computers and smartphones?
No, I can’t say I’ve seen that. Both of my kids started out very extroverted. My son will still say anything to anybody at any time. My daughter used to be like that. Now I think she’s still like that internally, but she’s way more guarded publicly now. My kids are very much the opposite of the way I was when I was young. They really have no fear.
Is that more reflective of your wife’s personality, or are they very different from both of you in a lot of ways?
I go back and forth between thinking it’s a genetic thing that comes from my wife’s side of the family or whether it has to do with how we treated them as young people and interactions with friends of theirs or school. I’d wager it’s a combination of all of that, but I haven’t totally made up my mind.
I feel like the core of the kid was there from the beginning; these combination of traits were there even before they could talk. There’s an attitude or perspective on things I can trace right up until now. That makes me think there is something genetic going on. But again, my daughter has changed quite a bit, so there must be a nurture aspect to it as well.
It could also just be her being a teenager.
Oh yeah, for sure.
How have you approached things like screen time? I’ve heard of parents that are real hardliners, where they’ll only let their kid have their device for like an hour a week, which seems a littleharsh.
My wife and I have different perspectives on it, so the kids’ experiences fall somewhere in between us. I’m more of a schedule person and my wife is definitely not a schedule person. To be honest, it’s kind of on the fly. It’s shooting from the hip.
This is something I talk to them a lot about; usually it’s not the thing that’s bad. It’s the abuse of the thing that becomes bad. I don’t mind if you do this a little bit; just try and balance it out with something else. If you’re gonna sit downstairs staring at a screen for an hour and a half, go outside and do something after that. I could be totally off base, but to me, it’s more about striking balances in their life and mine.
That’s why I mentioned the hardliner example. If you’re reducing it to one hour a week, it’s almost like you’re encouraging someone to rebel down the line because you’re making it this evil thing instead of a normal aspect of everyday life.
Yeah, I feel like it’s a human impulse to revolt against anything that’s super strict.
How old are you kids?
Thirteen and 8.
So they’re old enough to have serious conversations about stuff. Do you try and explain the importance of acknowledging different perspectives and viewpoints? I feel like if you don’t say that now, they are going to grow up in this echo chamber—this one way of looking at the world.
Yeah, all the time. To the point where they’re really tired of hearing it. Getting them to listen is another struggle entirely. I also feel like I don’t have it all figured out. I’m just giving them as good as I know from my experience so far. This is the best I’ve got. You do with that what you will. If you want to listen, that’s cool. And if you don’t, I’ve said my piece. What more can I do?
What’s been one of the hardest things to explain about technology? Something they’ve struggled with?
I think it’s hard, especially with my youngest, to understand that something that feels so good and is so fun can be detrimental at some point. That’s really hard for them to wrap their heads around.
Because they see it as a way to watch movies or whatever, not this thing that can become so toxic.
Yeah. With my son, it’s gaming. I do gaming as much as he does, but it’s not good to just do it all the time. Getting him to understand that it could be bad in the long run is a tough sell.
Right. Another thing I wanted to talk about is technology and creativity. I feel like there’s so much we could have done when we were kids if we had the technology people have now. The possibilities seem endless. Like you can produce a song without a proper studio now.
Yeah, if you have a laptop you can make a hit track as good as anybody else.
How do you use technology to foster creativity in your kids then?
I haven’t succeeded yet, but I’m always like, ‘If you want me to show you how to use the sequencer, I’m down to do it anytime you want.’ It’s not something they’ve been super attracted to yet, but I guess it’s just about trying to put things in front of them that might pique their interest.
At the same time, part of my deal with it is I get overwhelmed by all the options. Especially with production software; it presents this limitless palate for you to work with. I guess I feel like I do better stuff when I put limits or boundaries on things—when I imagine it within a specific set of parameters. I try and tell them that’s what works for me and maybe it’ll work for them to.
Have either of them gravitated towards visual art or music?
It’s kind of funny because my daughter is a really good visual artist; she paints and draws really well, but she also doesn’t seem interested in it. She doesn’t seem to care despite how adept she is at it. My son seems more interested in music and sound in general.
My wife and I are both artists, and I feel like I wrongly assumed that being weirdos would give us a leg up in the whole parenting thing, but it’s gone more the way you’d expect it to go. Since we’re weirdos, anything that’s associated with being weird or different is inherently uncool to them. At least in my daughter’s case, she just wants to be the status quo for the most part.
Alright, one more question, and it’s a complicated one: What’s the most exciting thing about technology these days, and what’s the most terrifying?
To me, they’re both the same thing. How everybody is connected, the power of that is both super exciting and terrifying. The way that that power can be so easily abused is what’s so scary about it. That’s what we’re seeing in politics—people can shape the narrative. If you’re smart about it, it can be used for really great purposes and really harmful purposes. It’s what we choose to do with it.
Does it feel the same way in Portugal?
Yeah, for sure. I’m not sure it’s been harnessed in the way it’s been in the States, but I’d wager it’s not far behind. It’s on its way.
I assume you moved there because it’s a more chill place to live, but it’s such a global world now.
Yeah, I wonder if we’re on our way to becoming this complicated monoculture. It feels like things have splintered off, but everyone’s aware of the same stuff. It’s just little groupings of things.
Right, like if I had had Spotify as a kid, I feel like that entire concept would have blown my mind. But the amount of choice now, I feel like I can never catch up with it, so you almost shut down and listen to whatever you’re familiar with. Everything else is so overwhelming.
Right. Like is the underground still a thing? Is it even possibleto be underground? I don’t know. What does being underground on the internet mean?
I guess you would have to have no trail of your work on there. I don’t know. Because you kind of have to play the game to exist at all.
Well do you? I’m not sure. If you want to support yourself, probably. It’s hard to make any kind of money and not play the game at all.
It sounds like a losing battle in a way.
Yeah, that’s depressing [laughs].
Sorry to put it that way, but you’ve gotta play the game don’t you? Isn’t that why you’ve opened up more in the press recently?
I feel like I have to. That’s exactly right. It seems like it’s about who shouts the loudest these days. You’re lucky if you get more than two weeks of people talking about you, so I feel like it’s way more important now than it was before. Also, just being old—being around forever—changes the dynamic for sure.
Forty is not that old.
Well I feel like I’m 120.
Is there any one song on this record that reflects what we’ve been talking about: the anxiety around technology?
Yeah, the “Inner Monologue” song. There’s only like seven words to it, but it’s really about the unique loneliness that comes with having a virtual identity.
That’s a pretty unsettling song; it’s hard to even listen to the whole thing.
It’s real sad, yeah. The last three songs go to a pretty dark place.
Are they sequenced that way deliberately?
Yes, the record goes deeper and deeper. So if you’re starting as the buoy floating on the surface, you go into the abyss so to speak.
That’s kind of a bummer.
Well the last song says “see you around” at the end so it’s kind of pointing back to the beginning of the record. You float back up to the surface at the end.
4/19 London, UK – Electric Brixton
4/20 Rotterdam, Netherlands – Motel Mozaique
4/21 Berlin, Germany – Frannz Club
4/23 Brussels, Belgium – Botanique
4/24 Lisbon, Portugal – Culturgest
4/25 Madrid, Spain – Conde Duque