I Know I Don't Know
Four years after Noah Lennox's last album, 2015’s densely layered Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, and a year after the more abrasive A Day with the Homies EP, Buoys is a reflection of the Animal Collective member’s reliable quirks. His lyrics are typically cryptic, and the production is as sun-kissed as the Lisbon hilltop where he lives. This sixth solo studio LP as Panda Bear also marks a subtle but important shift in his methods. He’s discovered Auto-Tune, for one thing, while producer Rusty Santos, a longtime accomplice, brought his recent interest in Latin trap to the table, opening up a newfound sense of space not heard on previous Panda Bear albums. The result is a dreamscape of weightless vocals, flickering acoustic guitars, and impossibly deep bass synths. Here, Lennox tells Apple Music about finessing Buoys’ bulbous low end, approaching lyrics like a message in a bottle, and learning to love his machines’ idiosyncrasies.
Some of the lyrics here and on A Day with the Homies almost sound like messages you’ve written to someone that you’ve decided not to send. Are there people who would recognize themselves in these songs?
I feel like this one is more for my kids—almost like a time capsule for them. I always thought of Homies and Buoys as being two sides of the same coin. They’re both similarly motivated, lyrically. But Homies feels a lot darker and more cynical, whereas Buoys feels like an embrace or a hug.
There’s a great line on “Crescendo": “Ripple with friends that ripple with you.”
With the lyrics, I hoped for little phrases that people could grasp on to, because there isn’t really a story being told. If there’s a narrative, it’s in the instruments.
What were the biggest changes in making Buoys, compared to Grim Reaper?
There were techniques I’d employed over the previous few records that I wanted to get away from—specifically, the vocal production. It was the first thing I mentioned to Rusty when I asked him to work with me. It was about a week into recording where we figured out the template. Auto-Tune was the first part, and then a rhythmic delay, but tweaked, because I’m not a big fan of really perfectly synced delays.
Was it a challenge to find your own way of using Auto-Tune?
I have to say, I gave it the stink eye for a second. Even though there’s a lot of contemporary music that I love that features Auto-Tune, I had trouble envisioning using it in a way that would feel like me. But I got really into the way you track it live. You can hear it while you’re doing it, and you can fool it in some ways. You can try to trick it, and it’ll produce these weird effects. Especially with vibrato, it’ll really wig it out sometimes. It reminded me of certain pieces of gear that I’ve come to love, where I feel like I’ve developed a friendship with it. That sounds corny, but you sometimes you develop a dynamic with a piece of gear. But it really wasn’t about pitch correction; it was more about this specific quality that it gave to the voice—really synthetic and plasticky. The natural tone in my voice is rounded and vague, and the Auto-Tune really gave it this crystalline thing that I liked.
What was your exposure to Latin and Portuguese trap before Rusty?
My experience is Rae Sremmurd, Metro Boomin—more Atlanta, US-focused stuff. I knew Bad Bunny’s name, but I hadn’t heard the music. But this was the stuff Rusty would play. He would just mix while we were talking in the morning; we’d listen to an hour or so of music, and then we would start working, so it was always colored by the Latin trap stuff. I think that was his motive.
The bass on this record is so heavy.
I’d say we spent as much time on the sub-bass as the vocals.
You’ve said that Buoys feels like the beginning of a new chapter. In fact, you sing about endings in several songs.
Yeah, there’s a lot of circles, cycles, wheels. Not personally, but creatively, even before I went into the studio, I felt like I’d said goodbye to something. That sounds heavy-handed, but I was just ready for new energy—something new to explore.