Panda Bear and Sonic Boom on the Internet, Social Media, Cancel Culture, and Searching for Optimism

Panda Bear and Sonic Boom on the Internet, Social Media, Cancel Culture, and Searching for Optimism
Photo by Ian Witchell
Photo by Ian Witchell

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I've obviously been a fan of Noah Lennox's music as Panda Bear for quite some time, and regular readers will remember my interview with him from last year. His work with Pete "Sonic Boom" Kember has always been very enjoyable to me, and the pair's new album Reset (out next week) is no exception. I hopped on Zoom with the pair last week, and the conversation took some unexpected directions, as you'll soon find out.

Noah, you just got done with a run of tour dates during some extreme weather. How does climate change make you feel about the future of touring?

Noah Lennox: There’s the COVID stuff, too. Everything still feels kind of up in the air right now. COVID was a bomb, and the pieces haven’t settled yet. It’s really hard to say what’s gonna happen, but as our record tries to suggest, you just gotta keep going the best you can.

Pete Kember: Living in the after.

I’ve read interviews where you guys have talked about bringing a sense of optimism to this record. Tell me about what role optimism plays in your lives.

Noah: Our dream for the record was for it to be some kind of medicine, for ourselves and other people. Working on stuff became the only way I could take my mind off of the spiraling outside, so I really leaned super hard into work and took any chance I could get to work on things. I was trying to make lemonade out of lemons.

A lot of stuff that comes out in the songs is from conversations that Pete and I were having over the past three years. One thing we talked about a lot is just feeling like being super cynical, negative, and defeatist about how bad things are—and, admittedly, they seem pretty bad—doesn’t seem to help anybody. So we wanted to jump at the chance of trying to go the opposite way and bring some light, energy, and encouragement to people to try to make things better. Not in a naïve, stupid, or sheltered way, but in a positive and loving way. We wanted to tackle the problems that face us, and to try to help each other.

Pete: There was a flip-flop thing, where I did these sample loops for four or five minutes and I sent them to Noah, and then some of those inspired him to do his vocals—which became the major arrangements on the songs. I’d play it for other people while hanging out, and the uplift you instantly got from them…sometimes songs have a certain serenity and magnetism. They strike everything around them. Sometimes, when the vibe’s really awesome, the song’s really good, and it really inspires all the bits that come into it.

I remember thinking to myself, “If this is medicinal for me, it must be for other people.” Anything we can do to sparkle the most effervescent, neon experience we can—why not? Let’s see what we can do. I’ve never set out in my life to make a feel-good record, ever. It was just something that I did, and I never really analyzed it. But with this, I was definitely trying every little trick I knew—from sleigh bells to hand claps—that would lift me up. I was trying to push all of those buttons from my side.

This record really reminds me of Person Pitch—and, Noah, I think the first time people hear that record, it can be quite a memorable experience for them. Pete, do you remember the first time you heard Person Pitch?

Pete: I was tripping on magic mushrooms at the Tribeca Grand.

Noah: Good start.

Pete: A very dear friend of mine was getting married, and they had a pre-wedding party. They rented a top-floor terrace garden at the Tribeca Grand so not to ruin their own apartment. [Laughs] So I was sitting outside in the middle of the two avenues, tripping as fire engines were going down the street. At one point, they put on Person Pitch, and straightaway I was like, “What the fuck is this?” It’s one of those moments you don’t get often enough in life, where you hear something for the first time and you just think it’s awesome.

The sounds of the ‘50s and the ‘60s roll through this record when it comes to the sampling. What’s so aesthetically and holistically appealing to those eras that speak to the both of you as artists?

Noah: There’s an un-self-consciousness about it. It doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be super cool a lot of the time, and both of us get off on that kind of thing. This record in particular feels uninhibited in a way that I like a lot.

Pete: There’s just a magic about those songs. I’m a sucker for a really good pop song. The Brill Building stuff has really awesome songcraft. I never went through a war, but I can only have a vague imagination of what it might be like to deal with that. I guess in COVID, you got a sense of what that might be like. In the late ‘50s, a lot of that music came out of the Cold War era, where they were building nuclear bomb shelters in every fucking school in America. We’d come to this standoff where there wouldn’t be a war as long as we held a missile over each others’ heads. That’s how you stop wars—which, to me, is insane.

But I imagine a lot of people resonated with that music for the same reason we made this. You’re trying to vibe out of that and do something where it’s partially a distraction. Tough times influence music.

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A friend mentioned to me that this album has a bit of a sense of humor, too. What do you both find funny in the world?

Noah: Humor and horror are two of my favorite things, although I’m not the biggest horror movie fan—I kind of go like this [Covers hands over eyes]. But they’re reactions that are impossible to fake. There’s something really genuine about both of those things to me. I’m a huge stand-up fan. Humor’s very temporal to me. I’m not sure Pete and I laugh at the same things, but we make each other laugh quite a bit.

Pete: For me, it’s a tough one. I really like stand-up. I feel we were lucky in the UK. We had some funny fuckers that used to make funny TV shows—off-the-wall stuff that would somehow become popular. But a lot of that stuff got canceled. A lot of English humor…sometimes it’s quite black, sometimes it’s quite close to the bone. There’s loads of things I go to see if I can watch on YouTube—loads of John Cleese stuff. Monty Python would be endlessly canceled these days. It’s a tough one.

Noah: Canceling is a subject of the record in some places, maybe not explicitly. I don’t know, a lot of that stuff feels super cynical with me. Even though there may be things people say and do that I disagree with or really don’t like, canceling still feels like not the healthiest way to deal with it.

Pete: It feels like bullying—like kicking people when they’re down.

Noah: It doesn’t feel like it’s imbued with a lot of compassion, forgiveness, or love.

Pete: It’s pushing a very easy button and doing absolutely nothing about it in real life, apart from flagging that sort of politic. But if you don’t do anything about it, I don’t know why you’re complaining. You’re complaining to yourself, mostly.

Noah: Everything feels like it’s been put in this team sports mentality—you have to choose a side. I’m not convinced that’s what the world is like.

Pete: Team Jason, Team Pete, Team Panda—it’s insane people think that’s even a thing. It’s a really strange phenomenon.

Noah: It’s a really complicated conversation, but the record really does try to wrestle with a lot of this stuff.

Can either of you name specific instances where you’ve seen cancelation happen and you’ve thought it’s an overreaction?

Pete: It’s really hard to judge these things. I think we stopped doing trial by stoning about 2,000 years ago, and it’s essentially the same thing. It’s not even about presenting evidence about whatever’s being said that was disputed or said was happened, or the reason to be cancelled…I don’t know, it feels like punishment by stoning. It feels like a crude, primitive way. That’s my best analogy.

Noah: My sense is that there’s a better way. It’s hard for me to go deeper than that.

Sure. Yeah. It’s interesting, as someone who works and lives online, I think about it a lot. I do think that the ability to have complicated conversations has certainly been made harder—that just seems inarguable to me—but every time I hear about a very famous person talk about being canceled, I’m like, “Well, it seems like you’re still working.”

Noah: I was going to say, cancelation almost seems like an illusion, because everyone that’s canceled continues to do stuff. Ariel [Pink] is an exception. But my sense with Ariel—and I’ve told him this—is that he’s gonna be fine and will be able to continue to do stuff. But we’ll see, I guess.

Pete: I have a friend in Canada who teaches a music course, and there’s no one from the history of music where he has to give some prior warning that it might be triggering. Musicians in general do not tend to be the most functional members of society. Look at Johnny Cash, or Elvis, or Madonna, or Prince, or Elton John. If you look at these people, and their lifestyle and everything about them, these aren’t necessarily the most functional people.

I feel like that’s the arts, and it’s where people who are a little bit more interesting and different and have slightly more extreme opinions—God forbid you don’t agree with them. Apparently, free speech doesn’t exist anymore, it has to be politically correct. Free speech isn’t good enough. And I’m not condoning—I don’t want to hear the Nazis preaching, or whatever. [Laughs] But that is free speech, I’m afraid. People do have the right to say, whether you agree with it or not. So as soon as you start to say—it’s a funny thing. It has no moderation in any way.

Noah: It’s tough, because it seems like the social media systems we have exacerbate those issues to such a degree that it gets really scary really fast.

Pete: Another theme on the record is how social media plays into all these things. Social media is no doubt awesome at connecting people and putting vibes out, and it also has its really worrying sides. I believe it reconnects peoples’ minds, looking at their phones.

I walk out into the streets sometimes, and I imagine how it must be to wake up from a coma after ten years and go, “How the fuck does everyone have a phone in their hand?” They’re sitting at the cafe with a phone in their hand, they’re in a restaurant with the phone in their hand. When I take the train from Lisbon, it’s interesting to me to see how long it takes for them to get their phone out. Almost universally, it’s seconds. [Laughs]

I personally think it’s not a good thing for you, and I feel the same way about alerts and notifications—being on this Pavlovian string of “Ooh, someone wants to talk to me.” The internet in general, half of what it does is the most awesome thing you could never imagine, and half of it enables things that eventually get policed. Music is an example, where people could share anything they liked for ten years—but of course, now that’s not possible. If you use someone’s music, the digital imprint and soundwave will be recognized. It’s not the wild west anymore.

Social media is a business, essentially. Facebook and Instagram are run by people who are trying to make money. They’re not trying to connect people. The things that are good about it are not their primary issue—it’s a fucking business. There’s things they enable through it that slowly but surely have an effect on people.

I have friends in their 20s and 30s who have had an iPhone for a large part of their adult life, and most of them are in therapy. Most of them feel the need to do therapy—which is a good thing, that they’re getting therapy, for sure—but I totally believe it’s because of this phone connectivity. In many different ways, it can be a dangerous thing.

Noah: Sometimes I wonder if these things were just sprung on us, and we haven’t acclimated to that type of lifestyle. I wonder if, three generations from now, the way society functions will be such that people won’t be so bugged out by this stuff.

Pete: I’m not sure about that.

Noah: I know you don’t think so.

Pete: I think that if you sent someone whatever thoughts or feelings you have, you see they looked at their phone, they didn’t reply, and they continue not to reply—it’s a different thing than if you didn’t know that they’d seen it. That information can put you in a funny mindset where you’re second-guessing something. Maybe they’re in the hospital! You don’t know what it is. I know you can turn these things off, but loads of different platforms have the “Active now” thing. I don’t know how much information we need to keep track of.

Noah: I think notifications are really sinister. I tend to turn off all that shit.

Pete: My friend who played me Noah’s record for the first time, he sold his first dot-com company—and he told me that he deleted his Facebook account twelve years ago. Social media has only come into my life in the last few years, mostly because of the record business. In general, I’m not a big fan. But he told me he recognized straightaway—and he’s a smart dude—that it was a dangerous world to go into.‎

Do either of you remember the first time you used the internet?

Noah: One of the first times, yeah. I do.

Pete: I do. Maybe it’s one of those moments where you always remember where you were.

Noah: It was really exciting.

Pete: Also, when I was growing up, you had to type endless amounts of code into a computer that you might not even be able to save on a tape afterwards. If you make one tiny mistake, the whole thing doesn’t work. A friend of mine in the early ‘90s had a computer and Windows, and he used to sleep really late. One day I was bored and said, “Let’s see if I could do this Windows thing,” and I guessed my way around. One of the synths I use, I would’ve never come across if it wasn’t for the internet. I found it that day. I don’t know what wormhole I went down, but when I found it, I was like, “What the fuck is that?” It was a magical experience.

There was some interesting content you could find. I was a library dude, I used to look for stuff, and back in the day before the internet it came down to dumb luck. There was no “Amazon recommends” or “YouTube presents”—it was different that way.

Noah: I also remember the first time I played Quake online. That was mind-blowing.

How has your creative process and working relationship together evolved over the years?

Noah: I feel like we have opposite strengths. We almost listen to music in completely different ways. It’s hard to define, but I feel like a lot of the time when we’re working on stuff, even though we’ll agree on what our input is and what needs to be changed, it’s pretty rare that we’ll suggest the same thing. You think that’s fair, Pete?

Pete: I do, and I think sometimes we see things in different ways, too. I really like that. I actually listen to music a different way because of working with you. Some of the things you do are the furthest thing from my mind, an absolute out-of-the-blue surprise, but I really like it.

Noah: Thank you, I think.

Pete: [Laughs] It’s a really nice thing, to work in an open way where you can surprise each other—although I think I get more surprised than you do [Laughs]. The way you learn in life is from different people, and I listen to music differently now because of certain things I’ve noticed that you do that I didn’t notice before.

I always learn a lot from different people because everyone makes music in a different way—at least, in this era. Maybe more now than ever before. It’s a really awesome thing to see different people’s perspectives. It widens your own.‎

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Jamie Larson