Peer Review: Panda Bear Interviews Sonic Boom… And Vice Versa

Ahead of a world tour we left Sonic Boom and Panda Bear alone to ask each other the kind of questions they wished usually made up an interview

Panda Bear And Sonic Boom by Ian Witchell

Music writers. Who needs ’em? We recently had the opportunity to get collaborating artists Panda Bear and Sonic Boom together. We left them together to have a conversation about both their individual and joint practice, without any interference from us.

Panda Bear, aka Noah Lennox, was born in Baltimore, Maryland in the late 70s and was a co-founding member of Animal Collective in the late 90s, a group who would go on to cast a long shadow over American indie rock in the ’00s. On top of this he launched a successful solo career in 1999, which included the 2007 album Person Pitch, one of the most influential American psychedelic albums of the 21st Century.

Sonic Boom, aka Pete Kember, was born in Rugby, England in the mid 60s and was a co-founding member of Spacemen 3 in 1982 and has since been responsible for a massive back catalogue of releases either as the leader of Spectrum, as the core member of E.A.R. or solo.

The pair are both expats, who have ended up living in Portugal; Lennox moving to Porto in 2004, Kember to Sintra in 2016. After Kember got in touch with Lennox, to say how much he admired the Panda Bear album Person Pitch, the latter invited the former to produce his Tomboy album in 2010, and they have been working together, on and off, ever since.

The pair released the Reset album on Domino last Summer, blindsiding most fans of psychedelic pop in the process. It was an immediate and vivacious album constructed from loops made by Kember, which were based on the intros to classic rock & roll singles; which were then further manipulated by Lennox and composed into songs, before being guided through a blue-eyed soul and doo wop filter. The pair are just about to set off on a world tour. You can catch them across the UK and Europe later this year.

Pete Kember Interviews Noah Lennox

If you could have one musical wish, what would it be?


Noah Lennox: I wonder if the ultimate purpose of making anything and sharing it is to love and be loved. If I’m not allowed that it would be cool to have a hit.


We both have different, if overlapping, senses of humour. Is that important in a friendship and in a work situation? Do you have any jokes you would like to share?


NL: I don’t have any jokes I’d like to share but I love laughing and making other people laugh. Learning how to joke with people helped me get over my shyness although it still creeps back from time to time. I’d wager the ability to make one another laugh is the most crucial factor in a relationship. It betrays a certain understanding or symmetry people have with each other. It’s also a really wonderful tool to approach difficult subjects and often serves as the gateway to conversations we’d otherwise avoid. 


Do you think society’s problems lie essentially in our educational system and if you fix that foundation you can fix everything?


NL: I certainly think reevaluating what and how we teach kids would help a lot but I’d guess our problems are deeper. I’d guess if we could sort ourselves and not be dominated by the uglier sides of our nature (we have to first admit those sides are there within us!) the benefits would trickle up. I’m no angel and I don’t mean to sound like I know anything about anything, but I’d assume that an emphasis on humility and a more constant sense of working in harmony with everything around us might sort us out. Perhaps that kind of thing could be taught in schools.


You have a song from Panda Bear Vs The Grim Reaper called ‘Selfish Gene’. What are your thoughts on Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene? And do you think, predominantly, humanity is formed through nature or nurture?


NL: I really loved that book when I read it and I still think about the consequences of its theory today. I think we’re formed through a balancing of nature and nurture. I’d wager there’s some kind of core system that drives our behaviour from the moment our heart starts beating. The core branches out and grows more sophisticated as iterative experiences inform it and influence it. So identity seems to me to be something eternally in flux.


On Reset we both pledged to give a share of our royalties & publishing to the charity And the record is offset donating to Earth Island Institute, and I know we also looked at long term future charities concerned with Human-compatible Artificial Intelligence & the problems of over-connectivity, but what do you think the place of altruism in the modern age is? 


NL: It’s good to think of others and it’s good to help each other. There’s no need to be showy about it and generally I find that showiness kind of unseemly. I know we tried to be careful about that side of it. I feel like there’s a kind of inherent selfishness to operations in the universe but also a constant symbiotic balancing. I like to think about this balance in the same way gamers talk about the meta; as an ever morphing target of efficiency and effectiveness.


I heard you say that you felt the logical brain worked independently to part of the brain concerned with the magical side of things. Did I understand correctly & does this play into the way you think about & how make music & in your song writing?


NL: I must have been babbling about the bicameral mind. It makes sense to me that there could be a hardwired part of our brain and a more reflexive and malleable part. I’d guess this setup persists despite the changes in consciousness inspired by culture and language and more currently the internet. Thoughts I’ve had about this stuff have certainly made their way into things I’ve made from Tomboy onwards.


You’ve had guest appearances with Braxe + Falcon and Daft Punk in recent years and you’ve been doing a lot of remixes lately. When you’re doing your vocal appearances & remixes, how do you decide how you’ll approach each project? And when it comes to remixes, how do you decide what instruments or sounds you’ll use?


NL: I don’t know that I have any kind of formula. Remixing as a concept feels kind of stale to me or I just don’t know how to get up for it so a while ago I began trying to make new songs from stems that people would send. Generally with features I sit with the track until a melody and a structure starts to take shape. I’ll listen to the thing over and over and often I’ll come up with stuff while I’m thinking of the track but doing something else. With remixes I’ll run through the stems until I find pieces that feel good and try and set up some kind of base. Then the vocal happens like it does on features. 


We made Reset to be uplifting as a sort of musical panacea or cure-all. Now that albums has flown the nest and is out and about and being experienced by people, do you have any thoughts about the LP, the times it was made in and the times we are about to experience? 


NL: I do hope Reset gave some people a boost like it did for us. It was a rough time and I think the consequences and echoes of that time will continue for a long time. As far as what’s coming I think things will just get weirder and weirder. Reading about AI and ChatGPT and that kind of thing, it already feels like changes are happening faster than we can process them. As above though I feel like balance is infinitely occurring so I don’t feel cynical. I’d wager things will feel worse for a bit before they feel better though. 


How important is it to experience magical moments and where do you find these most?

NL: I think it’s good to stay open to magical moments and occurrences because it reminds us that not everything is always as it seems. Part of humility is embracing the unknown. I come across magical moments all over – sometimes it’s a musical passage, sometimes a look from a stranger, sometimes a fox in the street at night. There’s often an odd tweak to events in Portugal and I feel like I experience glitches in the matrix on a daily basis here.


If there is an afterlife, I’d suggest it only exists in one place: in DNA. DNA is shared between every living creature and plant on this planet. Do you think there’s a possibility that all the health ills on our planet can be solved via DNA? And what do you think about the concept of placebo?


NL: I’d wager health is at least somewhat the result of mental function and I think placebo is evidence of that. So I suppose I’d suggest that a full understanding of DNA would not cure all ills at least not for good.


Psychedelics , and hence the psychedelic experience, comes to us via DNA in the plants that contain psychoactive substances. There has been a massive movement towards psychedelic therapies and the idea of "resetting" yourself with psychedelics in recent times. Many great breakthroughs in music, technology and even our growing understanding and quantum leaps forward in things like our ability to read DNA, have come in part from psychedelic thinking. Do you think there is a place for psychedelic academies for sciences and arts? And in view of these achievements do we have an elephant in the room when these substances are technically illegal in most of the world? 


NL: I think it’s good to be curious and to explore always. So I think it’s unfortunate that a lot of this stuff is taboo but I also understand why. They can be dangerous and destructive experiences if not treated with care and respect. But it’s silly to me that something like alcohol is mostly fair game when you consider its dangers and capacity for causing destruction. As far as I understand people have often been getting miraculous results from psychedelic treatments so it certainly seems a worthy practice to explore. 


Xmas or thanksgiving ? Which is your favourite & what are your reasons? 


NL: I like the ‘lights in the darkness’ parts of Christmas but the shopping is a drag. Thanksgiving is my favourite holiday as it’s really just a chance to spend time with family and friends and eat some food; low stakes.


Noah Lennox Interviews Pete Kember

How would you define music that’s “cool”?

Pete Kember: I guess it’s very much in the eye of the beholder. And I might not be the person to define that! I think the coolest music is effortlessly cool and to me something is coolest when it isn’t looking desperate to be cool. I can define what appeals to me in music and I find cool, but it’s many different elements. Essentially, I think when people sound like they just mean it and that it comes from a strong source of inspiration. And that goes equally for Sam Cooke or The Sex Pistols. I just want to hear passion I guess. And successful experimentation. I constantly re-evaluate my music tastes. If my teenage self thought I’d ever be vibing to Andy Williams I’d have been bemused to say the least. With the Reset LP, it was fun trying to filter in ideas and vibe I found uplifting from bubble gum music and doo wop. I think both these genres are not traditionally considered cool but I’d disagree. 


Would you ever talk about music as being “important”?


PK: I think music is important. I believe it is beyond recreational and to me it can be deeply soothing and medicinal. If I listen to some early reggae stuff, maybe ‘Bam Bam’ by Toots And The Maytals, or ‘My Conversation’ by the Uniques, it just lifts me instantly. Music got me through the pandemic. It doesn’t fix anything instantly, but it’s sweet distraction and I think some of the best music is truly inspirational. John Lennon would be a good example: ‘Imagine’, obviously, but also ‘Woman Is The N***\ Of The World’, ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’, ‘Give Peace A Chance’ and many others. ‘Imagine’ has been heard by millions of people who might not have postulated on subjects such as "imagine there’s no countries, no religion too". Putting that sort of vibe and thinking out there is culturally influential in the most benign way. The same goes for a lot of different music, where it’s essentially the orchestrated sounds of human joy. I think that is important, but I do not especially see it as high art. I see it as just a human salve. A necessary soul vacation spot. 


Is there a cultural strata we all contribute to and are all influenced by?


PK: I think that’s a complex question and as I think everything is connected, so it is impossible for us not to. That is why I think the way we bring up and educate our children is so important. If you ask most kids in the USA where does Honey come from, half will say it comes from bears due to the common marketing associations. The smarter kids will tell you it comes from bees. Only the tiniest proportion will tell you it comes from flowers. Everything we eat and everything we breathe comes from plants, as does much of our pharmacology, yet we mostly do not teach these basic facts of our relationship to our kids. We should be living in symbiosis with every other creature and plant. I think that for example contributes to the cultural strata.

We also culturally tend to dogmatically repeat things like religion. I understand it has some placebo-like properties for some, but to repeat this dogma without critically questioning it is a big factor. There are billions, who are merely repeating what their parents and grandparents and their great grandparents repeated, with very little actual thought. There is no way that cannot contribute culturally too. I think these things can influence everyone on some level.


Does it matter to you to be remembered?


PK: By history? No. I’d probably go as far to say that’s a bit of a vanity of humanity. Hardly any humans have ever been remembered by history. Our recorded history only goes back around 10,000 years. Not because it doesn’t exist but humanity and cultures sadly seem to like to erase as much as possible of previous cultures. I think we have a strange relationship with death. People say "it’s so sad…" when someone dies, because that’s what we are taught to do. We will all die. It’s the one experience we will all share. I’ve slowly tried to re-arrange my thinking on it. I try to feel I was just happy to have known them, not sad to have out-survived them. "Being Remembered" I think is a delusion of immortality. Remembering and appreciating is fine, it’s just wanting to be remembered seems a little strange to me. You very much started me thinking about this eight or nine years ago during the Grim Reaper sessions when I asked you about the lyrics from ‘Tropic Of Cancer’ and you told me it was about your Father dying of cancer, but you were also acknowledging that cancer, equally, is just trying to exist. That kind of blew my mind in a really cool way.


Have you ever felt like a band is too referential towards something you’ve made?


PK: Of course. Though I don’t have it in the forefront of my mind who they were or care too much. But I also think sometimes it’s the shitty copy/cover bands that turn into The Beatles or The 13th Floor Elevators. It’s just a stage in the process. Learning from trying to imitate. I think it’s useful. I’m very happy to be part of a path to people finding their own thing. I’ve written a bunch of songs that are very easy to play, so I am not surprised newly formed bands use them as a stepping stone to learning to play together.


Should an artist pursue originality?


PK: Yes. 100%. That’s where the cream is for me. People ask me, ‘What advice do you have about my career?’ which is a relative question in some ways. I suggest my best advice might be, ‘Be uncompromising with your music.’ I give the examples of Throbbing Gristle, The Stooges or Suicide. Bands who really didn’t care what you thought and weren’t going to change because of other people’s opinions. Sure, very few appreciated them in their day but over time they have stood out as something special because they did it with originality. I think it’s important to have an original element.

Panda Bear and Sonic Boom by Ian Witchell


Should an artist pursue relevance?


PK: I guess I would have to ask, relevant to who? I think that’s another one that’s ‘In the eye of the beholder’ really. I think we all might have different opinions on that. I guess we have 8 billion opinions out there to choose from. I think ‘birds of a feather flock together’ defines a lot of it. We tend to gravitate to people who are somewhat like us. Being relevant to your audience is a good thing I think, but it’s always only going to be relevant to some. Maybe that’s the great quest, to combine relevance and originality.


Now that most recorded music is accessible to most people what purpose does music criticism serve?


PK: Wow. That’s a good question. I guess we know, everyone is a critic these days. People proffer their personal opinions about music on a lot of forums and Social Media as if their opinion was in some strange way important. I think in a world where we have "Influencers" it seems people must want to be influenced. I can only speak for myself, and I don’t read that much music press, but if I saw a review by Edwyn Pouncey or Byron Coley or someone who’s tastes I respect, I am interested in their opinion. Same for some of my friends – I know they know and share sometimes my tastes and I am interested in their tips and reviews of things they’ve discovered. One of the things with music journalism that is interesting, is it’s usually based on an almost instant opinion with the record. I had a review, of the Sonic Boom All Things Being Equal LP where the journalist had taken psychedelics to experience it – using and integrating the record as part of his life. That’s more interesting to me. What people think after living with a record; sharing it and letting it soundtrack their lives.


How does humour fit into music?


PK: It’s a tough one. Like politics, it should be very carefully handled. Chuck Berry pulls it off. I won’t go there with ‘My Ding A Ling’, but to me, a song like ‘Almost Grown’ is hilarious in a very wry way. I love some of Lieber & Stollers’ humour songs like ‘The Clovers Love Potion No. 9’. The Coasters had a bunch cool humorous jams too, like ‘Charlie Brown’. I think Lux interior & the Cramps are very funny too. Some of Smile is pretty hilarious. I believe one of Brian [Wilson]’s dreams with Smile was for it to be full of humorous parts. George fell into his French horn. Indeed! 



Is the creation and sharing of music an inherently communicative exercise? or is it possible to make music which isnt saying anything at all?


PK: I guess even nothing can say something. John Cage take a bow. I think music is all about communication. For me I can tell when I’m circling in on something, when it feels tough and it feels like I’m exposing my feelings. I think song writing can be an exquisite form of conversation. If I listen to something like The Fleetwoods’ ‘Unchained’ melody for example, it doesn’t speak to me so much as penetrate my whole psyche. That song can moisten my eyes in seconds, which I’d argue is a form of meta communication. The feeling of archetypical human emotions and shared experiences instantly transcending the six decades since that was recorded. I have a personal theory that it’s not by mistake our words for ‘magician’ and ‘musician’ are phonetically similar. I think the truest magic we have on this planet is from the communication we have through music. Though again, there is also plenty of music that didn’t speak to me, so I guess it is possible for it not to say anything at all. 


If music is intentional is it important for that intent to be understood by the listener?


PK: I don’t think it’s essential. Many people resonate with the tone and sentiment of someone like Dylan for example, without necessarily understanding what he’s talking about. That said, for me the best result is when the intent is clearly understood. Reset, at a cursory glance, appears to have a happy-go-lucky up-tempo vibe, but the true depths of it is within the intent of the lyrics. Some songs like ‘Whirlpool’ or ‘Danger’ are a simple twist on the perennial classic ballad / love song form for sure, but songs like ‘Livin’ In The After’ or ‘Edge Of The Edge’ have a deeper meaning which I think is easily understood. I think your lyrics on this LP were a perfect balance between carrying a message or a sentiment and yet not being over obvious. If you listen to a song like ‘In My Body’, you can very much transpose yourself into it without the exact inspiration being critical. There’s a line "there’s a trail down your arm" that might mean something different to others than what it mentally conjures for me. So, I’m gonna say, I think it’s important but not essential .  


Should some people be held to a higher standard than others?


PK: We should all hold ourselves to a high standard. But, yes, I believe elected officials should be open to a different level of accounting. Politicians and those in law enforcement. They mostly are not. It seems one of the great issues is that humanity has two main modulators – incentive and punishment. Both seem like a misdirection to me. I believe aspiration is the key. Wanting to do it right and do right by others because it actually just makes everything better. Problems in life dissolve away as soon as you have an aspiration to be altruistic, so yes, I think essentially, we should all just hold ourselves to a higher standard. 


Is it valuable for a piece of music to be objectively considered?


PK: I don’t think it hurts ever to be objective. The arts in general are improved by objective analysis, I think. You can’t have ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ without objectively considering Stockhausen, for example. I think all the progresses and interesting twists in music come from objectively studying other music. The guiro and percussion elements on Reset coming from the objective study of old ska and early reggae rhythms and doo wop & bubblegum hand clap moves, so I’m firmly in with a yes on this one!


Are there good people and bad people?


PK: Only you and me. Ha ha! Just kidding… We all have the ability to be part of either duality. I believe nature is less responsible in our behaviours than nurture. I don’t think good or bad people are born, I think they’re created. Most behaviour is learnt and logically we get most of our habits from those around us as we grow up. And often we tend to pass these on. This is why I believe a total rethink of our educational system is key. Our schools are the place where we can start to break the cycle. If we fix people, they’ll have fixed children. Slowly we’ll become less dysfunctional. There’s a famous quote from the English historian Lord Acton I always dug: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority." 

Catch Panda Bear & Sonic Boom on tour in Europe

Mar 4 – Gräz, Austria, Elevate Festival
Mar 5 – Budapest, Hungary, House of Music Hungary
Mar 8 – Lille, France, L’Aeronef
Mar 10 – St Malo, France, La Route Du Rock Festival
Apr 19 – Manchester, UK, Band on the Wall
Apr 20 – Glasgow, UK, Room 2
Apr 21 – Belfast, Northern Ireland, God’s Waiting Room, Banana Block
Apr 22 – Leeds, UK, Brudenell Social Club
Apr 23 – Coventry, UK, The Reel Store
Apr 25 – Bristol, UK, The Fleece
Apr 26 – Brighton, UK, Komedia
Apr 27 – London, UK, Studio 9294
July 28 – Brno, Czech Republic, Pop Messe
Aug 6 – Katowice, Poland, OFF Festival
Aug 13 – Castelbuono, Sicily, Italy, Ypsigrock Festival
Aug 26 – Torremolinos, Spain, Canela Party

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today