Should I Stay Or Should I Go? An Interview With Gold Panda

John Freeman finds producer/remixer Derwin, aka Gold Panda, in contemplative mood

You wouldn’t know it by talking to him, but 2010 has been a hugely successful year for Gold Panda. After releasing a number of highly-prized seven-inch singles in 2009 – including the ethereal ‘Quitter’s Raga’ – and remixing for a host of notable artists, Gold Panda released a full-length debut of his downbeat techno a couple of months ago.

And Lucky Shiner is a beautiful album – full of warm textures and half-familiar sounds. It takes samples from a range of sources; the sound of his beloved grandmother gardening, a broken Yamaha keyboard rescued from eBay or the amplified crackle of vinyl. It’s a stunning piece of music and seems to have transcended musical genres.

At the centre of this creative storm is 30-year-old Londoner, Derwin. I never do find out what his surname is. Ahead of a gig on his first major headlining tour, we meet in his dingy dressing room, which is replete with the mandatory tortilla chips-and-humus rider. Derwin is quiet and thoughtful. He exudes not an ounce of narcissism and seems full of doubt and introspection. He admits that he "thinks too much" and seems deeply troubled with his ever-increasing fame. There are moments of uneasy silence during our conversation in which the weight of his words seems to hang in the air. I’ve never before wanted to put my arm round a musician and tell them ‘it’ll be alright’. (For the record, I manage to fight the temptation.)

Later, the Gold Panda show focuses on big beats. Derwin’s grey hood obscures his face as his hands skip between a laptop, drum machine and other assorted gadgetry. In the gloom he’s almost like one of those blacked-out puppeteers, desperate to merge into the background. But, as the beautiful hook of ‘You’ acquires some crashing beats, it becomes apparent that the live version of Gold Panda is full of juddering techno. The crowd love it – even if some of the subtle beauty of Lucky Shiner is compromised.

Beforehand at the merchandising stall, a girl asks Derwin if he will look after her coat. She begins to get slightly uppity when he says he won’t be there all the time. "Even though it was three quid from a charity shop I don’t really want it to get nicked," she tells him. The girl has no clue who Derwin is. I get the sense that this suits him just fine.

At the start of this year Gold Panda appeared in a number of those contrived polls that aim to highlight the best new acts for 2010. So how has the last 12 months been for you?

Gold Panda: It’s been pretty hectic, but everything is coming together. The album is out, finally, and I just wanna do another one now.

Are you bored of Lucky Shiner already?

GP: Sort of – I’d never made an album before, so I never realized that the process of going from your first idea to the finished product is quite a long road. It was made very quickly over about three weeks last Christmas. So, it’s nearly a year old for me. I’m ready to do the next one now and people are just hearing this one. It’s a really weird place to be. I think a lot of musicians must get that, actually.

Do you have an idea of how your next record might sound?

GP: Yeah. But I don’t want to say anything about it, because if I feel like if I talk about it too much it will go off in a different direction.

But could an album ever come out exactly as you initially intended? How did Lucky Shiner pan out?

GP: I suppose I did have an idea what this album should sound like and it has turned out vaguely how I thought. I guess I knew the cover was gonna be blue – and it is blue! But I think the album came out very straight, and quite accessible and poppy. Or what I would consider to be a pop version of what I was doing. I thought it would be a lot more experimental and strange and, to me, it turned out quite normal.

Having said that, Lucky Shiner seems to have connected both with music journalists and – more importantly – the public.

GP: It has connected with people and I’m quite shocked, actually. It’s been received really well, and I wasn’t really expecting that. I thought it would get a bit of a slating actually. I thought people were gonna say it was too simple and not really daring enough or anything. They might think it was too safe maybe. I wouldn’t disagree with if someone said ‘it’s not as good as the EPs, it’s a bit pop’ but I think a lot of people have liked it because of that. I don’t know really, it’s hard to judge where I am and how people see me.

What I find fascinating about your album is that it appeals to people who wouldn’t normally be into techno music. Personally, I came at your album as someone who loves Kid A but feels uneducated in many genres of dance music. Why do you think you have this ‘crossover’ appeal?

GP: Maybe it’s the melody, I guess. There is a lot of melody in there compared to what people would consider a techno or house track, which would be based around one keyboard step, pretty much. For each one of the songs I want to have a verse and a chorus. It’s not set up like a dance track, where you’ve got a long three-minute intro before things start to happen. Maybe that’s why it’s connected with people outside that genre. Also, people have said there is a human element in the music. I don’t know how I achieved these things.

I believe Lucky Shiner is named after your grandmother. She seems to be a huge source of strength for you?

GP: Absolutely. My family is really close. I’m quite emo. I suffered from depression for ages and still get it really badly. When I’m not happy she just knows. She’ll make me a cup of tea and sit down and it won’t be a really long chat, but she’ll tell me a story which will reassure me. Her English is not fluent, and I cannot speak Hindi, but we communicate really well.

And does she like ‘her’ record?

GP: I don’t think she really gets it, but she’ll dance to it. She’s very proud of it.

Many of the tracks on the album allude to your family, which, for me, adds to its beauty. Doesn’t your uncle work in the music business? What does he think of your burgeoning career?

GP: We haven’t talked about the record, but we have sat down and talked about what I’m doing and how much I’m getting paid and stuff. He’s been doing it for years – publishing and producing – and he always told me ‘don’t do music, because you won’t make any money’. And now I’m doing music. I think now he’s quite proud.

I believe you moved from south London to Essex as a teenager. That must have been an interesting change in culture?

GP: Yeah, Peckham to Chelmsford when I was 15. It’s probably a bit different now but at the time people were really racist. Chelmsford was a strange place and it’s not like it is a million miles away from London. Back then it seemed like a different planet.

Did the move affect your musical outlook?

GP: Well, I’ve always been quite rebellious against things that other people are into. Then you go through that teenage period where you want to annoy your parents. But I also had it with friends, where I wanted to annoy them and be into something different. I didn’t know many other people who were into rap music or r ‘n’ b and stuff so I got more and more into that. I was probably making up for all the stuff I had lost by leaving London.

My [new] friends were all into Britpop and I didn’t really understand Pulp, Blur or Oasis until a lot later. I came to actually enjoy it and embrace it. It was ‘Tracy Jacks’ by Blur that did it – that was the song I thought was quite good.

I also read that you have a huge interest in Japanese culture, can speak Japanese fluently and have spent a year in Tokyo. What sparked your interest?

GP: I saw [the film] Akira and I just started to get into Japanese animation. There used to be stuff on Channel 4 late at night that would show manga. I was really into that and used to tape it all. Through these weird late-night shows I got more and more interested in Japanese culture and then I ended up going there when I was 19. I first went to Tokyo for two weeks, but I went to stay with a friend who was a DJ. So, rather than doing touristy stuff, we got drunk and went to clubs and watched them DJ. I then went back to Japan for a year in 2003-2004. I taught English to fund my trip which I hated because I didn’t want to teach and I was terrible at it.

But apart from the teaching, did you enjoy the experience?

GP: It was great, but Tokyo – like any big city – is really lonely and I kind of thrived on it for a while. But if you get out of the cities and go to the countryside, it is amazing. It’s even more surreal than the city. People will have never seen a foreigner before – which is weird to have people come up and touch your face. You’ve got this really technologically advanced country where people have never seen a Western face. It’s really strange.

And is it true that your decision to try and forge a career in music was influenced by the death of a friend?

GP: Yeah, he had a stroke, he was only 57. He was doing techno and he was always saying that I should do music. When he died, I thought I’d give it a go and it has worked out alright. That was at the end of 2007, when I started doing music properly, really. It came together a few months after he died, which was really strange.

And you started out by doing remixes. Early on you did some high-profile remixes for Bloc Party, Simian Mobile Disco and Health. How did these come about?

GP: I did two remixes for friends – who were in local bands that I knew – and then I moved back to London to ‘try’ and do music. I just had to get out of Chelmsford. I didn’t know what I was going to do and I ended up working in a sex shop for a while. I set up a Gold Panda MySpace page and soon after Wichita Recordings sent me an email on MySpace asking whether I would ‘do a Bloc Party remix and how much did I charge?’

I didn’t know what to say so I emailed my uncle. He said ‘don’t undersell yourself’. I was thinking of £200 and he said ‘ask for £500’, so I asked for £500 thinking they were not gonna accept and they wrote back and said ‘yeah, sure’. About a week later they asked me to come over for a chat and a few drinks. They said they wanted to do my management and what did I think? So, I quit my job in the sex shop.

You must be getting many requests for remixes now? I saw that you’ve recently done work for Errors and Caribou.

GP: Yeah, but it’s difficult. Before, I had a lot of time to do remixes but now I’m just touring and I can’t work on the road. Usually, I sample from old vinyl and I like to have my equipment around me and a cup of tea, and the telly on and really get into it. I can’t really do stuff on a laptop in the back of the van. So, most of the remixes I do, I hate. But that’s true of most of the music I make. When I first make it, I hate it. I go back to it a few days later and think ‘that’s alright, actually’.

You sound like a ‘glass half-empty’ sort of person.

GP: Yeah, totally; except there’s nothing in the glass at all – maybe a drop in a broken glass.

Blimey, so how are you coping with all the positivity from your fans? You are now headlining shows – people are coming specifically to see Gold Panda.

GP: There are people coming to the gigs now to see Gold Panda. I’m very wary of that and I’m very nervous. I feel like I should apologise for the show. But it’s still early days and I haven’t been doing it that long compared to other people. I could probably do a lot more but I’ve backed off for December. I’ve been on tour for quite a while and I feel like I need to get home and get some music done or I’ll explode.

I’m getting the sense that touring is not easy for you – you are not a natural showman.

GP: No, I hate it. Well, I don’t hate it, I’m just not a very confident person and it really affects me being away from home and not being able to make music, and having to perform. I just feel the pressure a lot for some reason. I’m still very unsure about this as a career. Sometimes I’ll do a gig and think ‘wow, this is brilliant, I love it’ but it’s quite rare. It’s probably to do with the venue and the mood you’re in. Being tired can affect it. It’s a lot of different things; you get the vibe off the crowd as well.

But people seem to love your shows – you must be doing something right?

GP: I don’t know what I’m doing right and I don’t want to know. But sometimes I wake up and I just don’t want to do this anymore. It’s a constant battle with myself. I tend to think a lot; I think too much. I’m very aware of being on stage and playing live. I’m very conscious of whether it’s good or not, no matter what other people think or say. Maybe I should get people to vote; should I quit? Or, should I carry on…

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