From Chelmsford To São Paulo: An Interview With Gold Panda

Berlin-based producer Derwin tells John Freeman why visiting some of the “great cities of the world” lifted his heart and inspired the new Gold Panda album, Half Of Where You Live

I first met Derwin, of Gold Panda infamy, two-and-a-half years ago in a dingy, airless dressing room in Manchester’s Ruby Lounge. Derwin cut a rather forlorn figure; he talked of his “hatred” at playing live shows (a comment he would subsequently retract) and displayed genuine disbelief at the runaway success story of his debut album, Lucky Shiner. When I asked him if he was a ‘glass half-empty person’ he replied, “Totally, except there’s nothing in the glass at all, maybe a drop in a broken glass,” before questioning whether he should even continue with his Gold Panda project.

Since that morose meeting, the producer has travelled the world on the back of promoting Lucky Shiner. These globe-trotting adventures have been the source of inspiration for a new album, the gorgeous Half Of Where You Live and as I prepare for another interview with Derwin, who now resides in Berlin, I’m hoping to find his head in a better place.

When we catch up, it’s over a Skype video link. Derwin is sat in the lounge of his parent’s house in Chelmsford, Essex, ahead of a London show he’s due to play. We are both dressed in what he describes as “our pyjamas” but I would suggest as being "lounge wear". He remains hugely likeable; self-deprecating and funny as fuck, even if his huge doe eyes transmit a world of worry and self-flagellation.

We have much to talk about. Half Of Where You Live is warm, humane and full of Derwin’s trademark earthy textures that are missing from so many ‘clinical’ techno records. The track listing reads like a Rough Guide to Gold Panda, be it the tense electricity of ‘Brazil’, the nostalgic chimes of ‘My Father In Hong Kong 1961’ or the magical ambient crackle of the standout ‘Enoshima’.

It’s an album created using old-school electronic gadgets (Derwin reveals he’s been “less focused on computer screens and more about being in the moment”) and unveils an overwhelming sense of love and veneration for the places and people he has met in the last couple of years. Indeed, as we chat, Derwin appears to be more content with his lot in life and tells me that he has “hardened up” and is less “tough on himself.” It would seem that for Gold Panda travel has both broadened the mind and tended the soul.

Your home is now in Berlin. Are you enjoying living there?

Gold Panda: I moved to Hamburg originally, as I had met a girl there. I had lots of friends in Berlin and they would always tell me I should go there as it was better, cheaper and has a lot more going on. So, I ended up moving to Berlin with my girlfriend and we have a little flat in one of the more gentrified areas. The artistic people have moved out and have been replaced by young families and people with money from the south of Germany. It’s nice and it’s very quiet.

So you don’t live in one of the more bohemian areas and aren’t out clubbing every night?

GP: No, I’m 32 now! I grew up Peckham, which wasn’t the nicest of places in the 80s and 90s, and I just wanted to live in a posh area because I’d never had that before. I thought I’d treat myself and pay a little bit more than the average Berlin rental price and see what is was like to live somewhere nice. I’m enjoying it – after touring and travelling a lot, the last thing I want to do when I come back is to go clubbing, unless it is someone I really want to see. Living somewhere that has nice places to eat and is friendly is where I want to be. I can spend my time watching films and moseying around.

I remember you telling me last time that you worried that touring stopped you making new music, but this new album seems to be heavily influenced by the places you have visited. Was it always going to be your ‘touring album’?

GP: I’m in a very different mental space to where I was when I made Lucky Shiner. So, I couldn’t really continue the over-emotional, depressed 20-year-old thing – I couldn’t play that card again. Basically, I haven’t done much else since Lucky Shiner apart from tour and play shows. I wouldn’t travel if I wasn’t doing this job. I’ve had an almost privileged, luxury guided tour of the best cities in the world. I thought I’d try to make a diary about places I’d been to. That might sound a bit stupid to say about instrumental electronic music but it really did work out that way. I’d come back and make some tracks and one of them would just fit to how I remembered a place. The album fell into place, which is a good, natural way for it to happen. Also, from the start I had this really weird thing that I knew what the cover was going to be and how the artwork would look. I remember I knew I wanted the Lucky Shiner cover to be blue. I often have this original idea and then go off on lots of different tangents and then come full circle back to the original idea. I had the title for Half Of Where You Live for a long time.

I’m not a musician, or in any way musically inclined. Can you explain how you get an instrumental track to feel like a city you have visited? Let’s take ‘Brazil’ as an example, as I, like you, have spent time in the sprawling chaos that is São Paulo.

GP: One of the things that a lot of people don’t know is that I get most of my samples from vinyl, so I am guided by what I find on old records. I don’t play any instruments – I don’t have any instruments to play – so I use vinyl as my palette to create stuff. So, when I found a sample of someone saying ‘Brazil’, it just kind of worked and then I had a loop and as I was building the track I was thinking about being in São Paulo. One night we went up a building with a cocktail bar at the top. There was no one in there as the cocktails were super-expensive, like $40 a drink, and I remember looking out over the city, which looked like a modern Asian city with a mixture of neon and unkempt buildings. When I was making ‘Brazil’, I was adding more and more samples and it got a bit crazy and I felt it like I had sound-tracked my experience of being excited about getting to the centre of São Paulo. The scenery had gotten more and more crazy and things got more and more confusing until eventually I got to the top of this building and I could breathe again.

Asia features heavily on the album. I’m assuming ‘My Father In Hong Kong 1961’ is the name of a photograph? And what is the story behind ‘Enoshima’ as that’s a really ambient passage of music?

GP: Yes, there are a bunch of photos of my Dad drinking. He was doing service in the Army in that part of the world. I’ve never been to Hong Kong but I wanted to make a very stereotypical Westerner’s view on Asia – like in those TV documentaries about Asia and they will have those typical ‘chiming bell’ soundtracks, while the camera pans across a landscape. I really love those pieces of music as they are always awful but good – it’s like the Westerner’s take on what Oriental music should sound like. Enoshima is a little retreat where Tokyo people go to escape from the city, hence the ambient feel to the track. It’s like Brighton for Londoners.

The new album retains the warmth and humanity that I so loved about Lucky Shiner. How do you achieve this ‘feel’?

GP: I don’t know where the warmth and the human element come from but it is maybe in the way I make tracks. The thing that has changed mainly in electronic music is the software has become much simpler and easier for people to understand. Ableton is so easy as it is very visual. You get a sound file and you drop it in and it is there. You can then slice it with the mouse – it’s that easy. When I was learning to make music, the computer I was using wasn’t able to do that, so I’d have to buy a sampler, that would contain the sounds and then you could get the computer to control the sampler. Then I bought an Akai MPC2000XL in about 1998. It was the same as the samplers I had been using but it didn’t need a computer. It had pads you could hit so it gave you a really interactive element. You could be part of the music making process a bit more, as opposed to just looking at a screen.

So, did you dust off your old Akai?

GP: Yeah – with Ableton, which I had initially loved, I recently felt I’d lost a part of how I made music. It was becoming a bit stale, so I decided to go back to the original machines I was using and, in turn, because they are so uncomplicated, they prevented me from putting another layer of sound in to mask any of my insecurities about my production skills. All I had was a machine that did drums, another that did samples and could chop them and rearrange them, and it was about working with those machines. I need limits otherwise I can spend ages on a track and then I will hate it. It won’t sound fresh anymore. ‘My Father In Hong Kong 1961’ is just two or three samples of an old record, which I made a melody from. I then played all the black keys on a Juno synthesizer over the top and it was done. It took 15 minutes and it is one of my favourite tracks on the album, because it always sounds fresh. If you do a first take, you will never capture that magic again and by also ditching the laptop I was liberating myself from the confinement of freedom – if that makes any sense.

Last time we spoke you told me you “hated” doing live shows. After a couple of years of touring, how do you now feel about gigs?

GP: It depends on the show. If it is my own headline show and the focus is on me, I do feel really under pressure for it to be amazing. But, I am at the limits of what I can do to make it amazing – it’s just one guy on stage with a couple of drum machines and then someone triggering some lights. I don’t know how good that can really be. But, that’s more my personal confidence problem. I’ve tried to not be so tough with myself. I’ll think, "I’m going to this place to do a show. I get to have dinner somewhere nice and do some record shopping. I can play my PlayStation on the plane. Why should I stress about it?" I’ve relaxed a bit more, especially with festivals where I turn up for an hour, do my thing and leave. I like those shows – where I can be in and out and there is no fuss.

Do you prefer a certain level of capacity for a venue?

GP: I’ve really enjoyed doing 500-capacity venues as it is just a good amount of people, not too small or too big. It doesn’t get lost in a light show, where people cannot see me at the back of the room. I’m actually doing stuff on stage. In the States, the crowd is quite young and it is good for them to see that, as with EDM, or whatever it has become for them, it’s obscured by ridiculous light shows and graphics and I’m not keen on all that stuff. It’s the same as how my music is – I want it to be able to reflect that I am just a bloke making tunes, and hopefully it is something that they can connect with.

Again, when we last met, you told me that not only were you a glass half-empty person, but that it would be “a drop in a broken glass.” Has the subsequent success of Gold Panda changed your outlook at all?

GP: It was probably a drop of blood, as well [laughs]. I’m a very negative person, but doing this has made me a lot more positive. I’m doing this and it is working out – but I don’t feel confident it can last forever, or that it is even my career. I just feel like I am doing this now and it could end at any moment but I am okay with that. If you think the worst and the worst happens then at least you weren’t wrong. If it doesn’t happen then at least you’ve prepared for the worst.

Do you really not view Gold Panda as a career?

GP: No. I’ve never had any big plans for Gold Panda to make it a huge thing. For example, I could have made a ‘pop’ album but I just felt that if you do something that is cool at the moment, it becomes instantly dated. I didn’t want to have music that was associated with the time "garage came back" or when "jungle was cool again". I don’t want to put those time-stamps on my music. I know that it is possible that my career could fall apart – there is always new stuff and the industry is fickle – so I just want to do music and if it goes wrong, there are other things I can do. It wouldn’t be the end of the world – I did my music and I didn’t compromise it.

Do you have any ideas about how a next album might sound? Or, do you know what colour the cover will be?

GP: It’s going to be white with an image in the middle. And, I know what’s going on the back. I have a title but I don’t want to say. Musically, after doing this one where I went really simple and made a very basic sounding album, I want to go in the complete opposite direction and maybe get into real computer music and overcome all the things I was scared of and didn’t understand.

You’ve been travelling around the world during some pretty extreme economic times. What has your experience of this been like?

GP: Obviously, I can see changes, the last time I went to Tokyo was the first time I’d ever been asked for money, and I was asked more than once. That never used to happen – I don’t think begging was even part of Japanese society. To be asked for money was pretty surreal. But, I do think there is a lot of good in the world but we don’t notice because there is a lot of shit.

Do situations like the beggars in Tokyo politicise you as an artist?

GP: Politically, things shock me and make me think I should do stuff but I want to keep that separate from Gold Panda. I want Gold Panda to be its own thing and I don’t want to involve my personal opinion in a Gold Panda track. I want it to be an empty canvas. Generally, I don’t think musicians should involve themselves in politics through their art. They can do it in their own way, separately. I don’t want Gold Panda to be an all-encompassing representation of myself. I do want some distance from it.

So, finally, has travelling the globe been a positive experience for you?

GP: If you read the news all day, the world seems a fucking horrible place, but if you get out there – maybe spend a day in Mexico City or wherever – it’s fucking great. What travelling has opened my eyes to is that the world is actually really good and that people are nice. Once you get out of Chelmsford, people are not all cunts.

Half Of Where You Live is out now via Ghostly International/Notown Recordings

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