Gold Panda – Music, Technology & The Samurai Code

Siobhán Kane spoke with Gold Panda ahead of his (currently underway) Irish tour.

Derwin Panda has always been interested in music, but it was only when he borrowed his uncle’s sampler as a teenager, that he began to explore a world that had in some ways seemed quite inaccessible before. After deep encouragement from a close friend he started making his own music, as well as remixing friends work, and a turning point came when Wichita Records contacted him to ask him to do a remix for Bloc Party.

This spearheaded a slew of other remixes for such bands such as Telepathe and HEALTH, who Panda greatly admires, but also gave him the confidence to focus on his own music. There followed the EP Before, and then Various Production put out some 7″ records in 2009 on their own label. He then released his debut full-length Lucky Shiner on Matthew Dear and Sam Valenti’s Ghostly International label in autumn of last year (as well as follow up EP’s Snow and Taxis last November) which illustrated in the most rich and radiant way, why he is one of the most interesting electronic producers of the past few years.

Until quite recently he had absolutely no confidence in his work, but Lucky Shiner is a testament to a heady kind of talent, and a very personal one – with this record he filters some very moving audio footage, his grandmother for example, on the track ‘Parents’, which unsettles at first and then draws you in, because somehow it is powerfully familiar. This sense of nostalgia and sentimentality swirls around amidst the most delicate guitars and ‘found sounds’ on that track, to beats that would be at home in J Dilla’s arsenal, along with a wistfulness that is more commonly associated with a certain kind of folk music. There is something quite refined in this electronic universe he creates, you can almost imagine him arranging things with the kind of deft and delicate hands immortalised by someone like John William Waterhouse. Siobhán Kane talks to him.


You moved to Hamburg some months ago, how are you finding it?
It’s great – and I have a big studio here now. There is also such a good label here called Smallville which is distributed by Kompakt. Everyone passes through Hamburg it seems, and there is a huge techno scene, as well as pockets of other stuff. I don’t miss London yet, maybe in a few months, but I am also touring so I will only be in Hamburg here and there, I’m keeping busy.

How do you find the live experience?
I don’t really enjoy it that much [laughs] because I was always making music in my room. I was making music to not work, and before that in order to quit the rubbish job I had. I never really thought about performing live, and then it was another aspect of doing it full-time. It’s getting better I guess, but it’s not something I am completely comfortable with, it’s quite freaky. It’s just me as well, so touring can get quite lonely. I haven’t been doing it for that long, so I think there is a lot more development for me to become more comfortable with it, because when I am making music I never think ‘how will this be live?’ and there are no limits when you are recording, so with the live thing I think ‘how do I make electronic music interesting using a laptop and a drum machine?’ I try not to touch the laptop too much, I have some other bits as well.

Had some of the songs on Lucky Shiner been floating around on demos for a while before you had that solid period of time to work on it properly?
The album itself was made in about three weeks – not long, but I had this loop for ages and I wanted to do something with it, and it worked out. I have a really short attention span when I am making music, unless its a remix, and I can’t work for more than one or two days on my own, as I tend to overthink things, and start adding bits to the point where it doesn’t sound fresh to me anymore, it can sound forced. I tend to think that the stuff that is done really quickly and messy works better, so all my tracks are usually made really quickly.

You sample so many interesting things, including your grandmother – the sounds are familiar and comforting, have you always responded to such things yourself, things that filter sentimentality and nostalgia?
Yes, it’s my grandmother you can hear there. A lot of everyday sounds are really interesting, like boiling a kettle, it reminds me of my family, we always had tea at 4pm, so that great sound always reminds me of my parents. It’s not like an instrument. I think birdsong is always interesting as well, my Mum used to play piano to birdsong, so it’s familiar to me. I like things that are very familiar but in a different context.

I read somewhere that you are a big fan of the Akai MPCD2000XL sampler. As a technophobe this sounds like a foreign language, was that the one you borrowed from you Uncle? What makes it such a useful tool?
You just make blocks, and have a two bar loop or however many bars you want – it’s how I have always thought of music, like these squares, and then you go through these squares and there are lots of different sounds to put in them, you can have two red ones together, or other colours, that make sequences, and that is basically what I do live is picking out sequences. I can’t be bothered to arrange tracks on a computer screen, sometimes I have to do that with remixes, and it can be boring, so now with my own stuff I make loads of loops, thirty of forty, then press record, play through them, then edit and see what I like and don’t like.

The main sampler I use is the 2000XL, it has a really good sound to it, I don’t know what it is, but the quality is amazing, it is a really warm sound and there are not too many options, and there are limits to what you can do with it – you have to work hard on the machine to get something. Things like Ableton are very easy to use, and Logic is very cool -but everyone has a laptop and can get a copy of Ableton, but the capabilities with Ableton are so vast that it really takes work as well. I limit what I use Ableton for, I might only use one of its pages to trigger a sample, then use my MPC and mix it later. If I have too many choices then the track will never be finished, I think it is good to be limited, I set rules like only sampling from vinyl, and using the original drum machine that produces a certain beat, things like that.

I cannot help but think of people like J Dilla and Madlib in the context of your process, since there is an obvious love of the beat here, and a playfulness about what can be done with it. How important would hip-hop production be to you, and people like Dilla? Not necessarily the sound, but the process – the obsessiveness of the crate digger, the elevation of music and work that has been forgotten, that they are most at home alone in their own kind of library, where the thrill is the process.
I think for me the problem was I could never afford to buy that much vinyl, I had a friend who had a well paid job and who could afford these amazing records with hip-hop breaks, and I was digging in charity shops, but then I thought what was the point in getting all it, as I would buy the records and everyone had used the breaks already, even though it would be nice to own the vinyl, and I was moving so much it wouldn’t work. Now I just tend to buy bits and pieces and keep the stuff I really love. I don’t spend that much, and I used to go by covers, if it was foreign, if it had no alphabet on it…

I didn’t want to get into the cratedigging thing obsessively, as I would spend all my money on it otherwise. I think I am getting quite good at sampling more stuff with shorter samples, so I don’t need an amazing sounding record already, I can take a half a second sample and build it into a melody and a whole song. More recently I am treating samples as if they are from vinyl, recording my voice when I am playing a record, and using that. I am quite obsessive about VHS tapes though, I buy a lot of videos, especially weird stuff I remember seeing when I was younger, it’s a recent thing and I wasn’t ever able to do it financially, but now you can get videos for fifty pence. We have some great charity shops in Essex where my parents live.

It’s a shame in a way about all of these things, because I feel as if my life isn’t really settled, I can’t carry round all this stuff with me. But I don’t want to be weighed down either, there is an old samurai code about that, or is it in that film Donnie Brasco?That you should be able to leave the house in five minutes with nothing, which always sounded great to me, was it Donnie Brasco? Maybe it was Heat [laughs], and that samurai code is actually that you should be able to make every decision in five breaths, I’m all mixed up [laughs].

Lucky Shiner seems all about different kinds of joy, the joy of invention, of remembering, of hope for potential and all that is to come. You once said that around that time you were really happy to be happy for the first time since you about twenty, was that because you felt you hadn’t been able to make music and live from it in that decade? Or that you somehow found a different kind of contentment?
A friend of mine was making techno, and I was really close to him, and he died – he was always telling me to make music, but I never did, when he passed away it made me do it, and I thought I should at least give it a go, I didn’t know what else to do basically. He died in 2007, I had made some music when he was alive but never really put it out there, and then when he died I made some more, and put it out there, it’s a sad story in so many ways. He was always so happy to be alive, he would always be having his gin and tonics and making some tunes [laughs] and he lived life to the full and had such a great time, and I was so different, feeling that I hated life, and I couldn’t wait to die, that life was rubbish – I still sometimes feel that way, but I was complaining all the time, and when he died I felt I should give it a go because of him, and it worked out, and you know I felt more happy and more relieved, actually.

I still don’t really know what I want to do, but I am doing it for now and I am happier. I think people get worried, thinking that they are 30 or 40 and somehow that means something, it’s really sad, there’s a guy called Phil Niblock who couldn’t play any instruments whatsoever, and still can’t play a note, but makes his music simply,it’s drone music, and now he does installations, and works with classical music as well – and he started doing that when he was 57, which I think is really inspiring! I could be doing this music now, and you could be doing your writing, but then in a few years change your mind and it is good to know that it is possible. Everyone tells you that you can’t do it, there is that culture to write things off as mid-life crises or something, it’s awful.

I sometimes think that when I am watching television or something and I see an old person as an extra in a film or programme, and I think ‘they weren’t acting a year ago’, it’s great! All these people can’t be professional actors or whatever, some guy in the background on The Bill – I don’t think he’s been acting since he was twelve to get that big part of eating an egg in a cafe in the background [laughs]. These are just people that changed their mind, or gave things a go, and it worked out.

Your journey to get here has been lovely, because it has been so full of earthiness, just trying to live your life and keep going, with a bit of magic, when Wichita found you on Myspace, and asked you to do a remix for Bloc Party, that must have been a bit of a surprise?
They are so into their music, they listen to everything, they know every new band before anyone, their office is full of everything. They sent me an email asking me to do a Bloc Party remix on spec, which meant I told them how much I would like, if they liked the remix, I got paid. I didn’t know what to say, someone advised me not to undersell myself, as I was going to say a hundred quid, they said ask for five hundred and then renegotiate, but Wichita accepted it, which wasn’t bad for my first remix! Then I dropped off my own music, a week later they were managing me, then I quit my job and started working on it full-time.

You released your first 7″‘singles on Various Production’s label, who are quite uncompromising.
They are uncompromising to the point where I never hear from them [laughs]! I want to be like them, but I also need some money from them at the moment and it would be good to hear from them [laughs]. I think they signed a fairly decent deal with XL, and it set them up and I suppose with that it means you can buy a studio and do what you want. I would love to do that too, but on the other hand, I haven’t heard from the band for a while, and it’s a bit bad. You can go into your own world I suppose, like Aphex Twin who has probably bought every synth there ever was and now is sitting in a room making analogue tracks for the rest of his life, which is great as well, I don’t know. Luckily I have some other reliable people around me which helps me out.

You have remixed for people like HEALTH which makes a lot of sense, what other remixes have you got coming up, and are you working on some more of your own work?
Personally I am trying to get new ideas together, and sounds for a new album, rather than mucking around with it now, I am getting a stack of records together, and I won’t touch it until later. I am shaking with anticipation for some free time to get working on it. Generally I like walking around and being inspired and doing remixes to get paid [laughs] for people like Lykke Li, which is good. I have rediscovered my love of the band Liars recently, because they constantly change, I like people who reinvent themselves, like Caribou – every record is different, I hope for the same with me. I don’t ever want to do the same thing. I’m like that elderly person in The Bill,that extra – they probably haven’t been doing it that long, and they won’t be [laughs]. Maybe I’ll actually do that myself when I am older, when I am about sixty – get some acting jobs as an extra [laughs].


Gold Panda plays The Pavillion, Cork on Friday 10th June & The Workman’s Club, Dublin the following night (that would be Saturday June 11th).

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