As Luck Would Have It: Gold Panda Interviewed
Modest maestro Gold Panda tells The Skinny about his "unremarkable" talents and how his new album explores suburbia, from Chiba to Chelmsford.
It’s all a matter of luck, argues Derwin – the supremely modest man behind the Gold Panda moniker. Over the course of our half-hour chat, the Essex-based electronic producer self-deprecatingly describes other artists as “real” musicians and insists that his creative process is “pretty unremarkable.”
As a case in point, he claims that “there’s no skill” in playing his latest single Time Eater, the newest cut from upcoming third album Good Luck and Do Your Best. The track is carved from dizzying beats and a certain otherworldliness, rooted in the sounds of a hammered dulcimer (a stringed instrument related to the zither, to save you a trip to Wikipedia), which he found, weather-worn and damaged, while visiting Totnes.
Excited by its idiosyncrasies, he took it home: “It was really cheap! And I guess the good thing about it is that it won’t sound like any other dulcimer, so I bought it, and then I got home and made a tune. The notes were already on there, I just put them in an order and hooked up a terrible microphone hanging off the back of a chair, recorded it into a sampler… then I got some old records and found some piano sounds and stuff, and then I put a drum machine over the top. And that’s how you make a tune.”
"It took me a while to be comfortable with thinking, you know, it’s alright to be positive” – Gold Panda
Sure, he makes it sound straightforward enough… in theory. But in practice, Time Eater – and Good Luck and Do Your Best in its entirety – betrays Gold Panda’s modesty by ringing with all the hallmarks of careful attention and passionate, wholly remarkable expertise. A combination of market stall serendipity and Derwin’s innovative, nostalgic compositions, the record bears all the trademarks of his first two LPs, Lucky Shiner and Half of Where You Live, which earned international acclaim for his imaginative, cinematic attention to detail. What differentiates this record from his previous releases, though, is that it was never intended to become an album at all.
Good Luck and Do Your Best offers no bombastic grandstanding, no explosions or fireworks. Instead, you’ll find a through-the-keyhole perspective on suburban normalities, from the Japanese prefecture of Chiba to Derwin’s home in Chelmsford. With a background in Oriental and African studies, and a penchant for globe-wandering, Gold Panda’s music has always been infused with memories of new streets explored, and a lightness of touch that celebrates small acts and simple rituals. When Derwin set out on a fact-finding mission to re-explore his beloved Japan, he had all those same objectives in mind – but with the intent of creating a book.
Together with photographer friend Laura Lewis, Derwin decided to collect the sights and sounds of average life, supplemented by field recordings. “The idea was just to have another excuse to go back to Japan,” he laughs. “'Why don’t we go to Japan, and just film loads of stuff, take loads of photos, and I’ll do some recordings?' You know, just some recordings of the world.
“And why not?” Derwin continues. “I mean, there doesn’t really have to be any justification for art, I don’t think. You just do it. A lot of success in art, unfortunately, is based on luck, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Maybe people will like it and buy it, maybe they won’t. I’m very aware that that could be the case with me; that next year, no-one will give a fuck. And I’m cool with that.”
Finding beauty in the mundane
Having decided to pursue the project with the straightforward goal of art for art’s sake, Laura and Derwin explored places that were “not mind-blowingly beautiful,” looking for a different kind of beauty in the details. They found it: Laura’s imagery shows a simple, satisfying pleasure in urban hedgerows and bustling metro carriages.
“We thought, ‘What’s boring to a Japanese person? What’s the equivalent of Chelmsford?' We went to Kyoto and stayed right out of the centre, in a place where regular people live. And it was still amazing, because it’s Japan, but those were the things that we enjoyed – the regular things. Things that have beauty in their normality, and in being mundane. Laura’s definitely captured the way I see stuff, as well.”
On returning to Essex, Derwin found that not only had they made a book, but he had the shape of an album in mind. “We’d had such a good time, just really positive, and this taxi driver said, ‘Good luck and do your best.’ Then I had a title! I was really embarrassed about writing a positive, happy record because it’s not very cool, you know?” He teases, “Not like, one that says the world’s shit or something. I mean, which is how I feel… but, it would be nice to do something happy. It took me a while to be comfortable with thinking, you know, it’s alright to be positive.”
In the past, Gold Panda has offered very honest, upfront opinions on the music industry, and the potential impact of the tour/release cycle on an artist’s mental health. When he describes the making of this book-turned-album, with all of those pressures removed, it sounds as if he’s found a new kind of optimism in the remarkable-yet-unremarkable shade of mint green used in the uniform of Japanese electricians, and in the comfort of realising that simple, little things deserve their own appreciation.
Translating experience into sound
Good Luck and Do Your Best gathers these details and fuses them into a homely, warm picture of average lives, presented with complexity and packed full of love. But rather than using the field recordings he gathered in Japan – which will still accompany his and Laura’s book, to be released later this year – Derwin used the memories and aesthetics of their trip as catalysts for his songwriting. This knack for translating experience into sound is rooted in his fascination with turning ordinary samples into something stranger: you’ll be hard pushed to identify the root of any one of the samples Derwin’s worked with, or even to identify the moments he uses his own voice on the record.
“I guess when you’re into making electronic music, you’re always trying to find sounds that are not familiar, or sounds that are familiar, but they have something that takes them out of context. I’m mainly stealing sounds from records, and then treating them as I guess someone would a keyboard sound, playing them in a melody. And that really throws people! They don’t know what it is, and it sounds completely different to what it was like originally… but that’s just the way I learned to make music.”
He then admits that one field-trip recording did make it onto the record: “It’s on the first track, and it’s the recording of the flight headphone jack – you know, when you watch a film? If you turn it up really loud, it’s like it’s hissing. And that very first sound that you hear, that sounds quite glitchy? That’s just chopped up bits of a British Airways announcement.” Undeniable proof, if you still needed it, that Gold Panda is able to spin straw into gold.
Derwin mixed the record in Norfolk with producer and musician Luke Abbott – “because he’s professional ears… and also he’s a friend” – fuelled by plentiful servings of Abbott’s mum’s banana bread. After that, with the album finished, Gold Panda just needed some videos to accompany his new tracks. For single In My Car, we see him explore his Chelmsford ‘burb with his Indian grandmother Lakhi – or Lucky, as she’s known locally – in tow. In a series of almost-freezeframes the two make tea, leave each other Post-It notes, hang out in a museum and tend to a family grave – after grabbing some fast food. Judged on its component parts alone, it has the potential to be the world’s dullest music video… but the result is a comforting, dusky montage of affectionate, every-day normality.
“Maybe it’s boring where I live, but when you actually see it, and you spend a day with your grandmother, it’s actually really nice. I’m really lucky to be able to hang out, and then go home and make music.” And what does Lucky make of Good Luck? “ Well, she understands what I’m doing, and she says it’s great and good… but I’m just her grandson. She’ll just say, ‘Did you have a good time?’ I’ll say, ‘Yeah, it was alright.’ Then we’ll watch Take Me Out and eat curry. She’s brilliant. Come over! Come and have curry. She invites everyone.”