There's simply something about Japan, an indefinable essence that seems to draw people in and refuses to let go. Beyond the country's pop culture output, the glaring neon of Tokyo or the delicate landscape, there's some unnameable quantity that is distinctly addictive and distinctly Japanese.
Gold Panda has certainly fallen under Japan's spell. Back in early 2014 the producer packed his bags and flew out beyond the horizon, intending to work with photographer Laura Lewis on a joint audio-visual project. “The idea originally was to do a book that had field recordings and sounds that I like, that I’ve heard in Japan. Or things that interest me. So I just started walking around with headphones on and a microphone, trying to capture certain things.”
“I liked the whirring of all the equipment out there, like rows of vending machines and stuff like that because we don’t really get that here. You don’t know what you’re looking for until you go out and start recording. I have lots of movements of air, and fans, and stuff whirring... and you’re not aware of it when you’re recording. Then when you listen back you’re like, there’s so much of this kind of whooshing sound everywhere! When you’re doing it you’re not aware of it, then later on you listen back to all the recordings and get a theme emerging.”
The producer eventually made two trips to Japan, filling his sound-banks in the process. Returning to the UK, Gold Panda then began the process of filtering through this, and allowing these sounds, these random fragments of noise, to push his music in fresh directions on new album 'Good Luck And Do Your Best'. “I don’t know about other people but I’m always trying to not be me, or not be Gold Panda!” he laughs. “I make a lot of music, and a lot of it I don’t release, but stuff that I make as Gold Panda has a certain sound to it so I guess Gold Panda’s become this entity where I make music that suits the name. And as much I want to do something else the music is made and you can’t control how it sounds.”
“I made something else certain themes would still be there that I wouldn’t be aware of until someone pointed them out to me, maybe. I feel like you can try and do things differently but the music, your sound is there. And maybe it’s not obvious in the beginning, but through recording it reveals itself to you... after a lot of time, a lot of attempts”.
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I liked the whirring of all the equipment out there...
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Returning to his home studio in Chelmsford, Gold Panda began to make sense of the way his aural pathways had been subliminally re-aligned by Japanese culture. Setting himself a routine, the producer pieced out the directions his new material would travel in. A creature of routine, Derwin uses his surroundings to his advantage. “I’ve tried to do it all different ways and I’m most productive about 4pm when I make a cup of tea and have a bit of cake, and 11pm. So I’ve been getting up, going swimming, walking round Chelmsford, get a bit of shopping, then do some emails, and eventually I’ll get round to doing music.”
It's all humorous and off-the- cuff, but the producer's description belies the seriousness of his approach. New album 'Good Luck And Do Your Best' is an intensely creative work, with Gold Panda's organic sound – built up from fragments of Japanese sound – resulting in some of his most floral, fragrant work to date. There's a break from his previous two albums, though, and this could be down to the introduction of Luke Abbot on mixing duties.
“I did my last two records with Jas (Shaw) from Simian Mobile Disco. So, what I do is record all my parts into a computer and then I take that computer to someone’s studio and then we sit down and mix it through a desk and use all their fancy equipment. Luke has a little studio in Norwich, and I really became a big fan of Norwich, it’s beautiful and I like it – it’s kind of cut off from the rest of the country”.
Working in splendid isolation, Luke Abbott was able to wring out fresh nuances from Gold Panda's work. The creative relationship, he insists, hinges on two factors: “The first thing is that we just get along and second thing is that he really, he knows the good things about my music and how to bring out those qualities in a mix without me having to say anything. So it’s easy to work with him and he will make good choices within the arrangement and mix-down”.
“He almost operates as a producer sometimes but I don’t want to over-credit him because he’ll get a big head! But yeah, it's about working with friends and getting another pair of ears, someone who you trust to listen to your music and tell you what’s good about your music when you’re feeling negative about it.”
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It’s coming to terms with the fact I am not a musician...
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Gold Panda, it seems, requires a further presence to pull him out of his preconceptions over the type and quality of music he should be making. “I wanted to do it myself but I think that it would have been a shame if I’d released the original demos. I mean I don’t think it would have made that much difference but I think it’s been a good idea to have it mixed by someone else who I trust. The sound is still me, you know, it’s just the clarity is better, there’s certain frequencies that have been notched out or added where they need to be. It’s just someone to bring out the best bits.”
One of the tracks that the pair had a particularly enjoyable time recording was 'I Am Real Punk'. Oddly, it entirely pre-dates the producer's fateful trips to Japan – the demo was laid down all the way back in 2003. “Luke said that my music is punk because it’s just me bashing away at some sample pads and obviously not caring about the intricacies of what’s supposed to be happening,” he chuckles. “Then I said I’ve got this track called 'I Am Real Punk' - kind of a joke track, joke title – and I dug it out, we added a bit of synth on top and that was it”.
“I never thought I’d release that track but it just kind of sat well with the rest of the record. And that’s what I mean about the sound of the music you make being you and you not being able to control it. If I was able to control it in some way that track would probably not fit in with what we had done but because it’s me and I make music in a certain way it’s kind of has a similar sound, you know, while staying in the same state of mind”.
It's a state of mind which is about to express itself in Gold Panda's live show. Recently playing a massive headline date at London's Dome venue, the producer is continually flexing his performance muscles, gradually re-shaping and moulding his material into curious shapes. “I’m trying to keep it as free as I can, to make it different every time,” he comments. “It’s just trying to perform the tracks rather than playing back the tracks which means a lot of mistakes and a lot of fuck ups but that makes it exciting, I guess”.
Is coming to terms with those imperfections part of what constitutes Gold Panda?
“It’s coming to terms with the fact I am not a musician, and I have absolutely no talent whatsoever, and it’s all chance and a large portion of luck... but I’m fine with that. I just I’m glad I can do this as a job.”
“I’ve been saved by being naïve about my music, just ploughing on with what I’ve got, being limited. I guess if you have too many options then you’re not able to finish everything so you’re just going to keep changing it. I'm saved by limitations.”
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'Good Luck And Do Your Best' is out now.