Gold Panda, also known as Derwin, is perched on a bench outside Hackney Downs Studios, gingerly drinking a cup of tea. Dressed in an oversized t-shirt and some baggy trousers he later comments he hates, the Londoner is reflecting on life since the release of his debut album, 2010’s Lucky Shiner. Since then, he’s performed all over the world, lived in Germany, released his second LP, and even gone to his first football match (it was Sheffield Wednesday, he didn’t enjoy it). Now he’s back living in the UK and back with his grandmother, Lucky Shiner. It’s a lifestyle he’s relishing. “I really enjoy being at home, having a routine and doing things that aren’t touring. Stuff like waking up, going swimming, reading the newspaper and eating avocado on toast,” he says.
There is of course somewhere outside of the UK that Derwin also considers home. After watching Katsuhiro Otomo’s iconic anime film Akira at the age of 15, he became increasingly captivated with Japan, so much so he ended up studying Japanese at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. He now travels there frequently, trips that have shaped his ideas on food, fashion, and of course, music, how we know him best.
Derwin’s constructions as Gold Panda are made for late night strolls, those introspective moments in life when you want to seek refuge in the touching textures of machine-made music. Comprised of luscious soundscapes that merge the organic and synthetic into one tender composition, his songs can evoke joy and sadness simultaneously. The sonic influence of his time in Japan is clear, just listening to the twangs of exotic-sounding instruments chopped up through his Akai MPC 2000 XL transports you to the landscape he so much loves.
In one of his recent journeys, friend and photographer Laura Lewis accompanied him. The pair planned to capture their travels visually, something he enthusiastically describes. “I’ve always wanted to capture the visual side of Japan but I couldn’t do it; it was always about the music. Then I met Laura. The way she took photos just clicked with me. I got her to print out these photos, then I stuck them all over my room and made music to them, it was really nice to have a visual element to work from.”
The music Derwin is referring to comes from his latest LP Good Luck And Do Your Best, one that, like its predecessors, encompasses sounds from Japan. His previous album, Half Of Where You Live, was made during his time in Berlin, and possessed a slightly darker and, at points, clubbier tone than his previous work – a style that was certainly influenced by his surroundings in the German capital. But with the new record, he returns to a distinctly warmer palette, one that echoes Lucky Shiner a little more, albeit with a clearer range of sounds, and also, in Derwin’s mind, one where “the tracks aren’t popping out against each other.”
It’s clear to see from speaking with him how much his environment informs his music. As well as taking inspiration from the trips with Laura, his familiar surroundings in Chelmsford have also impacted upon the new LP – “I think I am in a calmer state of mind being back with my grandma, back in the house I was living in when I was younger.” He continues to explain how finalising the album with producer Luke Abbott at his family house in Norwich – a homely place where Luke’s mum was “always bringing out banana bread” – further reinforced the relaxed nature of the record in his mind.
What’s interesting about Derwin is that despite his apparent contentment with Good Luck And Do Your Best, he still emits a sense of dissatisfaction with his work, almost borderline frustration. He mentions multiple times how he makes “a lot of cool music that isn’t Gold Panda”, and that the pseudonym has “become its own entity, it controls me more than I control it”. The newest album is his favourite thus far as it’s the only one that he doesn’t “cringe” at when listening back to, chatting about his back catalogue like it’s one of your dodgy hairdos from the ‘90s.
There is definitely a side to Derwin that wants to break away from Gold Panda and rebel. “Luke reckons I make punk music,” he says, with a wry smile spreading across his face. “I’m not a musician so I don’t know how to play any instruments, but the punk in me there is me playing guitar. I don’t want to learn because I feel like I’d feel something that’s already been made.” Maybe it’s this rawness that makes his music so exciting, though after suggesting this idea, he merely shrugs and smirks. “Maybe it is, I don’t think it’s that special really.”
But clearly he’s doing something right. Despite a three-year musical hiatus, he’s still in high demand, with an extensive list of live shows planned for the rest of 2016, including one at London venue The Dome. He had previously voiced his resentment of touring, but says now he’s “a lot more calm about it”, though in typical Derwin fashion, displaying some dry humour about it just being “what I do in my bedroom on stage”.
For the shows, he’s teamed up with visual artist and friend Dan Tombs, who’s worked with the likes of Jon Hopkins and James Holden in the past, making a live experience for Derwin that emulates the homely, familiar feel of his studio releases. “All my music is made in a spare bedroom, wouldn’t it be a bit weird if I had some crazy light show for it?” he says.
After speaking with Derwin, the qualities of Good Luck And Do Your Best are exemplified even more – the emotion, the rawness, the imagination of it all. His anecdotes about the LP – the way ‘Pink and Green’ refers to the pastel hues of Japan, or how ‘Chiba Nights’ reflects the calm yet chaotic ambience of the country – help you further appreciate his music. ‘I Am Real Punk’ makes a bit more sense, too. Even if he isn’t as excited about the latest LP as he should be, we sure are.
Good Luck And Do Your Best is out now on City Slang. Grab it here.
Words: Nathan Diamond
Images: Laura Lewis