Photography by Gabriel Green
Gold Panda nods at a fellow passenger. “I feel like saying to him, ‘I’m in that copy of MOJO,’” he says. But where would it stop? We’re on a rush hour train hurtling towards Essex and ninety percent of those around us are reading some magazine or other. Derwin is quite possibly in all of those too. He’s definitely in that girl’s Grazia. And if there’s a copy of DJ doing the commute he’s in there too, accompanied by a 9/10 mark for his debut album ‘Lucky Shiner’.
“That’s just stupid,” he grimaces. “Giving it a nine means that there’s nowhere to go. The next album has to be ten now. A nine is like saying it’s Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’, and it’s not!”
The first thing you need to know about Gold Panda: he’s modest, sometimes to the point of severe self-deprecation.
“In Grazia I’m in Lauren Laverne’s column, so I’ve not been papped stumbling out of Somerfield with loads of bread or anything,” he grins. “It’s not like I’m in there in one of those ‘Get The Look’ sections, although, actually, I was once on ASOS.com like that. There was a picture of me looking a state in a pair of my ex girlfriend’s old jeans. Yeah, ‘get the look’…of a balding, semi-successful electronic artist who’s really depressed and looks homeless because he’s just been dumped.”
See!? And the second thing you need to know: he’s fucking funny.
‘Lucky Shiner’ is quickly pleasing just as many glossy mags as inky fanzines, though. The BBC’s prophecy is coming true – Gold Panda is eventually proving to be the ‘Sound of 2010’, but more on that frightening tip later, once we’ve reached Derwin’s family home in the suburbs of Chelmsford, Essex.
“I think we should go to my auntie’s house,” he says as our train rattles on with its cargo nose deep in Gold Panda reviews. “That’s where my grandma will be. She is Lucky Shiner.” And that sums up why we are where we are. Derwin has named his debut album after his grandma (pictured on page 1) and produced a record inspired by his family and loved ones. Spending an afternoon bothering them seemed like a good way to get to the bottom of an instrumental ‘dance record’ that, although unlikely, is one of the most personal and poignant albums of the year.
“What’s this? The Gold Panda crew?” says Derwin’s uncle, Mick, as he opens his front door to us and we suddenly become acutely aware that we’ve arrived unannounced and uninvited. Shoes are removed and left at the door as we’re welcomed in and introduced to Derwin’s grandma, Lucky Shiner, and his cousin Tilly, who, along with her twin sister Kat, has turned twenty one today, making our intrusion feel all the more heinous. We seem to be the only ones fussed though, as we tentatively perch on sofas while Lucky Shiner and Derwin make a round of ginger teas and Mick – a music publisher – shows us a picture of Derwin aged 5 and happily discusses bands like The Horrors and Ipso Facto. Maybe it’s because my uncle only ever talks about carp fishing and planes, but I can instantly see why Derwin likes his family enough to include them in his music, even if he does later quip, “Mick hates me!”
Ginger teas drained, we duck into Mick’s decidedly un-Essex home office that’s festooned with wall-mounted guitars, posters, the odd gold disc and a framed Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie photo. “There’s not enough football stuff in here for it to be typically Essex, is there?” says Derwin, spinning on a wheely chair.
“I moved here when I was fifteen,” he says “and it was a really confusing time because all of my friends were black and were listening to reggae – or raga – on Choice FM and then I moved here and everyone was listening to Pulp, Oasis and Blur, and I’d never heard of them. I got into that stuff eventually but at first I was like, ‘Why am I not black? What’s going on?’ So I started off by being really rebellious and dressing like Tu Pac in a white bandana done up on the side. I wanted to get a nose ring; I’d wear big baggy jeans and shop down Carnaby Street before it was all brand shops. I bought a big Charlotte Hornets jacket, even though I’d never even watched basketball. But you have to represent,” he laughs. “It was fucking ridiculous.”
Coincidently, Damon Albarn went through a similar displacement when moving from multi-cultural Mile End to a Thatcher-happy, white Colchester, also in Essex. He escaped the yuppies via Blur; Derwin escaped Blur via hip-hop.
“Essex has definitely influenced my music,” he notes “because through those guitar bands I got really pissed off and I started looking for other stuff, and I found an album called ‘Big Loada’ [by Chelmsford resident Squarepusher] a bit later, and that was the start of me sampling stuff and using electronics to make beats. I was always into hip-hop so it was all about making beats to rap to.”
And did you every rap yourself?
“Yeah, I was called Rumpelstiltskin, and the P was a question mark and the L was an explanation mark but then there were too many, so it was like, ‘is the I meant to be an explanation mark or just an I?’ I couldn’t remember. And then I joined online forums where you rapped but you didn’t actually rap, you just wrote down standards and you’d have a battle rap and people would rate them to see who won. And then I realised that I wasn’t black and I was just being stupid.”
Derwin says that he was “terrible” at rapping, which, in Gold Panda’s world, might mean that he could have been the next Biggie Smalls.
“No, I was terrible,” he insists. “I realised I couldn’t be a rapper but I then started again with a friend called Infinite Lives. I was doing it for a joke really, under the name Olivia Neutron Bomb, making beats on a GameBoy and a loop pedal. I got in touch with Stephen, who is Infinite Lives, and we started doing really experimental stuff where we’d make noise and he’d rap over the top, and then I’d do some stupid rap. We had a group called Kiss Akabusi. Our logo was Chris Akabusi in Kiss makeup. We never did anything with it but we did support Roots Manuva at Koko once, which was a laugh. But I was only ever rapping as a joke, really.”
By the end of these Olivia Neutron Bomb/Rumplestiltskin/Kiss Akabusi days, Derwin still had his Tu Pac bandana but his rap dream was over. In pursuing sampling since first hearing ‘Big Loada’, though, he’d unwittingly laid the foundations for Gold Panda and the ambient, looping techno he produces today. The thing is, he then didn’t care too much for a career in music – not until the death of a close friend made him reconsider it.
“I think that’s why the album is so personal,” he says “because I lost a close friend who was doing techno under the name Subhead and he was always telling me to do music, and I was like, ‘Naaah’, and then he died. He had a stroke and that was it, he was gone. So I was thinking of dedicating a song to him… but he’s dead – he’s not going to know. So I thought how about making songs about people while they’re alive so I have something to show them that I care, and family has been the one constant thing in my life that’s quite stable. I’m very lucky in that sense. We all get drunk a couple of times a year where everyone will turn up and there’ll be dancing, a lot of drinking, maybe some drugs,” he whispers. “We’re all very close. But I dunno, with electronic music how much of that emotion can you put in there without lyrics, apart from naming the tracks?”
You’d be surprised. ‘Lucky Shiner’ being named after Derwin’s grandma is a sweet tribute, and track titles like the positively emo ‘I’m With You But I’m Lonely’ and the romantically-loaded ‘You’ (featured twice) play their part in conveying Gold Panda’s poignancy, but really it’s the music that smacks of counselling-session-honesty the most – the frying pan crackle of dusty equipment and the spliced, stammering keyboards that keep time just as well as the drum loops, yearning like wires and circuit boards shouldn’t.
“Yeah, I don’t know how I’ve done that,” he ponders. “I mean, ‘Same Dream China’ and ‘India Lately’, they’re about places I’ve never been but I dream about. ‘You’ is originally about an ex girlfriend who I was with for ten years, but I fucked it up really by just being a depressed weird kinda guy. ‘I’m With You But I’m Lonely’ is about not being able to find anyone who was doing the same thing, musically, and being with someone who is amazing and who has totally supported you but not feeling totally fulfilled or knowing if you can offer them anything, and ‘Before We Talked’ and ‘After We Talked’ are about my friend who died. We went to buy this Yamaha organ that we got off Ebay for a quid, and then I made those tracks entirely from that organ, even the drums and stuff. So yeah, there’s a lot of personal themes in there.”
Earlier at Liverpool Street train station, as we were jabbing the touch screen of a ticket machine, Derwin had said that ‘Lucky Shiner’ hadn’t turned out how he’d planned it to. “It’s ok,” he said “but it’s not what I wanted.”
“Last time we spoke it was really early on,” he remembers. (Our previous Gold Panda interview was in July of last year). “I knew at that time that I wanted to make an album, and that I didn’t just want to put these tracks on it that were out already. And I had a very clear idea of what I wanted but it did turn out differently, although I think the whole journey from the first idea of an album to the end is quite long. I don’t think I realised that at the time.
“It’s more pop and less weird than what I set out to do. I wanted to make a techno album with these long drawn out tracks that built on that ‘Back Home’ track I did, and were more minimal and repetitive but it didn’t work out like that. I just don’t think that I’m ready to do that yet, and it would have been a bit weird for people who were into what was coming out. ‘Quitter’s Raga’ went so well and ‘You’ came out and was so different. I think that if I’d done that it would have thrown a lot of people off, but maybe it would have gotten better reviews in a credible way, but it wouldn’t have been so well received because it’s more accessible now.”
Grazia accessible! And DJ accessible and MOJO accessible and Pitchfork accessible and so on. But ‘Lucky Shiner’ is hardly an obvious crossover hit like, say, Mumford & Sons are, or The xx even. It’s completely instrumental for a start, and features tracks like ‘Parents’, which is made up of a finger-tickled, wispy acoustic guitar, a faint field recording of Derwin helping his grandma in the garden and nothing else. For the regular readers of ‘What’s Hot & What’s Not’ that’s still pretty weird, although Derwin says that he’s unable to judge anymore. “Within the electronic music that I listen to at the moment it’s quite cheesy and poppy,” he says. “That’s how I see it. But then for MOJO magazine I guess it’s quite weird.” Either way, all of the album’s reviews have so far been positive.
“Yeah, I’ve not had any bad ones yet,” he confirms “but I’m sure there will be, and that’s fine. I mean, if The Wire review it they’ll hate it, but that’s good because it means I can probably sell some records, because they slated the last Fuck Buttons and Four Tet albums, which I really liked. They said that Fuck Buttons was sell out pop rubbish, watered down for the mainstream, and that’s just ridiculous, but they give Album of The Month to some guy playing drums underwater in his dad’s bath or something.”
Surprisingly, considering how he’s a man not too good at taking compliments, Derwin seems at ease with all of this positive attention coming his way, or perhaps that’s ‘Lucky Shiner’’s ways, and perhaps that’s the point. As he said on the train, it’s not as if he’s in magazines being papped as a celebrity yet. But that could happen. The album’s acclaim could quickly have the 3am Girls squawking after the man who made it, and Gold Panda has always found the ‘pop star’ bit of being a musician an unsettling evil.
“It’s not getting any easier,” he says “it’s getting harder! I find it very awkward when people say weird stuff like ‘I love you’ and ‘you’re a genius’ and ‘I’m obsessed with you’, like at a show or something. Having admirers is very difficult for a person who doesn’t like going out and seeing people. Like, I’ve got so many people I’m meant to go for a drink with, and the main reason is because I’m so busy I’m never in the country, which is probably a really good excuse instead of saying, ‘I don’t fancy it’ or, ‘I’m not well’ or, ‘I’m washing my hair that’s falling out’, but it’s very difficult to try to change into this person that’s now networking, because you do have to keep in touch with people, like people who’ve done remixes for you or whatever. It’s nice to appreciate people and make them feel appreciated.”
As far as he knows, Derwin has been recognised in the street just the once – an experience he dealt with by running away. And two things particularly baffle him about fame – where the hell he fits in on the scale of recognisable faces, and why would anyone give a shit if they saw Gold Panda stumbling out of Somerfield with loads of bread? Or anywhere, doing anything, for that matter? But the fact is that that young fan who shouted, “It’s Gold Panda!” at him, was, soon after Derwin legged it, most likely in the pub boasting, “You’ll never guess who I’ve just seen!?”
“See, that makes no sense to me,” says Derwin. “I can’t understand if I’m big or not big, or where I fit in to being recognisable or not. It’s not like I’m instantly recognisable like Lady Gaga or something. I’m quite generic. It’s not like I’m Bill Bailey!” he says, giving us a glimpse into his skewed and witty psyche where the biggest pop performer on the planet is just one notch above an ex-music quiz panel host in terms of notability. “Because it’s never like, ‘is that Bill Bailey?’” he reasons “it’s always, ‘that’s definitely Bill Bailey!’”
At this point Derwin’s auntie comes home to find her lovely house overrun by strange men drinking ginger tea, but before we start to feel awkward once again she’s introducing herself with a hugs and a kisses, saying a quick hello to her nephew and dashing off to the kitchen.
“Sorry, where were we?” says Derwin.
I think it was Bill Bailey being as recognisable as Lady Gaga.
“Oh yeah. Okay, Jordan! Someone like that is famous to me!”
Gold Panda informally entered the fame game when ‘Quitter’s Raga’ – his debut single of chopped up sitars, oriental stabs and snapping hand claps – went a bit viral and began earning him support slots with HEALTH and Simian Mobile Disco (Jas Shaw ended up producing ‘Lucky Shiner’). We didn’t know about Seams, Dam Mantle or Becoming Real then; Derwin helped expose and inspire them, and a slew of bedroom loners into dissecting sounds and creating experimental electronic music. Playing live was (and is) a necessary evil, says Derwin, hardly fit for “a person who doesn’t like going out and seeing people.” And then ducking in and out of venues as inconspicuously as possible was made all the more difficult as Gold Panda became a face of nearly every Ones To Watch list in January – most notably the BBC’s Sound of 2010 poll.
“I felt pretty annoyed by that,” explains Derwin, although not for the reason I expect “because it was me and Joy Orbison, and I’m sorry to say that I’m better than the rest, but we were the only two that stood out from a pretty bad bunch. But the reason why it really pissed me off was because it was like, now all of these people have to be number one to be considered successful. They did a round up of the previous year and it was Passion Pit and Little Boots, who were considered failures. I was like, ‘oh, I thought Passion Pit did quite well.’
“I think the whole thing is just a joke, but the most rewarding thing is that Joy Orbison, me and Two Door Cinema Club, or whatever, will outlive the poll and survive off of making music, and the rest will have just that. I mean, how big can Ellie Goulding be next time around?”
Gold Panda being confident? That’s not in keeping with the daily Twitter feeds of I’m rubbish! and, I can’t keep dressing in novelty t-shirts from American service stations, I’m 30, and, Constantly sorry. He’s like the anti-50 cent.
“Fuck, he loves himself, doesn’t he?” exclaims Derwin. “It’s just wrong. I don’t understand how people can be so confident. I guess he is a multi-millionaire, but people did want to kill him for being such a cunt. He got shot like eight times. That was his promotional thing, being shot! But, yeah, the Twitter thing is just me trying to be honest on it, even if I do come across a little bit emo. It’s just a place to rant and be funny. I can’t take it seriously as a promotional tool.”
By the time we get back to London Derwin is already proving his point. Shiner family party in full effect, he posts, followed by Uncle Bob’s brought the homegrown. As I say, I can see why Gold Panda likes his family enough to include them in his music.
By Stuart Stubbs
Originally published in issue 22 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. October 2010