Shopping for tat in the country that inspired Derwin Panda's latest album, and discussing whether he’ll ever make another one.
It’s midnight on Sunday in Kyoto when Gold Panda, dressed as a corn dog and with an easy flow, raps ‘Juicy’ by Biggie Smalls. Although he’d never admit it, he’s nailing it. Even the Total hook is sung in tune by the London-born, Essex-raised musician who grew up obsessed with hip-hop and fleeting rapped as RUM?ELST!LSK!N, Olivia Neutron Bomb and Kiss Akabusi. Clearly, Derwin wasn’t a teenager that took himself all that seriously, but the fact remains that tonight he sounds good.
As Japan’s thousand-year capital quietly prepares itself for another working week, he continues to sound good, too, as he croons Sinatra’s ‘That’s Life’, mock rocks ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ and duets on ‘Hollaback Girl’ with friend Miho. I murder my halves of ‘Faith’, ‘Common People’ and, devastatingly for me, ‘Panic’, but Derwin is a karaoke king, dressed as a corn dog… sometimes a sailor. Why can’t all cover features be like this?
In 1999, at the age of 19, Gold Panda flew to Tokyo for the first time in his life. By all accounts he felt prepared, having video recorded a bunch of documentaries on Japan over the preceding years, and having taught himself the basics of the language with a BBC tape pack. He arrived in August in 90% humidity to a storm of massive flying bugs that gave the city an extra dose of alien that it really doesn’t need. “Even going to the supermarket was exciting,” he remembers, which might explain his continual love for the Seven Elevens and Family Mart convenience stores that are never more than an irregular block away.
For two weeks he stayed with his friend Phil Wells – from Techno group Subhead – and techno DJ Mayuri, followed them to the Maniac Love club in Omotesando, Shibuya, and a love affair wasn’t so much born as cemented. Derwin was sure that he’d get on with Japan – how couldn’t he; they liked all the same things – Street Fighter, animation, arcade games, hip hop, house and techno. He flew back two years later for six months of the same, renting a room once more from Phil and Mayuri, working a little as a teacher – but not much – and getting hammered. “Oh well,” he says. “Maybe it was better that way.”
By October 2016, now aged 36, he’s lost count of how many times he’s flown to Tokyo. Japan has become part of him. He’s fluent in the language, has a wealth of friends here – including some that he met on his very first trip in ’99 – and his latest, third album, ‘Good Luck And Do Your Best’, was directly inspired by a 2015 visit with his girlfriend – photographer Laura Lewis. Together they’ve just released a book of Laura’s photographs from that time; the field recordings that were supposed to act as its soundtrack ended up becoming ‘Good Luck And Do You’re Best’.
As guides to Japan go, then, and having never been myself, Derwin is the perfect host, who I’ve gotten to know since the release of his debut album, ‘Lucky Shiner’, the ambient techno sleeper hit of 2010. Over five days we’ll travel from Osaka to Kyoto to Tokyo, for three shows – perhaps the last he’ll ever play here as Gold Panda.