[tabs tab1=”Intro” tab2=”Japan” tab3=”Industry” tab4=”Tour & Music” tab5=”Message” count=”5″]
SHATTERJAPAN catches up with Derwin of GOLD PANDA in Shinjuku at the Tokyo offices of major entertainment company YOSHIMOTO KOGYO. Our interview is held in a small conference room, and upon entering I’m met by a table littered with empty packets of (fittingly) Panda Pocky and Calbee snacks. Derwin is seated behind, unassuming and smiling, and apologizing for having his laptop on the table to keep in touch with his girlfriend. After a quick chat about shopping in Harajuku, we get down to the business of life in Japan, anime and electronic music.
Welcome back to Tokyo! How does it feel to be here again?
It’s always good to be back! I just feel like I don’t see enough of Japan when I’m here though. I always just see Shibuya – it’s good, but I end up just drinking.
You used to live here – when was that?
I don’t even remember the exact date now, but it was maybe 2004. I came here on a working holiday, but couldn’t really find anything that I wanted to do so ended up teaching English – I did “eikaiwa” companies and stuff… I don’t know anything about English, I was just teaching to fund my travels, but then I didn’t travel so it just went towards funding “izakayas” (traditional Japanese pubs) and that was it really. When I went back to the UK, I went to university in London and studied Japanese – I did it completely the wrong way around.
I live in Berlin now, so I’ve been trying to learn German. I made an effort for a while taking classes, because I thought it’d be really easy after Japanese, that I’d just pick it up, but I think as you get older you have to really sit down and study. Because I had such an interest in Japan, I had a desire to learn the language, but with German I don’t have any, other than to help me with my daily life.
What spurred your love of Japan in the first place?
Ah, that was manga, well anime – “AKIRA” mainly. That was the main thing for a lot of people I think, especially in the UK, because we only had about four films for ages, like “AKIRA” and “FIST OF THE NORTH STAR.” I can’t remember what the other ones were. That was all there was, and I wanted to find out more. I must’ve been 12 when I saw “Akira” – I was like, “Why aren’t all cartoons like this?!” I was watching “Dogtanion.”
Has your time in Japan influenced you?
Yeah, it’s definitely influenced me musically – the atmosphere and certain sounds have definitely come out in my music as a result of being in Japan.
I don’t know about personality-wise. It’s probably harder to see that now. I think when I was here for a year, I got annoyed that people sometimes weren’t straight with me, that they didn’t say what they were really thinking – whether they actually wanted to have a beer with me or if they were just being polite. But, I eventually found out who my friends were. It was difficult. Especially let’s say 10 years ago, it was – and it still is maybe – a novelty to be a foreigner or to have a gaijin friend. It can be quite weird for some people.
Would you ever consider coming back to Japan to live and operate from here?
Yeah! I wouldn’t mind. I’ve never been to Kyushu – I should really go. I’d like to do maybe 6 months or something – that would be cool – and not do shows, just come here to do something else, travel around and see places that I’ve wanted to see but have never seen.
But for touring, it would be so difficult… I don’t think I could live here for a long period of time, because there are so many shows and opportunities to do shows in Europe. Here, no-one’s going to pay for a flight for me from Tokyo or Osaka. Whereas if I’m based in Berlin, it’s easier for me to just go and do Italy or Switzerland on a Friday or Saturday night and be home by Sunday morning.
Touring is a priority because it’s the only way for me to make money. I’m not forced to do it, I could get a job I guess, but you do expose new people to your music all the time by doing it, and yeah that’s my main source of income. I do make money from selling music and it being played on radio stations around the world or whatever, but it’s not enough to live on. Maybe like 20 years ago, I would’ve made a lot more, but not now.
How did you get into music in the first place?
My uncle was making music – he was a producer – and when I was 15, he gave me an Atari and a sampler that had 10 seconds of sample time. I was really into hip hop, so I started sampling my dad’s records with no idea what I was doing. Then I got more and more into it. I had friends who were really into hip hop, and they’d buy all the rare funk records that were basically responsible for a lot of hip hop in the 90s. I couldn’t afford any of those records, so I just went to thrift stores and charity shops and bought used records, really bad stuff. But in turn, I found my own way of making music, using samples that were less obvious and more treated, I guess, with equipment.
Yeah it just went on from there, really. I never had the confidence to send music to anyone or send demos out, and then I was saved by Myspace. You could just upload your music to the Internet, and you could kind of create your own page for people to see. I don’t know what would’ve happened otherwise. I can definitely thank my Myspace page for my current state, because that’s how I was contacted by management and labels.
There was definitely a Myspace golden age where labels were like, “We don’t have to go through demos anymore, we’ll just go online! If they’ve got loads of views, it’s like guaranteed success.” I think Myspace had its time but now it’s gone. I mean there’s SoundCloud and Bandcamp, but I think labels are less interested because people can generate money now themselves. Labels want to generate money for you and take a percentage.
How do you feel about the state of the music industry now, particularly with the dominance of the Internet?
The Internet is like its own worst enemy in a way. Everyone loves it until they want to make some money from it and find out they can’t. It doesn’t devalue music, but there’s so much out there, it’s hard to know where you should be listening or putting your money if you need to. I don’t know, I don’t buy digital music, and I don’t download it for free either, so I guess I’m not really in the argument.
I buy vinyl, like old records, to sample and make music, but I also enjoy records – I’ve always loved buying vinyl, so now I’ve got an excuse to buy more vinyl, to make more music, and at the same time I can buy new records by people I like. I’m just terrible with digital music because I was into physical copies so much. Maybe if I was 10 years younger, I’d just have everything on a hard drive but I like to have something physical – I still buy VHS.
How has the UK industry changed since you were getting established?
There are definitely more people in hoodies pressing buttons on stage and not doing much, which I’m partly responsible for. I think I got lucky because it was at a point where electronic music became popular again, because rock music and bands got boring in the UK, so I was definitely lucky there. I think UK dance music is super interesting and has really good stuff, but unfortunately with the Internet, there’s another 200 versions of Burial every week which you have to sift through, so that’s not so good. But there’s always someone doing something interesting that attempts to push dance music as a whole in a certain direction – I think we can be proud of that.
You’ve been touring pretty extensively recently, how’s that been going?
Good, I’ve just done New Zealand and Australia, Singapore on the way here. I guess you can’t really call it one big tour, because I’ve not been going from one place to another – I get to go home in the middle for a week or so. But it does end up pretty much feeling like you’re doing it all the time because there are so many weekend shows. So if you fly out on a Thursday morning, then you play Friday, Saturday and you’re back on Sunday, every week. If you tour a country like America you have to stay there a whole month… it gets pretty knackering.
Any specific challenges or highlights?
Melbourne was good. There are highlights and low points all the time, and they happen so often that you tend to forget or it just gets mashed into one memory. Mexico was pretty bad, the show was great but it was my first show with a new setup, and everyone’s like, “Oh, we’ve got this show for you in Mexico, so just go there and practise.” I get there, and it’s like 4000 people in a field, and it was just a mess because I hadn’t practiced properly. But also at the same time, I was able to find out what the problems were and go on with it. My live set’s forever changing, so I’m never set with just one setup – there are always new machines.
A particular high point? Playing on a beach to 50 people in the Philippines in an electrical storm with water coming down… and then playing in Detroit on a massive stage in front of like 7000 people at a festival called Movement, and you can see Canada across the water from the stage.
I prefer smaller gigs, like 200-500 capacity. Anything more, especially anything over 1000 gets lost, I think, because I’m not an artist that has a huge visual element, so I can’t rely on that to entertain people, and if the venue’s too big, people can’t see what you’re doing and in turn they think that the music should be almost like a DJ set, like really solid and danceable – it’s hard to show people that you’re playing live and not DJing. There are all these factors that affect it, so I prefer smaller gigs where it’s a bit more intimate, where people can see me and I’m at a similar level. I don’t like being on a big stage above people.
“Quitters Raga” is one of your most popular tracks. Did you have any idea that it was going to be so big? And did you produce it any differently from the others?
I solely used a laptop to make that track, which I never did before and haven’t done since, and so it’s made in a certain way that it’s just impossible to play live. The only way I do that track is just playing off the laptop. I’ve kind of given up on trying to make it live. But yeah, I had no idea it was going to be on every blog ever. Actually, in terms of success, “You” from the album afterwards was a hundred times bigger for me than “Quitter’s Raga,” which is lucky because I don’t own the sample in “Quitter’s Raga.” That’s why it’s kind of an underground thing. I never want to do the same track twice – I’ve never made a similar track and I don’t think I ever will. There are elements of it I actually do want to repeat, but I don’t want to do the same track again.
You’ve got new album “Half of Where you Live” coming out, when can we expect that?
I think it’s 5 June in Japan and 10 June in England. It’s being announced on 15 April with a lead track called Brazil. There’s another album I’m releasing here which is a collection of tracks “In Sequence” which basically all came out in America and the UK, but it’s hard to get in Japan because it’s vinyl, so we compiled it and released it here on CD, because they’re keen on CDs here.
Do you have any message of advice for upcoming producers and DJs?
Yes. Spend time perfecting what you’re doing before you go out and start doing it. Definitely! And think about what you’re doing, think about the music you’re making in terms of whether that’s the music you really want to do or if it’s just the music that’s popular at the moment. I think a lot of people make the mistake of putting their foot in something that they’re not really that much into, or they won’t be into in a few years. Especially with the whole post-dubstep future garage thing, I think people are so excited that they can make music at home on a computer, they’re not sure if they’re really into it or they really want to do it.
Oh and pick a good name – not a shit one like Gold Panda! I just put an animal and a colour together, and Gold Panda was the one that stuck. It worked out though, people like it more than I do, and I can’t change it now.