British electronic musician Derwin Schlecker, i.e. Gold Panda, got the title for his latest album from a cab driver in Japan. On a recent trip with photographer Laura Lewis to gather inspiration and field recordings, the driver said to them as they left the car: “Good luck and do your best.” Derwin immediately knew this was the album title. “It was a good motivational message,” Derwin tells me. “Positive and happy and full of good will.” On Good Luck and Do Your Best, which dropped today, Gold Panda embraces the fact that despite his intentions to make “serious, dark, techno,” he continues to record “positive, summery tunes.” On this album, he tells me, “I’ve come to accept the music I make.”
Derwin picked the name Gold Panda “pretty much out of a hat.” He combined words he liked to embrace his aesthetic, which he describes as “fuzzy and warm.” At the time, he never imagined that Gold Panda would become his career. In his late 20s, Derwin had resigned to the fact that he would spend his life working boring day jobs “that required little or no effort or thought” (he worked in a hospital parking lot and a sex shop), so that he could spend his time “thinking about the music [he] would make when [he] got home.” (His recent single “Time Eater,” which is accompanied with a stunning video directed by Ronni Shendar, expresses “sympathy for people working jobs they don’t like so they can go home and do the things they want to do.”)
But when Wichita Recordings contacted Derwin after finding him on MySpace and told him they thought he could make money from gigs and remix work, he immediately quit his day job. He left London, moved in with family in the countryside, and started making his first album, Lucky Shiner. He has been self-employed since, moving around a lot, and often living with family members to save money. Derwin recorded Good Luck and Do Your Best while living with his grandmother in Essex, a suburb north of London. He pinned up Laura’s photographs from Japan around his room to provide inspiration while he recorded.
Good Luck and Do Your Best opens with the very first recording he made on his trip with Laura, taken from the headphone socket on the plane. Unlike many electronic musicians, Derwin doesn’t use a computer. He instead manually plugs recordings into a mid-1990s digital sampler, giving his music what he calls a “rhythmic, tapping sound.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Derwin envisions the album to be listened to while traveling. With the distraction of iPhones, he tells me that “to sit quietly and look out the window has kind of lost its appeal,” which he describes as “probably the most fun thing.” As an anxious traveller, I find solace in speaking to Derwin just before I embark on a trip myself. I’m excited to listen to Good Luck and Do Your Best while looking out the window, recalling our conversation below.
ANNA DORN: So where are you now?
GOLD PANA: London. I just moved back about 2 or 3 months ago.
I was living in Essex with my grandmother before. For the past 2 years.
What’s Essex like?
Essex is suburbia. Chelmsford is the town. It’s basically like boring high street stores. There isn’t much culture or anything, it’s pretty boring. But it’s about 40 minutes from London. It’s good for making music because there’s nothing else to do.
And that’s where you made Good Luck and Do Your Best?
Yeah, I moved back from Germany and moved in with my grandmother. She has a 3-bedroom house, but it’s just her there. So I was basically looking for somewhere to live and ended up just staying. She ended up making me curries and washing all my clothes. She’s really cool. We get on really well. She’s fun to hang out with. It just ended up being somewhere I didn’t want to leave. And she didn’t want me to leave either, so it was nice.
And you also lived in Germany—what was that like?
Yeah, I lived in Berlin for a couple of years. It’s alright, I don’t mind it. It’s not my city. I know that now. I didn’t know at the time.
Why is it not your city?
I don’t like the way it looks, and that’s really important for me, visually. I find the buildings quite oppressive and the architecture difficult to get on with. I don’t know, there’s something missing there. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is. I didn’t really find what I was looking for there. I don’t know what it is. Maybe what I’m looking for doesn’t actually exist and I will just constantly keep moving around. It’s a great city, but it’s not for me. I’m quite happy to be back in London. It feels quite nice. Even though it has it’s problems, it’s still London. It’s a big mix of people from everywhere. I feel like New York and London are the only places that have that. Maybe LA a bit.
What about Tokyo? Would you live there?
No. I lived in Toyko for a year. If I lived in Japan again, I think I’d find somewhere a bit further out. I think I’d live in Chiba, which is the next prefecture over from Tokyo. Or maybe like Hiroshima or something. Somewhere there’s a bit more space and a bit more nature, where things are less hectic. Although even in Tokyo, there is an overwhelming sense of calm and zen about things. People are very aware of each other’s private space. Have you ever been to Japan?
I have. I went to Tokyo and Kyoto about a year ago. I actually went in the spring, so your song “Pink & Green” really resonates with me. And everything you’ve said… [in] interviews about the lighting in Japan, I got that. There is definitely something really magical about the light there.
Yeah it’s sort of hard to explain, but in the late afternoon it’s got these nice hues, these pastel and washed colors. It’s like a filter. I don’t know why it’s there, but everything glows a bit.
Do you have a big fan base in Japan?
I have fans, but I’m not famous or anything. I’m quite underground. There’s such a big music market there. You can get anything in Japan. It’s there, somewhere. Whether it’s music, or—I’m into buying old Japanese public telephones. I’ve got four now.
I was watching the “Time Eater” video just before I called you. It’s so pretty. I love all the quiet, beautiful moments.
Yeah. That video is by an Israeli-born artist living in Germany called Ronni Shendar. She’s made a lot of my other videos. She did the videos for “Snow & Taxis” and “Marriage.” She’s got a really good eye for still, wide, long shots of not much happening. That video, basically. I think with my music, I never dreamed of doing it as a job. But it ended up that way. And I feel a lot of guilt I guess, being able to do this and live from it when other people have to do jobs maybe they don’t want to do. I’ve been in that situation, maybe up until Gold Panda started. Up until I was 28. I was really thinking I would just work so I could do my hobby in the evenings. So I feel kind of sympathy for people doing those jobs so that they can do other things that they want to do. And that is just capturing people in those moments—I don’t know, maybe that’s their dream job—but just looking at people waiting for work to finish.
Yeah, there was that one shot with the man working in the lobby of an apartment building. I thought that scene was really powerful and relatable. That expression in his face, like “How much longer do I have to be here?”
It’s really sad. It makes me feel worse about myself. And I just hope those people have really great lives outside of work. Maybe they’re actually really happy, waiting for their day to be done so that they can go do something amazing. That would be good.
So how did Gold Panda come to be?
It was 2006. A friend of mine who was making techno passed away. He was in a group called Subhead on Tresor, a German label. He had a stroke and passed away. But he was always telling me to do music. He was a bit older than me, in his 50s. He was always saying “Oh, Derwin, you should do music. You’re really good at it.” And I would always say, “Nah, you’re good at music. That’s why you’re the one doing it live in clubs around the world.” And he was always like, “No, just go and do it. Don’t worry.”
When he passed, I was like maybe I should just give it a go. I made some tracks that all had a similar sound. I picked the name Gold Panda pretty much out of a hat. I put a bunch of words I liked and put them together. And Gold Panda I liked the best because it sounded fuzzy and warm like the music I made. And I just stuck with it. I really regret it because I hate it now.
“I just wanted to spend all day thinking about the music I would make when I got home.”
Why do you hate it?
Well I don’t hate it, but I wish I’d picked something a bit more serious. But I think that’s part of this album. I’ve always felt like I’m going to make this really serious, dark, techno album because I’m a big fan of electronic music and that’s the stuff I like. But then I end up making these melancholy, but kind of happy, positive, summery tunes. I guess on this album, I’ve come to accept the music I make and be comfortable with it. So that’s the story.
But you’d been making music before your friend passed?
Yeah. I’d been making music since I was 14. My uncle who was working in music lent me an Atari computer and a sampler with 10 seconds of sample time. I was really into hip-hop and I found out they were making hip-hop from sampling drum breaks from funk records and stuff. And I started doing that, thinking I’d make music like Puff Daddy. And then when I realized you had to pay for all these samples and I could never clear them, I started to sample smaller and smaller chunks. It was like micro-sampling. Just a second here and there, and making chords out of them.
And yeah, pretty much pursued that route. I got away from hip-hop because I couldn’t rap and I didn’t really like graffiti or beatboxing, so I was missing like three elements of hip-hop. I like hip-hop, so I was like maybe I can just put sounds that come from ’90s hip-hop in there. I’ll make something else, whatever the music is. It’s been a long journey, really. I had pretty much resigned to the fact that I would work in a sex shop or—what was the other job I did? Oh yeah, a hospital car park. It was the worst job ever. You have to pay for parking at the hospital. But obviously if your family member is dying, the last thing you’re thinking about is putting money on a machine. Then you come out and you have a parking ticket. Then I’m front [in] line to get shouted at.
I just didn’t do it. I didn’t bother. I just stayed in the little shelter watching television. And then I had to quit because it was so depressing. And it was really a job you didn’t want to do. You didn’t want to give someone a ticket in a hospital car park—but you had to. I’ve done a lot of bad jobs. I just did ones that required little or no effort or thought because I didn’t want any responsibility. I just wanted to spend all day thinking about the music I would make when I got home.
When were you able to support yourself entirely from music? Was it after the first record?
Yeah. When I made that record, I moved to my aunt and uncle’s house in the countryside. I made the first record in a couple of weeks. And I didn’t really have anywhere to live. I packed up my stuff—I was living in London. As soon as I got in contact with Wichita Recordings, who picked me up from Myspace, they said, “We can get you get gigs and remix work.” As soon as I heard I could make any bit of money, I quit my job at the sex shop and then moved out of my flat. I moved in with family and started making a record. Making tracks and playing live. You start doing gigs for nothing—50 quid, a couple of free beers, a favor for someone. It went from there. In 2010, I was self-employed and making decent money. Just from shows, really.
Do you like playing live?
Um, I’m starting to accept it’s what I need to do to earn a living. I enjoy it if it’s good. But there are so many factors that affect whether show is good or bad. It can be the weather or the local football team lost. It’s difficult. It’s like a necessary evil. It’s not really evil, but it’s something I’d rather not do it if I can help it. A lot of it has to do with self-confidence. Charging people money to see me play live. But what’s live with electronic music?
I guess I want to do everything the best—to the best of my ability. With equipment restrictions and luggage restrictions and money restrictions, you have to decide what you’re going to do to perform and what your live set will be. And how you will keep it true to what you’re doing. I don’t want to be up on stage with loads of lights and fireworks and a big visual set up because I don’t think that would be very honest. So I’ve kept away from that kind of “let’s get a big lighting rig and we have all these amazing graphics.” That wouldn’t be sincere. It would be more like spinning money out of live shows.
“I think to sit quietly and look out the window has kind of lost its appeal. Which is kind of sad because it’s probably the most fun thing.”
What’s your ideal live show?
In a small, sweaty pub or club with people close to my equipment so they can see what I’m doing. Small, really, like 200 people. That’s more fun.
I like going to those type of shows best. Like an intimate vibe.
I think it’s difficult when you’re performing electronic music. Do you make it sound really good and do less? Or do you do a lot more and maybe the sound will suffer because you’re trying to trigger certain things live, improvise or whatever? It all depends on the kind of music you’re doing. I don’t make music that’s for sound systems. So I can get away with playing small bars.
Do you envision Good Luck and Try Your Best to be listened to in a certain way?
I guess while traveling, because that’s how I think of my music. I’m always inspired by travels to Japan. On the last couple of trips, I went with the photographer Laura Lewis. She took so many photos and I pinned them up along the room when I’m making the record. Even without music, there are so many other things to do now when you’re traveling, with your phone or whatever. I think to sit quietly and look out the window has kind of lost its appeal. Which is kind of sad because it’s probably the most fun thing. You forget about it when you’re constantly checking your phone or whatever. Recently I’ve been thinking—I do listen to music on my phone when I’m traveling. I went out for a walk this morning, and I was getting some texts coming through. I was thinking maybe I should get something that’s just for music and leave my phone at home when I walk. Even though I can do airplane mode or whatever, it just feels like to have something that doesn’t have the ability to do other things so you can just concentrate on one thing it would be better.
What are your music go-tos?
Currently, Tim Hecker. SMD—they make very glitchy, methodical, structured, mathematical, kind of minimal electronica stuff. Um, Frank Sinatra. Sting. Anything really. There isn’t any genre. There is good music everywhere, you just have to seek it out. I make electronic music because that’s basically what I grew up doing. I’m not a house music geek. I don’t have a special subject. Just general appreciation for music. I like albums. I won’t necessarily follow one artist throughout their entire career.
What are some favorite all-time albums?
Kate Bush, Hounds of Love. Manitoba [now Caribou], Start Breaking My Heart. Mobb Deep, Hell On Earth. Janet Jackson, Rhythm Nation. Get Up Kids, Something to Write Home About.
They all get you at different times in your life. That’s the thing, it grabs you at a certain moment in your life, and you can always reference back to that time.
On your recent trips to Japan with Laura Lewis, did you go with the intention of getting inspiration for this album, or did it just sort of happen that way?
It was to be inspired, really. Because I didn’t know if I wanted to make another record. My idea was just to do field recordings to get inspired. And get someone to photograph the visual side of Japan. When we got back, we decided to make a book and give away the field recordings, but that didn’t happen and I ended up using the very first recording from the headphone socket on the plane. That ended up being the start of “Metal Bird” [the album’s first track]. I just needed somewhere to start, really. It ended up depressing me uncontrollably—making another Gold Panda album. But we’re still doing the book, and that should be out in the summer sometime. But the initial idea was just to go and have a good time and document things about Japan, and trying to find the equivalent of Chelmsford in Essex in Japan. What’s boring suburbia to a Japanese person?
Did you find it?
Yeah, I guess so. But it’s always amazing. I’m not Japanese, so I’m looking at it in a different way. I’m appreciating it differently.
So the book no longer has an audio component?
No, I’m not sure. We just got the tester back. It’s a small selection of the photos Laura took. About 150 photos of Laura’s work. The book is coming out in the summer. It’s called Good Luck and Do Your Best. We’re self-publishing it. We’ll find a distributor and make it more of a stand-alone thing. If people want the book and not the album, fine. If people want the album and not the book, fine. I like books. I like the idea of a photo book being its own thing. It looks amazing. It’s pink.
I read that Good Luck and Do Your Best was something a Japanese cab driver said to you. What was it about the message that stuck with you and made you decide to use it for your album cover?
It was a good motivational message. Positive and happy and full of good will. I thought that’s what I needed. I ended up making a happy album. I’m struggling with depression constantly, and trying to be positive about stuff. I had a mate who fell into a really bad period of depression, I tried to help him out and stuff. I wanted to do something happy and positive: “It’s gonna be alright, mate.” That kind of thing. That was it, really. It just caught me off guard a bit. A native speaker wouldn’t say, “Good luck and do your best.” It was just a nice mix of good wishes. It just worked out really nicely and I thought, “That’s the album title.” And then you have something to warm up with. I always have a vague idea of what I want to do before I start. But you have to go down all the other avenues to find the route you wanna take. Then you circle around to the original idea. And by that time you have an album done.
The press release says this album has a “warmer palette.” Was that something that you went in wanting to do?
I think in listening to music I’ve made, what really works is the warmer sound. I think a lot of music is quite harsh these days. The sound is mastered to be imposing and hit you in the face. I don’t really like that. I wanted something warm and that you could get lost in. It wasn’t mastered really loud. You can just [let] the record play and it wouldn’t try to kick the door down. It would just be there, a reassuring sound. It also comes from the equipment I used. My sound palette choices this time were more refined and minimal, stripped down a lot more so I concentrated on a few elements instead of trying to layer sounds on sounds.
I read that you said the sounds on this album aren’t popping out against each other?
I don’t know. I don’t know where that came from. I was like, “Did I say that?” I think it’s more that I’m happier with the sound choices. It goes together better than previous records. It’s more of a record, more of an album than the others. This one feels more refined. There’s no fluff. There’s no odd ends. There’s 10 real tracks that have a beginning, middle, and end. And then one which is just me playing a keyboard. So it’s more rounded.
Is that “Unthank” that you just referred to? I love that one.
I just made a sound on a keyboard and I wanted to use it for something with the idea of going back later with the idea of using it on a track. But then it just sounded finished in a way. That’s how all the music I make works out. Tracks where I sit down and think, “I’m going to write this,” are really forced and contrived and they never work and never get released. They’re over-thought and they’re not natural. They’re overly rational.
Tracks like “Pink & Green,” “Song for Dead Friend”—they’re just me making tracks very quickly with a series of sequences and then pressing record, and then jamming, and listening. I’ll go, “That’s okay, it’s full of mistakes,” with the idea going back with idea of changing the mistakes, but then don’t go back, and they get released. They’re always the best ones. I think about the music I want to make. I spend a long time thinking about it—“If I do this, if I do that, it’ll be amazing.” Those ones never ever work. Everything on this album—actually all the tracks I release—are made very quickly. In a day or less.
“Music helps to relieve my depression. It’s very cathartic… it’s just something I have to do.”
I hear a lot of musicians say that the tracks they like the best or that are the best received are ones they made really quickly. But I feel like all that time you spend over-thinking and being really technical, you must bring some of that with you when you make the quick hits. It’s all part of the process.
Yeah, it’s like rehearsing. It’s trial and error. You spend a day trying to make a track you really like, but then you realize it’s terrible. But then the next time you have the same kick-drum, slightly different, and it works. Or you find a way of doing something, but you don’t do it because it’s annoying you. And the next time you approach it in a different way. I feel a lot of electronic music is just picking equipment you want to use or things you want to use to make a record. For me at least, I don’t really use a laptop.
What equipment do you use?
I use an Akai MPC 2000XL. So like a mid-’90s digital sampler. It has drum pads on it. You can assign sounds to 16 buttons and tap them in. I guess that’s why my music has some kind of rhythmic, tapping sound to it. It’s because I’ve actually played the notes in physically. But “Song For a Dead Friend” was made using a couple of synthesizers. Electronic music is about picking things you want to use and working out how you want to use them in a way that will give you a result you’re happy with. And just experimenting.
I’m glad you mentioned “Song For A Dead Friend” because that was one of my favorites on the album.
That is for my friend who was always very positive about me doing music who passed away.
The friend you mentioned earlier?
Yeah. He was always telling me to do music. I wanted to dedicate something to him. He was always so positive. I feel bad about not being positive or feeling down about my music, or not wanting to do a show. But I’m starting to realize that that’s just me and I’m not him. I think he would have liked that tune. Unfortunately, I lost another friend who also struggled with depression. It’s not dedicated to him because it was made before he died. He was thanked on the album.
It’s just sad to lose someone to this kind of mental struggle that a lot of people go through and some people can’t deal with. It’s really hard to diagnose. It’s really hard to cure. There’s no real way to deal with depression, I guess. It affects so many people. I feel like the title is a bit—I don’t want his parents to think it’s dedicated to him. Because it was very recent. It was just a complete coincidence. So I need to actually talk to them about that. Because he’s named in the thanks. It’s a bit of a stupid title to pick. Whereas my other friend would have thought it was funny, and that was a long time ago, and he didn’t commit suicide. It’s an unfortunate coincidence.
You’ve mentioned your own depression a few times. Do you find making music cathartic?
Yeah, I mean I get depressed a lot. It’s an ongoing thing. Music helps to relieve my depression. It’s very cathartic. Being creative, making things, drawing. Anything to make me feel like—I don’t know why I make music, it’s just something I have to do. And I feel like I’m going crazy if I don’t do it. And if it wasn’t Gold Panda, it wouldn’t bother me because I’d still be doing music for the people whether they were listening or not. And I feel like Gold Panda is just a type of music that I make. It’s become its own entity. So I pick tracks that fit. And maybe it’s wrong to do that. But I feel like it’s right to pursue Gold Panda as having a certain aesthetic.
Have you thought about doing a different project under a new moniker?
I have, yeah. And it probably will happen. I don’t know if I should just give it to Gold Panda because I’ve worked hard to build up this career. But the success of Gold Panda has been quite reassuring. It makes me feel like I can do other things. I just have to do it. I think a lot of art is just doing it. Everyone can say “oh, I can do that” about a lot of things. But the point is just doing it.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Photos by Laura Lewis.