Face to face and in printed interview, the electronic musician known as Gold Panda (or his first name Derwin) exudes a shy and unassuming personality with just the softest undercurrent of deadpan sarcasm. As a self-described homebody still coming to terms with live performance, he’s often seen onstage avoiding the eyes of the audience while tucked beneath a hood and lost in the laptop glare. Yet listening to the brightly chiming beats and junk shop’s worth of his samples on his debut album Lucky Shiner or healthy smattering of EPs, singles and remixes, he radiates a vibrant spectrum of sounds often lacking in the steely minimalism of his peers. It’s kind of like your quiet co-worker tossing off his glasses and throwing down a Freddie Mercury falsetto at the karaoke bar when you least expect it. We met up with Derwin in the dusty alley behind Metropolis for an impromptu chat and windswept photo shoot.
Texture Magazine: I’ve heard that you started out making music on an Amiga video game system and a sampler. Do you remember any games in specific that you were playing back then? And were you inspired by the music in the games?
Gold Panda: It was an Atari that I made music on actually, though I did have an Amiga as well. What was I playing? I played Cannon Fodder and another one called Moonstone. That was the one where you go around chopping people’s heads off and fighting tree monsters, while you try to find a stone or something. A moonstone, I guess. Some of the music in those games inspired me, but it was actually the console itself that I was interested in, along with the Super Nintendo. I played a lot of Streets of Rage and I was always a big fan of Street Fighter. The music in the Mario games was always good too.
You’ve also mentioned in the past how your music is very visual, inspired by different settings, images and environments, yet here at Mutek you’re playing without any kind of visual accompaniment. Would you rather have listeners create their own interpretations?
I’ve had visuals on tour in the past, though I’ve heard people say it takes away from the music if you have something to watch. It’s more like a film that way. I’d like to work with visuals more, but I don’t really know what I’m doing on my own, so it’d be good to collaborate with someone else. I don’t have anything this time though, so people won’t have that to complain about at least (laughs).
You’ve given lots of nods to the Raster-Noton label, which many people consider to be cold and calculated quote unquote “computer music.” Conversely, I’ve always thought the music you make is much brighter, with an emotional and very human undercurrent. What is about music on the opposite end of the spectrum that interests you?
It’s mainly because I can’t make that music, and don’t even really understand how it’s made. That’s interesting to me. Any music that leaves you wondering how it’s done, I find really clever. I like Alva Noto, I like that Frank Bretschneider guy, and they also signed this guy named Grischa Lichtenberger who’s pretty crazy. Everything on that label is interesting, whether it’s digestible or not. It’s often pretty difficult, but it always seems to work somehow.
One other thing I’ve read is that you dislike performing live. Is that still the case?
I just don’t feel comfortable, I guess. Before I started playing live, I was making music in my room and just staring at the wall. Even now I don’t really look at the crowd much. It’s weird with electronic music, but I feel a bit better about playing Mutek because there are more people with laptops. The last time I was in Montreal I was supporting the L.A. band Health, and that was kind of hard. As soon as you come onstage without a guitar and just some machines, people get scared or something. Other times you totally win people over though, which is great. The best part about playing with a laptop is that you don’t have to worry about luggage. It’d be more fun to bring all my favourite samplers with me, but also much more stressful.
Your music is primarily based on samples, and you’ve mentioned digging through record shops and flea markets to find interesting source materials. Do you find yourself listening to the music you sample, or is it more just a hunt for interesting sounds?
It’s a bit of both. Sometimes I find a record that’s just terrible, but it’ll have really good sounds on it. In that case, I won’t really listen to it more than once, but at least it’s entertaining. In other times, I’ll find something great that I don’t want to sample because it’s just too good and I feel like I’d ruin it.
What’s the craziest record you’ve ever found through digging?
I’ve got some religious records that are pretty cool. They’ve got stories about things like a guy smoking a spliff, climbing up a three-story building and falling to his death, that sort of thing. Sometimes it gets even more extreme, like a guy cutting up his dog and eating it raw! (laughs) It’s actually frustrating though because when I’m traveling I’ll often pop into record shops and find something crazy but then realize I have no way of carrying it with me. Someone should start a service for musicians where they can buy records and then just ship them home. As it is, I try to avoid record shops on the road.
Last question: It’s fairly well known that you used to work in a sex shop, and you’ve also spoken of making films, comics and other various media. Have you ever thought about chronicling your seedy stories from behind the counter in one of those formats?
Not really, and I’d actually rather leave those days behind. It was a low point in my life. I should have documented it at the time though. I do have a CV that someone who wanted to work there handed in. The store is called Harmony and they actually do their own pornos. They have auditions, so this guy listed off all the things he was good at, one of which was ‘sensual muff diving.’ I should find that actually, block out the name and email address, and post it up somewhere. It’s brilliant.