Q&A: Gold Panda Talks About His New Record, The Trouble With Playing Live, And Having Realistic Expectations About Life In The Music Business
It’s been three years since Gold Panda released Lucky Shiner – a sparkly debut album that showed off the British producer’s uncanny ability to bend and twist samples in ways that were both forward-thinking and somehow nostalgic (which makes sense since the album was apparently named after his grandmother). While Lucky Shiner made for something of an insular listening experience, the new Gold Panda record, Half of Where You Live, seems to reflect the producer’s experience of essentially touring the world for the better part of three years. Tracks like “Berlin” (the album’s first single) and “Enoshima” explore a kind of wanderlust that seems to permeate the record, which is full of sounds and snippets Gold Panda collected on his various global adventures. I called him up in Berlin to find out more about how the new album came to be.
STEREOGUM: Are you somewhere in Germany?
GOLD PANDA: Yeah, I’m in Berlin. I’m living here at the moment. It’s been two years actually.
STEREOGUM: Berlin seems to be the place right now. So many New Yorkers I know have migrated to Berlin over the past couple of years.
GOLD PANDA: Yeah, its ’cause it’s cheap and it has all the things people want from a city, I guess. The rent is cheap and fair – well it was – I think it’s steadily increasing. There are a lot of new start up companies here and lots of party things to do. I guess it’s good spot for creative people. There is a good energy here right now.
STEREOGUM: Do you have a studio there?
GOLD PANDA: I just have a room in my flat that’s got all my stuff in it. Not just studio stuff, but all my books and my Xbox and everything.
STEREOGUM: It’s hard to believe it’s been three years since Lucky Shiner came out. It seems like just the other day for some reason. Why the long gap in between releases?
GOLD PANDA: Well mainly I was just touring the last record for so long. I just got tons of gig offers and sort of just took them without thinking about how that would affect my creative process, especially because I don’t record on the road and I’m not really able to write anything when I’m traveling. I don’t really think about it and then two years fly by. So, I took time off to write a new record, but then people wanted me to tour the last one a little more so I just kind of carried on. I don’t think the new record actually took that long to make, I just spent a lot of time not doing it. I think most of the record was done over the course of last year – from January of 2012 to January of this year. I make a lot of music and the last one I did really quickly – like, in three weeks. For this one I wanted to wait until I had tracks that sounded like they really really went together and yeah, I feel a lot more … a lot happier with this album as a whole. I know there’s no huge track like “You” on it, but that was kind of the point. I felt a lot of pressure to do tracks that weren’t maybe as popular – or as pop – as the old stuff, and once I got over the fact that I couldn’t physically or mentally do that music again because I’d already done it – and there’s no point trying to please other people – it got kind of easy. But it took me a while to get over the fact that the last record did so well, and that people were paying attention to my music. I realized that I shouldn’t worry about it and just carry on and do the music I want to do.
STEREOGUM: That’s an interesting phenomenon. I guess some people would say it’s a good problem to have, but success can really be a weird thing. People always talk about the sophomore slump, but it is a real phenomenon. It can really trip you up when it comes to making album number two. Were you surprised by the reaction to Lucky Shiner?
GOLD PANDA: Definitely, because I never actually intended to release my music. Some people found me on MySpace and said, “We think this music is good, why don’t you come and meet us,” and that turned out to be the Witchita label in the UK. Things just took off from there really. When I made that album I thought, “Oh god this album’s stupid, it’s not very clever electronic music. It’s just the basics, it’s like a pop version of all the music I like.” I don’t know how to explain it, but a friend of mind said something like, “It’s like a more pop version of all the crap you listen to!” or something like that. But it worked out in my favor really, and people really took to it. People I’d never dream of meeting or liking my music ended up saying they did and it still happens now … so I’m really grateful.
STEREOGUM: This record is very obviously influenced by all of your travels.
GOLD PANDA: Yeah, well I basically did nothing else for the past couple of years … so I didn’t have anything else to write about!
STEREOGUM: How does that work for you not writing on the road? Do you just sort of stock pile little ideas for later use?
GOLD PANDA: Yeah whenever I get home, I put on old records and make a little loop, sometimes I’ll make a track on the spot and other times I’ll kind of save something and come back to it when I’m done doing shows and make the track then. I tend to kind of find sounds I like and then not use them right away … and then I get really excited about coming home and finding all these samples I had previously found and saved. I make notes – like, little post-it notes – for future records. Usually when I make a track I start with a blank. I know people who have big folders of sounds they come back and revisit over and over, but I don’t do that. I try to make every song from scratch. But not writing on the road has its downsides, because I guess … well maybe it’s good because it means I don’t end up making any old shit and just releasing it. If I want to change the live set I have to go home and make the track. I can’t just knock something up for tonight’s show, which is kind of cool really. I’m happy being limited. I don’t like the amount of choice I can have with a laptop. I like the limits of music making equipment.
STEREOGUM: Well, for people who’ve never seen you play what is your current live setup?
GOLD PANDA: Well for Lucky Shiner it was basically a drum machine, a sequencer controlling Ableton, and maybe a loop pedal. I’d basically get little loops and expand them and then record stuff as I’m playing and then remove that last little recorded bit and add a drum part here or there. I was feeling really restricted with the laptop, but because I never intended playing live, that was my go to way for doing it. It’s easy, just put all the sounds in there and then tour it. But I really wanted to get away from that and I went back to a machine I was really more comfortable with. I kept the MPC-1000, which has been my main part of my live set and that was doing all the sequencing and the melodies, and that’s synchronized with two other drum machines. One is a Korg which has all my home made drum sounds, and another one is a clone of an 808 drum machine – like the classic 808 – and I chose that because it’s made by German company called MSB and because it costs about 250 dollars. It’s easy and replaceable and it’s size is the palm of my hand, basically. So I’ve got three machines synchronized, running, and I can record stuff while they’re playing and take drums out and it all goes through a 12 channel mixing desk where I’ve got 12 sounds running and I can fade them in and out, mute them, change the EQ of each thing and change the effect. And then I’ve got a delay pedal as well. I’m looking to get two more pedals – one for delay and one for filtering. So it’s just kind of a work in progress lately. I want to get away from the laptop because I’m not really confident with computers and I thought the way I perform should represent the way I make music at home. I’m still using a laptop at the moment because I’m in this weird transition phase and I’m trying to find a polyphonic synthesizer that isn’t huge that I can run easily, but the laptop can easily synthesize stuff at the moment.
STEREOGUM: So the bulk of the new record was made the same way you made the first one?
GOLD PANDA: Yeah, well with equipment it was just one machine — which was an Akon MPC 2000 XL — and I’ve had that machine since I was 19, well over 10 years. And I wanted to use the 808 drum machine because I’d always wanted one, but they became very expensive and I was never able to afford it. I finally got one and I use it as much as possible. The 808 is so overly used and referred to, but you rarely hear the 808 how it sounds from the actual machine; it’s always pushed through all these compressors and fancy equipment and pushed to its limit. It sounds really great on its own. To keep up with the over compressed modern pop or hiphop sound, it’s rarely a real 808 on anything, so I wanted to use that machine how it’s intended to be used I guess. And yeah, I think I only used the computer on one track, near the end, “The Most Livable City,” I made a sequence in a program called Mac MSP and then sent that sequence to some machine … so yeah. Sorry to get so technical.
STEREOGUM: The first single from the record, “Brazil,” seems obviously to be about Brazil. [laughs]
GOLD PANDA: Yeah it’s about China [laughs]
STEREOGUM: I love that you reference all these different locations. It really gives this record an interesting mix of textures. I love the stuff related to Japan. I know you spent a lot of time there. Did you study in Japan?
GOLD PANDA: Well, I studied in London and went to Japan for a year before I learned Japanese, but I taught myself a fair bit and then when I got back from Japan I didn’t know what to do so I studied Japanese in London. But I did teaching for a year and was terrible at it. [laughs] I spent all my money on beer and sushi.
STEREOGUM: What was it specifically that drew you to making songs about Japan?
GOLD PANDA: I just think Japan had a really big impact on me and my life, and after watching a lot of animation I just wanted to go there. By that point I was 19 and I’d missed the bubble of the late 80s and the subsequent collapse of the financial markets there, or what people there refer to as the good times. I was really interested in some of the stuff that came out when Tokyo was this really hedonistic city, stories of people with gold leafing on their noodles and stuff because they just had so much money. So with “Junk City” I wanted to make this song that was like this sprawling metropolis on the verge of destruction, which is probably like what most manga or anime things are about. I just made tracks that made me feel claustrophobic and were kind of dense. It’s funny because the sounds aren’t from Asian records at all, but they worked out sounding that way. I wanted to make a record that sounded like a dystopia, but through the vision of a 90s B-movie gangster. Like a Japanese b-movie, where the city’s covered in smog and there’s hookers and there’s men drinking and stuff like that.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned before that originally you never intended to release your music and now that this is your career and you’re doing it full-time. Did you ever imagine this is what your life would be like?
GOLD PANDA: No. But I’m glad it happened, because god knows what I’d be doing otherwise. I’ve had jobs but they were all crap. I never pushed myself. I always wanted to be left alone, where I could have a job that was monotonous and boring and then I could come home and make music as a hobby and have money to fund my records and stuff. Now I’m able to do my hobby and I’ve got an excuse to buy vinyl because that’s how I make my records, which is great. I’ve never really considered DJing either, but lately I’ve been thinking that if I can somehow get paid to DJ then I not only have an excuse to buy old records, but also to buy new records as well. So I’m just trying to find ways to continually fund my habit and keep my hobby going. I’m glad it worked out, but at the same time I’m totally convinced that people … there’s trends in music and people have limited careers, I mean if you look at Four Tet, he’s still going and he’s probably bigger than he’s ever been. But other times there’s people who are huge for a while and then asecond album comes out and people are like, “Eh, don’t want to be bothered anymore,” so I’m totally cool with that happening and I feel like that’s a thing in music. It can be very fickle, and I’m totally happy that I’ve done all the things I’ve done so far and I’ll happily bow out if people lose interest. I didn’t have much confidence before doing this, but now I feel like because I’ve done some decent music at this point … well what’s the worst that can happen? If people don’t like the next record and I can either do another one and keep going or I can – there’s plenty of other things I feel like I could do, like I’d like to write a book or something or do something else creative, and just have music there as my hobby. I don’t want to end up hating music. I’m quite happy if it ends. I can take it and go, “Oh whatever.”
STEREOGUM: That’s good attitude to have … I think?
GOLD PANDA: Well now I can speak, read, and write Japanese so I feel like I have something I can fall back on. I’d like to take a year out and learn Mandarin as well.
STEREOGUM: What do you anticipate the rest of this year being for you, are you already gearing up to do a lot of touring for this record?
GOLD PANDA: Yeah, I can see the rest of my calendar and it’s just shows. So until the end of the year I’m going to be just touring this record and playing shows. I’m also working with a fashion company who have approached me to design some clothes, which is really cool because I can never find any clothes I like, especially trousers or jeans. I was always really against anything combining fashion with music, but they’ve really kind of opened my eyes to a lot of things, and it’s all British based … not the brands but the manufacturing is all done there in the UK. Basically they’re offering to design clothes for me not as merchandise, but just for me to wear, just as a collaboration kind of thing … so that’s been really good. I’m also doing the No Town label which I started a while back to just release my own music, but then I ended up releasing music by other people. I think if I had known it was going to be so hard I wouldn’t have done it.
STEREOGUM: The label stuff?
GOLD PANDA: Yeah it’s just hard to get the distributors to sell your music to shops, so I’m trying to do it the old school way where I’m just like, “Give me 100 records and I’ll just go do it myself.” I’ll find out the shops and I’ll go on foot around my area and just say, “Hey do you want to buy this off me?” So I’m spending more time doing that, trying to play a bigger role.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, that can quickly become a full time pursuit.
GOLD PANDA: Yeah, at first I was just like, “Oh yeah, I’ll put my friends record out,” but then I’m like … “Oh right I actually have to do press and mailouts and send stuff to DJs.” I have to ask the shops, “Do you have this? Do you want it? Why don’t you want it?” Still, the rest of this year will be me mainly touring, but I don’t want to make the same mistake and end up touring for the next three years and not have a new record, so I’m planning on taking some time off at the end of the year — a couple months — to write some new stuff.
STEREOGUM: That’s cool. Are you coming to the states?
GOLD PANDA: Yeah, I’ve got a tour that starts, I think September the 12th, I think the first show is Atlanta and it goes till the end of November so it will be a while. We’ll just be in a van driving around the States, which is great because I love touring the States – it’s so much fun.
STEREOGUM: Do you like touring in the van?
GOLD PANDA: I’m looking forward to being in a van this time which means I can buy as many records as I like and I don’t have to worry about putting them on a plane, I think I might just take record crates with me and fill them up.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, well I think the new record sounds beautiful. I love it.
GOLD PANDA: Thanks! I didn’t … I just wanted to get over the fact that I made Lucky Shiner and I don’t have to worry about it and I don’t need to make it again. I’m a lot happier with the new record as a whole so that’s kinda weird. I’m really glad there isn’t another “You” because for me it would be pointless. I just wanted to do something real. In Berlin I listen to a lot of house music and the shops stock a lot of house. So I was listening to a lot of analog house and techno and I just really wanted to make a real nice, simple record with a few machines and just concentrate on a few elements rather than have all these new layers and be a bit more confident in the sounds I’m using.
STEREOGUM: That’s cool. I’m excited to see you play this new material.
GOLD PANDA: Yeah, it should be … well … I don’t know. I can’t beef myself up too much. I’m just a guy up there pressing buttons but it’s been going well so far.
Gold Panda’s Half Of Where You Live is out today via Nomad/Ghostly