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Gold Panda’s outsider sound hits big

Gold Panda is an electronic music producer whose art and life are built around staying small-scale and out of the limelight. Gold Panda/Courtesy of Gold Panda

The quasi-instrumental genre known as “electronic music” has flourished through interrelated subcultures since the 1970s, when it reshaped everything about the disco boom. Since then, however, its mechanized flow has rarely spilled into mainstream American consciousness as it has this decade.

These days, TV comedians joke about the fractured industrial assault of dubstep, newspapers chronicle the latest spike in the electronic scene’s chronic drug problem, and, according to The New Yorker, giant Las Vegas resorts have recently discovered that booking big-name electronic DJs is more lucrative than running slot machines.

This cultural explosion has even swept up an electronic music producer whose art and life are built around remaining small scale, provisional, and out of the limelight. Billing himself as Gold Panda and referring to himself only by a first name, Derwin, this reserved, Berlin-based Englishman performs at the Sinclair on Thursday, touring on a new album largely inspired by the unlikely popularity of its predecessor, Gold Panda’s 2010 debut “Lucky Shiner.”

“Yeah, it’s partly ironic at the moment,” Derwin says by cellphone while traveling from Seattle to Boise, Idaho. “I felt like I got lucky because it happened early on in the reemergence of electronic music, I guess — or the explosion, especially in America.”


With what sounds like a bemused shrug, Derwin admits that his shows in the States have been “really busy all the time,” like his stop the night before in Seattle, where he performed as part of the six-day Decibel Festival, an electronic music showcase that a decade ago attracted 2,500 fans. This year it reportedly drew 250,000.

“It seems to me that rock has lost its luster to young people,” says Dave Segal, music writer for Seattle’s weekly newspaper The Stranger and an electronic music producer himself. “Rock has been dominant for so many decades, and maybe they equate it with their parents’ music. They just want to rebel against that.”


“I find it slightly weird, but also I really appreciate it,” Derwin says of his younger fans’ adulation (Derwin was born in 1980). “And if it all goes wrong, and no one likes my music anymore, I’ll just keep making it for myself.”

“Lucky Shiner” was certainly made without success in mind — Derwin recorded it while dog sitting for his aunt, using his cellphone to record certain sound effects. By then, however, Gold Panda had already won the attention of the lauded electronic music label Ghostly International, whose founder, Samuel Valenti IV, approached Derwin. “I think he liked being chatted up,” Valenti writes in an e-mail exchange.

“Lucky Shiner” went on to win the Guardian’s annual First Album award, for the year’s best debut CD. The disc is like a downsized and downgraded version of today’s electronic dance music, made by shellshocked technophiles after some global calamity, trying to soothe themselves with their half-functioning electronic detritus.

The opening track, “You,” instantly hooks the listener around a cute and catchy one-note syncopated sound effect. Subsequent tracks aren’t as catchy, but just as warm and human-scaled, whether they’re working a house beat or an acoustic guitar strum.

The new album features a narrower range of textures, but a much broader concept. Entitled “Half of Where You Live,” the disc was made over the course of Derwin’s global tour for “Lucky Shiner.” He chose the title early on, in part because the music offers a guide to places like “Brazil” (a song title), mediated by the cultural displacement that all casual tourists feel.


“I wasn’t seeing the full picture of places I was going, I thought,” Derwin says. “And I was just making my opinion, naively on, yeah, half — not even half, but I liked the title, so there you go.”

The opening track, “Junk City II,” begins by softly recalling the Western conception of “Oriental” music — Chinese sailboats are called “junks,” after all — an effect instantly interrupted by chintzy pinging, like from some 1980s Atari game. Then it all joins together into a quick synchronized groove.

The effect could be overly tongue-in-cerebellum if it weren’t also overlain with a veneer of melancholy. That mood forms the core of Gold Panda’s outsider aesthetic, no matter how popular his music gets.

“It doesn’t matter how successful in the world you are, or how well things are going, you can’t overcome certain elements in your brain that make you feel a certain way,” he explains. “And I’ve just learned to deal with it better.”

“Anyone who is grasping the world at an artistic level like him is prone to lots of feels,” Valenti writes. “Artists see the future, and the future ain’t always easy to see when you’re in a van or the midst of a Berlin winter. I think he does a fine job.”

Franklin Soults can be reached at fsoults@gmail.com.