Sri Lankan born Londoner Suren Seneviratne, better known to us as My Panda Shall Fly, is a musician whose output is as diverse as it is eclectic, as he consistently produces some of the most interesting and engaging music of recent times. We caught up with him to chat about why he’d rather listen to old music over new stuff, his latest EP on Project Mooncircle, what he was doing in Booths & Hawkes, the world’s largest specialist library music archive, and a whole load more besides.
What are you earliest memories of music?
I imagine it was a lot of traditional/popular music that my family would have been listening to in the late 1980’s / early 1990’s. This will have primarily been a mix of Singhalese folk music and modern Baila hits of the time.
My earliest memories of discovering a sound out of my own accord was UK Garage, which had been bubbling along for a few years towards the end of the 1990’s until it really exploded worldwide by the turn of the millennium. Living in South London at the time – where genre-defying artists So Solid Crew, among others, lived and pirate radio transmission was readily available at every turn of the radio dial – it was difficult to escape the sound, lifestyle and culture of UK Garage.
Why do you think it captivated you so much?
There wasn’t much for kids my age to do back then after school. As I wasn’t interested in sports or extra-curricular study, the idea of learning to DJ and make music appealed to me in an instant.
How did you get into DJing?
Like most of my pals at the time, we looked up to our UK Garage idols and wanted to imitate them. The sound of UK Garage was also very authentic and something that, as Londoners, we could call our own. By managing our pocket money well, we were able to save up to buy records and turntables. Sooner or later, between ourselves we’d have amassed a tasty collection of ‘white label’ records which we’d attempt to mix in our bedrooms. I didn’t actually own a pair of turntables till I was much older, in my late teens, but I was always at my friend DJ PMD’s house practising whenever possible. I owe a lot to him!
How did you get into producing your own music?
I had never learnt music in a traditional sense before, nor did I really have an interest to. I loved the idea of just using my ears to create music that sound good to me. So the idea of using a computer to create music was the most exciting and creative hobby I had discovered at the time that I knew I would want to pursue for a long time to come.
What type of stuff were you making during your first forays into music production? Does any of it still retain an over-reaching influence on the music you make these days?
During my early teens I was trying to emulate the music I was being exposed to on pirate radio and mix-tape compilations like Garage Nation, Twice As Nice and Sidewinder, but a recent realisation into why my music might be so weird and unconventional might be the fact that I couldn’t authentically replicate the UK Garage sound back when I began, and therefore I think I just accepted that I made my own thing and learnt to love it for what it is. I would like to think fragments of the UK Garage aesthetic still make their way into the music I write today, but wouldn’t wish for it be contrived.
How has your production style evolved over the years?
I couldn’t pinpoint this very accurately without borrowing another pair of ears and brain, but as I’ve learnt more and experimented with various styles and techniques I would like to think I have become a more versatile producer today than I was three years ago. I believe that as I continue to develop, my expressions will become richer.
What technology out there has had the greatest influence / helped with this evolution in style?
I began playing around with making music with a pirated copy of ‘Fruity Loops’ on my Windows 98 desktop computer. Had it not been for this modest set-up in my bedroom, I don’t know if I would have been making music in the same way that I do today. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
What bit of technology would you like to be invented that would help you to get the ideas out of your head and into people’s ears?
It would have been great to be a master of the contrabass. Still, I have all my life ahead of me to tame this devilish instrument.
Your latest EP, ‘Push’, a joint project with Mau ‘lin was released on Project Mooncircle. Can you tell us some more about it?
It was a project where I challenged myself to create music that was based around untraditional time-signatures but to make it sit comfortably within the abstract electronic sound I was liking at the time.
It’s been referred to as “at once challenging and immediately absorbing.” Is it difficult to marry two such different approaches into one musical union?
I am always grateful to hear about others connecting with my music. While I’ve never placed a magnifying glass over my music, I can understand why it might have come across as “challenging”. It is a suite of four songs where I toy with the format of accepted bass-music arrangement & rhythmic understanding. Perhaps it could become “absorbing” once the listener relaxes his or her tympanic membrane to experience something that might at first seem unusual.
You’ve also said, “I’d rather listen to different, older music, and get inspired to make electronic from that.” What is it about older music that reaches you in a way more modern electronica doesn’t?
I like music from all ages & zones. I am not prejudiced to time. However, I consistently catch myself discovering ‘new-old’ artists from the past that absolutely beguile me – and as a result I cannot seem to escape the cobwebbed clutches of those decades.
You recently went to Booths & Hawkes, the world’s largest specialist library music archive. How was that?
I was so happy to have been invited to take part in the ‘Samplethon’ event, organised by WhoSampled. Like other electronic producers, I have been known to sample and re-appropriate sounds that from all over planet. Whilst I’ve never borrowed large sections of music by other people in my own compositions, I was able to try this when I got to sniff around at the Imagem archives. It is a treasure chest of some of the rarest specialist TV/film sound-bites and library music in existence. It was great fun digging through countless boxes and storage shelves looking for curious artefacts that I will use to create something with at the ‘Samplethon’ event on May 10.
You’ve said, “It’s a bit weird that a lot of the club music producers seem to make music that has to keep to a certain tempo or whatever. They seem to be really restricted.” Do you think there are too many producers out there ‘painting-by-numbers’, so to speak?
There aren’t any rules to making music today by any means, but there might be certain conventions one could pick up on that modern dance music seems to adhere to. Saying that, I’d love to have a go at ‘painting-by-numbers” one day just to see what the outcome might be.
If you could only choose to do one from here on in, which would it be: DJing or Producing?
Please don’t make me choose! I think an afternoon of kayaking down in Tresco, Isles of Scilly would be a welcome break from DJing and producing.
You’ve also built a solid reputation as a remixer. How different is that to producing your own tracks? Do you take a different approach to each?
I like to approach each track with a clean slate and pick features of the original song that excite me. There is no formula for remixing other artists’ music as everything is different. Often if there are vocals in the song, I will only listen to the vocal track and ignore the instrumental parts because I do not want to be prematurely swayed in any particular direction, before I’ve even had a chance to dig into the music.
What constitutes a good remix to you?
Some of my earliest memories of hearing good remixes were by the UK Garage outfit Artful Dodger. What continually impressed me was that they would radically alter the original track to such an extent on their remix, so that a brand new song was created. I think from this moment on I had come to set myself the same benchmark of completely remodelling a track in a new way. Even if I’ve not been successful, I’m sure I’ve had fun along the way.
Who out there is floating your boat remix-wise these days?
Machinedrum is putting out some great work, both as a remixer, collaborator and a solo artist.
Have you any advice on how to get noticed for the aspiring producers out there?
You design your own t-shirts to sell, you sport some damn fly clothes, especially those jackets, and you’re signed up to AMCK Modelling agency. Is fashion something that’s important to you? Does your interest in fashion exert any kind of influence on you musically, and vice versa?
I love clothes, and as a result fashion – as a field – is something that I fell into almost without thinking. Music and fashion have been inseparable since the birth of popular music, and I imagine that won’t be changing for a long time to come. The same applies to me that I try to express myself through what I wear and the music I make, regardless of how explicit this might be.
What’s upcoming on your horizons?
I am writing my début album, which is just as scary as it is thrilling. I am lucky to be able to work with some of the finest minds in music that I know, so this is very encouraging.
I have just released a super-exciting collaboration EP with Mau’lin on the Berlin-based record label Project Mooncircle. It has been great working with them and I’m proud to have brought this to the world. It is also being manufactured on white vinyl which is not often seen much, so that’s also really cool.
All the same, I sometimes can’t predict what is coming up on my horizon. This is what gets me out of bed every morning. Maybe tomorrow I will emigrate to Turkey, or perhaps I will go and donate blood – I am riding life’s rollercoaster naked and I am very grateful for the opportunity.