“I’d play drums for 5 seconds, take that tiny loop, loop it over, play a little piano motif, build that, and it all turns into a creature of some sort.”
Take a look at his discography and you see an emerging ambient artist sporting a repertoire evocative of Teengirl Fantasy, Atlas Sound, Sigur Rós, and Animal Collective. His sound began to blossom as a kind of avant-folk wrapped in disjunctive guitars and delicate falsetto, but before long his craft shifted to twirling cello loops and dinner conversation sound collaging. Most recently Panda Rosa has released, , a concept album that straddles the line between shoegaze and vaporwave.
Your Bandcamp bio simply reads, “I’m Ben, I’m 18, and I try to make music.” Is this something you’re doing full time? Is it more of a side project?
Music is my passion. I consider it my full time job. After I finished school I didn’t have much else to do, so I’m making a tiny bit of money from music. I was doing it through high school too. It’s just been something I feel I’m destined to do.
Could you describe the kind of music you make? How would you characterize it?
It used to be general indie rock and indie folk, which I wasn’t particularly happy with. I wanted to do something else and really break into the post-rock sphere. My influences are really wide, but I’d have to say Mark Kozelek’s work with Sun Kil Moon and Red House Painters. And then on the other end of the spectrum there’s this electronic group from the UK, Underworld. They both showed me what was possible. There are also ways in which the people behind the music make an impact—people who seem to be outsiders making music just for themselves. There’s this guy called Jandek who’s made 70 or 80 albums, and they’re all completely unlistenable. He plays an extremely out of tune guitar and sings in monotone for hours on end. But it’s great. I love it.
My music is basically just everything that I like all squished up together. For some tracks I think, ‘I want to sound like this or that band,’ but overall I do try to sound like me. I feel like my combination of weird influences is at least a little bit unique, which makes me feel good. But I do want to put an emphasis on the post-rock part because that’s where my heart is,
Where does the name Panda Rosa come from?
Normally for interviews I have a prepared response where I say, “oh, yeah, I’m really into Panda Bear.” But I actually have no idea. I was just putting random words together and it came up. That’s also how I come up with a lot of my song titles. I come up with a song title first, and the song comes from that. It’s like the first seed of the idea is the name.
You’ve released 6 albums in just 2 years. I feel like for anyone as young as you that’s pretty impressive.
Well, thank you. For me, the longer I work on an album the worse I feel about it. My album The Opposite Direction took me almost a year to make, and I actually kind of despise it. Whereas my latest one, Neochina, took a month to make, and it’s the happiest I’ve ever felt about an album. The longer you work on something, the more you lose track of that original idea. So it becomes about getting it in a state where it sounds exactly like what I originally envisioned.
Do you try to put out as much as you possibly can?
I wouldn’t word it like that because there is an element of quality control. It’s kind of like putting out a really long series of books. It’s just ‘The Chronicles of Ben.’ Also, the idea of a discography is a really cool thing to me. I’ve always been in awe of people like Buckethead, who’s made hundreds of albums. It’s this huge body of work where you have so much to search through. You can find little gems.
Is there a lot of stuff that never makes the cut?
Yes. Before my first album, there were actually 3 more albums before that, which no one has ever heard, except for me. For every album that’s on Bandcamp, there’s at least twice as many songs that are like B-sides to that. And then there’s the endless amount of those 30-second little ditties that never see the light of day—those tiny little songs that every artist has. Bedroom producer stuff.
It sounds like there may not be much of a story, but could you talk a bit about your newest album, Neochina?
Actually, this one’s different. I recently have gotten into vaporwave—particularly ambient vaporwave stuff. Many ambient vaporwave releases are very dystopian, and describe a futuristic city or metropolis. You can see that in the album cover. It’s this thing I assembled out of little pictures of cities. I came up with this idea of a futuristic China, where the country is advancing so fast that in 20 years it will be quite a different environment. While the album itself didn’t end up really following that theme, bits of it are there. The ambient tracks—the ones that begin with the word “Neochina”—those were really my main focus. The other songs are ones I added in that were built around those ambient tracks.
A lot of Neochina is actually sample-based. There are tiny little 2-second samples that are repeated over and over. Little string samples, little recordings from classical music. I copy and paste them, put tons of reverb on so it becomes ambient, and then add stuff on top. I didn’t do this with my previous albums because I kept thinking, ‘oh man, is this cheating? Is this what you’re allowed to do?’ But it’s great. I can finally make music that I’m happy with. A lot of the sounds on Neochina are manipulated in my DAW, which is a cool way of doing things. I never realized how much you could get from just the program itself.
When I listen to The Opposite Direction I find it to be a lot more spacious. There’s a lot more sound collaging and ambience. But when I listen to Neochina, it feels similar to shoegaze and electronica.
I’ve always wanted to have this wall of noise effect, so I’ve just been trying different ways to achieve that. With The Opposite Direction the ambience was a lot denser, and the folky songs were full of a lot more instrumentation, which is something I didn’t like. Whereas in Neochina, I tried to pull that back and have the ambience built into the songs—and that’s how you get shoegaze in a way. That’s how I see it.
What kind of software and instrumentation do you use to create your work?
The DAW I use is Studio One by PreSonus, which is fantastic. I would really recommend it. It’s a very visual program. If you’re a visual kind of learner, which I am, you can figure it out yourself.
The process changes so much between albums, though. Neochina is a lot more stripped down instrumentally. I have an upright piano, a synth, a drum set, a guitar, and a bass. But with The Opposite Direction I only had one microphone, so I recorded each drum individually. I’d come up with a drum beat, and then work out how to play each drum separately in a separate track. Then I’d record that in a microphone, and do it with all the other instruments too. That was laborious and horrible—I’d have to listen to each song so many times. Whereas with Neochina, I’d play drums for 5 seconds, take that tiny loop, loop it over, play a little piano motif, build that, and it all turns into a creature of some sort. It grows more organically and I enjoy that so much more.
Well, I don’t want to sound narcissistic, but I think I did it in a pretty different way compared to how most albums are made. I’m self taught, and I’ve only ever really known my method. I think it would be cool for people to see how I did it, because a lot of it is just a weird way of doing things. A ‘Making Of’ kind of thing. I’d go through the production because I attempt to mix and master myself.
You’re completely self taught?
Yeah, I started with drums. I convinced my parents to get me a drum set at the age of 10 because I had this music in me. I was tapping on things and making beats in my head. As a kid I used to beatbox all the time—just getting songs out in one form or another. We also had this old upright piano in our house. Then I slowly was like ‘hey, I want to get a guitar for Christmas.’ And then it all just went from there.
The very first album was made when I was 14. We had an iPad, and I used GarageBand and the little microphone that comes with earphones. I recorded all these songs and thought, ‘this is great.’ More albums followed, until Cascades came along, which was me first realizing I freaking loved ambient music. It was basically just crappy songs drenched in reverb with ambient interludes.
I’m already four tracks into my next album, which is great. It’s called “Earth with Wings,” and it’s about a giant spaceship that humanity’s last survivors are on, and they’re searching for a new solar system. It’s got a prog rock vibe to it. And believe me, it’s going to be so much more pretentious than Neochina!
Can you talk a bit about your evolution as an artist?
This is going to sound dumb, but before I finished The Opposite Direction I was pretty convinced it was going to make me famous. That stressed me out a lot because I was thinking about this mass audience—how they were going to perceive the songs, whether the verses, chorus, or intro was too long, and all that bullshit. And now it’s just songs, man. It’s great. There’s no pressure. I also used to feel like I had to work on a song for a certain amount of time before it was legit—before it deserved a release. But now a lot of the freshest ideas come from really quick production. They’re the equivalent of demos—basically everything I do is a demo. I don’t make demos before I make the final product. I do it all at once.
How do you envision your future? Melbourne has a big psychedelic music scene. Do you ever perform live?
Besides one or two acoustic shows a few years ago, I’ve never really played live. I have a lot of anxiety. As for any kind of large scale fame—for me it’s a pretty spooky thing to think about. I like to try and ignore it. What I really desire is a small cult following on 4chan or something—becoming a cult artist. And Melbourne’s got so many little scenes going on at the same time, so me and my friends are trying to revive the 90s post-rock scene—bands like Bark Psychosis and Talk Talk. Those sounds are coming back through us, which is awesome.
I noticed you have a pretty active social media presence. Do you find it easy getting your music to people?
Getting it out there is really easy, which is fantastic. Getting it onto places like SoundCloud, Bandcamp, and even Spotify—you’re in line with the professionals, which wasn’t always the case. Big name bands used to dominate the market with their records. Nowadays you’re up there with Taylor Swift. The problem is that everyone’s up there with Taylor Swift. Although, getting people to actually listen is something that I still haven’t actually worked out—but that’s okay. I’m very happy to have people stumble across me.
In terms of social media, it’s pretty funny—I think about what I’m going to post on there for hours before I do it, even if it’s just a sentence. But it’s really exciting—getting one more ‘like’ than you did last week, or having two people comment on your post when a couple of months ago no one did. It’s growing really slowly, but it’s so rewarding.
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