DJ/producer Porter Robinson on his club-free upbringing, progression and internal pressure

Porter Robinson is a visionary. He speaks with the same detailed complexity he produces, and has accomplished more in three years than most will in a career. He’s lauded by Tiësto, Skrillex and Deadmau5, and has been called electronic dance music’s savior. By the way, the prodigious producer is just 21 years old. Still, the Wynn Resorts resident’s upcoming album represents a midlife-like pivot toward a more experimental and emotional flavor of electronic music that emphasizes beauty and emotion over dancing and partying—a move that he acknowledges may not even fit into the EDM bucket.

You began producing at 12 after getting into Dance Dance Revolution. What was going through your head back then?

When I was like 12, 13, I was experimenting with a lot of different media production software. I was working with Sony Vegas, which is video-editing [software], and I was working with Photoshop and trying to do visual art, and I was also messing with Garage Band and Sony Acid at the time. Music was just the thing for me that stuck, and it was the thing that I had the highest aspirations for, and it was probably what I was best at.

What were you listening to as a young teenager?

Lots of crazy Japanese emulations of European dance music; like Japanese people making trance, trying to make it sound like the trance coming from Europe. It was really weird. My influences were really strange.

Talk about your progression as a producer.

As I wrote more and more music, I got inundated by the European—particularly the German—sound, and started writing more German-sounding electro. And then the whole kind of complex, glitchy electro thing started happening, like Wolfgang Gartner and Deadmau5 and Dirtyloud. And I was inspired by all that. So I started trying to make stuff that really emphasized high detail. Then I started trying to write pretty music. It’s kind of hard to track your own trajectory because you would hope that you arrive at all those places organically, without forcing it, and without “effortfully” trying to change.

You’re from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, not exactly known for having a thriving club scene. How did that contribute to who you are today?

In pretty much every possible regard. At first it sort of freed me up from a lot of the tropes that surround DJing and electronic-dance-music culture. It was kind of a rule that you let a whole track ride out when you DJ. But when I started DJing I wanted to mix really quick and incorporate references to certain songs without playing out the whole thing. If I had been around it more it would have shrunk my headspace, put me inside of a box intellectually. Since I don’t really have club or DJ roots, that’s liberating as far as my future endeavors, too, because the music that I’m writing for an album, it’s not necessarily DJ music, and I think that would be harder to swallow if my roots were the clubs.

With your Spitfire EP, you literally crashed Beatport! What was it about that album?

It was the first thing that Skrillex really endorsed, the first release on his record label, OWSLA. He posted it and I posted it at the same time. There was a bunch of hype built up from a few Beatport No. 1s I’d had to that point, but I hadn’t released a body of work yet. I also think that was right on the cusp of when bass music, hard electronic music was coming up in America. And I was working with a lot of tempos before that was the norm. I’m not saying that that’s an incredible virtue, because I think it’s normal for most musicians to work in a variety of tempos. But I think in electronic music it was less prevalent at that time.

You’ve toured with Skrillex, Tiësto, Zedd—who do you like the best? … Just kidding. How about a one-word description for each of them?

That’s tough! Skrillex: alien. He’ll love that. Tiësto: legend. Zedd: German. I love Zedd, love him to death. Skrillex brought me and Zedd both out. We were both support slots on his OWSLA tour, and we think the world of him.

Your Spitfire EP, and then tracks “Language” and “Easy,” were all chart-toppers. How do pressure and expectations from consecutive hits affect your mentality?

My No. 1 goal when writing tunes is to write something that I would like to listen to. Even if that’s at the cost of success, I’m happy to do it. A lot of dance-music fans might hear it and be like, “Where’s the drop?” I’m writing stuff that emphasizes beauty and emotion. I guess there’s some degree of pressure to follow up your last big success, but there’s even more pressure—at least internally for me—to write music honestly, and to try to go about it in a sincere way. And if people like it, awesome. And if not, shucks. But at least I did it with my whole heart.

What’s your take on EDM becoming so popular in the U.S.?

That’s kind of the hot-button question. Answers to that question make headlines. It’s pretty popular now to be kind of down on the status quo of dance music. I can feel some of that, for sure. Sometimes, it can feel a little uninspired. That’s why a lot of the music that I’m writing is not meant for EDM DJs. It’s meant to be very personal; it’s meant to be listening music.

Can we dig a bit deeper into what you’re trying to do?

Next year, I intend to start a new show that’ll bring in new influences and hopefully will be something that doesn’t resemble what I think a lot of us are kind of getting sick of. I aspire to do more than just have some fun parties. There’s something that you can reach higher for, and it may or may not work. People may go to the show and be like, “It’s not energetic.” But to me, I almost feel like I have a duty. I’ve written a couple of songs now that have—at least what I hear from people—spoken to them: like “Language,” for example, it touches my heart, it’s meaningful to me on an emotional level. I want to go more to that. For about three years I’ve done shows where the emphasis is all on partying, going crazy and using as much energy as possible, aggression and all that. I want to take a look at electronic music from a different angle now, and whether or not people will call it EDM, we’ll see.

I like the sense of duty. What are you trying to avoid?

A lot of dance music can be just in service of dance and just in service of energy and fun, and sometimes musicality is sacrificed for that. In other words, people will avoid doing certain musical moves so that it will work better when DJs play. One of the most boring things—and I’ve done this on a lot of songs—is the melody will stop and then it’ll go into a snare roll and a rising effect, just “du-du-Du-Du-DU-DU-DU-DU!” All that does is warn people that there’s about to be a fun, exciting drop or whatever coming. I’m trying to get away from that, to emphasize all parts of the song. I want to write things that have a lifespan. I’m interested in trying to write classics. I recognize that all that’s really aspirational, and maybe it could be arrogant to think that I could do that, but at this point I almost feel like I have no other option. I have to write this kind of music.

How will the new album sound?

Like, M83 meets “Language” meets Sleigh Bells. It’s big and kind of loud, almost sort of distorted, but there’s a huge focus on it being pretty, and a lot of it is kind of vintage inspired. So it’s sort of lo-fi, vintage, pretty, loud stuff. And weird tempos. There’s also some stuff that I think are sing-along indie-pop anthems but that have dance-music-y stuff to them. On a personal level for me, and I don’t know if anyone cares about this, but it’s my favorite music I’ve ever made. It means the world to me. The happiest I could be, is if people understand and respect my vision.


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