Different Drummer: Porter Robinson on ‘Worlds’ & Beyond
It’s a steamy, New York summer morning and I step into the artist lounge at the Astralwerks office to find Porter Robinson getting comfortable at the piano in between interviews. He greets me with a humble nature that puts me at ease before we begin discussing Worlds, his debut full-length, and its upcoming tour.
At 21, the Chapel Hill, N.C., native has already enjoyed a DJ/artist career many can only dream about. After breaking into the electronic scene back in 2010 with the release of blaring, dubbed-out single “Say My Name,” Robinson signed an EP deal with OWSLA and quickly became a highly sought-after act among the global festival and club scenes. The young artist gave support on tours with Tiësto, Skrillex and Deadmau5 before headlining his own “Spitfire Tour” in 2011. And yes, this was all done before he turned 20.
Robinson now has reached a level of stardom in the EDM world comparable to the iconic powerhouses with whom he first toured, but pursuing a similar career path doesn’t suit him. Instead, with Worlds, he’s gone a different way. Yes, there are uplifting cuts—remixes for singles like “Sea of Voices,” “Sad Machine” and “Lionhearted” made dancefloor moves—but Worlds certainly veers away from the current EDM landscape. Indeed, Robinson says that his approach to Worlds was informed by some serious artistic self-examination. The resulting album includes ethereal moments, indie-rock elements, video-game-influenced sounds, and electro-pop melodies. Still, without the big-room boom, Robinson’s fans responded—the album topped Billboard mag’s Dance/Electronic Albums chart upon its summer release. So, as he prepped for his “Worlds Tour,” DJ Times caught up with Porter Robinson.
DJ Times: You’ve said in past interviews that producing was more of a hobby in the beginning. At what point did you start pursuing it more seriously?
Robinson: It was a hobby that I took very seriously. I was really focused on the idea of music-production chops and the idea of being a really good technical producer. I was producing more from the angle of an engineer rather than an artist. That’s the distinguishing factor, to me, between producer and musician. Of course, there’s a Venn diagram where those two things coexist, but to me the interest in production as a kid was almost a technical one and, even though music was a component of that, I wasn’t trying to express anything. I was just trying to make shit that sounded good and was impressive to other producers.
DJ Times: Comparing something like [2011’s] “Spitfire” with the new album’s first single, “Sea of Voices,” what was it that inspired the harder, faster sound back then?
Robinson: When I was 12, I first heard electronic music in video games like DDR and Japanese video games—that’s what got my interest started in producing. As I continued to produce from the ages of 12 to 18, I was really kind of focused on the idea of impressing the producers and making music for musicians to listen to. I was trying to be the best engineer as I possibly could. Unexpectedly, I had a song blow up ["Say My Name”] and it went to No. 1 on Beatport. That song doing really well got me requests to go tour and DJ.
DJ Times: But you weren’t really a DJ, right?
Robinson: I had never DJed in my life. I had never watched DJs. I didn’t care about it, yet I was asked to go tour. I went out and learned how to DJ about a week before [m[my first show]nd it went really well. Things kind of progressed from there and I released the “Spitfire” EP, but the thing is… I didn’t have these aspirations to be this big famous DJ/producer—I wasn’t really hustling [t[to have a career as a DJ]/p>
DJ Times: Things worked out…
Robinson: In reality, it all kind of blew up around me and I found myself with this platform as a successful artist, but I hadn’t planned out a trajectory for myself. I had no idea what I wanted to do with myself as an artist and I think “Spitfire” was kind of the result of that. I was still making music and floating around, not really sure what I wanted to do. Then I wanted to show how diverse I was, so I went and made a bunch of different genres—but that’s not impressive to me anymore. I don’t think that diversity is compelling. I think that actually doing one thing, doing it really well and doing something unique is way more compelling. That’s what my favorite artists do—they sound like themselves. I think that signals a clear change in philosophy. In my early work I was just trying to impress producers. With my new music, I’m really trying to express something.
DJ Times: But you still hear a taste of that diversity in “Fellow Feeling.” That song really caught my attention for that reason. Can you tell us more about what you’re trying to express in the lyrics?
Robinson: The vocal was originally a sample from this science-fiction TV show called “Firefly” that I was really into. There’s this character named Saffron [p[played by Christina Hendricks]hat had this quality that I found really beautiful and kind of enchanting. I recorded my Macbook speakers with my iPhone because I wanted it to sound just kind of shitty. I chopped up what she was saying, so it was kind of a message that was addressing this idea of my old material vs. my new material, and it worked out in a surprising way.
DJ Times: Who’s on the mic?
Robinson: I was never able to clear the sample and wasn’t able to use it, so I found this voice actress on the internet named Amanda Lee that does anime voiceover-type stuff and I rewrote the words into a similar message that was kind of implying something about really aggro-dance music. I think I want people to get their own message from it because, to me, the really heavy section isn’t meant to sound like big-room and a lot of the music that I criticize; it’s meant to be a really exaggerated version of it that’s extremely distorted and totally unmusical. It’s in a totally different key than the string section that precedes it, so it was definitely meant to be ugly. But, by contrast, the second half of the song is more of a reference to something like “Language” or “Easy” that’s this very melodic thing at 128 [B[BPM]nd is very bright and beautiful. I think that song in a way represents the transformation for me [a[as an artist]/p>
DJ Times: So it took you a year to create the album?
Robinson: More like two years, even when I did the song “Easy,” I had started on some Worlds stuff… I threw away 20 songs and was left with those 12, so I’m proud of all of them.
DJ Times: Let’s talk about the vocalists on Worlds. “Lionhearted” is much different from a lot of the tracks on the album, what made you want to feature Urban Cone?
Robinson: I don’t really remember how I found them. I heard their vocals and decided it was the exact tone that the song needs. I flew them out to North Carolina and they heard the instrumental and said it reminds them of Space Invaders, so we thought about an imaginary battle, basically [f[for the vocals]The whole idea of the album is escapism into fictional worlds of fantasy, so the lyrics of “Lionhearted” are very much akin with that, as I see it.
DJ Times: For “Sad Machine,” how did you create the robot voice you sing with?
Robinson: There’s this Japanese program called Vocaloid that’s pretty much a text-to-speech program where you type in words and select melodies and she sings [w[what you type]The most popular version of this is this character called Hatsune Miku, and if you ever look it up on YouTube there’s this video where they use the Coachella Tupac technology to project her into a stadium where they’re singing songs in this robotic voice. I was really inspired by that, so I wanted to find an English-language version. I found this character named Ivana and she’s on three of the songs.
DJ Times: In our last interview with you, you told us your studio was just a laptop in your bedroom at your parent’s house. Are you in a studio now?
Robinson: It’s the same thing—it’s like a desktop instead of a laptop now. It’s not because I think that’s cool or better, and I wouldn’t suggest it to people, but it’s what I’m used to. It’s what I’ve been producing on for the last 10 years, so I felt that if I changed that or moved into a studio halfway through writing this album that it was going to change the tone and the sound of the album when I was so concerned with harping on consistency and doing what really felt like me. I think for the next record I’ll probably move into a good studio with a good, clean, flat set-up with a lot of real gear. I do want to kind of bump up the gear a little bit next time.
DJ Times: What software do you produce on?
Robinson: FL Studio/Fruity Loops. I didn’t use any different sequencers. I did use some different plug-ins, but nothing really interesting or unusual.
DJ Times: You’ve mentioned quite a few times that you dislike playing and producing at 128 BPM—why?
Robinson: I guess I should qualify that statement a little bit. I began to resent 128-BPM electro-house when I set out to write this album and I wanted to write something that was very beautiful, something that was pretty, but at the time I was still writing EDM. When I first started the record, I was still planning on writing songs similar to “Language,” which by the way, I still love a lot. There are elements of my old material that are still very much me. I started to find that every single one of the tropes of EDM was limiting me.
DJ Times: How so?
Robinson: Every single thing that was required for DJs—like having a buildup intro and having all of these very specific ways that energy moves so that it will work on a festival main stage or in a night club—were keeping me from being able to express myself through music the way I wanted. I didn’t want to write music at 128. I didn’t want to have to use these rigid structures or think about whether a crowd would jump up and down. It was such a distraction and I think it’s an awkward and self-limiting way to produce music.
DJ Times: But that sound’s not going away.
Robinson: I don’t think [t[that type]f music is necessarily bad or that no one should produce party music, as there will always be party music and it’s something that will always be an institution. I don’t think the all-stars of big-room DJing should go and try to make an artist album. I bring this up only to explain why I think, for me, I needed a change. My goals are not to criticize EDM or say that the genre is bad; it’s only to express why I wanted to move onto Worlds.
DJ Times: EDM feels a lot different than it was a few years ago, now that it’s gotten so big.
Robinson: My feeling on that, in general, and I know that this is a broader criticism of the culture, but one of the big problems with EDM right now is that almost all of its major artists aren’t looking inward to find their taste and asking, “What inspires me?” They’re kind of only looking outward and saying, “OK, what’s the next hot shit? What’s the next big bandwagon that I can jump on?” And that’s why you see so many guys who were once producing electro now producing electro-inspired deep-house because they are scared of losing their position and want to produce the next big trend genre. It’s like these big swarms of locusts come in and invade any new idea and suck it dry.
DJ Times: So what inspires you?
Robinson: That’s why whatever I do I don’t want it to be named, and I don’t want to inspire people to make music that sounds like me. I want to inspire people to make music that sounds like themselves. I want to inspire a philosophy of honesty. I went and looked in my past and listened to all of my favorite albums and wrote about them and asked [m[myself]“What is it that I really like about music at all? What feelings really inspire me?” I tried to channel those things as best as I could for two years. The idea is that someone who doesn’t share all of my experiences coming in and trying to do the same thing seems insincere. That sounds harsh and I’m not going to be mad at anyone who produces something that sounds like Worlds, but I want people to look inward not outward to find inspiration. It’s the best way to stay true to yourself as an artist.
DJ Times: You don’t think today’s DJs do that?
Robinson: I think in a lot of ways a lot of popular DJs, and even myself at one point, have kind of sold “the dream.” Like making these tour documentaries and showcasing “the dream” is almost like this multi-level marketing scheme that says, “You can do it, too!” By saying “you should look at me as an artist because I came from humble beginnings and now I’m doing these big grand things and anyone can do it” is, first of all, bullshit. Not anyone can do it and I think that’s a bad reason to admire an artist—because they have this lifestyle that you fantasize about.
DJ Times: Despite not wanting to do traditional DJ sets anymore, you still have a residency at the Marquee in Las Vegas. What is that like for you?
Robinson: I watched all of the Ultra sets from the live stream and found it was, overall, a really disappointing experience… [B[But]he Jack Ü set that Skrillex and Diplo did, I thought, was so sincere and so fun. I like this idea of party music as this happy, fun, unpretentious thing—and it really inspired me. I recently did a set at Marquee’s pool party and I really had a blast—I’m not even going to lie. Even though I did play some electro, it was all stuff that I used to think was really cool and shocking and I also played some kind of beatsy, 90-BPM stuff that is kind of in the vein of the new record. I played “Sad Machine” and some Flume-style stuff, and it all was really fun. I went overtime. It’s almost like I’ve been DJing for so long and I probably came to resent it a bit because of how much I had been doing it, but now that I’m taking a break from it [I[I like it more.] could see myself continuing to do the residencies.
DJ Times: Tell us about the Worlds tour.
Robinson: The Worlds tour is for two months with direct support from Giraffage and Lemaitre. It’s somewhere in between a DJ set and a live show. It’s singing and doing multi-tracks, which means I have drums, bass, chords, vocals, leads and effects all on faders where I can pull everything down and just play the vocals. It’s kind of a live PA-type of show. I’m triggering samples and playing keyboard and there could be a break where I’m playing piano. It’s a lot of career-spanning self-mashups where I make new versions of old songs that people haven’t heard before. The visuals are the most “me” stuff ever. I’ve got these fast, beautiful alien dreamscape landscape-type things that are really big and beautiful and the lights are really on-point.
DJ Times: So you’re not worried about the older music clashing with the newer music?
Robinson: No, I’m reworking a lot of it. For example, with melodies like “Unison,” I might put that on the sounds from “Lionhearted.” For fans that like the old music, they’ll recognize it, too. I’m playing things like “Language” and “Easy” exactly as they were because those two songs were kind of the first step towards Worlds. I’m so excited about it.