How Porter Robinson went from a young EDM upstart to paving the way for electronic music's future.
Electronic music is in a weird place right now, especially in America. It’s never been bigger, and as such, it’s never been more divisive. EDM is sweeping the mainstream: Martin Garrix’s undeniable “Animals” appeared in a recent Madden video game, and Skrillex scored the indie smash Spring Breakers and made an appearance in Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph. This music is enormous, and yet when most people hear the term “EDM,” they turn up their noses.
But the 21-year-old Porter Robinson will be the producer who turns heads.
“Isn’t Porter Robinson one of the bigger names in the EDM scene?” Given how quickly he rose from prominence (remember, his Spitfire EP was the first release on Skrillex’s OWSLA imprint back in 2011, and he’s had chart-topping singles in the UK), yes. But with the release of his debut album Worlds just a couple months away, Porter Robinson’s shedding the glitz of EDM in favor of more personal, deeper music.
The journey began with one wildly popular video game. “I didn’t have much of an interest in music at all,” Porter explains. “I didn’t really listen to much until I was 11 or so. Then I got into Japanese video games, particularly Dance Dance Revolution.”
Porter Robinson’s shedding the glitz of EDM in favor of more personal, deeper music.
Porter’s love for the hit dancing game’s soundtrack spurred his interest in producing his own music. “I remember walking into an Apple store, seeing Garage Band, and playing a few notes on a MIDI keyboard,” he says. “I thought, Maybe I could make some electronic music myself! I looked up ‘DJ software’ on my computer at home because I didn’t know what the difference between a DJ and a producer was. I started producing around age 12, and I was very, very bad for many, many years.”
How, then, do you account for the fact that within six years, Porter would become a bona fide phenom? The answer: Germany. “I got involved in this obscure German dance music scene,” he says. “It wasn’t that cool, just cheesy stuff. Part of the reason I was so predisposed to that happy music was DDR. There was so much happy Japanese music there, and so this German scene, I really liked it a lot.”
Within a few years, Porter had “gained a small following in that scene. I learned a lot of my melodic sensibility there, learned about which melodies are logical, which voicings feel good, what evokes certain emotions. It’s some of the hardest stuff to produce. This was a scene where you had to spend—bare minimum—a thousand hours working on how to make the kick drum sound right. Otherwise, all the comments were, ‘Your kick sounds bad.’”
This scene might have been obscure, but it did yield some big names: Madeon, who most recently scored production credits on Lady Gaga’s Artpop; and Cazzette, who were the first act signed to the recently-relaunched 4th & B’Way imprint. At the age of 15, Porter was making a name for himself under his Ekowraith alias. They weren’t major hits, but he started getting his tunes signed; YAWA Recordings released a trio of Ekowraith singles.
But it wasn’t until he started putting out material under his own name that things took off, which is also around the time he started focusing more on the electro side of EDM. “Part of the reason why I moved into electro was because I wasn’t focusing on musical ideas as much, not trying to write anything really expressive or emotional,” he says. “I was still really, really caught up on the idea of writing music for music producers and for engineers and for other people who write electronic music to hear and be impressed by.”
Citing Wolfgang Gartner as an influence, Porter was attracted to the “crazy detail” that he found in Wolfgang’s tunes. It wasn’t long before he started to soar up the charts on Beatport (his first single, “Say My Name,” hit #1 on Beatport’s electro house chart in 2010), and the DJ bookings that are paramount to the survival of an artist in the EDM scene starting coming in. Thing is, Porter wasn’t actively spinning. “I had listened to a couple of sets online,” he says, “Just from my idols. I’d listened to maybe three DJ sets on the Internet. I knew what you did—mixed the intros into the outros, adjusted levels, beatmatched. DJing as a task compared to production is super simple.”
No sweat, then. Porter recalls: “I got asked to DJ and thought, Well, this guy is offering me $500 to go to Portland and DJ. Lemme learn how to DJ really quick. When I came into it, I didn’t know there was a stigma against digital DJing. A lot of electro DJs at the time were mixing whole records, playing out the whole six minutes. I was really reducing it to the essential bits, which is now, I think, one of the enormous cliches of electro DJing. It’s one of the worst parts of it now, but at that time it was new to me.”
His peers took notice. “I definitely remember, when I was first playing festivals, so many other DJs would come up to me, like the headlining guys, and comment on how fast I was mixing and how unusual they thought it was,” he says.
With buzz growing around Porter’s work, it was only a matter of time before the cream of the EDM crop took notice. His first EP, Spitfire, was the first release on Skrillex’s OWSLA imprint. And while Zedd and Skrillex had struck up a relationship via MySpace that led to Zedd coming under Skrillex’s wing, it was through Porter’s manager who put him in Skrillex’s ear. This was in 2010, before producers started creating their own chopped-up form of electro (which, at the time, Porter would refer to as “complextro”), but the sound was similar to some of the material that Skrillex had been putting out. It was a union that made sense, but, looking back, Porter hadn’t truly grasped how quickly his career started to elevate.
“I kept figuring that every moment was going to be the peak,” he says. “I didn’t expect it to keep escalating. And then my managers said, ‘Hey, Skrillex wants to bring you on a tour with Tommy Lee and DJ Aero.’ I was elated.”
While on tour, Porter continued to release music, albeit in smaller bursts than his peers.“I like the scarcity of it. I don’t love the idea of putting out too much music. The prospect of a song going out and then getting ignored is the worst nightmare.”
Of course, that’s not what happened. “I did the tour with Sonny [Skrillex] and then put out Spitfire and then I did a tour based on that,” he says.
“Then I put out ‘Language,’ which was far and away the biggest thing I’d ever done. It debuted at #9 on UK’s Top 40 radio; I toured off the back of that. It was during that tour that I came to realize that ‘Language’ meant a lot more to me than any of my previous material. It was more personal.”
Without taking time off from shows, he spent the better part of the last few years fixating on his debut album, making himself “do it extremely honestly with no compromise.” For those of you who may love electronic music or dance music, but not the negative vibe of what’s known as “EDM,” Porter feels your pain. “I didn’t wanna write EDM records anymore at all,” he says. “Writing music that’s meant to fit into a DJ set, or is just for other DJs, or that needs to make an audience go crazy—that’s really limiting to how expressive I could be.”
Porter says that he wrote more music in this two-year span than he has released in his entire catalog, but whittled the material down to the 12 songs that make up Worlds, which is due out on August 12.
The current landscape of EDM doesn’t lend itself to long pauses. Going six months without word of new material can be cause for concern; two years without a real solo single or EP sounds like career suicide. This isn’t lost on Porter: “I accepted the fact that whatever I did with this album was gonna alienate people and hurt my career. But my discontent with EDM, electro, and DJing had come to a head. The music of the elite guard, and much of the music that does really well—I just don’t think there’s much artistic aspiration there. I wanted to shed the EDM moniker.”
He explains, “I needed to seriously reframe the way people were thinking about my music. There was this dark period where I felt the need to explain to people why I wanted to change, because I didn’t want it to seem as if it was coming out of left field or that I’d gone crazy. But at the same time I couldn’t show people what I was doing. And that was a really hard time to be a fan of me. But people stuck with me. Porter fans are insanely resilient.”
It paid off when he randomly released “Sea of Voices,” a track that’s allegedly the most “left field” song on Worlds. It was a weird situation, given that he had such an anthem in tracks like “Language” and built his early career on these intricate shifts and sounds in his “complextro” phase. “Sea of Voices” clocks in at just under five minutes, and the first three are a long, drum-less buildup that leads into a cinematic release full of bright synths, soaring melodies, and so much oomph that it was almost hard to believe that this was the same Porter Robinson that had seen his stock rise with the debut release on Skrillex’s OWSLA. Couple that with the fact that this beaut dropped on a Sunday afternoon, and ending up trending worldwide on Twitter (and during the night of the Oscars, no less). That’s dedication.
If that’s the left-field number, what’s the rest of the album going to sound like? For Porter, Worlds can be described as: “vast, nostalgic, and very beautiful; it’s supposed to be evocative of all kinds of fiction, other worlds.” Fans will be escaping into Porter’s personal nostalgia, as he makes a lot of references to songs and memories that many might not pick up on, though this doesn’t detract from the work. Much of the album flows in more of a “verse-chorus-verse” format as opposed to the long unwind of “Sea of Voices.”
In other words, much of the album will sound like his newest track “Sad Machine.” It’s interesting to note that not only is “Sad Machine” the first time he’s really sung on a song (he’s done backing vocals before), but it was the last song he finished for Worlds. “I had this instrumental and I had this robot girl voice on there. Her name is Nirvana,” says Robinson. “It was ready, but I thought the notion of a duet between a human and a robot was really beautiful.”
Porter Robinson is poised to set the world of electronic music ablaze with Worlds, both with the album itself and what he’s working on for the live show. He couldn’t divulge details, but he did mention that he was looking to create a live show in the mold of deadmau5 and Daft Punk, where he’d be triggering samples live and “maybe singing.” Wherever this process goes, it looks like Porter Robinson’s spent all of his life working towards what’s happening right now: the young EDM upstart who turned into a jaded, world-traveling DJ that channeled his disdain for “now” into a wholly personal experience that’s sure to shake up whatever people thought “American electronic music” could deliver. We’re just glad he allowed us into his world(s).