Interview: Porter Robinson’s Journey to the Center of the ‘Worlds’ Album
By Scott T. Sterling
As EDM continues to grow and evolve in America, the all-encompassing term becomes increasingly insufficient to encompass the panorama of genres and sounds that fall under its umbrella.
From the resurgence of deep house to the hip-hop influenced bass rumbles of Flume and the kitchen-sink experimentalism of artists like SOPHIE and myriad of alternative sounds in between, electronic dance music has moved beyond the visceral, hands-in-the-air euphoria of prime time big-room bangers that power festival main stages.
For Porter Robinson, falling into the circuit of main stage marquee DJs determined to keep crowds dancing happened almost by accident. After an early single topped the Beatport charts, an ambitious promoter hit the young producer up with an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“My origins, my roots are not as a DJ,” Robinson explained during an interview with Radio.com. “I didn’t go out watching DJs, I didn’t go to clubs, I was seriously 15 years old in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, just at home writing electronic music for many, many years. Then I had a song I released that was a Beatport No. 1 and I started getting requests to go DJ. This guy was like, ‘I’ll pay you $500 to come to Portland and DJ my party.’ I was like, well, let me learn how to DJ and I will do that for you. For one reason or another, my DJing happened to go really well. Not to say I wasn’t proud of the music I was making at the time, but I almost feel like I chanced into it. I just kept taking the opportunities that were given to me and doing my best at all of them.”
With his 2012 single, “Language,” Robinson moved beyond the typical “banger-y, bass line electro stuff” towards something he considers more sensitive, emotional and ultimately risky.
“It became my biggest song. That, to me, was very vindicating,” he recalled. “It was like, maybe I’m just way better at writing music that’s sincere. I took that notion to the extreme. If I cast off everything, even the fact that I’m supposed to be known as this DJ, this idea that the music needs to make people jump up and down. What if I just totally eschewed all of that in favor of the most personal thing I could make? Once I started making music with that in mind, I was hooked. It was the most gratifying thing ever.”
For his beautifully crafted studio full-length debut, Worlds, Robinson has pushed the boundaries of his sound well beyond the confines of big-room bangers to explore a dazzling array of sounds and emotions across the album’s 12 tracks. Among the album’s intriguing highlights comes in the form of “Flicker,” a track that has roots in the late Detroit hip-hop production legend, Jay Dilla.
“I very much love chipmunked-up soul beats. Just late Jay Dilla-t stuff,” Robinson explained. “I think that the reason I love soul samples is because of the Daft Punk Discovery album, which remains my favorite album of all time. So when I heard the same style of records in a hip-hop context I was really, really in love when I was younger. I was messing with soul samples and made this little beat just for fun, at least I thought. Then I’d made this MP3 of taking a bunch of titles I had in a notepad and ran them through a Japanese text to speech program and it spit out this basically nonsensical Japanese text and I cut it up into this little rap and I was just so charmed by that. It’s the two sides of me, very much… that’s one of my favorite songs on the album.”
Over the course of our wide-ranging two-part interview (Part 1 is at the top of the page; Part 2 is embedded above), Robinson opened up about a variety of subjects, including his eternal love of “cheesy 2000 era pop-rock” like Vanessa Carlton and Michelle Branch, admiring fellow artists Flume and Wave Racer, why he could care less if someone terms his music as “gay” (“I’m kind of not interested in that person”) and taking The Chainsmokers to task on Twitter after the duo’s infamous appearance on American Idol.
“I believe it’s OK for artists to make compromises in pursuit of money or fame. If that’s what you do, there will always be a market for it,” Robinson mused. “I think what rubs me the wrong way is this idea that criticizing that is wrong. That’s why I said something. I watched those guys’ fans be mad at them for weeks, and I was like, maybe I didn’t need to do that. But I’d seen that Idol performance and thought it was rough. Then I saw them complaining about how it wasn’t fair that people were knocking people for making sell out-y decisions and I just got so worked up and I was really caffeinated. In retrospect, I don’t need to make fun of them.”
The young producer has far more pressing concerns on his mind, like the upcoming tour in support of the Worlds album (it kicks of on August 28 in Vancouver), which will find Robinson stepping from behind his gear to grab a microphone and sing live during “Sad Machine.”
“I’m only going to alive so long, and I have a song where I’m singing, and I’m going to go perform that song live and why the hell should I not sing it? I’m going to do it. I want to sing. It just felt like the right call for the song, and hopefully the right call for the show, too.”