Remember when Porter Robinson’s Say My Name came out? It was 2010, EDM was just starting to break into the mainstream, electro-house had everyone fist-pumping, and artists like Afrojack were ruling the summer with 128 BPM bangers. Say My Name was a veritable hit, and launched the career of the then 18 year-old Robinson. Since then, the North Carolina DJ/producer had the honor of releasing Spitfire, the first record on Skrillex’s OWSLA label, which reached #1 on the iTunes dance music and Beatport charts. But as EDM grew in popularity, Porter has been distancing himself from his dance-friendly roots. His 2012 single Language was much more melodic than the bass-heavy tracks he had put out on OWSLA, and it turned out to be his best selling record up to that point. He became fed up with playing to the stereotypical EDM crowds. So he stopped touring, put out one song in 2013, and emerged on the other side this past summer with Worlds, a beautifully crafted electronic album that is made to be listened to as much as danced to. We spoke to Porter on the phone during his Worlds tour about the new album, his live show, and what it means to be a DJ in 2014.
It seems like you put a ton of effort into the live setup especially on this tour, what exactly was the theory behind all your visuals and hardware going into it?
I wanted to make sure that people were getting as much me, my signature, my identity, as possible. And I figured the best way to do that was to put as much me into it as I could. There was like a 6-month process getting those tour visuals prepped and it took up so much of my time. I was so crazy involved in getting those visual to where they are. And the difference between my show now and my old one is that now it’s wholly original. Like if I went to go see my favorite artist I wouldn’t want them to play other people’s music, I would want them to play their own songs and so I just wanted to move away from a DJ career and more into an artist career. I wanted to make a big distinction between the old show and the new one so I could call this show “live” and then it was a challenge to actually make it “live” and once I started doing that–incorporating live vocals, keys–I just loved it and I was hooked and so i started pulling more and more stuff. I had this obsession of making more of it playable live. It turned out to be a really gratifying way to perform this music. And the visuals are definitely a point of pride for me.
With all the visual and lighting cues, how much improvisation goes into your set?
Yeah, the visuals are synced up to whatever’s happening on stage. It’s like with any band you have a set list. I’m not DJing and there’s no illusion. It’s kind of a non question [whether or not there’s improvisation]. I reharmonize everything and I play different chord progressions every night. I’m performing the songs live not DJing.
Some of the tracks on the new album like Flicker use souls samples, where are you finding your sampling material?
It’s mostly just like the Internet. I don’t sample that much. More of that thing you hear in the beginning of Flicker is actual instruments. But I’m not like crate-digging.
You’re touring with Giraffage, right? How did you guys link up?
I’ve kind of just been a fan of his music and I also love his aesthetic and art direction he’s a friend of my brother’s and my VJ Ghostdad has done content for him in the past and I’m just super super into his music so it was just kind of a nice sensible link-up. Same thing with Lemaitre, I’ve been a big fan for a really long time and it’s also really cool to start the show with a band. I think it’s a cool way to set the tone: that people aren’t really here to watch DJs but that they’re here at a music performance show.
No, I don’t think I’m inclined to do too much in the realm of movie scoring. I’m more focused what I’m doing right now, not really going for any extracurriculars. Well, I’m interested in doing art direction and doing videos and possibly game related stuff but I’m not super interested in film scoring and to be honest I think Tron was the most lackluster thing Daft Punk ever did and I think you can really feel the constraints on artists when they do those types of multimillion dollar projects.
Speaking of heading into new mediums, what do you think of NPR being the ones to premiere your new project?
I don’t know. All Things Considered, we did a thing with them. And it just seemed like a sensible thing to do. They have a big reach and a lot of artists that I like have done similar premieres with them. I try not to strategize too much but when I was offered to do a premiere with them I was like, NPR definitely seems like the play.
What do you think the next big thing in electronic music is?
I think the next year is going to be a lot of Dutch big-room DJs trying to make like pseudo-deep house music. You’re already seeing those guys put that kind of music in their sets. And I think that the standard EDM fan is starting to resent the genre and its biggest stars, and eventually these artists who have no career control, their management is going to catch wind of it and say, “we need to do something about this” and then they’re going to start trying to play deep house or something like that. I think obviously there’s gonna be a big thing next year for artists who kind of have one foot in the EDM thing and one foot out. We’ve started to see success from artists like Tycho and Odesza in that little universe and it’s going to be a big year for them. I don’t know, though. I’m always split between predicting that the EDM DJs will either jump ship or they’ll double down and do Warp Tour post-hardcore style where it will get more insular and more of a self-parody and they’ll just cling to that for the next 20 years. It’s hard to say but I think everything’s moving a lot faster than ever before and it’s a pretty daunting thing for artists who aren’t willing to make a big effort.
Do you see yourself as an example of an artist that has one foot in and one foot out?
Well, there are two ways of looking at that like I would say sonically, yes. I think that my music takes on a lot of the aesthetics of EDM like it’s willing to be loud and its distorty and clippy and it goes from super soft to super climactic. And in that way, yeah it definitely has a foot in and a foot out of EDM. I would say in terms of what it’s meant for, I’ve never seen Worlds as the next step or the future of EDM because I think EDM is party music and I think party music can and should and will exist forever and I don’t think Worlds is a replacement for that. It’s not the future of it, because it’s not supposed to be a party jam it’s supposed to be something that is emotionally resonant so I think in terms of what it’s intended for it has no feet in EDM. It’s not music for DJs, it’s not party music. But I think the way I mix and incorporate sounds is totally inspired by that. And I love that. I love loudness. But I also love those macro songs that go from loud to quiet and vice-versa. But my goal was never to change the game or change EDM at all, it’s just purely been to get my own music right.
That’s totally respectable. You mentioned going to DJ shows just to hear the DJ’s own songs do you feel like DJ culture and the career of being a DJ is changing because of that? As in nobody wants to go here a set mixed of other people’s music?
I think there’s nothing shameful about going to see an artist play their own music. I think that it does kind of speak to the awkwardness of DJ careers. I think DJing is meant to be this really improvisational, dynamic task and I think DJ sets should be like two to two and a half hours in order for there to be room for that. But at the same time, if you’re buying a ticket as though you’re going to a concert to go see an artist whose music you ostensibly enjoy, then they should also play their own songs. I would be so gutted if I went to see any of my favorite artists and nine out of ten tracks they played weren’t theirs. But at the same time, from the perspective of a DJ, you should be improvising and showcasing new music that you’re excited about and that’s why things can get awkward. You have superstar DJs that have the expectation that they’ll play their own music but that comes at the cost of “real DJing”
Well thanks so much for talking to us
Interview by Ben Silver and Grant Fox
Photos by Grant Fox