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A happy place: Porter Robinson's Second Sky festival is a playground for joy

Anime fanatics, veteran ravers and generous gamers find their happy place at Porter Robinson’s Second Sky, an annual meet-up of subcultures powered by kindness and a singular line-up. DJ Mag heads to California’s Bay Area over Halloween weekend to feel the love

"What would I like to go see?” That’s the first question Porter Robinson asks himself when he designs the landscape of Second Sky, his festival that unfolds annually in Oakland, California. Since 2019, the Goldenvoice-backed gathering has become a destination for those who know the producer, singer and multi-instrumentalist through his electro-pop-centred productions and ever-positive presence in the online gaming world. On site they receive a first-hand glimpse into the star’s vision for a gentle playground filled with Japanese art, immersive experiences and global artists, who find unexpected cohesion on one of the year’s best line-ups.

“I feel like we’re at an anime convention,” says Josh G, a 39-year-old programmer from Louisville, KY, as he looks around in wonder. It’s a fair observation, as members of the 25,000-plus capacity crowd sport cosplay looks borrowed from popular titles like Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and new toons like Chainsaw Man. When singer and model Kyary Pamyu Pamyu brings untapped kawaii energy to the main stage early on Saturday there’s clear alignment too. Meanwhile, Hudson Mohawke, who injects the air with a hearty dose of ‘Cbat’-fuelled abandon, and RL Grime, who flips hardstyle cuts from his recent ‘Halloween XIII’ mix, are never billed on rosters where manga talkbacks are the main draw — and yet, at Second Sky these dynamic offerings fill out a fantastical blueprint in bold harmony.

“I’m always trying to make my own favourite thing, not only with my music and live show, but with the festival I’m curating,” Robinson tells DJ Mag, in the midst of a successful third edition that culminates in the debut of ‘Nurture Together’, a reimagining of his latest stage show featuring a full band. A stroll through Oakland Arena’s sprawling grounds further details the host’s diverse passions. The streaming service Crunchyroll helms a second stage featuring the resident DJs of MOGRA, a Tokyo nightlife staple. Around the corner is the EasySpeak, a hazy haunt for sipping futuristic craft cocktails alongside VTubers (virtual YouTubers) and digital silhouettes pulled from the music video for Robinson and Mat Zo’s 2013 throwback, ‘Easy’. Outside, massive art installations by Nassal — the team behind theme parks like The Wizarding World of Harry Potter — create space for Instagram-worthy photo ops.

Walk a little further and you find a booth for the Robinson Malawi Fund, where doctors and Porter’s family are on hand to accept donations to battle Burkitt’s Lymphoma in Southern Africa.The Grammy-nominated musician’s brother Mark had his own close call with the disease before entering remission. “The form of cancer he has is quite survivable in the US, but the odds are way worse in Malawi, and it’s also way, way, way more common there,” Robinson explains. “Also compounding that tragedy is the fact that it primarily affects kids and teenagers.” He and a team of doctors from UNC Health started the fund in 2019 to help pay for chemotherapy and supplementary care for afflicted children in Malawi, and they are currently working on a project called Shelter (a nod to Porter’s 2016 track with Madeon) to provide accommodation for families who must travel long distances for treatment.

To date, the event’s raised more than $320,000 for the cause, and Robinson shares that he plans to donate an additional 10% of his annual income towards the fund and the Against Malaria Foundation. Lengthy lines to give remain consistent, speaking volumes to the type of good hearted attendees the event attracts. “Such a huge part of the vibe of the festival is the energy that is brought by the people who attend — they are the culture, and the culture of the festival is one of kindness, grace, joy and an overall love for life,” Robinson attests.

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Robinson’s breakthrough moment came following the 2011 release of his ‘Spitfire’ EP on OWSLA, an iconic synth-stabbed collection that made him a soaring success story of the Stateside EDM boom. The “electro fuckboy” music (he said it, not us) that made him famous is largely absent from today’s instrument-laced set lists, but he appeases the ride-or-dies by slipping in surprises and booking the heavier acts he came up with (“If it weren’t for this man right here, I don’t think I’d have any of this,” Porter spouts on the mic during Skrillex’s special guest appearance).

“I watched G Jones play at Second Sky in 2019 and it just filled me with inspiration. Seeing what he’s done with his own AV live show just made me feel proud of him and how far he’d come — he’s just one of the best living artists on the planet in my opinion,” Porter shares excitedly. “So, I wanted to have him here, but I wanted it to be something new.”

The result is Virtual Self B2B G Jones, a first-of-its-kind performance that brings Robinson’s trance-tinged alias back into the spotlight, and stands out among the fest’s most memorable moments. “Porter came to my house for about a week this summer and we spent the majority of that time making edits of each other’s tracks and other tunes we knew we might want to play,” G Jones shares. Ahead of sunset, they embark on a dreamy, experimental journey of unreleased IDs fans are unlikely to hear again, set against split-screen visuals that depict the varying aesthetics of the divergent duo. It captures the lengths Robinson goes to create experiences that can’t be found anywhere else.

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“Porter definitely appreciates a really wide variety of good music, and that’s reflected in the line-ups he puts together,” G Jones continues. “I think his willingness to book all kinds of music he loves, and not just focus on building out a line-up of strictly electronic dance music artists, or strictly pop acts, or whatever, is a real strength of the festival."

In the spirit of tradition, the 2022 finale offers something fresh, with Robinson recruiting a live band to showcase his transformation as an artist. Between weepy moments and high-energy numbers from his 2021 album ‘Nurture’, Porter, his band mates and attendees reflect on just how far the frontman’s come since rattling airwaves a decade ago with melodic grooves like ‘Language’ and ‘Clarity’, the bittersweet song he co-produced with Zedd, which the entire crowd sings in unison.

It feels oddly appropriate when Robinson ends the night on stage playing an acoustic guitar, belting the lyrics from his liquid drum & bass track ‘Everything Goes On’ — an exclusive cut that League Of Legends players know well (he wrote the song for Riot Games’ summer-set Star Guardian event, after all.) It serves as a snapshot of Robinson’s evolution from EDM prodigy to scene-starting tastemaker, in a haven that manifests positivity.

Photos: Yasi, Grady Brannan

Megan Venzin is DJ Mag North America's Contributing Editor. You can follow her on Twitter @Meggerzv