Post adolescence angst. That stretch of time in your early '20s spent agonizing over your place in the world. Suddenly stripped of the protective safety cloaks of parental guidance, it’s a time for foraging onward alone to discover who and what it is we want to become, where we want to go and, what’s more, how the hell to get there.
Porter Robinson may have become a globally renowned DJ and producer by the age of 19, yet even he could not escape the harsh realities that follow this entrance to young adulthood. After his first big breaks, touring America with Dutch legend Tiësto, crashing Beatport’s servers in 2011 with his OSWLSA-released EP “Spitfire,” and capturing the hearts of the cavalcades who attended his live DJ sets at all the major EDM festivals and famed nightclubs on various continents, Robinson found himself, at the age of 21, starting to become unhinged. Adoration and success aside, he was rattled, struck with the inescapable anxieties that go hand-in-hand-hand with the human psyche’s vexatious years, signaling that no one, not even a newly famous artist, is exempt from growing pains.
“At first I was feeling so strongly upset,” Robinson admits from his suite in the Lower East Side’s Hotel Rivington in Manhattan. He’s talking about performing and producing strictly EDM, something he’s recently cast aside to better his mental health and nurture his artistic growth. “I can definitely say I’m a happier person than when I was 20, when I had the most angst about it, when I was actually having anxiety attacks on stage. It happened several times on my Australian tour and people had to come on stage where I was playing. [It's] something I don’t want to romanticize... anxiety is something that I have struggled with my whole life and its not the worst thing for me, but it is present.”
What separates the now 22-year-old North Carolina native from his swathes of copycat peers is that Porter Robinson took a step back from the LED-laden spotlight of electronic dance music to do something about his gnawing stresses before they spiraled out of control. He retreated to his parents’ home in Chapel Hill to work on something new; not necessarily rebellious, but certainly introspective.
The result? Robinson’s debut album, Worlds, which is out now on Astralwerks, wherein the young artist takes a departure from EDM - subsequently saving himself a bundle of cash on therapy bills. “I wrote it at home in the bedroom where I grew up as a kid and where I played [video] games. And I used nostalgic sounds, used more vintage stuff over all. I think that it’s definitely kinda looking back, which is a weird thing to do for a premiere album. Maybe it’s what I felt like I needed to do.”
The wise-beyond-his years Robinson continues, “Part of writing something personal is knowing when to rebel and when not to. I would consider the album not to be so much of this big intentional subversion of EDM. I didn’t write this album to strictly do something that was anti-EDM, per se. I was more thinking I wanted to write something for me, to do something that was personal.”
Personal can also mean escape into one’s own self, or world. Retreating deep into our fantasies and honing them in. As a musician, Robinson did exactly this when it came to the creation of Worlds. “The central motif behind the album really is ultimately escapism,” he explains. “I think that takes different forms for people. For me, it’s really about escapism through fiction and fantasy. I don’t necessarily mean literature, I mean fictional universes.” Having grown up, like many young boys, playing video games, Robinson escaped to a cyber world of the games he cherished during his formative years. “Growing up I played a lot of RPGs (role playing games), a lot of World of Warcraft, super immersive worlds where you play this character and go into this online universe. The thing that’s different about those types of games, that are so immersive and often so beautiful and have these big vast digital landscapes, is that when the company ceases to be profitable, when the game is no longer making the money, they are essentially forced to shut down the server. And unlike every game in the world now, you can’t just pop it into the cartridge two years later. The servers are down and you can’t play the game anymore, so this vast, beautiful world that you get to live in and experience is basically gone forever, which happened to several of my favorite games. It kind of feels like this home that you had that you can’t go back to, which is an extremely romantic notion.
“Everyone knows Lord of the Rings - everyone is familiar with fantasy. I think it’s a really important capacity to have. I think it’s beautiful. I’m really inspired by the notion of escape.”
NEW APPROACH TO LIVE
Heavily inspired by his nostalgia for video games and with exhaustion from standard festival-style dance music, the autodidact will now be bringing a live show to stages with a new kind of performance, sans DJing or festival pit stops. “You can fit in, be the flavor of the month, or you can stand out and have an artistic identity,” says Robinson. “I think that the EDM scene really plays it safe with that. It’s so much easier to make the next big room banger, that’s what everyone’s doing. New artists are doing the same bullshit that’s popping off everyday, so I’m sure that’s tempting. I feel like I’ve been there and I didn’t find it gratifying, so that’s a big part of why I wanted to do something more which is more of me.”
More of Porter Robinson means a new show that “is really focused on being as beautiful an experience as possible,” filled with “lots of big vast awesome surreal alien landscapes. There’s lots of long, loud, immersive scoop-up-your-whole-body breaks, but it always delivers a big emphatic moment.” Now able to embrace his former sonic self, while staying true to his values as an artist, Robinson explains, “This show is going to be an enormous treat to fans of old Porter. I went through - the best way I can describe it, Worlds aside - a bunch of my old music, old tracks like ‘Say My Name’ and stuff, and made them more worldly.” Thus, he’ll “play things for the sake of old fans,” without having “to wreck the atmosphere of the new material. So I basically wrote a new album, remixes of my old music.”
As for DJing, there are a few facts Robinson needs to make straight. When news first matriculated about him breaking free from electronic dance music’s grip, there was some fan and blogger backlash regarding Robinson’s alleged antipathy toward DJing. “I don’t think that DJing is bad,” he clarifies for us now. “I don’t think that I always didn’t want to do it. In fact, today I still DJ in Vegas, and since I feel better understood artistically now, since I put out the music, it’s almost freed me up when I go to Vegas and whenever I do DJ. I can really enjoy it. I don’t have these anxieties about being misunderstood. I can do it as a fun thing. I feel like DJing is awesome and it should be something that should persist forever, it’s really fun. I don’t have a problem with dance music being dance music. I wanted people to get my vision as an artist.”
First and foremost, Robinson would never want to ruin prior good times had by his fans. “I just don’t want to make invalid all the experiences of people who have seen me,” he affirms. “I don’t want people to think I always hated it up there. I just had other aspirations. DJing represents me at a time when I was at my most joked about. EDM now, in my case, has changed a little bit. I’ll be real with you, I think I was good at DJing and I’ll continue DJing kind of on the side.”
This is good news for fans of quality DJ sets. Porter Robinson may be young, but he is a force worth catching on the decks. With an ability to steer the crowd smoothly like a Buggatti Veyron through the twists and turns of the most hazardous racecourse, he is a prodigy of the console. Equipped to hypnotize even the most discerning of sonic snobs, when it comes to the art of DJing, Robinson rarely slips off track.
“The Worlds tour is going to be all Porter Robinson songs, all digital music. I’m going to be singing, triggering samples, running multi-tracks, playing keys. I think it’s going to be a very beautiful experience.” And he’s serious when adding, “Making the visuals, I was on the phone with them every day. No one fucks with the show.”
It’s been a long road prepping this tour, which will display copious nuggets he’s acquired over the years, having used them for his own creative personal life collage. “All the visuals are based off this mood board I’ve been compiling for the last few years. If I ever saw an image that provoked Worlds to me, I’d save it. I’d save it to a big mood board, so I just have this enormous wealth. [The tour is] just me in show form and I think fans that have followed me for a long time are going to have a great time. It will be different to people who have grown accustomed to watching me DJ, but it will be a rookie kind of live thing.”
Nearly forgetting these forthright words are coming from the mouth of a youngster who has just emerged from a post-adolescent slump, Robinson reminds us he’s still only 22 when he says, “And I think that girls are going to cry and stuff, it’s going to great.” He might still be young, but his mixture of innate smarts, resourcefulness and simplicity combine to make the greatness of Porter Robinson’s many worlds.
words: Sarah Polonsky