Porter Robinson on Colorado rage heads and the importance of having your own style as a DJ
Porter Robinson started making electronic music at the age of thirteen using Sony ACID Pro, but he didn't perform his music live in front of an audience until a handful of years later. Since then, Robinson, now on the cusp of being twenty years old, has led a bit of a charmed existence for any modern purveyor of electronic dance music. He's been a part of the OWSLA tour with Skrillex, shared stages with the some of the biggest names in his chosen musical style, and performed at multiple large music festivals. But when you listen to his music, it's clear he's not a cookie-cutter artist who jumped on a bandwagon.
Like any worthwhile artist in any style or tradition, Robinson definitely brings a signature sound to his music with an artful blending of beats and synthesizer composition, improvised and otherwise, with no obvious attempt to mimic his peers. We caught up with Robinson and talked about how he got started as a DJ, how he came to know Skrillex, and why it's important to avoid feeling like they have to do what everyone else is doing.
Westword: In an interview with Easy Love Records, you said that being an outsider allows you to have creative freedom. Why do you feel that's true?
Porter Robinson: I think it means I'm less tethered to some of the mores and conventions of deejaying. I came in without ever having really seen a DJ before. My first DJ show that I played, I'd seen one DJ before in my entire life. So I felt like I had kind of a virgin perspective untainted by having seen a bunch of rigidly formatted DJ sets before. It kind of lent me a fresh perspective.
You got started making music pretty early in life. How did you get involved with the live aspect of the music?
I'd been making electronic music for five or six years, and I'd been getting fans based on the music I had released. People started requesting that I go and perform at their venue. Of course, at that time, I'd never seen a DJ, but eventually, we found the right show to make my first one, and I went and did it. It's kind of a baptism by fire, but otherwise it was kind of unexceptional. I think that's how it works for most producer DJs.
What did you do to balance being so involved in making and performing music and school?
I did all the work assigned to me, and I did it well. I graduated from high school, and I got into the school I wanted to, which was UNC Chapel Hill. I ended up choosing not to go -- I deferred. Right now, I'm just gigging and playing live shows. It was not an easy balancing act, but it was doable. I just had to work hard.
In The College Invasion mini-documentary, you mention "Boulder, Colorado, rage heads" and other types of people who come to your shows. What is it about the kind of music you're involved in making do you think allows so many different kinds of people connect?
I'm not sure. I think that's true for most artists -- they have different demographics of people that appreciate their music. I don't know if it's anything specific about my style but I think moreover electronic music has definitely brought different kinds of people together. You have your bros and your ravers and your hipster dance people. Then you have normal ass people going to go see shows. In that particular piece of the documentary, somebody asked me who it was that went to see my shows, and I was like, "Well there's all sorts of stereotypes that exist that attend electronic music shows."
Do you play differently to different crowds if you feel a different kind of vibe, and how would you say you do so?
The question of [what role] improvisation has, and the DJ is a big one, especially lately, because there's been some controversy around that point. I definitely have my routines, and I stick to them, but most importantly, when I improvise, I have more fun, and that translates into energy for the crowd. If I pull a move that I think is really sick and really smart and I get excited, the crowd sees it. Overall, the goal is to put on the best show possible, and sometimes improvisation is a means to that end.
When you mention a controversy, what is it you're referring to specifically?
Recently Deadmau5, who is one of the more notable musicians in this style, was quoted in an interview of having accused some of his peers of just pushing buttons and not really doing anything live. And people turned that criticism right back at him. Then he published another blog post saying, "Well, in the end, we're all just pushing buttons." It wasn't a huge deal, but that was the majority of the controversy right there.
Obviously Skrillex has championed your music and you've cited him as someone making music you enjoy and respect. What is it about his music you appreciate, and how did you meet him?
I met Skrillex through a guy who used to be my manager. He was booking a club out of Santa Cruz, and my manager put on my music in the car, and Skrillex really liked it. I think he's one of the best sound designers in the world. He's just a master of synthesis. He's an incredible hit writer, and his live performances are amazing and energetic. And I think he's just one of the nicest people in the entire music industry that I know.
The thing with Skrillex is that he's an example of someone who's massively successful without ever selling out. All he did was make the music that he loved and millions of people got on board, as opposed to other electronic musicians who just pander to the mainstream pop audience. He never pandered. He only did whatever it is that he wanted, and I have enormous respect for him for that.
You've done some high profile remixes. What kind of feedback have you received from those artists if you have received feedback?
I don't get feedback. For example, I don't know if Lady Gaga has ever heard my remix. As far remixing huge pop acts, I don't know if it's something I'd do again. I don't think I really benefited much from it. It was the kind of opportunity I looked at because remixing a huge, major pop act seems like a once-in-a-lifetime thing, but in the end, her fans just want to hear her music, and my fans don't want to hear Lady Gaga especially.
You seem to have a pretty balanced and measured approach to doing what you do without seeming to compromise any of your enthusiasm for it. What do you feel has kept you grounded and realistic about being involved in music on the level you've been?
I think in large part my upbringing has helped me to keep some perspective on what really matters. My favorite thing in the world is just to go home and be at my parents' and with my family and with my dogs and my bedroom. That's one thing I fantasize about doing. I think I had really great, responsible, smart parents who really instilled decent priorities in me.
But moreover, I don't get involved with the drugs or any of the crazy excesses of touring. All I'm interested in doing, really, is putting on a good show for my true, hardcore fans singing all my songs. That's my goal for touring. Beyond that, all this is extra. Making music is my favorite thing in the world, and touring is kind of how I spread the word. In other words, I don't live to tour and to have a crazy, super exciting lifestyle. I do that because it's important and it means a lot to my fans and all of that.
There's no denying I like looking at my Twitter and [seeing] people saying nice things about me all the time. It would be ridiculous to deny there's an appeal to that. It's definitely not the most important thing.
If someone wanted to get involved in making electronic music right now, what would you recommend as a first step and some things to be aware of in developing his or her sound?
Well, I mean, the advice I would give someone who is starting to produce depends on what level they're at. I could give advice what sound sets they need to start using, and I have suggestions I'd really recommend like samples and CDs. I'd recommend certain synthesizers like Native Instruments Massive.
More broadly, the advice that I'd give to up-and-coming musicians is that they should avoid feeling like they have to do what everyone else is doing. One, it's devoid of art just copying people. It can help you to learn to write music by emulating other people. But to try to succeed through copying just doesn't work. I don't think it's possible to become significantly successful through just imitation. So I would just say focus on having your own style. Even if it sucks at first, it's better to try to be unique than it is to emulate. I know I spent years and years copying and it never benefitted me.
Porter Robinson, with the M Machine and Mat Zo, 8:30 p.m. Friday, July 6, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street, $26.50, 303-786-7030, all ages; with the M Machine and Mat Zo, 8 p.m. Saturday, July 7, Ogden Theater, $26.50/$30, 303-832-1874, 16+