2014 Artist of the Year | Porter Robinson
We found the DJ/producer/musician in his hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina and talked about his banner year, writer's block and some surprising insights about that whole EDM thing.
It's the second Friday in December and Porter Robinson is at home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His sprawling tour supporting his debut album, Worlds, is behind him, as are a string of festival dates. He is officially off the clock but happily stands up to greet a pair of fans who cautiously approach him in an artsy cafe.
"We're both pretty avid EDM fans," says a young woman who introduces herself as Nadia. "He actually noticed, I didn't," she says, gesturing to her friend, Tyler.
The three chat for a few minutes about the local dance music scene and UNC Chapel Hill before the two admirers say their goodbyes and Robinson sits back down. "That's a really unusual experience to have people recognize me," he says, pleasantly surprised. "That never happens."
So at ease with the experience that Robinson barely blinks at Nadia's mention of "EDM." As recently as two years ago, Robinson was one of the few pegged to be the oft-maligned genre's next big stars. However, uninterested in the road to EDM fame, Robinson instead disregarded the drops and released a melodic, at times ambient album earlier this year on acclaimed label Astralwerks. It was an unintentionally savvy move, as Robinson immediately reaped the rewards of a fanbase who had also grown tired of the main stage formulas of the past four years. For much of 2014, Robinson made concerted efforts in the press and on social media to distance himself from his earlier work so as to make clear to his fans that Worlds was not something they had heard from him before. Still, EDM lingers.
"When somebody comes up to me and tells me they love EDM, there's a part of me that goes, 'I wonder if they've heard the album,'" he admits. "But there's another part of me that goes 'fuck it man, this person is showing love to you and recognizing who you are.' That's just cool on the most surface level way."
"Like all of my opinions there's always some kind of correction going on," he continues. "I've softened my views on that term. Me and Skrillex hadn't caught up in some time and I had the opportunity to sit on his jet with him for five hours. We talked about EDM, we talked about the term. He was like, 'part of what's so appealing to me about it is that mom and dad don't get it,' you know what I mean?"
Ironically for Robinson, his own parents very much do get what he does. In the early years of his DJ career, Robinson's father would stand on the side of the stage, watching his son play in venues he was not legally old enough to attend. Now 22, Robinson tours on his own but still hasn't bothered to move out of his family's house.
"The warmest place I've ever been is my home here in Chapel Hill," he says. "It's an oasis of comfort and joy for me."
Robinson grew up in what he describes as a very religious household; both of his parents are Anglican Protestants and active in their faith community. When he turned 12, young Porter asked if he could stop going to church and his parents agreed. "Every once in a while my mom would say 'how are you doing with your faith?' And we would talk about it," he says, while adding that both of his parents are open-minded and "good fucking people."
With Christmas a few weeks away, Robinson's older brother has come home from San Francisco to join Porter and their two younger brothers for a family reunion the musician couldn't be happier about. "My relationship with my brothers... it's almost weird," he explains. "We've never fought, we finish each other's sentences, but not in a creepy way. We talk about the things that we love and share music with each other. There's a really high emphasis on having good taste in my household and having nuanced opinions. We're always critically analyzing stuff."
As much as he loves spending his downtime close to his family, there are some limitations of Chapel Hill. For one, there's only one direct flight to Las Vegas from nearby Raleigh-Durham airport. And there are music-related logistical issues too.
"It's kind of hard for me to record vocals out here," he says. "I want my new music to be vocal-oriented. I don't really have a great studio in my bedroom."
Since returning home this month, Robinson says he's been struggling with a minor bout of writer's block. While nobody would expect a follow-up release this soon after Worlds, he says he feels some internal pressure to put out new music.
"It's definitely a feedback cycle going on with me right now. I'm really happy I got out of the house today," he laughs. "If I could turn it on like a faucet then I think it would be kind of unearned. I feel like you need to struggle a little bit to make anything good."
He shifts to a lighter tone: "But if I could, I think I'd be one of the best artists ever."
To understand Robinson as an artist is to understand the magnitude of the risk he took with Worlds. After signing to Astralwerks (following a much talked-about bidding war with several other major labels), the expectation in the industry and by many fans was that Robinson would either make the Great EDM Crossover Album or at least continue the momentum of success he had enjoyed as a festival mainstay and Vegas resident DJ. While sold-out tour dates and a Top 20 debut for Worlds offer some validation that his neither/nor path forward was, in fact, the right one, Robinson's own metric of success is more rooted in the approval of other artists and fans who he feels understand more now about who he is than they could have before.
"The type of people who I feel like I relate to are now really fucking with me and my existing fanbase seems to have really enjoyed this album," he says. "People are picking up on the moments I cared about the most."
"I feel like I have nothing to prove right now which feels good. I felt all this pressure for the longest time, like I need to be so much better understood than I was before. But now I have this album out and I feel like I'm really at a place where I'm happy."
In true Porter Robinson fashion, however, those happy thoughts don't go uncontested. "It's like people seem to really like me, so is there about to be this backlash?" he poses. "That is always my thought process."
As with his evolving views on "EDM," Robinson is more comfortable than before talking about his ongoing commitment in Las Vegas, where he holds a monthly residency at Marquee and visits his long-distance girlfriend, who happens to live in the city. Fans expecting a Worlds-style Robinson in Vegas might be disappointed, as he unabashedly delivers DJ sets more in line with his previous electro style.
"There's some part of me that feels the need to justify doing that but the real part of me is like 'fuck no, right on!'" he says. "I love going to Vegas. I go to Vegas and my girlfriend and me schedule three amazing restaurants to go to and we get boba multiple times a day. I get to play a show and get kind of drunk and DJ in a way that I otherwise can't. It's kind of dope."
That the party perks of DJing in Sin City have only just now occurred to Robinson speaks to his work ethic and the passion for music (rather than fame, fortune or partying) that motivates him. While he still plans to toil on new material in the coming months, he hasn't decided if this is the start of a new album session (he says he's leaning towards releasing something more "nimble" before a sophomore LP). Even as he is somewhat tortured about the speed of his productivity at the moment, he excitedly talks about all that he is currently listening to (Jai Paul, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, Jack Ü) and his ongoing mission to further establish tropes within his sound.
"I've lusted after this idea of having a signature with my music," he says, a topic he's talked about before. "I feel like that exists in Worlds. 'Sad Machine,' 'Divinity,' 'Flicker' are the three tracks that I think have those kinds of climaxes that are super loud and 90 bpm. I don't know anyone else who's writing music that sounds like that. I have something that feels like a sound now. I wanted that so much."
"Part of my instinct was to come home and try to write more music like that and that's how I've gotten stuck," he explains. "I'm just trying to find new ways to keep it special. I don't want to be redundant but I also want to embrace the signature. It's going to take time and there's a balance to be struck."
While there is no album on the schedule for 2015 as of yet, Robinson says he will return to festival stages (he started to briefly at Australia's Stereosonic this month). While they won't all be dance music festivals, Robinson is devout in his affiliation with all that is electronic.
"Who is not listening to electronic music of some kind right now? Who didn't listen to the Rustie album?" he wonders. "The biggest thing I ever did on the internet was I posted on Twitter 'electronic music forever' and that got more retweets than anything [2.1k]. It was a super simple message but it's something I really feel I can stand behind. I don't really give a shit about rock music but I fucking love hip-hop and I fucking love electronic music."
Who can say it better than that?