When a musical phenomenon begins permeating the popular spaces it was never expected to, people get confused and scared. What results are knee-jerk reactions. Most will gravitate towards it, both out of genuine love for the music and for fear that they might be left out. Some will instinctually criticize the style to make a point about individuality or stick their nose up in snobbish disgust. And of course, there will always be the dinosaurs who prefer the comfort and familiarity of ancient tar to unknown air.
Electronic music has long passed the spastic chaos of arrival in the collective consciousness. Skrillex’s three Grammy awards can attest to that. At this point, it does no good to challenge the form for its musical merits – you’ll come across as a 1960s catholic father who’s just come home to discover his daughters bouncing on the bed, listening to the sexualized guitar licks of longhairs. This is the time to appreciate electronic music, to recognize it as an artistic progression because right now it’s the only type of music that has an upward trajectory. It’s time to celebrate the young talents like Porter Robinson. The signatures on Robinson’s high school yearbook have barely dried and he is already a worldwide name, touring packed venues with unique arrangements and mixes. A conversation with Robinson reveals the intuitive, mature intellect that lies beneath the thumping pulse of his music and a young man who has no intention of fading out.
How did you get your start producing and DJing?
I started writing music when I was about 12 because I heard electronic music in video games and stuff like that. I wasn’t listening to a lot of other music at the time and I just really dug it so I downloaded some programs online, first a program called Acid and then FL Studio which is what I still use now. I was mainly writing tracks to put out on the internet and to try to impress other musicians who I felt had high standards. I just wanted to share the sound. Eventually I started to gain fans here and there and then I got a number 1 on Beatport with “Say My Name”. I had never seen a DJ, I had never played anywhere but I started getting booking requests to go play shows out on the West Coast. I was 18 and had no concept of any of this. I taught myself how to DJ and flew out there, met my manager and played my first couple shows. I found that I really enjoyed it and that’s my story.
What was your first booking?
My first show was at a small club in Santa Cruz. After that I played at an event in San Francisco called Blowup. For that one I actually travelled with my dad, who was completely baffled by the whole thing. He wanted to feel it out and he ended up having a great time. Now he totally understands the whole scene; he can tell Skrillex from Wolfgang Gartner. [laughs] At first I’m sure it was very strange for him, and it was also strange for me. It would make more sense if I was going to see DJs all the time but I wasn’t doing that – I’m from Chapel Hill, North Carolina and we don’t really have a lot of DJs here. I was too young to go to clubs anyways.
What’s the biggest show you’ve played?
Probably the Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas. I think there were some tens of thousands of people there. As far as my own headline shows I’ve sold roughly 1500-2000 tickets. My biggest accomplishment was probably selling out The Music Box in L.A. 2 months before the event. That was insane, it blew everyone’s minds in our camp. Everyone’s doing well right now so it’s not unique. This scene is just exploding.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen in the crowd at your shows?
It would have to be frosh week in Vancouver; the drunkest college students you’ve ever seen. These kids were so wasted that they were getting up on the stage and stage diving, trying to clear a gap that they just could not clear. They kept hitting the ground and so many kids did it. It was like a mass suicide, it was unreal. [laughs]
Do you have a pre-show routine? Do you make any strange requests in your rider, like 50 pastrami sandwiches on rye or 12 bottles of Zima imported from Japan?
I used to be kind of superstitious about it, you know I needed to drink some coffee or have a Red Bull, but I’ve come to realize that those things mostly don’t matter. Now I’ve got a more Zen approach, I just sort of let it happen. In my rider we ask for the standard technical stuff and send in a ‘do not play’ list for the opener but for the most part we don’t ask for much. I don’t want to eat or drink a bunch of bullshit before I start playing anyways. The crazy rider stuff is mainly a way of telling the promoters ‘you need to be really on top of this, you need to be paying attention because we don’t fuck around’. That’s why people ask for green M&Ms or whatever. It works and it gets people talking so it’s cool but it was never really my thing.
What I’m really finding is that this style of hard electronic music, people are making in all tempos. Electro is 128 BPM (beats per minute), dubstep is 140 and moombahton is 110 but artists are exploring that whole range in between all those tempos and what’s happening is people can’t even distinguish them at this point. You could go on a dubstep video and the top comment will be “Hey you fucking idiots this is moombahton,” and no one can tell, they just want to be right. The next thing to emerge won’t be a genre, it’ll be an attitude because all these tempo-specific genres are so definite that they’re not very useful anymore. And who the hell would have predicted that dubstep was going to be the next big thing, that this super slow bass music was going to be the jam? It’s always impossible to predict.
Have you been approached about producing pop songs?
All the time. I’ve just got to swat them down left and right. [laughs] I don’t hate pop music and in fact I think one of the most detrimental and pervasive attitudes in society is the whole anti-pop, ‘fuck this because people enjoy it’ mentality. At the same time I don’t want to delve into pop production because I want to maintain a certain credibility and have that hipster sensibility. I think the one easy way to kill your career is to sacrifice coolness for money. You should always be about having the best look and then the money comes later, if you care about that.
You mentioned the issue of people having an anti-pop mentality and as the music continues to grow we’ve seen that reach electronic producers. For example, here in Canada the mob slowly turned on Deadmau5 as he became more well-known. It sounds crazy but with your rise in popularity, have you faced any kind of backlash?
I’m sure that’s very true in Toronto. If you look at the YouTube comments on Deadmau5, they say things like “this guy is so mainstream”, meanwhile he’s making 12-minute long tech-house which is the absolute antithesis of mainstream. Also, the way people have turned on Skrillex in the last year or so has been sad for me to watch. I’ve seen a couple people who I identified as my fans, who were really into me in the first two months drop off but for the most part I’ve experienced very little of that. I think people are still generally down and one way to keep people on board is that credibility I mentioned before. There are a lot of artists who have maintained mainstream success, like Ratatat for example, who people don’t reject for their popularity because they’ve stayed mysterious and kept their brand strong. As long as you’re consistent and your old fans can never say ‘wow, this dude’s really changed’ then you can hold onto your long-time fans.
When you made the track “The State” did you set out to make a song about that subject or did you start with the sample and build from there?
Man, every time I talk about “The State” I get in some type of trouble so I’ll be very careful about what I say. [laughs] I found that Murray Rothbard sample to be compelling and it was a nice crystallization of where I was at politically at that time. I made that song really, really quickly and that’s about all I have to say about it.
How would you describe your production space and process?
It’s always just me and it’s been that way since the beginning. I don’t really have a studio either, it’s just my bedroom. It’s my desk, an old crappy desktop computer, no hardware, no synths, all me and my software. I produced every song that anyone has ever heard by me on $100 Logitech speakers. It’s all been very low-fi and I think that’s still a totally viable approach in 2012.