American producer Porter Robinson had already scaled the heights of EDM supremacy by the time he hit his twenties. As a staple of dance festival main stages across the globe, his meteoric rise was helped by hits like Language and Easy, with Mat Zo. At 22, with the release of his impressive debut album, Worlds, Robinson is already departing the EDM genre in search of a more expansive brand of electronica.
Worlds is a sprawling, cinematic collection, prefaced by pop-infused singles Sad Machine and Lionhearted, a far cry from his previous material. He’ll also be bringing a distinctly different set to Australia when he tours with Stereosonic in November, where he’s billed as a live act. The producer plans to play only his own material.
We caught up with Robinson just as Worlds was made available to stream online to talk about the immediate reaction to the album, his J-pop influences and his feelings towards EDM.
Music Feeds: How have the last few hours been, watching the response to the album?
Porter Robinson: It’s been bananas. I am very happy. With everything I do, I’m always an anxious person. I always anticipate the worst and get surprised if something good happens. I don’t know what I expected people to say, necessarily, but the sheer unbridled, positivity… There’s been no, “This is my problem with it,” it’s just been a dream reception overall. I’m kind of really pleased.
MF: How long has it been under lock and key for?
PR: The album has been done for quite sometime. The first song has been done for at least a year and a half now but the most recently written one, like Sad Machine was written maybe two months ago and that was tacked on at the end. It was a pretty critical decision too, because the first single was Sea Of Voice and the second single which was meant to come out was Flicker, but a day before that was meant to happen I wrote Sad Machine and said, “This is the one that needs to come out.” It was huge eleventh hour shit. But 90% of the album has been done for a long time.
MF: Was there a certain song that kicked you in the direction that the album ran with?
PR: Absolutely. Divinity was the first song that I thought, “This is what Worlds is going to feel like”. I think that was half of why I wanted it to be the first song on the album. In some ways, it puts you on the flow of the journey of how I got to the place I did musically. But more so I think that the riff that Divinity opens with, I wanted the album to begin with that riff. As much as I love big, expansive, beautiful breaks, I didn’t want to start the album with a big intro. I wanted to start the album straight away and give people a little treat from the beginning. Discovery by Daft Punk opens with One More Time and the big brass sample section, and that’s sheer magic to me.
MF: Thematically, it seems like a very cohesive album. Did you go in with anything in mind?
PR: Yeah. The main thing I wanted to help people feel was a sense of fantasy and escapism. I was channeling a lot of influences from fictional stuff like movie scores and video game soundtracks and anime soundtracks, a lot of the musical moves that they do to pull you in. Visually, I wanted to make an album that was evocative of fictional universes. I wanted to do the album cover and all the single covers in the style of concept art. Concept art does a great job of pulling you into a virtual universe right away. That’s what I was thinking both visually and thematically.
Watch: Porter Robinson – Sad Machine (Lyric Video)
MF: It’s a big change in sound from the start of your career until now. Are you happy with where you are at the moment?
PR: Yeah. I couldn’t be happier. I’ve been wanting to feel this well and this good about the music I put out for quite sometime now.
MF: It feels like everybody’s on board with the change. Your fans have come on board with you for Worlds.
PR: Yeah, I get that feeling. I think it’s because there’s a sense of faith that people understand the reasons for me doing this. They seem to get that I’m not changing to make a million dollars, I haven’t altered the style to get on the radio, this is the album I felt like I needed to do. And I think that is something that people have appreciated.
It’s really easy to fall back on cliches like “stick to your roots” or “remember who got you here in the first place” and all those various excuses that people use to keep artists from doing something new but from the start I’ve been changing things up. This is just a bigger evolution of that. I think that my fans have been trained over time to come to expect me to switch things up.
It raises the question, “What am I going to do next?” and I think that my next endeavours will be related to Worlds. The style of the album is something I feel very comfortable with. But it depends. I haven’t even opened the sequence to start writing the next album. It could be completely different. We’ll see.
MF: Did you feel that you were boxed in by a certain song structure?
PR: Yes, absolutely, that’s the biggest problem I had with EDM. Well, it’s probably the second biggest.
Within the song structure it’s incredibly challenging to write truly expressive music in the big room format. But my album I don’t consider to be anti-EDM. I think that there’s a lot of elements of that that I’ve retained. I love having a big loud chorus, that happens time and time again in Worlds.
When I hear people criticize me for calling out EDM, it’s like when I hear about people telling feminists that they’re not being feminists by dressing effeminately. I totally disagree. The true liberation lies in deciding what elements to use and what not. For me to truly be able to express myself I needed to be able to use some EDM when it felt right. I felt constrained by EDM but it doesn’t mean I think it’s bad.
Listen: Porter Robinson – Flicker
MF: In the live arena, how have your sets changed?
PR: I haven’t been touring, really. I would’ve liked have of been. I didn’t think I could keep doing my old DJ sets while this music was coming out. I felt like it would be sending mixed signals by playing bangers at big festival main stages while I’m trying to promote this new style. I didn’t want to do it half-arsed either by doing a small section of the show dedicated to my new songs and do the rest the same.
I knew that to really do this new music in a live setting I was going to have to go away for a while and when I come back make it exceptionally clear that I’m doing something different so that when I’m returning, which is in like two weeks, it’s Porter Robinson live. It’s all live music, it’s not other people’s music at all. I’ll be playing samples, running multi-tracks and playing keys. It wasn’t a subtle switch. It’s a hard switch from one style to the other. It may challenge some folks who haven’t caught up on the sound but it’s the only way in my opinion.
MF: Is that the set you’re bringing out to Australia in October?
PR: That’s right. The Stereosonic set will very much be new Porter.
MF: I wanted to talk about some of the influences on the album, particularly the Japanese ones and your fascination with Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and her songwriter Yasutaka Nakata. What do you find so fascinating about his songwriting?
PR: I think that it requires listening to a lot, but he is probably most well known for an act called Perfume. Perfume is now an older J-pop outfit but they were one of the biggest Japanese pop acts of all time. He wrote their music and produced for them. Another one was Castle. He gets really weird with crazy, tech-y, concept albums. And finally, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is another hugely successful product of his.
I think that he is a master of doing much of what I want to do. He writes stuff in a poppy format with hooks and bridges and verses but they’re always quirky and captivating. I think that a lot of Western pop, especially from the Swedish masters of pop writing, much of it feels cold and cynical and zoned in, in a lot of ways. Nakata’s music is always soulful, charming and expressive in some way.
I think probably the most straightforward way to explain his genius is to say that he uses pop format and almost-pop chords but he uses crazy, technical jazz chords and goes to the craziest moods but still makes it work. He gives his music a very unique character. It’s really the most genius pop ever. There are a lot of musicians that are inspired by him too. I know that Madeon is another one who really loves him.
MF: Finally, you recently talked to NME about the point at which you decided to switch up your music, and you went back to all the album’s you loved to rediscover what you loved about them. What were some of those albums?
PR: It’s not even necessarily albums. Sometimes it’s just going back and listening to a single song and finding out why it worked for me. But some formative albums for me were…the whole Stars discography is inspiring to me. I got to work with the vocalist Amy Millan on Divinity. Postal Service Give Up was definitely formative, so was Graduation by Kanye West. He’s my second favourite artist of all time. Discovery by Daft Punk is my favourite album ever.
Kind of what I was thinking when I said that wasn’t so much to say that I wanted to go in and copy my favourite elements of their music. I think the real revelation was the thing that made them great was the sense of identity they have. They were mavericks in one way, all of them. They were rebellious and wrote music that went against the grain. It wasn’t just for the sake of doing something different, they really insisted upon what they love.
Watch: Porter Robinson – Lionhearted