Here’s to You, Mr. Robinson
Porter Robinson has taken plenty of risks in the last year – he’s changed his ever-popular “EDM” sound for something more emotional, focused, and personal, as evident by his most recent album Worlds, released this past August. I had the absolute pleasure of interview Porter during some (very rare) downtime on his Worlds Tour and got a look into the intricate, articulate mind of one of the industry’s most creative and involved music-makers.
TBM: Your music, and especially on this new album (Worlds), seems different than a lot of what’s out there today, including your own previous work. I have a quote from you saying “I think that if you’re making any kind of art you have to keep the receptions out of your head, make a real effort not to think of what dance fans would make of it, or what your biggest fans would make of it, or whether people who write about music professionally would think it was cool… I’m trying to do stuff that’s personal, honest, and sincere.” Could you speak a little to this statement in regards to the new album?
PR: Yeah, absolutely! In retrospect it doesn’t seem as scary, but the concept of going from what I was doing before, which was just such a sure thing, and to doing this new material, it’s risky by nature. I knew that this was the kind of music I wanted to write, so it was important for me to be able to do my best job in writing it. I needed to keep considerations of how it would be received out of my head, it was the practical thing to do. Anything that would make me stray the course is a negative influence. As a self-conscious person I had to make a concerted effort to not think about reception.
TBM: After listening to Worlds a few times as well as and seeing the videos, it’s apparent to me, anyway, that it’s a concept album. Would you agree with that? If so, what’s the story you’re telling?
PR: To me, Worlds is not like a rock opera, it’s not itself a story, but I think rather Worlds is supposed to be an appreciation of stories and it’s about stories in general. The album takes on the aesthetics of fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, and imaginary media that people have made throughout history. That stuff is very dear to me; as a kid I don’t think there was any bigger influence on me and my taste than video games. So, I wanted to write music that I hoped would evoke those kinds of feelings – feelings of escape and imagination. While I think that there’s some points of the album that kind of suggest a story, I really feel the directive is that it’s about stories, and is not a story itself.
TBM: There’s no doubt that the music you’re making is awesome, but your music videos are also really cool. Do you have any creative input when it comes to the videos? Can you speak a little bit to their creation?
PR: When it comes to video, visuals, tour visuals, concept art for the record, cover art, I couldn’t be more involved without actually physically wrestling the pencil and making them myself. It was super important to me that my idea for what this album looked like be understood by every single artist I worked with. So, before the album was even done, I created two documents to share with every visual artist I’ve worked with. The first was just like a mood board where I compiled a lot of imagery that evoked the feeling of the album – so like certain anime stylings, a particular kind of landscape, and a certain sensibility. It just became a list; like 200 images combined into a nice little PDF, to show people, to say, “Hey, this is what the album looks like. Choose these kinds of colors, lots of purples and blues.” I was showing them Dungeons and Dragons concept art and magic cards! The second document was a written style bible, which was a 15 page written document that I wrote up for these artists. Like, here’s an example of what this sort of thing talks about: I talk about surrealism; in the surrealism category I talk about how there’s a particular kind of surrealism that I enjoy that’s inspired by little weird idiosyncrasies in video games and glitches that are not ever meant to be trippy or psychedelic. When I would tell people I wanted them to make surreal, they would just send me some Alice in Wonderland bullshit, so it was just needed for me to be super super clear in my direction; in part because of just self-consciousness, but also because I’m kind of misunderstood.
As far as the music videos go, I was super super close to them, and I initiated this concept art project where I reached out to 50 of my favorite net artists and I could get commissions from all of them to draft up concept art for the album and my skeleton is in every single part of the visuals. It’s so important to me that it be right. For example, I started a short film that was supposed to accompany the album. It was wildly expensive and I didn’t like it, so we threw it away. That’s how critical the art direction is to me and how close it is to me.
TBM: You’ve incorporated a lot of the live element into this tour, between the sampling and live vocals. What was the drive behind that decision and what do you think it adds to the show?
PR: Funny thing is, if anything, I think I first wanted to call the show “Porter Robinson Live” because I wanted to distinguish it from my previous DJ sets. This needs to be named something else, otherwise people are gonna come in expecting me to do the DJ work I had done in the past. The show is really integral to the idea of the album. From there it became “Well shit, how do I actually make this thing live?” First, I experimented with playing lead parts on keys and incorporating live synthesizers, singing, and I just loved it, so I embraced that. It was just like let me make this the bare minimum thing I can do to call it live, just so I can distinguish this from my former shows, but then it really became a passion project for me. I really enjoyed it; it’s more exciting for me, and it just adds a certain improvisational element. There are some nights where I just wanna play out the vocal of a song with no instrumentation behind it… if the feeling is right. If people are being loud and expecting a big party and they would totally just talk over a more sensitive piece, I’m able to make those kinds of considerations on the fly. I can change the chord progression on whatever I’m playing to influence the feeling of the whole atmosphere of everything if the situation calls for it. I think it just kind of switches on this feeling that helps me enjoy the show more.
TBM: I’ve seen you play live twice, once at a club in Las Vegas and once at Bonnaroo 2013. Those shows consisted more of your DJ set work, so can describe the process for engineering an appropriate set based on where you’re playing or the crowd?
PR: Well I think that DJ sets can be a little more easily catered to an audience because you’re just literally selecting songs and that is really the extent of the challenge – picking the right music and it is what it is. In the live show, it’s more just brute force approach where I’m saying “Hey, I’m only playing my songs, you’re only gonna hear Porter Robinson music tonight, and you can like it or you won’t.” I think that, like the album, it’s a more bold approach to a live show because you definitely run the risk of disappointing people, and you’re not just free to pander, so I like it.
TBM: What can fans expect from your show at the Myth in St Paul?
PR: Uuuuuhhhh feels. Just lots of feels. I guess it’s just emotional. But it’s also not afraid to be loud at times, and I think it’s really quite exciting for people not to expect it to be a party and not expect it to be a rave, it’s definitely not that. It’s a concert, a show where I’m singing and playing instruments. People who like my music should go and see it!
TBM: I can say that I’m insanely excited to go; I can’t wait. I’ve been looking forward to this since your album came out!
PR: That’s so awesome, I’ll see you there!
See you tonight, Porter. I’ll be in crowd, waiting for the feels.
3090 Southlawn Dr, St Paul, MN 55109
Tickets available online until 4:00PM CST 9/25. Some tickets will be available at the door.
Article by Lauren Dargus
Photo Credit: Rachel Epstein (Local Wolves)
Music Videos Compliments of Porter Robinson