Talking to Porter Robinson is something of a tightrope gig. I’m called, on the morning of our proposed conversation, by somebody from his PR team who wants to make sure I’ve read the spiel.
“Don’t worry,” she says, “I just wanted to make sure you knew what was happening…” A ripe pause, and then she starts to read from some unseen document. The carefully crafted life story is shaken out from the formaldehyde and shown to me, a slideshow of precocious feats framed by careful qualification.
As a 12-year-old boy, tweaking absent-mindedly on the pirated software he’d downloaded to his mum’s computer, Porter was little more than another digit in the great American game. One more anonymous bedroom-lurker, screen-glazed eyes focused on crafting a passable break, a bundle of pre-teen anxieties chugging along on a diet of Sunny Delight and throwaway fiction.
Porter was there – but then, as if some great deity had clapped their hands and summoned light, he was somewhere else. A 16-year-old schoolboy fumbling his way through his first live show and then, the light again: two years gone, 18 years old and on top of the iTunes dance chart with ‘Language’, on stage with Skrillex, thrusting swarms of ‘bros’ below.
And then, suddenly, as if the last eight years had been nothing more than a series of carefully curated public appearances, we’re here: 21 years old, and in search of a change of scene.
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Porter Robinson, ‘Language’
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If the American Dream is anything, TV tells us, it’s attainable. And there was Porter, young and successful, the very creature inches away from his outstretched net; the perfect closing paragraph to a neat, little story. One flick of the wrist, a brief struggle, and then happily ever after. But something felt wrong.
Surprisingly perhaps, Porter, the one-time EDM poster-boy, isn’t particularly bothered by the criticism that’s sometimes levelled at Electronic Dance Music.
“I think the most common discussion about dance music right now, even amongst dance fans, is about how bad it’s gotten, and how completely homogenised the sound has become.” It’s a realisation that was, in no small part, the reason behind his decision, early last year, to take some time off and reassess the direction in which his career was headed.
Although Porter insists that what prompted this retreat was “more of a gradient than one eureka moment”, the straw that broke the camel’s back or, rather, the moment when, as he tells it, he knew he needed some time to think, came on tour with fellow producers Mat Zo and The M Machine in late 2012.
“I remember being in the back of my tour bus, and we were all just listening to our favourite music, and sharing tracks, and we did that for an hour, and there was not a single dance record that any of us wanted to play for each other.”
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I'm trying to do stuff that’s personal, honest and sincere...
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The American Dream, which Porter brushes off as an “elevated notion of entrepreneurship”, was never much of a concern for the chart-topping North Carolina producer. He still lives with his parents, spends “literally no money at all”, and has worked hard – not to climb the greasy pole of commercial success, but just to get himself “into a space” where he doesn’t “have to take every opportunity and do every pop collaboration” that gets dangled in front of him.
While the change in sound heralded by the cinematic slow-burner ‘Sea Of Voices’, premiered two months ago and already hovering at well over a million SoundCloud plays, is dramatic, and Porter insists he “keeps expecting this enormous backlash”, the remodelling doesn’t appear to have dented his ever-increasing following. Quite the opposite, in fact.
“I’ve seen a couple of tweets on the Internet like,” he adopts a goofy fan-boy drawl, “‘Hey, fans of CHVRCHES and M83, listen to this’.” It’s a welcome boost to his fanbase which, while a “nice extra thing”, was, he insists, “far from the reason” behind his decision to move away from his old EDM sound.
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Porter Robinson, ‘Sea Of Voices’
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Indeed, while achieving the sort of critical acclaim that groups such as CHVRCHES have would, as he puts it, “definitely be cool”, and he doesn’t deny paying “attention to the music” that sites like Pitchfork and Fader post, it’s not the critics he’s trying to impress.
“I think that if you’re making any kind of art you have to keep the reception 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.” Instead, he’s focusing on “trying to do stuff that’s personal, honest and sincere”.
In fact, Porter isn’t particularly worried about impressing anybody except, perhaps, the 12-year-old kid he once was. “The music I’m making today,” he confides, “is directly referencing nostalgia for the stuff that I did when I was 12. I used to be really, really deeply obsessed with massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), like World Of Warcraft and Diablo. I played a couple of different ones, but I really, really lived in these worlds and really, really loved them and they were super significant to me.”
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('Worlds') doesn’t really have a place in reality...
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With ‘Worlds’, his forthcoming debut album, Porter is making a conscious effort to step back into these fragile realms which, “once the company goes under, or the game is no longer profitable” can’t simply be “put on your shelf” to come back to “10 years later”. “Once these games are gone, these worlds are completely inaccessible,” he says, then pauses. “They basically just die.”
With the album therefore, Porter is making you a ghost of his childhood haunts. But these aren’t the picket-fenced avenues of suburban America. The topography is similar, but beneath the clapboard acres and happy families the real America of Porter’s childhood lurks, compressed in the grey, plastic recesses of a home computer.
‘Worlds’ is, ultimately, not about reinvention but recreation, a point reinforced by Porter’s use of vintage samples stripped from Japanese video games, arcade classics and Nintendo 64 soundboards. The story here is, therefore, not of an EDM artist in search of greener pastures and larger crowds but, rather, of a 21-year-old musician clambering back through his history to make an album for the 12-year-old boy he once was.
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Porter Robinson, ‘Sad Machine’
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Which is not to say, as he’s quick to point out, that the album is some sort of over-dramatic ‘rock opera’. Indeed, while tracks such as ‘Sad Machine’, which features a duet with a synthesised female voice, have a strong conceptual lean, as Porter sees it the central subject matter isn’t any particular fiction but fiction as a whole. ‘Worlds’, as he puts it, “doesn’t really have a place in reality”. Unreality is a big subject to take on, but then: this is America. The land where the sun rises each morning, the grass glows at night and reality is just another roadside attraction by the endless, rolling tarmac of the American Dream.
Porter tells Clash early in our interview that he feels “people are interested in fiction, no matter what,” and he’s right. More than that, he’s living proof. Porter Robinson, above all else, is a tricky set of fictions struggling for primacy.
There’s the precocious EDM child prodigy turned ‘serious-artist’ fiction, the outline of which is sketched in his PR profile. There’s the fictional version of Porter we meet, briefly, and only as a disembodied voice, one sunny Tuesday afternoon. There’s the Porter found in the shapes, quirks and nostalgia of his upcoming debut album. And finally, after however many hundred other incarnations, there’s the actual Porter, sat in a hotel room in some anonymous American city, waiting for room service.
The closest Clash gets to this ‘real’ Porter, comes in an anecdote snuck in a minute or so before the line clicks dead. “The song that is now the first song on the album,” he confides, in answer to no particular line of enquiry, “I just made to show to my younger brother and my older brother, because they have a lot in common with my taste. And I was just so happy [to be] writing music that I actually, really liked and then…” – his cheery chatter is getting faster now – “…I was like, ‘This should be on the record!’”
He pauses, his grin almost audible down the line. “And then I was like, no, this music is what the record should be. That’s kind of how it happened.”
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Words: Rob Knaggs
Photography: Ithaka Roddam
Fashion: Lola Chatterton
This interview appears in Clash’s new American Dream-themed issue, starring Lana Del Rey on its cover. Check it out and buy a copy here.
Find Porter Robinson online here. ‘Worlds’ is due for release in August.