'I Expected a Backlash': Porter Robinson Talks 'Virtual' Music, Denouncing EDM, and Online Games

Porter Robinson Billboard 2014
Ryan Pfluger

Porter Robinson photographed by Ryan Pfluger on June 9, 2014 at Hotel on Rivington in New York.

Porter Robinson still misses the digital worlds he grew up in. The 21-year-old breakout star of the post-EDM “beatsy” scene, as he describes it, spent most of his adolescence immersed in so-called massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) like Star Wars Galaxies and City of Heroes. “The thing that’s different about MMORPGs as opposed to single-player games is that, if the company goes under, the world ceases to exist because you have to be connected to their server,” explains Robinson. “I could no longer access these places that were so, so dear to me. It was emotionally significant for me.”

Porter Robinson: The Billboard Photo Shoot

Robinson’s longing for these dead micro-universes drives his debut LP, "Worlds" (due Aug. 12 on Astralwerks/EMI), a gorgeous, and sometimes genius, departure from the big-stage EDM bangers with which he made his name. After four years of touring with “complextro” — a high-energy, rapid-fire mishmash of electronic textures that Skrillex popularized around 2010 -- Robinson realized the music he wanted to make was rooted in the virtual, not in the festival-going masses pogoing to massive beat drops.

“It’s not an album that concerns itself with reality,” he tells Billboard at Manhattan’s Hotel on Rivington, pushing aside a thatch of brown hair. “It’s about escapism and fantasy. It’s meant to evoke worlds you experience in literature and games and movies.”

The intersection of music and video games may seem like an odd inspiration for an album, but it’s foundational for Robinson: He first discovered dance music when his older brother brought home the arcade game Dance Dance Revolution. “I loved the score,” he says. “It was exotic to me.”

In pursuit of the songs featured in the game, Robinson discovered the frenetic pounding electro of Berlin DJ Boys Noize and aggro enthusiast Wolfgang Gartner. Using free online software, he spliced together machine-gun mixes of distorted vocal snippets and shuddering bass hits. One of these early tracks, “Say My Name,” shot to No. 1 on the influential dance hub Beatport shortly after he posted it online. That’s when he started getting asked to tour.

“This dude was like, ‘I’ll pay you $500 to come to Portland [Ore.] and DJ,’ ” he says, “and I was like, ‘Well, shit -- let me learn how to DJ and I’ll get right on that!’ ”

Following supporting slots for Tiesto and Deadmau5 in 2011, Robinson’s debut EP, Spitfire (which peaked at No. 10 on Billboard’s Heatseekers Albums chart and No. 11 on Dance/Electronic Albums, and has sold 23,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan), became the first release on Skrillex’s OWSLA label. The next year, he performed at all the major EDM festivals before finding himself “with this kind of angst,” he recalls. “I felt [EDM] had gotten super-homogenized and limiting in terms of artistic expression.”

Robinson retreated to his parents’ basement in Chapel Hill, N.C., where he spent the next year or so revisiting soundtracks to ’90s and ’00s-era Nintendo 64 games. “These old, crappy Yamaha keyboards, fake-sounding guitars,” he says. “To most people they don’t sound lo-fi yet. They don’t sound retro. It’s kind of a new nostalgia.”

Worlds echoes beautifully with these sounds: nasal chord progressions and thunking drum pads on “Years of War,” gritty blips and mechanical strings peppering “Polygon Dust.” Overall, the album seems to owe more to the spacious -electro-pop of Passion Pit and M83 than Porter’s old OWSLA boss. It sometimes slams with the same force of Robinson’s earlier songs -- the shockingly abrupt aggro-house bridge on centerpiece track “Fellow Feeling,” for example. But the glowing edges are softer, and oddly enough, given its technophilic inspirations, more human.

One sound that probably wouldn’t have been found 15 years ago is the lilting voice of Avanna, a Vocaloid vocal synthesizer Robinson sings through for the aptly titled “Sad Machine,” his favorite track on the record. “She’s my wife,” he jokes.

In March, Robinson surprise-released Worlds’ “Sea of Voices” -- a beatific, downtempo daydream -- along with a Twitter tirade about his career and EDM. “Making a track ‘danceable’ just meant compromising and ignoring what the song really needed,” he tweeted. “The more I forced myself to work within those DJ-friendly limits, the more I resented the genre.” Between the song and his rant, he trended on Twitter -- during the Oscars, no less -- receiving a 546 percent boost in retweets during that week (March 1-8), according to Next Big Sound.

“With each song I expected this backlash, and it keeps not coming,” he says now. “If I read something on Facebook that’s like, ‘Hey, man, I miss the old Porter,’ there’ll be 15 replies saying why that’s so shitty. But for people at festivals who want to hear the latest bangers, I don’t think I’m going to scratch that itch very well.”