Porter Robinson Talks Writing a 'Really Sincere Love Letter' to the Early 2000s With Virtual Self Project

Jasmine Safaeian


“Remember, it's the beating of your heart they really want. Everything will be right again,” Track 01 -“Particle Arts”

Many OS updates ago, in the black-and-green wasteland of DOS computing, a young Porter Robinson fumbled with blocky keys.

“Asking my mom to come type the command to play this game called The Mission to Mars, which is like a really crappy, pixel-y side-scroller,” he says. “That's my first computer memory, wanting to be able to do stuff with a computer, but I couldn't figure out how.”

The 25-year-old producer doesn't remember a time without PCs. The Internet in its earliest incarnations is intrinsic to Porter as a person. Whatever frustration he felt in the mid-'90s spurred a fascination, and with each update to Windows, Robinson opened new doors.

In March 2018, it brought him to a posh hotel room in Miami's financial district. His view overlooked the city's skyline -- that is, if he looked over his laptop screen. The waifish, long-haired electronic artist was only somewhat nervous as he prepared to headline the live stage at Ultra Music Festival. It's a slot he's filled before, but not like this. That Friday night, he'd play four hours of music in total, and not one of those songs is from Porter Robinson.

As modern society grapples with curating personal brands, Robinson looks back on the Internet at its most anonymous to rediscover his voice. Growing up in the South, the now-celebrated producer wasn't a kid who got his kicks in school halls. He lived instead for video game and anime forums, augmenting his reality with fan fiction and living MMORPGs. Hours logged became days, weeks into years. His personal history taken out of context would reflect a boy alone in front of a screen, but not one of those memories feels lonely.

It's a warm, blue glow so many of his generation still feel; a deeply shared nostalgia for something that can't yet be put into words. It sits at the heart of Robinson's latest audio-visual project: a portrait of a collective experience fed through a dusty receiver, an alter ego, his Virtual Self.

“I think our perception of the early 2000s is still somewhat undefined,” Porter says. “There are some people who are already shaping what that looks like by looking at the pop music of that time, some of the glossier aesthetics and R&B. Those things are all being revisited, but the way I experienced it was very much an online experience. It was really influenced by Japanese media that I was enjoying, some of the communities I was in, and the art style that we all embraced. I want to help the early 2000s to be remembered in that way.”

He spent three years diving into his own browsing history, relying notably on digital-archive preservation project The Wayback Machine to revisit forums and web pages he frequented between 1999 and 2003. From those frozen echoes of the past, old DeviantArt posts, and time spent replaying PlayStation 2 games, he composed a mood board of how Virtual Self should look and sound.

“It's not purely an homage,” Robinson says. “I'm not trying to re-create any one specific thing. I'm trying to re-create my memory of those things and the feeling that surrounds [them]. Oftentimes that takes a slightly different form, and that's where I think the contribution comes from.”

Everything mirrors era-specific design choices, from Virtual Self's angular font to its ghostly color palette. Fans might think they hear specific DDR or Final Fantasy samples. Even the seemingly endless scrawl of what Robinson calls “flavor text” is inspired by nonsensical sentences Robinson used to read on the sides of arcade game boxes. He's typified the era by focusing on its peripherals, and all this detail triggers an emotional response from those who can relate.

“Everything should be open to analysis, because it's very likely that I put a lot of thought into it,” he says. “I do want people to have a sense of just the extreme level of meticulousness and care that goes into everything. I wouldn't expect anybody to catch all the details of what I'm doing. The level of obsession is so extreme.”

It took more work still to translate these actually archaic graphic styles into something that resonated in hi-def.

“My memories of that look are crystal clear, even though it never really was,” he laughs. “The Internet was a lot less straightforward. It wasn't really well optimized. People were so excited about design on the Internet, and the rules weren't really set. It reminds me of when a genre is new. Those are always the best of times. I understand that survivorship bias plays a role in perceiving it that way, but I really think before all the rules of a given sound are established, that's when it's at its most creative. It's just so raw.”

Robinson likens it to the blog house era. His eyes light up as he talks about French producer SebastiAn, who once made a 12-minute song, the first 10 of which are just ascending pitches of motorized noise.

“He plays the whole thing live,” Robinson says. “People are just leaving. It's incredible.”

Robinson discovered those sounds around 2009 when he was just 16. Already the identifying tropes of the genre, like tight neon pants and shudder shades, were being co-oped for sillier novelties, like LMFAO.

“The one thing you can't control is what comes after what you release,” Robinson says. “Something that's really pure, amazing, cool and creative -- its perception can be tainted by whatever or whoever decides to imitate it, whoever decides to come after you. Some things can almost be damaged by things that are totally out of their control.”

Robinson broke through in 2010 with “Say My Name,” a fidgety electro song that topped the Beatport chart (the release of his Spitfire EP a year later crashed Beatport servers). He was soon booked to DJ clubs and festivals around the country. A college scholarship went unused as a career in electronic dance begat a now-tired “bedroom producer prodigy” narrative.

“Electronic music was this super cool thing to me my whole life,” he remembers. “Then EDM sort of exploded. All of a sudden, it was this commodified thing, and I was like, 'Shit, this was so cool to me. I don't feel good about what I'm doing anymore. I don't feel like I'm doing something I can feel that proud of.'”

He had anxiety attacks onstage, actively yelling at a crowd in Australia when they reacted more favorably to “bangers” than the emotionally resonant tracks he preferred to play. He felt misunderstood, so he retreated to the studio. His debut LP Worlds was released in August 2014. It was dreamy and synth-heavy, as vibrant in pastel pitches and neon chords as the cartoon universes of his youth. It was a softer, more vulnerable sound than mainstream dance music had ever met. Worlds peaked at No. 18 on the Billboard 200. Today, lead single “Sad Machine” has more than 36 million streams on Spotify. Robinson's new sound helped spur the future bass revolution while the live Worlds Tour helped shape a shift in dance music's presentation.

“I felt like I'd come up with something that was really my own, was just so distinctive,” he says. “I felt like, 'Oh man, this is great … this is my identity, and I can just do this from now on.”

His satisfaction lasted until he sat at his studio computer. He tried to recast the spell, but the magic word was missing: angst.

“I was trying to write new music, but there was nothing I was reacting against,” he says. “It turned out Worlds itself became something for me to to resist.”

His music as Porter Robinson is his most “authentic and sincere soul,” but Virtual Self is about shattering his own habits, perhaps even his image. Worlds is dreamy and ethereal. Virtual Self's self-titled five-track EP is abrasive and fast-paced. There are similarities. Porter's sonic palette hasn't changed much in tone, but its presentational aesthetic from role to role is vastly different. Porter Robinson songs are melodies built on clouds of emotion. Virtual Self is a sweaty warehouse pounding to the point of obscenity. Many avid Porter Robinson fans may not be Virtual Self fans at all.

“When I see people asking me to play Porter Robinson songs at a Virtual Self show ... I hate it,” he says. “People want to hear the songs they know and love, but for me it just feels so wrong … I tried so hard to separate them. I'm really interested in a purity of an atmosphere, aesthetic purity of a given vibe. For people to expect me to play Porter Robinson and sing songs is just like -- c'mon. I've clearly thought about this so much more than you. I've obsessed over this for three years. Yeah, it occurred to me. 'What if I played Porter songs?' and my answer was a resounding 'no.'”

It didn't even feel right for Robinson to be the face of the project, so Virtual Self takes its own form via two personalities. Technic-Angel is the fair-skinned, dark-cloaked harbinger of the happiest hardcore vibes. “Particle Arts,” “Key” and “Eon Breaks” are her rainbow creations, while the white-dressed, gold-masked Pathselector presents darker, groovier tracks “Ghost Voices” and “a.i.ngel (Become God).”

There were other characters, too, more Virtual Selves that didn't make the final cut. They could still surface, Robinson says, shifting in his seat with excitement. Maybe they won't. Maybe he'll add more layers to the Virtual Self website, already a Russian nesting doll of Easter eggs, complete with a hidden forum in the old html style of sites Robinson once haunted. He spent three years handwriting and procedurally generating all the ethereal sentences that litter it.

“The name of the game was obsession,” he says. “I was doing something that I shouldn't do, which was spend a whole lot of time curating this project that had what I thought was very little commercial appeal. Even to be doing Ultra -- it's not something that I thought I would be doing.”

He calls the live show UTOPIA, and it was originally intended only for warehouses. It's an onslaught of meticulous laser work and heavy fog. The precision of timing and color choice is discussed at great length with lighting managers before each go. Robinson stands atop a metal grid, underneath which all the flashing strobes and moving lights huddle ready to explode. His figure is obscured by exhaustive amounts of fog and smoke to catch each blinding laser.

If UTOPIA were perfect, Robinson wouldn't even be there. It would just be Pathselector and Technic-Angel, but that would rob him of the experience of playing this music live. A mind-melting hour of drum'n'bass and speed-core set to epileptic fits is what Robinson calls a “compromise.”

Porter Robinson performs as  VirtualSelf. 

It's an expensive show, and in the end, Robinson realized he'd have to accept festival gigs to cover the costs. So he takes the stage at Ultra for his fourth Virtual Self set ever. He debuted UTOPIA in its proper warehouse setting for a Brooklyn audience in December. It was a show with mixed reviews, but he had high hopes for Miami, a city that cradled the sounds of breaks, jungle and trance he now revisits.

“I'm excited to see how people react to the speedcore,” he says. “I played a speedcore song at the very first show, and then afterwards a few people were like, 'Don't play that,' and I was like, 'No! I have to!'”

The Ultra audience was receptive, but it was at the afterparty where the concept really shines. At three hours, it's the longest Virtual Self set Robinson has yet to take on. Virtual Self still only has five songs, so he fills the space with unreleased tunes, edits and deep cuts of the music from which he was inspired.

“It's going to be three hours of this with very very little consideration given to what some people might want to hear,” Robinson says. “It's just going to be intense for people, but I think that for some other people, it's going to be the best experience they can possibly have.”

Virtual Self sold out the 555-capacity The Ground, aka the first floor of downtown Miami's Club Space. It's a bare-bones venue decorated only with hanging cotton clouds that catch the club's sweeping, technicolor light. It's the kind of atmosphere Virtual Self was made for, and even in the darkness, Robinson positively glows.

The beat increased until it was easier to convulse rather than dance, but Florida is a state built on rhythm and bass. Dropping tunes by DJ Icey is to show respect. The room stayed with him through bolts of near-200 bpm madness. He even got away with a solid minute of mechanical noise before the familiar frantic notes of “Eon Breaks.” He gave the crowd his passion, and validation was the reward.

“We've got to stop now,” he said into the mic, “but I just wanna say that might have been the most fun I ever had DJing in my entire life, so thank you guys so much for sticking with me.”

Four years ago, Robinson gave up DJing to become a better version of himself. Now, he re-approaches the decks with the confidence to play whatever he wants regardless of who is in the mood to hear it. As he jumps erratically behind the decks, pumping the room with obnoxious machine-gun stomps and screeching melodies, he physically shakes a generation of imitators off his back.

“I really want to be the one to do this, because I think I can write a really sincere love letter to this period,” he says. “I just knew like, 'Fuck. I really need to express this, because if somebody else does this, I'm gonna really regret it.'”

Let the world try to be the next Porter Robinson. This one is far too busy going down a new road, once again forging the future of dance music from a likeness of his past.