Dance

Porter Robinson Talks Turning His Second Sky Festival Into a 'Porter-Centric' Theme Park

Porter Robinson
Lindsay Ellary

Porter Robinson photographed April 7, 2021 in Los Angeles.

Produced in partnership with Goldenvoice, Robinson's two-day Second Sky festival kicks off tomorrow (Sept. 18) in Oakland, Calif. with a lineup featuring Madeon, Jai Wolf, Jon Hopkins and more.

Certainly a lot of Porter Robinson fans would welcome the chance to get inside the producer's head. This weekend, they'll finally be able to -- in a way.

The sophomore edition of Robinson's Second Sky festival kicks off tomorrow (September 18) at the Oakland Arena. The lineup includes Robinson, who'll be performing his first live show after the release of his critically acclaimed second album Nurture, released this past March. (The album hit No. 1 on Dance/Electronic albums in May and reached No. 52 on the Billboard 200 that same month.) The two-day festival will also feature some of Robinson's own favorite artists, including Jai Wolf, Madeon, Jon Hopkins and Toro Y Moi.

For the producer, assembling his own festival has allowed him to achieve, he says, "two goals. One is creating the World Of Porter theme park, and the other is making it really about the artists and something that feels like a big chance for every artist. I want it to be super-enticing for fans of Porter, and I want there to be Easter eggs for people who follow all my stuff. But also I really hope that people leave the festival as fans for life of the other acts."

He's not kidding about the theme park part. Produced by Goldenvoice, Second Sky features production design by Nassal, the designers of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter World at Universal Studios and Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge at Disneyland. Inspired by Robinson's love of video games and sci-fi/fantasy and anime, the event has been designed around a narrative loosely inspired by Nurture.

They'll be Porter-centric drinks and food, along with a 50-foot tree, the roots of which will flow traverse the site to connect myriad worlds. It's a big investment in a single artist, but the demand for The World of Porter clearly there. When Second Sky went on sale, every one of the 40,000 available tickets was in a cart waiting to be purchased.

To really push things over the top, Robinson -- who tells Billboard over the phone he's been a bit stressed by the event, because he cares so much about it -- will be debuting a new side project called Air to Earth. Amalgamating progressive house and disco, Robinson is opening each day of Second Sky under this new alias, in an effort to get fans in the door early, so they can discover new artists and spend ample time inside his world.

Below, he talks with Billboard about the new project, as well as the theme park, and all other things Second Sky.

I know that for you, Second Sky is a chance to give bigger stages to some of the artists you like most. What's your thinking around that concept?

There are a lot of people who spend a lot of time digging for music and finding new genres and new little niches of music to obsess over. And when I would look at some of these artists, some were doing well -- but a lot artists who I thought were really talented weren’t quite getting the shine that I felt that they deserved.

I think every artist has this idea of doing a label imprint or something like that, and that never felt quite right to me. It never felt right to be in charge of releasing someone’s music and making a deal against them in a way. It felt a little dated. What really did excite me though, was creating a place that people could actually go to, where all of this music that I love -- much of it having one foot in electronic music, and one foot in independent music or something else -- could come together. It felt like there wouldn’t be a lot of places you could see G Jones and Kero Kero Bonito on the same lineup. But I know there’s people out there, most of them probably people who follow me, who’d love nothing more.

In terms of what you're creating at the actual festival site, Second Sky sounds really bananas, and probably like it's been a ton of work for you and your team. What are you trying to achieve here? 

I think with anything I love, I’m always trying to take a bath in it. That’s the best way I can describe it. If there’s an aesthetic that is suddenly calling to me, or a sound or a vision, I want to be as immersed in it as possible. Between me and my manager, we always talked about what are absolute stretch goals would be. I think I sort of achieved a lot of stuff I was dreaming of -- so it was like, "What would be the craziest thing we could shoot for? What’s the highest level of achievement in creating entertainment?”

I think it’s having your own theme park -- like Nintendo just got there with Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios in Osaka. Some of the companies who’ve been making some of the very coolest theme park attractions in the world are working on Second Sky. That’s what I’m allowed to say.

What was the reaction when you brought this grand vision of the setting to Goldenvoice, your partner in the Second Sky?

The people at Goldenvoice, the way I’ve heard it from them, is that they’re like “This is the biggest little festival we’ve ever seen.” I think sometimes me and my team can be borderline annoying with perfectionism. We’re trying so, so hard to make everything... we’re trying to make like a Disney thing, practically. That’s just really hard for the amount of resources we have. I know that Goldenvoice loves working with us, because I care about them too a lot, and I really respect them. We’re all on the same team.

Not every artist gets their own festival. I imagine that's meaningful to you.

Oh, it’s unbelievable. I value Second Sky so, so much. I can say without hesitation that the first year was one of the top five best days of my life. It was so fun. The thing that my mind goes to when I remember how great it was -- I actually think of Peter Berkman from the band Anamanaguchi, and Peter Berkman’s mom, Tracy Berkman, coming to me backstage and saying, “Everyone here is so nice.” At first I thought she meant our staff, but she actually meant the audience. She was walking around, and I think she expected something a little bit more raucous. That was so cool for me. And then I heard it again, and again and again.

You're also debuting a new side project this weekend called Air to Earth. Tell me about that. 

I did a side project called Virtual Self, that was like three years of my life. Air to Earth wasn’t even a twinkle in my eye three months ago, so it’s really different. I had this idea of how to open Second Sky -- I open every year, like I mentioned -- and I was trying to figure out what the set would be. Some people in my universe were like, “You should do a throwback thing with old Porter songs." I know people would like that, but my heart wasn’t really in it. I just didn’t feel excited about it.

So I sort of pivoted to this other form of nostalgia, and thought it would be really fun to play a set that was driven by the progressive house from 2008, 2009 --  like Dinka and EDX and Helvetic Nerds, Adam K, Kaskade. That was my plan at first, and then once I started diving into it, it just sort of took this turn to something that was kind of new for me. I’ve been describing it in my social posts as mainly sample driven progressive house and then a lot of really fun, light feeling disco.

And that felt better to you than throwbacks?

I got way more excited after that, because I feel like the nostalgia thing is fun, but it doesn’t really have legs. I felt like nostalgia is doing all throwbacks like “I remember that song.” That’s fun in the moment, but it doesn’t stay with you. Once I started finding this pocket of music through digging around online that felt a little more new to me, I just put in a ton of time into finding music and putting other stuff together. Then it was like, “I actually feel like I want to name this just on the off chance that there’s more to this than I’m thinking right now.” The name Air to Earth came to me. It’s a different approach than my other side projects where I just feel like there’s more to this, but that I haven’t really done it yet.

How does it feel to you to be diving into a different type of sound?

Air to Earth feels to me like something that four years down the line, I’d enjoy rolling up to some house festival and performing, or doing surprise sets with it. Someone asked me like, “Why do you feel that you have to develop an alias just to play a different sound of music?” and it was an interesting question. It's two things: I’m constantly trying to be free of expectations, because I feel a lot of pressure. I feel expectations -- like, all the time.

But the other thing that I think is much more important is: When I sort of stumble upon what I feel is a sort of untapped node of art that I feel is really interesting, I don’t want to just stick one toe in. I want to bathe in it, like I was saying earlier. I want to be immersed in it. I don’t want to play 15 minutes of it in an otherwise-Porter set. I want to live there for a little bit and get as deep into as I possibly can, which is why it’s so essential for me to distinguish this from what I normally do. People will look at it differently.

If you’re rolling up on a Porter Robinson DJ set, people are like “I want to hear 'Sad Machine.'" That’s all well and good, but I think if you have someone rolling up to this festival and seeing Air to Earth and knowing very little, it’s just a better feeling. It’s just nicer.