It was a late night in Toronto, summer of 2017. Robotaki‘s Uber was off to its preset destination, but the conversation with his 64-year-old driver led him elsewhere.
“We just got into a really deep talk,” he remembers. “He had three grandchildren, went through countless numbers of jobs, and he said himself he still doesn’t know what the heck he’s doing. If someone that age doesn’t know, why are we worrying about it right now?”
Letting go is new for Robotaki, nee Preston Chin. He spent the first 24 years of his life fast-walking a narrow path laid out by his immigrant parents. Two years ago, he lifted his eyes from his feet and found himself startlingly lost. It set him adrift, but rather than fear the unknown, he surrendered to emotional free-fall and created his six-track EP Science, released on Majestic Casual Friday, April 13.
Science lays languid jazz melodies over strutting beats. It washes the listener with the warm glow of hours spent in stillness as sunlight creeps across the room. It’s the sound of someone who’s found themselves nowhere in particular and presently pleased to be there. Who needs to find a place when you’ve found your voice?
“I’m a very confused individual,” he says. “I’m all over the place, but I think music is the middle ground. (It’s) what pulls me together and holds all these different universes together for me.”
Like many first-generation Americans, Chin’s childhood was a packed schedule of classes, rehearsals and study sessions. His father is a doctor from Jamaica, his mother a classical music enthusiast from Hong Kong, and both dreamed of their son’s bright future. He learned piano, violin and flute at an early age, taking step after calculated step toward a medical degree.
After high school, he moved from his native Toronto to McGill University in Montreal. By 2013, he was a graduate student vying for a degree in genetics, and he released his first tune as Robotaki. It was a funky synth groove in a Chromeo vein called “It’s Still About You.” It showed promise, but it’s hard to make time for a budding music career when you’re stuck in a lab, hunched over a worm called a “sea alien” 12 hours a day.
“Grad school was like a full-time job,” he laughs. “It was far from glamorous, but I definitely appreciate what it did to me. I had to really develop a lot of work ethic just so I could finish my thesis, and it forced me to discover a lot about myself outside of science.”
By day, he was the dutiful student and his parent’s pride. By night, he became an emerging Soundcloud artist DJing across the continent. Sweet experiments with disco and future bass earned him a loyal fan following. He fell in love with a fellow student who understood his passions, and with her encouragement, he promised himself to pursue music full time as soon as he got that degree in his hand.
“The story is really common for kids with immigrant parents,” he says. “You have to come to the understanding that the path they set isn’t necessarily the best for us, even though it might come from a loving place. That is one point of divergence right there where you’re going to split yourself. Do I satisfy my parents, or do I take this leap of faith and satisfy myself – maybe?”
If his crossroads needed a sign, it came soon after convocation in June of 2015. He released originals “Ghostboy” and “Right Time,” then was tapped by The Chainsmokers to remix no. 1 hit “Closer.” His management heard a rumor that two of his favorite producers, Porter Robinson and Madeon, were working on a secret collaboration. Chin took it upon himself to reach out about a remix.
“They were like, ‘Holy crap, how did you hear about this in the first place?’” he says. “I was a little worried, like, ‘I hope I didn’t get someone fired.’”
Robinson and Madeon released “Shelter,” a one-off single that spawned a worldwide tour. The friends sent Chin the stems, then invited him to open the full North American run.
The Shelter tour kicked off in September of 2016. Chin remembers it as “a huge learning experience” and “incredibly humbling.” Watching these international stars give music their all, and getting to know the grounded, kind souls behind them reignited his dedication. When the tour passed through Toronto, his mom and dad were in the crowd.
“I remember shouting out my parents on the mic and everyone cheered even louder at that moment then the entire set,” he says. “It was almost like a switch being flipped over here. Before that show, all they saw was this stinky kid in his boxers sitting in front of a computer clicking, making weird sounds and music so outside of their generation that they don’t quite understand … But there’s power in seeing masses of people going along with the music, singing along to ‘Shelter’ during the show. I think they understood that.”
Here he was, touring with his idols, finally earning the respect of his doting family. Then his girlfriend took a job offer as a consultant in Japan, as if communication on the road wasn’t hard enough. When the Shelter tour ended, he suddenly found himself alone, moving back to Toronto, unsure what to do at all.
“That’s when I realized we’re all kind of lost trying to figure out what to do next, and that can be really ungrounding,” he says. “It sucks so much to be living constantly with that question, asking yourself ‘what the hell am I doing in my life right now?’ That’s just not the way to live.”
Untethered and torn, he felt the pressure to follow the tour with new music, but he couldn’t conceive of where to start. He and his girlfriend swallowed the bitter pill that their lives had become incongruent, and like many artists before him, the breakup gave him something to musically mourn. Inspired, he wrote Science‘s lead single, “Together We’re Screwed.”
“There’s nothing stronger than your present motivations,” he says. “It was a tough time to be to be in that situation, but it also was very inspiring creatively. I don’t typically make happy music – or I don’t make music when I’m happy.”
The floodgates opened a soulful sound unlike anything he’d tapped before. It opens with a laidback groove on “Trial (Intro),” which itself melts into a heartbreaking piano piece. “Butterscotch” is a smoldering burnt-orange sound with a molasses vocal and a roaring solo on electric guitar. “Limbo” is a defiantly uplifting melody built from degraded sounds. “Restless” is a redlined, lazy lo0fi beat that leads to easygoing EP closer “Satisfied,” capping the progression of both his musical and emotional journey through one of the best and worst times of his 26-year-old existence.
“I’m in a really, really comfortable creative place, and a lot of it has to do with feeling validated that it’s okay to pursue what I really want,” he says. “I’m still the exact same level of being lost, it’s just my mindset has changed, and I don’t really care. I stopped thinking 20 steps ahead. Now I’m just kind of thinking, two days from now, what should I do? What’s going to keep me productive? What would make me happy? It’s such a better way to live. You’re okay with being lost in that case right. It’s just a matter of fact.”