Saint Pepsi has somewhat of a thing for Degrassi. Inspired by Drake‘s stint as Wheelchair Jimmy on the teen soap and his subsequent (and highly successful) transition into music, the 21-year-old is facing a trying shift as well. Raised in Long Island, N.Y., Pepsi, whose real name is Ryan DeRobertis, made waves on the Internet in late 2012 when he began releasing projects like Empire Building and World Tour, establishing himself as one of the standout artists in vaporwave, a buzzy genre where digital artists like Yung Bae and Internet Club mine obscure samples (’90s commercials, ’80s Japanese pop hits) for tracks.
But after signing to Carpark Records (Toro Y Moi, TEEN) in June 2014, Pepsi tried his hand at live instrumentation and singing, releasing the funkdafied “Fiona Coyne” that has racked up more than 500,000 clicks on SoundCloud in two months. In anticipation of his gig at NYC’s Downtown Festival on Oct. 3 (where he’ll play alongside Kiesza and Tink), Pepsi broke down his love for Drake, gave an update on his forthcoming studio debut and touched on whether the soda conglomerate has given him any grief about his name.
How early did you get into music?
The earliest observation from my parents that I was really into music was, my dad’s a huge Duran Duran fan and I grew up around a lot of new wave and I knew how to use a record player when I was like 2 or 3. There are old home videos of me playing drums to a Duran Duran VHS, so I kind of always gravitated toward it, specifically the new wave stuff because it’s basically all my parents ever listened to.
When I got into school, I started playing percussion as soon as we could pick an instrument but there’s a piano in the music room too and I would stick around and teach myself chords and make songs based on really simple cords and stuff. I didn’t get into producing music until middle school, but I’ve been doing it pretty consistent since then. I started on FL Studio and then moved to Logic when I got my first Macbook and now I’m an Ableton guy.
When you started out making music on Fruity Loops, what kind of stuff were you making?
I was really weird. I was in seventh or eighth grade at the time and it was like, it was what I pictured DJ Shadow to sound like. I used to layer up breakbeats and I had a mini saxophone that I would play melodies and stuff over. It was really painful music but that’s what I started out. I think the project was called Life in Lo-Fi or something, it was very try-hard.
When did you start taking music a little more seriously?
For Christmas one year, I got an electric guitar that had a regular guitar jack and a USB track so you could plug into the computer. I started learning how to play the guitar on Mac Guitar, just a plug-in to GarageBand and Logic and just overwrite songs, and I kind of didn’t really know what I was doing but I had this one in my freshman year of college that I wrote with lyrics and melodies and a chorus and played it for my parents and they were like, “Holy shit, we didn’t know you could do this.” It was a novelty for a little bit and then I’d say towards the end of high school, I ended up becoming known for it I guess. People knew me as the kid in school who wrote songs because nobody else really did that.
This all took off relatively quickly. Did it feel fast for you?
It was weird, yeah. Coming from somebody who was raised on P2P networks from the time I was 7 or 8, I’ve been around the Internet for the majority of my life because my dad works as a network administrator at a library in Long Island. So he was really early on to computers and programming and stuff. I’ve always been around music forums and I just kept gravitating towards places where I could put my own stuff out, and I have like three or four projects before Saint Pepsi that were all kind of different and basically were just meant to appeal to my friends and stuff.
But something happened in January 2013 where I found a Japanese blog that wrote a really crazy review of one of the early Saint Pepsi mixtapes I did. It was called World Tour and it was a bunch of slowed-down funk boogie kind of songs, like ’80s commercials interspersed and stuff like that. Basically the blog was like, we need to watch out for this guy in 2013 because he’s making really interesting music. I was so taken aback by that that I was like, I’d better put my all into this. It’s like, somebody’s actually listening this time and it grew. The rest is still happening.
Your earlier music was branded as vaporwave and a lot of people are branding you as one of the originators or torchbearers for this movement. Do you see yourself as that?
I think ideally, I’d rather be seen as an ambassador of that sort of culture because I definitely am not an originator. There were a lot of people doing similar things to what I did. When I went into the project, especially during World Tour and Empire Building, I wanted to make albums that were dream sequences, kind of. I was about how I could have an atmosphere last for a 35-minute album or something like that. I’d never really classify myself as vaporwave. I think a lot of people do and that makes a lot of people who are real purists about that kind of stuff see me as sort of a sellout. I don’t know. It was never my intention to be labeled as a vaporwave guy. But if it means that the word’s getting out to other people and it’s encouraging them to use samples creatively, then that’s really cool to me.
Your new music pivots away from that sound and you’re singing on tracks and there’s live instrumentation.
It’s all live. I think there’s a little light to the Degrassi dialogue, but the rest of it was me. It was just sort of something I wanted to do for a really long time. I wrote “Fall Harder” in March 2013 and Saint Pepsi had only been a thing for three months. There’s a demo online that sounds really different than how it ended up on the single. But I always wanted to kind of be that first “vaporwave” producer to put out a more traditionally pop record while still making the atmosphere of the music.
Did you find that challenging to do live instrumentation?
There’s nothing really different to me in terms of producing it. It’s easy for me to sit at a keyboard and just knock something out, but the hardest part going forward is knowing that I want to be kind of a pop guy. And so I think that the direction in which I’m trying to write songs is to branch into being more universal, whereas I used to be particular about what I wrote about. It’s just always interesting to me to study stuff to me that I consider timeless, from this year or the ’90s or ’80s. The songs that last are typically like that, they have a universal quality to them rather than relying on a formula or some sort of kitschy thing, which is why “Fiona” is named after the Degrassi character but I don’t make any references to the show because it’s not necessary. It’s just kind of… The song is obviously not about Fiona Coyne from Degrassi, but I thought it was just a really good allegory. Just the story into mine, my more personal love song I guess.
Are you a big Degrassi fan?
I wasn’t until freshman year of college. I was home and there was a marathon on Teen Nick and I was down to watch a couple of episodes. I was just getting into Drake. I had a couple of years where I was very on and off about Drake. All my friends hated him so I just pretended I didn’t like him, but he’s actually my favorite rapper. It’s so interesting. It’s very hard to make a transition from one industry to the other, because people always put your credibility into question and Drake’s definitely dealt with a lot of that, but not nearly as much if he wasn’t as good as he is. I started watching Degrassi because of Drake and then I just fell in love with how it’s written and how everyone’s falling in love with each other and there’s always something going on. It’s exciting when I don’t have anything going on in my life. I can invest in it. It’s like, mad.
Your music does have a nostalgic quality to it. What draws you to that sound?
I really like the syncopation of it, particularly with ’80s synth-funk and boogie stuff where the synthesizer was becoming a main staple in popular music and people like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were being really inventive with how to implement synth basses to sound percussive and melodic, where that wasn’t really ever super possible before the synth bass was a thing. Just drum machines and synthesizers and stuff, I really like the idea of technology becoming very new and people wanting to produce their idea of futuristic pop based on the technology that they have. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were really into that. Trevor Horn was really into that. I think the ’80s was the first time where production could make or break a song. You had to really had to have good songs in the ’60s and ’70s to just be seen, but you had to be catchy in the ’80s. I think that’s just a really cool aspect of music, that more melodic or rhythmic quality.
Who do you count as influences?
In terms of the old stuff or things in general? My favorite band of all-time and my source of constant inspiration is called Prefab Sprout, and they’re an English band who were produced by Thomas Dolby who produced “She Blinded Me With Science.” He’s actually a genius and pioneer in digital sampling in the ’80s and so all of Prefab’s records are very lushly orchestrated and they were getting very interesting arrangements with all of their songs. So that was the first band that ever really caught my ear in terms of how big a song could sound. And then from there, I moved onto the Beach Boys. My favorite person now is Toro Y Moi. He’s definitely the biggest influence in terms of what I want to do as a producer, the kind of atmosphere I want to create for the audience.
The SoundCloud for “Fiona Coyne” has over 500,000 listens, which is crazy.
I can’t believe it. It’s like a new thing every day, too. Some of my friends from high school have heard it on Sirius radio and it was on Spotify’s viral 50 and Songza and all these places where I know people in real life actively seek out music, and they’re seeing me there. That’s never happened to me before. So it’s very cool to me because I never thought it would be possible, honestly. I just sort of thought that I’d always kind of be doing it for me, but the fact that there are other people who want a part of it is just beautiful.
You make music for people to hear it, so I guess it worked out.
Yeah! I know for some people, they do it because it’s cathartic to them, they do it because they have something to get through. I’ve definitely seen the advantages of music when it comes to dealing with rough things, but generally, I always felt like… I wrote when I was a kid and I always liked to grab people in an egotistical way. I want to hold their attention and make them prefer me to something else. Everything is like, how do I get better than everything I’m listening to right now, whatever I really liked? I want to top that.
Are you working on your Carpark debut?
Yeah, I’m working on a new album, which will be out early next year and will be really crazy because if you had just told me two years ago that I was going to be signed to Carpark Records, putting out an album with them, I would have slapped you across the face or something. But I’m really stoked about it because Todd [Hyman] who runs Carpark has been very upfront with me about making the album the album that I want to make, and he’s done really great work with albums that have come out under his wing that have been lauded for at least creative expression. Not much sounds like anybody else that he puts out, so it’s a little scary for me to have those shoes to fill, especially because so many of my favorite albums came out with Todd in affiliation with them in some aspect, but I’m at the point where I’m breaking down the walls of self-consciousness and saying I’ve just got to do it. The single went along better than I could have ever imagined, and so onward and upward.
Are you working with other artists for the album?
I’m making this one on my own. The way I saw it was, I’d like to do something at my house, not really taking advantage of a lot of studio time or with other artists, just so I could put something out there and start the ride and hopefully spend a lot of next year touring and spending studio time with other artists, because collaboration is what I’m most interested in out of all of music. And I haven’t really gotten to work with anybody in the studio setting yet, so I’m definitely looking forward to that. I’m super stoked for the new material to come to fruition.
And are you afraid that Pepsi is going to sue you at any point?
Um… I’m not afraid but I guess I’m definitely not living in a fantasy land where I don’t think that’s not a possibility. I just know Pepsi’s lifelong affiliation with arts and entertainment and even on a lesser scale, under Mountain Dew, they have Green Label Sound and they’ve done the Adult Swim singles project. I feel like if there was any brand that was going to let it slip by, I feel like I have a somewhat wholesome image, so I don’t think I’d be giving them any bad press.
An edited version of this story appeared in the Oct. 4 issue of Billboard.