Jack T – InTheMix
It’s approaching 4:45pm at Electric Zoo Festival in New York, and I’m shoulder-to-shoulder in a surge of neon. The traffic is headed in one direction: towards the main stage. Up on the LED-lined podium,Dash Berlin is nearing the end of a set that’s been as syrupy as they come. I dart left through the media area and up a hill to take in the scene. A sea of bodies sprawls out from the main stage, cleaved through the middle by a crowd-control barrier. Inflatable dolls, homemade signs, American flags, effigies and arms decked out in kandi bracelets are all pointed skywards. The reason for this swarm is the day’s next DJ, Porter Robinson – or, as a girl I pass would have it, “PORRRTTTERRR!”
The LED walls go black while the 20-year-old cues up the honeyed vocal line from his recent single Language. As Heather Bright’s accapella voice drifts over the restless crowd, the tiny figure onstage looks up and raises both arms. All the hands go up with his. In comes the bass, and the first 50 rows are suddenly airborne. A giant ‘PR’ logo flashes red on the back screen as the surrounding LEDs strobe with static and cut-up images. For the next 75 minutes, Electric Zoo belongs to Porter Robinson.
The bulk of my time at the festival has been spent under the Sunday School Grove marquee, where the likes of DJ Koze, Claude VonStroke, Apparat, Dixon, Chris Liebing and Maya Jane Coles are stationed. Porter Robinson’s set bears little resemblance to what’s happening at that end of the festival, but it stands apart from his main stage peers, too. As a DJ, he rejects the easy ‘build-up/breakdown’ structure. He’s always at work, firing off swift transitions, teasing recognisable melodies and switching up bass lines. His set is grounded in electro-house, but ricochets into dubstep, trap, trance and even Aphex Twin’s Windowlicker (if there’s another main stage DJ at the festival bold enough to try that, I don’t catch them). It’s exhilarating to see a guy just out of his teens completely owning a crowd of wide-eyed, hyped-up, ‘EDM’-obsessed ragers. He’s one of them, after all.
Porter Robinson is coming of age at a heady time. On the one hand, the fresh-faced producer represents North America’s current hysteria for dance music writ large. On the other, he’s something of a wildcard. In June, I saw Robinson step up to the main stage at Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas, slotted between Armin van Buuren and Dada Life. Coming after the festival-tested sets fromDavid Guetta, Avicii and Armin, his hour onstage was a shot-in-the-arm, untethered from ‘The Playlist’. “I went for high-energy, quick transitions, credible but recognisable references, and lots of loudness,” he told me after that set. “It’s not often one gets the opportunity to make an impression on 70,000 new potential fans.” With the incumbent DJ headliners settling into their 40s, there’s something genuinely thrilling about the rise of Porter Robinson.
When I get on the phone to the fast-rising star, he’s back where it all started. “I’m actually in my home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, sitting in my childhood bed right now,” he says. Earlier this year, Robinson told Rolling Stone that Language was inspired by his time as “a 14-year-old kid trapped in my North Carolina bedroom” watching YouTube footage of European dance festivals. Now his head is in a different place. “I’m writing some really weird shit,” he tells me. “I think I’m going to make it part of an album. A lot of the songs I’m writing I don’t think stand alone as singles. Not because they’re lacking in quality, but they’re better understood as part of a story and a larger body of work. No one wants to explain their own sound; everyone hopes the music will speak for itself. But I am doing some different stuff. I’ve lost no love for electro and dance music, but these days most of what I’m listening to is…not that. I wish I could show you what I’m doing, but you’ll hear it some day.”
It has been a steep learning curve from his bedroom to stages on the scale of Electric Daisy Carnival. I ask Robinson what’s changed since he handed this mix over to us in October 2011. “I think first my priority with DJing was to deliver the highest-energy set with the most tracks possible,” he says. “I thought it made the endeavour of DJing a little more fun and interesting. I wanted to be an active participant, always doing something. I still think all those principles are valuable, and that manifests itself in my quick mixing.”
“I have no issues presenting a high-energy thing,” he continues. “But now I also like to make references for more knowledgeable crowds and credible people, adding challenging tracks like the occasional Aphex Twin sample or breakdown or some weird techno. The people who recognise that immediately will call it on Twitter: ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe Porter played this!’ It adds an interesting challenge to play unusual stuff and try to incorporate it in a way that’s acceptable and exciting to people.”
Cynics might pin Porter Robinson as a poster boy for the brash-is-best school of U.S. dance music, right next to post-hardcore escapee Skrillex. In truth, he’s not so easily categorised. At this year’s gargantuan Tomorrowland festival in Belgium, he slotted into Paul van Dyk’s Evolution arena between Ferry Corsten and Marco V. Dance artists are forever wriggling from the genre tags they’ve been saddled with. For this kid born in 1992, the lines have been blurred from the beginning. “I normally like to play a lot of trance records and combine them with electro tracks; I like the ethereal beauty of trance music,” he says of the Tomorrowland booking. “But when I played that stage, I decided again that if everyone had been hearing trance all day, I was going to do something different. Being remembered is a priority. I would’ve liked to have played more trance-y stuff, but instead I went into electro and techno territory.”
In our conversation after EDC, Robinson positioned his malleable sound as a generational thing. “We’ve got virgin ears in the United States and I think we’re less tied down by genre allegiance,” he said. “People are, within reason, pretty open-minded here. I’m proud of our scene.” Electronic music is seeping outwards, too. “Today I saw a K-Mart commercial with a fucking 110-BPM, 200 Hertz, moombahton style score,” he marvels.
In the current U.S. climate, emerging stars aren’t cutting their teeth on the club circuit before graduating to festival stages. Catchet can be earned with Beatport blockbusters, but aptitude in the studio (or bedroom) does not guarantee a good DJ. As Laidback Luke recently put it to me: “These guys came out of the studio and don’t really have a DJ background, so you have DJs who play their tracks, but they’re essentially not very skilled.” Avicii, for one, has spoken about learning to DJ on the job. “I was a producer first, so I would say the DJing aspect of it is the thing that I feel that I’ve really learned,” the Swede told inthemix in 2011. For Porter Robinson, DJing has become more than a promo tool for his productions.
“Recently I did some dates on the Identity Festival [around the U.S.], and there were a lot of ‘triple-A’ acts on the same stage as me,” he tells me. “The approach for them was to play more commercial stuff as it was a mainstream crowd, but I was only given an hour and found myself erring towards weirder stuff. Maybe it was just to provide a different experience and not be redundant. I think a year ago I would’ve played the tracks that guaranteed me the best response possible. But I think now it’s more important to present something that’s unusual than perfect. I think it’s easy to provide a fairly-perfect DJ set, you know? You can pad a weird track with something more recognisable; you’re granted the license to play Brodinski if it’s alongside a fucking Knife Party track. That’s an extreme example, but as long as you’re reasonable about it, you can experiment.”
DJs fast-tracked to vast festival stages may never get the sweat-on-the-walls thrill of a close-quarters room. Big-ticket acts in the U.S. largely play theatres and Sports Centres, not custom-built clubs. Over the next three weeks, Robinson is on a back-to-back tour with 23-year-old German Zedd around America. The idea is to do something where the music leads. “We both play on the Traktor Kontrol S4, so I think we’re probably going to be using the same controller,” he says of the tour. “I was inspired by seeing the Flux Pavilion and Doctor P set at Coachella. Between the two of them, they just have a wealth of hit songs, and seeing them just slap back and forth between them and seeing the crowd have that recognition moment every four-and-a-half minutes was brilliant and inspiring.”
Porter Robinson has been to Australia twice: first for a club tour (“small was definitely the word for it,” he quips) and next for the 2012 Future Music Festival tour, closing Knife Party’s Ear Storm Records stage. His sets were a riotous alternative to Swedish House Mafia’s slick spectacle on the main stage. At the two festivals in the U.S., though, I saw a headliner in the making. As a producer, he’s still relatively green, but his star power is unmistakable. In a few months time, Robinson will be back for Stereosonic. “It’s my favorite thing in the goddamn universe,” he says of touring festivals. That’s just as well: it’s going to be a long relationship.