Photo by Jasmine Safaeian
At the age of 18, Porter Robinson became a leading voice in the early days of EDM’s sudden and simultaneous takeover of both the underground and the mainstream. The self-taught North Carolina producer got an immediate co-sign from Skrillex at peak-dubstep, which launched a anticipated and major label-backed rollout toward the debut album that would position him within electronic music’s vanguard. And there are few ways to view Worlds other than as a king-making work. The audacious project set out to conjure nostalgia for the immersive imaginations of our pasts, translating 8-bit melodies into widescreen epics and the chipper rush of M83 and Passion Pit for the rave tent. It’s all-encompassing and richly textured soundscapes set Robinson apart from his peers while also vaulting him to the top of his field, earning him headliner-billing at festivals and endearing him with one of contemporary music’s most devoted fanbases.
For a moment, Robinson was poised to help shape the future of EDM, like his colleagues Cashmere Cat and Skrillex, who went on to earn top 10 hits for pop stars like Halsey, Camila Cabello and Justin Bieber. But instead of forging down the path laid out for him, Robinson withdrew. Feeling the immensity of the pressure to follow a canonized debut, he went more than a half-decade self-consciously avoiding making noise. There was an occasional remix here, or the launch of a techno side-project that intentionally subverted expectations. The one original single he released under his own name during that time period, a collaboration with early friend-turned-peer Madeon, became his biggest hit, proving the market was still hanging on for more of his unique sensibility.
But before he could move forward, he had to turn back. After several years in the dark, Robinson returned to the light in 2019 not with new music, but to close out that prolonged first chapter he left unresolved. At his inaugural Second Sky festival in California’s East Bay, he hosted his favorite musicians and friends for a celebration of their shared worldview, one as indebted to anime as Ableton, and willing to cross borders of genre, gender norms and geography. The main event was what Robinson billed as the final Worlds shows, five years after the album’s release.
Then in 2020, he finally made a proper return to new music with “Get Your Wish,” a song that portrayed through plainspoken internal dialogue the years of depression and writer’s block that long made him feel undeserving of his coronation. But you can also hear within the song’s buoyant melodies his renewed sense of hope, finding solace this time in the natural world rather than the fantasies of Worlds. When the rest of Nurture followed earlier this year, it was a testament to the immense faith he had to rebuild in himself, and a promise for a future of the project unencumbered by external pressures, free to explore openly and at his own pace.
Last month, Robinson brought back Second Sky once more to usher in this next era. But you can also see the event as becoming something of a corrective for the EDM parties of which Robinson was once the crown prince, back when his name was associated with the world of brostep and he had his own Vegas residency. The experience was one he found ill-fitting in real time, playing music he had become popular on but quickly outgrew in a context he never romanticized or was a fan of himself. He was asked to perform his first DJ set before he had ever been to a concert himself. Now with Second Sky, Robinson has been able to helm his own utopian vision for what a music festival should be.
Every decision at this year’s Second Sky felt handwoven with a personal touch. Upon entry, each fan was immediately handed a commemorative memento, greeted by the immersive set design by the folks behind Universal Studios’ Harry Potter theme park and the in-production Super Nintendo World, and could take a picture with Potaro (Robinson’s adorable mascot), as well as his parents who roamed the grounds with a sign inviting fans to say hello. You can appreciate how far Robinson has committed to the bit, offering fans several playful nods to his past (like the “100% in the Bowl” meal), and imbuing the event with its own lore in the run up. Even better, the show is in its second year of raising money for the Robinson Malawi Fund, the charity Robinson started to fight Burkitt lymphoma, a cancer his brother was diagnosed with back in 2016, and would thankfully recover from after treatment.
Photo by Grady Brannan
Given the wide range of everything Robinson has set out to do with Second Sky, it’s remarkable how the defining facet of the event is its sense of cohesion: Second Sky is one stage, with a non-overlapping lineup hand-selected rather than algorithmically optimized, designed to center attendees around a communal experience. Robinson himself opened the show with a DJ set debuting his new project Air to Earth, hoping to attract fans early so they wouldn’t miss out on any of his favorite artists invited to perform, including Wavedash, Jon Hopkins and Toro Y Moi. By the time Robinson came back to properly close out the show with his headlining set, he seemed both completely at home and overflowing with euphoria, ultimately telling the crowd that it was one of the “best nights of my life.”
Robinson has since been bringing that energy with him across the country on the Nurture tour. I spoke with him between dates to reflect on the last decade of his atypical career arc, from being mentored by Skrillex to reconceptualizing his relationship to criticism to designing his very own “theme park.”
VMP: When did you first begin designing this new live show, and what were you hoping to bring to the table compared to your past performances?
Porter Robinson: With Worlds, I was incredibly inspired by Daft Punk’s Alive 2007. I wanted it to feel like this mega mash-up DJ set, where all the songs are blended into each other in live versions and new remixes, every transition is perfect, and the guy doing the visuals is just crushing it. That was the idea, this visually driven, alternate portal into the world of that album. And then once I created that show, I ultimately felt like it wasn’t live enough.
The first album was so concerned with escapism. With Nurture, I was more focused on intimacy and finding beauty where we are. Having written so much instrumental and drop-driven music in the past, I really wanted to hear people sing a chorus back to me. I wanted to encourage that feeling of being together in the moment. Instead of having the songs mixed together, I wanted to put people in the mindset of thinking about them as these individually contained pieces of music. I feel like my relationship with the stage has changed: back then I was more creating a world for other people to live in, and now I feel like people are in that world with me.
I originally wanted Nurture live to be something super sentimental and beautiful and almost kind of sad. And then as I started building the show, I kept doing more and more fun, almost funny stuff. That was the true path to intimacy for this show, having some moments of vulnerability and playfulness. I don’t think my show was ever very playful before. I kind of got bored over the course of the year putting the show together just using beautiful imagery. I was like, “What if we did some stuff to make people laugh?” And those ended up being some of the most memorable parts.
I’m curious about the creative direction behind Second Sky. I’d never been to a festival that had its own lore before.
Our goal has always been to make Second Sky feel like a Porter Robinson theme park. The production company, Nassal, works on actual theme parks, where there’s always a narrative. They felt like that was a missing piece, so we came up with this backstory of a once-thriving society, where the connection to art and love and passion was lost, but then the connection is remade again. It’s very grade school, almost cute. I wanted to take that further. I wanted Second Sky to have this kind of overgrown, post-civilization feeling of returning to a place that is now being reclaimed by nature — but in a really beautiful way.
My manager Aaron [Greene] and I have an hour call every day where we just talk about how happy we are that Second Sky went well. When I first saw the “Penguin Punch” bubbling in the commemorative cup, I was like, “Oh my God, we really kind of made Disneyland for a day.” It’s sad because as soon as Aaron left Second Sky, I told him, “Please take a week off.” But then he’s calling me saying “I have ideas for next year.” We’re really, really energized about it. No one told me this until after the event, but apparently the second year of a music festival is the make-or-break year. I didn’t know that, but I’m glad that the second year went well because I want to continue Second Sky for as long as I can.
One of my favorite moments from when I attended Second Sky in 2019 was when Skrillex came out to do a surprise set. Are you still connected to the music you made back when you were on his OWSLA label, or with your peers from that time?
I have infinite gratitude to Skrillex for putting me on. He instilled in me mentalities that have shaped who I am to this day. He didn’t think he had the magic recipe within his own stuff, and that everyone should do what he did. He wanted to encourage everyone to be themselves.
There was a big anti-Skrillex sentiment at that time. What Skrillex did was so game-changing that it entered the zeitgeist in a way where Key & Peele were doing skits about dubstep, and Mike Diva on YouTube had a video about dubstep guns. It was one of those cultural touchstones, and there was a natural knee-jerk reaction against that. Like some of the “cool kids” were hating on him. And Skrillex, he was always like, “Dude, those are just people on the internet, I’m going to keep doing my thing.” And he went on to do Jack Ü, he went on to Dog Blood, he worked with Justin Bieber and made Justin cool.
Like, are you kidding me? There was a time in 2011 where every YouTube comment would be like, “Oh, this is better than Justin Bieber, better than Skrillex.” And the two of them came together and completely changed pop music for years. I want to get like that. The way that he is able to be himself unapologetically and is not so concerned about coolness. That’s what makes him cool. To the very insecure Porter of 2015, who was like “Oh, I got some middling reviews. Maybe I suck,” of course I really idealized these people in my life who were able to manage criticism so well and to thrive from it.
One thing that always gets talked about with your music is all the different aliases that you’ve released under. At Second Sky, for example, you debuted a new project Air To Earth. What draws you to create distinctions between your work?
I wanted to do an opening set for Second Sky, and asked myself what I wanted to play? I imagined people skipping in through the doors at Second Sky and returning to live music, and I wanted just happy house music and beautiful progressive blended together into one. Then I ended up putting some hundred hours into digging for music on BeatPort and Discogs, trying to find what would ride that line between disco and prog and stuff that had this very floaty, suspended emotion. I had so much fun with that. Like with everything else, I didn’t want to do it as a half step. I didn’t want this just to be a Porter Robinson DJ set; I wanted to bathe in it. For me, the ultimate way to fully immerse myself was if I didn’t have to go up on stage and play “Sad Machine” and “Language.”
I had made some music for the project over a couple of weeks, just trying to get my set ready. And I was like, let me name this just in case I do something with it. But it’s live only so there is no pressure, no expectations. I don’t want people to be like, “When’s the Air to Earth album coming out?” This was just me opening a door for myself to potentially explore in the future. Who knows what I’ll do with it. But ultimately it’s about being free of pressures and expectations, and being able to really dive into something that I’m excited about rather than having to feel like I’m being pulled in different directions.
Have you ever considered revisiting the early sounds of your career?
Sadly for me, and I hate saying this but it’s just the truth, I don’t really revisit Spitfire that often. There’s not that much in that EP that still resonates with me. I shouldn’t say that because I know there’s people who love it and who grew up with it. There’s other stuff from that time period, like my track “Say My Name” I still think is really cool. “100% in the Bitch” is a lot of fun. And I’ll probably see it completely differently in 10 years. But for Spitfire I was very young and somebody told me, “Porter you should put together an EP.” I was like, “OK, let me make five or six songs.”
It was around the time of Worlds when I first started taking the idea of a body of work really seriously. I had this vision at the time of trying to fuse the beauty of trance music and ’80s music and stuff like M83 and Chvrches and Passion Pit with the dance music that I was listening to and chill wave and trying to bring all those things together. It was the first time in my life that I had something that I felt like, “I need to make this thing real.” So, if 30 years from now people are like, “Yeah, Worlds was mad overrated. That shit was trash,” I’ll still ride for it. That was my baby.
How did it feel this year coming back to releasing music under your own name after so much time away?
I’ve talked almost too much about the very well-documented creative struggle that I was going through trying to put together Nurture. I was so compulsive about working that I didn’t allow time for play. I felt really on the clock. Those things were bad for creativity, not having a sense of curiosity about the music, but just feeling pressure. Every good song I’ve ever made came from me being like, “What if I tried this? Oh, shit, this is a song. Now I gotta finish this.” That’s how it always happens. It’s never, “Oh, I need to make a song. That sounds like this thing I did before, I have to follow it up.” But that was my mentality. I had to rebuild a life for myself outside of music in order to be a productive artist. Something that I think was really instrumental to Nurture was falling in love, making real friendships and realizing that if all this evaporated for me tomorrow, I would still have a life.
On top of that — and I hate admitting this, but I think I have to be honest if I want to actually be helpful — getting critical reviews of Worlds really affected me. I thought I had made my best work, and I took the criticism really hard. That was one of the main things that made it difficult to write music. I’ve always been reluctant to say that for two reasons: One, I don’t want people to think they have any control over me. And two, I don’t want critics to feel like they have to bite their tongue. They have a right to exist, and I didn’t want to make anyone feel bad. Well, there were times where I wanted to make them feel bad [laughs]. But I ultimately just didn’t want it to affect me so much. I now realize it was the ideal — I didn’t get panned, I was able to get paid and to keep doing my thing, and down the line it’s become more truly understood. That’s awesome. That’s better than getting a 10 out of the door.