Porter Robinson Reflects on “Worlds,” One Year Later
The gifted young producer revisits his seminal debut track-by-track, with a new remix album in tow
I was wrong about Porter Robinson. We all were.
Amidst the influx of overpriced EDM DJs coming into Las Vegas around 2012, unless you were paying close attention to the Beatport charts, club-goers really couldn’t tell one from another. Without naming names, you had a diverse lineup from seasoned vets to young wunderkinds; future superstars that would flourish and manufactured ones that wouldn’t. Everything happened so fast that there wasn’t really a system of checks and balances to monitor what was working and what wasn’t. Well, let me rephrase that, there were checks. Plenty of checks.
At that time, it would have been easy to peg Porter Robinson as just another one-dimensional bedroom producer, coming off of the success of his debut single, “Say My Name” and later propelling Mat Zo’s “Easy” into another anthemic Beatport chart-topper. Yet one year ago when he released his debut album, Worlds, he proved us all wrong with an incredibly deep, musically rich LP. While many of his peers were desperately trying to replicate the success of Calvin Harris and Swedish House Mafia by releasing albums of over-produced, crossover pop flops, Porter bucked the trend by slowing the tempos down and making an honest record that was more reflective of his personal tastes than what was expected from him.
The scene inside his trailer backstage at Las Vegas’ Life is Beautiful festival is pretty cool. A coterie of dolled-up young ladies are checking their phones and nails, while someone from the entourage tries to get their attention. Porter is knee-deep in a conversation with either another journalist or just a geeked out fan, and suddenly the three of us are debating the finer points of Daft Punk’s Discovery and Random Access Memories. The conversation soon moves onto Justice, then gets a little too technical for me to contribute to. I remain silent, just nodding in affirmation, as the language Porter uses describing it very quickly reveals that he is a musical and technical prodigy. Porter’s success was accidental; he didn’t seek out fame, it in fact found him.
“It all goes back to the way that I sort of blew up. I kind of blew up when I was 18 years old on a track called ‘Say My Name,’ that went to number one on Beatport unexpectedly. I was still on track to go UNC at Chapel Hill, I had no plans to be a musician. It wasn’t even a goal of mine. Then I had this song that blew up and went viral and suddenly I found myself playing shows and having this music career,” Porter told Cuepoint. “After a couple of years of that, I realized that I had no plan. I wanted to have a grander vision, something that I felt like I was really fighting for and I wanted to have a real idea and be authentic. I wanted what I was doing to be really true to me and my tastes. That’s what Worlds was, me taking a break from what I was doing and doing something that was honest, authentic and real. So that’s how I ended up there. It was not a response to EDM. It wasn’t me trying to give the finger to EDM. It was just what I was in love with and what I wanted write.”
While Porter cites Daft Punk and IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) artists like Aphex Twin as influences, it’s subconsciously much deeper than that, as on Worlds he pulls from a palette of 80s synths, indie pop, and retro video game music. Opening with the #1 position on the Billboard Dance/Electronic and iTunes Electronic Albums charts last year — not to mention debuting in the top 20 of both overall album charts — Robinson revisits Worlds this week with a brand new remix album. He also spoke with Cuepoint giving a retrospective track-by-track interview about the original LP, which just turned one year old.
Cuepoint: You’ve said that this album was heavily influenced by The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
Porter Robinson: Songs like “Sad Machine” and “Hear The Bells,” they all use what are known as soundfonts, which are essentially these low quality emulations of real instruments of harps, flutes, pianos, strings and things that don’t sound realistic. But they don’t sound 8-Bit either, like the NES, they specifically to me, dead-on like Nintendo 64 music. And I used that type of instrumentation constantly throughout the album. Like the second break of ‘Sad Machine” is all soundfonts. A lot of them are almost like emulations of the Ocarina of Time music and that’s something that for a lot of people that were kind of present for that era of video game history picked up on immediately. If you look at the end of “Sad Machine” or the end of my remix of [Nero’s] “The Thrill” or the end of “Hear The Bells,” you see people commenting on Soundcloud like “Zelda! Zelda! Zelda!” so it’s definitely not just me. But yeah, that’s where that comes from.
What traditional musicians outside of electronic music would you say influenced the songwriting?
I think that my biggest influences are electronic acts. Daft Punk is probably my number 1, then Kanye West would be number 2 after that. I think I was just every bit as inspired by Dance Dance Revolution music, which was the reason why I started writing when I was 12. The soundtrack to DDR was the first electronic music that I’d ever heard, which was a Japanese rhythm video game. Then stuff like scoring for animations and movies soundtracks and stuff like that.
On the album’s first track, “Divinity,” there’s that distorted sound that works as the main instrument, is that a vocal sample of Amy Millan?
Yeah, it’s actually not hers. It’s like a boys choir type sound that I was messing with and that whole instrumental actually existed before Amy was on the track. But it’s nice because her vocal candor is pretty similar to the sample that I was chopping there.
Was there any particular reason why you chose to start the album with that song?
I started the album with that song because it was the first one that I wrote that I felt was in the style of Worlds. It was the first one that had the 90 BPM, side-chained chords, sort of slowed-down but still four-on-the-floor and more emotional quality that starts the hook, which I’d say it was a big part of the sonic quality of Worlds. That was the first song that I wrote like that. And I also love albums that start off with like a strong riff.
On “Sad Machine”, I understand you took a really techy / geeky approach to making this record, the vocals actually being by an A.I. of some kind.
Yeah, I used a program called Vocaloid. It’s sort of like Siri. Like a text to speech software, except that you can assign notes to each syllable.
If you’ve ever used text-to-speech software where you typed in words and then it says it back to you, it’s the same idea applied to singing. So I would write a lyric and I would write a melody and assign each syllable to a note. It comes with its own software for doing specifically that. I just thought the notion of a human and robot duet was something that was really beautiful and touching to me. And that vibe really evoked the whole feeling of fantasy and fiction and escapism that I wanted to album to have. So that’s why I decided to work with vocaloid. And there’s three songs on the album that use it. “Fresh Static Snow,” the vocal there is like a robot voice and “Goodbye to a World” is the same technique. Just because it’s all very sci-fi to me and very imaginary in a way that was appealing.
And what would you say this song is about, apologies or regrets? “We’ll never speak of this again,” you sing…
Almost every single song on Worlds is supposed to evoke the feeling of stories. I’m often asked if there is an actual literal story that I’m describing. There’s not, it’s just supposed allude or give the feeling of a narrative that doesn’t really exist or isn’t real. I think that the lyrics of “Sad Machine” are mostly just composed of phrases that I felt were kind of poetic and nice and sang well, but also give that sort of fiction, escapism kind of vibe. Like “She depends on you,” I was so happy when I stumbled upon that lyric. Like, that’s so nice, something about it pulls out all of the feelings that I want to pull out. It’s not about anyone in my life or anything like that, it’s just my approach to music.
“Years of War,” this track has a very 1980s, reverby feel to it. Is that what you were going for?
Yeah, I think I was trying to do a cutesy synth-pop thing. Honestly, I just resent that song. I worked so hard on it and the longer I get away from the album, the less I like it. I have stopped playing it in my shows. I don’t know, it turned out cool. And all respects to all of my collaborators on that song — they did great, they were troopers — but just something about it. I think I worked a little too hard on it. It was just the hardest I ever worked on a song. It just kind of reminds me of frustration. I feel that some of the joy and triumphant feelings of that song don’t feel authentic to me when I listen to it, because it reminds me of so much frustration. So I don’t really play that song any more.
On “Flicker” you have this Japanese vocal sample that you are kind of stuttering? What exactly is she saying here?
Yeah, she is saying “Watashi wa choudo nani ga juuyou ka mitsukeyou toshite iru,” I think. The way that that vocal came out, was that I was making a song as joke. A lot of my favorite songs kind of started that way. I was just messing around with a soul sample, which is what you hear in the background. I was like, “how funny would it be to just have a high pitched silly rap over this?” So I took this text document that I had of several song title ideas that I had written down on my phone, and just translated them to Japanese and I decided I would cut them together and make that the rapping on the song. What it says, is “I’m just trying to find what is important to me,” which is nice, because it could have come out as something completely random. But I got really hooked on the sound of it. I liked the way it sounded, I liked the rhythm of it, the cadence and the flow, so I decided to keep it. But yeah, that song is kind of a frankensong. It’s one of my prouder moments on the album because it goes so many places, but flows naturally in between them. It has, I think, a great climax, a very powerful and big moment.
Yeah, you mentioned Kanye as an influence and I can definitely see that here, the way you freaked the soul sample. It was very Roc-A-Fella 2005-ish.
It’s very, very Graduation to me. A lot of people have compared it to “The Glory,” which I think is a totally fair comparison. It’s got a similar progression and that’s one of my favorite Kanye songs ever.
“Fresh Static Snow,” you mentioned that this was another one that you used the Vocaloid on?
Yeah, that’s right. I guess it’s just about my feelings of loneliness sometimes and just some thoughts about the idea of soulmates, but from a probability standpoint. The fact that there necessarily exists a “best person” for everyone, an ideal partner for everyone in the world. But there’s six-billion-plus people on the planet and there is no chance that any of us will meet any of them. So this is a song about that feeling and what that put me through. Anytime, I could just be sitting there thinking that person exists right now and is somewhere doing something. It was easier to sing that through a text program than by myself.
I don’t really know what to say about that song really. Just a collaboration with Lemaitre, a band that I really like. I think it’s one of those songs that kind of got away from its original concept. It’s another one that I’ve gotten progressively less stoked about over time. My fans have noticed that I don’t play it, I never have played it. I stand by it, but my favorites on the album are “Divinity,” “Sad Machine,” “Flicker,” “Sea of Voices,” and “Goodbye to a World.” That’s half the album, so I’m sorry (laughs), but those are my proudest moments.
Yeah, I think you really created a cohesive piece of work here. Even if there are pieces of it that you aren’t so proud of, it stands on its own as a true album, not just a random collection of singles that you’re going to throw at the wall and see what sticks. I feel like we’ve gotten away from that in the music industry, so it was very refreshing.
So “Hear the Bells” with Imaginary Cities — this again just reminds me of an 80s John Hughes movie for some reason. Something you might hear at the end of “Pretty in Pink” or “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off…”
It’s sort of a cover. That song already existed and I hit up the band like “I want to remix it” and then it just turned into the song that we did together and it made the album. It’s a nice live moment, it’s the time that I sing the most up front and loudly and clearly and that’s fun for me. It represents a period of my life, some of the more 80s, indie sounding stuff. But in my future work, I think am trying to get closer and closer to stuff that I actually lived through and stuff that is more personal to me. So that’s why I don’t put that on my favorites list.
“Natural Light,” this is kind of more of an interlude.
Definitely, it is certainly an interlude. I actually really stand by “Natural Light” because it has these IDM moments. I was making that a lot when I was younger and was definitely influenced by the likes of Aphex Twin and Venetian Snares and all that goodness. There’s lots of little micro-snares and glitches and weird sounds that never come back, taped away sounding type shit. It’s definitely an interlude, but I think it’s also a necessary moment for the record.
“Lionhearted,” I’d say this was the most commercially accessible track, super catchy. Urban Cone kind of gave it that indie pop feel, really knocking it out of the park. I’m surprised you didn’t list this as one of your favorites.
The thing about “Lionhearted” is that I would have loved to have released it as a single in the build-up to Worlds. Definitely it’s a jam, but the ones that stick with me the most on the record are the ones that are more touching. That’s what Worlds does best, if you ask me.
But “Lionhearted” is one of the very earliest things I wrote for the record. Yeah, Urban Cone did a really good job. It’s anthemic, but like you said, I didn’t include it on my favorites. I think that when I do write stuff that is a little more “songwriter-y” like “Sad Machine” it’s probably my best execution of that. I feel like that song is a little more “me.” But there’s not a single song on this album that I don’t stand behind, it’s just that when I go through an analyze them, I want to talk about my favorites, you know?
“Sea of Voices,” a super chilled out, ethereal track with crashing climax...
“Sea of Voices” went through so many versions. It was another one that I worked really hard on. Originally it was a little more towards a trance vibe and then I wrote this sort of like, beautiful poem thing “We’ll see creation come undone…” and I liked that. I wrote that in vocaloid as well, originally, and I was like “Geez I really like that lyric and that melody,” so I wrote a whole new song about it, and that’s what it became. “Sea of Voices” was the first thing that anyone heard of Worlds. I just kind of dropped it out of the blue, so a lot of people’s permanent impression of what that album is like is based on that one song. I like the song because it’s touching, it’s pretty. Those are some of my favorite things about it.
“Fellow Feeling.” I’d say this is the most emotional moment on the album, kind of leading into this “ugliness,” as she says, where the song begins to kind of tear itself apart, almost like a Coldcut track. I never really understood the message of the song, unless you were just speaking at face value, like “the world is not a happy place,” and the song’s deconstruction is supposed to represent that somehow…
I forgot to put “Fellow Feeling” on my favorites list. I really stand by “Fellow Feeling,” I apologize (laughs). I think it was mostly done for aesthetic reasons, just contrasting what I thought was beautiful and serene, against something that was really violent and loud. In some ways I felt I was trying to sort of expose the EDM formula as well. I think that song as well is in some ways critical of dance music, which I don’t even know if that is necessary. I just think it’s cool, I think it sounds cool to go from something that is beautiful and serene to something that comes crashing down into something heavy and hard. It’s a cool way to showcase sound design chops with cool weird, fucked up sounds. I don’t normally get to do that anymore.
“Goodbye to a World.” Here’s another track where you used the Vocaloid. And usually when you hear people say “Goodbye to a world,” it’s like a suicidal thing, “Goodbye cruel world, etc.” Or is this more like the Vocaloid’s goodbye? What’s going on here?
I didn’t see it as a suicide thing, I saw it more like an apocalypse type thing. Like the idea of worlds being created and worlds being destroyed and the end of that album. I grew up playing MMORPG’s a lot, which are online role playing games, like World of Warcraft and whatnot. I played one called Star Wars Galaxies, which was a really immersive online world. When those games stop being profitable, they shut down the servers so no one can play them anymore. I was deeply, deeply attached to that game, so I kind of lived through this home, this world that I was really attached to being destroyed. It’s something that became very sentimentalized for me, so just the whole notion of a world being destroyed is something that I think is really beautiful when depicted in the right way. I think the vibe I was going for with “Goodbye to a World” was like a “beautiful apocalypse,” which sounds like the name of a post-Hardcore band, so I apologize for that.
So what comes next? How do you top Worlds? Do you build on top of it, or just wipe the slate clean and create something incredibly new for your next album?
It’s so hard for me to say. I’m kind of in an inspiration rut right now. I’ve been trying to write music this year since the album came out and a lot of the time has been spent on tour. But it’s been fucking hard! I’m not sure what I’m going to. The one thing I can guarantee is that it’s probably going to take a long time. And that’s all I can say, because I just don’t want to put out something half-baked. I don’t strike while the iron is hot and do an instant follow-up, I really just want to make it right and make it good. These are the questions that I think about all day, pull my hair out and get really frustrated about on most days.
That’s the right way to do it, man. You could carry a certain amount of mystique if ultimately decide that you are only going to release albums every seven to ten years like Dr. Dre or Daft Punk. It probably raises your value, in a sense, where it’s not just like, “Let’s churn out another record because that’s what they want me to do.”
Yeah, I’m definitely not on the level of someone like Daft Punk. I mean, I HOPE that it’s not seven years, but I am open to the possibility of waiting until I have something that I am 100% proud of before proceeding.
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