Born in 1992 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, electronic music artist Porter Robinson began producing music at the young age of 13. Influenced by the sound of video games such as Dance Dance Revolution, he began to emulate these soundtracks by using Sony ACID Pro; his first production alias was Ekowraith. Learning and creating beats throughout his teens, his first single, “Say My Name,” was released in 2010 (under his actual name). Success for Robinson quickly followed as he signed a one-EP deal with Skrillex’s OWSLA label. He released Spitfire for the label in 2011. The level of demand crashed the server of a prominent online retailer. This period also saw him carry out prestigious remixes for high-profile artists such as Avicii and Lady Gaga. Worlds The following two years would mark the start of Robinson’s ascendancy, with more hit singles (“Language” in 2012 being a standout dancefloor smash that year) alongside the development of a fruitful relationship with fellow DJ Mat Zo. The pair released “Easy” in 2013, backed with some heavyweight remixes from Andy C, Botnek, and Lemaitre. Alongside producing, Robinson gained a steady reputation as a prolific live artist and DJ. Touring extensively across North America and Europe in 2012 and 2013, he rapidly gained a huge fan base and was soon regarded as a headliner in his own right alongside the likes of Skrillex, Tiësto, and Deadmau5. Worlds, his debut album, was released on Astralwerks in 2014 with contributions from the likes of Amy Millan (Broken Social Scene, Stars), Breanne Düren (Owl City), and Urban Cone. Although hard-hitting four-four beats remained part of Robinson’s arsenal, it reflected the producer’s desire to make more emotive and atmospheric material applicable for home listening, like that of M83 and Passion Pit. Worlds debuted at number 18 on the Billboard 200 and at number one on the publication’s Top Electronic Albums chart.
When would you say Virtual Self was born?
In 2015, at the height of my depression. I was writing music that sought to be kind of like a follow-up to Worlds, but it just wasn’t as good, and I knew it. It wasn’t coming from a real place back then. I think I’m at my best when I’m rebelling against something. When I wrote Worlds, it was because I was really sick of the EDM sound at the time. Virtual Self felt like me reacting against the pressures and expectations that I placed on myself after that first album. Once I started diving into compiling mood boards of the visual art style I wanted, and accumulating a set of sounds that gave me that Y2K vibe, it was like the dam broke, and writing music just flowed out of me.
What is the true inspiration behind this project? It seems to be reminiscent of late ’90s and early 2000s electronic-dance music?
Virtual Self is like me trying to paint a picture… my fuzzy, nostalgic, unclear memories of Y2K dance music like trance, hardcore, and ’90s jungle. I wanted to intentionally conflate everything and cross styles in a way that wasn’t necessarily authentic to the era – it’s never quite trance, it’s never quite hardcore, and, although it possesses some jungly elements, it’s never quite jungle/drum-n-bass.
Like, I remember when I was told by people in the drum-n-bass scene that the jungle and d-n-b world took it as a point of pride to resist trance influences. But for me, when I was 10-years old and hearing electronic music in video games, I didn’t make those genre distinctions. I couldn’t have explained the difference between jungle and the Y2K trance I was hearing at the time. It was all the same to me, and I loved it.
How did that translate to this project?
So, when I was working on this project, I realized that I wanted Virtual Self to exist in this weird limbo between the genres of the time. That’s how I remember this music – as an outsider – and as a little kid, I received all these disparate styles of electronic music in a singular package. So now as an adult, I wanted to recreate that feeling with Virtual Self.
No genres seem to be off-limits when it comes to a Virtual Self set. Can you tell us a little bit about your track-selection process?
As I said earlier, I’m trying to recreate this vibe I have in my memory where all of the tropes and clichés of the early 2000s – within a certain vibe – are being expressed all at once. But this is quite difficult, as most of the music you find from that time period is essentially one genre or another. So I spent a lot of time obsessively searching. I dedicated myself to listening to – at least scrubbing through – every single trance song released from 1999-2003, according to Beatport’s release dates. I did something similar looking for techno, breaks, and jungle. I’m certain I scrubbed at least 40,000 songs over the last two years. I was trying to give myself a huge toolkit of stuff to search from.
That’s a lotta material
In pursuit of that goal of conflating a bunch of tropes together, I spent a lot of time editing. I’d take an actual old-school trance breakdown and, at the expected moment of climax, switch it into a slowed-down “Amen Break.” It’s partially about subverting expectations, but it’s also about trying to combine unalike tropes in a Virtual Self kind of way.
But there are familiar tracks, right?
In terms of more specifics about selections, I wanted a good balance. I wanted to play mostly music that people don’t recognize, but that feels distinctly Virtual Self, with the occasional well-known classic sprinkled in. I certainly wanted people to hear the show and wonder how much of it was authentically from that time period, and how much of it was made by Virtual Self. Finally, I didn’t want there to be any sense of irony or satire. I didn’t want to play cheeky, old, dance hits or anything that could be taken as ironic.
What were your final thoughts following the debut performance?
I was so happy.
You’ve announced there will be no Virtual Self music at Porter shows and vice versa. Why did you choose to go this route?
I just really want to maintain the purity of the atmosphere of both projects. For Virtual Self, I obsessed incessantly for years on end trying to maximize a certain kind of aesthetic – that’s captured by the sounds used in the song, the style of chords, the production style, the look of the visual art, the look of the videos, even the vibe of the fonts used in the designs, needing to ensure that it’s all absolutely right and as Virtual Self as possible. I want a Virtual Self show to be the most Virtual Self experience you can possibly have, you know? Same with the Porter shows. I’m interested in immersion above all else. I want people to get to feel like they’re living in a different world. Anything that breaks that immersion is something I don’t want.
The Virtual Self EP featured five tracks and introduced the world to two characters. Who are technic-Angel and Pathselector?
They’re the “producers” – Technica wrote “Eon Break,” “Particle Arts,” and “Key,” and Pathselector wrote “Ghost Voices” and “A.I.ngel (Become God).” I get the sense that Technica’s more about exploring the uptempo and happier stuff with hardcore and jungle and cybertrance influences, where Pathselector is more about breaks, dark trance, garage, and 2step. You can really hear it in the music.
“Ghost Voices” became an immediate favorite, not only among your fans, but your peers.
I was really surprised by how many DJs picked that up. It’s been like four years since I made music that DJs would really be interested in playing, so I didn’t even think to expect it. It definitely makes me happy.
Many seem to believe that this year more DJ/producers are creating the music that they actually want to make, rather than playing it safe and making music they think the audience wants to hear. Would you say this is part of the inspiration behind Virtual Self?
I really hope that happens. I love electronic music so much, and I think it’s at its healthiest when people are innovating and aren’t trying to intentionally write hits. My hope is that people will make music for themselves, dive into lesser-known influences that they love deeply, and try to share as much passion and excitement as they possibly can.