Headliner-in-Waiting: The making of Porter Robinson

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 mainstage. 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 mainstage, 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 mainstage 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 basslines. His set is grounded in electro-house, but ricochets into dubstep, trap, trance and even Aphex Twin’s Windowlicker (if there’s another mainstage 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 mainstage at Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas, slotted between Armin van Buuren and Dada Life. Coming after the festival-tested sets from David 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.”

Porter Robinson – Language

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.”

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