In the early noughties, a teenage boy sits in his bedroom teaching himself to make music on a computer. On internet forums, he shares his handiwork with other fledgling producers and before long, makes a track good enough that it catapults him to almost overnight fame.
It’s a story that could be about either Porter Robinson or Madeon, two of electronic music’s most prodigious talents. But more unlikely than their parallel beginnings is the fact that they did it together: in those early days, the pair would send the music they’d made in their respective family homes in North Carolina and the French city of Nantes back and forth. They broke through at around the same time, played at the same festivals, and both released debut albums in the same 12 month period.
This month, dance music’s lightening-strikes-twice success stories will tour Australia. It’s one of the last stops on their Shelter world tour, a six month run of dates named after their collaborative single of the same name, and the logical culmination of a friendship built on a shared love of electronic music. In the lead-up to their tour, KATIE CUNNINGHAM got both Porter and Madeon on the phone to talk the pain and passion of creating.
You guys met on production forums in your teens. Back in those days did you ever talk about working on a track together?
Madeon: I think for the most part we sent music back and forward for feedback. We had occasionally discussed [working together] and even had some stuff, but I wouldn’t really count it as proper collaborations. For the most part, we were just getting feedback from each other and inspiring each other.
Porter: There was also an element of rivalry, which meant that we were both anxious about collaborating and potentially revealing some of our secret recipes. I know that for me, collaborating with someone meant being willing to share those secrets. We had too much of a competitive spirit to do that just then.
“Collaborating with someone meant being willing to share your secrets” – Porter
How old were you guys then?
Madeon: I think I was 12, and Porter 14?
Porter: Something like that.
What production programmes were you using back then, and how much has your process changed since? Has it become a lot more sophisticated?
Madeon: Actually, we’ve both been using the same software since those days. We are both producing in the same room in the house that we started producing in, right?
Porter: Yeah, that’s true. I would say then on the technical side of things, not really much has changed. The biggest change has been our level of ability and we’ve always pushed ourselves to improve and push each other to improve. Even within the last year, there’s some really tangible ways in which my production has improved because of Madeon’s breakthroughs and I hope vice versa. It’s a constantly ongoing process.
So when you were working on your own albums, were you sending each other music to listen to for feedback?
Madeon: Absolutely. That was a huge part of making those albums, I think. Porter sent me some demos very early on that he had for his album. He already had such clear vision and I tried to provide as much encouragement and excitement as I could, because I was really sold on what he was trying to achieve. When I was making my album, I also got some very relevant and helpful feedback. Porter identified things that were good before I did and it was something that I really relied on.
Porter: Yeah and likewise. I think if either of us tend to go astray or lose sight of what’s making our music great, we have a tendency to bring out the best in each other. That always happens. It’s so easy when you’re writing music to lose sight of what makes something great, having that respected and external point of view we have in each other is really valuable.
Do you guys have the kind of relationship where if you send one another a demo, you could say: “This is kind of bad. This isn’t where it needs to be”?
Madeon: Yes. But there’s some songs that I write that are very much outside of what I understand Porter’s tastes and sensibilities to be. I’ll send it to him and say, “By the way, you’re going to dislike this thoroughly.”
Porter: Not only do we have this level of self awareness, but we also have this mutual understanding of each other where I could send them and say, “This is not a very Madeonish M.O.” He’ll say, “This is not a Porterish sensibility.” We know what each other like and I think that was definitely an asset during Shelter because as analytical as we were, and as big of an effort as it was to collaborate, we were able to eventually veto things that we knew the other would dislike before even suggesting them.
Does electronic music still excite you as much as it did back in the production forum days?
Porter: Hugo you want to go first? I don’t know if our answers to this would be the same.
Madeon: I don’t think they will. Dance music has a format, and it’s not something that’s very exciting to me personally anymore. I don’t think it ever truly was, but electronic music and electronic production is still exciting. What I care most about lately is songs and pop music, ultimately, so the format of DJ music is not something that I’m very attached to anymore.
“Dance music has a format, and it’s not something that’s very exciting to me personally anymore” – Madeon
Porter: Right now I’m really excited about electronic music generally, and I love it. I think that this genre tends to ebb and flow in terms of quality and levels of inspiration. I am excited. I’m really watching what I say pretty carefully, so I’m sorry about that. I think that in 2016, in my opinion, things fell into a rut, and I don’t think there were that many new ideas. Obviously there’s always awesome stuff happening in the underground, but I wasn’t particularly inspired by a lot of the music that was released that year.
But I feel optimistic about the future because I’ve seen this pattern before and I think right when things grow still, a lot of producers are inspired to do something new and do something awesome. I think that part of what will be important in the future is for producers to have a certain level of care when it comes to new ideas and new sounds to try to be as unique as possible with they’re in the studio. I think sometimes people have a tendency to take advantage of what they see is the next big sound, which often times is damaging.
Madeon: What you made me realise Porter, with the way you described the cyclical nature of new ideas in the next music, is that I think I care the least about dance music when it’s at this almost stagnant point. As soon as new ideas emerge then I’m all back in and I’m all fascinated again. I’m looking forward to that too. I’m always going to love dance music in some capacity, but I do find the most level excitement in novelty, and I do find the most amount of novelty in genres that are slightly isolated from stylistic norms of dance music.
Porter: I think right now, electronic music had a period where what was exciting about the underground really resonated with the mainstream. There’s kind of an identity crisis going on right now where there’s this conflation. That’s all I’m saying. I’m excited to do the next things that I’m going to do. I still have faith in electronic music as a whole. There’s a lot left to be said in this format.
“I still have faith in electronic music as a whole. There’s a lot left to be said in this format” – Porter
When was the first time that you talked about making a single together?
Porter: I don’t remember. Do you?
Madeon: I do remember. We first started talking about it in early 2015, so after I had delivered my album. We kind of realised that we were both in somewhat aligned points in our careers where we had similar ambitions. We had both just completed albums, so it felt like there was an opportunity to work on something then. It took a while to actually come together, for us to finding the time to meet and spend time in studio.
Porter: It started as something a little practical where we’d both finished our albums, our next albums were a way off. As we began to work on it, we began to realise how special what we have in common is, and how unique of a thing this would be. We both knew each other long before either of us had any kind following at all.
“We both knew each other long before either of us had any kind following at all” – Porter
We met when we were really young and the fact that we hadn’t collaborated in that amount of time was almost conspicuous because we had been so close, we have such similar sensibilities at times. We were like, “Why haven’t we done this?”
We knew we would have to make it special. That brought pressure as well as positive and negative pressure, but I think we’re both so satisfied with the result. We really see each other as being an even split. The tour is such a great homage to what we love about each other’s music, and our favourite moments from our own discographies. It’s a great way to get to know us, in my opinion.
Was perfectionism an issue for you guys when you were making this track? Did it take ages for Shelter to get to the point where you were happy to share it with people?
Madeon: I think that with the songwriting process, often some of the most important parts of it occur very quickly in quick bursts of inspiration. You can have those massive breakthroughs, and some pretty minor details, such as the drum sound with the mixing can take forever. This is a song that definitely took effort, but I think the most important elements of it came very quickly and very naturally, and somewhat mysteriously.
“The base of Shelter came together really naturally and kind of easily. Completing it was a lot harder for us because we’re so prone to analysis and definitely perfectionists” – Porter
That’s the thing – as much as you can theorise and be cerebral about the process of making music, the thing that’s gonna excite you is always the thing that you’re not sure how you came up with. Shelter has a lot of that. Shelter has a lot of elements to it that are magical that I don’t really understand how we came up with it, and all of our other elements I know very well how we achieved from a technical standpoint.
Porter: That’s really true and I don’t think we’ve ever put that into words before. I really like that, because I think the base of Shelter came together really naturally and kind of easily. Then completing it was a lot harder for us because we’re so prone to analysis and definitely perfectionists, both of us. I completely agree and that is exactly on point.
What took the longest to make? Was it Shelter the actual track, or the animation, or building the live show?
Porter: Hugo wasn’t involved in the animation part, so I wouldn’t really compare that. That itself took over a year. Obviously that was a lot of effort from animators and directors. Between the song and the tour, it’s different kinds of effort. The tour was a really concentrated burst of high effort, it was a very intense period of time where we were not sleeping.
Madeon: We discussed a lot what the show would be like. We didn’t sit down and be like, “Oh let’s make a show,” and then had to devise it. It’s an idea that came naturally, because as we were having discussions ahead of writing Shelter about what was common about our discography, what our differences were, and how to relate it to each other. Some elements of what would make it work as a show came to us against our will.
This show idea felt obvious and came to us so similarly to Shelter as a song, where you can have a burst of inspiration followed by a long period of effort. But then making all those new versions of songs, editing this discography, and turning it into something new was probably the most difficult thing we’ve done. We both worked in our respective homes for weeks, for fifteen hours a day, every day up until the first show.
“We both worked in our respective homes for weeks, for fifteen hours a day, every day up until the first show” – Madeon
Porter: Yeah and we can’t overstate how difficult preparing the kind of live shows that we do is. It’s really hard. It takes a lot of effort and time. That’s why it was so hard to compare. I think Shelter was a mile-long effort with a lot of revisions, and the show just contains objectively more new music than what we released together. It’s just, by its nature, very time-consuming.
Was that whole process cathartic for you, or did it just break you and drive you a bit crazy?
Porter: It was hard.
Madeon: I think it was both. I think the thing about writing music over a long period of time is that sometimes you have that high where you think what you’re making is amazing, and then it wears off and you realise it’s not as great. The longer you have, the more perspective you have.
With the show we had to make so much music in such a short period of time, it was really difficult for us to know as we were making it how good it actually was. We couldn’t quite tell if it was something that we were going to be really proud of at the end or not. On the last day when we started putting all of the music together into one continuous thread, we started listening to it, I remember Porter and I being very tired, very nervous. We were really anxious that we were going to find a lot of problems or not really going to like it, and instead we were just thrilled. I was jumping around and I was incredibly relieved, but throughout making the show I didn’t have the perspective. That satisfaction came at the very end.
How does doing a side by side live show compare to doing one solo?
Porter: I think it’s more fun, personally. It’s just really thrilling to be surprised by somebody else and to have that kind of back and forth, and I also think having someone relying on you to do a good job brings out some additional effort. We can motivate each other when we don’t feel good and we can identify problems and give each other feedback. It’s the funnest tour I’ve ever done.
Madeon: You made a point in the past, Porter, which was that when we’re both on stage we’re actually playing to two audiences. We’re playing to the crowd and playing to each other, because we are there for every show so we know when something is better than usual, or when something is worse than usual. We have someone on stage with us that is going to be very highly knowledgeable and critical and more discerning than anybody else about the quality of a performance, and that forces us to be at our best.
Porter: It’s a constructive but intense kind of pressure. I love playing Shelter live. I went back and played Worlds live a few times and I’ll continue to do that this year, and there were a lot of aspects of that show that are really missed. It’s really fun for us and I think for the audience how up front we are locally and the Shelter live show. We’re singing each other’s songs and that’s not really anything expected sort of thing for people who come from the dance music world to do, and that just makes it all the more fun and different, and I think people get surprised. I like the way it distinguishes what we do from other artists that we get compared to.
Porter, you tweeted the other day about working on new music for this year.
Porter: So did Hugo, by the way.
Did working on Shelter help get the creative juices going for both of you?
Porter: I think Hugo was having some major creative breakthroughs before Shelter, and I don’t know what he does and doesn’t want me to say, but it’s some of the best music I am aware of and ever heard and really excited for it. That preceded Shelter for me. I had a hard 2015, and 2016 working with Hugo – sharing in some of his breakthroughs and working on the tour and seeing all the enthusiasm that people still have for the show – I know it’s dumb to care about, but I’m seeing the number of faces out in the crowd, it renews your confidence.
“I know it’s dumb to care about, but I’m seeing the number of faces out in the crowd, it renews your confidence” – Porter
Madeon: We mentioned earlier that we both work and the same bedrooms that we’ve always worked in. As our careers develop, sometimes when you’re home for a while, you kind of forget how much the scale has changed. When we started making music in that exact same room, when making music for nobody and now we make music for so many people, and I think that reminder of that is incredibly invigorating.
Porter: Completely agree. I can say without question that working on Shelter really helped me. Working on the video helped me a bunch. I think most of my breakthroughs creatively have come after the bulk of the tour was over. I came home and had a really great period of working on music and a lot of enthusiasm. The recent few months have been really great for me and the collaboration helped a lot.
So are new albums in the works for both of you at the moment?
Porter: I can’t really confirm a new album for me necessarily. I just know that I’m working on a lot of music and I don’t know how it’s going to be presented or what form it’s going to take, but that’s where I’m at. I’m not making an album at this minute, or anything like that.
I feel like you have answered this question in interviews before, but I may as well give it another go – is Shelter absolutely it for you guys, or would you work on another piece of music in the future?
Madeon: No, it’s very specific in our contract that we never see each other again after the last show.
Porter: That’s a major stipulation for both of us. [laughs]
Madeon: I think we made Shelter with the understanding that we wouldn’t collaborate again for a while. Who knows what will happen in the long term, but it’s not something we’re gonna try to recreate immediately. We saw an opportunity where with our style and our taste, and our careers aligned in a way. We think that maybe in the future we’ll make music that is so different that it wouldn’t make as much sense to collaborate. That’s not something we’re thinking about yet anyway.
Porter: No matter what happens I think I’ll be involved in what Hugo is doing for a very long time, because we still influence each other a lot.
Madeon: I think it’ll come back to what it’s always been, which is that we send each other all the music we make and we talk about each other’s music all the time. With Shelter we managed to give our fans a glimpse of that and how important our feedback and our music is to each other.
Porter: Yeah I think so as well. It’s not like it’s our permeant plan to never talk to each other again, and it’s definitely not that we are forming a band. Some people reported pretty inaccurately that we had an album together that was coming, and that was never true. We made it really clear from the beginning that it’s all about Shelter and that’s that. If people want to listen to music from Porter and Madeon, that’s what they should listen to. That’s what we’re giving and it’s what we’re proud of.
Katie Cunningham the Editor of inthemix. She is on Twitter.