You can call DJ-composer Porter Robinson many things – the next big thing; a hit-music prodigy; a boy wonder; and other patronizing labels.
I prefer to think of Robinson as electronic music’s budding intellectual. Which is good. Dance music needs a young sort of Neil deGrasse Tyson.
At 19, Robinson – hailing from university-rich Chapel Hill, N.C., but minus the drawl – is already a wordsmith insider. He can deconstruct exactly why his music is kicking your ass.
I’ve seen him perform twice. Let me tell you. He is really, really good.
He recently toured with Skrillex and Zedd, which was a perfect triangle, because each of those DJs shares an enviable musical trait: They get bored fast. Therefore, they compose and remix tones, textures and tunes a lot, staving off musical ennui.
Now, let me give you a peek at what it’s like to talk with Robinson. (He DJs Saturday at Surrender nightclub and on his birthday Sunday at Encore Beach Club, then at XS.)
I asked about his tweet from June 20 when he wrote, "I think my fetishization of all the old music that I have nostalgia for has damaged my perspective as an artist."
Here’s his explanation.
"You have to be honest with yourself," he said. "A lot of people don’t realize how much nostalgia biases them. People say, ‘Man, I miss the old days of trance,’ or ‘I miss the old days of electro.’ When in reality, that music wasn’t necessarily better. It’s just something you have a lot of nostalgia for."
True. And Robinson asserts you probably didn’t feel as strongly about that old music when you were actually experiencing it the first time around.
"I’m especially susceptible to that bias. I get so sentimental about all the music I used to listen to, and I spend too much time trying to emulate old sounds."
His bottom line: "Try to be open to newer sounds."
I told Robinson I was grateful for how astutely he describes peers’ music. He once defined the overall structure of Deadmau5 as "extremely personal" and Wolfgang Gartner as "pioneered."
I consider myself wise and knowledgeable. But I never thought of Deadmau5 as "extremely personal" until Robinson pegged him thus. He was right. "Extremely personal" clarifies everything about Deadmau5. I envied this insight.
Robinson uses vibrant and raw terms to illustrate his own music, such as "aggressive, energetic, evil, (expletive) you music" that will melt your face off.
"I spend a lot of time thinking about, and talking about, the music I’m passionate about," Robinson said.
A few weeks ago, he was touring on a bus with Mat Zo and The M Machine. And the following happened:
"We developed words for certain sounds that there aren’t words for," he said. "One word we use is to describe a certain physicality and a sense of space in music: We use the word ‘Swoc.’ "
"It basically has to do with sounds interacting with one another in a way that feels physical, and not a whole lot of overlap," he said.
Robinson is so popular that one day he and those tour mates mentioned the word "swoc" during a Ustream.com feed, and fans jumped on the word immediately.
"When we got to our show that night, there were six or seven kids there with ‘Swoc’ shirts on and had signs that said ‘Swoc me.’ It was so crazy."
(By the way, "Swoc" is just "cows" spelled backward, an inspiration conjured while riding past a pasture.)
Robinson’s words can get carried away. He devised the subgenre word "complextro" (fast, bassy, tech-glitchy), but the spread of the word was an accident. He doesn’t sound thrilled about it.
"I came up with ‘Complextro,’ maybe the most hated genre name of all time," he said. "But I wasn’t trying to name a genre when I came up with that word."
This was a few years ago when glitchy electro wasn’t abundant in dance spheres, other than a few songs by Deadmau5, Gartner and some DJs on the Beatport charts.
"I was making that style of music, and I wanted to push it. So I just put a little note up … on my (expletive) MySpace, of all things, that said, Complextro: a funny little portmanteau of complex electro.
"And eventually, people adopted that as a genre. I never meant to push that."
Anyway, talking with Robinson makes you wish more people should talk deeper about the music that moves them.
"Hopefully we can create a movement of people who think about, and are interested in, the intellectual exploration of music," Robinson said.
I couldn’t agree more. Bring it, music theorists.
Doug Elfman’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs at reviewjournal.com/elfman.