‘Studio nerds’ share stage, success
By Megan Buerger
Friday, October 5, 2012
Porter Robinson and Zedd are two of electronic dance music’s rising stars. Known for producing electro-house music that combines synth-heavy instrumentals, ethereal vocals and enough bass to rattle your ribcage, both received mainstream acclaim after touring with Skrillex in 2011.
Now they’re co-headlining a fall tour, sharing the DJ booth and spinning back-to-back tracks. You can catch them at Virgin Mobile FreeFest on Saturday at Merriweather Post Pavilion.
Oh, to be a famous DJ. On the surface, the job looks cushy. They bounce around the world from festivals to five-star hotels, tweeting pictures of champagne bottles and screaming fans. Earlier this year, Forbes and Rolling Stone dubbed DJs the “new rock stars,” noting that headliners such as Skrillex net upward of $15 million a year.
But this image, albeit glamorous, is a slight misconception. Porter Robinson, an electro-house producer and one of dance music’s prodigious talents, says the job also comes with ceaseless jetlag, exhaustion and pressure to produce new material overnight.
“We’re all just a bunch of studio nerds, really,” he says. “And it’s incredibly difficult to say no [to gigs]. It feels like a reflection of my character to say, ‘No, I’d rather sleep,’ when I’ve been given this great opportunity.”
Robinson, 20, first heard electronic music at age 12, when his older brother brought home the Japanese video game “Dance, Dance, Revolution.” He started toying with production software and wound up with a No. 1 hit song on Beatport -- the EDM equivalent of iTunes -- before he had earned a high school diploma. In the two years since, he has toured with Tiesto and Skrillex, released “Spitfire,” an EP on Skrillex’s label OWSLA, and headlined his own tours in Europe and North America.
Last month, he finally hit pause. Robinson took September off and went home to Chapel Hill, N.C., to focus on producing new music.
“Guys like Skrillex can make tracks on the road, but I need to be with my dog and my siblings. It’s a better setting for me to write music in,” Robinson says. “It’s important for inspiration to get away from the DJ environment, too. It’s incredibly instructive and can influence your choices in songwriting.”
It may sound strange to tout authenticity in a profession where kids can drum up tracks by sampling music on their MacBooks, but such sites as SoundCloud and Beatport have made it remarkably easy for DJs to follow dance music trends. As a result, some hardcore fans have raised the bar, praising technical prowess and innovation over material that feels contrived.
Robinson is acutely aware of these elevated standards and isn’t interested in dumbing down his music to please the masses. He sees dance music as an opportunity to challenge conventions and buck expectations.
“It feels inorganic and insincere for me to come out and say, ‘Hey, here’s my trap song,’ ” he says, referring to the dubby hip-hop sound that has recently seen a surge in dance circles. “Guys like Flosstradamus and RL Grime have trap on lock, that’s their thing, and out of respect for them, I don’t want to rob that world. My music should reflect me because everything else is so fleeting.”
Robinson resurfaced last week for his fall tour with German electro-house producer Zedd. The Poseidon Tour, a 17-city run that includes the Virgin Mobile FreeFest on Saturday, will feature both DJs spinning back-to-back tracks, an approach they tested at the Camp Bisco festival last year. Robinson says his and Zedd’s similar fan bases responded to having them pal around onstage.
“The purpose of this tour is not to generate a ton of hype for this grandiose epic thing,” he says. “It’ll be consistent with our philosophy right now, which is just stupid, happy, fun.”
Anton Zaslavski’s flight to Los Angeles was delayed. Very delayed. It was a Saturday last March, and Zaslavski, more commonly known as Zedd, was scheduled to perform at Beyond Wonderland in San Bernardino, Calif., his first festival outside his home country of Germany.
By the time he made it to the park, he had only 10 minutes to perform.
As it happened, the DJ following him was Porter Robinson, then 18 and also a first-timer. Robinson took pity and gave Zedd the first 10 minutes of his set.
“A lot of people thought he was me,” Robinson says. “I even asked him to say, ‘Hey, this is Zedd and not Porter Robinson,’ but all people heard were the words, ‘Porter Robinson.’ ”
At the time, both DJs were new to the EDM circuit, which was just beginning to gain mainstream attention in America. They bonded over their similar sounds and software and hit the road with Skrillex three months later.
At 23, Zedd isn’t much older than Robinson, but he has been pursuing a music career for years. He trained in classical piano as a child and played in the German metal band Dioramic as a teenager, where he got a feel for production from working in the studio.
But it wasn’t until he bought the Justice album “Cross” that he fell under EDM’s spell. “It reminded me in a way of the first album I ever bought, which was Daft Punk,” Zedd says. “I had to try it out.”
Much like Robinson, Zedd began by releasing electronic mixes on Beatport. Within a few months, he had won a few of the site’s remix contests and caught the attention of Skrillex, who also comes from a metal background.
“The first gig I ever had was at the end of 2010, December or so. It was a little party I made myself,” he recalls. “Four or five months later I went on tour with Skrillex [and Robinson]. And it was from watching him that I learned most of what I know now about DJing.”
But it’s not enough to be a good DJ; success almost always boils down to production. Most producers release EPs or singles to keep up with the fast pace of dance music, but Zedd’s mentality is a little more pop-centric. He accompanied Lady Gaga on her Asian tour this spring and recorded his first studio album, “Clarity,” which goes on sale next week.
“I definitely have a relationship with pop music, and I personally like the idea of an album,” Zedd says. “When I made albums with my band, we always tried to create a whole package. . . . It was never about throwing songs together. I think you can learn a lot from that world.”
The ultimate question for dance music whiz kids such as Zedd and Robinson is where electronic music goes from here. Both artists are relishing its most common formats -- raves, concerts and festivals -- but they also have bigger ideas.
Robinson has said he could see himself spearheading a trance renaissance in America, and Zedd would eventually like to follow in the footsteps of A-Trak, Diplo and Steve Aoki, who own their own labels. And someday, he’d like to score a movie.
“Electronic music is about emotions,” Zedd says. “And when you combine that music with a moving picture, the emotion can just explode.”