One chilly night in the summer of 2015, I tagged along with Porter Robinson at the electronic music festival Mysteryland, where he performed his album Worlds to thousands of adoring fans. His music back then, gushing with starry-eyed emotion and gorgeous melodies, channeled an atmosphere of intimacy that felt antithetical to the melt-your-face EDM theatrics of other main stage acts. He even crooned into the mic for a bit before the closing fireworks crackled into the sky.
At the time, Robinson seemed to be basking in his golden status as EDM’s sensitive boy genius. But behind the scenes, he’d found himself stuck in an artistic rut, unable to write more music in the indie-pop vein of Worlds. “I thought that was my identity as an artist, but the water went dry and I couldn’t do it,” he told me.
The same year as his Mysteryland performance, unbeknownst to almost everyone else, Robinson started tinkering with a secret project he called Virtual Self that was a radical pivot away from Worlds. The Virtual Self EP dropped in November 2017 with little explanation or context from Robinson other than several fictional Twitter accounts and a cryptic website designed to look like an early internet message board.
Drawing from late ’90s and early 2000s trance, jungle, IDM, speedcore, J-hardcore, and other throwback rave genres, Robinson’s new music was a euphoric embrace of forgotten dancefloors. It was as if he’d fed Armin Van Buuren, Aphex Twin, PC Music, and t.A.T.u through a meat grinder, and emerged with a neon-streaked collage of distorted breaks, squeaky synth stabs, and uplifting piano keys, set to hyperactive tempos of 140 to 170+ BPM.
Of course, plenty of other electronic producers have found smashing success reaching back to the halcyon days of rave culture for inspiration, with releases like Zomby’s Where Were U in ‘92, Jamie XX’s In Color, and Lorenzo Senni’s Persona becoming instant classics, just to name a few. But Robinson presents an alternate vision of rave nostalgia — one that’s viewed through the virtual lens of the internet and video games.
Over the phone from his home in North Carolina, the 25-year-old reminds me that, unlike older generations of producers, he was was too young to actually step foot into clubs. Instead, he absorbed its music by proxy — downloading tracks on peer-to-peer networks like Kazaa and Limewire, listening to anime soundtracks by Japanese musicians like Onoken, and playing rhythm games like Dance Dance Revolution.
“Virtual Self was me trying to paint a picture of a very foggy, distorted memory that I had of electronic music on the internet,” he says. “That blurry memory is really mysterious, and that’s what I liked about it.” Below, Robinson opens up about chasing the dragnet of rave nostalgia, his ongoing struggle with crippling depression, and where he goes from here.
So… are you a raver now?
Hahaha, I don’t think I’ve ever really been a raver, but obviously, rave tropes are part of this palette. Virtual Self combines a lot of unlike elements — trance, jungle, slowed-down breakbeats. It’s almost like me trying to create what electronic music sounded like when I was 12 years old, just typing the word “techno” into Limewire and downloading horribly mislabeled songs by Aphex Twin and other artists. I didn’t draw distinctions between J-hardcore, jungle, trance, and IDM. There weren’t rules of what does and doesn’t go together.
I was talking to a friend recently about the way the internet flattens history. Revivals used to come in waves, but now it seems like we’re in so many simultaneous revivals. The ’80s, ’90s, 2000s are all trending at the same time… an eternal state of nostalgia.
I spent a lot of time thinking about nostalgic art. An underexplored reason why nostalgic art is worthwhile is that it influences the way the past is remembered. It takes time and distance to appreciate what sets a given decade apart. For me, the early 2000s stood for this vast, magical, electronic cyber realm — a time when the internet was so infinite, mysterious, and under-explored. My goal is to remind people that those things were worthwhile and beautiful.
History is not strictly about facts, but the stories we tell later.
I liked that this time period would be different to categorize. I spent a lot of time obsessing over what I felt was a specific feeling from looking at this art that didn’t have a name yet — digital grunge maximalist abstract art, a certain kind of typography, the way every video looked like it was influenced by The Matrix, with this greenish blueish, super contrasted hue. Even some influences that aren’t from the early 2000s feel really Virtual Self, like Ray Gun magazine from the early ’90s. Also at that time, you had digital avatars exploding on forum signatures and deviant.art — that’s a big inspiration behind the Virtual Self art style.
A lot of the aesthetics and music you’re talking about are now seen as trashy, amateur, or overly sentimental — people think of trance as a cheesy genre sometimes. Is there an element of irony in the way you’re approaching this era?
This was a big thing I obsessed over the two years working on this project. I didn’t want to look back with a sense of satire, irony, or a wink to the camera. “Remember ‘Sandstorm?’” is not what it’s about. Instead, I felt like I could acknowledge that certain elements had fallen out of fashion, and still write a love letter to them. Some of this stuff was genuinely amazing, and in some cases, worth revisiting. There are so many projects out there that explore trance through nostalgia…
I really, really love PC Music and think everyone involved in it is so unbelievably talented. I remember listening to a mix on their SoundCloud three years ago, before it was so focused on pop, that incorporated elements of hardstyle, jumpstyle, and trance. It was the first time I felt like somebody was looking back on those sounds in a way that was referential. I read an interview where SOPHIE was saying that it’s not satire or necessarily meant to be funny, and I definitely get that vibe.
Many people who’ve been influenced by PC Music take trance or pop tropes and exaggerate them for an absurd effect. My attempt is to look back at early 2000s and try to pull out what it genuinely felt like — this cyber ethereal feeling — with no irony and full sincerity. I think that’s been hard for some people to parse—like, a really earnest love letter to y2k? Why?! The answer is: because I think it’s worthwhile and so beautiful.
PC Music was the first reference that came to my mind when I heard Virtual Self! I interviewed SOPHIE a couple months ago, and she did say that her intentions have always been sincere. It’s interesting how some critics assume a degree of irony when these sounds are excavated. PC Music is known for their hyper-modern, complex productions. I’m curious about the production techniques you used.
I spent a better part of a year learning how to recreate these sounds authentically. I spent a lot of time digging into sample packs people were using in the early 2000s and trying to figure out why things sounded the way they do. There’s a sound called the supersaw — the quintessential trance synth — first made in 1998 using the Roland JP-8000. I wanted to investigate what made it sound so different from contemporary synths.
Another big thing was trying to implement song structures and dance music sensibilities from 2017-2018, while using almost exclusively a palette of sounds from the early 2000s. “Ghost Voices” starts out with the hook, but if it was a song from back then, it would start with three minutes of intro drums and bass.
Which artists from back then feel like Virtual Self?
Vincent De Moore is definitely my favorite trance artist of all time. He made this track “Fly Away,” and whenever I play as Virtual Self, I play a lot of his music. He had a great sense of chords and melody — everything he did felt really ethereal in a beautiful way. I was obsessed with Onoken, an artist involved in dance rhythm games. t.A.T.u is a big influence. At the first Virtual Self show, I played “Not Gonna Get Us” — that shit is so awesome. It’s like, crazy distorted breakbeats with deep trance synths on top. Their music videos were so clearly influenced by The Matrix.
A lot of contemporary trance is over the top emotionally, but earlier trance was really reserved. It was emotional but somehow quite cold and technological — not warm and fuzzy. But I didn’t want Virtual Self to be exclusively referential; I was always trying to incorporate some kind of twist so it’s an homage to a time period but somehow distorted. That’s why I like the second drop of “Neon Breaks.” I was like, what if we took that trancey sound, but the drum sensibility was insane metal backbeats?
Is that what you meant by “neo-trance,” the genre title on “Ghost Voices”?
I have a notefile on my phone of a hundred different genre names to describe Virtual Self, and most of them are bad, but “neo-trance” is the one that felt fitting. Virtual Self is represented by these two characters, Pathselector and technic-Angel. Pathselector’s songs I’d describe as “neo-trance”—they’re less hardcore-influenced and strictly trancey sounding, with a 909-loop techno, progressive house, two-step garage kind of vibe. They’re mid-tempo — 120 to 140 BPM. Technic-Angel’s songs are maximalist, 170 BPM, crazy hardcore, speedcore, jungle, and drum and bass. The DJ sets of Virtual Self are split, alternating between mysterious dark techy and an insane, aggressive, million-synths-playing-at-once kind of sensibility.
You were sitting on this music for two years — and from what I understand, went through an artistic rut after Worlds. Was there a moment where it clicked that this is what you were going to do next?
I’m always fighting anxiety, depression, and OCD. Since 2014, it’s been really hard for me — this week was actually one of the worst of my life. Doing Virtual Self was really cathartic because I really get off on fucking with people’s expectations and not doing the thing that feels obvious.
When I released Worlds, I thought, I’ve been working for so long to come up with this sound so I should stick with it. I thought that was my identity as an artist, but the water went dry and I couldn’t do it. Then the Madeon collab went really well, and Madeon was making all of his new music that is unbelievably good. My temptation was to compete with that, but go in this complete other direction. Virtual Self is my attempt at alienating people in a way. Destroying expectations of what I do was so alluring, and I’m really proud of Virtual Self. I think it’s the best I’ve ever done of realizing an idea in full — every teaser, bit of album art, and website had to be as specific and complete as possible. I wanted people to stumble into this world like, what the fuck is this?
When I have an idea that I’m extremely excited about, I’ll beat my head against the wall just trying and trying, shooting myself in the foot. This project is me at peak obsessiveness. I went on Beatport, sorted the entire trance genre by release dates, and listened to every song from 1998 to 2003, not just the ones from charts. Same thing for breaks, jungle, drum and bass, techno. I must have listened to snippets of 100,000 songs over the course of two years. A lot of it was pretty uninspired and forgettable. But what’s great about reaching into the past is that you’re afforded a specific palette that gets you started. You come out with trends of sound design and structure that you can choose to incorporate.
I can see the appeal of going back to this romanticized version of the digital past. A sense of anarchic utopianism ran through the culture back then, before the internet — and electronic music — got so corporate and commercial. I was fascinated by the utopian themes running through the language of Virtual Self’s website and Twitter accounts.
There was a certain sense of escapism afforded by the internet that’s no longer the case. You’d join a chatroom or forum with a name that’s not tied to your identity and very little info was being collected about you. There were no algorithms trying to give you an ideal experience. Everything on the internet now is very much an evaluation of who you are and your self worth. Back then, you could depict yourself any way that you wanted.
Probably the reason why I’m alive is because I love that feeling of escapism and disconnecting myself from reality. I just love immersion. With Virtual Self, I was trying to create a feeling of absolute escapism with a hyper-specific palette.
If Virtual Self is a vibe, how would you describe it in three words?
Ethereal cyber maximalism.
What was the inspiration for the cryptic questions and answers in the Virtual Self music videos and website?
The idea was not to convey specific meaning but an overall atmosphere. I used a few techniques to generate a lot of them, like writing sentences and translating them into Russian into Czech into Korean and back into English using Google Translate, and seeing how the mistranslations would introduce a new word or change the grammar in a way that I liked.
I used another similar technique called Markov chain, an algorithmic process that takes a large body of text and tries to generate new sentences from patterns it sees. That’s how a lot of ebook Twitter accounts work. I took all the texts I’d written and ran them through Markov chains and generators, and picked the ones that felt the most ethereal and cyber. So it was partially done by AI and curated by me, which, as machine learning gets better, I think so much of the future of art is going to be. Machines will make tools and parts that humans will curate and arrange into art.
The other influence was a design trope in digital abstract art in the y2k period that I loved, where people would put tiny text everywhere — little floating sentences that are partially blurry and transparent. You feel like they’re being whispered to you by a robot. A lot of these sentences were not meaningful, just atmospheric.
I had a feeling that you used AI because there’s an algorithmic poetry to these sentences. It’s really interesting to find out that not only were you using machines that try to sound human, but you were also a human trying to sound like a machine trying to sound human.
You gave me the chills — that’s exactly right.
Where does this project go from here — is there more Virtual Self material coming?
I don’t really want to say. I have written a lot more Virtual Self music, but I can’t guarantee that it will see the light of day. I still have so much Porter Robinson music that I’ve been writing too. There’s no point that I’m not writing music unless the depression is in a serious spiral.
You were saying earlier that this week was one of the hardest in your life — does your struggle with depression affect your work as a musician?
My depression, anxiety, and OCD tends to come after the thing that I love and fear losing. So if I try to write music and feel like I can’t come up with something good, that can trigger a real spiral.
Sometimes that lasts for years, and sometimes two days. I feel like the better I get at making music, the more difficult it becomes. At the same time, I’m putting so much effort into trying to adequately treat my mental health struggles, it feels like a second full-time job. But I’m never gonna stop writing music even if it’s excruciatingly difficult, because that’s what I’m here to do.