By JIM FUSILLI
The problems inherent in the dumbing down of electronic dance music to accommodate a mainstream audience aren’t yet so grave that EDM requires a savior. But if it did, Porter Robinson might fit the bill. The 19-year-old out of Chapel Hill, N.C., is guilty of neither sin commonly committed by some producers who woo pop audiences: He doesn’t create insipid tracks for melisma-mad name-brand singers to warble over, thus muting the impact of a vibrant form of modern music; nor is he merely a human jukebox who at festivals and clubs puts on pop studio creations for an audience that wants predictability.
Mr. Robinson is a powerhouse, writing and recording in his studio and spinning music on stage. Last week, before a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd at the barnlike Neighborhood Theatre here, he served a dazzling fusion of the EDM discs he loves with his own assorted singles and tracks from his 2011 debut album, “Spitfire” (OWSLA). The gleeful audience may not have realized that Mr. Robinson was doing his best to challenge the creeping conventions of dumbed-down EDM. His breakdowns, a common feature of EDM during which most of the music drops out to increase tension, went on longer than is customary; he also extended the build-up phase, as the music returns and intensifies toward a soaring blast-off. When the release came, the audience members exploded, too—shouting, dancing and bouncing in place to the wall-rattling, ear-blistering music.
“The length of time to breakdown and build-up has become a science,” Mr. Robinson said, sitting in the sun a short walk from the venue. “The crowd knows when it’s supposed to be energetic. I’ve been challenging that. I’ve been playing a four-minute instrumental breakdown to show the audience that I want to defy expectations.”
At age 12, Mr. Robinson became fascinated by the music of Dance Dance Revolution, the Japanese video game. “The score was novel and I wanted to emulate it,” he said. He used Sony’s ACID software to do so. Perhaps unwittingly, he began to develop skills as an EDM composer.
He sent his compositions to like-minded people he met on the Web, including Wesley Smith, who’s known professionally as Kyrandian. “Whatever refinement is in my music came from having him as a strict mentor,” Mr. Robinson recalled. “He didn’t mince words. He’d say: ‘This is bad. It’s not effortful. It’s derivative.’ He instilled a work ethic.”
Mr. Robinson was taken with glitchy electro-house, music that’s full of unexpected edits, noises, bursts, skips, splices and samples of other tracks. “It’s music you couldn’t have made without a lot of effort,” he said. He dubbed it “complextro.” Wolfgang Gartner, Lazy Rich and Dirtyloud were particular favorites. He contacted them all and they responded with encouragement. In 2010, he cut seven original tracks, including “Say My Name,” a slinky tune with allusions to dubstep he considers a breakthrough in his writing, and remixed several others, including Avicii’s “Seek Bromance.”
By this time, Mr. Robinson, a student at Woods Charter School in Chapel Hill, had secured a manager in Aaron Greene, who booked him for two shows in the San Francisco Bay area. Mr. Robinson flew west with his father, Nick, who agreed to let him pursue his passion but wanted to see what his son had gotten into. Meanwhile, Mr. Greene slipped the Robinson remix of “Seek Bromance” into the CD player in Skrillex’s car. Soon young Mr. Robinson had a new supporter.
“My original goal wasn’t to have fans, but to impress my idols,” he said. “Once that happened, I had new objectives—maximize energy and write a song that was perfect for the dance floor.” Regarding the latter, he added, “I haven’t succeeded yet.”
The year Mr. Robinson graduated from high school—2011—was his breakout year in the EDM world, spinning at three Electric Daisy Carnivals, the Ultra Music Festival and at the South by Southwest Festival. He went on the road separately with Tiësto and Skrillex, before touring as a headliner in the U.S. and U.K. in support of “Spitfire.” Lady Gaga asked him to remix her track “The Edge of Glory.” This year, he’s already spun at Coachella and is booked at next month’s Lollapalooza. In support of his new single, “Language,” he will zigzag the U.S. with side trips to Belgium, Holland, Sweden and the U.K. throughout the summer.
Keep in mind that Mr. Robinson won’t turn 20 until later this month. He’s yet to grow into his features. Here, he introduced a visiting journalist to his parents and two brothers—who made the three-hour trip from Chapel Hill to see him in action—and thanked two teenage fans from Seattle who tiptoed up to him hours before his set to ask to take his photo. (They squealed with delight when he said yes.)
But on stage, Mr. Robinson displayed a veteran’s confidence as he created sets within sets—routines, he calls them—showcasing his compositions and remixes, but also paying tribute to his early heroes: “Seek Bromance” bled into Mr. Gartner’s “Space Junk” and Tiësto’s “Maximal Crazy,” with a snippet of Orjan Nilsen’s “In My Opinion” tossed in, too. A brief clip from Daft Punk gave way to cuts from Weeman, Kill the Noise, Anton Zaslavski and Dada Life as Mr. Robinson controlled the flow and energy with unflagging confidence.
He said he’s eager to dedicate himself to improving his compositions. “The new frontier for me is to write music that is emotionally compelling,” he said. “I can take a left turn now and my fans will still be with me.”
As for the fuss over the “popification” of EDM, he said: “I prefer to be optimistic. This generation of music listeners has a short attention span. They’ll realize there’s only so much anthemic electro-pop house you can take. First and foremost, I have a responsibility to provide entertainment. But if I’m not having fun because I’m playing stale routines, the audience will get bored too.”