Porter Robinson has put down the phone. The 23-year-old producer and I have been talking about David Aguado, the Spanish illustrator that he has worked with closely during the visual development of his recent tour and remix album. I had casually asked where he lived and where he went to school, and Robinson instantly went to Google That For Me. "It's okay, I searched already," I say, but he can't hear me.
Artists collaborating long-distance is far from a new phenomenon, but distance and a language barrier have separated Robinson and Aguado even further — they've never even spoken on the phone. So it's remarkable, then, that they have created such a cohesive visual universe for Robinson's 2014 album Worlds and all its subsequent permutations. Robinson, a confessed Tumblr enthusiast, originally found Aguado's work on the social sharing platform, and brought him on as one of many artists that built the look for Robinson's lush, anime-inspired compositions. But Aguado's work came to be the dominant inspiration for the album — as well as its cover art.
It helps, of course, that Robinson has been singularly obsessive when it comes to the look and feel of all things Worlds — as he describes the process of designing his acclaimed live show and all the album art, it starts to sound less like an album and more like a big-budget film or video game. On the week of the release of Worlds (Remixed) I spoke to Robinson from his home in Chapel Hill, NC about his collaboration with Aguado, finding inspiration on Tumblr and other virtual communities, and the pros and cons of being your own art director.
First off, having also been a former DDR-head, I really enjoyed Worlds, and I thought it was so interesting how much nostalgia there is for that particular sound. I think there's a whole generation of kids, maybe, who first heard dance music, or europop, or that kind of techno construction on Dance Dance Revolution.
That's so great — I guess there's a lot of people who know of DDR just because it was really present in popular culture. Like, there's a Malcolm in the Middle episode where Hal gets really obsessed with DDR. I remember that was really exciting on the DDR PHP forums that I used to frequent. [Laughs] But the music is still really inspiring to me, and it's something that I listen to a lot. There are a lot of people who wonder why Japan is a pretty consistent influence in my music, and I think it's because the reason I started writing — my intro to electronic music was Japanese music. And now I'm following all those [DDR artists] on Twitter and whatnot. And some of them follow me back, which is cool.
It's one of the only things that could make me miss internet forums. Like, now they only exist in the bodybuilding community, for some reason. I'm not a part of that, but whenever I search for any kind of health problem, a classic-style bodybuilding forum comes up in my results.
But there are still so many ways for people to connect over common interests — for example, you found David Aguado through Tumblr.
Definitely — so much of my favorite art exists on Tumblr. I feel like whenever I get stuck, I just look through my [Tumblr] likes. But I definitely love [David's] style, because in my opinion it's really beautiful, and it definitely evokes that fantasy vibe, which is really important to me. But it's not like this cloying, overly beautiful — there's a hint of something real there ... I just really admire his stuff, there's something realistic about the way he can portray fantasy. There's some grit to it, and I appreciate it.
"I don't have an art director. Or, I guess, I am my own art director."
And at first, I wasn't exclusively working with him for the art. For the release of the actual album, I commissioned several different artists ... I wish I had been more committed to one vision, but I was afraid that if I worked with just one artist I wouldn't be happy with everything. So the first Polaroid series for the first release of Worlds is a little bit all over the place, but David's parts are absolutely my favorite moments of it.
And then I went through the very very long, painstaking process of commissioning visuals for the live show ... it was just months and months of working, and taking calls every day, and it was sort of the closest I'd ever been to working in animation, because even though I wasn't hand-drawing things, I was giving feedback on in-between frames, and adjusting different rates of motion. But it also ran a lot deeper than that. And what came out of that was, there are tons of recurring characters and little universes that exist in the live show visuals that are corresponding to each song. And people who look at [the Worlds (Remixed) art] who have seen the show and everything are gonna go, "Oh, my god, so this is the character from 'Goodbye to a World' in the live show. And here is that same moment depicted from a different angle."
It just makes me so happy. At first I felt like I was so wishy-washy and I wasn't committed to one singular idea, and I feel like that was my biggest failure. And this, I feel like, is a correction of that. It feels like it was planned from the beginning, and that's a feeling that so many of my favorite artists give me when I see their videos, and their cover art, and even the way their website looks. It's cohesive in a way that's very art directed.
Tell me a little bit about how you and David worked together on the remix art. How closely were you communicating?
So I guess the real genesis of these Polaroids actually begins back in 2013, which is when I made the original style bible and the mood board for the whole album. The mood board was just like, 20-ish PDF pages of mostly stuff from my Tumblr that really evoked the feeling of the record. And then the style bible was a written document that would go on to be shown to everyone who worked on the Polaroids, everyone who worked on the cover art, the people who worked on the tour visuals, the people who designed my website, and the people who directed my music videos. It was just essentially a style bible for my taste and for the record. So that outlined really basic stuff — like, "It should be generally pretty, and evoke the feeling of fantasy, and it should feel vast." But it also got more specific in terms of laying things out, like, particular kinds of surrealism that I liked. I would [talk about how] I like that kind of dreamlike, dream logic-type surrealism. And I don't care so much for psychedelic, druggy type, hallucinatory surrealism. So I was sort of laying out all these rules so that there would be, I guess, fewer mistakes, and that it would feel more consistent, because I don't have an art director. Or I guess I am my own art director.
So this time with David working on the remix Polaroids, I think he had never seen the tour visuals. So I took a bunch of screenshots of my tour visuals and went, "This is Character C," — and I took all the screenshots of her — "and she goes with this song. So do your own David Aguado-style art based on these four screen caps and something from these visuals." And a lot of them were more specific suggestions, like, for "Flicker" I said I wanted the girl to be falling through the sky, because in the tour visuals and in his "Flicker" single cover art, we always show her sitting on these cubes, and exploring this sky world, and I just thought it would be really sick to see her falling.
So for a lot of them I gave really specific directions for what scenes should look like, but for the most part, he just ran with the references I sent to him, which — I was so proud that finally the references weren't something I liked off Tumblr, but my own stuff.
Have you guys kept in touch?
I've never spoken to him on the phone; I've only ever spoken through email. And I've never done a live show in Argentina so he's never seen my show. It's a weirdly impersonal thing, but I feel this connection to him because even though what he does is influenced by my music and my references, I also think there's this cyclical effect, too — that some aspects of his style influence my music. There's something a little darker about his world than mine, and it kind of pushes me in that direction.
The fact that you've never spoken on the phone — it reminds me of what you were talking about with your old forum communities, or things you've said about MMORPGs in the past. The fact that you can work together and make these imaginative visuals and stories and never be in the same room, much less actually speak to each other.
Yeah, it's very 2015, I guess. The company that I worked with on the tour visuals were called ILN — Imaginary Light Network. It's one guy, and he has artists all around the world who will do the first frame, or build a reference illustration; he has other people who are animators, and none of them have met each other ever. And that blew my mind. Like, I went to New York, and I felt a little bit naïve: I met the guy, the head of ILN, and I was like, "Where are the offices? I want to meet everybody." And yeah he's never met any of them, he doesn't know any of them. It's very modern, and a little sad. I had in my mind this little community in this office where people were working together exchanging notes, and that wasn't real at all. But you would never know it from the result.
So, I don't think I've heard of an artist doing their own design board or visual bible for an album. Cover art, maybe. I guess it must happen, but I haven't heard of the artist personally art-directing in such an involved way.
I have definitely been like, "Okay, this is the year where I find an art director that gets my stuff and is going to intercept everything before it gets to me." And it never really works out like that, and I think I've given up because I'm better off handling stuff myself. And I'm not writing off the possibility of having somebody who works with me in the future in terms of just taste-level stuff, because I'm sure there are people out there who would love to have that job and who would really really get it, and I've talked to people who seem awesome and qualified, but I'm not so overloaded and busy that I can't make an effort of it myself.
You've talked about the whole creative process for Worlds being a huge change for you — at the same time, Worlds was your debut album, which sets a precedent. Do you see yourself approaching your next release with this same all-encompassing process, or will you switch it up again?
I think no matter what, the next thing I do is going to be closer to Worlds than Worlds was to what preceded it. Because I feel like I'm circling — I feel like I'm always getting closer to this absolute, real, authenticity, and not compromising. That's what I tell myself, at least, but there's also no accounting for taste changing. I don't know, I went home after this last record and tried to just — not phone in, but I tried to make something that sounded like Worlds, right away. I was like, "This is working so well, and I'm so happy with this, and I'm just going to do it again." And it has really not worked that well. So right now I'm just searching for new stuff that I like, and — I don't know, I've gotten really depressed at times. It's honestly been the hardest creative experience I've ever had. The thing I can guarantee you is that nothing is going to come out until I'm really happy with it, so it's just a matter of time and willpower, I think. And I've kind of come to terms with that.
When you talk about going after authenticity, does a lot of that stuff that comes from past influences, or is there something also more timeless to it?
Yeah, I've always wondered what it would be like to make music that's not nostalgic at all, and it's really, really hard for me to imagine. It's like — I almost don't think I'm capable of it, because I think the central seam of my music is sentimental. The thing that makes me want to proceed and finish a song is when it really touches me and makes me feel something. And I think that memories and this feeling of nostalgia is a big part of what makes me feel anything. And I don't mean nostalgia like '80s or '90s nostalgia, I mean like personal nostalgia. Stuff that was really important to me at a certain time of my life. It's like the whole rose-colored glasses thing. Like the way that you remember something is a lot better than it actually was. And that feeling is just like — if I can look at something that I enjoyed as a child or an adolescent in a different way, it makes me feel that stuff again.
Worlds (Remixed) is out now on Astralwerks.