Welcome to Porter Robinson's Self-Made Wonderland

Welcome to Porter Robinson's Self-Made Wonderland

From the expansive world-building of his debut album to lore-rich visuals made in collaboration with full-fledged anime studios, Porter Robinson has been meticulous in laying out his vision over the span of his career, going to painstaking lengths to deliver products that accurately reflect said vision and often subverting what's expected. So it probably shouldn't come as a surprise that, in a saturated festival market, Porter Robinson's Second Sky stands out.

Founded in 2019, Second Sky started as Robinson's answer to the tyranny of an algorithm-driven industry, with a personally curated lineup of artists he cites as inspirations and peers, rather than a grab bag of acts that pop up on his Spotify-recommended playlists. Inviting everyone from big names like Madeon, Jai Wold and Toro y Moi to smaller gems like Kero Kero Bonito, Wednesday Campanella, Anamanaguchi and KNOWER, Second Sky was designed as an expansion of Robinson's extended sonic universe, incorporating visual elements of the artist's own world to create an immersive experience unlike any other.

Having taken a brief break due to the pandemic, Second Sky returned to the Oakland area this year for the festival's latest evolution. The festival partnered with Nassal, the same minds behind Universal Studio's Wizarding World of Harry Potter, to bring Robinson's fantastical world to life, complete with ancient monuments, beloved rotund mascot Potaro, a side stage curated by anime streaming service Crunchyroll (in partnership with Tokyo nightclub MOGRA) and a speakeasy-style bar inspired by the music video for Robinson's 2013 single "Easy."

"In that video, there's this girl, she's in Neo Tokyo and she's this model, and she basically blows up an EMP that destroys all the electronics, and she goes to live in fancy nature la-la land," Robinson explains. "It's very proto-Porter ideas, Porter in his nascence, but we basically have this really cool indoor theme bar that's blacked-out. If you go in there, you can't see light from the outside."

Apart from the visual attractions, Robinson also draws attention to the curated culinary lineup this year's fest boasted. "This is very inside baseball stuff, but we went really hard on the food this year," Robinson — who hands me a sparkling yuzu-white-peach drink at the start of our interview, eager to hear what I think of the drink by the time we wrap things up — says. "There's so much themed food and cute little Potaro drinks. Last year, we did the one little Potaro drink that had dry ice in it. But, this year, we have the Po-nut, we have Potaro bao, we have all these cute themed food that is really freaking delicious."

This year's edition of Second Sky saw the festival welcome the likes of trap bogeyman RL Grime, Drain Gang's Bladee, J-Pop icon Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, absurdist maximalist producer Hudson Mohawke, fairy synth-pop duo Magdalena Bay and rising house phenom Salute to the mainstage.

"Kyary [Pamyu Pamyu] is one of my all-time favorite artists," Robinson gushes. "[Magdalena] Bay are doing great, great stuff in that electropop but also indie world. We have Bladee. I listen to Drain Gang all the time when I’m playing Halo. It’s just a lot of the stuff I'm listening to right now. Salute is probably my favorite DJ's DJ right now. He's such an incredible selector, and he's such a great producer."

This year also saw the return of Skrillex as a late addition to the lineup, who memorably christened the first edition of Second Sky as that year's special guest. "The surprise guest is the same one as the last time," Robinson says. "It's even more special now to me because he has just been off the radar for a while, and it's like, 'What's he going to do?' It's such an exciting prospect to me."

As has become the tradition with Second Sky, Robinson's presence was very much felt at the festival, with the DJ opening the day with a mix of "Hampster Dance" and "Numa Numa" dubstep remixes as DJ Potaro and going back-to-back with G Jones in addition to the headlining spot. "That was fun," Robinson says about leaning into electro-house and memecore for his opener. "By doing that DJ Potaro set, I didn't have to dedicate a whole two years to doing a new project to try to express what was great about that sound, like I did with Virtual Self. I’m just kidding. DJ Potaro is a way for me to express a love for a microgenre without having to come up with any art direction."

Another major addition to this year's Second Sky was the debut of Robinson's "Together Live" show. Leaning into Nurture's emphasis on electronically manipulated instrumentation and celebration of the craft of songwriting, Robinson's introduction of a band felt like the next logical evolution for the artist over a decade's worth of personal and creative growth. "So many of my favorite acts are bands," Robinson explains of the decision. "I really love the feeling that comes with sort of the intimacy that comes with hearing a full band perform and the potential for mistakes and then the little moments of transcendence where everyone who's performing finds a certain pocket and it all comes together."

While he declined to name any specific shows or bands that influenced his own show, Robinson seemed most excited about the level of intimacy a band could afford him. "It was really the small shows with no production, where I could hear the band playing, where I was like, “This is moving me so much,” discovering new songs that I didn't know through that," Robinson recalls. "Obviously, Second Sky can never be that. It's always going to be a big production thing with 25,000 people in the crowd, but I wanted to get as close to those feelings as I could have, doing it as vulnerable as I can."

No longer hiding behind a set of DJ decks or even just an array of midi controllers and vocal filters, Robinson's live band strikes balance between euphoric, stadium-filling anthems and live edits to stripped-down acoustic sing-a-longs. Robinson as a performer has grown considerably as well, whether it's concentrating on nailing a guitar riff live or channeling his inner M83 on sprawling vocal interludes. In the same way that Nurture was an artistic triumph over writer's block, insecurity and stagnation, Robinson's transition into a band feels like yet another breakthrough for the artist.

"To be surrounded by musicianship on the stage and being able to interact with them," Robinson says of the experience. "I’m so used to having all of these electronic tools before me and being able to control everything, and it's just feeling so right to be able to work with the people. It just sounds so good. I rearranged a lot of the music too, to kind of suit a more natural feeling approach. There were times where when I would watch a video back, I would realize the connection wasn't as intense as I wanted it to be with the crowd because of the amount of effects. I just want to feel a really strong sense of closeness and vulnerability to the crowd, feeling as real as it can. There's stuff I'm trying to express through my music, and I want to kind of say it with my chest in a way."

Photos Courtesy of Second Sky/Porter Robinson