Vaporwave Ambassador-Turned-Future Funk Heartthrob Talks about Change: A Chat with Skylar Spence
From the bedroom of Skylar Spence (fka Saint Pepsi) comes Prom King, the first album under the new moniker of young producer Ryan DeRobertis. He shares his thoughts about dropping out of college, his surprising propulsion into the mainstream, and his growth as a musician.
Ryan DeRobertis probably didn't expect his music would receive international attention and grace college radio stations across the US. At first, the only college station to play DeRobertis' music was his own, at Boston College, and even then, it was not over the airwaves but in the recording studio, where he would spend countless hours procrastinating assignments to make tunes.
We'll let you decide if he received the right kind of education.
Having grown up on Duran Duran and Prefab Sprout, Ryan always gave music production the same respect he gave to songwriting. After he switched to Ableton Live software and began immersing himself in online music communities, he eventually found himself making vaporwave. Vaporwave, for those outside the loop, is a globalized, Internet-born subculture that centers on sultry and sinister, sample-based composition. The results sound like (post-)ironic, corporate mood music played through the lenses of disco and electronic prog. After many mixtapes and early projects, DeRobertis (as Saint Pepsi) released Hit Vibes with Keats//Collective in 2013 and "bridged the gap" between retro synth funk and vaporwave, proper.
After his single "Fiona Coyne" dropped in July 2014 (also on his new album), he experienced the dream/nightmare of every vaporwave musician: the metamorphosis from anonymous Internet weirdo to pop star. After some musical soul-searching and a little pressure from PepsiCo, DeRobertis emerged as Skylar Spence with a new album called Prom King. The album feels more personal than his earlier material, like he's more directly accessing his true feelings. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Skylar doesn't dote on esoteric commentaries about digital decay in the Internet age. While he maintains a certain vaporwave aesthetic, he frolics in the unabashedly pop end of the spectrum. One simply does not expect, "I'm a big Bieber fan," to come from the mouth of a musician like Skylar Spence.
Sentimental yet optimistic, Skylar indeed channels real emotions. But don't let him trick you into thinking all is as it appears. The album walks a fine line between pop bliss and tried experimentation, between shameless celebration and thoughtful reflection. At the start of one of the record's highlights, "Can't You See", released in June, swaths of frequencies expand and the brazen disco beat comes alive, like someone stumbling from a quiet street into a popping club. He beckons in the chorus: "I'm in love with my own reflection / I'm in love, I'm in love, I'm in love / In the heat of the moment / I thought that I could kiss myself". The very final line echoes this lyric, but this time, the end of "kiss" cuts out, leaving us to wonder if he really just wants to "kick" himself. Something makes me think Ryan's newfound stardom hasn't completely gone to his head yet.
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You recently went from Saint Pepsi to Skylar Spence. How much of your name change was voluntary, and how much was PepsiCo behind it?
It was pretty much an even split. They took most of the initiative about me doing the name change. They were really cool about it. I had a whole Europe tour that was booked before we got the notice from them, and they let me finish out 2014 as Saint Pepsi, which was cool. But they were also very insistent that I do change the name and weren't really open to compromise.
And I have to ask, was "Saint Pepsi" intended as a jab at capitalism?
Not as much as everybody makes it out to be. I liked the juxtaposition between "Pepsi" being a huge corporation and the "Saint" being, you know, the religious connotation. I was really influenced by the sort of aesthetic that Pepsi ran in the 80s when they got a lot of artists to support their product, their commercials, Superbowl performances. I tried to capture that maximalist feeling in my music.
Would you say your name change reflects a change in your musical identity?
I think that I've been put in the position where that wasn't supposed to happen, but it did. This album Prom King was envisioned as a Saint Pepsi album. It'd just been too long since I'd released anything, so I didn't have the liberty of starting from scratch. But at the same time, the music I was making was already going a little bit further than what people knew me for. I'd say it was supposed to be the beginning of a new chapter of what I was doing with Saint Pepsi, and it just didn't work out that way.
On your new album, you say you that Carpark "gave you the confidence 'go big' [writing] pop songs with universal messages." You've also begun writing lyrics and singing in your music pretty recently. What happened to you?
It's weird. I guess I've always been more comfortable as a songwriter than a producer. Back when I was in high school, I learned how to record as I learned how to write. So using digital audio workstations and learning how to play guitar and piano sort of went side-by-side. And when I switched over to Ableton [from Logic Pro], I was so overwhelmed by the possibilities that I was doing a lot more production stuff than I was writing songs, and it just so happened that Saint Pepsi became the first project that I put out that anybody [laughing] cared about. So after a while of doing the production stuff. With this project I did called Gin City, there's a lot more original instrumentation, and I would write something that sounds good, then sample it. I just wanted to go a step further with that than my first album, which would be like, sort of full circle, more singing and songwriting but also the production tropes I'm exploring.
In addition to singing, you're now using live band.
Yeah, I just started about two months ago. It was interesting because after "Fiona Coyne" [the first single from Prom King] came out, we got all these opportunities to play festivals based off just the success of the single. So everything came pretty quickly. I had to put a band together right after the album was done because the album took longer than any of us hoped it would. You know, you really can't prepare for stuff like that. Two of the three band members I've known, one I met at college, and one I've known since middle school. And I met my drummer through my manager. It's just all worked out. It doesn't feel like pressure, it feels like playing music with my friends, which is cool.
Have your feelings about sampling changed?
Not necessarily. The biggest setback of sampling is that when you put something out with a record label, either it has to get cleared or you have to disguise it so that even the person who wrote it won't know what it was. But it's inspired me to get more creative. Rather than sampling full passages of the song, maybe sampling a half second of an instrument that was isolated and then map it to a keyboard and create a synth out of it, or something like that. Sampling is an entire world of its own. You can't manipulate a software instrument and make it sound like a sample the way you can make a sample sound like a sample, you know? So it's not something I'm really prepared to give up because it's part of my sound. So I'm just trying to get more creative with it.
Prom King feels more autobiographical than your previous efforts.
Yeah, it's about a lot of people that didn't really think I could do what I wanted to do, and a lot of different events that happened from the time I dropped out of college to the time I had to hand in the album. I tried to not write from a really blatant, first person perspective unless there's a real story I wanna tell, like in the song "Can't You See", which is about a specific day. And then other songs are about people, but I worked around so you don't have to know who I'm talking about to relate, I guess.
Are you the Prom King?
Yeah! It's a joke I'm gonna have to start explaining at some point. My school didn't have a prom king, but we had a homecoming king, and I did this whole campaign to win homecoming king and almost won it, because everybody thought it was funny, but I didn't win it. I came real close! But I'm using that story as a base for everything that's been going on lately. Doing this makes feel like I'm taking it back. You know what I mean?
Yeah, you earned it. So you started out making mainly vaporwave. Arguably you still make vaporwave, though you've expanded your horizons. But one does not make vaporwave by accident. Can you explain what about that scene initially attracted you?
I was just finishing up my first semester of sophomore year at school, and I really, really fucked that semester up. I spent all of November in the radio station recording studio, and I was working on my first record under the name The Cold Napoleons. It's nothing I'm really proud of, but it was the first time I really sat down and got a full album's worth of material together, so it was cool to me at the time. But then for the rest of the semester, I had to deal with telling my teachers I had mono and shit ...
No, I definitely didn't! So I had a really hard time getting my shit together for finals, and around that time, we listened to Floral Shoppe by Macintosh Plus for like the third or fourth time. I didn't like it the first couple of times. It was weird. We just sat down in the dorm room. The TV was off, and we were just taking it all it, and we were confounded by it, you know? It finally clicked, and there was no other kind of music that I wanted to listen to. [For] my approach to vaporwave, I like to take the more dreamy, more melodic take on. I like to make passages of songs sound like trips, nothing super critical or anything like that. It's not ironic to me. I just like the way it sounds and what it makes me think of when I hear it.
Can you humor our readers and give layman's description of vaporwave?
So vaporwave is a lot of different things. No matter what you say, somebody's gonna have an issue with it. The main point of it is that it's a form of plunderphonics, which is the manipulation of previously existing material. With vaporwave, the sound palette ranges from weather channel music to TV commercials from the 80s to old funk records. There's a definite vibe to the instrumentation, which doesn't have to be acoustic or electric. It all sort of encompasses some retro-futuristic idea of music, you know, where the sounds aren't necessarily new but the way it's imagined is.
I ask that question because everyone seems to have a different idea of what vaporwave is, but I've never had the opportunity to ask someone who actually makes the music.
It's weird because the kids (well, not kids), the people that started doing vaporwave way before me sometimes lash out at how people are talking about the stuff that they created. There's a lot of misinformation around, so it's hard. My friend Ramona, who does Macintosh Plus, is very iffy about how people think of that album, [Floral Shoppe], but she also knows that once it's out there, there's nothing she can do to, like, force people to get down with what it's about. It's about whatever it is about to you. There's nothing she can do to change that.
Wait, you know Macintosh Plus?
Yeah! We actually hung the month before last when I went down to Big Guava in Florida, and I stopped in North Carolina. It was really cool.
What did you guys do?
We just played videogames and dicked around. That's the kind of stuff I'm into: just chill out, put some music on, play some Dark Souls or something like that.
What led you to move away from strictly vaporwave?
When I grew up, the music that I listened to was mostly New Wave, disco kind of stuff because my dad was really into Duran Duran and New Order, and he used to import a lot of old singles and remix albums and stuff. So I've always had a weird sort of perception of pop music and when I got a message from Carpark, January of 2014, asking to work together, I thought, like, "You know, this is my chance to try this out and see whether I can be a real songwriter or if I should just stick to my guns and do what people like." [chuckles] And it just happened to work out, I think.
These days, your music often gets labeled "future funk"? What do you have to say about these nichey, sort of "Internet genres"?
I think they're amazing. I've been learning how to produce just off the Internet and how to write music since I was like thirteen or fourteen. And along with that came bouncing around a bunch of different communities. And there's communities for professional audio engineers and communities for hip-hop heads and stuff like that. But I could never really find a place that specialized in the kind of music that I wanted to make. And if I was gonna do any electronic music, I was really influenced by French house kind of stuff. So eventually, I just ran into the group Keats//Collective who made that kind of mid-80s funk sampling before vaporwave was a thing, or, like, at the same time. The two were really related. I guess I kind of bridged a gap between the two because I was making exclusively vapor stuff, and when I worked with Keats, it was more hi-fi and house-y and upbeat. So I don't think that I would have been able to get here without them showing their support. So I'm all for that: anything where you can go and learn and people are friendly. They don't act like they're great musicians, they act like they're friends, you know? It's hard to find that.
A lot of your contemporaries tend to keep their personal identity and musical identity separate. You're less anonymous than these musicians. Why?
I think that I'm sort of in a transitional period. When I started Saint Pepsi, I honestly didn't think people were gonna be down. It was sort of a fun project rather than something I was taking seriously, so I treated it like a really douchey, anonymous type thing. I would go on my personal Facebook and be like, "Who is this?" and a lot of people I was friends with didn't know that was me. And it was fun for a while, but I didn't want to hide behind that sort of anonymity, so I sort of started saying, "This is my name, and I'm the guy who makes this music." I think people need to like who you are regardless of whether you're anonymous. But when you play that card, you're not really bringing headlines to your show, if you just put your own music out and let people put a name and a face to it. Which is cool, but at the same time, when you make something really personal, there's sort of a pull to say, "This is me, and this is what I have to contribute."
The styles you deal with tend to use a lot of 80s and 90s sounds, either with the samples or the synths. Are you nostalgic for the 80s and 90s, Skylar?
I mean, I'd be lying if I said no. I just think, as far as arrangements and production in pop music, I'm really drawn to the mid-80s because there's this synth called Fairlight, which is one of the first synthesizers to use sampled voices. So Thomas Dolby, who's one of my favorite producers of all time, used the Fairlight on a lot of records by my favorite band of all time, Prefab Sprout. And they have this very distinct, orchestral quality to their music, but it's all synthesized, and I guess my ear really gravitates toward that. If you know what you're doing, if you know how to arrange parts into different voices, you can make some really, really interesting sounding stuff with very little notes. And that's something that never really factored into my songwriting 'til I started taking production seriously.
When you're looking for a sample, and you just hit the jackpot, what does that look like?
Usually, I'll just sit at my computer. I was actually working on something right now for a side project I'm doing that's like, just entire manipulations of stuff I found off of YouTube. I just found one that's really good, and I loaded it into Ableton. I like to dissect the MP3 into different chords, and if there's a guitar note or something like that, I'll add that to the sampler. I like to really scan the MP3 and get as much out of it as I can.
It's like you're turning a single file into an instrument. So in your song "Can't You See", you, or the protagonist, say you "slowed some music down and called myself an artist." I'm curious what you think about the artistic merit of borrowing in music. Is it necessary for your listeners to be able to recognize a sound source and give credit to the original creator?
I don't really think it matters, personally. I just wanted to clarify that with that line in particular, it was not a dig at vaporwave or a dig at sampling or anything. I'm sure a lot of people know that, but some people have been giving me a tough time because they think that I'm dismissing everything that I did. The song's about self-deprecation. It's a lot more dark than the rest. There were a lot of people that didn't get why I was making the music I was making. It was like, "Why are you just slowing down music?" And so it was a dig at them rather than the whole scene. But if anybody ever asks me what sample this song is, I'm more than happy to tell them if I remember it. There's a lot of stuff I totally don't even remember making. But you do wanna bring the listener into your world, and giving them too much information beforehand is distracting, especially when you're making conceptual music. I think it's on a case-by-case basis.
You're part of a musical tradition that seems to sincerely embrace pop sensibility while still remaining experimental. Why do you think there's this new sort of duality of the avant-garde and pop music worlds without it necessarily being ironic?
I think in the schools of composition and production, you'll see one of them is compromised in relation to the other. So with something like PC Music, you'll have a bunch of sounds that are familiar and harken back to early UK garage and the British pop scene of the 90s, but stuff they're doing with it is nothing you would have heard then, whereas if they have a song that sounds like it's from the 90s compositionally, then they pitch up the vocals and they'll make it a bass heavy song, or something like that. I think people like to see the different takes on that kind of duality.
That's funny, I was gonna ask you about PC Music. I was actually listening to the song "USA" by GFOTY on the way here.
Yeah yeah yeah. I met her briefly in London. I played there last December. She was really, really cool.
Do you know any other PC Music people?
I know Kane West pretty well. And I know Maxo, who lived an hour west of me. I know him the most. Everyone else, I don't really know. They either keep a low profile online, or I just haven't gotten the chance to talk to them.
In an interview about a year ago with Billboard, you said you'd like to be seen as an "ambassador" to vaporwave and that you "always wanted to kind of be that first 'vaporwave' producer to put out a more traditionally pop record". How do you feel, coming from a consciously underground scene, to be breaking into the mainstream? Are you a traitor?
No! I'm really proud of the new album, and I think it's the best sounding thing that I've ever done. My whole mantra was to get the people listening before I totally flip the cable on them and go really wild. And that's why I'm doing this side project, exploring the facets of electronic music and eventually adding that into what I do with Skylar. I wasn't compromising my sound at all. Nobody knew that "Fiona" was going to be accepted by anybody. I just submitted it to Carpark as a Saint Pepsi song. And that fact that it did so well was not so much effort in terms of compromising what I wanted to do. It inspired me to play pop for a little bit, you know?
In that same interview, you said you wanted to spend a lot of this year collaborating with other artists. Have you done some of that?
I've done none of that. [Laughing] It's been a whirlwind of a year with how long the record took to make and putting a live band together. And writing for the next record, which I really wanna get started on so I'm not rushed and shit.
Maybe I should say, who are some people you'd love to collaborate with?
Ok! My favorite electronic musician is Toro y Moi. It would be like a dream to collaborate with him some day. As far as other people go, there's a singer-songwriter named Sondre Lerche, and I used to be really, really -- I'm still really into his music, but in high-school, he was my favorite musician, and we got in touch with each other this time last year and sort of kept a friendship. So I would really like to get in the studio with somebody like that, who isn't known for electronic music or anything like that -- see what I could do with him. I'm not super into electronic music as far as anything that's not underground. I just don't know much about it. My tastes generally lean towards the music that I sample. But I like everything. I really like this group out of Vancouver called Pender Street Steppers. They have an interesting take on house music. And there's this guy Jack J who's one half of the Pender Street Steppers, and he's, like, my favorite electronic musician now, so it'd be cool to do something with him.
What kind of music do you listen to that we might not necessarily guess?
I have a real serious appreciation for this guy Walter Gibbons, who's a really famous disco mixer, and he did a lot of stuff out of Philadelphia. I really admire the orchestration, and disco sort of sprung out of that. That's my favorite music to listen to. But I also really like K-pop, like, a lot. Maybe that wouldn't be expected of me, but maybe it would. And I really like Justin Bieber too. I'm a big Bieber fan.
What can you say about him?
I think he's got a least a dozen great songs, and the fact that he's younger than me and still not the artist he's going to be is inspiring to me. I think I would really, really want to collaborate with him down the line because we could do something weird, something that would freak people out.
What resources do you use for discovering new music?
The most legal answer I could give is YouTube! I spend a lot more time on YouTube than any other website, just sort of going down the rabbit hole of similar videos and related channels. I use that coupled with Discogs because if I find a one-hit wonder kind of deal, I put that into Discogs to see what else this person or this band has done. I found a lot of cool, old, hidden treasures that way.
Are you familiar with RateYourMusic.com?
Yeah! I'm on RateYourMusic.
A lot of young musicians are entering the music world pretty much the same way you did: making vaporwave and future funk independently or on these tiny labels like your old label Fortune 500, DMT Tapes [both now defunct], etc. What can these musicians learn from your success?
If anything, they can learn that you don't need to have money to make good, thoughtful music. Carpark is really great with marketing and getting the music out, but with this album, I would stress not to have a recording budget because I wanted to produce the whole thing in my house the way I've produced music for the past seven years. The only thing we didn't do here was record vocals, which we did in my friend Alex's room. The whole thing is very bedroom, but I wanted to see how close I could get to a shiny pop album. And I think it holds up pretty well.