Photo: Daniel Dorsa

Vaporwave Ambassador Turned Future Funk Heartthrob Skylar Spence Talks About Change

From Vaporwave Ambassador Turned Future Funk Heartthrob Skylar Spence (fka Saint Pepsi) comes Prom King, the first album under the new moniker of young producer Ryan DeRobertis.

Skylar Spence
Prom King
18 September 2015

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 …

Did you?

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.