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

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.