By Adam Downer | 23 April 2014
The vaporwave phenomenon has been exciting and confounding music nerds in the deep web for most of this decade, but if there’s anyone who could break the genre out of its limited scope, it’s Saint Pepsi. 2013’s deliciously groovy and very well-received Hit Vibes was a mash-up of ‘80s disco, Japanese pop and Woody Allen movies, but also created the perception that all Saint Pepsi does is slow down and rearrange songs, which has been the knock on vaporwave since its inception with Chuck Person (Daniel Lopatin of Oneohtrix Point Never)’s Ecco Jams. This year’s Gin City EP, however, features mostly original production and uses samples sparingly, and apparently an album slated for later this year will utilize a full band. When I sat down with Ryan DeRobertis before his show at Barnard College, we talked about the misconception and limitations of vaporwave, in addition to his creative process, pop music, video games, depression, and life on the hype train.
Adam Downer (CMG): So what is vaporwave? How would you define it?
Ryan DeRobertis (RD): Damn…[laughs] I guess vaporwave means different things for everyone who does it, but for me, I always liked listening to a song and hearing five or ten seconds of it that stand on their own. I don’t like picking main parts of songs, but usually a bridge or something like that, where if you loop it over and over again, it grows its own two feet, and then you put a bunch of crazy lo-fi effects on it. I think the idea of vaporwave was misconstrued by people who thought it was a lot more political than it actually is in practice. For me, it’s a step further from when Washed Out put “Feel It All Around” out and it was a slowed sample of a disco song from the ‘80s that he sang over, and it was called “chillwave.” Someone said “lets slow it down a little more and branch out from 80s music to a bunch of different styles.” Japanese commercials, easy-listening, muzak, stuff like that.
CMG: When you started Saint Pepsi, was Vaporwave something you actively tried to be a part of?
RD: Yes. Absolutely. I started Saint Pepsi winter break of my sophomore year and it was right after I put an album out under the name the Cold Napoleons. I wrote these songs all about an ex I was bitter about. I got home after doing the first album I completed from start to finish and I left all my music equipment at school. I wanted to still make music, but I didn’t know what to do, so I thought, “I’ll start a vaporwave project,” because I was really into Macintosh Plus first semester, also 18 Karat Affair and Luxury Elite. The first couple Saint Pepsi records are just me trying to do that, and after a while I started abandoning what I felt clashed with my own aesthetic, like the Japanese stuff. I felt like I was sort of shitting on it by being so point-by-point vaporwave, you know? I did World Tour, and I like to think of that as the first Saint Pepsi album because it makes sense next to something like Hit Vibes. It’s the same stylistic influences, a lot of funk stuff. I looked at it like the episode of Spongebob where Squidward teaches Spongebob art, and Squidward says, “You have to see the sculpture in the marble. Become the marble.” And that’s how I felt listening to old funk songs. I would hear half a bar and be like “Okay, I’ll put that here and place another bar from three minutes in the song here, and micro-sample until it becomes a different song entirely. I’m using the building blocks I was given.
CMG: You’ve said you’re moving on to making quote/unquote “real songs,” and Gin City is way less sample-heavy than Hit Vibes. How would you describe the progression in your sound?
RD: Gin City was more a producer’s exercise for me more than anything. I really wanted to produce something before SXSW, and I knew from doing “Unhappy” and a couple of the other songs I did after Hit Vibes that I wasn’t gonna follow up with Hit Vibes 2, you know? The first song I ended up doing for Gin City was “Mr. Wonderful.” I sat in my room one day during a snow storm and thought “I’ll just make a song,” and it happened like that. I played the chord progression and thought “I really like that. I like how it sounds sort of Nintendo-y,” and I chinced it up. People think there’s a Mario Kart sample in “Mr. Wonderful” because I called it “Mario Kart Dream Trap” when it came out, but it’s all original besides the Aretha Franklin sample. The rest of Gin City built on that.
I tried to use samples as sparsely as I could and play a lot more on the record. More synths, extra production, stuff like that, so that people would stop thinking the only thing I was doing was slowing down music. There’s a negative connotation to vaporwave, particularly in the post-Macintosh Plus scene, in which I guess people see me as the “main guy” for whatever reasons. It was shitty at first because right after Hit Vibes came out people were just like “Fuck Saint Pepsi! This is like ‘broperwave,’ or some shit.”
RD: They said I was the “Skrillex of vaporwave,” like there was some big concept I just wasn’t getting. I used to take it really hard and think “I don’t get what they don’t like about it,” but then I had an epiphany when someone said of my “Call Me Maybe” remix, “All he did was slow down the original song.” Now, there are things that are subjective and things that are objective truths, and objectively, I took the a capella and I made a song around it. There’s no hint of the original song besides the vocals. That’s when I knew people are gonna say what they wanna say. I did a song called “All Right,” and that was a tongue-in-cheek trap song and I tagged it on Soundcloud as “broperwave.” It was my biggest song because it didn’t just appeal to people who liked vaporwave. That was when I realized I’m good enough to produce, start adding my own elements to it, and I don’t have to rely on samples to get a desired sound. Gin City was an extension of that and now, to get the sounds I want for my new record, I know how to do them.
CMG: SXSW was obviously huge—
RD: Too huge.
CMG: Exactly. Things have been getting really huge for you, and that’s entailed some positive and negative things. If you can, can you describe how the last six months have affected you?
RD: Damn, it’s been a really crazy couple months, since the beginning of the new year, really. I did “Mr. Wonderful” a week or two into January, and I’m glad I did. I was having a rough time at home. I went to school for a semester at home. I didn’t want to be there. My parents knew I didn’t want to be there. They didn’t want me there, but they wanted me in school. When “Mr. Wonderful” happened, I was in the middle of a huge fight with my parents over how seriously I take my music. They did not see eye-to-eye with me. The industry was a lot different in the ‘80s, and at the time, they didn’t understand that everything I was doing on the internet was the equivalent to hustling outside Roc Nation. My mom would always be like “Why don’t you go to Jay-Z’s record label? It’s in the city! You can give him your CD!” and I was like “No one listens to CDs anymore. It’s all Soundcloud, blog-hype, that’s how people find new music.”
Gorilla Vs. Bear started playing “Mr. Wonderful” on their radio in January, and I’d gotten an email from Car Park Records that day. Todd, the owner, said “I just heard the song, and it’s great. I noticed you’re unsigned, and if you’re looking for someone to work with, keep us in mind.” That was awesome. We ended up meeting with a bunch of record labels, but when I met Todd, I knew it was a good fit. He gave me a lot of creative freedom. I told him I wanted to make a record more like something I would sample, you know? In terms of the songwriting, I want an ‘80s pop vibe with the production I do. He was into the idea of doing that with a live band, which is something I’m very into right now. After Car Park, I played a show in California, then I got picked up by Pitchfork, SXSW, a bunch of things that me being a big music fan my entire life yet being so distant from the scene, I’d look at musicians I’d listen to as heroes, not human beings. That’s changed since I’ve been going around meeting people whose music I love. It’s weird because I have to not geek out [laughs]. I honestly never thought it’d happen like this.
CMG: You talked about this a bit earlier, but your sample selection: what about the moments you pick jump out to you and make you think “I wanna work around that.”
RD: It could be anything, really. I have different relationships with different samples, as creepy as that sounds. It depends on the track. You have a song like “Better.” I made “Better” a day we were on lockdown because of the Boston Marathon bombing. It was the day before 4/20. It was a really weird day. I sat down looking for samples, and I heard the Whispers’ song “I Can Make it Better,” and thought, “This is genius.”
CMG: Yeah, I love that song!
RD: That chorus! It’s so catchy! I tried to keep it together on “Better.” The structure is bits from the intro, then the chorus, then the intro meshed with micro samples from the rest of the song, the chorus again, then a part where I mashed up what he’s doing with the vocals. I love the song and didn’t wanna touch anything about it, but I did wanna update it a little bit and do a freak-fest at the end. Then, something like Skylar Spence, I heard that guitar and thought “Shit, that’s really hot.” The original song is like 104 BPM, and I sped it up to 126, and I really like the groove that it got. I like syncopation. I like things going on with percussion and rhythm, things that make you wanna bob your head. You hear it in funk records and J Dilla beats. It’s all dependent on what the source material is and what I’m trying to do with the song. It could go anywhere from a very sample that I build a whole track around or something more like an edit.
CMG: Is “Better” your favorite remix that you’ve done?
RD: I think “Better” is probably the best one, but I like “Skylar Spence” the most out of any song I’ve done. I like how it came out. I thought it was really cool because the guy I sampled is a Japanese singer named Tatsuro Yamashita. When I sampled him, I didn’t really know much about him, I just really liked his record. When I did more research, he’s sort of the Japanese Todd Rundgren—a big deal. A lot of my fans at the time were in Japan, so they were like “Oh my god! Saint Pepsi made a house song out of this!” and it was really cool. In 2013, 2014, everybody’s worried about appropriation. Is it okay an American producer sampled a Japanese performer? But people in Japan were very enthusiastic about the music. Nobody’s ever—well, except for real assholes—no one’s ever accused me of appropriation. It’s all genuine love. I don’t like doing anything out of irony, or to be cute. Even the Carly Rae and Bieber remixes—there’s a part of me that just loves pop music. When I heard “Call Me Maybe” in 2012, I thought “Holy shit, there’s a lot of potential to do a different remix of this.” When I’m doing full-on remixes, I think about what I can bring to the song to make it of a higher quality, to get people who don’t really “get” pop music to appreciate it a little bit more.
CMG: That’s definitely true of the “Call Me Maybe” remix.
RD: It’s pretty interesting because people know the “Call Me Maybe” remix first and they say to me “Ah, I hate that song, but I heard yours, and think ‘Why do I like this so much?!?’” I think it’s about displacing the source, putting in in a different environment and letting people decide between “Do I not like this because it’s on the radio or do I just not like it?” I’m proud of myself because last week I just got into Sonic Youth. I’d never listened to them before. I didn’t think they were anything I’d enjoy, but I finally sat down with Sonic Nurse, and I was like, “…Wow.” I want to do that for people. You have people like Owen Pallett come out and do music theory essays that read sort of like “This is scientifically what is beautiful about this song.” Something where you need to get in the mindset to really appreciate it. You have to understand where it’s coming from, and the background behind it. I feel that about music: there are things you like automatically and things other people like but you may not, but people’s backgrounds and what they were raised listening to informs that. The more you move out of that, the easier it is to be impressed by new music.
CMG: What is your favorite vaporwave album?
RD: Ooo, that puts me in a tough situation. I will say Floral Shoppe is the first one that really clicked. I listened a couple times, didn’t get it, got stoned with my friends, and then BOOM. A wave of things I didn’t know music could make me feel. It was an emotional record without anybody telling you it’s emotional. I was really influenced by a guy called Dreams West. He has a song called “Super Grand Turismo” which is a sample of an Evelyn Champagne Kings song from the ‘80s. When I heard that, it inspired me to fall on that disco tip, do something where I’m slowing down percussive and energetic songs because it brings a different life to them. It’s different from chopped and screwed hip-hop because its music made for dancing made inappropriate for dancing. 18 Karat Affair’s Vintage Romance was really big for me too. And after I started doing Saint Pepsi, I was really into Auto’s albums, Nmesh’s Nu Wave Hallucinations, and Venture Ex. They were doing three totally different things. Auto was sampling, like, five different songs and mixing them together. Nmesh was going from the Frankie Goes to Hollywood sample to Eat the Eggs, and Venture Ex was doing a similar future-funk thing as to what I was doing. It was a cool time because we were all putting out music a lot. I had a vaporwave radio show at ZBC when I was still at BC. It’s really cool to be a part of a scene. I’ve never had that sense of belonging before because I was always doing my own thing, but then falling into a crowd where people listen to the same music and make the same music, it was cool to exchange ideas. Everyone’s doing totally different things with their projects.
CMG: What is “SPF420”? You see it associated with you on Twitter a lot, but what is it actually?
RD: It started way before I knew about it. I guess a lot of people in the Vaporwave community knew each other through the Black Moth Super Rainbow message board. It grew out of turntable.fm were sometimes Tobacco would come and do a DJ set. Liz and Chaz, the masterminds behind SPF, thought it would be cool to run Tinychat shows. You can broadcast visuals or show yourself. Most people find Youtube clips and piece them together and play a live set. It happens less frequently now than it did a couple months ago, but they still like to do them. We branched out a lot since it was an exclusively “net” kind of scene. Through the second half of 2013 we got bigger acts to perform and actually had a SXSW showcase with Ryan Hemsworth, Giraffage, Beat Culture, Wave Racer, Anamanaguchi, Spazz Kid. It was cool to see all these people who come from different parts of the internet around one room, one camera, one table. I like the interaction you can have with the audience on Tinychat shows. You can see what people are saying before, during, and after your set. It’s a log of everyone’s reaction when you play a new song. When I put out Hit Vibes, we did the release on Tinychat and it was one of the best days of my life because nobody had heard the album, and people weren’t expecting it. I was really proud of it because I felt I’d stepped up my production game ten-fold, and I got to see people inspired by it instantaneously. It’s a cool way to bypass waiting for reviews to come out. Just, “Here, come hang out with me and listen to my album, and if it sucks let me know!”
CMG: Are we ever gonna hear a recorded version of the “Baby I” mix you drop at shows?
RD: Yeah, I’m actually gonna put out a mixtape of all these fun edits I do. I like to open some sets with a Will Smith edit I did, and I have the Ariana remix, and a new Drake edit I’ve done. It’ll probably be up closer to the end of the year now that I have a record deadline, or I’ll upload them all to a zip file and shoot them out to the Facebook, but most of the edits I do are the only material I have that aren’t demos that I haven’t released. I try to release everything I do just because I know if I don’t put it out, I’ll never put it out.
CMG: How good are you actually at Mario Kart?
RD: Not the best. I’m really good at specific video games. Tony Hawk 4 for the Gamecube, nobody can beat me. And I’m supposedly really good at Super Smash Brothers Melee and Brawl. I didn’t think I was that good, but I played with my friends over the summer and was just killing it. I guess it was all I did at school: music, Tony Hawk, and Super Smash Brothers.
CMG: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that while you were writing Hit Vibes you were going through a bad depression. Is that still something you deal with?
RD: It comes and goes. I’ve always been a weird, emotionally unstable kid ever since I was little. It doesn’t take a lot for me—it could be something like the weather and I’ll have a fucking miserable day. A lot of things that were going on at school that built up into personal problems, academic problems, the struggle of knowing that music is what I wanted to do with my life but thinking it was impossible. Really, all I needed was support. My parents, once they and I understood each other, are amazing. They see that it’s really a dream for me to be in this position. With everything that goes on, I really try to not get into those mental headspaces, but there’s nothing you can do about when it happens, except I try to eat better. I indulge in the vices of life, but I try to keep it kosher at this point. I have more of a handle of what I can and can’t do, because initially it was like I had four years of college in three months, where I wasn’t doing anything when I went to high school, but then when I went to school in Boston, I figured it out. It was a little much for me. I thought I could handle more than I actually could.