Saint Pepsi: Best of What's Next

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Saint Pepsi is not a DJ. But, he sort of is, though.

Ryan DeRobertis knows how confusing that might be for you; it’s confusing for him too. “Yeah, I’m ‘the DJ’ but all of this stuff is my own production. It’s not a ‘DJ-set,’ it’s…it’s just hard to explain the difference of a live set like that to people who think that the gear decides which is which, ya know what I mean?”

DeRobertis, a 21-year-old “musician” from Long Island, has stirred up a bit of a sensation this summer with his debut single on Car Park Records (“Fiona Coyne”). Though, we should call him a producer, really, before we say “DJ” or “musician.” The affable, inventive and altogether modest young man came to fame from an online-born community of music-makers known as Vaporwave, a genre and essentially a movement that’s cloaked in ambivalence and biting with a subtle irreverence, idealistically hoping to challenge preconceived notions of what constitutes traditional/popular “songwriting.” This scene, along with DeRobertis’ slew of self-produced, self-released albums from 2013, has also challenged our ideas of what traditionally constitutes a “remix.”

Now, we insinuated with a lot of gratuitous “quote marks” in that last paragraph; we should elaborate. DeRobertis is a “musician,” but some old school types might cock an eyebrow at his origins. You see, he embodies the intrinsically-digital, post-2010 generation of musicians, having first started playing, writing, recording and producing his first songs entirely on a computer. “Literally, I can only think of one time that I ever sat down and wrote a song on the guitar without touching my computer. The idea of properly writing a song…it doesn’t really register with me. I don’t really know how other people work, ya know?”

But even his first breakout “songs” last year might be more accurately considered as musical collages. Using production software such as Logic or Ableton Live, DeRobertis’ would re-pitch, re-spool or re-spin sizable musical chunks of obscure funk tracks and weirdly-groovy new age fluff from the 1970s and 1980s, essentially inventing a wholly new pop song (although the blogs really started latching onto Saint Pepsi’s remixing experiments when he started re-scrambling the likes of Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen).

And that’s where Vaporwave becomes more like a “movement”: a genre born from digitally re-freshening and re-sculpting pop from the past into something new, surreal and often sonically sumptuous.

But DeRobertis’ work goes beyond the gimmick of mash-ups and is much more legitimate than laptop tapping or lazy knob-twisting. For his biggest hit yet, “Fiona Coyne,” DeRobertis riffed out a resplendent, Nile Rodgers-inspired guitar part and a strutting bass groove to supplement his own lead vocals; this is the first time he’s utilized his own voice so dynamically. “Fiona Coyne” showcases a cherubic, easygoing croon that sounds ready-made for summertime pop jams such as these; it’s a wonder why he’d been hiding it behind a laptop screen for so long.

“For me, (Vaporwave production) had a different appeal; it was more about ambiance and atmosphere, rather than trying to be critical about any kind of aesthetic. I liked (Vaporwave) because it was the music that came closest to making me feel like I was in a dream and I really liked that idea, in terms of music production, that you can use music to bring the listener into a different state or different feeling and that was my Vaporwave music.”

DeRobertis was inspired to explore, with his own songs, the “sloppy and lazy” elements that were evoked inside some Vaporwave’s music. Now, that sounds deceiving to new fans cavorting to the cool riffs and ebullient brass bursts of the altogether effervescent tracks on his Carpark Records debut, but his idea was to try adding a bit of that human touch, flakes of imperfection or a shakier outlining, to the otherwise coldly calculated design of “electronic” music.

What helps set DeRobertis apart is his un-ironic appreciation of “the source material” for Vaporwave; he grew up listening to Duran Duran and his first live concert attendance was for The Human League, despite his being born in 1993. He wasn’t even in middle school before he started experimenting with music production on his computer.

“I always wanted to be an artist, ya know? Like, ‘a somebody!’ I’d make these stupid beats in 7th grade and make album covers and write my own press and put it all on MySpace, but nobody ever listened to it because it was just some 12-year-old kid. I got a real piano, taught myself that and taught myself guitar and started hooking my piano up to my GarageBand software and I could program everything and sing and….yadda yadda yadda…that’s how it started.”

To be ‘a somebody’ for DeRobertis meant aspiring to achieve a studio-quality sound using just his computer. Making strictly electronic music or being a DJ was never an ambition of his, it was “just to make pop songs, at first.” But, he admits it was disheartening when no one would listen to his initial pop experiments. However, with the charm of “Fiona Coyne,” a lot more ears are opening for him.

“It’s ridiculous to me,” he says with a chime in his voice blending bashfulness and graciousness. “I’ll take anything, as long as people are hearing my music. I mean, touring now, it’s like my first experience out in the world. I had to get a passport to be able to go play in Canada and that’s something I thought I’d never be able to say. It’s wild for me, but I’m gonna do it as long as it’s something that’s a positive thing in my life.”

Before “Fiona Coyne” came out, DeRobertis felt insecure, worried that people would hear it and reject it for how much of a departure it was from his past productions. “I thought it might flip people off, like: ‘Oh, Saint Pepsi’s sold out…he’s trying to hit the pop market! He’s trying to make something crazy out of himself!’ But, no, it was just something that I need to do, it’s what I wanna do…”

“I don’t want to sit behind a computer for the rest of my career. I’d like to push the limits of what I can do as an artist and maybe, one day, I’ll get too close to the sun…but…until then I’ll just try to keep pushing the envelope.”