Skylar Spence shed his old name and embraces a new sound.
Skylar Spence shed his old name and embraces a new sound.
Photo by Daniel Dorsa

Skylar Spence Might Be the Hero Pop Needs

Straight from his dorm room to the depths of the internet, Saint Pepsi quickly became one of the biggest names of the internet-inspired, politically charged genre vaporwave. As his peers sampled Muzak and smooth jazz, Pepsi — real name Ryan DeRobertis — appropriated house hooks and disco melodies, which left him a bit of an oddball in the underground community. One name change and a few years later, DeRobertis, a Long Island native, is now signed to Carpark as Skylar Spence.

Prom King, his debut album under the new moniker, sees the artist break from the remix culture with which he'd once been associated as he explores his transition from mixer to prime mover. The tongue-in-cheek-titled album maintains DeRobertis' pop sensibilities. But he's shed most of the sampling. "Save bits on the instrumental tracks with micro-samples as melodies, I did most all of the synth and guitar and drum programming on my own," he says over the phone from Austin, where he's about to play a show.

Despite this leap from pure sampling to self-production, DeRobertis sees Skylar Spence as an evolution of Saint Pepsi rather than a new beginning. He acknowledges that the name change — to avoid confusion and a potential trademark dispute with PepsiCo — was a hurdle. Having built a loyal audience as Saint Pepsi, DeRobertis needed to brand himself anew as Skylar Spence. This shift left him with the liberating but difficult task of re-creating and repackaging his music. "With sample-based music, it's more about curation and coming up with a sound or vibe that you can explore throughout a whole record. With an album in which you play all the instruments and write all the songs, you have to create that atmosphere from scratch. It's not about curation but about how well you can pull off that creation."

DeRobertis began making music at age 14. His affinity for pop began early and never faltered. "Pop music is a form of art," he insists. "I never felt a repulsion to it."

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But cutting his teeth as a vaporwave tastemaker in the early 2010s, Saint Pepsi was arguably the antithesis of a pop artist. Vaporwave is a loosely defined genre that concerns itself as much with anti-capitalist aesthetics as it does with remixed easy listening — chopping and screwing popular riffs and distorting sounds into oblivion, creating a vibe that is at once unsettling and incredibly listenable.

DeRobertis' early vaporwave tracks were unapologetic manipulations of '80s and '90s hits, distorted to the point of mutilation and then spliced together.

Yet his music wasn't a manifesto. Vaporwave was and is preoccupied with consumer capitalism, its samples often woven into unsubtle parodies of pop culture. DeRobertis, on the other hand, was just making music by remixing his favorite sounds.

"A lot of people on the internet who liked the genre didn't feel I fit in," he says. "So I always had that kind of relationship with that sound." This wasn't necessarily bad — it simply meant DeRobertis was a stranger in a strange genre. His general optimism and disinterest in engaging in socioeconomic discourse made him an outsider. As a vaporwaver who didn't care much about criticizing capitalism, DeRobertis was then — as he is now — between the worlds of pop and underground sound.

Likewise, in college, he straddled two worlds: his own desires and the expectations of his family. His parents wanted him to pursue a political science degree at Boston College. DeRobertis wanted to make music. "They didn't really see music as a possibility," he admits. "And I had other issues with alcohol abuse and substance abuse that weren't abnormal for anybody my age but concerned my parents. I kind of let myself go a little nuts because I wasn't doing what I wanted to do. Then, when I started doing what I wanted to do, I wasn't doing what I was supposed to do."

Out of college and on the road, DeRobertis is now doing what he wants to do and what he feels he's supposed to do. He stamped his unconventional singing voice all over Prom King. "I like to sing and didn't want to ask anybody else to sing on the record because a lot of the songs are personal to me. I knew from the get-go people would or wouldn't like my voice because it is very different from a lot of the stuff that's out right now. But I wasn't going to let that stop me from putting it out there.

"This tour has solidified that I'm doing what I want to do," he continues. "I've always been apprehensive about playing in front of an audience, so to see the reaction we've gotten has been really inspiring, and it's made me consider myself as more cut out for this life than I once thought."

Skylar Spence 10 p.m. Friday, November 20, at Bardot, 3456 N. Miami Ave., Miami; 305-576-5570; bardotmiami.com. Tickets cost $15 plus fees via showclix.com. Ages 21 and up.

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