“I was kicked out of the band because they didn’t like that I was always using the techno drums setting,” he said. 

click to enlarge Skylar-Spence_Daniel-Dorsa.jpg

In December 2012, Ryan DeRobertis, working at the time as Saint Pepsi, released homemade, retro-electronic tracks through the online distribution platform Bandcamp. A Japanese music blog caught wind of the project and reviewed the release. A small following ensued.

Three years later, DeRobertis now works as Skylar Spence. He has toured the United States and Europe and fronts a live band that plays songs that are written and recorded in the same bedroom as the original tracks to large audiences.

Was this his original plan?

“Absolutely not,” DeRobertis said. “I was still in school (Boston College), trying to figure out how I was going to make it through four years of college. Music as a full career was never something that I entertained because I didn’t really think that I was good enough.”

DeRobertis’ dive into vaporwave — electronic, sample-based pop music heavily influenced by 1980s music such new wave, pop and jazz — has been fruitful, surprising the artist whose initial expectations were meager.

His September release on Carpark Records, Prom King, received positive reviews from online music publications such as Stereogum and Pitchfork. He performs Monday at Opolis, 113. N. Crawford Ave., in Norman.

Born in Baltimore and raised in Long Island, DeRobertis, now in his early 20s, began his life in music playing electronic drums in a neighborhood screamo band, Machetes & Machine Guns, in the seventh grade.

“I don’t play drums very well,” DeRobertis said. “The screamo scene was not my cup of tea.”

The final straw, however, foreshadowed what his future would be.

“I was kicked out of the band because they didn’t like that I was always using the techno drums setting,” he said.

His beat

His penchant for electronic rhythms became the foundation of what Skylar Spence is all about. The full, luscious bass and snare-drum sound of a house-style beat switches to the staccato clicks of a wristwatch with little or no warning.

During his time as a college student, DeRobertis developed his musical knack. Early on, it was music production, not music performance, that gained his interest. He created sound collages by experimenting with Ableton digital audio workstation software.

Wanting to progress from collages to full-scale songs, DeRobertis also taught himself guitar and bass. He benefited from previous piano instruction he received in his school years. Under the name Saint Pepsi, he released the initial tracks that spawned his early following.

DeRobertis left Boston College and continued as Saint Pepsi. In May 2013, he released Hit Vibes and then performed his first live shows, DJ-based performances at events such as CMJ Music Marathon in New York City. Audiences tended to be comprised of two types of people.

“It was a of mix people who liked to dance and people who liked to smoke weed,” he said. “It had an Internet, underground vibe. It was a lot of people who talked to me on Twitter and Facebook.”

In January 2014, he released the song “Mr. Wonderful.” It caught the ear of Chris Cantalini of the blog and XM Radio show Gorilla vs. Bear. Cantalini played the track on the show. Through the airwaves, it found its way to the ears of Todd Hyman, founder of Carpark Records.

“[Hyman] reached out to me to see if I was signed, which I wasn’t, and I was talking to a few record labels at the time,” DeRobertis said. “I was really interested in going back and singing on my tracks … He was one of the only people who was down with me trying something new.”

His voice

The partnership allowed DeRobertis to perform vocally on his songs. His first release on the label was the single “Fiona Coyne” in July 2014.

He was not ready for what came next.

“That’s when shit got kind of real,” he said.

The tune became a hit and was heavily rotated on SiriusXM. It was lauded on websites like BuzzFeed. People’s view of DeRobertis also changed.

“People didn’t really know that I wrote songs and played instruments because much of my music was sample-based,” he said. “It was the first step for people taking me seriously as a musician. I think it opened me up to a much wider audience.”

That audience included PepsiCo, makers of the soft drink Pepsi. They weren’t too keen on the Saint Pepsi moniker and sent DeRobertis a cease-and-desist letter. He changed his project name to Skylar Spence, combining two names of characters from the Woody Allen movie Everyone Says I Love You.

In September, his first full album release on Carpark Records, and as Skylar Spence, hit shelves. On Prom King, Skylar Spence has a voice, an aspect not found during most of the Saint Pepsi period.

“I’m kind of a weird person, emotionally,” he said. “A lot of issues I have, like the fact that I don’t say things when I feel them and I harbor all these unreconciled emotions. I lot of what I wrote for this record was trying to get those out on paper.”

The success of “Fiona Coyne” and Prom King also has afforded DeRobertis the opportunity to tour with a live band. The songs as heard on the album are concoctions of software-generated sounds and drumbeats sequenced together. Playing them live with guitar, bass, drums and synthesizer gives them life a computer cannot provide.

“It’s fun to jam out on some part that doesn’t go for long on the record,” DeRobertis said. “We always feed off the energy of the people. The show really benefits from that.”

21+

Print headline: Rhythm rebel, Saint Pepsi isn’t upset about PepsiCo’s cease-and-desist order. In fact, the name change to Skylar Spence signaled the rise of his newfound voice.

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