It might be a shame that Pretty Lights hasn’t enjoyed the same self-congratulatory media coverage given to fellow Colorado acts (cough, 3Oh!3, ahem) with a vapid “Look, they’re from Colorado!” type of praise. It would only be a shame if producer Derek Smith ever needed a single bit of it.
To say the very least, the hard-working beat-smith, since 2006, has defined for many CU students what it means to make hip electronic music. College campuses were the first to catch on to Pretty Lights’ brand of upbeat, new-school electro-funk after he sprung on the scene. Electronic downloads of 2008’s Filling Up the City Skies then surpassed his debut by 10,000 copies in the first month. Two years later, Pretty Lights had no problem selling out five Colorado venues on consecutive nights. Today, those who catch him at festivals like Coachella, SXSW and Ultra are discovering how Smith drew his first hometown fans to backyard barbeques in Fort Collins: his clear, uncompromising vision of style and sound.
“In order to get the best music out of yourself, it’s a matter of not letting yourself get into [a self-doubting] frame of mind,” Smith tells Boulder Weekly, “always trusting that when you’re able to manifest your vision, it will be as dope as you want it to be.
“It’s a constant sort of race to catch and conquer what you can imagine. You sit back and wonder, ‘What’s music gonna sound like in five years? What’s my next record gonna sound like, or the one after that?’ I want to make that record now!” Smith says with a laugh. “You’re always striving to catch up with what you can imagine.”
With the increasing influence of light displays and new technology, Pretty Lights is a very suitable name. Smith’s imagination sends the music riding with sophistication over a funky electro shake that’s peppered with glitchedout rhymes and a slew of bass for your face. Strangely, it isn’t really dance music — but it certainly makes you move. When you see Smith on stage, manipulating sound into an electric cityscape that breathes, sighs, burns and hums, and when you witness the crowds that radiate catharsis almost as visible as heat off of asphalt, it’s hard to hear it as anything other than party music.
On tour, Smith is never without a live drummer, and at Red Rocks he will share the stage with the highly accomplished Adam Deitch, who has drummed for acts like The Game, Justin Timberlake, Fats Domino and The John Scofield Band as well as listed producer credits with 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg, Talib Kweli and KRS-One.
But Smith’s constant companion is his collection of vinyl records. Even though he’s not a “DJ” DJ, he explains, records are fuel keeping the fire burning.
“That music is too dope to only exist in 1975,” he says in a startlingly stern tone. He explains the stupefying feeling of learning that DJ Shadow could create entire atmospheres by only using vinyl samples (and close to a dozen turntables).
“I can hear that music, but I’m not capable of creating it,” Smith thought when DJ Shadow first “blew him away,” leading the budding musician to adopt a similar technique with MIDI controllers.
In the meantime, he became a serious vinyl enthusiast. He spent the summer before Taking Up Your Precious Time traveling across Europe with a friend and a battery-powered record player, digging through obscure record stores and his friend’s family’s collection of Polish funk. In the same way that DJ Shadow innovated hip-hop with instrumental “sample collages,” Smith creates a sonic foundation with a mixer of small pieces and builds his glowing cityscape from there.
Depression-era jazz and ’70s soul are the most frequent genres found in Pretty Lights’ extensive catalog, but Smith says the trend has to do with his preference for the timbre of those respective eras’ recording technology.
“It’s because that’s the sound I want in the music,” Smith says. “It’s not because there’s no other way to do it, it’s not like I can’t pick up the guitar and play the melody myself. What I have access to is not going to create the same sound, the warmth and feeling that the samples are giving the music.”
Sampling isn’t exactly a musical shortcut, either. It’s not painless to sit through an entire Aaron Neville album with the hope of finding the five seconds that will become the haunting introduction to “Hot Like Sauce.” It’s easy to get impatient and skip a few tracks on a record — it’s like finding a needle in a haystack with another needle.
However, Smith’s greatest strength is his ability to make the sample vanish back into his own music. Pretty Lights reanimates the disembodied sounds of the past as if they were recorded solely for Smith to use 20, 50, 80 years later. No matter when they were first created, they sound like they live in the present. Smith artistically owns each sample he uses, adding them seamlessly to his trademark bounce and incendiary synth lines. Pretty Lights is an embodiment of that old saying, that good artists borrow while great artists steal.
It is easy to criticize sample-based music. However, Smith tells us his next step is a bold one. He wants to create a studio with the same equipment used to record his favorite tracks.
“24-track, 2-inch analog tape multirecorder, pre-1980s vocal preamps, single press record press,” Smith says as he mentally goes through his shopping list. As soon as he can, Smith wants to move away from other artists’ work altogether, “to actually record and create that sound in the studio.” He plans to invite guest musicians to lay down potential samples, treating recording sessions “like a record producer, like a Quincy Jones or a Rick Rubin type of thing … then record it to analog tape, then take the freshest part, press those to vinyl and then sample it from the records I’ve created.”
It’s an ambitious direction, but Smith doesn’t hide from a challenge. Pretty Lights has released every album for free online and accomplished everything without any royalties from albums. Its an expression of sharing music rather than peddling it, and it worked entirely in Smith’s favor. Pretty Lights is also releasing a three-EP set across 2010, giving each a release date before any material was ready. The second EP, Spilling Over Every Side, was barely finished during an allnighter before its release date last week, but fans are responding and anxious to get new music more than once a year.
But would creating an all-analog studio be asking too much?
“The problem [with vinyl pressing] is you can’t do that with just a laptop and a pair of headphones when you’re in an airport,” Smith says. “I’m going to have to readapt, change how the touring and production works, move away from producing and touring simultaneously.”
There’s only one person who knows what’s best for Pretty Lights, and that man is Derek Smith. As long as he focuses on that upper ideal, everyone will benefit. In the approximate words of Bruce Lee, “It is like a finger pointing away to the pretty lights. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all the heavenly glory.”
On the Bill:
Pretty Lights play Red Rocks Amphitheater on Saturday, Aug. 7. Doors at 6 p.m.
MiMOSA, Emancipator and Zion-I open. Tickets are $35.
18300 W. Alameda Pkwy., Morrison, 720-865-2494.