Pretty Lights discusses his forthcoming album and mainstream banality; ‘I want to create music that is beautiful and timeless’
Colorado native Derek Vincent Smith, the mastermind behind the moniker Pretty Lights, has established himself as one of the premier forward-thinking artists in electronic music today. After numerous successful (and free) albums and EPs, he continues to develop both is own art and the art of those who call his label home. Fostering a wide array of empowered and passionate musicians on Pretty Lights Music, Smith has managed to establish an entirely new breed of electronica – one that is defined by an unfaltering focus on creative expansion and innovation. His story is as grassroots as they come; after dropping out of college his Freshman year to pursue his passion for music, Smith quickly built a successful career and a cult of personality around himself and the PLM project. It was a risky move that would later develop into festival headlining gigs and a production collective comparable to the industry’s biggest labels.
When asked about the secret to his success, he shrugs; “I think giving away my music for free. I think that was paramount to kicking this whole thing off. It was during a time when everyone still expected people to pay and here I was just giving it away. Word of mouth spread and by my second album I went from 50 downloads a month to 15,000. The big labels might be against it [free music] but it’s the natural evolution of the music industry and how new artists find their success. It’s no longer about ‘catching a break’ – it’s about making it happen for yourself and your career by finding creative ways to build your brand – music is all on the individuals now; not the labels.”
His latest album, A Color Map of the Sun marks a sharp departure from Smith’s comfort zone – at first listen his trademark style is intact, a tripped out blur of hip hop psychedelia masterfully fused together with an unmatched finesse. The challenge here was not to change his sound but rather to fully own it. His previous albums had all been the results of obsessive compulsive crate digging and inventive sound collaging. For A Color Map of the Sun, Smith sought to manifest a longtime dream; a dream that would involve a cadre of studio musicians and countless hours logged in the studio. By the end of the process he created and pressed enough vinyl to curate his own library of original music from which he could sample.
“It was terrifying at first,” Smith says of the process “I worked with seventy plus musicians and every single one of them expected to come into the studio and be handed sheet music… but that’s not how I work, I write my music on the fly. I was met with a ton of skepticism, telling these virtuosos to play extremely simple pieces of music, but by the end of every session, after I had communicated the project’s vision, everyone was stoked on what we had created.”
The challenge of fully emulating the crate digging and sound collaging process was a rewarding one for Smith, acknowledging that “it was the first time I’ve been able to really express myself on an album. It was a massive learning experience for me – creating these samples, drawing from countless genres and styles from around the globe.”
Rather than approaching the album track by track, he remained dedicated to creating an authentic experience; “I would write breaks and lyrics on the fly and then have a singer sing those lyrics over a completely different break. It challenged me to be more creative with my approach and I created enough records that by the end it was as if I was re-discovering my own music.”
As the dance music landscape continues to shift towards a more mainstream appeal, Pretty Lights has managed to establish a cult like following while maintaining his unwavering authenticity. When asked how he has managed to do so the answer is simple; “I just don’t let whatever the flavor of the month style is dictate how I approach my production. I want to create music that is beautiful and timeless. Sure, I want to make music that is banging — stuff that can rock a party — but its not a priority and it never will be.”
It’s this type of passion for his craft that seems to be lost in much of today’s EDM, but Smith is certain that electronic music’s future is a bright one. His label, Pretty Lights Music, continues to be a beacon of hope in the somewhat dreary landscape of club driven party music. Who excites the man behind one of dance music’s most forward thinking labels? “Hero Bust, Paul Basic, SuperVision, Break Science – all these guys are doing really amazing things with sound design and synthesis, thinking outside of the box and creating organic works of art.” It’s not just artists on his own label that excite him but the prospect of future producers being inspired by the music his project has created. “I really want people to learn something from what I did on A Color Map of the Sun. I want them to recognize the process that I took and why I did it. I took the time to document it because it’ll show a lot of aspiring young producers that it’s not all about your laptop, it doesn’t have to be on your computer. My goal was to encourage people to step out of this box they are trapped in and push themselves into different realms of their own creativity.”
For a moment Derek’s cool and collected demeanor piques with a vehement passion as he shuns the mainstream’s banality; “[Electronic music] may appear stagnant now, but it’s only because that it what the mainstream media talks about. There isn’t a lack of innovation, actually quite the opposite, it’s just a matter of the fans digging a little deeper and exploring. That’s how the music will evolve.”
Smith acknowledges that innovation is a grassroots movement and that the so-called creative drain in electronic music is a temporary one; “Anyone can get their hands on the software. They can download a cracked version and start producing in 10 minutes; so now the people who really want to do it, the one’s with the desire to succeed and experiment are going to push the boundaries. They are going to create new sounds and styles and shake things up a bit, it’ll force everyone to step their game up – it’s evolution, it just has to happen and it will.”
A Color Map of the Sun will be available on July 2nd 2013. Watch the documentary for how the project came together here.