When you think of Pretty Lights, maybe images of Aurora Borealis, a Christmas tree or New York City at night pop up in your head. These days, those words take on a whole new meaning. Fort Collins, Colo., native Derek Smith, better known as Pretty Lights, started making beats in high school then continually progressed until he made it to the pinnacle of the electronic dance music scene where he sits today. His first album, 2006’s Taking Up Your Precious Time, 2008’s Passing Up the City Skies and 2009’s Passing by Behind Your Eyes revealed Smith’s ability to seamlessly sew together a blanket of sonic textures, but 2013’s A Color Map of the Sun uncovered his penchant for actually composing every single musical note of a composition. Fresh on the heels of its release, Smith is on tour promoting the new album and took some time to discuss the severity of drug use at EDM festivals, the recording process and his outlandish height.
The Reader: At 6’9,” are people surprised how tall you are when they meet you?
Derek Smith: Definitely. That’s a very common response to meeting me in person. I always joke and tell them I try to hide my height while I’m on stage with everybody. It’s funny; I’ve been in that situation before. I remember I would see Michael Franti and I could never tell how tall he was and I thought, ‘he looks like a big dude,’ but he wasn’t behind a set of turntables. Then I met him offstage. I actually ran into him in a security line at an airport and he’s almost as tall as me. That’s kind of weird for musicians who are that tall to meet someone taller than them. I was like, ‘Michael Franti, you’re so tall!’ And that was weird to him hearing that from someone who was taller than him.
The Reader: You went a much different route on A Color Map of the Sun. Any particular reason for this?
Derek Smith: I’m always trying to just keep things different and fresh, and evolve; purposely and consciously evolve at a pace that is sonically digestible by my fan base and listeners. I think about it and I’m like ‘yeah, the concept of forming a rock band and writing the lyrics, getting a singer and having a four-piece, yeah, that would be cool, but I’m not just going to change to that overnight. I have to retain an element of what this project is, sonically what is and what it’s grown to be and what my initial vision was. So I’ve slowly evolved my starting vision. With this one, and the records just previous to this, I had really been focusing on pushing vinyl sample collaging. The most challenging, artistically and musically difficult thing I could think of was to go write every note and go write every piece of music that emulated genres from the last 80-100 years; not only emulate those genres and play those styles, but recreate the recording techniques.
The Reader: How did the recording process change then?
Derek Smith: I had to work with an engineer in a studio who really knew his chops with that. I knew with my ears, but I had to collaborate with Joel Hamilton to really be able to take what I wanted in my ears and successfully get that; whether it be with the drums or with the violin, using a trumpet violin that sounds frail and like it’s coming from an AM radio in the 1920’s. To get that sound, we had to do special things. To use odd and bizarre instruments, we had to have special connections and things like that, so yeah, I wanted to one, prove to myself I wasn’t only good at finding things that sounded fresh and mashing them together to make new tracks, but I could also make the music myself. I started as a musician so I knew that, but my fan base didn’t know that. It was just something I really wanted to do. I wanted to write music and work with really good musicians and have them play the compositions that I wrote in the style that I wanted and then make it sound like it was 40-50 years old, put it on vinyl and chop it up. Just do something crazy.
How long did this process take? It sounds very time consuming.
I went in the studio and started in February 2011 and finished the record up, turned it in March 2013. Then we got the record all set up. After the record came out, I thought I’d be able to chill out, but there was so much into making sure this record could be heard and get out on a larger scale. I’ve been giving my music away for free for different reasons for every album. I did that with this record, but I was also asking for people to purchase it if they could. My girlfriend, who was with me for the whole process and also works for Pretty Lights Music, filmed the whole thing and then we made a documentary about the process. Then we ended up teaming up with Vice and Thump and editing the documentary and getting that out there. We were getting all the music videos done, getting the artwork done and we’re still working on getting the remix version done.
I’m sure you get this all the time, but I talked to Bassnectar about this and he had a lot of poignant things to say. Are you concerned at all about the drug use at EDM shows and all the kids OD’ing?
I am insanely concerned about it. Not every night, but once in awhile, I will when it feels right I will get off stage and go in the pit and I’ll say what’s up and sign autographs, hug people and tell them how much I appreciate them. Most recently, when I did it, someone handed me something to sign and his hand was shaking so badly that I couldn’t sign it. This dude was just really, really high off something. I’ve had a show cancelled in Mass. Due to some scares with Molly at similar shows. I’ve tried. I haven’t been touring as long as Bassnectar or as immersed in the scene as much as him. I’ve tried to keep my head in the music, art and presentation of it. But I’ve really realized that kids are looking at me like a role model or something. Now when I do go out and talk to these kids, I try to fully express my feelings about it and whatnot. I’ve been donating to charities that I think express that. I think it’s time for me to go public with my feelings. I don’t judge people for what they do. If people want to have fun, get high, I don’t judge people, but I don’t think, I push for my fans to come to my shows because they appreciate beauty, art and the manifestation of art in the live environment and the experience that can emerge from that. Not because they scored 20 Molly tabs and are going to go with all their friends and get dangerously high.
The Reader: So you take it seriously?
Derek Smith: Yes, it’s something that I take very seriously. I don’t judge people, but the time is approaching very soon when I’m going to have to make a statement on my website about how I really feel and write a piece.
Frankly, that kind of stuff keeps me away from shows like yours now. For example, I walked into a Skrillex show literally for five seconds and walked right back out because of the audience. I don’t want to have to do that. I want to go to a show, feel comfortable and not get bombarded by hundreds of teenage kids all messed up.
I totally agree with you. I think it’s something that needs to be dealt with. We have the PL family. We collaborated with the fan base to create a network to at least hydrate people, give free water out, make people comfortable and make sure people have room. But as an older person, at least someone older than my fans, I’m 31, I’m not trying to go to shows and get that vibe either. I look at my fan base and I see that it’s not my demographic, but I feel like my demographic would enjoy my shows, but don’t want to come because of this. That’s a very good point. I’d be interested to know your website and potentially get involved because I’d like a solution myself. ,
Pretty Lights with Blood Diamonds and Purveyors of the Conscious Sound, Nov. 15, at Pershing Center, Lincoln, 8 p.m. Tickets are $33. Visit www.electronicmidwest.com.