Derek Vincent Smith’s Pretty Lights is a visual electronic music experience like no other. With the buzz around his India concert reaching insurmountable highs, Derek spoke to us in a telephonic interview about his music, the importance of his visuals, and why friends make festivals exponentially better!
1. Hey Derek, first off, welcome to Mumbai. We’re pretty stoked to have you here!
Thank you! I’m super stoked to be here.
2. You’ve essentially been Pretty Lights for a while now. While you have a team backing you up on stage, how much of the music is you?
All of it. I collaborated on the first album in 2006, and since then there have been about 7 records. Each one of them is completely my work. It’s not a jam session. It’s more of a composition, then conducting the track, manifesting a whole individual vision.
3. Pretty Lights is known for its elaborate visuals and its grand stage production. How much of it is essential to your live music?
It’s an evolving role. At first, I approached it as wanting to do something different. That was at the beginning. Then it became a competition between DJs and music producers – this need for crazier stage production. For me, there is more of an emphasis on the music, during a performance. It’s all about the music. The name Pretty Lights isn’t a reflection of the visual light show, but it’s more about the philosophical idea about art in general. What role visual production will play is all about creating that art. As technology evolves and as things become possible, my team evolves alongside that, elevating the experience of the music. I don’t want only flashy, blinky animation like that at a rave party – it’s about synchronising the music with the visuals, sucking people in, elevate an emotional experience.
4. What is the sort of set-up that accompanies you for a live performance?
I try to switch the set-ups as much as I can. Right now, for the live production set-up, I have multiple native instrument machines, and there’s AKAI MPC. For India, I also have a bunch of production tools, the usual like drumpads, synths. I really love to bring part of my instrument collection as well, as I have a bunch of strange instruments. For my performances in summer, it’s again taking back to the basics, and exploring that realm from a new perspective. Along with synching it with a visual realm, making it a cohesive unit.
5. With your Grammy nominated, ‘A Color Map of the Sun’, you employed the classic method of recording to vinyl and then sampling your recordings. How has that process been different or better than composing completely electronically?
It’s been different. I learned a lot from that process. I wouldn’t use the word better, but it was a really good experience as I learned about composing and music theory. With the Grammy nomination, I could compose a 13 piece symphony. So everything leads to a bigger challenge. I wanted to be challenged with it differently. I also realised that while working on ‘A Color Map Of The Sun’, I had set many rules for myself. I was working on only my compositions, I was using instruments from the pre 70s, and I used only my lyrics. But with my new project, I will be using the same technique but with a lot more, I’m slashing some of the rules. Interesting collaborations, along with sampling old vinyls I love, plus making my own records in the analogue studio. The idea is about pushing the electronic production realm. Color Map Of The Sun was more of a modular synthesis. Now I’m looking forward to going back to more cutting edge digital stuff, without having as much rules.
6. You followed up ‘A Color Map of the Sun’ with a remix album of the same, something you hadn’t done earlier. Was it a conscious choice throughout the production?
Yeah, it was. I had this idea always, but never had the opportunity to manifest it before. When I’m working on a piece of music that I’m really enjoying, I realise that while working on it, it can become anything. Many times, a piece of music can become several things – like a film score or an up tempo dance track, who knows. It’s all about exploring that idea. Colour Map was the first attempt in trying that out, and I’m really open to having different versions of the same track.
7. You released a documentary that chronicles the creation of ‘A Color Map of the Sun’. Would you consider doing so again in the future? Do you feel they help further musical culture, in a way?
I keep saying this, but I will continue doing things like that. For this tour, I came to India a week early and I will be staying for a while after. I’m working on a short music film, if I can call it that, looking at a nomadic vibe. I have a different vision for how a Pretty Lights music video should be and I want to explore that realm. The idea of combining a documentary-ish feel with cinema and visual effects, a visual medium that doesn’t exist yet. I will keep striving towards that, I might pull it off, or fuck it up and fail, but I’m gonna keep trying.
8. Pretty Lights started out as a fairly underground band before gaining mainstream fame. Do you feel that the current mainstream stuff is musically solid work? What’s your favourite?
Yeah, it depends on an artist. They sometimes start out fairly independent and sort of take a turn to appeal to more and more people. But sticking to vision is what I want to do. In regards to artists, I really like Opia and Odessa, they’re blowin’ up, beautiful and very original. I’m usually very picky with what I like. The commercial v/s indie space exists in the intention and the feeling of the artist. Good music is good music, irrespective.
9. Are you influenced by music not similar to yours? If yes, which artists would they be?
To be honest, I don’t listen to a lot of electronic music. I like a lot of soul, old and new. I like Lee Fields of Daptone Records. Powerful singers appeal to me a lot. A good voice and good lyrics exponentially changes the music.
10. You’ve also produced several albums under Pretty Lights Music, some of your former bandmate Michael Menert and of other artists like Break Science and Gramatik. What is it that prompts you to pick a certain album?
Most of all, it’s because we’re homies. I wanted a record label to happen, because I have so many friends who are so talented. Michael Menert and I, for instance, we grew up together. We went to middle school together, smoked pot for the first time, did rap, played in bands, got into music production, got into trouble, everything together. We’re best friends, and we got each other’s back. When I started out, I was really lucky, or can I say really blessed, enough to get some attention which I could use and draw some attention to the people I was affiliated with. Right now, it’s not even about the homies’ music. We’re trying to put out the freshest music there is. That’s why Pretty Lights Music is sort of on a pause, working on big ideas within the next year. We want to exist within our own industry, not within the ‘music industry’ as such, by sort of creating our own original framework.
11. What is the music you’re currently working on? Any new, unique venture in the pipeline?
Yeah, there is a lot of that going on. Cinematically, musically, looking at matchy sequences, dictated concepts and different sound structures. I’m looking at a live, improvisational music production. When I get back from India, I’m looking at a set where I will be controlling music and visuals from the stage, leading to an endeavor that will be bigger , hopefully!
12. Have you checked out the electronic music in India? Would you be open to collaborating with an Indian artist?
Hell yeah! Definitely. I met a couple of people already, and I hung out with a few DJ friends, and have asked all of them to send in a few playlists and electronic productions from India. The other day, I also met a bunch of freestyle rappers, really talented, and some percussion artists. I’d love to collaborate with them.
If you had to get married at a festival, which one would it be and why?
Oh, definitely The Shambhala Music Festival at British Columbia. It has the most beautiful outdoor site I’ve been to yet. The northern landscape is breathtaking, and the stages are made by hand from recycled material.
Who/What is your favourite festival buddy? Tell us why.
This is easy. I smoke a crazy amount of marijuana, so that would be it.
A festival you would consider being sober at?
Honestly I stay sober all the time. I’m from Colorado where marijuana is legal, so it’s like smoking a cigarette really. I don’t drink ‘cause I don’t like to. But I will be supersonic sober at Spiro!
If you could take only three things to a festival, what would they be and why?
I would take my tourbus, definitely. My camera, ‘cause I’m obsessed with the beauty of the world. And my friends, because a memory isn’t one without friends.
Name a festival you would consider attending alone? Tell us why.
I’d want to go to a festival that I don’t know of, and have obviously never been to. Like a festival in India, that’d be awesome.
Do not miss him in action! Get your tickets here.
Vh1 Supersonic Arcade- I Kandy, Delhi- 3rd April 2015- Ticket price: Rs 1500
SPIRO-MTV Indies Takeover- Mehboob Studios, Mumbai- 4th April 2015- Ticket price: Rs 2500
Vh1 Supersonic Arcade- Bluefrog, Pune- 5th April 2015- Ticket price: Rs 1500