"I didn't know what to say with a gun in my face," Michal Menert recalls, "but I figured if they were going to kill me, I'd better make my move."
In December 2006, Menert's means of generating income had brought him face to face with the barrel of a shotgun at the hands of gang members in Loveland during a drug deal gone wrong.
"I pushed the barrel out of my face, and then this guy tackled me, trying to slit my throat," he goes on. "I have a scar on my hand where they tried to cut my fingers off the gun from where I was trying to discharge the round."
Michal Menert, with Run the Jewels (Killer Mike and El-P), Supervision and Mikey Thunder, 8 p.m. Saturday, November 16, Fillmore Auditorium, 1510 Clarkson Street, $25, 303-830-8497.
The night ended with Menert in the hospital, after having fled the scene with a stab wound that just missed his heart and a tip-to-wrist laceration on his dominant hand. Needless to say, the blood loss was severe. "It's weird," he says now. "My life didn't really flash before my eyes, but what was going through my head was that I wanted to tell my mom and girlfriend that I loved them. I mean, I might only have thirty minutes — what should I do?"
In the years leading up to that moment, Menert (signed to the Pretty Lights Music imprint) had been creating music with schoolmates and close friends Derek Vincent Smith, Paul Basic, Cory Eberhard and Ben O'Neill in a group called Listen that was formed in the summer of 2001. "Our first show was at the Boulder Bandshell at this outdoor event on a Thursday," he remembers. "It was this spontaneous thing that happened, and we were like, 'Well, I guess we're a band now.'"
Recording in their living room in Fort Collins, Menert, Smith and a rotating group of friends and musicians gradually started shaping their sound into what would become an aesthetic associated with Pretty Lights, now considered to be the modern face of beat-driven, soulful hip-hop music. "We had this old organ, and I had a Casio keyboard and an old Akai AX60 synth," says Menert of the early years of what would later become. "Pretty Lights Music is just a bunch of friends who have been doing this together for a long time."
In the early years of Pretty Lights, Menert and Smith were playing together in a live instrumental setting. "We made the first album, Taking Up Your Precious Time, in 2005, while on a trip to Europe," Menert says. The official release was the following October, just a few weeks before Menert's life-changing altercation. While Menert was healing in the hospital, recovering from a multitude of injuries and dealing with some family issues, Pretty Lights was gaining traction as a touring duo made up of Smith and drummer Eberhard. "There wasn't resentment when Derek took off with Pretty Lights," Menert notes. "I think it was a career move, and it was really smart."
When he got out of the hospital in 2007, he received news that his father, who had been diagnosed with cancer years earlier, had taken a turn for the worse and was in need of a caregiver. "My aunts and uncles are all in Poland, and my family that lives here had to support their own families," he says. "So it was a blessing that I wasn't on tour with PL. My weakness became my strength. Because I fucked up, I was able to appreciate someone who I may not have so much when I was growing up."
Menert's life nearly took another serious turn a few years later, when, on the way to his first show after getting back, he was pulled over for "swerving," a charge he still adamantly denies. With three officers on the scene, Menert was arrested for having distributed narcotics to an undercover officer two years prior. "They basically dusted off old files and screwed me," he says.
Facing a large amount of time in federal prison, Menert pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and received three years of probation, six months of lockup and 200 hours of community service. The court ended up granting him house arrest, though, because of his father's declining health.
"I had lost two huge parts of my life at that point," Menert somberly reflects. "It was a weird twist of losing faith and love in God, for me." During the time he served as his dad's caregiver, Menert says, he traded books with his father, a librarian, and renewed his own love for music: "The apartment we were in had a piano, so I continued exploring music, all while working on my album."
Sadly, with just one week left of Menert's house arrest and with one week to go until the release of his debut solo album, Dreaming of a Bigger Life, his father died. "I never really got to show the album to him," he says. "But by the time of his passing, we had really settled everything between us. It was cool to be there for each other and laugh at it all, in a fucked-up, sarcastic, Kurt Vonnegut sort of way."
Menert had worked at Walmart while he was taking care of his father. All the while, he'd held on to the dream of doing something bigger with his life. He never lost his focus on his music, though he did take a less-traveled road. "My father always supported me an as artist," he says, "but he didn't want me to keep my hopes up, which frustrated me, because it meant I would never give it my all if I thought I had something to fall back on."
Menert persevered, and the work has clearly paid off. His involvement in the developmental years of Pretty Lights proved to be inspirational. "I was able to find another path," he points out, "because of what Derek paved with being able to travel around and tour."
In the four years since he set out on his solo venture, Menert says, the best thing about it has been the grassroots growth of his fan base. "Meeting fans, crashing on couches and getting rides to the airport from people's roommates," he says. "That's what it's all about."
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And the success he's had so far — he's currently headlining a national tour with support from fellow locals AC Lao and Mikey Thunder — only seems to push him harder to stay on his path. "Every day is therapy for me," he says, "because music and orgasms are the two times where things don't bleed into my consciousness."
Free of doubt and worry about living a sketchy lifestyle, Menert takes time now to appreciate the fruits of his labor, be it a fan complimenting his music or a potential collaboration on a new song. "When people tell me they like my music, I am really grateful," he says. "This music is my soundtrack for what I go through and have gone through.
"I reflect on the things that I regret and the things that brought shame to my family, and there was nothing for me to be proud of," he concludes. "But for all the ugly shit that I've done, this is something beautiful that I created."