A Color Map of the Sun, the new Pretty Lights album due out this Tuesday, took Derek Vincent Smith on an adventure through musical eras. We recently spoke with the homegrown Pretty Lights mastermind about the trust he has placed in his fan base, his own self doubts about taking the road less traveled and how no matter what, this latest effort will not define him as artist, but merely dog ear a new chapter in his career as an artist.
Westword: How are you doing, Derek? Is it okay if I call you Derek?
Derek Vincent Smith: Of course.
Just wanted to make sure. I'd feel like we were in the Matrix if I had to call you Mr. Smith. Where are you right now?
[Laughing] We are in New York, which I usually love to be in, but it's a shitty, rainy day. I'm here for the Governor's Ball Festival, which is on an island, I guess. It's raining like crazy, and it's only supposed to get worse, but it's gonna be a muddy, wet party.
Will you play straight through the storm without any worries for your equipment?
We got some ghetto cardboard boxes painted black, so if it starts raining we can put them over the computers so they are protected, at least. Otherwise... I'll go until they pull me off if it gets dangerous or some shit. I have this one rare remix I play if it's raining balls. I made it the day of the show, if it gets rained out. It's about the rain and coming hard in the rain.
I got a preview copy of the album, both the reels and the studio productions. Which will be released if you are purchasing the music? My initial reaction is that this album is a panorama of all the musical genres where you spotlight certain areas, then painted those by sampling the music you created in the studio. I want to know in that creation process, what were you looking for?
It was definitely all of that. When I first went into the studio, honestly, I just was really nervous because I know basic music theory, but I was working with all these really talented musicians who are used to coming into sessions and getting handed a sheet of paper with the music on it. I don't work that way, and I don't want to work that way.
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The first day, I went in with some of my friends and just started figuring out how I wanted to work this. Each day, I went into it thinking I would go with the flow and make music on the fly trying to work with all these musicians, and here, I needed to communicate that to each musician, and every single one was going to be a little confused at first, and maybe skeptical. And every musician was skeptical of the process.
I did have one vision, which was that I wanted to make pieces of music that sounded good on a 45, or record, in the back of a record store that would make me jump up and down. That was my goal. I also had sort of brief moments in time, these different moments in musical history that I wanted to emulate, not just in the style, but in the recording process. I had to research with the engineers about what microphones were used in the certain periods and work with the analog hardware by the decade for the style that I was going for.
Working with the musicians -- it got easier every day. I learned how to communicate my vision better and work with them better. I opened up my mind how to envision breaks and sounds on the fly. I'd be working on one piece of music and just go off with and explain all the players, and when that was done, they wanted to know what was next. I'd have to be thinking, which would stress me out, and with the tape rolling, I'd direct the musicians to play certain parts, ya know, just the drums, or just the drums and bass, or just the keys.
I needed different combinations to sample. When I got everything on tape that I felt like I wanted and needed, I would let them jam. I would tell 'em to freestyle for a bit, and then come back later. So then I'd leave for a minute, and come back and be like, "Stop playing!" because I had a new idea. Then we'd start over.
Would you picture the song then write it on the computer in whatever programs you were using? Or would it be, "This is what I see. Make it happen with your guitar or voice?" What was that process of the actual music writing?
That process was simpler on the writing side, but very much more involved on the communication with the players and vocalists. Writing a piece would consist... I was writing breaks, or jams that could be evolved on. I wasn't really trying to make full songs, but as we got deeper into it, I would write parts A, B, C, so the breaks would be multi-faceted. A lot of it was one loop that would get expanded on as we played.
The writing process was really me figuring out a chord progression with a Wurlitzer in my headphones or even my iPhone app with a guitar on it, and I'd strum a chord on my phone. I'd go back and forth between the Wurlitzer or guitar, depending on what room I was in, and the other half was just imagining what instruments would work together and how those would sound.
For example, I wanted to do a really simple break in G minor, and there was nothing musically complicated about it at all. It was all about the timbre, and how you could get it played extremely simple. I'd go to the guitar player and say, "I want to get a simple, dirty, dusty, old-school funk, hard-distortion sound with a thick chord." He'd make a sound, and we'd work until he had the sound.
The guitar guy would say "That's all you want me to do?" After that, I'd hear him riff off that and do some filler, and I'd have to say, "Stop it!" It's hard to keep musicians in line because they are so used to just going off and doing their jam thing. I really wanted to have a super controlled environment. I had the same thing with the engineers and the sound guys.
It seems like with this whole process you are personifying an otherwise technological form of music. You know the sounds you want to hear and that you want these musicians to create, which for all intents and purposes, you could find in a plug-in or patches, right?
The most of it is having the live musicians in the room. It's important to have the organic element of combining five musicians. At some point in the recording evolution, sound guys thought it best to separate all these musicians so that the bass was completely clean in the mix and the guitar was completely clean in the mix, and so the drums were just the drums in the mix.
I was completely against that concept. I wanted to go back to the time when all the musicians were in the same room and the microphones were bleeding into each other. I wanted everything to pick up everything. There was an organic sort of benefit from having all these musicians working together, but also in the same manner the way that it was recorded with all the microphones bleeding into each other and all the parts becoming like they are from a different time. That was a... in hindsight it makes obvious sense, but not until I experimented with it.
Is that something that you have yearned for, or what do think has led you to come to that point through the past seven albums, which are clean and crisp and sample based? It seems like you got to this point and said, "I don't want to do this anymore." Do you think it was through this process that you developed that craving for creation?
For sure. That's all a part of how it happened in my head. There were multiple reasons for me doing this project. As my career was having success and continued to grow, I wanted to invest that success into a more challenging project, and one day it all made sense that I needed to maintain my style and sound, but go back five steps and make everything from scratch in the exact way it was done in those time periods. Through that process, I realized how hard it was.
As a sample based producer, I don't just sample one track, but more of a sample collage with ten, twenty or thirty samples in one song. When I approached this and realized how much music I get to create, I wanted to have records that sounded like they were from the classical collection like they were from '70s Mississippi blues recordings.
Anything that's ever been in a record store -- that's what hip-hop producers do. We take anything that sounds dope and make a beat. I wanted to do something more sophisticated. It was then that I realized how massive and how broad this project was.
Have you, at any point, had any self doubt as to how it will be received? I trust you wouldn't put out something you don't like, but what are your nerves like right now? With one of the biggest releases you have coming, talk about your fears and the trust you have in your fans.
That's a really good and intimate question. I'm not going to try to dilute it: I'm human. I embarked on this project that was difficult, and it didn't... When you envision something and embark on it, and with any artist, the final project is never what you thought it would be. Stylistically, this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to step back from the super banging all the time speeds and really focus on really good sounding, pleasing to the ear sounds.
The way I combined samples, I literally would write music purposefully, so it doesn't match up with the songs I was writing. I would purposefully have vocalists sing lyrics that weren't for the song I wrote them for. I wanted to tune match, speed match and work with it creatively. To answer your question, I go through waves where I feel that in this electronic culture where performers get addicted to this instant gratification of the drop.
I think fans get addicted to that, too.
For sure! I meet a lot of producers who want to drop other people's music, and that's everyone's own choice as to how they perform. It doesn't matter. But I wanted to purposefully take an extreme turn from that style and really turn it into something else. I wanted something more timeless where I wasn't thinking about the live show so much.
I wanted music that I just loved all the time, not just at certain times. It's always been part of my vision that all these are songs I can perform with a band, or flip it up and surprise people by dropping the heat with remixes of my own tracks. That was not the vision of this record.
I think I definitely saw... one thing that I really thought about is how one piece of music can really change through so many people's imaginations. On the album, it is a hot organic beat, and then the remix which is a hot banger. That was my goal with this. It was have so many versions of my songs.
To get to back steering off the course that you saw yourself on -- the drop -- it's almost a pre-written way to have a banger show. At this point in your career, are you aware of your influence? What is like to be able to envision this and to see that you have the power to change? Which you are doing with an album like this.
I hope that is true. That is something that I thought about with this record: Will people who wouldn't normally listen to this style and hear it think its dope because they like my earlier stuff? I want to have an effect on the evolution and direction of what is fresh. As music continually evolves, I see some real fans who really just like good music no matter what it is. That's where I'm at. I love a hot dubstep track. I love a hot country track, man.
It's really about just power in music. The power to inspire. The power to move someone. The power to move someone's emotions. That's really the elements that I tried to fuse. I didn't want the drop. I didn't want that pre-orchestrated show to influence or dictate the way I produced this record. I incorporated stuff like that, but a lot less than I usually do.
Have the pressures that come with that awareness been difficult to deal with in other aspects of your life?
What do mean?
I relate this to my own experience as a writer and photographer, but when I have outside influences that weigh heavy on me, those can bleed into other areas of my life. I'm curious to know if this happened, and if so, in what ways?
I think I would go through waves of going through the hottest shit ever, to thinking a song I've heard so many times...
[Brief phone disconnection]
I think the answer about pressures is that in the beginning, running through a lot of the adventure, there were a lot of ups and downs where I would tell myself it was awesome, or maybe I would need to focus more on making it harder. It would be totally back and forth. I had this realization along the way where it was like, "Whatever happens with this record or touring, I'm an artist and I'm going to keep creating." This is just one project out of many, and it's a vision that I have, and I need to manifest.
When I really wrap my head around the fact that this isn't the make or break album for me in my life -- it could be for my touring career -- but it's not for me as an artist. I have lots of ideas about what I want to do next and how I want to push music and visual media. When I really wrapped my head around that, I became 200 percent confident about my style and the nature of this album. I realized it was dope and I didn't need to worry about.
One thing about this record, based on my last release, Glowing in the Darkest Night, that record was never heard by anyone before I released it. No one heard a single song, or even a single second of a song, until I put it out. Whether it was my manager, interns, or colleagues... no one had heard a single song.
With this project, I obviously couldn't take that route. I showed it to my girlfriend all along the way, and she was a big part of encouraging me and pushing me on, and we would have talks about where the scene is at, the nature and how everyone is addicted to the drop. It's a bold statement with the record.
Is it strange going to cities, or lonely, touring around the country where so many people know you, but those interactions are necessarily reciprocated?
You know, I'm a pretty private person, so I don't get really get involved with my Twitter a lot... I mean, I tweet things when I want to, and I'll read some shit, but I don't get super involved like a lot of artists. It's refreshing after a show when there are people who are really affected by my music and really want to meet me, for whatever reason.
I'll usually sit on the bus for a while after the show, and if there are people who are waiting around and willing to chill and wait... I like to step off, and maybe smoke a spliff with the really down fans after a show. I like connecting with them. It's a cool thing.
I am private. I don't go out to a lot of shows, and when I do, I try to stay incognito, but when I do, I try to engage with fans or anyone. I just try to meet people and find something out about them.
I wanted to touch base about the label, the brand and the entity of the Pretty Lights Music label. I know you are still releasing everything through that outlet, but it looks like the label has taken a backseat since picking up early momentum during the release years with Paper Diamond, Break Science, Gramatik, and others...
That's true, but the reason for that is everyone is working on a record. I am really excited because soon after my record comes out, there are scheduled releases for Paul Basic, Michal Menert, Eliot Lipp, and in all of those guy's realms as producers, I am blown away from those artists. I think this year is really stepping up with records from the PLM roster.
As far as Pretty Lights, the brand: I'm really trying to diversify it and do cool artistic things that exist beyond music. I'm getting into merchandise with fashion shit. I've teamed up with Jiberish for some men's fashion and Black Milk from Australia for the ladies. I've got a couple more things in the works, but I'm trying to make fresh, high-end garments.
My main focus is film directing. "Around the Block" was my first, sort of, directed music video. There was a whole production team and a director, and I was sitting back there, and then it got all twisted and turned around with all these people involved. For the next video while I'm on tour, I'm directing it, and I have part of my crew being the camera team, but I'm still working with professionals.
I'm going to once again throw myself into the frying pan, or fire, and try to be the director of a music video. I have a cool vision, but we'll see how it turns out. I really want to push that side of Pretty Lights, PLM, to that higher production grade. I want to start Pretty Lights Films, but I can't call it PLF, because that's sort of what my fans are called.
Will there be a special release party for the album in Denver, maybe a show? I wanted to see if you could confirm or deny that.
Well, I'm going to go ahead and say that I can't confirm... or deny it, which basically means that I have some cool ideas for my hometown. I really want to do it proper. My manager has me doing release parties in New York, L.A., and there is no fucking way I would do release parties in New York and L.A. and not have one in Denver.
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