Q&A with Derek Vincent Smith of Pretty Lights

In this week's paper, we featured a short Q&A with Derek Vincent Smith of Pretty Lights, an act whose last two albums have surpassed 110,000 digital downloads. As with most of our Rough Mixes interviews, the piece only told half of the story. The Pretty Lights mastermind sat down recently with us prior to his date this Saturday, July 25 at Red Rocks, warming up for Sound Tribe Sector 9, an outfit that he's remixed. Read the entire interview with Smith, who's quietly becoming one of the top drawing local acts next to his much higher profile major label mainstream counterparts, after the jump.

Westword (Dutch Seyfarth): Descibe the sudden meteoric rise of Pretty Lights and how it has affected you?

Derek Vincent Smith: Being able to make a living as a musician is what I wanted more than pretty much anything since I bought my first bass guitar in eighth grade. I endured many many years of financial struggle, living week to week, and sometimes even being looked down at as pursuing adolescent and foolish dreams. So I couldn't be happier that I am finally getting some recognition and am able to live comfortably doing what I love. It has all happened so fast though, and the biggest way in which that has affected me day to day is in the adjustments I'm having to make in the way I write and create new music. Relentless touring can be very exhausting, and often leaves very little time to focus on writing new material. It's a delicate balance and I guess I'm still trying to find an approach that really works for me. The new Pretty Lights album, which is on the brink of being released, was for the most part created during the limited time between shows, often in airports, airplanes, hotels, and greenrooms.  

WW: How are things are going on tour so far in 2009?

DVS: Honestly I am still astonished by the speed at which people around the country have come to be aware and very supportive of my music/live shows. Since I hooked up with a booking agent at the beginning of '09, I have stayed very busy. Mostly flying in and out of Denver and doing three or four night runs on the weekends. Most shows are very near capacity if not sold out, which maybe has me a little spoiled, because I've come to expect a lot of energy from the audience at a good Pretty Lights show. As far as the highlight so far, I'd have to say the festival circuit. It's been such a cool experience to be around so many other artists every weekend and be part of these massive congregations of people who all love music as much as I do. 

Another highlight would have to be playing the Bowery Ballroom in New York City which was a gig I won't ever forget. It's hard to describe the feeling of selling out my first headlining show in the most wicked awesome city on the planet. Something about playing in NYC just feels really special to me. The venue and the energy from the crowd that night was so on point. When your a kid dreaming about this, you think wow, maybe someday ya know? 

WW: Describe your recipe for sampling and beatmaking?

DVS: I've definitely developed a number of methods when it comes to finding the right pieces to make up a good Pretty Lights track. For example: when I go digging for vinyl at a record shop, a flea market, or even a garage sale, there's usually massive amount of albums to sift though, so it's all about getting a feeling or a hunch from each record and learning to trust those hunches. I look for printing style, visual aesthetic, color palette, musician lists and what instruments they play. Basically, I form a snap judgement about each one as I go; most get passed up, but the others get a list on the battery powered turntable.  

One thing I've run into a lot, is people that immediately judge artists who sample, as music thieves without enough of their own creativity to make good music on their own. Now, with some producers, I'd say that might not be far from the truth, but I strive to always use samples in a way that brings new life and feeling to them. For example, my whole sampling style is based on combining several samples from different records, genres, & decades that, when made to work together, can create completely new emotions and styles. For me, taking many different samples that are in different keys and tempos and making them work together beautifully, is where the difficulty lies and a huge amount of the potential creativity exists in my production style.

WW: How have you adapted your musical background and training to your music?

DVS: I really haven't had any musical training at all in the traditional sense. Everything that has to do with music that I know, I taught myself, from the instruments I play to all the recording gear and software I use. I started making hip-hop beats in high school, but my production style really started to develop when I began acting as audio engineer/producer for the bands I played in through the years. Then, eventually I worked at a professional recording studio as a self taught engineer/producer. Something about making hip-hop beats while also producing records for bands and working with live musicians helped to forge my own style of production.

WW: Why do you drop remixes of "Rumpshaker," "Regulate," etc?

DVS: Hmmmm...I completely remade "Regulate" with the original vinyl samples, and added a lot of synths and newer production techniques. Thats fun for me, to find the same records that Warren G used and remake the same beat but in my style. As far as "Rumpshaker," I would always get that song and "Paper Planes" stuck in my head at the same time because of the same lyric "all I wanna do" in the chorus, so I absolutely had to hear those cuts mashed up. I might eventually take it a step further and work in Sheryl Crowe's "All I wanna do is have some fun" I basically love to remix/re-create tracks from my past that I either loved or are reminiscent of some time in my life. 

WW: Alright, the million dollar question: Do you classify yourself as a composer, producer, musician, or a DJ?

DVS: All of the above except DJ. I've never spun a record in my life actually! Thanks for asking.

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Dutch Seyfarth