Dec 27, 2013
Pretty Lights

Coming off the recent news of his Grammy nomination, Derek Vincent Smith, aka Pretty Lights, talks with us about the arduous process of creating “A Color Map Of The Sun,” his love for the ideals behind Burning Man despite having never attended, and how he thinks music will be experienced in 10 years.

Pretty Lights - One Day They'll Know (ODESZA Remix) [PLM]
LessThan3: Where are we talking to you from right now?
Derek: I’m at home in Denver; I’ve not been here in a while. I’m just trying to live a bit of a normal life since the last few years have been nothing but “on the bus, off the bus, on the jet, off the jet, in the studio, out the studio.” My favorite part is the studio, but it’s still nonstop. When I get home I want to take a break but I’m always itching to set my studio back up and make music. I still try to hang with my kittens and my girlfriend and have some “chill time,” though.
LessThan3: What else do you do on your days off?
Derek: I don’t understand the concept of “days off.” The way my life has taken shape since the success of Pretty Lights, Wednesday is no different from Sunday except I get less calls from my management. My girlfriend and I work together on keeping Pretty Lights very up to date and interactive with the fan base–we always try to think of new ways to stimulate and release music for the people who support me as much as possible. Making posts is not something that stops on the weekends; working on music doesn’t stop on the weekends. I get more afternoons or evenings off or mornings off. I call my days off “phone’s-off days.” I get a day off when my phone dies or my assistant hides it.
LessThan3: Congratulations on your recent Grammy nomination. Where were you when you found out and what was your reaction?
Derek: I was in San Francisco prepping for a show at Bill Graham. This tour was very different because I built this system that uses so much analog gear and a live band who uses all kinds of different instruments, samplers, and synths. Every day I would want sound check to be as long as possible because it also involved writing and recording music for a release post-tour. Right before I went into the sound check to teach the band a song I’d written that day, one of my managers was at the show and told me. It was one of those things where it doesn’t really click for a second and it takes some time to think about how you feel about it and what it means. I’m still in that phase in some ways.

I think the most exciting aspect of my Grammy nomination is that there’s some sort of paradigm shift happening where electronic music has become a bigger genre of music that doesn’t necessarily describe anything more specific than “music made with a computer,” and the category of “best electronic album” is representing the breadth of the genre well. Kaskade is more a traditional idea of electronic music, while Disclosure has the newer singer-songwriter appeal, and Daft Punk of course is a classic powerhouse act, and then there’s me who is kind of far left old soul and funk beats.

LessThan3: How did you go about choosing the members of your live band?
Derek: Brian the keyboardist and Adam the drummer had worked with me so much on A Color Map Of The Sun that I wanted to work with them in the band as well. Other than that it was just recommendations from friends. The other keyboardist, Borum Lee, is a part of Break Science, along with the drummer Adam. I originally wanted a guitar player but I ended up going with two sick keyboardists using all vintage keyboard decks with a massive line of effect modules. It made it very easy to get these cutting-edge sounds from this old equipment. It’s crazy to think about how all this stuff existed forty years ago but people didn’t think to use it then the way I do now because it took that many years of musical evolution to use the gear in a different way. It’s led to me trying to develop a new music product for keyboardists that I’ve pitched to MOOG.
LessThan3: You just put out a remix album for A Color Map Of The Sun. Was it your intention from the beginning to do this, and how did you go about choosing whom to work with on the album?
Derek: I spent two years producing A Color Map Of The Sun. Half of that time was spent creating all the vinyl samples I would use, and the second half was producing songs from all those samples. In the second year I was constantly confronted with the direction I was going to take on each track. I really wanted to give the sounds the attention they deserved without the bass and drums overwhelming them. There was one point where I considered doing the record in such a way where there would be an “ambient” version of the song and then a “dancefloor” version of the song, but I ended up deciding to make it a more consistent and diverse body of work, and I didn’t let analyzing how the songs would work in a live setting affect the music I wanted to put out. It wasn’t my intention to make massive, seizure-inducing drops. Two-thirds of the way through, I decided that a remix record was necessary. The sounds are so beautiful and diverse that to imagine them into something in just one way sells them short. I myself have been working on several remixes of some of the songs, but the remix album was about getting as diverse with the styles as I could. Curating artists to work with was dictated by who I knew or musicians I knew of who I hadn’t met but really liked their style.
LessThan3: Do you have any personal favorite remixes?
Derek: I love the ODESZA remix of One Day They’ll Know. They managed to take that track and really change it but still keep the spirit of the original elements. I love the Blood Diamonds remix of My Only Hope and the Culprate remix of Prophet–that was the one song on the record that already had an up-tempo BPM. I was trying to make organic electro music in my style combined with a hip hop influence. Culprate embraced the speed of it and made it a damn dancefloor banger. The synth work is amazing in it. He is one of the artists I haven’t met.
LessThan3: You just released a new BitTorrent Bundle. What are all the components of that Bundle and what made you want to get involved in that project?
Derek: As far as what’s included, I was able to put the full Color Map Of The Sun album in there with the artwork and some of the music videos along with the full remix album and artwork. There’s also a video recorded at a show in San Francisco that showcases how different the music sounds in a live setting as well as how it looks. The sound isn’t amazing because it was mixed for TV, but it’s cool in that it’s a multi-angle shoot so you can see a lot of what is going on. I wanted to put more in there, but at the same time wanted to keep the file size within the range of something that seemed like an audio bundle.

The first time I partnered with BitTorrent was amazingly successful. I was skeptical the first time around with my first Bundle that I did with them a year-and-a-half ago, but it was very successful, with over 11 million downloads worldwide. The one thing I didn’t like about it was that there was an option that forced you to “Like” a Facebook page to get the content, and I see the benefit, but I always felt that it was a bit deceptive, because a person might not actually like it. BitTorrent originally wanted to put my Bundle in with the software update as well, but I didn’t want to force anyone to download it, so it became an “opt-in” option. Surprisingly, a huge number of people still opted in and I saw web traffic go crazy globally. It’s awesome how stable their system is–millions of people around the world can immediately get content with few to no hiccups.

LessThan3: What do you think popular music will sound like in 10 years?
Derek: My first inclination is to say that if I knew what the f*ck music was going to sound like in 10 years, I would have a huge advantage, but to claim that you have any inkling of what’s going to happen in 10 years you would have to take literally everything into consideration. It’s infinitely complex. The mass evolution in electronic music that’s happened over the last 25 years has been completely linked to advances in technology. Genres like rock music are not as inherently linked to technology. I don’t believe what makes music timeless will change. What I really see changing is beat structure. What makes different genres of electronic music distinct is closely related to the kick-snare pattern used. I think the changes will be connected to synthesis technology, which is so f*cking exciting to me. The advances that have been made in sound design in the last three years are brilliant. One thing I really want to see happen is some sort of morphing technology that can do things like take two sound waves and morph them together in a much better way than what currently exists. I can imagine some types of sound design that I’ve never heard before, and I’m thinking about using those ideas on my next album. Maybe it will turn to where everyone likes vintage commercial jingles. I remember watching Demolition Man and that’s what people listened to in the future.

In terms of the evolution of technology and computers and the ability to exponentially increase computer speed, those things can’t increase infinitely. In 10 years we’ll be far past what our current technological systems can do, so we’ll start using other forms of computation like light computation or quantum computing, and those things will have a massive effect on how people will experience music. The question of what music will sound like connects not just to what it will sound like, but how it will be experienced. I can only imagine what could be possible. What if you could hang something around your ear and you think about the song you want to hear and it comes on, but it’s programmed in such a way that you can control the arrangement of what you listen to? There are an infinite amount of possibilities.

LessThan3: With respect to your BassLights shows, what is the dynamic like between you and Lorin? Do you have any plans to do any shows in SoCal in 2014?
Derek: I love hanging out with Lorin and playing shows with him. Our music in a live setting works really well together, because it’s different enough but our fanbase is similar enough to where it’s just a really positive environment. Lorin’s crew and my crew are tight, so it’s like a reunion every time we do these shows. Unforunately, Lorin and I have never collaborated on a piece of music, though we’ve talked about it for a long time. We need to make that happen.

I plan on having a serious talk with Lorin when I see him in a few days about what we may like to do together over the next year, and I can guarantee that your asking me the SoCal question will come up in that conversation. SoCal is a surprising market–when I started touring, I thought I would be able to predict which cities would connect most with my music, and that shortlist included San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, and New York, but when I did shows in SoCal, they embraced my sound in a way that I didn’t anticipate. Cali is a state overflowing with music lovers.

LessThan3: Have you ever considered playing at Burning Man?
Derek: I’ve wanted to play it as many times as I can in a week’s span for the last four years. One year it looked really promising but something came up that I had to do and I couldn’t make it, but luckily I’ve still been able to stay connected in some way with Burning Man. I know a lot of the people involved, and I support the art that is made and brought out to the playa and what drives that ambition. It’s so pure to me; it’s art for art’s sake. Artists are raising money or spending their own money to make massive, interactive pieces of art that can be brought to a desert and no one is paying them for it. In 2010 I actually donated a good amount of money toward the building of the Temple. I love the concept of what the Temple represents spiritually and metaphysically and how it’s not tied down to any specific semantics.
LessThan3: If the world were ending in LessThan3 minutes, and you had an iPod with every song ever made on it, what would you listen to?
Airplay enabled