Pretty Lights towers above most electronic music producers, and that’s not just because he’s 6-8. The reason the man born Derek Vincent Smith is better than most is because he makes music and puts on a show you’re not ashamed to like. No one will call you Christopher Hitchens for being skeptical about some of these uninspired laptop producers who think merely pressing the space bar on their MacBooks makes a great live experience. Pretty Lights simply isn’t one of them. This, however, has left a few ravers scratching their Fun Fur hats when he performs at EDM festivals.
“My music doesn’t fit into the category where I’m a DJ up on-stage spinning four-on-the-floor dubstep,” he tells the Straight from his home in Denver, Colorado, which he shares with his girlfriend and two kittens. “Half of the crowd is super hard-core and loving it. One quarter of the crowd is like, ‘This is cool, but I’m confused. When is David Guetta coming on?’ ”
The 31-year-old producer’s sound, early DJ Shadow– and Ninja Tune–inspired instrumental hip-hop, coupled with his melt-your-face-awesome visuals have made him a favourite at everything from hippy tribal gatherings to rap shows to megafestivals like Bonnaroo and Coachella.
“It’s hard to take a 90 bpm hip-hop beat and make it beautiful and soulful, but at the same time get 20,000 people at festivals to throw their hands up in the air,” he explains. “I try to take this really soulful, downtempo inspiration and add power and energy to it. That’s how my sound started with Pretty Lights.”
Aside from being a great listen, his latest album, A Color Map of the Sun, is a production nerd’s wet dream. Rather than digging through records to find samples, he made his own. Over the span of a year, Pretty Lights led 43 musicians—performing everything from classical to funk to jazz to soul—and pressed the sessions onto vinyl. He then grabbed the platters and ran it through a pile of analogue gear to create his fourth full-length.
“It became the norm that musicians came in with some level of skepticism,” he says of asking virtuoso players to perform the same riffs endlessly without improvisation. But, “you do that consistently for the right amount of time and I’m going to be able to catch the four seconds of a recording that is pure magic. That’s what I was searching for.”
If all this sounds somewhat intriguing, but you’re unwilling to drop $9.99 on iTunes, the album is also available for free on his website. The philosophy behind this is simple—he “realized there was a loophole: word of mouth spreads about the quality of music faster than it spreads about the nature of how you get the music.”
This big, friendly giant might be onto something here, as A Color Map of the Sun has sold well, peaking at number two on Billboard’s dance-music chart, even though it clocked over 100,000 downloads on his site.
Pretty Lights points out that there’ll be “no play button involved” with his set at the Squamish Valley Music Festival; all 10 of his fingers will be used as he recreates the new one live. However, if you don’t care about any of that stuff and just want to have fun, know that it’s going to look and sound really fucking cool when he shuts the place down on Saturday night. Best of all, you won’t hate yourself in the morning.