Electronic musician Pretty Lights: Mapping the sun

Pretty Lights aims for the stars

Pretty Lights
Alan Sculley | Boulder Weekly

Right now, electronic music is more than a trend. It’s a tidal wave. Stars like Tiesto, Skrillex and David Guetta are filling arenas, and according to multiple media reports, cashing checks totaling tens of millions each year.

Derek Vincent Smith (better known by his stage name Pretty Lights) has been riding the electronic wave right along with such stars. His fall “Analog Future” tour takes Smith, who started his career in Fort Collins, to a mix of arenas and large theater/club venues.

But he thinks it may not be long before the electronic music wave crashes and a lot of big-name DJs and producers will be left high and dry. And Smith is doing something to get ahead of the curve and stay relevant no matter what happens with electronic music — beginning with his live show.

“I’ll tell you, I’ve seen it several times in the last 10 years with genres that come and they explode, and they’re so popular and everyone’s doing it, and everyone’s making money off of it and being successful,” Smith says. “And then all of a sudden, it almost happens overnight. No one’s selling tickets anymore.

“So I just wanted to deviate as quickly as possible,” he says. “I mean, I think that I definitely did some paving the way as far as my genre and what not, but as far as performance, the show and the massive lights and video productions and things like that, I don’t think it’s going to be enough for the audience very much longer. So I wanted to step ahead and do as much as I could.”

Exactly what Smith is doing on the Analog Future tour is bringing out a full band to perform along with the pre-recorded tracks Smith will play and manipulate on stage.

It’s a meeting of humans and machines that’s not often explored in the electronic genre, where artists often do little more on stage than dance and cheerlead as they play pre-recorded songs (and sometimes remix tracks in real time). In Smith’s case, he’ll be able to play bass with the band, play tracks and be able to manipulate both the live instruments and recorded tracks to shape what audiences hear.

“I run sequences, I arrange tracks, I conduct the musicians. I play bass. I’m also on my table in front of me,” Smith says. “That’s really why I’m so excited [about the show] because it’s like there’s so much to do on stage, so much to concentrate on.”

This melding of live musicians and synthetic sounds makes sense because it’s an extension of what Smith did on his latest studio album, A Color Map of The Sun.

Smith spent nearly three years on the project — a function of how complex the album was to make.

The process began with a long series of recording sessions with various groupings of musicians and vocalists — more than 40 in all participated.

But it wasn’t like he had everything mapped out ahead of the many recordings sessions. Instead, music got written in segments — or as breaks or jams — that the musicians would play, often with Smith chasing a specific tone or feel in the part. It wasn’t a simple or quick process.

Eventually, Smith amassed hours and hours of music that he first pressed onto vinyl. Then, working with his own set-up of computers, analog synthesizers and other studio equipment, he reshaped the raw music into finished songs that are predominantly electronic-sounding, but with vocal parts and lots of sounds that were very obviously played on real instruments. This gives a human character to music that is also heavily processed.

Now comes the new phase, with A Color Map of The Sun and the Analog Future tour. And for all the talk of what’s new about Smith’s live show, he also said he’s keeping some ties to his past.

“It’s not going to be crazy different,” Smith says.

“I’m also designing with the live band my hits and my tracks, where I’ll be able to have the band play and then I’ll bring in the actual track that they play on top of, because I don’t want to like totally change my whole show where people are like ‘Whoa, this is nothing like it was.’ I have to maintain some of it and then bring in the new ideas at the proper pace.”

Pretty Lights plays the Ogden Theatre on Thursday, Dec. 5. Doors at 8 p.m. Mikey Thunder opens. Must be 16 to enter. Tickets are sold out. 935 E. Colfax Ave., Denver, 303-830-2525.

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