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By Jarrod Dicker
New Brunswick, NJ, USA
Photos courtesy of Derek Vincent Smith
What’s the difference between a producer and a D.J.? On the surface it seems not so much. Both incorporate artist samples, musical combinations, unique effects, looping and other digital techniques. They both have similar set ups in the live set, and to the naked eye, the audience usually is unable to tell the difference between the two.
“At this point in time, the lines are blurred between producer and D.J.,” Derek Vincent Smith of Pretty Lights explains to me. “I think there is this sort of gap with what’s actually happening on stage and what people think is happening on stage.”
To make this simple; producers actually create the original music they’re performing in a studio. A D.J. works with already-crafted tracks that they themselves did not construct.
The project Pretty Lights is a musical creation of digital sampling and auditory transformations, crossing many genres to produce new and exciting material. While performing live, Smith is accompanied by drummer Cory Ebherhard to add a physical element to the digital based music. Together they have taken the world by storm, becoming one of the premier groups to see on a variety of music scenes. Digital live sampling has become the new black and we can thank Derek Vincent Smith for making that happen.
Jarrod Dicker spoke with the producer about the meaning behind Pretty Lights, being a product of one’s environment, the making of a Pretty Lights track, the “free” business model, the light shows, the labels and why he is not a D.J.
THIRSTY: What is the meaning behind the alias and band moniker, Pretty Lights?
Derek Vincent Smith: I first saw the phrase on an old Pink Floyd poster. I was doing a lot of different work at that time as far as music production, video production and film. The expression held this meaning to me that captured the essence of the eye of the artist. People go through life always on the lookout for things that are beautiful and inspirational. We experience the world through light, and as an artist I’m always on the lookout for different forms of beauty; ways to capture and recreate it. An example that I give is a film I was working on some time ago. I was driving down the street and it was raining. The lights were reflecting through the rainy windshield and there was this moment of freshness and beauty. So I just stopped and filmed it for an hour straight [laughs]. Pretty Lights is about trying to capture little moments. So that’s the concept behind it.
THIRSTY: So there is no literal connection between the light demonstrations at live shows and the band’s stage name?
Derek Vincent Smith: No. It wasn’t a name I picked because I wanted to put on a show with crazy light production—which, like you said, is what it has become--but it’s not where the name originated from. In the beginning, I had no idea where Pretty Lights was going as far as live performances and touring. So the name comes from me trying to capture the essence of the artist, and the way beauty and experience can in itself find inspiration.
THIRSTY: Children are usually exposed to music their parents played around the house and other societal factors that surround their adolescence. It seems more accessible, and frankly desirable, for a child to engage in more “popular” instruments like guitar, drums, piano, etc. What kind of instrumentation did you experiment with that helped your navigation towards becoming a professional sample/beat artist?
Derek Vincent Smith: Just like you said, I didn’t get into music thinking/knowing where I am now is where I wanted to be. As a kid I really wanted some sort of outlet, somewhere I could express myself and be part of the culture. So I started playing bass guitar and was in a rock/grunge band. As my musical exposure developed, so did my style. Then I got into hip-hop in high school and was in a hip-hop/funk band for a long time. In the beginning the lyrical part was my main focus and then I started getting into beats. After that, I was exposed to the rave scene/electronic world.
THIRSTY: So virtually it’s safe to say that your musicianship was a direct result of the environment you grew up in?
Derek Vincent Smith: Well these three things (electronic, hip-hop, instrumentation) came together and eventually had a major affect on the style of my production, which is electronic meets hip hop with a lot of sample clausing and things like that. But yes, growing up in a city where I was exposed--not to say it was a major market or music scene--to a number of different scenes affected my style and where I decided to take my music as a producer.
THIRSTY: Externally it seems among many of your peers (Bassnectar, RJD2, BreakScience), that the creation of this music is more of trial and error modus operandi as opposed to a formulaic, mapped out approach. I imagine it like a painter; throwing different colors against the canvas until eventually these unsystematic methods create a cohesive work of art. Is this the case; that the development of this music is mostly abstract?
Derek Vincent Smith: I think it’s a combination of both. Artists like myself and the ones you mentioned have specific styles that show through, no matter what type of tracks we’re making. Whether it’s more up-tempo house, dub set style, or the hip-hop I make, it all has overtones of my style. I have a vision and method that I continually come back to and use, but at the same time the process to which I get there can change from track to track. That’s something that I consciously try to keep an open mind about and not fall into a mechanical/formulaic process creatively. One approach is grabbing a stack of records and working on a foundation of samples that I botch together before I start programming and adding drums, synth and other live instruments. The other would be just the opposite, which is writing progressions and melodies on my instruments and then going back and trying to add the sample based elements and layers to reach that.
THIRSTY: I don’t want to be redundant asking a question that I’m sure you’ve been presented with countless times, but regarding your relationship with Cory Eberhard (editors note: Cory Eberhard plays drums live at all live Pretty Lights events) would you ever consider bringing more instruments onstage to accompany you besides the drums?
Derek Vincent Smith: I don’t want to get too specific, but I have a lot of ideas like that. By no means do I look at the live shows like that’s going to be exactly what it is for the long term. I’m always thinking about switching up the show, not only the production, but who’s on stage and how I interface with my music and create it live. I play a lot of instruments. I have looked into bringing more instrumentation and that kind of stuff to the stage. It’s definitely something that will happen in the future. I have plans to make a studio record early next year and take a big chunk of time off and redefine my approach; capture a similar sound and style without turning to vinyl and records to reach that. And I do have experience with audio engineering and working in a studio. I know how to make musicians and instrumentalists sound the way I want it to, but it’s a lot more of a time consuming process. I’m very open-minded about the future, however, and have ideas that I want to explore.
THIRSTY: You’ve always released your albums for free on the Pretty Lights website. Most recently, the EP Making Up A Changing Mind, the first of a three EP trilogy. But focusing on the free content business model, how has it affected your work personally both positively and negatively?
Derek Vincent Smith: It’s a huge part of my business and enables me to have a faster than normal acceleration towards where I want to go, and where I am; going from an underground musician and regional touring artist, to someone who’s selling a lot of tickets in states and performing all over the world. I feel like the whole free download distribution model has had a significant impact on music finding its way around and spreading much quicker than it normally would. And it’s not the only thing; just giving out your music for free isn’t enough. But in my case it was a big part of my success and the spark that got the word of mouth to become viral in a way.
THIRSTY: Why this business model?
Derek Vincent Smith: My first record I put out for free because I wanted people to hear it. No one knew who Pretty Lights was and I wanted to get it out there. For the first time I felt the music I was making was up to par with the music that I’d been listening to. Trying to write random people on Myspace, sending messages “Yo, I’m really not spamming you, I think you’re going to like this, check it out.” That’s what it was at first and it grew slowly and slowly and I watched my statistics online grow from ten downloads a month to 150 a month.
(credit: Tobin Voggesser)
THIRSTY: And now it’s near hundred fold…
Derek Vincent Smith: Yes there was a surprising turn of events when I released my second record Filling Up The City Skies and it went all the way to 10,000 downloads in one month. It’s kind of bewildering to me honestly; my whole approach is to take it one step at a time because the music industry is transitioning so massively. I’m not gonna say that I’m going to give out all my records for the rest of my career free like this because I don’t know what’s going to happen. But every record I’ve put out successively has had a major affect on my audience and touring.
THIRSTY: As stated before, the name “Pretty Lights” has nothing to do with the elaborate light shows that accompany your music in the live setting. But since it’s so crucial to your performances, how are the light ensembles currently executed? Do you have a steady engineer who tours with the group?
Derek Vincent Smith: The light show is really integrated and because of that, I do invest a lot of the money from ticket sales (etc.) into the production of light shows on a Pretty Lights tour. So it is very connected at this point and I do put a lot of time and money into it. I have a very talented light designer and production manager and together the three of us do the production planning and set design. I tour with my own video wall and my own media content. We’re looking to expand it to more sophisticated set ups; more intricately designed led panels, so everything you see on stage is what I tour with all around. We don’t use anything from the club unless they have really nice lights we can patch into [laughs].
THIRSTY: You’ve now found yourself classified among musicians in the jam scene. While the jam scene has undoubtedly become a melting pot of all different genres of music, how do you feel about being labeled among it? Was this something you set out to be a part of? Or is this just a result of the environment and the fans who sought out to find you?
Making Up A Changing Mind
Derek Vincent Smith: I think it’s really more the latter. I never saw my music as being successful in the jam scene so that was a surprise. I can’t control who comes out to the shows, nor would I have any desire to. If the people like it and want to rock out to it, I’m down with that. The biggest reason is like you said, where I come from. At that time--and that era--the kids that were into the jam scene were looking for something new. Also, a lot of bands in that scene were trying to accomplish a new sound. I’ve always been more in the hip-hop and electronic world from the start than in the jam world. But it crossed over, more than in any other scene took off in the jam world.
THIRSTY: What are the effects of being associated with the jam scene?
Derek Vincent Smith: This association has both positive and negative effects because of stigmas people from other genres have of it. This summer I’m playing a lot more electronic-based music festivals as opposed to last year when the festivals I played were Bonnaroo, Rothbury and Wakarusa . This year we’re doing Coachella, Starscape and Ultra; more of that kind of stuff. While Pretty Lights did start and initially blow up in that scene, I definitely want to expose it to other scenes. I think other scenes would appreciate it for what it is.
THIRSTY: This final question is optional, as you may or may not have a suitable answer off the top of your head. What would you like your audience to know about you that they may not know already, whether it is about your music, touring or general mission?
Derek Vincent Smith: That’s one of those questions where ten minutes after I get off the phone with you, I’ll think of something and say that’s what I should have said [laughs]. Right off the top I suppose something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is how there are a lot of artists gaining popularity that are one person groups. Whether that is me or RJD2 or Deadmau5--even though I do have a drummer on stage--this is music I create as an individual and I think there is this sort of a gap with what’s happening on stage and what people think is happening on stage.
THIRSTY: In terms of the music you’re making?
Derek Vincent Smith: Well, at this point in time, it seems the lines are blurred between producer and DJ. There are other artists who are putting out records, producing and have skills, but at a live show its more of a DJ set. The music isn’t music they actually produced. I’m not gonna play or perform anything that’s not of my own making whether it’s a remix or I perform live on stage. A lot of the time when people call me a DJ, it’s kind of like I’m not a DJ, but I’m not sure what they mean by that. They say that because they see a guy on stage with computers, but it is me playing my own music and actually playing it. In the world of electronic music, there are a lot of grey areas; things that people don’t understand and question why it even matters.