Pretty Lights, A Color Map of the Sun: Derek Vincent Smith talks about the new album

Categories: Profiles


A Color Map of the Sun, the new Pretty Lights album due out this Tuesday, took Derek Vincent Smith on an adventure through musical eras. We recently spoke with the homegrown Pretty Lights mastermind about the trust he has placed in his fan base, his own self doubts about taking the road less traveled and how no matter what, this latest effort will not define him as artist, but merely dog ear a new chapter in his career as an artist.

See also:
- 2009 Q&A with Derek Vincent Smith of Pretty Lights
- Feature profile: For A Color Map of the Sun, Pretty Lights started from scratch
- Photos: Pretty Lights at 1STBANK Center

Westword: How are you doing, Derek? Is it okay if I call you Derek?

Derek Vincent Smith: Of course.

Just wanted to make sure. I'd feel like we were in the Matrix if I had to call you Mr. Smith. Where are you right now?

[Laughing] We are in New York, which I usually love to be in, but it's a shitty, rainy day. I'm here for the Governor's Ball Festival, which is on an island, I guess. It's raining like crazy, and it's only supposed to get worse, but it's gonna be a muddy, wet party.

Will you play straight through the storm without any worries for your equipment?

We got some ghetto cardboard boxes painted black, so if it starts raining we can put them over the computers so they are protected, at least. Otherwise... I'll go until they pull me off if it gets dangerous or some shit. I have this one rare remix I play if it's raining balls. I made it the day of the show, if it gets rained out. It's about the rain and coming hard in the rain.

I got a preview copy of the album, both the reels and the studio productions. Which will be released if you are purchasing the music? My initial reaction is that this album is a panorama of all the musical genres where you spotlight certain areas, then painted those by sampling the music you created in the studio. I want to know in that creation process, what were you looking for?

It was definitely all of that. When I first went into the studio, honestly, I just was really nervous because I know basic music theory, but I was working with all these really talented musicians who are used to coming into sessions and getting handed a sheet of paper with the music on it. I don't work that way, and I don't want to work that way.

The first day, I went in with some of my friends and just started figuring out how I wanted to work this. Each day, I went into it thinking I would go with the flow and make music on the fly trying to work with all these musicians, and here, I needed to communicate that to each musician, and every single one was going to be a little confused at first, and maybe skeptical. And every musician was skeptical of the process.

I did have one vision, which was that I wanted to make pieces of music that sounded good on a 45, or record, in the back of a record store that would make me jump up and down. That was my goal. I also had sort of brief moments in time, these different moments in musical history that I wanted to emulate, not just in the style, but in the recording process. I had to research with the engineers about what microphones were used in the certain periods and work with the analog hardware by the decade for the style that I was going for.

Working with the musicians -- it got easier every day. I learned how to communicate my vision better and work with them better. I opened up my mind how to envision breaks and sounds on the fly. I'd be working on one piece of music and just go off with and explain all the players, and when that was done, they wanted to know what was next. I'd have to be thinking, which would stress me out, and with the tape rolling, I'd direct the musicians to play certain parts, ya know, just the drums, or just the drums and bass, or just the keys.

I needed different combinations to sample. When I got everything on tape that I felt like I wanted and needed, I would let them jam. I would tell 'em to freestyle for a bit, and then come back later. So then I'd leave for a minute, and come back and be like, "Stop playing!" because I had a new idea. Then we'd start over.

Would you picture the song then write it on the computer in whatever programs you were using? Or would it be, "This is what I see. Make it happen with your guitar or voice?" What was that process of the actual music writing?

That process was simpler on the writing side, but very much more involved on the communication with the players and vocalists. Writing a piece would consist... I was writing breaks, or jams that could be evolved on. I wasn't really trying to make full songs, but as we got deeper into it, I would write parts A, B, C, so the breaks would be multi-faceted. A lot of it was one loop that would get expanded on as we played.

The writing process was really me figuring out a chord progression with a Wurlitzer in my headphones or even my iPhone app with a guitar on it, and I'd strum a chord on my phone. I'd go back and forth between the Wurlitzer or guitar, depending on what room I was in, and the other half was just imagining what instruments would work together and how those would sound.

For example, I wanted to do a really simple break in G minor, and there was nothing musically complicated about it at all. It was all about the timbre, and how you could get it played extremely simple. I'd go to the guitar player and say, "I want to get a simple, dirty, dusty, old-school funk, hard-distortion sound with a thick chord." He'd make a sound, and we'd work until he had the sound.

The guitar guy would say "That's all you want me to do?" After that, I'd hear him riff off that and do some filler, and I'd have to say, "Stop it!" It's hard to keep musicians in line because they are so used to just going off and doing their jam thing. I really wanted to have a super controlled environment. I had the same thing with the engineers and the sound guys.

It seems like with this whole process you are personifying an otherwise technological form of music. You know the sounds you want to hear and that you want these musicians to create, which for all intents and purposes, you could find in a plug-in or patches, right?

The most of it is having the live musicians in the room. It's important to have the organic element of combining five musicians. At some point in the recording evolution, sound guys thought it best to separate all these musicians so that the bass was completely clean in the mix and the guitar was completely clean in the mix, and so the drums were just the drums in the mix.

I was completely against that concept. I wanted to go back to the time when all the musicians were in the same room and the microphones were bleeding into each other. I wanted everything to pick up everything. There was an organic sort of benefit from having all these musicians working together, but also in the same manner the way that it was recorded with all the microphones bleeding into each other and all the parts becoming like they are from a different time. That was a... in hindsight it makes obvious sense, but not until I experimented with it.

Is that something that you have yearned for, or what do think has led you to come to that point through the past seven albums, which are clean and crisp and sample based? It seems like you got to this point and said, "I don't want to do this anymore." Do you think it was through this process that you developed that craving for creation?

For sure. That's all a part of how it happened in my head. There were multiple reasons for me doing this project. As my career was having success and continued to grow, I wanted to invest that success into a more challenging project, and one day it all made sense that I needed to maintain my style and sound, but go back five steps and make everything from scratch in the exact way it was done in those time periods. Through that process, I realized how hard it was.

As a sample based producer, I don't just sample one track, but more of a sample collage with ten, twenty or thirty samples in one song. When I approached this and realized how much music I get to create, I wanted to have records that sounded like they were from the classical collection like they were from '70s Mississippi blues recordings.

Anything that's ever been in a record store -- that's what hip-hop producers do. We take anything that sounds dope and make a beat. I wanted to do something more sophisticated. It was then that I realized how massive and how broad this project was.

Have you, at any point, had any self doubt as to how it will be received? I trust you wouldn't put out something you don't like, but what are your nerves like right now? With one of the biggest releases you have coming, talk about your fears and the trust you have in your fans.

That's a really good and intimate question. I'm not going to try to dilute it: I'm human. I embarked on this project that was difficult, and it didn't... When you envision something and embark on it, and with any artist, the final project is never what you thought it would be. Stylistically, this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to step back from the super banging all the time speeds and really focus on really good sounding, pleasing to the ear sounds.

The way I combined samples, I literally would write music purposefully, so it doesn't match up with the songs I was writing. I would purposefully have vocalists sing lyrics that weren't for the song I wrote them for. I wanted to tune match, speed match and work with it creatively. To answer your question, I go through waves where I feel that in this electronic culture where performers get addicted to this instant gratification of the drop.

I think fans get addicted to that, too.

For sure! I meet a lot of producers who want to drop other people's music, and that's everyone's own choice as to how they perform. It doesn't matter. But I wanted to purposefully take an extreme turn from that style and really turn it into something else. I wanted something more timeless where I wasn't thinking about the live show so much.

I wanted music that I just loved all the time, not just at certain times. It's always been part of my vision that all these are songs I can perform with a band, or flip it up and surprise people by dropping the heat with remixes of my own tracks. That was not the vision of this record.

I think I definitely saw... one thing that I really thought about is how one piece of music can really change through so many people's imaginations. On the album, it is a hot organic beat, and then the remix which is a hot banger. That was my goal with this. It was have so many versions of my songs.

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This is an awesome article.  I listen to, watch or read anything that has to do with Pretty Lights, so I hope to hell I get to be at anything Derek does for a "release party." PLF to the fullest. 

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