[CLICK HERE to read part 2]
I have to admit that I was a bit curious to see Pretty Lights, even though I knew next to nothing about the guy. I didn’t really start receiving press releases about him until 2010 and, by that point, he had already released all 3 of his full-length albums and was in the middle of announcing a “trilogy of EPs” and a Spring tour. It was the first that I’d heard of him. All that I could remember was that I didn’t think that his name was very impressive and I felt the same way about whatever song it was that I checked out at the time. If nothing else, it didn’t leave much of an impression. I recalled later that he had also been giving all of his albums away through free downloads on his site. What was fascinating to me was that he was headlining the main stage alongside the likes of Grammy winners, Jack White, Bon Iver, and Beck, who would take on that responsibility the following nights, respectively. In recent years, electronic producers like Bassnectar (2011) and Deadmau5 (2010) could be found performing late night sets on the Bigfoot stage after the main stage had packed up, but Pretty Lights was actually the main event for Friday, expected to take on that enormous crowd all by himself. Who the fuck was this guy?
When Derek Vincent Smith hit the stage, he was wearing a simple Yankees cap and a zip-up “Pretty Lights” hoodie. There was no crazy light-up helmet strapped onto his dome or over-the-top getup; he looked as if he could have been drinking a beer on a couch backstage and playing X-BOX right before stepping out in front of thousands of people. The structure that he manned his equipment from, on the other hand, looked like a team of doozers were given shards of molly and contracted to assemble a Starfleet console out of a trunk full of K’NEX and a shit ton of Light Brite pegs. The giant LED setups have become increasingly popular and almost expected in these modern times where an electronic musician is actually capable of selling out large venues on the merits of their own stage show, without the support of various other acts and a rave or festival to fill out the crowd. By that same token, large amounts of ticket sales have got to be necessary to fund such an extravagant production, it’s transport, and the crew to assemble it each night.
I could say that I didn’t know what to expect from Pretty Lights musically, but that would only be half true; I didn’t know what to expect, but I have to admit that I did expect something. My assumption was that his music would involve the type of heavy dance grooves and deep bass drops that seem to appease the masses. After all, he is another guy in a twinkly stage setup that brings in droves of glowstick wielding teenagers.
The term EDM (Electronic Dance Music) has been buzzing around a lot lately. I’m familiar with the term IDM (Intelligent Dance Music), which gained prominence in the 1990s and was used to describe the type of wacky, cerebral, more structurally complex, and left field experimental electronic music that often had screwball time signatures, changed direction on a dime, and was being created by such folks as Aphex Twin and other Warp Records artists at the time. That was the sort of shit that got me listening to electronic music in the first place, which was a tremendous feat, considering how disinterested I was in the techno/rave movement and its fanbase. While IDM is admittedly yet another generic term used to group and categorize a block of individually accomplished artists under one, more easily soluble title; EDM feels like even more of a broad, non-specific and lazy net to throw over a collective of musicians. The way that I figure it, by 2012, the average expectation should be that, if something is being referred to as simply “dance music,” then it’s probably electronic, as well. Unless there’s some huge underground movement where kids are getting together to dance the fucking Charleston, I think that I’m missing something. EDM is such a large catch-all phrase that it feels beyond counter-productive. Instead of coining a term to accomplish the task of narrowing something down by defining it through sub-genres that are based on a few select elements that make them stand out from their larger parent genres, the term EDM seems to lack much definition at all, making clarification and categorization murkier than ever.
Q: “Hey man, are you still playing in that stoner sludge-metal trio?”
A: “Well, sort of. We’re actually referring to what we play as ‘guitar music’ now.”
People were making “electronic dance music” in the seventies, so, when someone says that there’s gonna be EDM playing at a club and the person hearing that is just as justified in expecting to hear Squarepusher as they would be in expecting Crystal Waters, I’m having trouble understanding why the terminology is being embraced now more than ever. It’s odd that the pattern of narrowing everything down to be as hyper-specific as possible (happy hardcore, drill n bass, microhouse) seemed to be continuing strong with the more recent additions of terms like Chillwave and Dubstep–even further sub-divided between the sound of the UK originators and the more aggressive North American “brostep” appropriation–infiltrating the musical lexicon, only to be suddenly eschewed for a more all-encompassing term. Skrillex has become the posterboy for this brostep movement, while Deadmau5 isn’t a dubstep musician at all, yet they’re both being widely associated with the exact same scene (I know that they’re friends, etc… not my point). From my outsider’s perspective, it seems like this re-embracing of the term EDM is being championed by music journalists and, at least in part, through the marketing of festivals like the Electric Daisy Carnival (sharing 2 out of 3 letters in its acronym), which benefit from from the promotion and hype of one unified scene. I saw Pretty Lights listed somewhere as a “chillstep” artist, but what the fuck do I know? I’ve seen him lumped in with those other cats, as well. He’s doing the expensive flashy light thing and playing the same festivals, so what makes him any different? Time to find out.
After the music kicked in, it took a moment for my ears to assimilate. There was a wave of sound and everyone was hopping around and throwing glow sticks in the air, as to be expected. My media pass didn’t provide access to the main stage photo pit, but I was posted up relatively close and off to the side, where I was tinkering around with my lens, trying to get these shots. I didn’t have the most amazing view of whatever light show was going off behind him, but Smith was definitely keeping the crowds attention and, while the elaborate stage show added an undeniable benefit in the large amphitheater setting, I’m not convinced that, given a more intimate environment, he would have needed it. That was the thing that impressed me initially about his show; he was controlling the massive crowd without issue. People were getting so amped up that they bombarded the stage with their glowsticks, even throwing them directly at Pretty Lights like he was Stephen Malkmus at Lollapalooza. He kept a positive attitude and was able to wave them off, as if to say, “C’mon guys. Please don’t hit me with these right now, so that I can continue to entertain yooz guys by playing these jams for you.” (You know… the obvious.) It was a typical festival crowd dance party. I was still trying to take in the overall environment of the place, when I began to notice that the more subtle aspects in the music had made their way into my ear canals. This guy didn’t sound like what I expected. He was actually a lot better than that.
The first thing that really locked in and triggered my realization that there was something more to Pretty Lights than simple electro dance beats was a piano roll. That’s not to say that there aren’t the typical upbeat electronic synth grooves, because there are–Smith isn’t afraid to toss in a warped Daft Punk-inspired phaser or cybernetic, modulated robot voice here and there either–but there was also some really clear hip-hop influences being represented, which is something that I hadn’t expected. The piano roll initially caught my attention, because it reminded me of DJ Krush. From there, I could hear more and more elements in his sound. There are the tasteful jazz samples of someone like DJ Greyboy drifting on the cinematic Eastern moodiness of Blockhead. I could hear plenty of RJD2 in his endless soul samples and even some DJ Shadow in the beats and cuts. When I refer to these sounds as influences, I mean it as just that. These aren’t blatant, thoughtless, and contrived rip-offs being presented in his work; it’s clear that those sounds have simply worked their way into Smith‘s musical DNA over the years and he has a solid grasp on their nuances and how best to utilize those elements. Furthermore, the down-tempo beats are only one aspect represented in his catalog, which also incorporates more high energy synthed-out electro tracks and glitchier numbers. Pretty Lights‘ music makes it clear that it’s creator is well studied and, while much of his sound shows evidence of a history with instrumental hip-hop, Smith is definitely an artist that is prone to weaving through different genres effortlessly.
Despite his obvious influences, Smith continues to make music that feels fresh rather than derivative. Unlike Skrillex, who was the gloomy Hot Topic-styled lead singer of a screamo band before instantly transforming into a huge overnight EDM/dubstep sensation, Derek Vincent Smith‘s material truly suggests a solid gestation, marinating in a thick brine of musical culture and history. His sound reflects similar styles as other artists, but there’s nothing within it that screams plagiarism, only a similar path. That being said, it cannot be denied that his tracks are sample heavy–all of his releases are free/donation based for legal reasons–but even when he’s mixing in an incredibly recognizable clip or even a rap verse, it still feels like he’s creating something completely new with it. Wherein someone like Girl Talk (see pt. 1) is nothing without his samples, using them as the primary meat of his dish and sprinkling in his own twists of seasoning, Pretty Lights incorporates samples in what, I feel, is a more respectable way, utilizing them to enhance the track and not as the track that’s being enhanced. [“Having a little original music with your sample?“] Equipped with two laptops, a mixer, a couple of MPCs, and more–I’ve even also seen pictures of him with a dual CD/MP3 mixing console for scratching–Smith is actually creating new music during his shows. This helps dismantle the claims of someone like Deadmau5 who openly admits that he, himself, creates his entire show ahead of time and does nothing other than push buttons, while alleging that “none of the top dj’s in the world” are “up there producing new original tracks on the fly.” Pretty Lights‘ camp, on the other hand, makes the statement that his “shows will vary every night, as much as the styles that PL produces.”
A combination of his penchant for mixing styles and incorporating more uptempo danceable grooves into his repertoire, his EDM scene-style stage show, and his ability to provide a genuine “live” performance each night, must be contributed to his ability to obtain certain things that would seem so much more unreachable for many of his predecessors and contemporaries [Even with the success of creating the Mad Men theme, it’s still beyond unlikely that you’ll be seeing RJD2 headlining a festival of this magnitude, anytime soon]. Despite my affinity for them, I wouldn’t expect to hear such well crafted down tempo tracks coming from an artist that’s yielding such a vast following, simply because they’ve never seemed to play to the masses as smoothly as the more accessible dance jams. The masses that Pretty Lights is drawing in, however, are being siphoned from premanufactured/built-incommunities. There aren’t enough people out there like me, who want to hear 70s soul grooves and hip-hop beats, to fill a stadium every night, but when you factor in the EDM community being the fastest growing musical “movement” out there right now and Smith‘s connection to the already massive, live music-centric jamband scene–Sound Tribe Sector 9, the seminal crossover band for hippies’ new found embrace of electronica over the last decade, have utilized Smith as an opener and for late night slots–he’s got a consistent audience that’s not only willing to see him, but one that’s ready to enthusiastically break into a dance off every time.
Since the festival, I’ve downloaded a few of his older releases (the full lengths) and I actually really enjoy that early stuff. It fills the gap for someone like me who loves albums like Dead Ringer, Music By Cavelight, Jaku, Mastered the Art, and Endtroducing, but was always disappointed that there wasn’t more quality representations in that vein out there. If you’re in a similar boat, but are so disinterested in this EDM movement that you haven’t bothered to look into an artist calling himself “Pretty Lights” [understandable], then you might want to give him a shot. While the EDM and hippie electronica marketing has worked to separately bring in thousands of interested fans, it’s also the very thing that has likely turned a lot of the rest of us away. But, that’s what we all hope will be the benefit of a festival scene like this, it allows someone who’s even a little bit open-minded to discover something new. Fortunately for everyone involved, Derek Vincent Smith has actually created something that’s, arguably, worth listening to.
AFTER THE SHOW
Pretty Lights was still performing when I wandered away from the well-lit dance party and into the dark, where the other side stages had been shut down for the night like an abandoned carnival. I wondered where the media section was. Two years ago it was simply a little corral with picnic benches, some bottled water, and dry, brittle, granola bars set behind an open wooden fence. No one on staff could tell me where it was located, only that they’d been asked the question a lot. I figured that I’d try to find it now to avoid aimlessly doing so the next day. Eventually, I was pointed to a brown building (it had a door and everything), which I stepped inside right before it was about to close for the night. The first thing that I saw was Bree from the band Tacocat sitting on a sofa and drinking a tallboy. With her was her bandmate Emily Nokes and fellow Stranger staff members, Derek Erdman and Grant Brissey. They were all there covering the festival for the weekly Seattle rag. They asked if I wanted to have a beer at their campsite, so we all headed outside of the gates and I was surprised to discover that we only seemed to move about 50 yards before reaching their car (again: not good with speculating distances). “Fuck!” I thought. “I’m camped so far away and deep in that goddam campground; I better start heading back there soon, before my legs crack off.”
Once I stumbled back to my campsite and started to put something together to eat, I got a call from that guy Jeremy that I met from Hawaii earlier in the night. He was asking me to come over and kick it with them. Well, food can wait, if I don’t want to continue hanging out with myself for this entire festival. I shoved a few beer bottles into my various pockets and headed out.
I was still riding out the serendipitous luck zone that I was in when I found them. Beyond coincidentally, he only happened to be a handful of rows diagonally from where I was camping myself, but the only details that he gave me to find him were that they were next to someone’s Canadian flag. The campground was huge and I still came across 5 or so other Canadian flags just within that area, but I somehow, miraculously located them, to everyone’s surprise. They made hot dogs and we got pretty faded. Eventually, I stumbled back to my temporary home, grabbed my dry salami log, some cheese, crackers, the knife, and mini cutting board, climbing into my tent. As I sliced the blade towards myself, I thought about how foolish I was being in assuming that the knife wasn’t very sharp. Then I looked down and noticed that a chunk of my thumb padding was missing. Still fucked up, I grabbed one of the bandages that my lady had packed, squirted some sanitizer in the wound, wrapped it up, and then laid backwards and passed out. I needed to get some rest. The next day would be starting early.