“I would be a fucking scientist. I’d be on some crazy deep space zero-point energy shit. Powerless wire systems, water engines… I’d be taking down the oil industry. I’d be re-inventing the energy infrastructure of the world.” -Pretty Lights
Pretty Lights is a like a mad scientist, a perfectionist at making music sound non-perfect. But talking to Derek Smith in a corner of the Trump Hotel in Soho is like chilling with your buddy. He asks “What’s up?” to the bellhops and talks music, he smokes bogies and laughs at himself. You’d never realize the 31-year-old from Colorado draws over 45,000 fans at festivals or that he’s just dropped the highly-buzzed and craved album, A Color Map of the Sun, today (July 2). Smith just might be one of the chillest dudes in the EDM game…or perhaps the “modern hip-hop/soul/electronica game.” But that doesn’t mean Smith won’t speak his mind about Daft Punk and Mos Def, or the way he wants his music to be. –@SarahPolonsky
VIBE: Everyone says your new album, Color Map of the Sun, is your first sample-free album.
Pretty Lights: Is that what people are saying? That’s not how I would put it. I’d say it’s a completely sample-based record. I just made all the samples. A lot of people compared it to the Daft Punk record…how an electronic artist(s) used musicians, but that’s not what I did. I literally made wax to sound like it was 60-years-old so it did sound like a sample. It’s sample-free in that sense. I don’t have to hire a ‘sample lawyer’ and go clear a bunch of shit.
Do you like the new Daft Punk?
Personally, objectively or subjectively? I mean it’s not my stuff. I don’t put it on repeat in the ride or anything. But it grew on me a little bit.
Like a fungus? What do you put on repeat in your ride?
I listen to old weird shit, like old soul and soundtracks. Scores and stuff like that. And gangster rap! Of course, ‘90’s gangster rap and Chicago soul.
You’ve said this was the most-labor intensive album you’ve ever made. For someone who isn’t familiar with you and isn’t familiar with how labor intensive it is, can you break that down simply? What does it take to create the most labor-intensive album?
When it comes down to it, the fact that it’s the most labor-intensive album doesn’t really mean anything. You know what I mean? Like, who gives a shit? At the end of the day it’s about good music, right? I kind of realized that, I’d always realized that, but since I was putting so much into the process of it, I talked about that so much to people when they asked about it.
I would research microphones from the period of time I was trying to emulate, like 1940’s French soundtrack music, and we used that gear. And we’d record at low budget studios. I did everything like it would have been done 50 years ago. I told them I wanted to record the tape, came in there and the studio had this 1970 high-tech tape machine ready for me, the multi-track. I said ‘no not like that, I want your old school shitty tape machine and I want to do it as low-fi as possible because I want it to sound gritty.’
What instruments do you play?
On the record…I can’t even think of them. Bass, flute, guitar, keys, marxophone, Hawaiian art violin, xylophone, harmonium, marimba, I don’t know all kinds of crazy shit. I’m not like a shredder on anything, but I can play whatever good enough to make a nice melody, to chop it up, and make it sound hot.
Why did you choose a phrase from Isaac Newton as album’s title? What does it say about the album?
I’m actually really into brilliant inventors, scientists, and astronomers. Like Isaac Newton, Nikola Tesla, the freak.
I was thinking drops, like Isaac Newton’s apple…
Yeah he knew all about droppin’ it. No, but I was just thinking so long about the title and I feel like so many people name records on a whim. You know, the records done what should I name it? Uhhh…this. You know it’s named ‘Daydream’ or ‘Atmospheric Wonderland,’ I don’t know.
I like names that are poetic and beautiful. Ambiguous, deep and relatable. It’s literally talking about the spectrum of color and plus I wanted to have a title that was a very subtle throwback to one of my favorite records of all time, Dark Side of the Moon. When he [Newton] wrote the essay that phrase was in, he was playing with prisms and light and things like that. So A Color Map of the Sun is what he wrote to describe the way light disassembles itself in a prism and becomes every color we see. I just thought it was extremely beautiful, it related to the album on a lyrical level, on a musical level, on just the meaning of my project level, it worked. It was just the perfect name for what I was looking for.
There’s a lot of shit talk about EDM and the laziness of bedroom producers become mainstream DJs and open format DJs become producers. How do you combat this, and stay unique and keep it fresh and soulful?
Because I was from Colorado, I started getting shows opening up for these jam bands and kids would hear my sound and freak out over it. And it eventually moved into that [EDM] space, but my music was rooted in hip-hop. It’s always been about hip-hop production. Not club hip-hop, but like real hip-hop. So it’s trying to make bangers, tracks that could move a crowd, like actually kinetically move people. Get their hands in the sky, get them actually jumping and shit like that, and that was difficult. The idea of a hip-hop producer being able to play headline shows of 20,000 people would have been insane to anyone in the hip-hop game even two years ago.
You’ve got Talib Kweli featured, and let’s talk about that. What was that like, did you guys get up in the studio?
He’s definitely one of the MC’s I respect the most. He’s very conscious and dope, and just on the level. He was actually supposed to be at a Blackstar show, which is one of the illest hip-hop records of all time, Mos Def and Talib Kweli. But 90 percent of the Mos Def shows I’ve tried to see, he doesn’t show up. So I hit Kweli up through my homie, sent him a version of my beat and told him we should connect on this. He loved the beat, he came over, we kicked it before the show and I told him, ‘I’m not gonna put your whole verse on the track, because I’m not making a hip-hop record like that. I’ll make you a beat you can use for your record, and do whatever you want with it for free. But I want you to write a verse that I can do whatever I want with.’ I took it and I chopped it up. I liked the verse so much I used a big part of it, eight bars of it. I usually don’t do that.
Is there a current rapper out there that you want on the next Pretty Light’s track? Or even on stage with you?
Slug. He’s the most poignant, brilliant lyricist (as it connects to me) that I’ve ever heard. And I grew up on that shit, Atmosphere. And I’ve been working it slowly, we’re homies on Twitter.
If you weren’t in this profession what would you do?
I would be a fucking scientist. I’d be on some crazy deep space zero-point energy shit. Powerless wire systems, water engines… I’d be taking down the oil industry. I’d be re-inventing the energy infrastructure of the world. And all that will still happen.