NASHVILLE, Tenn. Derek Vincent Smith, the internationally renowned DJ who performs under the name Pretty Lights, has a simple request: Don't call what he does electronic dance music.
"My music is made electronically," Smith said. "It's definitely music and I do want people to dance at my shows, so I guess it is EDM. But it's not because it's more than that, you know what I mean?"
Listen to Smith's new album "A Color Map of the Sun" and you'll get exactly where he's coming from.
The album, self-released this week for free like all his music, is the result of a 2½-year recording odyssey he conducted while becoming one of the world's most sought-after headlining DJs. After setting himself the challenge of releasing three hourlong albums in a year in 2010, he was looking for a very different challenge. So instead of sampling the work of others — one of his records might use up to 20 samples — he wrote and produced a series of live music vignettes at Brooklyn's Studio G, New Orleans' Piety Street Recordings and his own studio.
Over a year he coached local musicians in these different locales through a series of musical experiments meant to reflect a style or an era — without the benefit of sheet music. He might offer a series of chord progressions for a guitarist or horn player to follow or beat box out a rhythm for a drummer. He would give singers lyrics typed out on a page with no annotation and walk them through different vocal approaches, sometimes describing emotions or scenarios into the singers' headsets even as they laid down tracks.
The 32-year-old DJ then took that tape and pressed it onto vinyl and brought that crate full of original blues, soul, hip-hop and electronica home to Denver where he created "A Color Map of the Sun." Call it analog electronica.
"I can plug a guitar into my computer and record it," Smith said in an interview a few hours before his late-night takeover at Bonnaroo last month. "I have the technology. But it doesn't sound the same as when I play a 1963 Gibson into a UA47 mic into a Neve console from 1971 with the signal path running through $200,000 worth of analog hardware, then onto quarter-inch tape and then onto acetate, and then I scratch it up a little bit, and then I resample it. All the sudden that guitar line sounds like it was in a record store for 40 years and recorded in a garage in Cleveland in 1968. That's what I was gunning for."
Smith, wearing a Yankees cap with a turned-up bill and a perpetual smile, said he realized the vast majority of the 50,000 spaced-out revelers who would turn up for his laser light-fortified set wouldn't know the difference. But that didn't matter. He was reaching for something higher when he started the journey, and he believes he achieved it.
"Looking back on it when the record was done I couldn't listen to it," Smith said. "I didn't even want to get close to it because I'd heard it way too much. I gave myself a month. I blazed a nice spliff and listened to the record, and I was like, 'Yeah, something cool happened here. I'm glad I did this.'"
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