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A sold-out show playing to thousands of people is typically a reason to celebrate. But for Derek Vincent Smith – better known under his moniker as the innovative electronic-music producer Pretty Lights – it led to a creative crisis of conscience. As he headed offstage during one of the final shows of Pretty Lights’ 2010 fall tour, Smith found himself caught in a moment of introspection that would prove life changing. “I’d been spending a lot of time thinking about the state of the music scene I’m part of,” Smith explains. “Right then, I decided to step it up in all aspects. I needed to make an album that showed that it’s not all about making everything in the computer – a history lesson, but still utterly contemporary.” That initial concept would lead to not one but two new Pretty Lights albums – A Color Map of the Sun and its essential companion, Live Studio Sessions From A Color Map of the Sun – to be released on July 2, 2013. The creation of these two symbiotic works would ultimately find Pretty Lights rewriting the rules for making electronic music – and indeed embarking on one of the most ambitious, labor-intensive musical projects in recent memory.
On previous releases – from Pretty Lights’ 2006 debut album Taking Up Your Precious Time to its far-reaching 2008 double-disc follow-up Filling Up The City Skies and 2010’s extraordinary three-EP run (Making Up A Changing Mind, Spilling Over Every Side, and Glowing In The Darkest Night) – Smith established a distinctive aesthetic; his music has always shown an iconoclastic drive to blur and defy genres and ultimately avoid pigeonholing. From the earliest productions under the Pretty Lights name, Smith combined the gritty, crate-digging boom bap of hip-hop heroes like DJ Premier and RZA with the speaker-shredding digital thump of current bass music and club/rave culture – all infused with an expansive sensibility demonstrating Smith’s roots in live, instrumentally-based psychedelic rock. For A Color Map of the Sun – Pretty Lights’ first album to be offered for commercial sale, as opposed to just a free download – Smith wanted to stay true to the sound that’s made him one of today’s most beloved current electronic-music icons, while at the same time challenging himself to reach new stylistic and technical realms. A self-professed “sample collage” artist, he decided it was time to create his own samples. “Before, I’d combine 25 samples into one song; this time, I was going to create my own original sources, retaining the timbre and quality that spans the great musical periods of the last century – from modern classical and jazz, to ‘60s soul and beyond. I wanted to have as big a collection of vinyl to sample as I always did – but I was going to make all the music in it, exactly as it would’ve been in all those different eras.”
This idea sent Smith into an intensely laborious, obsessive process that would test and expand all of his abilities. Where so much of today’s music is created entirely “in the box” using digital plug-ins, Smith wanted to do exactly the opposite. If he wanted to use a sound or groove from a different era, Smith was going to recreate it using exact period instruments, recorded only via the gear that was available during that time in history. He also refused to use software keyboards after becoming obsessed with the buttery warmth of modular analog synthesizers, which are famously complex to play and program. “I ripped out the bunks in my bus, installed a module system, and taught myself modular synthesis,” Smith says.
Smith ventured out of his Denver, Colorado base to begin working in February 2011 at Brooklyn’s Studio G, where recording engineer Joel Hamilton had amassed an unparalleled collection of vintage equipment. “When I got to the studio, I saw they had a 24 track, 2” tape machine ready to go, and I was like ‘No, no, no, we are recording to stereo tape because that’s how it was done pre-1970,’” Smith notes. With himself often on bass and keys, Smith found himself directing a stellar team of anywhere from 5 to 15 musicians, including drummer Adam Deitch and Soulive guitarist Eric Krasno alongside string players, horn sections, keys players and everything in between. Vocalists, meanwhile, spanned soulful singers Smith discovered in his travels to elite MCs like Eligh, The Grouch, and Talib Kweli (who raps over the infectious syncopated funk of the album’s first single “Around The Block”). Throughout the entire process, he’d intentionally challenge both his players and himself. “I learned to be an on-the-fly conductor/composer,” he says. “These were virtuosos used to working off charts, and we didn’t have charts of any kind.”
Two extended sessions at Studio G – along with another two sessions at New Orleans’ legendary Piety Street Recording – left Smith with over 20 hours of free-flowing, spontaneous compositions. He took the analog tape reels to an old-school album cutter in Brooklyn, who pressed every recorded minute onto over 50 full-length vinyl LPs. As he notes in the album’s credits, Smith then took those sources and “sampled, reconstructed, flipped, and chopped” them into A Color Map of the Sun’s 13 songs. The final results definitely prove the most richly dimensional music of Pretty Lights’ entire discography. “Press Pause” places a mournful guitar that evokes an old R&B 7” b-side against atmospheric breakbeats and passionate soulful vocals. “Done Wrong” extends a lush, haunting ambient intro into a bottom-heavy groove that can’t be classified into any obvious genre. “Prophet,” meanwhile, rocks a classic old-school techno vibe that’s almost a sequel to Pretty Lights’ signature track “Look Both Ways” off Spilling Over Every Side; while clearly aimed at the dancefloor, its creation was decidedly abstract. “The sound design on ‘Prophet’ is really unique,” Smith says. “I created the melodies and chords by manipulating scores from a music box. And what sounds like a synth is actually me brushing miniature reeds from a Thai accordion – when you amplify it, it’s the most beautiful sound.” He also boiled down the best original performances into the Live Studio Sessions… companion volume. “I edited my favorite individual takes down from 10 to 30 minutes into three and a half to four minute tracks,” Smith says. “Taken together, they create an album of all-original breaks. I wanted to respect the spirit of the live performances, so giving them their own album seemed like the best way to do it.”
The visionary aspiration Smith displays on his new album also extends to Pretty Lights’ kinetic concert experience, which has seen him rock stages from Bonnaroo to Coachella and co-headline shows with the likes of Skrillex and Bassnectar: in the process, Pretty Lights has become one of the most successful touring acts today. That’s thanks to a live show that represents the imaginative apex of state-of-the-art lighting, production design, and video technology, combined with the most vivid audio fidelity possible and Smith’s dynamically charismatic onstage persona. As such, expect Pretty Lights’ next live iteration to be in line with the same zeal Smith displayed in using all resources to make A Color Map of the Sun as unique and transcendent as possible (a documentary capturing the album’s distinctive creation is also in the works). “What I do next with Pretty Lights’ show will definitely reflect my evolving thoughts on being a producer-as-performer,” he says.
It’s all part of Smith’s ongoing artistic approach that’s embodied in the symbolism behind A Color Map of the Sun’s title. To name the inventive work he’d created, Smith sampled an actual inventor, paraphrasing the title of an essay by Isaac Newton from the 1670s describing his experiments that revealed that all color exists within white light. “All my album titles have seven syllables, and together, they build a type of poem,” Smith says of his inspiration. “But this title starts a new poem. What Newton evoked I found especially poetic and beautiful. It fit what the name ‘Pretty Lights’ is supposed to embody – the idea of an artistic eye always looking at the world, searching for beauty and new inspiration.”