Some of today's underground electronic artists are not simply DJs, musicians, MCs or producers. To define what they do, we turn to the world of filmmaking to borrow the term "auteur," which in French means "author" and is used to describe a movie director whose creative vision encompasses everything, from direction and scriptwriting to overseeing sound and image.
Derek Vincent Smith, who makes and performs electronic dance music under the name Pretty Lights, is an auteur in the musical sense. He plays live instruments; he programs synths, samplers and electronic percussion; he acts as DJ; and he produces the whole mess.
The Pretty Lights sound is an amalgam of influences from the world of hip-hop and electronic collage. Like DJ Shadow, David Holmes, LCD Soundsystem, the Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk, Smith creates electronic music that appeals to rock fans as well as the world of hip-hop; it sounds as good in a pair of headphones as it does on the dance floor.
Pretty Lights will play its second Tucson concert this calendar year on Tuesday, Nov. 30, at the Rialto Theatre, along with Free the Robots and Gramatik.
In 2010, Smith has released three Pretty Lights EPs: Making Up a Changing Mind in March, Spilling Over Every Side in July, and Glowing in the Darkest Night in October. Clocking in between 33 and 45 minutes, each recording runs as long as some conventional full-length albums.
Smith explained the thinking behind the release of the three EPs.
"I knew that I was going to be doing a lot of touring this year, and I had a lot of material coming, so I knew I would have to record pretty quickly. It was basically done so I could fit the album productions in during the small periods of time off when I didn't have concerts," he said during a recent interview. "I also wanted to give something to the music geeks and freaks who follow every show, and crave new music coming out. I did it because of the momentum and to keep myself and the listeners stoked about more new music."
Pretty Lights' 2010 EPs are available free for download at www.prettylightsmusic.com, as are all of Pretty Lights' releases—three albums proper and a live set from New Year's Eve 2009. Although you won't be charged to download any of Smith's recordings, those who do so are encouraged to make a donation in an amount of their choosing to offset costs.
It's a method that Radiohead helped pioneer with the release of its 2007 album, In Rainbows, although Smith applies it to all of his music. With his self-release model, Smith is proving artists needn't be controlled by record companies. His site recently surpassed 1 million downloads.
Glowing in the Darkest Night incorporates slamming hip-hop beats and glitchy sound effects, but also leans heavily on vintage jazz, funk and soul samples, creating a sound that is profoundly deep and rich.
Originally from Colorado, Smith has been making music as Pretty Lights since 2006.
Before getting into hip-hop and electronic music, he was a rock fan. The first band that captured his imagination was Nirvana.
"I was really into Nirvana when I was a teenager, and hearing that band changed my whole outlook on music. It was the first band that made me want to save my money so I could buy their album. That focus soon changed to hip-hop."
He said he's been producing electronic music for about eight years, since he was in high school.
"I got started because I was into hip-hop," he said. "I started making beats because my friends and I wanted to rap over them, but that element eventually fell away, and the music evolved into this form."
The styles of electronic music are constantly changing, and often doing so at lightning-fast speed; what was trendy one week may be out the next. Smith tries to stay relevant by looking back and looking forward at the same time. Depending on his mood and inspiration, his music might incorporate a little dubstep or breaks or drum 'n' bass.
"I just think that you gotta make something that lasts," he said. "Of course, you want to get people on the dance floor; you want to get the party rocking, but there also has to be that element of emotion, of connecting to something that actually makes you feel something, and I think that's what results in longevity, and keeps it from being super-trendy and flaming out too soon."
In addition to hip-hop and electronic artists, Smith cites the psychedelic rock band Pink Floyd as a primary influence. In fact, his band's name is borrowed from a Pink Floyd poster that stated, "Come and watch the pretty lights!"
Smith said he has been inspired by "artists who consistently made really high-quality music that could make me feel something and channeled some kind of emotions. Hearing artists like Pink Floyd and DJ Shadow, and how they had no limits, was a big part of my development as a musician."
Make no mistake: Smith is a musician, too. He often plays bass, keyboards or guitar on his music, augmenting his endless variety of samples.
In a live setting, he regularly has enlisted the help of a human drummer. For a few years, he collaborated with Cory Eberhard. This year, Adam Deitch took over the drum kit and is playing on the current tour.
For Pretty Lights' fall 2010 tour, Smith has shared the stage with such up-and-coming acts as Chali 2na, Blockhead, VibeSquaD, Thunderball, Eliot Lipp and Michael Menart.
On the Nov. 30 bill will be two other cutting-edge electronic artists: Free the Robots is Chris Alfaro, whose modus operandi is combining jazz, psychedelic, electronic and hip-hop music in a beat-heavy sci-fi stew; his most recent release is Ctrl Alt Delete, out since March. Then, there's Gramatik, the Slovenia-born DJ whose fourth album, No Shortcuts (released Sept. 29), is more of a banging hip-tronica excursion.