It’s New Year’s Eve and thousands of young people have gathered at New Orleans’ Mardi Gras World Ballroom for a dazzling display that rivals any fireworks from Times Square to Disneyland. Colorado, California, Canada and Carrollton Avenue are all represented in the crowd, which feasts its collective eyes upon the wondrous spectacle at hand. Yet where they all come from isn’t as important as why they all came here, to this packed warehouse-turned-music-venue along the banks of the Mississippi River.
“I moved here two years ago and I don’t even know why,” Derek Vincent Smith declared during a rare pause in the music that night. “The vibe was just so strong.”
Pretty Lights has taken a variety of forms over the years, but Smith’s leadership and vision have been a constant since the project began in 2004. As one of the most forward-thinking producers in electronic dance music (EDM), he’s earned a substantial following by digging through the past to create the sounds of the future. For most of his career, that meant fusing blissful synth lines with old school hip-hop, funk and soul samples in service of tracks that are as laid-back as they are dance-worthy.
While baby boomers and their Gen X counterparts may not be familiar with this sound, their millennial progeny almost certainly are. Like jazz, rock and hip-hop before it, EDM has gotten an unjustifiably bad rap from older generations who don’t grasp its nuances. From its underground origins to its rapid ascent to the mainstream, the parallels with earlier music genres are many. Jazz, rock and hip-hop are broad terms that encompass disparate styles and varying degrees of quality, and the same can be said for EDM. Some of it is inspired and some of it is bland. Some of it is groundbreaking and some if it is derivative. Pretty Lights, in both instances, is the former.
The genre is not without its limitations, however, and this is particularly true on stage. Many EDM producers have yet to find a viable way of reproducing their music for a concert setting—at least not in any way that could legitimately be considered “live.” This often means pressing play on pre-recorded material and occasionally adding effects, remixing or fiddling with the music in various ways, but it rarely means creating something new on the spot.
“Everyone just plays tracks,” Smith says one evening, while sitting on the back porch of his Lower Garden District home. “The music happens in the private studio and then it gets brought to the party or the concert where it’s presented, which is not the same as music happening live on stage. I just felt like I wanted to do something more with electronic music—something more improvisational. I say improvisational, but I mean something that’s more in the moment, more organic.”
Considering all of that, it’s not so surprising that Smith found himself in New Orleans. If bringing improvisation to electronic music is the goal, then the birthplace of jazz is as good a place as any to do it. Roughly a century has passed since America’s great native art form seeped out of the bars and brothels of this city, hitching a ride upriver before sweeping over the world like the artistic revolution that it was. Jazz was a game changer for plenty of reasons, though many of its greatest innovations were in the realm of improvisation. Musicians have been capable of creating in real time for ages, but early jazz bands were some of the first to do it as a group. When Smith says he wanted to do something more with electronic music, what he’s really talking about is applying the innovations of the past to the art of the future.
The journey began when Smith started working on his 2013 album A Color Map of the Sun, an undertaking that represented a radical departure from his previous studio efforts. Pretty Lights’ first three albums employed live instruments and synthesizers, but relied heavily on samples that were lifted from a treasure trove of old vinyl records. These samples were then cut up, spliced, looped and rearranged to make “collages” that were integral to Smith’s sound. It’s a technique that was pioneered by instrumental hip-hop producer DJ Shadow, who created entire albums using only brief sections of songs that were recorded by other artists. Though this style served Smith well for a time, he eventually grew tired of using other people’s material as the basis for so much of his own music.
“I got into production through the sampling world, digging through my old vinyl and collaging different pieces together,” Smith explains. “With A Color Map of the Sun I realized, or I wanted to realize, that I could make all those samples from scratch. So I went through the process of trying to create recordings that were as diverse as what I would find digging in a bunch of record stores. Jazz, funk, new wave, I was just trying to make a bunch of different styles. I tried to do bossa nova. I tried to do 1940s French film soundtrack–type stuff. I wanted to create tapes and recordings that felt like something I would be really excited about if I found them on an old 45.”
“Instead of sampling a record, I was going to record a guitarist. Instead of sampling a record, I was going to get a whole band together, record them on vintage gear and then press it to vinyl,” he adds. “When I started making A Color Map of the Sun I had a crate of vinyl records, only I had created all of the vinyl records.”
Most of the recording sessions that birthed A Color Map of the Sun took place at Studio G in Brooklyn, but Smith also spent two weeks conducting a series of loose sessions at Piety Street Studios in New Orleans’ Bywater neighborhood. It was there that he collaborated with local musicians like Brian Coogan, Ben Jaffe, Mario Abney, Detroit Brooks, Jeff Albert, Big Al Carson, Glen David Andrews, Simon Lott, Rod Hodges and the late Uncle Lionel Batiste.
A Color Map of the Sun was well received by fans and critics alike, and even earned a Grammy nomination for Best Dance/Electronica Album in 2014. With its soulful grooves and warm synth lines, the release was a worthy addition to the Pretty Lights catalog. More importantly, it expanded the scope of what Smith considered possible, not just for music production but for the live arena as well.
“Something about the way the studio sessions happened for that record gave me a taste of something more,” says Smith. “Working with musicians in the studio, writing on the fly, conducting and playing with all these guys—it felt so good. I started craving the feeling from those studio sessions in the live setting.”
It should come as no surprise that this sea change in Pretty Lights’ production philosophy was followed by a sea change in his approach to touring. Shortly after releasing A Color Map of the Sun, Smith enlisted an assortment of musicians to put a different spin on his music in the concert setting. Known as the Analog Future Band, the group featured respected players like Adam Deitch (drums), Eric “Benny” Bloom (trumpet), Borahm Lee (keys), Brian Coogan (keys) and Scott Flynn (trombone), many of whom worked with him on the album. The new outfit’s debut, which included guitarist Eric Krasno, took place in August 2013 at the famed Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Smith’s home state of Colorado. A few months later the band hit the road for a lengthy tour that took them to every corner of the United States.
In many ways the Analog Future Band was a natural progression for Smith, who had always made attempts to accentuate the genuinely “live” elements of his concerts. For instance, early incarnations of Pretty Lights saw the producer joined on stage by a drummer, but the accompaniment didn’t work out as well as he would have liked. The constraints of electronic music were difficult to escape, even as he experimented with new live production ideas with each passing tour.
“When I was doing live production in the set, it was pretty sophisticated,” Smith recalls. “Essentially it was me arranging the produced beats on the fly, adding effects and pretending to play drums with my free hand. The shows were off the hook but I wanted to make it more involved and fresh so that led to this.”
The Analog Future Band was a big step for Pretty Lights. After years of experimenting with different methods, he finally had all of the tools he needed to perform his music in a manner that could legitimately be considered live. He just had to work out the kinks first.
“I didn’t know how it was going to work with the Analog Future Band in the beginning,” Smith admits. “When it started, we would go over the songs from A Color Map of the Sun and everyone would learn them. It was basically my production with the band playing on top of it when we were onstage. That was cool, but it took away from the potential of straight live music, while also taking away from the tightness element of straight produced music.”
“So we started doing some fully live things that I call ‘breaks,’” he continues. “When we were in the studio, breaks were the pieces of music I composed and recorded to use as samples. A Color Map of the Sun even has a second disc called ‘Live Studio Sessions’ that is just those. We started doing that kind of thing live as well. Eventually the show was a combination of live breaks that were just the band—with me triggering samples—and produced songs with the band playing on top of them.”
The new style was immediately embraced by Pretty Lights’ dedicated fan base, whose community mindset and commitment to traveling great distances for shows invokes the Deadhead spirit of old—albeit with a twenty-first century bent. Even though it was a far cry from the Pretty Lights concerts they were used to, Smith’s followers appreciated the nuance that a full live band brought to his performances. And he wasn’t the only one doing it, either. In fact, the Analog Future Band debuted at a time when numerous established electronic music acts were incorporating live bands into their sets.
From big name artists like Disclosure to lower key producers like Emancipator and Tycho, adding live instrumentation had become a full-on trend by the time Pretty Lights introduced his Analog Future Band in 2013. Most of them operated in a similar manner, too, with live musicians either recreating the electronic compositions or adding extra layers to the produced music on stage. The Analog Future Band was interesting for sure—and its use of “breaks” was somewhat unique—but the project wasn’t necessarily unprecedented. For a man with Pretty Lights’ ambition and vision, that wasn’t going to cut it.
“Right after the Grammys—at the beginning of 2014—I went out to Los Angeles for a few months and, I don’t know, it felt like a big moment in my life,” Smith says. “It changed things in Colorado. I felt like it had gotten really small. I realize it was very much my mind state too, but I felt like the isolated artist or whatever. I was just looking for a place I’d be comfortable. I went to California for a little while and it didn’t feel right either.”
That’s not to say his time in California wasn’t productive. With A Color Map of the Sun now behind him, Smith began working the album’s follow-up despite not really knowing what that would mean. That process got a boost when he was approached by legendary producer Rick Rubin, who gave him some much-needed direction and offered his studio for the project.
“Rick invited me to his crib out of nowhere, and I started hanging out with him about a week after the Grammys. He asked me a lot of questions about where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. Just by picking my brain, he definitely helped put me on the path,” Smith says. “It really inspired me. He ended up offering me his studio, Shangri-La in Malibu, to run this two-week session where I recorded the meat of all this stuff I’m sampling right now.”
The Shangri-La session was an absolute blast, especially since Smith got to stick his teeth into an assortment of rare instruments he picked up after liquidating a Los Angeles warehouse that was going out of business. (“Antique instruments rather than vintage ones,” he notes. “Stuff that’s 100, 150 years old. Music boxes and weird instruments you’ve never heard of.”) Shangri-La was also where he first worked with world-renowned DJ and turntablist Chris Karns, who would join his Analog Future Band when they returned to the road a few months later. Karns’ mastery of the turntables opened up new possibilities for the band, allowing them to be more improvisational with their live sampling. Nevertheless, California wasn’t where Smith saw himself planting roots for the long term. A change was needed, and whenever he plotted his next move his mind wandered to his time in New Orleans.
“I had a Vespa scooter down here when we were recording at Piety, and I was riding from my hotel in the Quarter to the studio in the Bywater every day,” Smith recalls. “It was those daily trips back and forth that made me realize this place was not at all what I thought it was. I started making that part of the day longer so I could explore the city, and when I decided I wanted to move, I felt drawn here. There’s a real gravity to the artists here that kind of pulls you, and I was mesmerized by the city, visually. I was mesmerized by how amazing it looked and felt.”
Around the middle of 2014 Smith began renting a place on Melpomene in the Lower Garden District, where he hosted recording sessions with numerous local musicians. After an extended stint in the city he relocated to Chicago for almost a year, but “nothing felt as right as down here.” Performances with the Analog Future Band were sparse throughout these two restless years, though he did make an effort to push the group’s boundaries whenever they got on stage (a Red Rocks Amphitheatre collaboration with the Colorado Symphony comes to mind).
By the beginning of 2016, Smith sensed that the Analog Future Band was running its course. Some members of the group had other artistic commitments, and Smith resolved to push the boundaries even further into the next phase of his live evolution. In a fitting conclusion, the band played its final show in March of that year when they headlined New Orleans’ Buku Music + Art Project. Immediately after the set, Pretty Lights surprised fans with an impromptu solo performance under the I-10 overpass before heading to the Joy Theater for a late-night, all-analog show that featured members of the Preservation Hall Band.
If Buku 2016 marked the end of the Analog Future Band, then it also marked a new beginning for Pretty Lights. Not only did Smith move to New Orleans for good that weekend, he was also introduced to a young and talented local drummer by the name of Alvin Ford, Jr. The son of renowned gospel drummer Alvin Ford, Sr., he grew up playing drums in church and was best known for his work with New Orleans powerhouse Dumpstaphunk. And that’s just the top of his resume. Ford’s professional career began when he hit the road with Big Sam’s Funky Nation at the age of 16, a job that was followed by turns with Bonerama and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. In between those gigs he somehow found time to create original music with New Orleans indie darling John Michael Rouchell as one half of Tysson. If anyone was going to add some Big Easy flavor to the next phase of Pretty Lights’ live show, it was him.
“Pretty Lights was in town for Buku and my boy Adam Deitch said he wanted me to come hang at the festival so he could introduce me to someone. That was all he said,” recalls Ford. “I went to the festival and he introduced me to Derek. I didn’t know who he was at the time. I didn’t know anything about Pretty Lights or the electronic scene.”
Not long after their introduction, Smith invited Ford to his studio for a jam session that, unbeknownst to Ford, was actually an audition. The pair clicked immediately, and before the young drummer could even comprehend the implications, he was a part of Pretty Lights’ next project. Pretty Lights Live, as the new band was called, was to feature Smith and Ford, along with Brian Coogan (keys), Borahm Lee (keys) and Chris Karns (turntables). Ford had no idea how big the gig was, or that he’d signed on to be part of a full-fledged community.
“All of that was in March,” Ford continues. “Then in May I was leaving L.A. when Derek’s manager hit me up to say, ‘All Pretty Lights fans are going to know who you are today.’ I didn’t know what he was talking about, but when I got off the plane in Denver my phone was blowing up. Everyone was saying, ‘Pretty Lights, Pretty Lights, Pretty Lights.’ I hadn’t told anyone about it, but they had just dropped a short preview clip announcing who was in the new band and that they were going on tour. Everyone was freaking out. So I got on YouTube and looked him up. That was the first time I found out the magnitude of Pretty Lights. All that time I’d just thought he was Deitch’s tall homie.”
With Pretty Lights Live, Smith was ready to pursue his dream of leading a fully improvisational electronic music act. The style had been explored to some degree in the past by jam bands like STS9 and the Disco Biscuits, though those groups were more about bringing electronica to improvisational music, rather than the other way around. Smith wanted to do something different, combining the sampling and technological capabilities of electronic music with the organic looseness of a jam session. It was important that the music sound electronic at its core, but it was equally important that it be created in the moment.
In hindsight, it’s no wonder that the project only got off the ground after he started calling the Crescent City home. After all, the impulse that had been driving Smith for years is an inextricable part of New Orleans’ storied music culture. Group improvisation is the essence of traditional jazz, and that essence extends to the funk and brass bands that came to dominate this town in the latter part of the twentieth century. But why couldn’t it apply to electronic music as well? At their roots, both traditional jazz and EDM are forms of social music. One has its origins in the brothels, bars and dancehalls of New Orleans, while the other came to life in discotheques, raves and underground clubs the world over. On the surface, these genres could not seem further apart, yet they are united in the feeling they seek to elicit from their audience.
Still, all of this is easier said than done. Before Pretty Lights Live could manifest itself the way Smith intended, the band needed to figure out some nuts and bolts. Fortunately, all the right ingredients were there. Lee’s mastery of an endless variety of keyboards and synthesizers meant that he could fill the band’s sound with all sorts of texture, while Karns’ virtuosic skills behind the turntables allowed sampling and scratching to be integrated in the most organic way possible (this was the thing that really set them apart). Ford’s ten plus years of experience with New Orleans’ finest funk and brass bands came in handy too, giving him the tools necessary to guide a jam in pretty much any context. And then there’s the visual component helmed by Greg “LazerShark” Ellis, a multifaceted lighting designer with an eye for the psychedelic and the improvisational prowess to bring his dreams to life in real time.
“Derek was telling me about his ideas for doing live remixes of his songs, and he asked me what I thought about it,” Ford says. “I told him, honestly man, you’re playing to our strengths with that. We’re players first. If you just leave us out there and tell us to play, we’re gonna come up with something. That’s what we do.”
“We ended up devising something we call ‘flips’,” explains Smith. “We’ll start with a produced song, and everyone has a philosophy for playing on top of the produced songs. Alvin has acoustic drums that he’ll play on top of it, and we also have drum triggers for electronic drum sounds so we can get a produced sound from the live kit. When I call a ‘flip’ everyone knows that I’m about to filter out the produced track. When the produced music disappears, the live musicians completely switch their sound to something that’s more electronic. Borahm will drop into a synth bass, Alvin will switch to an electronic kick and an electronic snare. It’s like a quick crossfade. It allows us to go from the produced track, with the band accentuating it, to a fully live band without losing something. It’s completely improvised but we’ve put a lot of time into making sure they know, stylistically, where the bounds are.”
“At a lot of jazz shows they’ll play the head of a song and once somebody starts soloing, the rest is improvised,” says Ford. “It’s the same with us. We start with the song but once we start to jam, it’s all improvised from there on out… except it’s with electronics. Instead of just bass, guitars and drums, it’s synthesizers, modulators, pads, filters and phasers.”
Pretty Lights Live had ample opportunity to show off its innovative sound last summer and fall, when the band hit the road for a run of tour dates that included its multi-dimensional “Episodic Festival.” Essentially a series of five two-day mini-festivals, the endeavor brought Pretty Lights Live to New Hampshire, Colorado (both Morrison and Telluride), Chicago and Nashville from August through October. Each stop had a different theme, and the first was particularly appropriate: “expanding perspective.” For Pretty Lights’ devoted followers, the new live project represented an exciting shift in their understanding of Smith’s music and its possibilities. For an artist like Alvin Ford, Jr.—a man who is as New Orleans as they come—the change in perspective took a different form.
“Pretty Lights is fun for me because it kind of takes me back to where I started on Frenchmen Street, where you could play a song for 15 minutes,” Ford continues. “It’s really cool to be on a gig at this level, creating on the spot in front of thousands of people every night. It’s mind-blowing to me. I’m just trying to take it all in. Seven years ago me and my girl were sitting on the floor of my apartment talking about how I could find a way to play Red Rocks. We thought I’d need to find a gig where I could open for someone. To go from that to having my very first time at Red Rocks be two sold-out nights with Pretty Lights has been a crazy ride.”
The ride got a little bit crazier for Ford after Coogan parted ways with the project in September, leaving a wide opening in the keyboard department. When Smith asked for suggestions to fill the spot, Ford knew the perfect man for the job: his cousin Brandon Butler. The two had grown up playing together, and Butler had only recently started performing in touring bands. In under a year, the gifted keyboardist went from scoring his first touring gig—with the Nigel Hall Band—to playing in front of 10,000 people during his first show with Pretty Lights Live at Chicago’s Northerly Island.
“I didn’t know it was an audition, but when I got there it was an audition,” Butler recalls. “So I’m playing and playing, I’ve got my cousin there, then next thing you know it’s like, ‘Yo, we’ve got dates that we need you on.’ I met Derek on Tuesday and then flew out with them on Thursday. I’d never been on a gig like this before. When we got to the venue and I saw my rig I was like, ‘Coogan played all of this?’ I was used to playing two, maybe three boards. Coogan had all kinds of stuff. Then all the people started rolling in. I had played gigs for maybe two or three hundred people, but Alvin told me there were 10,000 people out there. I just went with it and I’ve been with them ever since.”
“Alvin and Brandon are amazing,” Derek says emphatically. “It’s great working with those dudes. They totally bring this swag of, I want to say of New Orleans because it clearly is, but they also have their own vibe and style that is now getting injected into my music.”
“I think what I bring to the table is my church background, these full chords,” Butler notes. “When I break into these pads it just fills the house. It fills the room real thick.”
As the end of 2016 drew nearer, it was only fitting that Ford, Butler and—in a sense—Smith celebrate the occasion with a pair of hometown shows. The year’s final night was particularly special, with Pretty Lights Live taking the packed house on a nearly three-hour, uninterrupted journey in preparation for another trip around the sun. In all the years that I’ve been seeing improvisational music, I’d never encountered anything quite like this. It was EDM with all of the trappings and none of the constraints, an uncharted sonic territory in need of further exploration. The future, I hoped, would sound something like this.
“I’ve always been trying to fuse electronic music with that live show feeling, that organic human connection,” Smith tells me. “We’ve been doing it really successfully this year, and it’s got me excited about touring and playing live again because I’ve found a way to fuse those together.”
Another, more elusive, item on Smith’s agenda is his long-awaited follow-up to A Color Map of the Sun. One hesitates to call the undertaking an album because the concept feels so… old. There will be new tracks, of course—however they won’t be confined to their final version or even their audio version. Smith plans to release a series of cinematic vignettes with the new material, as well as recordings of the new material’s constituent parts. Exactly what that means is anyone’s guess, but he’s currently sitting on hours and hours’ worth of “breaks” from sessions at Malibu’s Shangri-La Studio, New Orleans’ Parlor Recording Studio and London’s Abbey Road Studios, where he teamed up with composer Philip Sheppard to write and record a series of orchestral pieces. Plenty of this will be included on the forthcoming release. Think of it as similar to a DVD, with a final cohesive product and loads of additional features.
The new release is still in the works, and much of it remains a mystery. Less mysterious is where Pretty Lights will call home a year from now. The allure of New Orleans has had a powerful effect on the endlessly creative producer, just as it has on countless artists before him. There’s something different about the air here. There’s something different about the water. There’s something different about the people, too. The chemistry that binds this place together has a way of altering one’s perspective, and altered perspectives are the mother of invention. Smith, for his part, is ready to see where this town takes him.
“People talk about how the movie industry evolved in Hollywood, not by chance, but because of the way the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean. It hits the city from this beautiful angle where the light becomes stunning,” Smith muses. “I think it’s the same thing here. We’re below sea level, and the air is so thick that the sound waves are different in New Orleans. The music sounds different. It’s richer. When you play an instrument, there’s just more music in the air.”
Smith has compiled a playlist of standout improvised “flips” from Pretty Lights Live’s 2016 shows. You can give it a listen here.