Pretty Lights illuminates new frontier of electronic dance music

Derek Vincent Smith, who’s better known by his stage name, Pretty Lights, wants to push the boundaries of the electronic dance music genre.

He seems to be making good on that promise, beginning with the live show he’s doing as he headlines the Illumination Tour, which continues into mid-November.

On earlier tours, Smith brought along a drummer who played live beats to the music Smith was performing from his onstage audio setup. But he found that limited his ability to improvise songs on the fly.

“I tried to communicate with my drummer with sign language for awhile and tried to keep everybody on the same page,” Smith said in an interview. “[But] I realized I was really holding myself back as far as how I did push the improvisation of the electronic music that I had composed.”

Having a drummer also limited Smith’s ability to coordinate visual elements of his show with the music he performed.

“I really wanted to connect my control of the music to the control of the [visual] aspect of the production of the show,” he said. “So the last tour we figured out how to connect my technology, the devices I use to make music and control, to have video linked to each clip that I would trigger.”

The improvisational element of the Pretty Lights live show is something Smith has been developing since the 2006 release of his debut album, “Taking Up Your Precious Time.”

With that debut, Smith took the unusual step of allowing anyone to download the album from his website.

While that might have cost him some income from record sales, he thought making his music free would get it in the hands of fans quicker and create word of mouth that could help build an audience. The plan has worked.

Smith has continued releasing his recordings for free — the 2008 album “Filling Up the City Skies” and 2009’s “Passing By Behind Your Eyes,” followed by three EPs in 2010 — and is approaching 3 million downloads. He’s also moved up from playing clubs and theaters to arenas and other large venues.

Along the way, Smith has developed a distinctive brand within the electronic music realm. It combines modern hip-hop beats and fuzzy, buzzing electronic tones with samples of vintage soul, blues and jazz to create a melodic sound that has a decidedly soulful edge and, at times, some funky grooves.

He’s taking the improvisational aspect of his concerts to new levels on the Illumination Tour.

“I’m not stuck to a certain arrangement of a song. I can stretch out or shorten any part,” Smith said. “Then, when I begin each song, it opens up different virtual instruments that have sounds, like different pads on my samplers for me, so I’m able to play different elements and layers of the songs that I can turn on and off, play or not play. … There’s also a whole array of effects I’m able to use to manipulate the sounds of each layer as well.”

The next Pretty Lights album, in the works for nearly two years, promises to be unlike anything Smith has done. It will be all original music that Smith wrote and recorded to analog tape before pressing it to vinyl. After that, the various parts that were recorded to vinyl were assembled and augmented to create the finished songs. Smith brought in about 60 musicians and singers to perform.

“Really, it was all about challenging myself,” Smith said, “and wanting to create something that was completely sample-free, but at the same time retained the sound of being able to have a 1940s big band horn line and a 1920s blues vocal with a ’60s soul groove and really tries to span the last century of influences in a single record.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

X