Derek Vincent Smith, better known as Pretty lights, seems like a lovable, stoned oaf in interviews. He speaks intelligently about music and has a clear vision for what his music should sound like. But then the footage of the studio sessions comes on and he just looks…off. He is clearly in his own world, totally comfortable in that world, but it’s almost as if music instigates a mild palsy in him. He cocks his head to one side, bouncing his head to the beat and flails his hands around the rhythms.
I’m not above a little weirdness when listening to music. It’s not all sitting at the laptop bobbing my head. I’ve been known to Charlie Chaplin to a song or two (mostly to freak out my dog), so it’s not judgement. He seems to be acting out how the music sounds to him.
Leading up to this album, Smith was heading towards a forgettable place, towards the kind of music that you’d take out in ten years if you wanted to reminisce about 2010. He must have sensed this when he pieced together his plan to remake his sound in a different way at pretty much every step in the process.
The story of the album really starts with the second disc. His plan was relatively simple, to record live instrumentation for use as his sampled material, in place of using the pre-recorded hip-hop, R&B and soul records he used on previous albums. Instead of searching his collection or the record store for a groove or a beat, he decided to generate them himself.
One of the more impressive things about Pretty Lights is how despite absolutely tearing apart something as sacred as Otis Redding’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” the end product somehow manages to maintain the original quality of sound and it’s emotional power, and at the same time creates something new and powerful in its own right.
The sessions were split between Brooklyn where most of the strings were recorded and New Orleans, where the majority of horns and vocals were laid down. Smith divided the recordings up by “breaks,” or bass-lines. Instead of loading everything into a hard drive, he actually recorded the finished product onto analog tape because he wanted to achieve the characteristic warmth that analog can lend to sound. He brought all those reels of tape into a vinyl record press and had them make them into actual records.
In fact, Smith committed to take the analog sound to an extreme, creating his own synthesizer modules with no stored memory, meaning every part had to be played live. All the effort, the dedication to his process and analog rules pays off in the end, creating something that transcends his previous work as well as the niche genre he’s spent the last decade carving out.