Fast & Furious with Pretty Lights
By Noah Michelson
There is so much soul in music currently. Were you always inspired by vintage sounds?
Oh definitely! Not to say that doesn’t exist in music anymore but I feel like it’s a nostalgic sort of thing. What I was feeling with dance music and electronic music in general was that there weren’t a lot of those qualities. Back in the nineties I would go to raves a lot and that was the thing that inspired me and got me into that sort of music in the beginning, I felt like that was a quality that was missing. That’s been one of my aims as a producer is to bring that back in and have tracks that still make people dance and move and are energetic at the club and the dance floor, but at the same time can channel emotion and have some sort of resonance. That’s what the sample collaging and the older, organic sort of soundscapes and timbres that I use help achieve that.
So many people dance at your concerts, which is hard to do with just you and a drummer. How do you have a performance aspect when there is just the two of you?
I’ve never been a DJ. I’ve never owned turntables and a mixer and records. It was always me just making beats. That’s what it started as and then I started making it more sophisticated and more interesting with a lot more parts. That was always sort of a disconnect. I’ve played in bands before. When you’re in a band there is a more apparent involvement in the performance of it. So DJs put on a record and their performance is basically how they dance behind the record player. With bands it’s combined with that and how you play your instrument and the skill sets you have. That was always an issue. How when you’re a producer do you perform? What do you do? I feel like there has been some technological developments with electronic instruments that have been designed in the recent past that make it much more possible to really perform produced music. I use something called a Monome, which is a device that they call a minimal adaptable interface. What I am able to do is that it is basically a grid of 128 buttons that can pre-program how they are linked with the music and I can use that to manipulate the music and the different layers. It’s really like your playing the track, as like a bass guitar, but I can be like “this incline with this melody with this ambient track with this break beat.” And I can switch them on-and-off and range the track on the fly and manipulate how they sound. When there are so many options at your fingertip on how you can arrange and manipulate the track, even though the music was created and produced and written and recorded before the show, there is still a performance element in it. It is a way to be involved and be hands on with the music during the show. I’m not sure if that answers the question about how I make people dance --
No, but it does! I feel like the Monome would take a lot of memory!
That’s what people think! People are like, “How the fuck do you remember what all those buttons do?” But it’s amazing, once you have an understanding of how the software works and how it’s laid out, you understand the pattern.
It’s like keys on a keyboard.
Exactly! When I set it up per track I have a formula, so I always know the first row is the main sample and the third row is the bass. I know, usually, that it goes in sequential order. So I start the song in this column and end the song in that column. Then I can have combinations. It gets kind of confusing. I think of it as a combination of the technology that allows producers to get involved with the music combined with the energy -- the energy of the music and the energy of who is onstage. I try to create a situation live that allows me to get into the music as much as possible. I make sure my monitors are as loud as possible and I want to have a sub onstage behind me so I can feel the bass. When all those elements are right, it allows me to really get into it. Then I think the crowd can feed off of that and when the crowd gets really hyped I feed back of that. It’s a reciprocal thing. When we are feeding off each other’s energy, those are the shows when the highest energy takes place.
I know it’s so refreshing to see people dance just to dance!
I know! It’s different than a club where you dance to get close to another person.
Exactly! When people get too close at your shows, it’s like wait! I need my space! The opening acts, who are they?
For tonight? For the whole tour?
Do they change each night? Are you friends with them?
For this whole tour I kind of compiled a lot of artists that I knew and basically asked them what they can do and if they can make it. Each opening act does a couple dates, between 3 and 7 maybe. Tonight is DJ Rootz, who is a friend from Colorado who’s played around a lot with different bands. He used to live in LA but he can rock the party pretty good. He’s doing most of our West Coast dates. A hip-hop band, The Chicharones, from the Northwest is doing Seattle, Portland and Eureka. Dark Party, who is Eliot Lipp and Leo, are doing a bunch of Midwest. The Northeast show I am really excited about the opener because I am actually bringing him over from Eastern Europe. He is a producer named Gromatic and he has a really similar style to me. Real hip-hop based, good samples, collage style.
Colorado has so much music coming out of there right now. Why do you think this is?
Yeah, right! I think that I can speculate, but really sort of based on my experience and a lot of other artists have had similar situations, but for me in particular, growing up in Northern Colorado the community was small enough that I was exposed to so many sorts of things coming up from high school and where I went to college for a while. I remember the punk scene was huge when I was in middle school and early high school and then the underground hip-hop thing blew up so big and there were hip-hop shows four nights a week. Maybe it is the proximity of where it is in the country. When artists tour they all come through here. The cities are smaller, everyone knows about it and they go see it. Touring artists would always come through Colorado. When the whole electronic rave party scene happened there was that. The punk, the hip-hop, the electronic music and then the whole jam band thing took off in the middle of this decade. I still don’t know what you call it. The 2000’s?
The double zero’s?
I imagine it’s a complex phenomenon where the maybe it’s the mindset of living in the country and not being in a big city on the coasts where people would expect the new sound to come out of. Because there was not that collective pressure it sort of happened. But for me personally, because I was exposed to so many different things, it came together to actually affect my style as an artist. That’s a big part of it. I’m pretty stroked about all the music, especially in this vain, that is coming out of Colorado. I am proud to be from there.
You must get excited to play a show in your home state.
It’s a pretty big deal for me. Right before this tour we did three days in Colorado. There was Fort Collins, where I live, which is an hour North of Denver, and then Boulder. So it was this triangle…three cities with all good music scenes. I did three days in Fort Collins, Boulder and Denver and they all sold-out way in advance, which was awesome. Denver we played the Ogden Theater, which was the biggest headlining show I had done up to that point. I played bigger venues and festivals, but never my show. We probably could have done a bigger venue but I prefer to play more intimate venues. The whole vibe is so important to me so I didn’t want to get into The Fillmore or something where you lose --
Do you have a favorite venue?
Right now in Colorado the Ogden Theater was so fresh and so cool. I definitely have favorite venues. I only know where I play but I love The Independent. I think it has an awesome vibe. There was the Georgia Theater in Athens, which was so cool. It was 80’s years old. It burnt down this summer. We did a show out there and tried to make it a benefit so we donated some of the money to the cause to rebuild it. In NYC I’ve only played a couple theaters. I love the Bowery Ballroom. One of my other favorite places to play is Chicago. There are so many music venues!
Your light work, how did you start conceiving of that concept?
A lot of people assume that I called the project Pretty Lights because of the light show, because I wanted to have this amazing over-the–top light show and that’s why I called it Pretty Lights. Actually it was the other way around. The whole idea of Pretty Lights came way before I had even imagined the live show would be anywhere close to where we are right now. As the show took off the name had such a visual connotation that I figured that it would be silly to not make the most of it. I personally love shows where the production is something interesting visually and more than just an auditory experience, but something that is also sensory. I was lucky enough to hook up with a start-up company out of Boulder called Burner Lighting and they wanted to start this new lighting company and things were working out for Pretty Lights so we hooked up right when the company started. We have been working together ever since. They invested in a lot of the gear and technology we tour with and we supplement a lot of the other stuff and rent it. Another part of it is that I want to create a show where not only the music is fresh, but the overall experience is really dope. It seems like a special event. The video part of it is a really big part of it too. Like I was talking about earlier, the music can have an emotional resonance and imagery in obviously the same way. It can be extremely powerful. That is sort of my goal to evolve the media content and imagery that we use on the LED video wall, to really coincide with the feeling of the music to make it that much more powerful. Right now a lot of the media content that I am using, video wise, is sort of to go along with the most obvious things that you might imagine with Pretty Lights: blurred out lights, stars and time lapse cityscapes. The video content we are using right now is to go along with the visualization of the project. There is a lot of room to evolve this approach.
So how did you get the name Pretty Lights?
The combination of word popped into my head when I saw this old Pink Floyd poster from 1956 with Pink Floyd and The Who and it said on the side, “Come and see the pretty lights.” That is where I first saw that. On the poster it looked like “pretty lights” was the opening act, but that’s not what they meant. The reason I went with it is because it started to have, in my mind, a lot more meaning. To me, what it did, is it embodied this essence of experiencing beauty as an individual. In your everyday life anyone who even has any sort of creativity or artistry inside of them has an eye or an ear to catch that sort of thing. Either if your walking down the street and you catch the cracks in the sidewalk and you think that’s fresh and you want to take a picture of that. Or the reason the sunset is beautiful. Or driving in the rain and the way the stoplight reflects off the rain on your windshield. All these little random moments that are just so fresh and you think they are all really pretty. Or other things that are disturbing or inspiring, to me the name tried to capture those little moments of experience that inspire enlightenment or spark an idea in your head that make you have a feeling. I remember in high school during our off-period my friend and I would drive to his house off-campus and smoke some weed in the shed behind his parent’s house, because we couldn’t smoke outside and he was all paranoid about his neighbors. We would close the door to the shed and it would be pitch black and one day it was the perfect time because the sun was shining through this crack in the shed and we exhaled and the sunray intersected the smoke and we were sitting there all stoned like, “Wow!” Those little things that can blur your mind but have the potential to happen anytime and everyday.
Drug culture in terms of your music. You played Rothbury, which I still don’t truly remember. Do you think drug culture is a huge part of your music?
I think it is part of my music and I’ve started to realize that I can’t control who likes my music. If all-of-the-sudden 19-year-old kids are eating xtc at my shows, there is nothing I can do about that. It’s cool with me. I never set out to be in the culture like that or take over the rave, drug, party scene. I never had any idea or intention to do that. I think people who like to experiment, like the music. I also think people who don’t do that at all, like the music. It is definitely at this time a part of the live show. I can see it. Especially at festivals, but that’s how festivals are in general. It’s not my music. It’s festivals.
Did you enjoy Rothbury?
I had never been to a festival before and then I went to thirteen! Rothbury was definitely one of the coolest. Really well organized. It was so cool it made the overall collective vibe cool.
Does your audience transcend age, gender or race?
I think it has a lot to do with where I am at and how the music starting getting exposure. To be completely honest, if I had any sort of break it was when I hooked with the production party that was doing after parties for STS9 shows. I feel like it could have happened another way, but how it happened was that I got the opportunity to travel around the country and play these late night parties. People were going to see STS9 and then coming to see me and that was the audience that first picked up Pretty Lights music. Now it is spreading more in different genres and scenes. I think the music has the potential to get on the playlists of many other different people. Right now, my audience is mostly white and mostly young. That’s where it kind of draws the line: male/female. Anything else I would imagine it’s like a slice of pie of demographic. Like—
Gay and straight?
I would imagine the ratio of gay to straight at my show in San Francisco is the same as any other show in the city. That’s what I would imagine. I don’t think my music stands out more to gay people or to straight people.
Beside music, do you have any other hobbies?
I like to paint when I can. All the paintings in my apartment, I did myself. I’m not into realism, but I am more into abstract painting. There was this phase when I was really into directing and I would like to get into it. I’ve made a bunch of my own music videos that are artsy and abstract. I used be huge into writing and poetry. I still can kick a mean freestyle.
Where do you see your music going in the next five years? Do you want to continue in the same vain?
If I could imagine the hottest track I am going to make in the next five years and fucking make it right now, I would be amazing. I really just want to keep it fresh and maintain the aesthetic elements that define my sound right now but always strive to make it more original and always strive to make it as beautiful. Music can be banging and make you want to do the robot. I just want my music to be beautiful. That is what makes it timeless. Hopefully in five years it will be as beautiful and as original.
Pretty Lights continues to tour the country. For tour dates and more info, head to PrettyLightsMusic.com.
-- COURTNEY NICHOLS
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