Derek Vincent Smith is lost in California, he says by phone. He has once again wandered away from his tour bus to sample local flavors, as he does in each tour-stop city, while his production team erects a spectacular lighting rig for the evening's show. And that rig is intense, involving hours of prep work and thousands of dollars in equipment, including a brand-new LED wall. But what else could one expect from Smith's act, the Pretty Lights? Its name, after all, was adopted from a Pink Floyd catch phrase: "Come and see the pretty lights."
Fans come to a Pretty Lights show to dance and bathe in rays of hypnotic colors, while Smith serves up a soundscape comparable to an audio potluck. It's all part of a planned sensory experience. "When I work on a song, I try to visualize some sort of emotional element that goes along with the music, and a visual element to match the live performance," Smith says.
Growing up in Fort Collins, Colorado, he made his first musical connection with punk and grunge, later learning to appreciate the rhythm of hip-hop and the technical art of electronica. As a result, the Pretty Lights sound crosses genres; it is uniquely woven with soulful throwbacks and samples culled from hours of vinyl treasure hunts. If he could have it his way, Smith says, he would produce a musical dream team of Django Reinhardt, Billie Holiday, Joe Pass, and Lightnin' Hopkins. But instead, he settles for using pieces of the greats as ingredients and then adding his own original flavor.
Confident in his technical craft, Smith primarily concentrates on the emotional delivery of his set. "The common thread I try to have run through all the music I produce is a real element of emotion — soulful tracks where you can actually feel something," he says. When he plays live, that comes across as a full-on audio-visual spectacle, with a soundtrack of emotional down-tempo, smooth hip-hop, timed breakbeats, and amped-up dubstep. And these days, Smith blends tracks alongside the live drumming of Cory Eberhard, who transforms the performance from a one-man show to a "livetronica" set.
Next Wednesday marks the duo's Miami debut, one of a string of dates on an extensive national tour. But a stop in the Magic City wasn't originally part of the plan. "The November 4 show was going to be somewhere else in Florida," Smith says. "But I'd been contacted by a couple of people who started telling me my album was getting airplay on WVUM and was ranked number one a few times in rotation." That was enough to add Miami to the lineup. "I always wanted to make it down, not only because of its reputation as the mecca of electronic music, but also just because of the weather," he says, laughing.
Smith has high hopes of introducing Miami to the style of livetronica as the next big trend. "Miami is known more for house/trance/progressive, and through my experience in the past few years, I've found that dance fans are willing to open up to new approaches to electronic music because it has such a strong base," he says. "I think those fans will definitely have an ear for what a dope beat is. I don't underestimate the potential for dance music lovers to open up to my style, or for my music to take off in the Miami market."
With the October release of his second album, Passing by Behind Your Eyes, Smith redelivers his signature dreamy down-tempo. And this time, it's packed with an extra-strength dose of dubstep, another sound Miami beat-heads have grown quite fond of this year. "Elements of dubstep can be very powerful. The dynamic mix physically affects your body," Smith says. "I take pieces and inject them straight into my style. I like to infuse to evoke emotion."
And although Smith has yet to play Winter Music Conference — something he plans to change in 2010 — he is no stranger on the music fest circuit. This past season, Pretty Lights took on Bonnaroo, Rothbury, and Symbiosis Gathering, and most recently headlined the Trinumeral Festival in Asheville, North Carolina. "Headlining fests is definitely a new thing for me," he says. "It was my first opportunity to drop new tracks and remixes, and it was so cool for me because I was playing solo, so it was fun for me to be able to experiment with some of the new things I was working on."
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Traveling the country is definitely a perk of the job, but last summer, at the ripe old age of 27, Smith already played his dream venue: Red Rocks Amphitheatre. "With Colorado being my home state, people are really enthusiastic about the music, and I'd dreamed about playing that venue since I picked up my bass in ninth grade," he says. "I drew a painting in art class of a bassist playing Red Rocks, and I remember thinking [the show] looked just like it."
But playing colossal crowds and dream venues is not what it's all about for Smith. His true passion is making sure music connects to real life, and he has never been more touched than the time one listener understood why he makes his music. After a show, a fan approached Smith, disappointed he did not play his track "Something Wrong."
"The girl told me it brought tears to her eyes the first time she'd heard it and that the lyrics were so powerful. The fact that she had such a strong emotional response to the song reminded me why I put the track together in the first place," he recalls. "It speaks to human nature and the human condition in general, and that's why vocal samples need to connect to how life really is."
In the middle of this deep musical revelation, Smith snaps back to reality. "Oh, wow! Finally, I found the bus! Everything's all good now," he says, sighing with relief. Sometimes it takes getting a little lost in life to find your way back — and Smith is more than happy to save room for you on his ride.