In the last few years, the popularity of electronic music has gone from trend to tidal wave. Stars like Tiësto, Skrillex and David Guetta are filling arenas, and according to multiple media reports, cashing checks totaling tens of millions each year.
Derek Vincent Smith — better known by his stage name, Pretty Lights — has been riding the electronic wave right along with such stars. The Denver-based musician's current Analog Future tour focuses on arenas, auditoriums and large clubs.
In fact, it's reached the point where Smith suspects it won't be long before the electronic music wave crashes and a lot of big-name deejays and producers will be left high and dry.
"I'll tell you, I've seen it several times in the last 10 years with genres that come along and explode," says Smith. "They're so popular, and everyone's doing it, and everyone's making money off of it and being successful. And then all of a sudden — it almost happens overnight — no one's selling tickets anymore. The show and the massive lights and video productions, I don't think it's going to be enough for the audience very much longer. So I wanted to step ahead and do as much as I could."
To that end, Smith's current tour features a full band joining him onstage. It's a meeting of musician and machine that's rare in electronic dance music, with Smith alternating between playing bass and manipulating both the live instruments and pre-recorded tracks to shape what audiences hear.
"I run sequencers, I arrange tracks, I conduct the musicians, I play bass," says Smith. "That's really why I'm so excited, because it's like there's so much to do onstage, so much to concentrate on."
The live approach is an extension of Smith's strategy for Pretty Lights' latest studio album, A Color Map of The Sun, which was nearly three years in the making, with more than 40 vocalists and instrumentalists taking part. In many cases, the songs emerged out of live-in-the-studio improvisation.
"It was extremely stressful because I didn't know what the fuck I was doing," admits the artist. "While we were working on one track, I was trying to think about what we would do next."
After pressing the music onto vinyl, Smith would then use computers, analog synthesizers and other studio equipment to reshape the raw material into finished songs. The end result is heavily processed music that doesn't lose sight of its more human elements.
A Color Map of the Sun also sounds less frenetic and more melodic than most current electronic dance music. But the strong beats remain, as does the integration of hip-hop, vintage soul, blues and funk elements found on Smith's three previous studio albums and three EPs.
Likewise, despite all the changes in his live show, Smith says he isn't severing ties with his past.
"I don't want to totally change my whole show where people are like 'Whoa, this is nothing like it was,'" says Smith. "I have to maintain some of it, and then bring in the new ideas at the proper pace."