This time last year, soul-sampling electronic/hip-hop artist Derek "Pretty Lights" Smith and his pal Sonny Moore (better known to mainstream America as the crossover-electronic phenom Skrillex) were throwing a two-day mega-rave on the Nashville riverfront. With Your Friends Fest — one of the very first concert events to take place at Nashville's then-brand-new outdoor venue The Lawn at Riverfront Park — featured headlining performances from Pretty Lights and Skrillex, with supporting sets from hip-hop, electronic and pop artists including Nas, Santigold and many more. Like pretty much everything Smith does, With Your Friends was an ambitious outing with unique execution.
Probably at least partially due to inclement weather — temperatures in the 40s with brisk, misting rain aren't especially common for an October weekend in Nashville — the turnout wasn't as big as organizers hoped. ("I'm not sure that the promoters came off too successful," as Smith would later diplomatically put it.) Still, there were thousands of bodies at the Riverfront, most of them young, clad in outlandishly scant costumes and surging rhythmically to the beat of their favorite electronic artists, weather be damned.
A less-than-whopping attendance is hardly enough to keep Smith — who has indeed brought out huge Music City crowds on more than one occasion — away on his next tour cycle. And anyway, he wanted to try something different this time, because that's what he does. Smith doesn't see Pretty Lights appearances as typical concerts, but rather fan-centric events, with an emphasis on community and memorable multifaceted celebrations.
"It's such a communal sort of thing," Smith would tell the Scene in advance of With Your Friends. "Even though ... my shows in certain places will be 10,000 people, it's still got, like, a house-party vibe."
That community of fans — many of whom have organized themselves into groups with names like Pretty Lights Family and Illuminators — is at the heart of everything Smith does. It's a community that has grown not only due to the enormously celebratory nature of Pretty Lights events, but also because of the ease of access to Smith's music. You see, Smith has made every single one of his releases available for free — no catch; 100 percent free of charge — and he's been doing it since before the rise of popular streaming sites like Spotify.
"I never was like, 'I'm always going to have my music up for free,' " Smith tells the Scene via phone from the top floor of a Masonic temple in his hometown of Denver. He's rented a "really dope" rehearsal space there where he's preparing for his tour. "[I was] seeing this emerging relationship between myself and my fan community that's loyal and connected, and it became much more than a musician giving out music. It became a relationship. A loyalty and a respect that was reciprocated between the artist and the fan base, and that's really what has sustained it."
Pretty Lights fans support Smith through ticket and merch sales, and yes, still, album sales. An option to donate is available on the downloads page of Pretty Lights Music — Smith's record label, via which he also offers other artists' releases — and he offers "beautiful and special, unique" versions of his albums on vinyl. And the model continues to work: This summer's A Color Map of the Sun is available both as a free download on the PLM site and via a two-LP vinyl version complete with a 20-page photo booklet. At press time, Color Map sits at No. 2 on Billboard's Dance/Electronic Albums chart.
Pretty Lights albums have long drawn from samples of classic soul and rock artists — from Etta James, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone to Springfields, both Dusty and Buffalo — to create dense, complex soundscapes that are more panoramic tapestry than derivative pastiche. But for Color Map, Smith — a longtime crate-digging vinyl hunter — did something very different: He recorded performances from dozens of musicians (himself included, as he plays bass, organs and more) and pressed those onto vinyl that he later sampled for the songs' final recordings. The end result is a record full of songs that sound like they were culled from dusty, long-forgotten Stax and Hi Records artists and infused with modern synthesizers and hip-hop sensibilities — as classic as most of Pretty Lights' sounds are, Smith is not above the occasional bass drop (hear the slinky, rumbling "So Bright" for a prime example).
On Saturday, Pretty Lights will take over Nashville's Greer Stadium for his Illumination event — an afternoon-to-late-night celebration that will also feature performances from hip-hop sensation Danny Brown, electronic performer GRiZ, hometown hero DJ Wick-It the Instigator and several more. For his current tour, Smith has organized a live band that features multiple keyboardists, a drummer, a horn section and more. For some songs, Smith says, he's composed new versions that "sound nothing like the regular track, except for the fact that it's the same key and tempo."
"We've spent the last four days building a six-and-a-half-foot-tall analog hardware — it looks like a big knob monster, actually — that's gonna sit next to me onstage," says Smith. "That's what this tour is all about — re-creating that vintage emulation and essence and making it real in a live setting. I've never really seen that happen before. Strange and new things."
Because, after all, if you had to boil Pretty Lights' modus operandi down to four words, they'd be "strange and new things."