Listen to Austin 360 Radio

ACL Fest 2011: Pretty Lights

Patrick Caldwell

When Denver electronic music producer Derek Vincent Smith tired of sampling other artists' material, he tried a novel approach: He created his own crate of records to sample.

Smith gathered a handful of musicians in a Brooklyn studio and cut a motley collection of sounds, all on equipment predating the 1970s. The resulting bits and pieces were pressed on vinyl, which Smith will sample for his fourth album, currently untitled and under production.

"I'm pretty happy with the way that process turned out. We cut all these new records that still sound like they're anywhere from 40 to 80 years old," says Smith, 30. "It's important that the final product have a timbre and a feel that's warm and classic. I hate to use those words because they're so cliché but that's what these new samples will hopefully bring to the music."

That's one example of the inventive thinking that makes Smith, better known under the name Pretty Lights, stand out from his many peers in the electronic music scene. Smith got his start in Fort Collins, Colo., writing and producing hip-hop music in high school, but gradually drifted into the world of electronic music, taking a spot on the same loose spectrum that includes dance mousetro deadmau5, Austin's own Wolfgang Gartner and electro house and dubstep champion Skrillex.

Smith has a distinctive — if not ground-breaking — approach, incorporating rock, soul, hip-hop and funk samples and weaving them in and out of the multiple instruments he plays himself, creating fresh-yet-familiar sonic collages. A representative sample would be "Pretty Lights Vs. Summertime," where Smith's own hazy compositions are blended with a mixture of Sublime's "Doin' Time," DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's "Summertime," George Gershwin's "Summertime" and Mungo Jerry's "In the Summertime."

Smith threw his first album, 2006's "Taking Up Your Precious Time," online for free download, both for philosophical reasons and because it meant he didn't have to fuss with clearing his samples. The buzz behind his releases — all free — grew steadily through two follow-up albums in 2008 and 2009 and a handful of EPs in 2010. Today he releases other free albums online through his own label, Pretty Lights Music.

"I saw a direct and very serious impact from making my albums available for free. The live show grew exponentially and online followers just grew and grew," says Smith. "And the biggest part was the sort of loyalty and respect that developed between me and my fans."

Buoyed both by good music and good timing, as online dance music hub Beatport flourished, electronic music festivals proliferated and electronic music grew increasingly prominent at major American festivals, Pretty Lights graduated to bigger and bigger gigs, selling out Denver's 10,000-capacity Red Rocks Amphitheatre and playing Coachella in 2010 and Bonnaroo this year.

"Electronic music has changed massively since I started," says Smith. "I think the advent of the scene has everything to do with the evolution of the technology and how easy it is for people to produce and compose and throw more music out there. Now to rise to the top or stand out you have to evolve or change or really step it up, and I think that's positive."

For Smith, his focus on his own musicianship is one way to stay competitive in an increasingly crowded field.

"I started as a straight-up musician. I played bass and keys and the flute in a number of bands, so I'm not just trying to do mashups. I'm trying to write and make real music," says Smith. "Hopefully if I maintain that vision people will realize I'm not a fluke. I'm not just some DJ that got popular because he had a big light show. I'm making music that I hope people will connect with, music with longevity."