I got to talk with Michal Menert from Pretty Lights music and he introduced me to Space Jazz, which isn’t just the name of his upcoming tour. Michal lets us in on what equipment he uses onstage and how Napster got him in Forbes magazine. We also get a glimpse into the story of Pretty Lights, what started as a collective and how it became the label it is today.
VW Your getting ready for a big fall tour that your calling the Space Jazz tour, what can you tell us about that?
MM Well Space Jazz is kinda like a friendly moniker I use for my music and it’s also a strain of weed that a guy grows for me out here in Colorado. It’s a nice friendly Sativa that gets you kinda “heady” high without making it too contemplative, and I felt with that being something I smoke and a way I describe my music in kind of a joking way it was a fit for the tour name, and it’s my first solo headlining tour and I’m really excited so I just wanted it to be something special and fun and I thought the Space Jazz was something more imaginary rather than something serious.
VW Nice! And you have a couple acts supporting you on the tour as well right?
MM Yeah, I have Odesza, which is a really cool duo that i’ve been into for awhile, and Mux Mool who is a close friend of mine, Gladkill is also a friend, and Late Night Radio, and Krooked Drivers because they are an up and coming Colorado act that kind of fit the venues that I do and I wanted to use this tour as a platform to help showcase artists that i’m into.
MM I use an MPC, I used to use an MPC1000 and now I use the MPCStudio, and I use that to play samples and drum parts bass lines and things like that, and then I also use an APC40 to navigate around Ableton, put effects on stuff and I use a Laptop.
VW Yourself and the Pretty Lights Music Label had decided to give your music away in the form of free downloads, and then simply asking for donations and It proved to be quite successful for you. What was it that made you decide to distribute your music this way.
MM Well back in 2006 when we did Taking Your Precious Time, basically we were broke musicians and we really wanted to get our albums out, and so we had to either borrow money from our parents or sell weed or do whatever, or work our crappy pizza delivery jobs to raise money to print CD’s, and then you have to convince people to buy them, and then you either use that to money to buy booze or save it to print more CD’s. Albums kinda come and go and they die. And at the time it was when we were Freshman in College and that’s when Napster and Limewire were coming out and were platforms to get music for free, and I almost felt guilty because here I was a starving artist and I certainly couldn’t afford to go to the record store and buy every new album that came out just to keep up and I wanted to hear as much music as I could, and I didn’t want to feel because of my social standing that I couldn’t afford to pay the artists that I loved and wanted to hear their music, so we were just like, hey, why don’t we just give it away for free and that way people won’t have to feel the guilt we feel when there downloading independent artists music, legally. And people can hear it and spread it and they will actually be encouraged to do that rather than what anti-piracy laws do which is just scaring people into legal situations and making people feel guilty like the artists are losing money when in reality most albums that artists sell on major labels, they only get a small percentage of that so it’s really the label that’s losing the money. So I guess it was like an art eccentric thing and it was like, if we aren’t going to have any long term profits on this anyway, why don’t we just give it away for free from the get go so everyone can have, and if they don’t like it they don’t feel like they wasted a few dollars on it and if they do like it they can share it with their friends without feeling guilty.
VW Exactly, and I think it proved to work for you, it was a unique and revolutionary idea and it made people more likely to donate or spread the music around afterward.
MM Yeah, and I remember in 2008 when Derrik was out on the road and I was back home living in my parents basement, and I read an article online from Forbes magazine about how like Radiohead and Widespread Panic and all these bands were using our business model for releasing music and how crazy it was to be quoted and have our picture in Forbes magazine when at the time I think he was living with his girlfriend basically for free and like I said I was living in my parents basement taking care of my dad and it was like, wow, we’re in Forbes magazine and here we are basically living poor in these places.
VW You and Derek Smith who now goes by the moniker Pretty Lights used to make a lot of music together, were you ever going to be part of the act pretty lights or did always set out to be your own artist?
MM Yeah originally we intended Pretty Lights to be what Pretty Lights Music is. Originally there were three of us, my friend Ben was in it and was on my first album…Ben O’neil. At that time we were playing our instrumental stuff live with synthesizers and stuff and we were working on an album where he was signing and I think he got a DUI or something, anyway he couldn’t travel and what not so he ended up like getting a job while Derrik and I worked on the debut Pretty Lights album but it was always intended for us to be together, we were friends and a group together. So then about three months after we released the debut album I was robbed and stabbed at gunpoint and I had to get out and recover for like a year and half. I had to learn to rebuild my upper body weight, my hand was cut and they told me I was never going to play keys again, and I proved them wrong. So basically a bunch of stuff happened that basically meant Derrik had to carry the torch for us and by the time I got back into it just didn’t make much sense after having a double album and all and I didn’t want to just re-incorporate myself into it and I had to stay home and take care of my dad who had cancer so I couldn’t tour. So then we had to figure out what to do and Derrik and I talked about it and I didn’t really want to come out as Michal Menert of Pretty Lights Music and keep the confusion up so we just decided that I could come out on my own and have a chance as a solo artist to release under the name. And also because we had shifted between like 3 people, and 2 people, and 1 person and all that stuff so Pretty Lights was kinda like an idea for us, it was like an umbrella for us to do whatever we wanted, and for awhile Pretty Lights for us was like us rapping to our beats we just laid ya know and then like it was like real synthesizer downtempo IDM stuff and then it went to like hip hop stuff and then what Derrick and I were doing which is like sample based stuff so it was like this shifting thing, like an umbrella for the 3 of us or the 2 of us to do whatever we were doing. So thats what Pretty Lights is, it was a group but it was more of an idea.
VW You have been involved with music for a long time and even said you played piano as kid, what was it that brought you to be the Electronic Music Producer that you are today?
MM I think it was like growing up with Hip-Hop in a scene that didn’t have much Hip-Hop so really what was going on with production was like underground raves in Colorado at the time so there was that element of that and seeing that and it was late 90’s when like Q-bert and the Scratch Pickles who were like scratch DJ’s and like Pharcyde who were starting to headline Raves, I started seeing the potential of it. And it was also going to the record store and wanting a certain type of music and going to the Hip-Hop section and being like I want this but I want another something in it, and going to the electronic section and the funk section and looking for that sound that I wanted, it was going through all the different genres and being like, Man I want a combination of all this, so if I want that music I just have to make it. So I just started messing around, and like i’m known for my sample stuff but I have some sample free stuff in my sets too. Right now i’m trying to do a whole sample free EP that is multi conceptional instead of just like a sample free song in the middle of one of our sample based albums. So it’s just the pursuit of what do you wanna hear, and trying to take the best parts of the music that I love and putting them together, and not just in a protein shake kinda way, but actually making it it’s own entity.
VW So you would say your making music that you want to listen to versus something that will be commercially successful?
MM Oh yeah definitely, and I think thats one of the reasons I am not as popular as I could be is because I haven’t really tried to cater to the crowd too much. I mean of course in my live sets I am definitely engaging and I give myself to the crowd but it’s more emotional than stylistic you know. It’s like I’d rather give my emotions up to the crowd that my personality or my sense of individuality up to the crowd to please them, ya know.
VW Your music could be listed under quite a few genres, how would you describe your music?
MM I describe it as, I guess, um, collage-based electronic hip-hop. Or collage-based analogue electronica. Thats funny growing up I learned that the more names a genre usually had, the worse it usually was, ha.
VW I would definitely describe your sound as a West Coast Sound, would you agree with that?
MM Yeah. I would say it’s like West Coast synth ideology mixed with east coast sampling, ya know. I think that’s the thing growing up in Colorado, it’s like we didn’t have a coast and I had friends from east coast who would only listen to east coast stuff and friends from the west coast who would only listen to west coast stuff but we got like the best parts of both or like the parts that would come to us you know, so in a way we got the best of both worlds because we didn’t have like the coastal beef to side behind.
VW Electronic Dance Music has become quite popular over the last few years here in the United States and actually has a big commercial appeal now, do yo see that as a positive or a negative and how has it affected your career as a producer and performer?
MM Its a positive for sure. I remember a lot of people when Skrillex was up for Grammys and won Grammys, a lot of people like especially die hard fans were like well there are people that have been doing it way longer, and people asked me if I was pissed that Skrillex won a Grammy and I was like no, I mean I’m in a very small niche sub genre of EDM, and anyone who is going to bring international attention to this genre, allows me to make a living, it gives me a place to be.
VW Your set to play The Arise Festival in about a week, what are your expectations for the Festival?
MM Very Excited. Im actually very excited about it because its more like a family-friendly more conscious Festival than the other ones i have played. Not that the other ones are Satianic or something. I feel like I can compare it to High Sierra which I was at early this year for the first time and i was blown away because Im used to playing to these more heavily built Electronic Festivals where you get a lot of kids partying, a lot of neon, a lot of just like raging you know, and thats awesome and any artist would love that, but a lot of times the kids don’t even know what they are listening to or whats going on, and a lot of artists play a lot of other artists music during that so its even more of a cluster fuck and its like what? who? who am i hearing? So i feel like there is so much loss of identity for the artists and you get lost in the scene with like 20 acts a day over 4 days, and what High Sierra was like and what i expect Arise to be like is that it will make more of an impact on the crowd simply because they aren’t there to see like 10 different artists in the next two hours. What Im really trying to say is that when you play to crowds that aren’t strictly EDM crowds your almost doing more for your career because your bringing people who aren’t into it, into it…which is what a Festival used to be. I remember when a Festival used to be like different genres and 10 or 15 acts that really represented those genres, and thats what I love about Coachella and those Festivals that are still like that. Im excited for Arise because of so much cross over and how much time and effort was put into the Festival and how great it looks already from an artists perspective, and knowing the site growing up around Loveland, and Im really excited because i feel like its going to expose a lot of people to my music who haven’t heard my music and give my fans a really cool place to hear my music especially those that aren’t necessarily EDM fans.
VW The Arise Festival in general is so dynamic and has so much intention behind it which is why we wanted to be so involved with it, and like you said to bring your fans and also the fans of Zap Mama or Michael Franti and the activists and bring everyone together is a pretty powerful thing.
MM Yeah exactly, I mean Daryl Hannah, come on!
MM I paint, and I cook.
VW Tell us about your cooking, I heard you like to cook!
MM I’m trying to open a restaurant next year in Denver. Originally I was thinking about going Japanese Noodle House, but I’m thinking about going a little broader now. I just like cooking because it’s like a way to create something fast and get substance from immediately rather than like I feel with like painting or producing music it’s a more long term goal for feeling satisfied. And you never really get that feeling of satisfied because an album is never finished or a painting is never finished, you just kinda stop. It’s like with cooking, you know when the pork is done, you know when the potatoes are done, and you can take them out, and you can put like an hours worth of work into something that people are going to consume in a matter of minutes and feel good and healthy, and you can see people smile when they enjoy it. It’s nice having a short term payoff especially for someone who has a lot of long term goals. You can put all of your creativity into with all the people around you and you can do it in like a day, and it’s also the energy you put into cooking is like a ritual thing, it’s like the reason feel good when they go to church, if your putting the energy into it that your supposed to your going to get a positive feeling back.