An Illuminating chat with Pretty Lights in Ibiza

Marcus Barnes

PrettyLights An Illuminating chat with Pretty Lights in IbizaAlmost two years to the day since our first interview I met up with Pretty Lights in Ibiza for IMS. This year the producer was responsible for the conference’s ‘anthem’ and took part in a live interview to discuss the process behind creating it. With a second album in the pipeline, he spoke to me about travelling with a modular synth, experimenting with his music and hinted about a brand new project.

It’s been a while since we last spoke, how’s it going at the moment?

It’s going great, this is the first weekend where I’ve been full-on back into it. I took most of the beginning of the year off and had a couple of amazing recording sessions. I started a new album and before I even started it I wrote out an entire manifesto, which I’ve never done before.

What did that consist of?

An aesthetic vision and then a development of every point. A logistical plan about my approach and how I want to do it. Out of the key points the first thing is, ‘everything that’s below is going to change and evolve on a daily basis’. On my last record I had a list of plans and I did my best to stick to them, but one of the things I’ve learned is that, and this is not necessarily for everyone, you have to go into things knowing that they’re going to change, wanting them to change and expecting them to change. I’ll be in the studio and they’ll be like, ‘alright what do you want us to set up today?’ and I’ll be like, ‘I don’t know, let me go and have a cigarette and figure that out!’.

It’s better to work that way than be stuck in a regimented pattern, letting things flow naturally instead of forcing them to happen because of your routine.

Exactly, and I spent two months in Cali at the beginning of the year and it was really random, but awesome, that Rick Rubin hit me up. He hit me up and he’s like my f****** hero. We ended up hanging out a bunch and he is so wise, I’d drop my ideas on him, which were new to him, but he’d help me expand them and see them from a new perspective. So I’ve been working on a new album, which I think is better than the first one! At the same time I was also working on a new EP for Numero Records, who buy out old record label catalogues and I’m working with them to use samples from some of those old records that they have. In my mind they’re two separate projects – sample-based production on one hand and totally original productions on the other.

Rick asked, ‘Why don’t you just make one album using the best of both worlds?’

I was like [pulls a shocked face], ‘Yeah! I can clear samples now… ok!’

So, with the album you want to take some more time out in the autumn to get more work done on it?

Well, that’s the idea as of right now, that may change tomorrow! I’m going to work on it as much as possible, I’ve found a way to stay productive while I’m on tour. I didn’t want to be like, ‘Ok, I’m going to take time off from touring to work on it’. I’m still working in my hotel room, with a modular synth that I bring in my suitcase.

Which one?

Thank you! No one ever asks that! Because no one has a f****** clue what a modular synth is [laughs]. The modular synthesis world has become way more popular than it was, say, three years ago and there’s more independent companies popping up every month that make modular synths. So there’s this company called Pittsburgh Modular, who I met at the NAMM expo last year. They built a new oscillator module, which was like a digital/analogue hybrid, the sounds that I heard coming out of it were blowing my mind – but it wasn’t out yet. So I got the designer’s number and kept calling their distribution guy, but he kept on saying it wasn’t ready yet. So finally I tracked the guy down and told him, ‘I need that module’. He said they only had the first prototype back but they there was something off with the pitch tracking so he couldn’t sell it. I was like, ‘I don’t give a f*** man I want to buy it!’ So finally he sold it to me.

Has it become an integral part of your production set up when you’re on the road?

It sounds quite crazy to bring a modular synth on the road with you. I mean it’s not exactly portable, it fits in a suitcase but it’s a big f****** suitcase. It’s a bit of a hassle dragging it around. That’s another example of rigid idealism. On my last album I was like that and stuck to that, but I’m really trying to push my modular skills and my sound design now.

It’s fun I guess, a challenge to yourself.

Yeah it is, but I’ve opened up this record to using VSTs as well. I’m trying to pick up my skills on powerful VSTs as well. I’ve been using Nexus a lot. I really like Vanguard, and Razor from Native Instruments, too. Not a lot of people push it that much, it seems like it went under the radar because Massive was so… massive!

What about the visual side of things, will there be a specially designed visual show to accompany the album?

Well, there should be since I have a whole team on salary! I’ve got to give them something to do, huh? No, but I’ve got a lot of ideas. It seems like a lot of big electronic artists are trying to do unique things like releasing apps with their albums or subscription type things. I’m working on something myself, which I haven’t told anyone really. It’s like a visual remix platform. Within a regular app you can get the music for free, but if you want to play with it you buy the remix package – what’s so cool about it is that it’s a collection of sounds with generated visuals and the best thing is that even people who know nothing about music will be able to make something with it. You can hand it to someone who knows nothing, and inevitably they will end up with something cool – it’s visually beautiful and sonically unique. Great for non-musicians, but you can also turn on a grid or a BPM if you want to think like a producer.

That’s great man, making it easy for people who can’t play music to be able to make cool productions will make it so much more popular and, also, it will give those people more confidence and maybe turn them on to producing…

That’s what I’m hoping. Because some people are never exposed to it – sometimes it’s a random event that happens and helps you to end up doing the music thing.

Yeah and some people are intimidated by the whole thing, but if you give them half a chance perhaps they might do something really cool.

Give them a little confidence. I’m hoping we’ll have this out by early 2015, I’m going to take a lot of time off to really dial it in. I actually moved to New Orleans, from Colorado to focus more.

How are you finding it living there?

It’s an amazing place. One of the guys from my band is from there, a keyboard player and we’ve been synching up together on a musical aesthetics level, more and more each time we work together. That’s another new thing on this project; I’ve opened myself up to working with more experienced musicians, as far as being classically trained, people who speak that language. Every time I work with a musician I have to learn how to communicate with that person individually, to let them know about what I do. So having two or three people that speak that language but also understand my way of working is great because they’re almost like translators for me. They make things happen a lot quicker and more efficiently.

What’s the music scene like?

There are players everywhere. There’s so much talent there, but there’s not a lot of music being made. There’s this idea, or this thought, that runs in musician’s circles that people like me are going to screw them over. Which is often true. It has been historically true… the players come in and do some amazing lick and the track’s a million-dollar hit, they usually get a cheque for $1,000. So for my last record I didn’t let anyone compose anything, but with this one I’m opening up to other people composing and helping with ideas. By the same token I’ve opened it up to giving people who’ve helped with the track, a cut of the publishing proceeds. Which is traditional, but I’d never done that before because I didn’t have to.

And, lastly, tell me about your UK visits because you’re going to be here a lot in the coming months aren’t you?

I have 10 shows in the UK this summer, I’m insanely excited about it. It’s been difficult with the UK, getting people to get into my music. There’s a small amount of hardcore fans and it’s growing, but I feel like this is finally the year where I get to be in front of a large amount of people. That’s what I need to for my sound to become something in the UK. As a country you guys are tastemakers for everyone, I’m super amped about being in the UK for a lot of the summer and to be able to debut a lot of music there.

Watch Pretty Lights this summer at Wireless, Glastonbury, Global Gathering and T in the Park. His Grammy-nominated album A Color Map of The Sun gets a full UK release at the end of June. Go to for more info.

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