Interview: Michal Menert (Pretty Lights Music)
5 December 2012
Michal Menert takes the stage at the Bacardi NH7 Weekender, Pune. He resembles the Shining’s Jack Torrance as if he were handed a second shot at life, wrapped in a grey shirt and striped maroon tie. He mashes coarse hip-hop beats and soulful vocal breaks into vibrant compositions. The audience respond in code, stomping their feet and playing with the dust clouds. He is after all, one in a syndicate of Pretty Lights Music artists that can turn a party around with only a handful of sonics - a trigger on emotion, and an axe to your imagination.
This habit has earned Menert somewhat of a cult following to mark the release of his sophomore mega LP ‘Even If It Isn’t Right’ and camaraderie with Pretty Lights head honcho Derek Vincent Smith. “For me, it was part of growing up with the crate-digging hip-hop culture,” he quotes. “I like being able to restructure things that are already ideas into new creations, like instruments in an orchestra or paints on canvas.”
Returning backstage, he leans heavily to the side of the tents, colours drained. I match his urgency as a journalist with a broken arm from a skateboarding accident and a deep resentment towards the security for confiscating my painkillers prior. “That’s a good way to go,” he laughs. “I’ve twisted my ankle so many times and broken my tailbone, but it’s skateboarding - you do it for the love of it”.
I’ve read that board culture was a big part of your life growing up.
In Colorado skateboarding was one of the few things you could do without having a scene. We didn’t have the ‘New York hip-hop scene’ or the ‘California punk rock scene’ going on. You didn’t need a skate park; you didn’t need a concert; you didn’t need a weekly gig. Derek (Pretty Lights) and much of our friends at the time from high school would skate on the weekends. We’d party, steal beer from corner stores, and go smoke cigarettes illegally, and then go to band practice and pick up all these instruments. It was the first time we had a crew, you know. We were the kids who’d hop into the car and drive to a spot to skate, even if we weren’t very good at it, or didn’t have any money to get back. It built that foundation for touring for me.
So that extends to your musical career as well?
Skateboard films and skateboard culture are what bought a lot of independent music out. I first heard like, Wu Tang on skate VHS. This was before the Internet was blowing up with free music and it really exposed me to a lot of music that I probably wouldn’t have heard in the middle of the country. I grew up as an only child too, so it’s like having those individual things that really helped me develop as a person, where as most people have brothers and sisters they can bounce off. Besides I’ve always thought skateboarding to be a non-competitive sport. You compete, but you’re really competing with yourself. It’s like when you try two hundred times and finally land a Tre Flip. I could say the same about making music; the first person to be happy with my songs is me. You're working on a bass line for a song and it finally comes together; at that point it doesn’t matter if nobody else hears it.
But a lot of people do end up hearing it, in fact, download it off your website. What inspires you to give your music out for free?
It all applies to the same aesthetic. When I started giving music out for free, Derek and me had been in bands together for almost 10 years. It didn’t make sense to charge people for something they were going to rip off the Internet anyway. We were more concerned about the music being made, and then being heard rather than try to make a profit out of it. It was one of the most influential changes in our lives and we didn’t realise the effect of what we were doing. We didn’t know that Forbes magazine would write about this big shift in the music industry, or like Radiohead would steal the business dollar. For most people that put out music on labels, the label controls a lot of the content and has the final say. With us it's obviously Derek and people from the label going ‘oh this is crap’ oh ‘this is too famous of a sample’ but we don’t censor the artist. Whatever you want to put out you don’t have to make hit songs. You can make what you feel like because the label’s not trying to make money off it.
Isn’t that detrimental to Pretty Lights Music surviving as a label?
We survive off playing shows. I remember when Steely Dan were talking about their first album and they had like eight members who were all getting paid equally. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker decided they were writing all these songs and were not making any money on the road. They had all these hits on the radio but were losing all this money touring. So they went into the studio and started making album after album and didn’t tour until they had a bunch of hits and could tour on those hits, and hire musicians based on it. Me and Derek saw that business model and went like lets make the music first and let that music catch on, and not have to see it as a business or a way of making money off it, until we can. We didn’t want to force our way into the scene but wanted to create a scene out of our music. I mean I’m starting to sell out shows wherever I go, Pretty Lights has been selling out shows for years. People feel like they’re willing to pay twenty to thirty dollars and come out for shows and buy merch because they got six to seven albums free from each of us. It’s just a beautiful thing that people still do appreciate. Besides, we didn’t know we’d live off music forever. It started off as a side project.
Understandably, this side project was Pretty Lights itself. How did you end up splitting ways with Derek?
I got stabbed right after we dropped our first album man.
Yeah! I was robbed at gunpoint and stabbed in the chest. My thumb was split open with my tendons hanging out – it was a mess. I was in hospital at the time Pretty Lights was about to take off and Derek knew we needed to strike the iron while it was still hot. We talked about it and he took over, steering it in the direction it’s going in now.
And there was never a question of you returning?
By the time I got out there were other things going on in my life. My father was getting sicker with cancer and my last concern was getting back into Pretty Lights. When I did get back to music, Derek had two solo albums under the name of Pretty Lights and the sound had changed more into what he had worked towards. We even talked about doing it like Pretty Lights with Michal Menert or whatever and I was like let’s not even harp on that. Let’s just make it its own thing, my solo project under my own name and see how it grows. It was great because the booking agent we had at the time took a big risk. I was the first artist they had signed that didn’t have a following or didn’t even have an album out. But they believed in me, and the promoters believed in me and now we’ve built an empire out of it. It’s a humble empire but it’s enough to keep us and our crew fed and all of us happy. It’s enough to bring me to India, and that’s amazing.
A lot of this growth manifested between 2010s ‘Dreaming of a Bigger Life and 2012s ‘Even If It Isn’t Right’. How would you define each release?
I made a big part of ‘Dreaming of a Bigger Life’ around the time my dad was suffering with cancer. Songs like ‘Tomorrow May Never Come’ or ‘One More Year’ are influenced by what I thought he was going through at the time. With ‘Even If It Isn’t Right’ I did a lot of slower songs, the whole thing's like an hour forty minutes long. You can say I was more aware of a crowd or more aware of a reaction from a crowd this time around, but at the same time I wanted to keep it pure. I just found these samples that really harped on what I was feeling and turned it into another statement of my life, just dealing with the decisions I’ve made since my first album came out. I’ve made good choices and bad choices and even if they weren’t right, those choices made me who I am, where I am and you have to kind of accept it. You can’t escape regret but you might regret escape.
When you say you were more aware of a crowd, wasn’t there pressure to gain a wider fan-base or a more popular template for making your music?
When I was first coming out in the scene I’d say seventy-five percent of my crowd were just like ‘Oh, it’s an electronic show’ or ‘I’ve heard this guy, he’s kinda like Pretty Lights’. Then I had to deal with the people who’d yell out for me to play some filthy shit or drop something. But now I look back at that phase, and it all went down so quickly. Dubstep really isn’t the big thing anymore; it’s all about moombathon and trap now. I guess the big difference with us (Pretty Lights Music) and other indie labels are the DJ sets. Everybody on Mad Decent, everybody on Fools Gold – they put out great music - but at the end of the day they’re mixing all the hot stuff that’s going around. That’s still cool but I’m not a DJ, I like to keep that separate from what I do. I play my own produced songs. When dubstep was blowing up really fast, I was doing a slow and steady climb with my fanbase and now the fans that come out to the shows are fans of my music and they love what I do and support it. It’s like I’ve made a place for myself that I feel is more sustainable and that has more longevity than if I was a DJ chasing the trends.
Asides from your fan base, you seem to get a lot of support from musicians in and out of Pretty Lights as well. You collaborated with Aditya Ashok aka Ox7gen at this festival. How did that come about?
We were hanging out last night, partying till four in the morning and Dualist Inquiry was telling me about how he got Aditya to do live drums. I was like ‘Hey, I want a drummer too’ and Aditya said he’ll play. I said okay cool, in five hours lets do soundcheck! [laughs]. His face dropped. But he’s great man, he hopped into the car with me that same morning, we got to soundcheck and he killed it. That’s what I love about festivals or that’s what they used to be about. Woodstock was all about people and bands coming together.
One of the songs Aditya jammed on was from your upcoming EP with Break Science? What else is good?
I played three songs from it actually, just 'cause I love it so much. It’s a five-track EP we’re dropping and I figured I’d just give some love out to the crew. Other than that, me and my good friend Paul Basic have a project called Half Color. Me and SuperVision have a project called FutureSmash. Me and Mux Mool have a project called Club Scouts. Check them all out!
Words: Jash Reen