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EXCLUSIVE: Pretty Lights Details The Vision Behind NOLA Pop-Up Parade, Shares Insight On New Album

During the final hours of sunlight on Sunday, May 7th, 2017, as this year’s Jazz Fest wound to a close, Derek Vincent Smith took his vision for Pretty Lights to the next level, hosting a pop-up second line parade in his current home of New Orleans, LA. The parade ended beneath a highway overpass, setting up those in attendance for an intimate, once-in-a-lifetime performance by the pioneering DJ/producer, a brigade of brass blowers, and the many musical friends who joined in along the way.

To those outside the Pretty Lights camp, the event was seemingly spontaneous. Earlier that morning, a map of the second line’s route was sent out to his devoted fanbase with the hashtags #PLpopup and #PLparade, hinting at what was about to go down. But while the event was a surprise to fans, the parade was months in the making and a hugely collaborative effort manifested by Smith, the Pretty Lights team, and a huge network of musicians, artists, officials, and more.

The massive production on Sunday doubled as a celebration and a music video shoot for Pretty Lights’ newest single, “The Sun Spreads In Our Minds,” which we can officially expect to hear next month. The song is also the lead track on the upcoming Pretty Lights album—his first official release since 2013’s A Color Map Of The Sun.

“Since I haven’t released music in four years, it’s been really important for me to have a coherent message that sets the tone moving forward,” Derek tells us of his new music and its presentation. He continues, “I left my management firm in 2015. It was starting to feel like the industry was trying to push me in a certain direction that felt very contained and boxed in. My team — my homies—that works with me has built a moral support around this decision. Since then, we’ve been figuring out how to do this completely independently and figure out how to do new things on every level that embody the philosophy of Pretty Lights, which is all about doing it for fun, doing it for the music, and trusting that whatever money you need to survive and to make it keep happening will always come back.”

“The Sun Spreads In Our Minds” made its triumphant live debut in the midst of a grand celebration. The multi-dimensional experience brought together a New Orleans-style second line parade, an experimental popup show, a music video production, and a collaboration across music and visual arts.

With a speaker system at its helm, the second line–complete with a full brass section–made its way down Tureaud and N. Roman St. for about a mile. On the final block, the music stopped and Derek began to explain the relationship between light energy and human energy. He explains, “One of the first samples in this new song says that ‘human energy is a form of light,’ and then all the samples have this conversation about that.”

With the vibe officially set, the emotional opening string samples of “The Sun Spreads In Our Minds” slowly rose over the din of the crowd, carrying the song as the parade continued onward toward its final destination, the I-10 overpass. At the exact moment the second line turned the corner and found themselves basking in an uninhibited sunlight, the song dropped into its drum part—a serendipitous, unplanned occurrence that seemed to underscore the theme of the event’s planning and execution.

Above the newfound stage was a striking backdrop: a brand-new mural by international street artist Boxhead. The massive set depicted a signature Boxhead holding her arms open–hugging and presenting at the same time–to welcome the crowd to the special performance. Unplanned moments along the way, like the fans who rushed the stage, the unstoppable freestyles of Maurice Brown, and the sudden appearances of saxophonists Joe Kirchem Jr.(The One Percent) and Khris Royal (Rebelution), shaped the ultimate spirit of the experience: all coming together to create an unforgettable moment in Pretty Lights history.

The spirit of the second line and the presentation of this latest single shine a light on the ultimate philosophy of Pretty Lights—one that focuses on the unity of human and universal energies, and the ability of a multiplicity of individuals to come together as one to manifest a vision.

“More than anything, it was an artist collective,” reiterates Derek, when asked about how the event came to be.

The idea was first spurred at a summit in Colorado last year, when members of the Pretty Lights team congregated for a creative brainstorming session. The session was focused on developing unconventional fan experiences, a hallmark of Pretty Lights from his earliest years (when he pioneered the practice of giving his music to the fans free of charge) up through now (as his ongoing  episodic music festivals that have replaced a more regular touring schedule).

“We were trying to figure out how to lace the album release with the music release to make it totally new, while coinciding it with our upcoming tour that we’ve been planning — which is also pretty unorthodox.”

Derek continues, “We wanted to incorporate the film aspect and really unify all the elements of the whole crew.” Admitting that the work goes far beyond the electronic producer, Derek explains how he now thinks about Pretty Lights, “It’s about the manifestation of a whole team of artists.”

With the knowledge that they wanted to merge collective artistry and innovative fan experiences for their next projects, Derek and his girlfriend and Pretty Lights creative director, Meghan Zank, eventually thought up the idea of creating some sort of multi-dimensional event to close out Jazz Fest’s second weekend in their home of New Orleans.

Derek’s goal was to combine Jamaican soundsystem culture with New Orleans second line culture, while Meghan’s focus was to collaborate with a muralist to create a layered experience, one that would ultimately leave its mark on the city long after the experience itself ended. The two also wanted to create a counterpoint to Pretty Lights’ episodic festivals — he confirms there will be a total of eight of these events, including the recently announced Gorge weekend and the returns to Red Rocks Ampitheatre and Northerly Island. Instead of mirroring these more familiar festival experiences, they wanted to produce intimate, more spontaneous situations for fans that tap into Pretty Lights’ increasing inclination toward the pop-up shows and experiences that harken back to the beginnings of Pretty Lights.

“I started giving Pretty Lights music away for free from the beginning, and over time that’s become the norm for artists who are trying to get their music out there. It really felt like a big next step in spreading the music, the philosophy, and the vibe would be through free shows,” says Derek.

Over time, the idea for a free pop-up second line celebration to close out Jazz Fest began to take form, incorporating both Derek and Meghan’s initial ideas into one vision. Derek explained, “It just clicked that we could make a sound system, use it to lead a second line, amplify the second line through the speakers, dub it, play beats, and end at the painting and rock the pop-up show.” He recruited Chief Jigga to seal the vision’s authenticity.

While the team was excited by this out-of-the-box project and immediately got behind the idea, it was simultaneously intimidating. Management was nervous because there was no income model attached to it, eventually requiring that all its funding be out-of-pocket. Logistically, it also became apparent rather quickly that the scope of their Jazz Fest-closing second line would require bringing in many other individuals from within and outside the Pretty Lights team to pull off the project.

“We ended up just inviting people to get involved, and people seemed to think it was an amazing idea and were all about it,” says Derek. “It had to be a bunch of people working together. Instead of envisioning exactly what we wanted and pushing for that, it was more about painting the picture of the vision to others here locally, getting them hyped on it, and then seeing who was interested and what ideas they had. As soon as we started allowing the vision to adapt and shape shift based on what possibilities existed, it ended up happening just bigger, faster, and cooler than we could have imagined.”

This approach was new to the producer and DJ, though it’s clearly left its mark on Derek. He explains, “I’ve thought about myself as an individual artist for so long, so as soon as Meghan and I really started working together symbiotically, it enlightened me the fact that our work can amplify and magnify when working within the same artistic atmosphere. It became about working on each other’s art, and we applied that concept to our work with everyone involved in this production.”

Despite rallying behind the shared vision, pulling off the event required a huge amount of work—an amount that seemed insurmountable at points. Derek explains, “Everyone was super amped, though still scared about whether it was going to work out.” This energy—the simultaneous excitement and doubt—became a theme throughout the production stages, necessitating that everyone trust that everything would turn out as it was meant to.

The first hoop to jump through was getting the city on board. While Derek notes that the team considered it might be easier to “ask for forgiveness rather than permission,” Mike Bertel, Derek and Meghan’s neighbor and local real estate developer, and Zach Fawcett were tasked with sourcing support from the city. Luckily, the city’s approval came delightfully easily due to the enormous support the city of New Orleans regularly shows for its resident creatives. With the vision painted, the people hyped, and the permits in order, it all came down to piecing together the puzzle.

To lead the second line, The Shady Horns saxophonist Ryan Zoidis (Lettuce) was recruited as the musical director to coordinate the live elements of the parade, which included the combined musical efforts of over twenty talented musicians.

***Check out Live For Live Music’s live stream of the second line parade***

“He called me about arranging the horns for the second line, and he wanted an intro to the show that was related to the new single that he premiered,” explains Zoidis. He continues, “He had the Indian Chiefs from the 7th and 9th wards, and he had The Hundreds, a young brass band from the 7th ward. I don’t know much about leading a traditional second line and we wanted that element, so I called the Soul Rebels. Then, we thought about having a huge section for the intro, so we asked Ashlin Parker and The Trumpet Mafia to come through. They brought Maurice Brown and a handful of great trumpet players.”

While the musicians were readily behind the project, the various artists tapped for the second line did not have much time to meet with Derek and rehearse what they would do on the day of the spectacle.

“I had a 40-minute hang with the Soul Rebels in the backyard, and another 40-minute hang with The Hundreds brass band, but that was really to get the horn parts worked out for the main collaborative track we did. . . So we did have a few rehearsals, but it was more-so to paint the picture and excite people,” says Derek.

Despite the exact details not being fully nailed down, the project moved forward powered by a faith in the communal vision and the talent of the musicians onboard. All the while, Meghan and Derek were researching painters and locations for the artistic centerpiece—the project’s “mark on the city”—that would capture the vibe of the experience and the “The Sun Spreads In Our Minds.” Eventually, Meghan discovered Begoña Toledo or Boxhead, who was brought on after providing the best artistic response to Derek’s new track, making her a clear partner for this endeavor.

“When I first listened to the single, I could feel the sun spreading in my mind,” Toledo explains. “I felt every beat of the track running through my body, from the darkness into an explosion of light. I felt it somehow like the perfect soundtrack to what’s happening in the world right now, the peoples are waking up, a revolution is about to start, in unity around the globe. . . My favorite moment in the song is when there’s a voice, almost sounding from the underground, shouting ‘we’ve been living in the dark,’ and then the whole track accelerates into the hardest beat I’ve heard from Derek to this date.” She continues, “That’s the moment I wanted to capture in my piece.”

Toledo added her own vision into the collection of different ideas coming together for the second line: “I knew I wanted to incorporate as many of the colors in the spectrum as possible, to symbolize unity and diversity. And I knew the center of the piece had to be the brightest, the sun, the light. The mural captures the very moment when the light hits our consciousness,” she explains. “The head extrudes, spreads to the sides, in slices that merge into the darkness, vibrating, undulating as if they were sound or energy waves.”

The other members of the production immediately got behind Toledo’s concept, and the artist got to work so that her mural could eventually serve as the backdrop to the final-destination pop-up show beneath the underpass.

[photo by Dorian Weinzimmer]

On the day of Pretty Light’s pop-up parade in New Orleans, the months of work by dozens of individuals paid off, tapping into the communal magic behind the shared vision and ultimately creating a grander experience than ever thought possible. “As soon as we showed up and started playing beats through the sound system before the parade started, all the horns players started jamming on the beats. It was amazing how symbiotically it all worked and how these groups of musicians can synchronize and jam on it without any rehearsal,” say Derek.

After the second line streamed down the streets of New Orleans to its final destination at the underpass, and after the sun eventually set, the dream of Toledo’s mural as a visual accompaniment to Derek’s music became more powerful than originally conceptualized, with added 3-D mapping of the art installation magnifying the experience. The collaborative and fateful energy never stopped, even once it was underway — the production, its spirit, and its energy had taken on a life of its own.

“I ended up singing, free styling, rapping, with other MCs like Maurice jumping up to rock this new kind of second line hip-hop. I would have never expected any of that to happen,” say Derek. “Even in the moment of the whole event, it was the same vibe of how it all came together—which was feeling nervous and then realizing that the fear was just the clue of how important it is. It’s about taking the leap and going with it. It’s true what they say, that the bliss was on the other side of the fear.”

The ability for the team to trust in its success and let the universe have its way with the event is ultimately what allowed the Sunday second line to be such a special, once-in-a-lifetime event. For it to go down, a bunch of small parts came together to create something much larger than ever thought possible. Appropriately, this idea perfectly encapsulates the theme behind Pretty Lights’ upcoming album. While the new album has no scheduled release date, nor does it have a final title, Derek shared a phrase that heavily inspired this new studio effort: “Looking back from the future.”

He explains, “Basically, I watched this YouTube video of this woman from Alaska who was talking about polychromatic microtonal music. She says something like, ‘If you look back from the future, it makes total sense that we would evolve a much more sophisticated musical system.’ Just the phrase really inspired me and everyone I brought it to.” He goes on, “If you can see where you want to be . . . when opportunities or choices or circumstances arise, then it’s like every little choice you make can add up to manifesting your dreams. Instead of letting the circumstances dictate your dreams, you let your spirit or soul consult the circumstances.”

If for nothing else, Sunday’s spectacle was proof of an exciting future for Pretty Lights. The collective team’s vision crystallized in unity under the spark of the sun, and has officially paved way for all the world that will come. Derek Vincent Smith is set on breaking barriers, and fans have only gotten their first taste of how Pretty Lights will continue to evolve. The spirit of experiment has been tested and will continue to pick up steam as the many pieces of Pretty Lights come together before our eyes. It’s only just begun.

Pretty Lights Second Line Credits:

Illumination Sound System:
Beats & Emcee –  Derek Vincent Smith & Joseph Kechter (Derek’s little brother)
Muralist:
BOXHEAD aka Begoña Toledo
Meghan Zank:
Pop Up Show Producer & Creative Director
Mike Bertel:
Associate Producer
Phil Salvaggio:
Production Management & Associate Producer
Reeves Price:
Winter Circle Productions- Associate Producer
Jason Starkey:
Associate Producer + Audio
PL Films
Cinematography, editing, film shoot
Dorian Weinzimmer
Ryan Berena
Hunter Courtney
Raven Productions:
-Designed and built sound system truck.
-Ran On Site Production
-Fabricated Modular Wall for painting
Eric Mintzer of Imaginex:
Projection Mapping
Ryan Zoidis of Lettuce:
Second Line Musical Director
Second Line Performers:
TRUMPET MAFIA:
Ashlin Parker (leader)- New Orleans
Anthony Coleman -Bay Area
Emily Mikesell-Orlando
Dehan Elçin-Istanbul
Aya Wakikuromaru- Tokyo
Parris Fleming- Chicago
Aurélien Barnes -NOLA
Maurice Brown (also emcee)-New York
SOUL REBELS:
Julian Gosin
Erion Williams
Edward Lee
Paul Robertson
HUNDREDS BRASS BAND:
Jerome
Desmond
Darrell
Marcus
Efuntola
Revert
REBELUTION
Khris Royale- Saxophone
Pretty Lights Live
Chris Karns – battery powered turntable scratch 45 rpm records
79ers Gang
Chief Jigga
Big Chief Romeo from the 9th Ward of New Orleans
Big Chief Jermaine from the 7th Ward of New Orleans