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Hands in the air like they just don't care 

Pretty Lights co-producer Michal Menert surveys the current electronic dance landscape

At this point, Michal Menert may be less known for his own work than for co-producing the debut album by Pretty Lights, aka electronicist Derek Vincent Smith, who'll be ringing in 2012 with two headlining nights at the 1stBank Center.

The Polish-born, Denver-raised Menert, who's also contributed to subsequent Pretty Lights releases, made his own 2011 debut with the downtempo Taking Up Your Precious Time on the Pretty Lights Music imprint.

Currently in the middle of a five-week national tour with label mate Gramatik, Menert took time out to talk about his family's emigration to America, his early days with Smith, the unlikely growth of Denver's electronica scene and — with a little prodding —the huge hype currently surrounding Los Angeles emo-turned-dubstep act Skrillex.

Indy: So when your family brought you over here from Poland, did they get to bring their record collection with them?

Michal Menert: We did not. We brought everything we could take in a couple bags, so we left a lot of records back home.

Indy: What year would that have been, and what was going on over there politically?

MM: It was the end of '88, and I was 6, almost 7. We had moved out of Poland in '85 or '86 during communism, and we were refugees to Germany at first. We kind of snuck over there with a vacation visa. My dad was an English professor in Poland, so he was able to get visas to travel to foreign-languages-speaking countries, to kind of keep his language up. So we stayed in Germany for a couple of years and then moved to the U.S. Actually, Colorado was the first place we moved.

Indy: Were your parents involved in music, beyond just listening to it?

MM: Yeah, my dad actually had a little studio when I was growing up. The office room was his little place where he had drum machines and synthesizers and was able to make his own kind of soundscape music, you know, like Tangerine Dream.

And, you know, I would sneak in there after school, before he'd come home from work, and just make noise, basically, because I didn't know what the fuck I was doing.

Indy: What synths did he have?

MM: He had a DX7. He had some kind of Kurzweil. And he also had an Akai AX-60 that I still have in my arsenal. It's one of my go-to synths, actually. It's got a really nice hard, edgy bass tone.

Indy: I've seen videos of you performing with a drummer and with other electronic musicians. Will you be doing any of that when you come here?

MM: I'm probably going to bring my drummer for the local shows. Colorado is a really special part of our tour, because it's kind of our homecoming after being out on the road for three weeks and then going out for another two weeks afterward. So I'm probably gonna have a drummer, and it will basically be me and Gramatik going back and forth with half-hour sets, and then we'll be together for the encore at the end.

Indy: Your debut album is kind of chilled-out. I'm assuming the live stuff will be a little harder?

MM: Yeah, a lot of the songs, when I play them live, they're mixed differently. They're a little faster, a little harder. Basically, I have three to four hours of unreleased music that I can play in my sets, so I play a lot of stuff that is mine but people haven't heard yet. So, for instance, in an hour set of 20 songs, I'll probably play five or six off my album, and then the other 15 will be unreleased stuff that's on SoundCloud or remixes that I've done for other people.

Indy: It seems to me that there are two basic approaches electronic musicians take when they perform live. I remember seeing the Chemical Brothers at Coachella, and despite all the lights and visuals, it didn't seem like those guys were doing anything onstage that actually involved the music. And even today, you watch a live video of Skrillex, who's so popular now, and it's him smoking a cigarette with one hand and waving the other one in the air. It seems like you're a bit more hands-on.

MM: Yeah, me and Derek were in bands together growing up; he played bass and I played keys and guitar. And so when we started getting into production together, it was kind of an extension of that. It was just like, how can I bring my ideas across live, without having a conventional band to play my stuff?

So for me, it's like, I can't just stand up there and wave my hand. I have to do something. So playing an MPC is actually the easiest way to do it, because with the sampler, I can put bass lines in there, I can put horn lines, I can put drum hits. I can do everything that I want without having 10 different instruments.

So yeah, I get tired of that, too. It's kind of made people not care what goes on live. For a lot of people, live performance becomes their listening party more than a performance. And as for the Skrillex thing, I don't necessarily want to be quoted on this, but ...

Indy: Come on, I have to quote you on this ...

MM: [Laughs.] Yeah, yeah, OK. That's fine. I haven't seen Skrillex's new tour — I've heard he's really stepped up his live performance and he's playing more of his own stuff. But, you know, I saw him three or four times this summer at different festivals, and that guy is probably making 10 to 20 times what I'm making per show, you know? And he had no stage production when I saw him, you know, he just had drunk girls on stage, dancing. [Laughs.] And he would just train-wreck from song to song, and he played probably 75 percent other people's material.

So every time I was like, OK, maybe this was a bad set, I'm gonna check him again. And every time, he would just mash one song into the next, you know? Half the time, he'd mess up or just be too drunk onstage. It was like, man, this is really frustrating as a performer to see somebody that people are going crazy for, but if you pay any attention to it, you'd see that it's kind of almost a joke.

But he's definitely one of those people that most producers will tell you, they love his production. I think he has a really great sound, with that kind of taking four-on-the-floor music and dubstep and putting it together in an interesting way. So he's definitely doing something right. And I've seen videos of his new performances and it looks like he's playing mainly his own stuff and is more hands-on.

Indy: And finally, having toured so much, how would you rate Denver as an environment for electronic music? What are the pros and cons?

MM: The pros are that people have so much energy, and it seems like kids, even if they don't have money, they find a way to get to shows. I mean, anybody will tell you that Denver is just like an anomaly, you know? It's a place where people just go crazy more than anywhere else in the country.

And the downside of that is, being from there, it's hard to get an objective test group for your music. Stuff that would destroy in Denver might not work as well in other places. So it's like having a girlfriend that doesn't tell you you're getting fat, you know?

bill@csindy.com

  • Pretty Lights co-producer Michal Menert surveys the current electronic dance landscape

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