Michal Menert [Interview]
Michal Menert, founding member of the Pretty Lights Music Label, is bringing his Space Jazz tour to Studio B in Minneapolis tomorrow.
Michal has dabbled in a variety of music projects, but he is best known for his masterful vinyl samples and unique blend of hip hop, jazz and soul. His music combines bits of the past with visions of the future. His set won’t be the typical remixing of what’s hot in electronic music – as so many DJs are doing right now. Rather, expect a polished rendition of Michal’s own soulful production.
Michal took some time during his soundcheck in Grand Rapids, MI to talk to contributing writer Dan Crittenden. Here’s part of their conversation:
TBM: So Michal, you’re currently on the Space Jazz tour. How’s it going so far?
MM: It’s going great, man. I’m in Grand Rapids right now, just doing the sound check, having some fun.
TBM: What lead to your decision to call it the Space Jazz tour?
MM: I guess it’s multiple things. I grew up fantasizing about space, and I use a lot of jazz samples. Also, I guess it’s almost like a loose moniker for my genre, you know? It’s kind of space-age jazzy stuff.
TBM: What sort of equipment do you use during your live performances?
MM: I use an MPC Studio, and then I use Ableton Live and an APC 40 to kind of navigate through Ableton Live. So I use the MPC to trigger different samples, and then I use the APC to navigate through the songs.
TBM: You, Derek Smith of Pretty Lights, and Paul Basic were all in a band in Colorado; could you tell us a bit about that?
MM: It was fun! It was what we loved doing. Paul played the drums, I played keys and guitar, Derek played the bass, and me and Derek both did vocals. It was really cool. That’s where we developed a lot of our chemistry as friends and as a unit. Along the way, Super Vision moved to Fort Collins and he became a part of it all too. It all really fell together out of friendship, and the music was the glue that kept us together. We would have all been friends together anyway, but the music helped us all work towards one goal.
TBM: How did you all meet each other?
MM: I met Derek in 8th grade when I was in jr. high. So, I met him then, and we would go skate (skateboard) together at a mutual friend’s house. One day he brought a bass guitar to a skate session, and I was like “Oh crazy you play the bass? I play the guitar and I know this drummer.” And it all just went from there. We all just started hanging out every day, and we were best friends for many, many years before this whole Pretty Lights thing happened.
I was in school with Paul the next year, and he started hanging out with us and replaced our original drummer. Having Paul there was a blessing, and we all went to college together for a year. We all spent a lot of time building a relationship both musically and as friends. Paul kind of moved away at times when me and Derek were living together, but every time Paul came back we were all right on the same page again. It became a life-long friendship that turned into a life long partnership.
TBM: What was your band called?
MM: We were called The Freeze, and you won’t find any of our recordings anywhere. They were God-awful, I’m not gonna lie. We were a 9th grade band influenced heavily by the Beastie Boys and old-school hip hop and kind of funk.
TBM: You mentioned the Beastie Boys, who else were some of your mutual influences at the time?
MM: I would say, Alcoholics, Tribe Called Qwest, we liked The Roots growing up, Wu Tang Clan… a lot of hip hop stuff. It’s crazy because we were all also into the punk rock scene, like The Casualties. As a kid, the punk shows were the shows we could get into to go mosh around and get hurt and have fun and go home with stories you know? So we were kind of trying to mimic the skate culture we saw in videos with the music and the lifestyle we saw. This was all before YouTube and all that, so we would go out and buy skate videos on VHS. We idolized those people, so it was our way to study culture without being in a cultural hub. Denver was different back then. We didn’t have the people there that were moving the scene in a certain direction.
TBM: Were you Derek and Paul all skateboarders together?
MM: Well me and Derek were, I think Paul rollerbladed at the time. Honestly, I feel like I have an easier time touring with people who grew up in the skateboarding and hip hop culture than I do with those in the sort of EDM, DJ scene. For one, it’s like you’re willing to put yourself through physical abuse, and two, you’re often driven by yourself. With EDM, I feel like it’s a lot of that reciprocating feeling of fans giving you back your energy, which is really crucial when you’re an artist. But at the same time it’s like with skateboarding you can try 30 times to land that one trick, and when you finally land it, it’s all for you, you know? You’re satisfied just because you did it and not necessarily because somebody saw you. Like with hip-hop I feel like you’re writing for yourself for the most part. Those things make up the majority of my friends and compatriots in traveling. You have to not be driven by the bullshit and not be motivated externally. A huge part of the music I like, it’s people who are making it for themselves. You don’t want to have stuff that you’re listening to, thinking only that the crowds gonna hear this, I need to make this loud, I need the snares loud, I need the bass loud. There’s so much of that obnoxiousness.
Most of our crew uses samples, and I think skateboarding is kind of similar. Driving through the city, you see stairs and ledges differently when you’re a skateboarder. You see things differently. It’s like when you hear old crappy songs, those songs that are crappy to other people, you hear it and go, “Oh this is a beautiful part,” and you can take it and almost rescue it from the song. There are a lot of parallels between music and skateboarding. But now I’m rambling…
TBM: No I get what you mean. I’m a skateboarder myself, and there’s definitely that element of seeing something that might otherwise be overlooked, and doing something totally unique with it.
MM: Exactly. It’s like you see these grimy parts of the world and of life and you can turn it into something beautiful.
TBM: Right. Well anyway, you said you played keys and guitar, have you ever experimented with live instrumentation during your performances?
MM: I mean I’ve performed a lot with keys, and in the band I had after The Freeze I played the keys, and we were running laptops and all that. The hardest part for me is that you would need someone that’s really on point with mixing it, and making it sit on top of tracks the same way, the way that they’re supposed to sound. I’m using it a little bit more for shows around home, but it’s difficult because with EDM sets you really have to keep it flexible and very minimal in a way. But with my APC I’m more able to play the parts of the song with one hand and control the arrangements with the other. It allows me to try to have more control over my sets rather than trying to be a virtuoso.
TBM: You said once that you wanted your music to be music to live by, not just music for partying. Could you elaborate on that point?
MM: Yeah. I mean have you listened to most EDM with headphones?
MM: The drums hurt your ears. It’s like, it’s so loud, everything’s so intense that it’s very difficult to have the organic nature of certain music that I like to live by. I’ll sacrifice having fans in order to have music that I can relate to. A lot of what I say might come across as talking crap, but it’s not. I’m not mad at anything like that, but it’s like success is having huge crowds with people going crazy. I don’t really go crazy at shows, you know? I have fun at shows, but the shows I have the most fun at aren’t necessarily the crazy-ass EDM shows. I kind of like the more emotional shows, and I want to bring that more into EDM. If you can still have fun with it and have it hit pretty well but still retain that element where you can listen to it with headphones and not just want to fist pump and dance around.
TBM: I see what you mean. Well you’ll have to go onstage soon so I’ll let you go. Thanks, Michal, Have fun tonight.
MM: No problem, man.
Introduction co-written by Alex Stahlmann and Dan Crittenden
Interview conducted and transcribed by Dan Crittenden
Photo from Pretty Lights Music
“Sun Shadow” and “Slivers of Light” compliments of Michal Menert and Sound Cloud