Pretty Lights gets deep on all-original new album

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Nashville, Tenn. • Derek Vincent Smith, the DJ who performs under the name Pretty Lights, has a simple request: Don't call what he does electronic dance music.

"My music is made electronically," Smith said. "It's definitely music and I do want people to dance at my shows, so I guess it is EDM. But it's not, because it's more than that, you know what I mean?"

Listen to Smith's new album, "A Color Map of the Sun," and you'll get exactly where he's coming from.

The album, self-released this week for free like all his music, is the result of a 2½-year recording odyssey he conducted while becoming one of the world's most sought-after headlining DJs. After releasing three hourlong albums in 2010, he was looking for a very different challenge. So instead of sampling the work of others, he wrote and produced a series of live music vignettes.

Over a year he coached musicians through a series of musical experiments meant to reflect a style or an era — without the benefit of sheet music. He might offer a series of chord progressions for a guitarist or horn player to follow or beat-box out a rhythm for a drummer. He would give singers lyrics typed out on a page with no annotation and walk them through different vocal approaches, sometimes describing emotions or scenarios into the singers' headsets even as they laid down tracks.

The 32-year-old DJ then took that tape, pressed it onto vinyl and brought that crate full of original blues, soul, hip-hop and electronica home to Denver, where he created "A Color Map of the Sun." Call it analog electronica.

"I can plug a guitar into my computer and record it," Smith said a few hours before his late-night takeover at Bonnaroo last month. "I have the technology. But it doesn't sound the same as when I play a 1963 Gibson into a UA47 mic into a Neve console from 1971 with the signal path running through $200,000 worth of analog hardware, then onto quarter-inch tape and then onto acetate, and then I scratch it up a little bit, and then I resample it. All the sudden that guitar line sounds like it was in a record store for 40 years and recorded in a garage in Cleveland in 1968. That's what I was gunning for."

Smith, wearing a Yankees cap with a turned-up bill and a perpetual smile, said he realized the vast majority of the 50,000 spaced-out revelers who would turn up for his laser light-fortified set wouldn't know the difference. But that didn't matter. He was reaching for something higher when he started the journey, and he believes he achieved it.