DENVER’S MUSIC SCENE HAS ELECTRO-SOUL
In studios, after-hours parties and rock clubs across Denver over the last decade, a sound has taken shape.
It’s half-man, half-machine — the synthesized boom of a digital bass drum, a silkily fretted guitar and maybe a disembodied vocal sample. And outside of its devoted fan base, it is largely ignored.
As with all fledgling genres, little about electro-soul is defined — even what to call it. (Of the eight artists interviewed for this article, none agreed on any one name.) But what does seem sure is its rise, especially locally. If Denver can be known as the musical torchbearer of any genre, it’s electro-soul’s half-live, halfproduced swirl of hip-hop, soul, funk and jazz.
From venues like Cervantes’ Masterpiece Ballroom to Red Rocks Amphitheatre, electro-soul artists have found a home in the Denver area, playing shows to audiences here that dwarf sets just a state away. For some, that home has become literal, inspiring rising musicians like 26-year-old Detroit native GRiZ, who sold out Chicago’s 12,000-person Navy Pier this year, to relocate to the area.
If the genre is news to you, it’s probably not your fault. Much like the jam-band scene or electronic dance music — two of the genre’s forebears, and what GRiZ referred to poignantly as “pop music’s black sheep” — electrosoul has been cast aside as somehow unworthy of discussion and, in many cases, respect. Only a handful of blogs — like Brooklyn’s Live for Live Music and Boulder’s own This Song Is Sick — dutifully cover the scene.
One reason for that, as Live for Live Music editor-in-chief Kunj Shah explained, is that your average music journalist isn’t interested in or equipped to delve into the “messy” world of live music.
“When you’re reviewing a live show of a band like Pretty Lights or a band in the jam-band world like Phish, it feels like you’re covering them from an ESPN angle of a sports team,” Shah said. “You’re judging how they transition, their song selection from show to show, crowd intensity — all these different aspects. It’s an art, but it becomes a game between fan base and musician.”
Roughly 15 years after it was created, the genre has swept across the country. But Denver remains one of its earliest adapters and most fervent supporters.
“In most cases with a certain sub-genre of music, it typically builds out of a specific region or city,” Hunter Williams, an agent with the Nashville-based Creative Artist Agency, said via e-mail. “In this case, Denver fully supported this movement from the beginning ... . ”
Looking around Denver’s marquees this weekend, that goes without saying. Including electronic music blowout Decadence, there are a dozen electrosoul affiliated shows set to light up Denver for New Year’s Eve weekend.
If it’s clear that Denver is an electro-soul mecca, how we got here isn’t. But as with so many of the city’s post-Grateful Dead music memories, it started with a jam band.
Drum ’n’ bass
Elementally, electro-soul is live instrumentation quarterbacked by an on-stage producer. The jammy electronic Santa Cruz, Calif., five-piece Sound Tribe Sector 9, or STS9, is a prototypical, instrument-heavy version of that, and for good reason: Ask any other artist in the genre and they’ll tell you that STS9, for all intents and purposes, started electro-soul.
STS9 percussionist Jeffree Lerner doesn’t deny that, but he will defer to an influence the band shares with virtually every rock band formed after 1975: Pink Floyd.
Around 2001, STS9 was trying to find a way to play drum ‘n’ bass, a frantic style of dance music stemming from English rave music, with live instruments. It began to fold computer production into live instrumentation to get at the desired effect, an experiment Lerner said was seminally inspired by Pink Floyd and its early use of analog synthesizers in its music.
“I was programming a part while our keyboardist, David Phipps, was programming the other, and something clicked,” STS9 guitarist Hunter Brown said in an e-mail. “It felt like we were improvising in slow motion.” The band wrote “We’ll Meet in Our Dreams” that day, a song they still play today.
What they ended up with wasn’t drum ‘n’ bass — it sounded more like a thumping, extraterrestrial-sounding style of live dance. But from that failing, a style was born.
The band took its experiment live for the first time that year at its first show at Denver’s Fillmore Auditorium, playing 14 songs over a sequence off a computer. The crowd was confused, having never heard any of the songs or style before, but eventually came around. They were on to something. Pretty Lights, aka Derek Vincent Smith, performs at Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Aug. 7, 2015.
“I don’t know of a band that was doing it at that time,” Lerner said, “and even today, we feel like it’s day one.”
Some 15 years later, they’ll once again return to the Fillmore Auditorium, where it all started, for a three-night run of New Year’s Eve shows.
With the foundation in place, two kids from Colorado took the genre to its logical extreme.
Derek Vincent Smith and Michal Menert started the Pretty Lights Band after disbanding a four-piece called Listen. The duo started by playing 50-person parties at a house near Boulder’s Left Hand Canyon.
In 2006, Pretty Lights played its first official show in the basement of coffee shop Mug’s Cafe in Fort Collins. Smith and Menert dressed in suits, serving wine, cheese and hors d’oeuvres, playing for about 20 people.
“We were trying to present electronic music as something classy and tasteful and chic,” Menert said.
In October 2006, Menert and Smith released “Taking Up Your Precious Time,” a free album, and played about a dozen shows together throughout the year. But the duo didn’t envision themselves as a live project. Pretty Lights would go on to achieve huge live success — according to Pollstar, it grossed an average of about $525,000 per show in the last three years — but without Menert.
In December 2006, Menert was stabbed in the chest while selling marijuana in Loveland, lacerating his hand and nearly missing his heart. On the swelling buzz of “Taking Up Your Precious Time,” the only Pretty Lights album that featured Menert, Smith carried on without him.
“To put out one of the best albums I’ve ever worked on and watch it do really well and pass me by just because I was injured was weird,” Menert said.
Under the Pretty Lights name, Smith pressed on, bringing on Listen drummer Cory Eberhard and retooling his set to fuse the big-picture potential of a producer with the in-the-moment thrill of live instrumentation. Within a year, they’d opened for some of the electronic and jam scene’s biggest bands, including STS9.
Thanks to the pre-produced pieces Smith played through his computer during his sets, Pretty Lights claimed a huge, complex sound that betrayed its small size. But something was missing.
“The live (aspect) of just presenting music wasn’t giving me the full experience I want as a performer,” Smith said. He wanted to push the idea of what a producer could do on stage, reimagining the role as a sort of electronic music conductor.
“People are quick to look at how DJing is lacking in traditional music values, but it has something else,” Smith said, “a producer (who) is able to look at the set as a whole.”
Technically, this is what separates the genre from just electronically-inflected jam. Where a jam-band is prone to getting caught in the eddy of a musical moment, the live producer can keep a top-down perspective of what’s happening on stage.
“There’s something powerful about a singular coherent vision that’s able to direct it and sculpt it and paint the picture and curate the music,” Smith said.
In its latest iteration, Pretty Lights & the Analog Future Band, Smith is one of eight on stage, minding the direction of each song as well as directing the set as a whole like an electronic maestro. For the last two years, Smith brought the band to Telluride Town Park for what he calls “episodic festivals.” Menert sat in on his 2015 show.
“He’s basically conducting with in-ear headphones instead of a baton,” Menert said.
Pretty Lights changed Denver’s music profile. The biggest name in a strange new dance music beast was born in Colorado. Artists and fans alike flooded in after him.
In a post-Pretty Lights Denver, a new generation of musicians found the genre’s Emerald City.
Across the country, artists making this live-electronic mash-up flocked to play shows for the city’s homegrown legion of electro-soul fans. Local venues such as Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom and Red Rocks became legendary among artists and fans alike.
Few have drawn crowds like GRiZ, a saxophonist who pulls shimmering funk riffs over electronic-inspired breakbeats. GRiZ is Grant Kwiecinski, a 26-yearold Detroit native who moved to Boulder in the summer of 2011 after an invitation from his manager, who lived in the area. He soon fell in with Paper Diamond, a Colorado-born producer, and the Boulder studio he managed.
The music scene “in Boulder seemed so inviting and accepting,” Kwiecinski said.
In a makeshift shed-turned-studio used by Late Night Radio (Alex Medellin, 30, and drummer Tyler Unland, 29) in Denver’s Berkeley neighborhood, the foundling community comes into focus. Unland and Medellin are sitting in with Marvel Years, aka 22-year-old Cory Wythe. Unlike Medellin and Unland, Wythe doesn’t even live here, despite having played his first concert (and many after) at Cervantes in 2013, a show he said “spoiled him.”
“I thought every show was going to be as rowdy and awesome as Cervantes,” Wythe said. “I’ve never had a bad show out here.”
When I visited, the three took up a drum set, acoustic guitar and synthesizer and started to jam. It’s forced, and the sum of two different bands with different styles — Marvel Years veers toward guitarbannered funk, Late Night Radio prefers hip-hop syncopation — but their sounds dovetail fluidly, galloping to a pulse around Unland’s drums.
This compatibility isn’t an accident so much as a circumstance of electro-soul’s tight-knit scene here, where collaboration in the studio and on stage outweighs competition.
“There’s room for all artists, and the impact each one of us has on each other and our music is tremendous,” Unland said. “It feels like something before it had a name, like we have this early Motown-type vibe.”
An even playing field
Pretty Lights met hip-hop producer and current Pretty Lights drummer Adam Deitch after opening for STS9 in New York City. Deitch asked him straight up: Where are you from? Where is this happening?
“It was one of the first things he asked me,” Smith said. “‘How did you come up with this sound of hip-hop and electronic music fused together?’ He made such a big deal about it.”
When Smith told him it was in Colorado, Deitch couldn’t believe it. Especially back then, Colorado was musically equivalent to the middle of nowhere for someone like Deitch, who lived in New York City and had been working with rappers like Talib Kweli and 50 Cent.
“Colorado’s position in the country and right in the middle between the coasts made it so there wasn’t one kind of music or one scene that was really dominating,” Smith said.
Jazz on Wednesday, hip-hop on Thursday, house music on Friday — why not all three on Saturday? That’s Denver: a genre melting pot for the chronically musichungry. In this weird musical amalgam, it might just have found its soul food.
Alex Medellin (keyboard), Cory Wythe (guitar) and Tyler Unland (drums) of Late Night Radio and Marvel Years jam at a studio in Denver. EDM bands such as Late Night Radio, Sunsquabi and Marvel Years are part of Colorado’s uniquely thriving electrosoul scene — which continues to fly below many music fans’ radar.
Members of Sunsquabi, Dynohunter, Break Science and Late Night Radio take a bow after a show at the Ogden Theatre on Nov. 23. Provided by Cait Falc
Alex Medellin, keyboard, Cory Wythe, guitar, and Tyler Unland, drums, jam at their studio in Denver.
STS9 performs at Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Sept. 11, 2015.