At 7:15 on a sunny Thursday evening, I park my car at a metered spot right in front of the Electric Factory on North 11th Street in Philadelphia. It’s early, several hours before tonight’s headliner, Bassnectar, is set to take the stage, and in fact, the doors are just now opening. I head towards the Will Call booth to pick up my tickets and credentials for my pre-set interview with Michal Menert when, to my surprise, there he is, standing right in front of the gate on the street corner, being passed by hundreds of concertgoers who are too excited about getting their rowdy night started, to even notice that one of the names on the marquee is right in front of them.
Rocking black sneakers, black jeans, and a black sport coat topped off with a black fadora, he casually glances up and down the street, as if looking for someone. In his right hand is an open paper KFC soda cup with… well… not just soda in it. He’s sweating. I approach him and re-introduce myself (we had met briefly once backstage at The Blockley this past fall) and we chat briefly. He remembers me, sort of, and we’re quickly interrupted by some youngsters, who I assume are excited to see him and probably want autographs. Negative, rover. They’re looking for extra tickets. This seems to be a common occurrence for Menert. Does he mind going unrecognized before a show? Not particularly…
Menert: “I actually love being able to walk around a venue without the attention,” he says later in my interview. “Usually that changes after the show, but before the show it’s just nice looking like a scalper cause I’m not wearing neon. I’m dressed in all black and like 10 years older than most of the crowd,” he laughs.
We evade some more ticket hungry fans as he tries to hail a cab.
“Where you goin,” I ask.
I look at my watch, it’s 7:20, about 40 minutes before my interview and Menert is trying to flee the scene.
Menert: “Ah, my buddy lives not too far from here, I was gonna go chill before my set. I don’t go on until like 8:50 anyway.”
I glance over my right shoulder down North 7th Street at my car.
“Uh… I can give you a ride if you want?”
So off we go, me and Michal Menert, to drive off in my beater of an ’02 Elantra into north Philly. En route, I agree to conduct the interview after his set and after just a few minutes, thanks me for the ride, hops out a few blocks north on 5th Street, and wanders off into the early evening. At this point, all I can think is, my god, I hope he comes back. Otherwise, I’m the guy who made Michal Menert miss his set.
Alas, 9 pm rolls around, Thriftworks set comes to an end, and Menert promptly succeeds him. He wins the crowd, as he always does, even though most of whom, based on our experience earlier that evening, probably don’t know who he is. Though you’d never hear Menert come on any Bassnectar Pandora or Spotify radio, or vice versa, the atmosphere of immensely positive vibes is similar. Both artists are masters at their craft, the creation of music for the enjoyment of life. Electronic fans can sense this, and they enjoy the show appropriately.
You can’t avoid enjoying a Michal Menert set. You can only be mesmerized as if you’re watching an artist paint their masterpiece every time. There’s no struggle, it’s just flow and passion. Being on stage, performing, this is Menert’s place in life. If you’ve ever spent any amount of time with him off the stage, you’d know that immediately. Athletes talk about being in the zone… this is his zone. “When I’m on stage, time slows down,” Menert would explain later. He, like many of his listeners, seems to simply get lost in his performance.
He’s been making music for over 15 years now and touring for over 10 of them. And magically, he’s still having fun with it. As much fun as he has performing in front of 3000 people, and as comfortable as he seems on stage, he’s noticeably uncomfortable when charged to talk about any accomplishments he may have had at this point in his career, and quick to place emphasis on the relationships and friendships he’s formed and maintained over the years with his best friends and fellow Pretty Lights Music labelmates including Pretty Lights, Gramatik, Paper Diamond, Break Science and Supervision.
“It wasn’t a label based on marketing or commercial success, it was a label based on a crew, which was kind of what we grew up on,” says Menert of the creation of the PLM label. “That’s all it is, us growing up and idolizing Hieroglyphics and Wu-Tang Clan and Living Legends and all those hip hop groups and imagining ourselves… if we could do this and be there with our friends and touring around. It just so happens it’s some of the best production in my opinion, that I listen to, and it happens to be my friends.”
Many forget, or are just ignorant to the fact that Pretty Lights Music label started in large part to Menert. Though released under the moniker of Pretty Lights, which has since been the performing name of Derek Vincent Smith alone, the original album Taking Up Your Precious Time was co-produced by Menert.
Unfortunately Menert was too busy dealing with personal issues like getting stabbed and caring for his father who was dying of cancer to enjoy the levels of success to which Derek was taking Pretty Lights. When Michal Menert was ready to come back, they had to make a decision. That decision created a movement.
“The label came along when I had gone through my turmoils and troubles and derek had laid a foundation and taken this shit national and international and turned the dream into a reality. I came back and we were talking about how it doesn’t make much sense for me to release as ‘Michal Menert of Pretty Lights.’ He was trying to help me get my stuff out without it seeming weird or looking like I was riding his coattails. I was kind of the guinea pig of the label. We were like okay we’re gonna release this album (“Dreaming of a Bigger Life”) and see how this works and give it away for free and start this PLM thing.”
Though he speaks highly of all his PLM friends, there remains a bit of an underdog — a me against the world — tone. A short time ago, he made public via twitter his discovery that, although being a founding member of the PLM label, he was the last one to have his own Pandora station. Though easy to see this complaint as petty, one can rest assured that it was not a complaint, simply an observation, and even if it were, it wouldn’t have been petty, considering what he’s been through. He mentions these hard times, but doesn’t dwell on them, nor does he use them as an excuse, but rather inspiration, especially for his second album “Even If It Isn’t Right.”
“Life has been full of ups and downs. I’ve been stabbed, I’ve been told I was going to die, I produced the first pretty lights album and then while I was recovering watched my best friend blow up with that and I was happy for him, but it’s still like watching a dream of yours drift away from you, not because of anybody, but because of the circumstances and shit like that. I watched my dad die in my arms of cancer. I’ve had all these moments in my life that make me realize if i’m gonna do this I’m gonna do it now.”
It’s this same carpe diem attitude that makes him enjoy his time on stages big and small, and helps explain his tendency to make appearances at random small aftershow parties in the cities he plays in, “what better time to do it than after a show. And especially this tour, when the show ends at like 12 or 12:30. Being able to go to someone’s house and make their night and have fun and have that release for me.” He continues, “Especially house parties like that. you can just fuck around and you can have fun and no one is like ‘Oh I paid $30 for this, blah blah” and people aren’t there just to see bassnectar. They’re there to party and you can create this night that people remember and you remember and it’s this fun thing with no pressure along with it.”
Menert’s lust for fun in this business doesn’t come without that pressure, but his performances, especially the afterparties, are his way of handling it.
“It’s one of those things, when you’re living as an artist, I feel like so much of your life is caught up in you. You’re focused around you and the ego can take over and it can become this thing where you’re really centered around, I gotta think about how I’m going to blow up or how I’m going to do this or that and it’s the one time (performing) where that doesn’t happen for me.”
Tonight is no exception to his afterparty enjoyment. We conclude the interview and I thank him for his time. In fact, our interview, a scheduled 5-10 minutes, turned into 30 minutes. He tells me he has a couple of afterparties lined up, and asks if I’d like to join and of course, I do. Over the next 5 hours we bounce around different areas of the city, end up in a few different small apartment parties, mostly of college age kids, and I get to see exactly the kind of nights he was talking about. It’s not about a certain lifestyle for him. It’s not about “blowing up” or headlining festivals (though it’d be nice to get asked to more than just Electric Forest and Arise) or the fight to be known as a producer rather than a DJ (he’s currently working on an essay for his website that’ll explain the two, and he’s taking it very seriously). It’s that he’s making a living doing what he loves, making music.
“I came from a place where i want to have that visceral ethereal melding between reality and fantasy when I’m on stage and that love for what I do. I’d rather sit there and have 90% of the room stare at me and only 10% get it and love it and say ‘This is what I needed,’ than have 100% of the room dig it but have none of it be me.”
Menert isn’t planning on being anything other than himself anytime soon. He’s still on tour with Bassnectar and when that’s all up, it’s festival season, and then a fall headlining tour is in the mix. Oh yeah, and at some point, in his free time, he has plans to open up his own organic sushi restaurant in Colorado. Because that’s just Menert being Menert.