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The Zephyr’s DJ Weez sat down for an exclusive interview yesterday with Michal Menert, who will be playing 3/20 at Samana.

Click here to listen to the interview!

Menert was born in Poland in the early 1980s, under the oppressive rule of the Soviet Union. His parents, both hard-working professionals in academia and industry, would fill the house with banned books and Western music. Menert, even as a child, was aware of the strains Communist rule was putting on his household.  He remembers asking how he and his parents would ever get out if they couldn’t get visas. He was only three years old.

The family finally did make its escape—to West Germany, and then on to England. Menert’s father had been obsessed with computers, and his early adoption of the fledgling internet led him and the family to Hewlett-Packard in Colorado. Michal’s life would later come full circle, as early adoption by the internet community will serve as the backbone of his music career.

In addition to computers, Menert’s father was also enamored with computerized music, introducing his young son to Vangelis and the Yamaha DX7, an early commercial programmable synthesizer. Michal learned piano on the machine through the early 1990s, picking away at the drum machines and sequencers his father collected in the spare bedroom. The piano gave way to grunge and guitar lessons. Menert’s drive to compose and write songs led him away from soloing and performance, and more towards the funk and groove of Parliament and James Brown, thanks in part to an attentive teacher.

On his way to the bus stop as an early teen, Menert ran into another big kid hauling an oversized hard case. He found a friend—and more importantly, a bass player—in Derek Vincent Smith. The pair quickly recruited Paul Brandt (later, Paul Basic) a drummer Smith knew, and The Freeze was born. Mixing the prog of Yes with the hip-hop sound of the mid-90s, the trio began to play out, making a name for themselves in Ft. Collins and winning studio time in Battle of the Bands competitions, before moving to Boulder for college.

The band broke up after only a year, and Menert and Smith moved back to Ft. Collins. They rekindled a music relationship with Cory Eberhard, an old friend and drummer who had played in bands the pair looked up to as kids. Along with some instrumentalists and vocalists, and a philosophy professor/dj by the name of Ken Bailey from a neighboring university, Listen was formed. The live hip-hop outfit toured Colorado, Montana, California, and the Pacific Northwest for 5 years, between 2001 and 2006, playing to half-empty bars and endless miles of road.

The hard-touring life led Smith and Menert to produce their own brand of downtempo, instrumental hip-hop as a side project, crafting songs that didn’t fit the live aesthetic, but had a life all their own. Menert and Smith shared a love of funk, soul, and hip-hop, and spent a great deal of time digging through crates to find the perfect record to sample. Much of these productions by the pair became Taking Up Your Precious Time, the debut Pretty Lights album. Menert and Smith knew how difficult it was to get fans to buy a $10 CD, so they decided to release the album for free online. Tracking down fans of DJ Shadow and Bonobo through MySpace, they would spend hours at a time sending messages to random kids telling them to download this free album. Many wrote angry messages back, rejecting their attempts at publicity as spam, but the pair got a lot of support from fellow artists.

While the album was slowly gaining momentum online, Michal’s troubles were just beginning. Smith and Menert had taken up life on the wrong side of the law in order to support the constant touring and little pay Listen was earning. Shortly after the release of the debut album, Menert was jumped during a deal gone bad. In the process of holding off a shotgun attack, Menert’s hand was slashed with a knife, nearly taking off his fingers at the knuckles, and lacerating his thumb like an overcooked hotdog. In attempt to extricate himself from the situation, he was stabbed an inch and a half below his heart, tearing parts of his stomach, pancreas, and liver in the process. Through luck alone, Menert was able to stagger out of the house, into his car, and flag down help at the nearest intersection. Months of recovery in the hospital left him with no medical insurance, a barely functioning hand, and a strained relationship with Derek Vincent Smith.

Menert was in need of a change. He found a job at Wal-Mart, which came with much needed health benefits. After a second surgery, and much rehabilitation, he learned he would be able to regain full functionality of his hand and fingers, allowing him to make a slow return to the guitar and synths of his youth. He fooled around with indie and synth-pop tunes with The Years, and produced a few tracks as Half Color with Paul Basic.

Meanwhile, Derek Vincent Smith had stumbled upon some old Pretty Lights material, and tried to convince his old friend to release some of his backlogged material. “Starfall” had made its way into a few PL sets, and he had already produced “Heart Attack” with Benjamin Linder O’Neill. Eventually, Menert compiled enough material for his debut release, Dreaming of a Bigger Life. He became the first artist signed to the new Pretty Lights Music label, and the response from fans instantaneous. He began to play shows for a growing fan base, juxtaposing his soulful hip-hop stylings against the harsh dubstep and blaring electro party music of his peers on festival bills.

After a couple of years of headlining around the country with the burgeoning PLM roster, including runs with Gramatik, Paul Basic, SuperVision, Paper Diamond, and Break Science, Menert had collected enough material for a sprawling double-album, Even If It Isn’t Right. A complete lifestyle change, coupled with the loss of his father injected the twenty-plus track set with a mournful sense of melancholy, sweet at times, and bitter at others.

Now, Menert is in the process of developing his first EP, Elements. Based on his love of alchemical lore, he is attempting to spin the basic elements from the world around him, in the form of samples, into gold—achieving what ancient and present-day alchemists could never do. Each month he is releasing a track based on each of the four elements: fire, water, wind, and earth, and in the spring of 2013, will release a 10” with all four tracks, along with bonus material. Coming full circle from his days of free music, he’ll finally be able to give his fans something tangible to collect and keep. And in some small way, when some of his fans will have to rush out and find a turntable so they can play the custom vinyl print, he’ll be passing on his love of crate-digging to a whole new generation.