Features, Print July 12, 2022

Michal Menert: Things Burn Down

by Gabe Allen

Michal Menert has been thinking about fire.

The fires that have burned vast tracts of land near his childhood home in Colorado and not far from his former home in California. The fire that burned a warehouse full of his merch in Detroit last December. A fire that burned down the house in Fort Collins where he used to live with his bandmates in 2004. And all of the other metaphorical fires that have raged through his life over the years. 

“Things burn down and then you watch the flowers grow back out of the cracks,” Menert reflected in an interview with BandWagon.

The theme has permeated the Pretty Lights cofounder’s music in recent months. While Menert’s last release was a chilled-out downtempo salve for the loneliness and dread of pandemic lockdowns, his upcoming album is energetic, chaotic and regenerative.

It’s a return to form. And, fittingly, Menert has also returned home. In 2016, he left Colorado to work as a producer and sound engineer for Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead. He and his wife settled into the small, coastal town of Gualala, California. But the couple returned to the front range in October of last year in order to take care of his mother, who is confronting health issues. The return was bittersweet, but Menert is glad to be back. 

“We lived on the coast in a remote and very beautiful place. But, especially during COVID, it was hard to see the people that we cared about,” Menert said. “I missed having a scene of friends and musicians and feeling like I was a part of something.”

After a five-year hiatus, Menert is once again a mainstay of the Northern Colorado music scene. He now lives in Denver and hosts a Vinyl DJ night at Rosetta Hall in Boulder every Monday. He has also begun to host a “quarterly” show at the Lyric in Fort Collins where he collaborates with visual effects wizard Baxter Long. On July 16, he will be joined by a cast of danceable Colorado acts for his third show at the Lyric entitled phasingfade:summer.

In keeping with the theme, Menert’s set will trace a narrative of fire and regrowth.

“It’s about watching things burn, but realizing that they’re just things,” he said. “And realizing that the pain of losing them actually creates space.”

This is a lesson that Menert has had to learn more than once. The most catastrophic fire, figuratively, happened early on in his music career. In 2006, Menert and Pretty Lights cofounder Derek Vincent Smith regularly hosted DIY parties, played shows and toured with a rotating cast of friends and collaborators. They were playing enough shows that they couldn’t work regular jobs. Still Menert wasn’t yet making quite enough money to live, in part because of a worsening opiate addiction.

So, like many entrepreneurial aspiring artists before and after him, he got a side hustle: growing and selling weed. One day, while sitting in the studio with Smith, Menert got a call from a customer that he hadn’t heard from in a while.

“This kid used to regularly buy weed from me, but he had disappeared for a few months,” Menert remembered.

The customer told him that a few of his friends wanted to buy a half pound. The customers were also in a rap group. Menert should bring his laptop to the meetup so that he could show them some beats.

“It turned out he was buying meth from these guys and probably owed them money,” Menert said. “So, he brought in someone who was worth the money.”

When Menert got to the deal in Loveland, the three phony buyers pulled out knives. But they were spooked by his six-foot-three hulking frame. Before Menert could fully process what was happening, he was laying on the ground with lacerations on his hands and a deep stab wound in his chest. He was rushed to McKee Medical Center, where doctors saved his life.

The ensuing months planted the seeds for flowers to grow. But, at the time, Menert still felt like he was in the fire. Once he could walk again, he started tinkering. But playing music like he had been was off the table — he could barely move his right hand. Then his father, a librarian at the same detention facility that Menert’s assailants were locked in, fell ill. Menert became his caretaker as he battled cancer.

Meanwhile Menert and Smith’s pet project, Pretty Lights, was taking off online. Smith left Menert behind and began touring the international festival circuit.

“At the time I couldn’t understand why this had happened to me and why I wasn’t a part of a group that I had started,” Menert said. 

Now he looks back on that time fondly. He spent lots of time with his father during his last years of life, kicked opiates for good and developed a wicked crush on a Walmart coworker who was putting herself through nursing school. Fifteen years later, they’re still married.

When Menert was finally able to return to music fully, he immersed himself. Over the past 12 years, he has released 12 albums — thirteen if you include the one that he produced for Mickey Hart. His passion for music is so great that he regularly juggles a multitude of projects with different collaborators. In late July, he will release his next album.

For now, Menert embodies the flowers growing from charred earth. One day the flames might come for him again. 

“I don’t think I’m ready for my happy ending yet. I’m still rising out of the ashes and I still might burn down a few times,” he told BandWagon. “But I’m ready for it.”

Michael Menert will perform Saturday, July 16 at The Lyric in Fort Collins alongside several other acts for the phasingfade:summer event. His new album is due out later this month. For more, visit menertmusic.com