In the Light with Jefferson Waful Part I
Photo by Kevin Browning
The new Umphreys McGee lighting designer has been a familiar figure in the jamband community since the mid-1990s. Indeed, journalist, band manager, radio host, and former moe. LD Jefferson Waful helped define the evolving improv scene en route to a formidable visual career. In late 2008, Waful filled in for longtime Umphreys LD Adam Budney at a few shows, and that gig became permanent earlier this year as the jam/prog rock band continues touring in support of their breakthrough album, Mantis.
We sat down with the former Uncle Sammy manager, Jambands.com writer, Jam Nation co-host (with site editor, Dean Budnick), and current light man extraordinaire for a look back at his musical background, numerous creative endeavors, lighting artistry, and the ways in which the Internet has changed the concert-going experience over the years.
Jefferson Waful is a talented lighting designer who has extensively studied the music that he helps illuminate on a nightly basis. It is this knowledge that also makes him such a fascinating interview subject as Waful continues to hone his own unique artistic gifts while recognizing the influences that we all, perhaps, share. Part I of our two-part series focuses on his current work, early exposure to music (and by early, we mean right after birth), the road that led from being a fan to radio broadcasts to band promotion to lighting design, and his thoughts on the impact of Chris Kuroda.
Photo by Ryan Myers
A few sounds re-create images from the painting (dogs barking, bells ringing)through the music, the painting becomes haunted, ghostlythe visual idea is devastating in itself. The Solaris Effect, Steven Dillon
RR: What’s the biggest challenge of taking over as the new lighting designer for Umphrey’s McGee?
JW: The biggest challenge is merely just learning all of their material. There is just so much of it, and it’s so complex—just the nature of the band, their compositions are very intricate. It seems to me that a lot of their earlier compositions, they purposely try to throw curve balls that keep the listener off balance so things aren’t in the standard rock time signature of 4/4. As a lighting designer, there are a lot of bands that I could step in and work for, and basically run the entire show the first time ever hearing them. To the viewer, it might not be noticeable that it’s a new lighting designer because there are certain formulas in rock music. I’ve done this before when I’ve worked at clubs where you stand in, and you work for a band, and it’s verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-guitar solo, and then, the drummer cues the big obvious ending. I can step in and do lights for a band like that on day 1, and it will look like part of the show.
Umphrey’s bends over backwards to make their songs not adhere to those standard rock formulas, which is really interesting and I think, ultimately, the payoff is a lot greater when I do actually nail all of those changes. It just takes a really long time to learn all of those because I can’t rely on my instincts and my 33 years of listening to music. You just have to memorize it all. That’s clearly the biggest challenge.
RR: Are there any particular songs that have posed an even greater challenge?
JW: I remember when I first started working for the band; songs like “Bridgeless” were tough. I remember the first times I did it, the infamous Rob Turner, who I know has done a lot of work for Jambands.com [and Relix], and is a big Umphrey’s fan, pulled me aside and said, “You should really learn that one.” (laughter) That one stuck out to him. I thought I was doing a great job, but apparently it wasn’t up to Rob Turner’s standards. I purposely went back and gave that one extra listening.
But yeah, it’s funny. There’s a whole category of songs. I downloaded them all and I keep them all on my iPhone so I can brush up on them. There’s a whole category of songs—probably 30 or 40 songs—that require extra listening. They do have—especially in the latter years—more traditional rock songs. But even those still have quirks in them that unless you’ve memorized them, and spent 5 to 10 listens of doing your homework, you’re going to get tripped up. It’s hard, again, for me to guess at the changes so it’s really muscle memory and that’s been the biggest challenge.
With moe., I had worked for them for almost 5 years so all of the songs were in my DNA. I had done them enough times that it was all instinct at that point. And that is where you want to be as a lighting designer. You want to take thinking out of the equation so that you’re not thinking about what’s coming next. You’re just living in the present moment, and you’re able to free your mind from the technical details, and just go with the flow, and be open to improvisation. When you’re thinking about the changes, you’re not able to prepare for what’s coming next. When you know exactly what’s going to happen, you’re not reacting, you’re anticipating. That’s really the key for me—always to be anticipating. The only way to do that is to know the music cold.
RR: That’s a very interesting comment. I’ve been speaking with a lot of guitarists lately, and that theme of muscle memory while on stage has come up quite often. I never thought about that aspect when trying to understand your lighting process. One of my early questions for you when researching this feature was “what is your approach in regards to pre-planning versus pure chance for lighting a gig”?
JW: To me, it is all very much like having a vast vocabulary. The more words you know, the more well-versed you’re going to be in conversation. I try to have as many different pre-programmed themes as possible in a catalogue that I can then call up at any particular moment, and I try to name them in certain ways. The naming process is really important because you’ll only have a split second a lot of the times if the band suddenly takes a turn. And, of course, a band like Umphrey’s McGee does a lot of improvisation, so much so that they have, you know, those “Jimmy Stewart” sections written into the setlist where’s it’s specifically improv exercises. It’s not just by chance, it’s planned—“third song in, we’re going to do a section of improv.” A lot of times, I need to know exactly where I’m going if they suddenly take a turn into an evil section, or a funk section, or a trance section, so I try to name all of the specific pre-programmed cues with names that I could easily think of in the moment, and I don’t have to do too much thinking.
I’ve equated it to Fred Norris on the Howard Stern show. I don’t know how familiar you are with the show, but Fred is the guy who does all of the sound effects. At any given time, as quickly as possible, he has to call up a sound effect that’s going to be appropriate. I’ve often thought that my job is so similar to his in that regard. To him, it’s all in the way that he categorizes it on his computer so that he can call up the appropriate fart noise during the conversation. If it’s not named the correct way, it might take him a little bit longer, and by that point, the moment’s gone. It’s not funny anymore if you’re five seconds too late. It’s the same thing with lighting. If I call up a pretty look five seconds after the band has gone to a pretty section, it doesn’t look right. You have to hit it exactly on cue, or else there’s no point in even doing it.
RR: And when you hit those moments, and the lighting doesn’t look completely rehearsed, I would think that would be the ultimate compliment, right?
JW: Absolutely. In an improvisational sense, yes. Anyone can memorize a song. If the goal is to be guessing the same way the band is, so that it’s almost that telepathic connection, then that is really what anyone is looking for in the improvisational world.
Whether you’re a fan at the show or you’re involved in the process, it’s always trying, I feel, to reach that point where you’re communicating seemingly telepathically, and that is certainly what I strive for.