In the Light with Jefferson Waful Part I
Photo by Brett Saul
...and every man will be welcome among us who can teach us any thing we do not know. For your part, you will find all your old friends willing to receive you. – Life of Johnson, James Boswell
RR: Phish lighting designer Chris Kuroda is obviously someone who has received a small bit of praise in his two-decade career. What has been the impact of his work on your own lighting design?
JW: I have been drawn to his light show since probably 1993. I first interviewed him in 1998 for Jambands.com, and I got much more of a grasp of what he does on a technical level. He has undoubtedly been the biggest influence on me—almost to a fault. It is something that I struggle with a lot, trying to not have my light show not look like his. But, you know, I saw a lot of Phish shows so, you are what you eat. It’s the same way that Trey had to try to not sound like Jerry when he first started playing. Any musician, or any artist—you take what you know and you try to make it your own.
For me, it’s been really interesting because of the timing of the way that everything worked out. When Phish broke up in 2004, I was literally in training on my first day on how to use the light board that I currently use—a GrandMA console. I was using that for the first time when I got a phone call saying, “I just heard Phish broke up.” The timing of my job with moe. was a little bit eerie to me. Then, of course, I’ve moved on to Umphrey’s McGee and now Phish is back, so my entire career as a professional lighting designer occurred while Phish was off the road.
In a big way, that was a blessing because I wasn’t actively seeing Phish. I was able to try to find my own style. Obviously, still, in the context of lighting, I feel that Chris really invented a style that a whole generation of LDs are influenced by. He took moving lights, and used the movement of the lights…I mean, Pink Floyd and Genesis obviously did this, but really, to me, he took it to a whole other level where he uses the slow movement and the grace, and it always looked like a ballerina dancer gracefully dancing to the music. It wasn’t necessarily about lighting up a subject. Clearly, you want the band members to be lit, but also, there’s this whole other picture being painted above the stage. The slow movement of the lights from point A to point B became, to me, what was his trademark.
There are still old school lighting designers to this day that came of age before moving lights were invented so they use moving lights now as key lights to light up a subject matter, but they don’t actually use the movement of the lights themselves as part of the show. Clearly, most people do at this point, but I felt like that was one of the things that I was influenced most by Kuroda. If the band is playing very frantically at a hyper speed, the lights moving really slowly creates much more drama than trying to match the speed or tempo of the band.
I started doing lights professionally while Phish was off the road, and now that they’re back, going to see them with a different frame of reference, it is interesting to me to see the things that I was sort of subconsciously influenced by. Because again, when you’ve seen a band over a hundred times, a lot of that stuff just winds up being in your blood, in your subconscious. I wasn’t doing it on purpose. I talked about not thinking while doing a light show. You need to have some frame of reference so you wind up doing what you’re…basically, it’s the meaning of life: you do what you know, and it is the same way I wound up in the music business because I was exposed to music as a child. I moved the lights slowly during a dramatic part because that’s the way I learned to interpret music and lights.
It’s interesting to come back now and watch Kuroda work because not only do I notice things that I do as a result of what I’ve seen him do, but I also notice things that I would do differently which is a really weird thing to me. He was always the be-all end-all to me, and now I think “maybe I would have gone with yellow right there.” But, you know, he is the grandfather of that style of lighting and he’s influenced a whole generation. To me, it’s about taking what I like about his stuff, trying to make it new, and make my show look different because, as an artist, you need to find your own voice. It’s important to have influences, and everyone has them, but it’s also important to find your own direction—that is something that I try to do constantly.
Photo by Kevin Browning
Here is the loudest band in the history of rock, playing behind a monolithic sound system with stacks of Marshall amps looking like some Aztec monument to the Gods, and you can’t hear them over the applause. “This…*this* is a rock concert.” – *Led Zeppelin: Heaven and Hell*, Charles R. Cross and Erik Flannigan
RR: Let’s go back to the beginning—as far back as you want to go. How did your interest in music develop over the years?
JW: Well, you’re going to think I’m making this up, but my first word was “light.” I feel very fortunate that it wasn’t “insurance salesman.” I was in my grandparents’ kitchen in Syracuse, New York, which is the city where I was born, and I looked up and pointed at the light, and said, “dight” with a d. I haven’t mispronounced it since, but you have to cut me a little slack, as I believe I was less than a year old. From then on, my grandfather called me The Dighter.
It was actually fitting because my tryout shows for moe. were in Mattydale, New York, which is very close to Syracuse, and only a few miles from where my first words were spoken, and where I was born. And just two days ago, Umphrey’s played in Baldwinsville [6/27/09], which is also just outside of Syracuse. My 92-year old grandfather came to the show, met the band, and watched part of the first song. He’s a musician, as well. Music has always been in my family. He’s played the trombone for 70 years. My dad is a musician. He plays guitar, and my mom is a visual artist, so I’m really a product of my environment. I was always surrounded by music.
RR: Do you play any musical instruments?
JW: There was a music room in the house where I lived as a baby, up until the age of 5. It was like a second living room. It had a Mexican rug and a little drum set that I used to play. I think that drums were actually my first instrument. That was just by chance because it’s easier to bang on drums than to form an F chord on guitar when you’re a toddler. Then I moved on to guitar when I was 2 or 3, and there has been an acoustic guitar in my room my entire life. I used to play music with my dad all the time. Even when I was 5 years old, we would have a jam session, and I would either bang on a tambourine, or a bongo. As I got a little bit older, and my dexterity matured, I was able to form chords, and I’ve played guitar ever since.
My parents took me to my first concert when I was two weeks old—Jesse Colin Young. They were in the second row. Now—that seems completely inappropriate for an infant. But at the time, the technology hadn’t progressed to the point where it is now, where it’s just so loud that you can’t even get near the stage. At the time, [my dad] told me he’d go to concerts and put his ear right up next to the speaker to try to hear better. Now—you’d be deaf. But at the time, they hadn’t invented the technology for speakers to be loud enough like they are now. He would literally put his ear up to the speaker. Being in the second row would be like being at a symphony now—you want to be as close as you can to try to hear. Apparently, this was right on the cusp of when that technology was coming out, and as soon as the band started up, it became obvious that it was way too loud, and they ran out of there. My whole body stiffened up, and my parents worried that they had ruined me. And I guess, in a weird way, they did; here I am, all these years later. Thank God.
RR: Yeah. We’re talking mid-70s, here, right?
JW: 1975. Yep.
RR: What sort of music did you get turned on to as you grew up?
JW: As a kid, just like most kids, I was turned on to the music that my parents listened to. Neil Young was always at the top of that list—Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young was my parents’ first date. The Beatles, obviously. Bob Marley. I remember always listening to Fleetwood Mac. All the classics. It’s funny that, to this day, I still list those as probably my top five favorite bands as far as classic artists. Like I said, I’m a product of my environment. Music was always a priority in my family. And still is. My dad still gigs out to this day.
As I got a little bit older, and reached my adolescence, I branched out and started listening to some music that was more of my own that my parents weren’t in to. I went through my rap phase with Public Enemy. I went through a Zeppelin phase. My parents love rock ‘n’ roll but I don’t think they were ever particularly drawn to Led Zeppelin for whatever reason. That was more of my thing.
We have to remember there was no internet back then, which is hard to imagine, so I didn’t hear Phish until I graduated from high school because there would have been no way of hearing of them except for word of mouth, and I was stranded out on Cape Cod where I grew up. When I got out of high school, I saw my first Phish show at the age of 17, which was 1993, and that became more of my generation’s thing.
My parents were always encouraging, and the first time I ever went to a Phish show, I felt very connected to my parents because it looked like Woodstock. The people all looked the same. The vibe seemed the same. My dad was at Woodstock so it really reminded me of all of his stories and all of this documentary footage that I had always seen of the 60s.
It felt very natural to me, and I brought my parents to some shows. But seeing that first Phish show—like pretty much everyone my age—sort of changed the course of my life, and was the beginning of me working in the industry, and being so passionate about this style of music, which led me to all of these other bands.