In the Light with Jefferson Waful Part I
Photo by Kevin Browning
We may have had to do things the hard way, but it also meant we had to put in the effort to get it right. – *Here, There and Everywhere*, Geoff Emerick and Howard Massey
RR: How did you get more involved in the music scene, including your stints as a radio broadcaster, band manager, and music journalist?
JW: It’s hard to trace back where everything started. I’m sure most of it started when I was in the second row at Jesse Colin Young when I was five days old, or whatever. As far as specifics, I used to talk to my dad about music all the time, and hear the stories of the 60s. He had a big, thick book, which I’ve talked about with other people in the industry, and they all talk about this book, Bill Graham Presents [My Life Inside Rock and Out, co-written by the promoter and writer Robert Greenfield].
I remember talking to Andrew Stahl at Gamelan Productions, and that actually has to do with the story because one of my first jobs in the industry had to do with Gamelan Productions, who put on the Berkshire Mountain Music Festival, and were a big jamband promoter in the mid-90s in Boston, and that actually led into me managing Uncle Sammy. I sort of innocently asked [Stahl] at one point: “Have you ever read this book?” And he laughed and said, “Yeah, that’s my bible.”
It’s such great insight of a behind the scenes vision of what actually happened in the music industry. To me, it was just so fascinating to go through the glossary, and I used to look up my favorite bands. You could jump to page 328, and read about the time the promoter got into a fight with the security guard over Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and Bill Graham slipping one hundred dollar bills underneath the door to the backstage, trying to coax them into doing an encore after they swore they wouldn’t do one, and telling the light guy to turn down the house lights so the crowd would cheer, and the band would hear them cheering and that would make them more motivated to come back. All of these stories were so fascinating to me. I was also watching Behind the Music on VH-1, religiously, and I lived with all of the Uncle Sammy guys in a big house, and that’s what we watched at 2 in the morning, or whenever it was on.
I was in college at the time. I went to Emerson in Boston, and I was a Broadcast Journalism major. I had a radio show called “Space Jam” on WERS, and this was before the term “jambands” had really been coined. We were calling it psychedelic rock, or improvisational rock. This would have been 1995 when I started there. I inherited the show from somebody that had already graduated; the show already existed, and it was originally called “Psychedelic Crunch.” The only people that would remember “Psychedelic Crunch” would be people that were in Boston at the time, and bands like the Spin Doctors, Blues Traveler, God Street Wine, and I think moe. probably was on there. I remember inheriting these shoeboxes of CDs of all the bands that had been on “Psychedelic Crunch.” There weren’t really a lot of other jamband shows at the time. I’m sure there were a couple in some small college markets, but as far as I know of, that was one of the only places where, now, what we call jambands, would be played.
I inherited these couple shoeboxes of CDs, and I played the song “Timmy Tucker” by moe., and that was one of the songs that I was really into. I knew of Phish at the time, which is what led me to do that show, so at the time, I was looking for bands that sounded like Phish. I remember Percy Hill had the song “Been So Long”—that was also in the shoebox. I did that show, and I was using my background as a Broadcast Journalism major—that’s why I was there.
Ultimately, what wound up happening was that I became more entangled in the music industry side of things than the journalism side of things, and clearly, I was using both skill sets. That’s when I picked up a pay phone—before cell phones existed—and I called up Gamelan Productions because they were the local promoter that did these jambands shows, and I said, “Hi, I’m Jeff and I do this radio show, and I want to promote your concerts and give away tickets.” The guy who was on the other end of the phone was Andrew Stahl, and he, of course, jumped at the chance to get publicity for his shows. We started working together, and I started doing ticket giveaways, and having bands that would come to town, come in and do live performances in our studio. That was one of the things that was very fortunate—they had this whole recording studio, in house, at the radio station. You could have bands come in and create these amazing recordings, and go out live over the air. The bands, of course, would jump at the chance. None of these bands were getting airplay on a lot of other stations. Boston is such a major market as far as college kids. They have more college kids than almost any other city.
It really was this lucky timing coincidence that all of these things were happening. Gamelan was doing these jamband shows, Phish was inheriting this throne from the Grateful Dead, and all of these things were happening at the same time. That was really when I started to learn about the music industry. I wound up working with Gamelan after that, and that’s when I started managing Uncle Sammy because I had these friends who went to the Berklee School of Music, and I saw the potential in them. I said, “Hey, you guys should start a band because we have all of these outlets to promote you. I could get you a gig through Gamelan, and I could talk to these people that I know, and spread the word.”
That’s actually how I met Dean Budnick [author, filmmaker, Relix Executive Editor, Jambands.com Site Editor, Waful’s Jam Nation co-host, and driver of the Winnebago]. I eventually came to work for Jambands.com because I had met Dean when he was promoting his book The Phishing Manual. He came on the radio show to talk about the book. I was so fascinated by this guy who had heard every Phish show up to that point. That was Dean’s method of writing the book—he listened to every Phish show in chronological order, and to me that blew my mind that he even had all these shows on tape because, at the time, that was hard to do. You couldn’t just download the show. You had to know someone who taped, or you had to be a taper yourself. You had to collect these tapes. I don’t even know if people know what tapes are anymore. At the time, it was Maxell XLII—that was the form. Ten years later, Dean and I were eventually doing a jamband radio show together, but that was originally how we met, through WERS in Boston.
Photo by Brett Saul
High up above, aliens hover, making home movies for the folks back home… – “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” Radiohead, OK Computer
RR: You mentioned “word of mouth” being the way you got into Phish back in the early 1990s, which would eventually lead to your career in the music industry. There are various opinions of that concept, but I think some people don’t realize how critical the simple passing of knowledge from fan to fan was in that era. How important was word of mouth communication back in those days?
JW: It absolutely was critical. It was the only thing that there was. Certainly Rolling Stone wasn’t writing about Phish. The H.O.R.D.E. festival had happened, and I felt that came out of the Wetlands scene. Clearly, word of mouth is a lot more effective when you’re in a city with 10,000,000 plus people. Being out on Cape Cod, as I was, nobody really knew anything about that. I learned about Phish through a buddy of mine who went to prep school. He had heard word of mouth because he had lived with kids who were from other major metropolitan areas and had older brothers that had gone to Wetlands, and Phish played prep schools and that was the way that people learned about them. I’ve told this story before, but the first time I was going to see Phish, I thought I was going to see Fishbone. That was about as much as I knew about the band. I associated their name with Fishbone—that’s who I thought I was going to see, so word of mouth was everything back then.
It’s so different these days. That’s a whole other discussion—the fact that the Internet has not only helped the music scene tremendously, and made it explode, but it has also hindered it in some ways. It takes away some of the mythical qualities and some of the magical qualities when you can hear the show the next morning, or a couple of hours later, or in an extreme case, streaming on an iPhone live during the show, and you’re getting text updates every song. It takes away some of the legend of hearing it told in a folklore sort of way—the camp fire discussions, the water cooler discussions, and people saying, “I heard the Grateful Dead playing this song last week, and it was the first time they had played it in ten years.”
I feel like, now, the Internet has made everything so immediate. And people spend half the show, at best, probably even more, looking at their phone, instead of actually experiencing the moment live. They are trying to text, or e-mail, people that aren’t there, to fill them in on how great the experience is. It’s hard for the person recounting the story to recount it if they’re spending their time on their phone. It’s an interesting phenomenon.
RR: I’m glad you brought that up because you’ve had various roles within the music scene, and now you are an established lighting designer. If one is looking down at a phone throughout a gig, then one is missing the whole visual experience. Do you try to tell a story with your work, creating a unique adventure at each gig?
JW: Well, that’s certainly the goal. The goal is always to be so immersed in the music that you’re not thinking about anything else. The goal is to have a Zen-like experience, and it’s a tricky balance because a lot of times I’m paying close attention to the music, but I’m also trying to use as much as my energy as possible to do a good light show. It’s a tricky balance to be hanging on every note of the music, but again, trying to anticipate where it’s going, and have something ready.
As a fan, if you’re at a show, you’re trying to immerse yourself in the music, and not think about anything, just be hanging on every note. As a lighting designer, I try to do that as much as possible, but at the same time, I’m still working. I’m still trying to have something ready to go so I can’t completely lose myself in the music, but I want to lose myself as much as I can and still do my job.
A lot of times, after the show, one of the band members will come up to me and ask, “What did you think?” I’ll say, “Well…” It’s hard for me to know because I was focusing so much on doing my job that it was hard for me to actually form an opinion on how the music was. Usually, the way I can tell is if I think I had a really good night, lighting wise, usually those nights are the nights when the band plays the best. When the band is cranking on all cylinders, when they’re playing a really great show, it makes my job easy because, ultimately, I’m just following the band. When they’re clicking, when they’re having that telepathic communication, it allows me to effortlessly light them. It just seems natural. It just seems like “oh, obviously, we’re all going to go to this weird section right now spontaneously because it’s just what the cosmos is telling us, and we’re all feeling that energy.” That has to do with the crowd, that has to do with the band members being in the right frame of mind, and when all of those things are happening, and everyone reaches that place where it just seems like the obvious place for the music to go, then it makes my job obvious, too. “Here we are, and the lights are going to do this particular thing at this particular moment because it’s the right thing to do according to the universe.” And those are the nights that are magical—when the band says, “How was it?” and I say, “Absolutely amazing.” To me, that means that everything was clicking and it makes my job pretty effortless.
- Tune in next month for Part II and more from Jefferson Waful on his lighting design, years writing for Jambands.com, his radio work, his time as the moe. lighting designer, and his further observations on the evolving light work of Phish LD Chris Kuroda.