In The Light with Jefferson Waful – Part II
I needed not only the sound track of control but the image track as well before I could take definitive action… – *The Soft Machine*, William S. Burroughs
Photo by Jeff Waful
RR: How did you break into the field of lighting design?
JW: Believe it or not, that also goes back to WERS in Boston because I had a band that I became friendly with called Jiggle the Handle. Their light guy at the time was a guy named Jack Trifiro. He’s worked with a lot of guys, but most recently he can be found as the sound man for Assembly of Dust. He became a sound guy shortly thereafter, but at the time, he was a lighting guy. I thought it would be a cool if when Jiggle the Handle came in to the studio to record they had a light show. I’ve always been a fan of irony, so having a light show for a live radio broadcast was right up my alley. But, not just for the sake of irony, which would be plenty, but because we were going to bring in ten fans and it would sort of create the vibe, and the band would play better if they had their light show going, and they would have the energy of these ten fans dancing in the studio.
I had to jump through hoops and get special permission, but ultimately, it was a Sunday, for some reason my shows always wound up on Sundays, you know, competing with The Simpsons, but we were able to bring in this little light show. As the band is setting up, and getting ready to soundcheck, I just asked Jack out of curiosity: “Hey, is it cool if I play around with the lights?” He said, “Sure.” So I started tapping the lights to Jiggle the Handle as they were soundchecking, and that was the first time I had done lights.
I took an interest to it. I’ve always been a very visual person. I’ve always associated music with lights. I grew up going to the beach all the time, watching the sunset over the water, and I think that was one of my earliest influences—sunsets, sunrises, and nature. I continued to fill in at times and help out Jiggle the Handle, I believe, because I think Jack made the switch to doing sound, and he had this little light rig that he owned. For some of the shows that were in the area that I could get to, I would go and I would flick the lights. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I knew the music and so I have always thought, to this day, that knowing music is much more important than having any kind of technical background. The technical knowledge is important, and that’s all stuff that you can learn, but music has to be more ingrained, has to be more second nature.
People ask me from time to time: “Hey, how did you get involved? Do you have any advice? I want to be a light guy.” I just say, “Learn the music. That’s more important.” I knew Jiggle the Handle’s music and I would flick the lights. I had rhythm but I didn’t necessarily know what I was flicking. I would hit the button, and the stage would turn red. To me, that was the same thing as hitting an E chord. Ultimately, you’re just trying to coincide with The One at the end of the day, and make the lights look pretty, evoke certain moods that the music evokes.
I did that for a few years. When Uncle Sammy was a band, I would flick the lights at Harper’s Ferry, which is the local bar. I remember there was even a show we played at Club Helsinki, and my friends who were there that night still love to talk about this. It was the night before Berkfest and Addison Groove Project and Uncle Sammy played at Club Helsinki which is this tiny, tiny little bar, and there were no lights whatsoever except for these actual light bulbs that were in the ceiling. I think there were a couple of red bulbs and a couple of normal white bulbs, and at a certain part of the song, I started flipping the switches which are behind the bar. I asked the bartender if I could go behind the bar, and they were literally just wall switches, and I would flip them on and off to coincide with this complex section of the song. My friends thought that was the most hilarious thing.
Now, when I’m doing the lights at Radio City Music Hall, or some of these bigger venues, they always say, “Oh, I remember when you were just flicking those wall switches.” Again, to me, it’s the same thing. Even if you’re at Radio City, or Red Rocks, if you’re hitting the button in time to the music, you’re still doing the same thing. The lights may be bigger, the light rig may be more complex, but really, it’s still just my hand on the button. It’s the same thing as flicking those wall switches. As long as you’re in time with the music, that’s more important than anything happening on a technical level.
RR: Let me ask you a question that may appear like it has a simple answer. Uncle Sammy and Jiggle the Handle were both quartets, right?
JW: Yeah, they were the same instrumentation.
RR: moe., obviously, added a different element to that so does having more members on a stage make even the slightest bit of difference when lighting a gig?*
JW: No, not really, I wouldn’t say. Although, maybe on a subconscious level when it comes to improvisation. I tend to do lights, like I said, without thinking about it, and I find myself at times following different instruments depending on what jumps out at me. That part of it isn’t normally planned. If it’s a written out section of a composed song, I may do certain things the same way each time. But more often than not, and especially in an improvisational sense, I’m, again, trying not to think. I’m just reacting to what the band is doing.
I know I said before that it’s all about anticipation, and not reacting, but it’s a little bit of both. When it’s an improvisational section, clearly your brain is reacting to what’s happening, and anticipating at the same time. It’s that balancing act. But, at times, I find myself following the bass if the bassline jumps out at me. Or, sometimes, and again this is the goal is to have the lights follow multiple instruments.
You talked about moe. Sometimes Jim [Loughlin, percussionist] would be playing a staccato line with a bunch of sixteenth notes on the xylophone, and so I might have a little strobe action going on in the lights. Rob [Derhak, bassist] might be playing quarter notes on the bass so I would have a big circle effect going at 1/4 the tempo of what Jim was doing. Al [Schnier, guitarist] might be playing big power rock chords so the lights might be changing in color based on when his guitar chords change so you have multiple things going on.
The goal is for the fans to not notice the lights. The goal is for them to be so in tune with the music that the lights are just sort of a subconscious enhancer. They’re not sitting there saying, “The lights are going in time with the music.” It’s so they enhance what the musicians are doing. I feel like if I do my job perfectly on a given night that people don’t notice. It just makes the music better.
In a roundabout way, I guess, having additional musicians might effect what I’m doing in an improvisational sense.
RR: And how did you move into the moe. camp?
JW: I guess through being in the industry as a writer, band manager and a radio host, I knew some of the people in the moe. camp. We had a mutual friend, Brett Fairbrother, who used to manage Strangefolk, and he used to also do the lights for Strangefolk. We had that in common that we were both band managers that had an interest in lighting and just started doing the lighting. When you’re the manager of the small band, you’ve got the gig if you want it. You don’t have to go audition (laughter). Brett was a mentor of mine in those days. We would talk about lighting and he would give me advice on managing and on lighting because he had been doing it longer than me. I looked up to him in a lot of ways. He was really good friends with the moe. camp because moe. and Strangefolk did a lot of shows together in those early days and did some tours together.
When moe. was looking for a new light guy, Brett started telling them about me. I don’t think they really took him seriously at first because they knew me and they knew me as a media guy so they sort of laughed at him. They said, “Well, Waful’s a writer. What does he know about lighting?”
I talk about coincidence and luck and being in the right place at the right time. I, literally, had a conversation with Brett in what must have been 2004. I wasn’t doing lighting regularly at the time. I think Uncle Sammy wasn’t really doing a lot of touring anymore, but I knew enough people that knew me as a light guy. If I remember correctly, Jack from Jiggle the Handle probably got me this gig. Percy Hill played at the Paradise in Boston, which was a quarter mile from my house at the time, and Jack said, “Hey, we need a light guy. Why don’t you come down and do it?” I did the lights and had a blast, and I remember calling up Brett the next day and I said, “Hey—I did lights for Percy Hill last night and I had a blast,” and I realized how much I loved doing it. And I remember him asking me, “Would you ever think about doing lighting for a band full-time?” I said to him, “Well, I don’t think I could do it unless the band was at a certain level where they rented their own production and they had a tour bus.”
Living on the road in a van is something I had already done, and I had outgrown it. It’s really hard to sleep on the floor of a hotel room, and travel around in the middle of the night in a van. You can do it when you’re in college, but you get to a certain age, and it’s like you’ve been there and done that. He told me that when I said that that the only band that he could think of at the time that fit those criteria was moe.. Just by chance, the next day he was on the phone, and I think [Jon] Topper, moe.’s manager, was asking him if he knew of any light guys. He had to sort of remind them a few times before they actually got to the point where they asked me if I wanted to try out.
That was at the Jammys in 2004. I remember Topper asking me if I was interested in coming to try out in Mattydale. I went and I tried out. I had listened to as much moe. as I could between the time when they asked me if I wanted to do it and I still didn’t know the music that well.
The light board that I asked them to bring in was the same light board that I had used at Wetlands. Wetlands, as much as I learned how to flick switches for conventional lighting, was where I learned how to use intelligent lighting. They had a little light board and some Track Spots. That’s where I met Matty Iarrabino who went on to do lighting for a lot of bands, and Jake Szufnarowski who was a talent buyer at Wetlands. Between those two guys, they taught me how to use that light board. That was the first time I ever used moving lights.
That was the only board I knew how to use. It was a little LCD controller, and when moe. asked me to try out, I said, “O.K. You’ve got to bring in this particular LCD controller.” Which I think was pretty out of date by then, but it was the only one I knew how to use. They brought in the same board that the Wetlands had, and I did the gig, and I guess I didn’t do too bad because they asked me to continue.
I think a couple years later, I was telling that story in front of Al and I said something about “I tried out and I was on a trial basis.” Al said, “Well, you still are.” He was kidding, of course, but there was never a point where they said, “You’ve got the job.” It was just sort of like until they told me to go home, I just kept doing it.