In The Light with Jefferson Waful – Part II
Your heart heard Nature singing everywhere,
In the sighs of trees and the whispering of night. – “Ophelia,” Arthur Rimbaud
Photo by Jeff Waful
RR: We began our discussion in Part I about your initial challenges working with Umphrey’s McGee. What was your biggest challenge working with moe.?
JW: That was a completely different set of circumstances because I had never worked on the road with a band of that caliber. I had worked with Uncle Sammy, but that was minor league. That was just going into bars and pubs that weren’t used to having light shows. I would just use whatever lights were there with a few exceptions at the bigger shows we did. With moe., we were walking into these major venues—theatres in major cities that had unions and there’s all these sets of rules and regulations, and just things that are assumed that you know because most people don’t walk into a job at that level. Most people work their way up, have official training, and I came into it really not knowing anything other than music. Music was the only thing I knew. I didn’t know anything on a technical level.
This is the other big distinction. With Uncle Sammy, we were all learning at the same level because we had all done it at the same time together. With moe., they had been doing it for ten years before I had ever worked with them. To them, everything was old hat. They had played all these venues before. They had lived on a tour bus. This was their life. They were all conditioned to it. It was just another day at the office. But for me, I was completely blown away and overwhelmed with all these different circumstances—living on a tour bus and living with 11 other guys in such a small space, and trying to learn the ropes and trying to figure out how to delegate. When you’re working with local crew, your job is to tell them what you need them to do. I had always just done everything myself. I remember one of my first shows running around and trying to setup all the lights. Our production manager pulled me aside and said, “Hey, don’t be afraid to tell people what you need.”
I didn’t know what to tell them because I didn’t even know what to do. I was trying to run around and do everything on my own. I didn’t know what to get done. Again, you’re working with local crew guys who have done this for 30 years, and they’re just standing around, waiting for me to give them some direction. The first time I looked up to focus a par can I had no idea where I wanted the lights to go. I learned everything from doing, from making a lot of mistakes, and being really embarrassed because I didn’t know any better. It was just the only way to learn.
For me, when I started working with Umphrey’s, I already had five years of experience, and it was a completely different set of circumstances. I was just trying to concentrate on learning the music. With moe., I was trying to learn everything from scratch, and that was easily one of the biggest challenges of my life.
RR: How did you segue from working with moe. to becoming the new lighting designer for Umphrey’s McGee?
JW: Back in March of last year, moe. sat us down and told us that they were taking an indefinite break from touring. They all have families, wives, and kids and, in their defense, of course they needed family time and they needed a break because they had never taken a break in fifteen years. That was a little scary for me though because it meant I didn’t have a job after moe.down, which is Labor Day Weekend. I had one if and when they decided to come back, but there was no timetable.
Just by total coincidence, last August, I got a call from Vince [Iwinski, band manager] at Umphrey’s and he said, “We need a guy to do lights this weekend at the Up North Festival (which is in Maine). Would you be interested?” I said, “Yeah, of course.” I always liked Umphrey’s. We had done a lot of gigs with them through moe. so I knew the guys, and I always really liked the guys in the band on a social level, and I always really liked their music.
It was a little daunting because their music is so complex, and I didn’t have any time to learn the music except for the car ride up. With moe., I had probably a month or so. With Umphrey’s, it was a few days so I was cramming. I was trying to learn the music on the car ride up. I did the gig and it was fun and didn’t have any clue where they were going musically except for when they covered Pink Floyd, which as a light guy, was a gift.
Things just started happening. They asked me to come out for a month of shows that October and I had a blast. At this point, there was still no indication of when moe. was coming back so it just seemed like a no-brainer, it seemed like a lucky coincidence, again. Here was this band that was in the same genre, similar musically, people I already knew. It wasn’t like Tori Amos was calling up, asking me to be a light guy. It was a very natural fit, stylistically and improvisationally. There’s really not that many bands—I could probably count on one hand how many bands are at a level—that moe. and Umphrey’s are at that improv that can afford to carry production, and play venues of that size right now. It was just really lucky that one of those names happened to be in need of a light guy. I started doing it, and I believe it was a couple months later that the job became available on a full-time basis, and they asked me to do it. It seemed like a no-brainer.
Interlude, or The Space Between the Lights
RR: What interactions have you had with Phish LD Chris Kuroda?
JW: He’s actually been very generous with his time to me as of late. We use the same lighting fixture called the [Martin Professional] MAC III, which just came out this year. We started using it back in January when Umphrey’s debuted Mantis. At the time, I was very conscious to have a show that looked different from moe. because I’m the same lighting designer, but now it’s a new band. I want it to look like a new band, and not have it look like a moe. light show. Plus, we all wanted to have something special for the new album.
We started using the MAC III’s, and it’s still a very new light so the software is being updated, and there are lots of little quirks. Kuroda and I have talked a little bit about some of the quirks with that new light because there were not a lot of other bands using the fixture, especially earlier in the year. I also interviewed him this summer for a Relix piece, which sort of seemed like a no brainer since I’ve got a background in both writing and lighting.
RR: What did you think of Kuroda’s rig at Hampton in March and the Phish Summer tour?
JW: It seemed to me that he was going for a sparser look. I’ve actually heard him talk about this—the whole concept that less is more. I feel that his light rig peaked—as far as size—in the late 90s. When you talk about sheer fixture numbers, some of those shows in the 90s—I remember there was a show in Las Vegas with just huge numbers of fixtures, hundreds of fixtures, and now, it’s down to maybe a third of the size as it once was. Stylistically, I think that is something that I’ve heard him talk about: less is more.
One of the biggest differences between the rig that he debuted at Hampton, and the rig that he’s always used was that he didn’t have any ACLs and he didn’t have any par cans. He went to LED fixtures, wash fixtures. ACLs look like fingers coming down, they’re white lights, and he would always use them to accent the hits, accent every little nuance of the music. In Hampton, he didn’t have those. He was using the Atomic strobe to accent the hits. I spoke with him about that, and I know that is something that he picked up doing lights for different bands during the break—R. Kelly, for example. To me, that gave Phish more of a futuristic look rather than the old, more organic look because now, you’re having big flashes of strobe accenting certain hits.
Other than that, really to me, it was refreshing to see him do lights again in the context of Phish. Obviously, when he was doing lights for Trey’s solo tours or the Black Crowes, they were in smaller venues with lots of smaller rigs. To see it on a large scale again, and to sort of get back to my roots, the whole reason I essentially got into lighting, it was really a thrill for me to see those songs lit up again.