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Wednesday, October 3

The Wheels Behind The Scenes - People who keep the show on the road! - Jefferson Waful: Lighting Designer for Umphrey's McGee

We all know that a lot more goes into any given show or festival than just the four or five musicians we flock all over the world to see. In the debut of this series feature we had the honor of profiling one of the more high profile people in music that help make the show experience that much better.  Light shows are becoming more critical and getting more astonishing nearly as fast as ticket prices are going up.  Today, to be validated as an act in the jam or electronica genres you need lights, lasers, fog and more.  Umphrey's McGee is lucky to have that and more in somewhat of a pioneer of the common era of lights with Jefferson Waful.  Known for his fully symmetrical all encompassing music infused light show.  If music makes up the sound track to a movie, then Jefferson's creative behind-the-lights show makes up the colorful backdrop to this hyper-improvisational heavy-hitting jam-band.

Who: Jefferson Waful
Of: Umphrey's McGee
Job: Lighting Designer

Kelsey Winterkorn captures the ambiance that J.Waful creates.
I was lucky enough to ask those pressing job-centric questions with Jefferson (via email) last week as Umphrey's was in the midst of their 2012 Fall Tour.

1. Did you go to school to learn lighting design?  If so would you recommend those interested in the field to do so, or do you learn more from experience?

 JW: I did not.  I went to Emerson College in Boston for broadcast journalism.  I hosted a jam band radio show there on WERS and started working with a lot of the touring acts from that era such as moe., Percy Hill, Strangefolk, String Cheese Incident...etc.  Whenever the bands would come through Boston, the radio show was one of the only places for them to promote their shows and they would come and perform in our studios.  It was a very symbiotic relationship because both parties won.  They got the word out on their shows and I got an exclusive performance on our radio show.  It was a long, convoluted road that led to me becoming a full-time lighting designer, but this was where I got my start in the music business.  I definitely learned more from experience...just flicking switches at the bar for young bands and learning along the way.

2.On an average show day how many hours do you put in?  What does the job entail when you are not on tour?  

 JW: An average day for us begins at 11 a.m. when we load in to the venue and does not end until between 1 - 3 a.m. depending on how long the load out takes.  This is based on a number of factors such as the location of our truck in relation to the stage.  Ideally, the truck pulls right up to the loading dock and we push the cases directly onto the truck and we're done an hour after the show ends.  But this is not always possible so some nights take longer, some shows have earlier curfews...etc.  But for the most part, it's generally a 15-hour day or so.  When we're not on tour I produce and edit a lot of our online video content.  I also design lighting rigs for a few of our bigger shows throughout the year such as Summer Camp, Halloween, New Year's and Red Rocks.  For a normal show, the rig is always changing depending on the layout of the venue - from a tiny bar to a large amphitheatre so there is no way to design the same rig for every show.  We travel with the same number of lights on most tours so we adapt to each venue and make those decisions a 10:59 a.m.  Most of the times we're in venues that we've previously played so we know what we can do in each room.

3.Do you have personnel that help you such as interns, assistants etc?  If so how many people does it take to put on a light show of your caliber? 

JW: I don't have any assistants or interns per se, but I am lucky enough to have a great crew that helps me.  Specifically Bob Ston, our production manager and monitor engineer, has a lot of lighting experience and is extremely talented in all things technical so he is my guy when it comes to setting up the lights.  He also does all of the advancing with the venues, contacting them ahead of time to let them know what we're bringing in and making sure there is enough power to run our show.  I'm pretty much just a creative guy when it comes to lighting and Bob is the technical brains behind the operation making sure everything works.  Our stage manager Robbie Williams also helps out when he can throughout the show if something breaks...he is also our haze guru and will adjust the location of the hazers and fans depending on the airflow of an indoor venue or the wind at an outdoor venue.  I cannot stress how important this is. It can literally make the difference between a great looking light show and a wimpy one.  Without haze there are no beams of light.  This past tour we also had two great guys helping us with merchandise - Louie and Britches - and they would help out with lighting when they had time, generally at load in.  But everyone in our crew has their own set of responsibilities and priorities so when they help me with lighting it is a bonus. On top of our own crew, there is also local crew at each venue that helps out. 

4.Is your light show always evolving? If so does this evolution include the band, their new music.  Could it differ from tour to tour.  Do you come up with special ideas for the Holiday gigs?  

JW: Yes, it's always evolving and when the band adds new songs I will generally find new ways to interpret them. And yes, holiday shows like Halloween or NYE definitely have bigger light shows since we have bigger budgets for production.

5.Would you say you are in the music business or the lighting business.  I know this might sound silly, but what is your drive- lights and ambiance or is it music?  

JW: At the end of the day, I'm really just a closet musician who plays with lights.  I'm definitely in the music business, currently as a lighting designer and as a video producer, but over the last 20 years I've done almost everything in the music biz from working festivals to managing a band to working for MTV the Real World.  Everything that motivates me creatively stems from the music.  When aspiring lighting designers ask me how to get started I always tell them to just obsess over music.  Learn music inside and out.  It's takes a day or 2 to learn how to take apart a light and fix it, but it takes a lifetime to understand music on an innate level.  You can't really teach rhythm, inspiration and creativity.  It has to evolve over your entire life.  So yes, my drive is music. Although when I drive I listen to Howard Stern.

6.Two bands that are known for their light shows are Umphrey's and Phish.  I really don't believe many fans know the names of the lighting designers outside of you and Chris Kuroda- have you thought of working with any other bands or acts or is it strictly UM for now? 

 JW: Umphrey's is my full-time job and my top priority, however when we have time off I always welcome new work.  I occasionally fill in as house LD at Brooklyn Bowl when our schedules align and I have recently worked with my old pals Strangefolk since they reunited and luckily most of those shows have happened to be when UM is not touring.  The problem with working with any other other bands that tour regularly is that they generally would be looking for someone full-time and since UM tours so often, my availability would not be consistent.  But just like the members of UM enjoy playing with other musicians, I love the challenge of lighting other bands when the scheduling works out.  

7. What is the worst disaster you've had happen pertaining the the lights?  How did it work out?    

JW: There have been many.  One that comes to mind that worked out positively was when I worked for moe.  I used to use both traditional par cans and moving lights because the software for the console I use - The GrandMA - wasn't as dependable as it is now.  The board would occasionally crash and the par cans were a safety net of sorts.  Unless the power went out, you knew they'd usually work since there usually isn't any software involved in running par cans.  Ironically, there was one show we played at a university where the par cans were actually controlled by a networked ethernet connection.  Five minutes before the show the connection failed and the house par can system was unavailable.  We had to start the show and all I had available was my moving lights.  I definitely felt vulnerable at first and I wound up doing the whole show with no par cans and I loved the way it looked.  To this day, I never use par cans.  Sometimes it takes a "disaster" like that to push you outside of your comfort zone.  And of course, there have been several software updates to the GrandMA all these years later and it never crashes anymore.  ::knocks on wood:: 

8. What is your favorite venue to light- does it ever become routine? 

 JW: I really enjoy the Taft Theatre in Cincinnati.  The stage is just enormous, the crew is the best in the business and the truck can pull right up to the back of the stage.  When I worked with moe. we had our fastest ever load out of 46 minutes there.  Large stages always benefit the crew because everyone can be working at the same time without getting in each other's way.  On small stages, I often can't even get to the lights until the other gear is removed.  But on a big stage, trusses can be lowered while backline and audio gear is being struck.  There are many other indoor venues that I love lighting, but the Taft is always the first one that comes to mind.  In addition to the physical benefits of being so large and allowing the light show to look like an arena show, the crew is just so competent and friendly.  It makes the day so easy and enjoyable and allows me to just concentrate on being creative and not worry about anything else.  The job definitely becomes routine, but that is the goal.  You have to have a routine to stay organized and efficient in what you do.  I actually wish it was more routine, but because the venue sizes change so drastically at the level we're at, we are constantly adapting.  For example, last week we played Red Rocks, one of the largest light shows I'll do all year.  It was just huge.  The next night we played the Boulder Theatre, which in comparison is tiny.  Everything about our light show changed: the number of lights we used, the amount of cables to run the lights, the amount of time it took to set up the lights.  Bigger bands that play arenas or amphitheaters every night are able to get into a real routine because 99% of the time the set up is identical from one show to the next.     

9. What is your favorite part of the job, which is your least favorite?  

JW: My favorite part of the job is being creative during the show and participating in the improvisation. I'm very lucky to have something in my life that gives me that release. When the band is really clicking, it feels so effortless to light them.  It just flows out of me without any real thought process.  I'm not a religious person at all, but there are some very magical moments that happen sometimes where it feels like this thing - Umphrey's McGee - is this force that we're all tapped into.  It doesn't happen every night, but when it does it's simply exhilarating.  My least favorite part of the job is being away from loved ones when I travel.  It's an inevitable part of the job, but it makes it difficult to have any kind of consistency in your home life.  Other least favorite parts of the job include cigarette smoke, rage sticks and shower experiences very similar to this: 
10. Which job should we feature next on our behind the scene series? 
JW: Bobby Haight - (Tour Manager)
Stay tuned for another installment of behind the scenes where we will be profiling someone else that helps keep these shows on the road.
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