If you’ve been reading Learn Stage Lighting for awhile, you may know that I am quite a fan of jam band lighting. To me, there is just so much art and science all rolled up in a cocoon of excellence that these guys do every single day.
With that said, I am so excited to be interviewing Jeff Waful, the lighting designer for Umphrey’s McGee.
As you’ll read, Jeff accidentally fell into lighting, and is proof that you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to light well…but knowing music helps!
Bit By the Lighting Bug – Interview with Jeff Waful
How did you get started with stage lighting? How did that lead to where you are today?
I used to manage a band called Uncle Sammy in the late 90s and just started running lights for fun. As the band grew into some larger venues, I would learn little things here and there.
It was really a classic example of being in the right time at the right place and also “be careful what you wish for”. I never had any intention of being a full-time touring LD. It just kind of evolved into that over the years. The band moe. took a huge chance by hiring me since I had no technical background or touring experience.
Thankfully a mutual friend – Brett Fairbrother – convinced them to give me a try out and I got the gig. When moe. took a hiatus in 2008, Umphrey’s McGee just happened to be looking for an LD.
Again, right time, right place.
At what point did you know you got bit by the “lighting bug”, or the love for stage lighting?
I’ve always been a very visual, creative person.
My first love was broadcasting, so video editing is something I’ve been doing since high school. I approach concert lighting the exact same way as I approach video: just make it look good. In my brain, there is only one way for something to look – the right way – and I just follow that voice.
With editing or with lighting, my brain just tells me.
As far as having a specific moment that the “lighting bug” bit me, it was probably around the age of 4 when I was chasing lightning bugs around the backyard.
What’s the most important skill someone can learn to be successful in production?
For the style of lighting that I do, having a technical background in music is far more important than having a technical background in lighting.
When I started with Umphrey’s McGee, I literally didn’t know how to change the bulb in a Mac III fixture, but I knew how to find the “One” in odd-metered songs and I knew, more or less, how to anticipate where the band was going as they improvised.
I would later learn that bulbs are called “lamps” for some reason.
What is your greatest daily challenge that gets in the way of creating excellent lighting? How do you get around it to make your art happen?
My own brain is biggest challenge.
Being a perfectionist is amazing when the conditions are perfect, but they rarely are. Learning to adapt the other 99% of the time is the biggest hurdle for me. I’ve gotten marginally better at it over the years, but again, my brain wants it to look perfect every time, so if it’s an outdoor show and there’s a parking light near the stage ruining my “vision”, I need to not dwell on that and keep my brain in a creative space.
Five years ago I definitely would have been radioing our tour manager asking for the light to be turned off. I actually did that last week in Utica. So I guess it’s still a thing.
But I vacillate between dealing with imperfect logistics and just going with the flow. Also, when fans tap me on the shoulder and strike up a friendly conversation while I’m counting the hard part in “Wizard Burial Ground” it’s distracting.
Or when Rob Turner texts me funny things while I’m trying to focus, I can’t help but laugh. That makes it challenging.
But it’s a rock and roll show and as Dan Berkowitz once told me I “can’t control everything around me”. So, just gotta go with the flow.
What inspires you on a daily basis to create excellent work?
That’s a very hard question to answer. I think it varies. If it’s a big show at a legendary venue such as Red Rocks or The Beacon Theatre, there is an innate awareness to be perfect. That inspires me to rise to the occasion more than a typical show.
I’m also really inspired when close friends or relatives are in attendance.
What is your favorite piece of gear right now and why?
The Base hazer.
It’s all just an illusion.
A lot of Learn Stage Lighting readers are part-time at lighting, either working with bands, churches or small production companies, so they don’t have tons of extra time. What is one simple tip that the LearnStageLighting tribe can use this week to improve their lighting?
I’ve never done lighting in a church, but I’d imagine haze is not allowed. So I’d steer clear of that.
Honestly, just be aware of the world around you and notice the relationship between sound and light.
I remember as a kid watching the windshield wipers on our car go back and forth to the music on the radio.
Every few measures, they’d be in sync with the music. Just noticing little things like that can help.
Stare at a sunset and notice which gradient colors look good together. Don’t be afraid to be critical either. If you think orange>purple is too abrupt, make a mental note. When you’re in charge, throw some magenta in between.
Where can we find more about you and your company?
Google “Waful”. Our band’s website is www.umphreys.com.
What are you currently working on?
Working on a tweet about Burning Man being closed due to rain. I feel like there’s gotta be a joke in there somewhere.
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