A Conversation w/ Preston Hoffman (Lighting Director-Furthur)
Words & Pictures By Alex Pryor
What follows is an interview with Furthur Lighting Director Preston Hoffman, which took place over 3 days during the 2010 Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco and the Pyramid Brewery in Berkley. This is an abridged version of these insightful conversations with one of the top LD’s in the business.
Alex Pryor: What has been your favorite festival experience with Furthur so far?
Preston Hoffman: Calaveras (Furthur Fest) was a good one; talk about an experience, It was amazing to see the Band in their own territory; all the old school fans and The Merry Pranksters were there with the Furthur bus, all these historical figures keep coming out of the woodwork. That is one the most interesting things about working with this band, it’s like a history lesson. It’s like an Onion you just keep finding all these layers upon layers I’m probably only on my first or 2nd layer right now of really digging into it.
A. Pryor: The Culture of the Dead sure runs deep in this area…
P. Hoffman: Exactly, playing at Golden Gate Park which is essentially right down the street from where they started, and Bill Graham Civic, lighting Phil’s Birthday doing that whole thing was awesome. The people that come out to special shows like that seem to be different than the fans I see elsewhere, like the north east; people that are really part of that family, which is an overused term, but with the Dead it really is a big family. There were about 250 people on the guest list yesterday (Outside Lands); that’s quite a lot for one band at a festival. It’s not unusual to have large guest lists with this band though, especially in SF.
A. Pryor: Do you find that most places you go the venue staff really goes out of their way to make you guys comfortable?
P. Hoffman: Well the Outside Lands people they really bent over backwards for us, a lot of these festivals have gone out of their way for us all summer; we did Gathering of the Vibes which for all purposes is a Grateful Dead Festival. So everything is Grateful Dead related there so Furthur coming is a dream come true for them! Same with All Good, Tim Walther has been a huge Deadhead his entire life and he’s gotten into more contemporary bands these days, regardless he is still a huge Deadhead. Furthur coming to play that festival was kind of a dream come true for them too. A lot of festivals are run by old Deadheads, so when we go in there they treat us like gold; imagine these guys as kids; “I want throw a festival and have The Grateful Dead Headline.” 20-30 yrs later these guys have the means to do it, although it’s Furthur now, and they are super stoked.
A. Pryor: What do you think about the eclectic crowd at these shows, 10 and 11 year old kids who know all the words singing along with Deadheads from the first tour and everywhere in between?
P. Hoffman: Well when I signed on I spent a long time trying to envision what I was going to do and what everything is going to be like, what the crowd was going to be like. I had been to a few shows in 2004ish with The Dead, my brother was on tour with them then, and I noticed it wasn’t a very young crowd for the most part. Definitely an older – middle aged crowd, you know, people who had grown up listening to those guys. Then you fast forward 6 years, so I thought this was going to be an older crowd as well. Because all the kids now are into electronic bands and indie rock, I didn’t think I was going to see that much youth come out to these shows. Immediately that was thrown out the door at the first show. There was still the older crowd there but truly a lot of young people. I was somewhat amazed by that; in a way I think it’s a lot of young people’s chance to come out and see what they missed. For awhile to come people will be re-living the Grateful Dead experience. They finally found the guy to be the Archivist at the UC Santa Cruz GD Archive after two years of searching for the right candidate that could really take hold of and organize the vast database. They even had a museum of sorts at Calaveras; they had a whole exhibit; they had the skeleton dudes there and gnarly vintage posters, some guitars, a whole bunch of memorabilia. They were even going to put in Bobby’s short shorts, they were going to put them in the museum. Bobby ended up bringing them to the stage, I saw one our dudes take them from the stage to the production office when he walked right by me I was like “Hey, are those THE shorts!?”
A. Pryor: What a crazy world; Bobby shorts are a piece of history!
P. Hoffman: There have been so many famous photographs of him in those, it’s funny I walked into his dressing room last night after the show, to grab a beer with his manager and say what’s up and I realized he still wears some pretty unique stuff!
A. Pryor: Have you had any special events were you added extra media elements?
P. Hoffman: Yes for our show at Radio City Music Hall actually, Andrew Gumper, the owner of AG Light and Sound, our lighting vendor, used the video wall they have there, it takes up the whole back of the stage, it was pretty intense Fire on the Mountain he had this fire going and I had the lights that go around the arches at Radio City, throwing orange and red down and radiating from the stage, and others circling the room, right at the very end; you know how it ends on that one single note, right on that note I killed all of the lights and he killed the fire, and it just went Poof! And all you see is this little wisp of smoke in the center of the stage; that was one of those I just had my own face melted moments!
A. Pryor: How often do you have one of those moments?
P. Hoffman: It happens more and more often, for example The Other Ones last night, I really like those dramatic moments, and they provide me with a lot of those; the more intense and dramatic the more I get to play with it and ramp it up. Being a drummer really helps, I know what different grooves feel like, I played in Mobias Project which was a fully improvisational band we had no set material except for a tune or 2. It taught me to really follow where the groove is going, our band was all feel, and the way I run lights is very much the same way. The difference between running lights for Furthur and running lights for a top 40 band is night and day. Those bands are mostly 3 ½ minute songs; they have very concise hits, and defined parts. So it’s the same every time and you’re expected to run the show according to that set way and that’s that.
A. Pryor: Do you catch cues from the band during a show?
P. Hoffman: I definitely am sensitive to looks that they give each other on stage. Especially when I know there’s a change coming up and I’m waiting for it. I’ll see Phil a lot of times will stare straight down the line at Bobby and John. He’ll do stuff like ready? Ready? Ready? Go type of thing. Bobby throws baseball signs like you said. That’s really helpful.
A. Pryor: Bobby it seems is all about the signs. He used to really, really direct over at Rat Dog.
P. Hoffman: Yeah, I remember seeing that for the first time at a Ratdog show. Now watching the drummer is very helpful, especially Joe Russo. He’s very -- you know very animated. You know when he’s about to hit it.
A. Pryor: Does Furthur feed off what you’re doing; do you think that they play off what you’re doing with the lights?
P. Hoffman: I wonder if they can tell sometimes or even if its subliminal, most bands tell me they don’t see the lights at all, but when it gets all intense like that I think they play off of it a little, sometimes I like to think they’ll stretch jams out because the lights are real intense.
Alex Pryor: Speaking of intense lighting can you tell me a little bit about how Candace Brightman played a role on your entry into the concert lighting world?
P. Hoffman: Candace was Lighting Director for The Grateful Dead; she was The Dead’s LD for a really long time. I met her when she was with The Other Ones around 2002 -2003
A. Pryor: How did you first meet?
P. Hoffman: Well that’s a weird story, my brother, Paul, was running an IT consulting firm. And he was getting really sick of sitting in an office all day. He was also tired of being the owner of an IT consulting firm, you tend to delegate so much work so that you’re left with just high-level decision making type of stuff and sales meetings. He was getting really, really bored of that. Just like going to the office trying to find stuff to do. One evening he was working with his company landlord, working on one of his computers. He noticed that my brother was kind of depressed and generally not himself.
P. Hoffman: His landlord asked what do you really want to do? I mean you seem to be a little bit burned out on this IT stuff. He’s like; well if you want to know I’d love to get into concert lighting. He says, oh that’s interesting because my sister-in-law is Candace Brightman. Have you ever heard of her? He’s says, YES. I’ve heard of her. So he says well why don’t I set up a time for you to go and meet her? Paul said alright of course. So we drove up to Philadelphia. He called her and she left some passes for us at will call. And we ended up going in and talking to her. Well, the guy who recommended us to meet her owns like half of Georgetown in DC. He’s one of these has lunch with the mayor every week types.
And so she thought he was sending a couple suits to meet her. She was completely surprised, “oh I totally thought that he was sending some kind of people more like him.” You know high-society, DC people. And even at that time, we didn’t really even know what kind of questions to ask her. We didn’t really know much about the industry. The only thing we really got out of the conversation was her email address, so Paul started corresponding with her. And we just basically asked her, if I want to get into this industry how do I even go about it?
Where do I start? And she said well why don’t you go up to Long Island and work in this guy’s shop? And the guy she was talking about was Andrew Gumper who was her programmer. And he had a shop up in Long Island, so Paul said all right, Cool. So Paul went up and met him one weekend.
Paul told Andrew that he wanted to come up to Long Island and work for him. You don’t need to pay me. I just want to learn. Which, lighting companies get a lot of those sorts of requests. And people last like two or three days, and they’re like fuck this. I’m out of here. I mean it’s, you push yourself pretty hard like physically.
So people don’t last very long. But you know he stuck it out. He was up there. His job for the summer was to fix moving lights. They break all the time. So you’ve got to have someone who’s constantly repairing them. A belt breaks in this one. You know glass or color breaks in this one. You know? There are so many little moving parts. They’re always getting banged around, so they break all the time. So he was fixing those. There was a guy who was on the Dead tour that summer who just wasn’t working out. And Andrew was a little short-staffed. He was like, well why don’t you come out for two reasons. A, I have these media servers that we can’t get working. I know you’re an IT person. And B, you can be our fixture tech and fix the broken lights and help us out. So he went out that summer and got a glimpse of what it’s like to do what we do on a big scale. Learning how it’s done on that scale is very eye-opening. He was just like a sponge and learned everything there was to learn. He came back and was able to teach me everything, and also get me a gig. I went up and worked for Andrew a little bit too. He had me on a Moe. gig early on just getting the rig up in the air and working. And that was sort of the first time I’d ever seen a lot of the work with chain motors and stuff like that. From there, we both quit our jobs. Andrew supplied Widespread with lights. So he put my brother and a couple other guys out on the first leg of it. I think it was ’07.
P. Hoffman: So when we both quit our jobs, we bought that rig that I brought out to your show with Pretty Lights at The VA Brewing Company. And we’ve been using that all over the place.
A. Pryor: That was quite a good rig, the best we’ve ever had in there.
P. Hoffman: Well I can run that in places from the size of a bar to 930 Club to theatres. It’s what I took out with Derrick Trucks Band when I went out with him. So, logistically it worked pretty well for that place and got us going.
A. Pryor: So from Widespread Panic, where’d you go from there?
P. Hoffman: So Widespread, someone couldn’t go back and get on the Widespread tour for whatever reason. I don’t even remember what it was. So Andrew to put me on there. And touring wise, on that scale I was pretty green.
A. Pryor: He threw you right in the fire, huh?
P. Hoffman: Yeah. It was a sink or swim kind of situation. And that’s where I learned almost everything that I know as far as being on a lighting crew. It’s where I learned everything from hanging a rig perspective that I know. There were three of us, and I learned the delicate ballet of setting up in the morning which is also a lot more involved than most people think. Because there’s this ballet on stage for space; you know? And everything is timed perfectly so that lighting comes in, and rigging goes up, then lighting goes up, and then stuff comes, other stuff comes in. And it’s all timed so that people can get through to where they need to go with rolling cases. There are not cables on the ground. You know?
It’s its own art form almost. Plus it’s the choreography of getting everything in a small space. Because you have to bring it in get it into the air. It’s a very, it’s a very well-timed type of thing. And there’s a guy there just, the stage manager just deals with timing and local crew.
You also have a certain amount of people that are there to help you. So the lighting crew will get like six people, the sound will get this many people, and the backline will get this many people. They constantly like -- they kind of change throughout the day a little bit. As my work dwindles off, my guys get moved over to other departments. It’s the whole management of using the resources you have available to get the show in and up as quickly as possible.
A. Pryor: While not stepping on the toes of those resources…
P. Hoffman: Right. Also not stepping on the toes of other departments. The sound is trying to get their stuff up. I’m trying to get my stuff up. But if we don’t work together, we’re in each other’s way and everything slows down... Although I like to yank their chain sometimes.
A. Pryor: Who’s running sound right now?
P. Hoffman: Derek Featherstone. He runs the touring division of Ultrasound. Ultrasound is the sound company the Dead has used for years and years and years and years. He’s been around for a while, but he’s been on other projects as well. I don’t really know the history of the sound department that well. I just know Ultrasound’s been there for a long time, and Derrick is a very senior guy in that company. And Furthur requires the best that, the best that Ultrasound has to offer. They have them for that reason. I mean he’s an amazing sound engineer. He’s also worked with Les Claypool for almost his whole career. These guys are like best friends. Claypool and Featherstone recorded Pork Soda together. He came up with all the recording techniques in there and that sort of stuff. He’s been working with those guys pretty tightly for a long time.
Stay tuned for part two...