A Conversation w/ Preston Hoffman (Lighting Director-Furthur)
Words By Alex Pryor
Pictures By Alex Pryor & Damon Callisto
A. Pryor: What’s the most difficult part about your job?
P. Hoffman: The most difficult part is it gets tricky when you deal with completely different conditions every day. Conditions meaning venues and what they have available as far as every venue is different. Rigging is different, the house situation is different. Stage space is different. Loading dock is different. All the things that go into getting stuff off the truck, to in the air, to working and running the show is completely different in most venues. Arenas are somewhat of an exception to that. Arenas are pretty... they’re pretty uniform. You’re dealing with a much more level playing field when going from arena to arena than going from theatre, to club, to theatre.
Another thing that’s really trying is that every person that you work with is on a different level of experience. So you’ll usually have like one or two guys who really know their shit, a couple of people who don’t know much, and a couple guys in the middle. You have to... you have to get a feeling for what they know right off the bat. Because then you know whether you can set them on a task that repeats itself without having to supervise them.
Where as someone who is not as experienced can get really hurt by doing something wrong that they wouldn’t know by not having the experience. But at the same time they’re eager and they want to jump in and do stuff. And sometimes you have to like -- you have to keep an eye on them because what seems logical is not always logical as far as the progression of setting up and ways to do things safely.
A. Pryor: Have you ever had an accident?
P. Hoffman: Yeah, there are always little accidents. I haven’t had a major one. I’ve heard horror stories about all sorts of crazy things. I’ve always, in my line of work err on the side of caution. I’d rather it take longer and not... and have a low stress level on whether somebody’s going to get hurt.
A. Pryor: It’s a main concern of your job, then.
P. Hoffman: Oh Yeah; I mean you’re... you’re hanging thousands of pounds over people’s heads. You know? I mean there’s, there have been famous musicians that have been injured from shit falling on them like Curtis Mayfield.
A. Pryor: I bet you that lighting guy didn’t get his job back.
P. Hoffman: Yeah. The industry’s not very forgiving for that sort of thing.
A. Pryor: Dropping trusses on people’s heads.
P. Hoffman: Very unforgiving.
A. Pryor: So pretty much everything is held to a higher standard at this level.
P. Hoffman: I see safety to be the most important part of my job.
A. Pryor: That’s good, man. I don’t want to see any lights falling on Bobby or Phil.
P. Hoffman: No. Definitely not .
A. Pryor: Who was that guy that caught on fire in the eighties?
P. Hoffman: Oh, it was James Hetfield from Metallica.
A. Pryor: Yeah.
P. Hoffman: Giant Pyrotechnics.
A. Pryor: They made all those new laws right afterwards because of pyrotechnics.
P. Hoffman: Michael Jackson caught on fire too. As soon as you start entering pyro and that sort of stuff, the laws and the safety measures go way up.
A. Pryor: Do you ever have somebody you have to answer to like a safety coordinator or someone that overlooks that kind of stuff.
P. Hoffman: Yeah. Sometimes the fire marshal shows up. If you’re hanging any kind of soft goods, fabrics, or anything you have to have samples so they can do fire tests on them, fireproofing, and all that sort of stuff. There are laws... the laws are more about exits and exit signs so you know the way out. I know in a lot of they make sure there’s there are fire lane paths especially on stage. When we have a million cases everywhere, there are a lot of places where you have to have a certain width of free space. If people need to go that way, they don’t run into a wall of cases.
A. Pryor: Has your outlook changed now that you have progressed so much in such little time?
P. Hoffman: I have a much more in depth understanding now than when I first started. And my learning curve is still curving, when it comes to lighting; just on a different level. I learn new stuff every day. And it’s really nice to be at a lot of these festivals where I get to meet other LDs, because we all swap ideas. Why don’t you try doing that like this? Small things can open up whole new worlds of how to operate lights. You know you kind of have little geek-out sessions on running the Grand MA.
A. Pryor: I saw you quite focused on that board yesterday.
P. Hoffman: Well I didn’t have much time. I had to finish up what I was doing the night before. And I didn’t have a whole lot of time to do that. I ended up getting a little bit of time to finish that programming up. Yeah there was a whole bunch of stuff I had to do. I made a list.
A. Pryor: It was quite a show! Lets switch gears from Furthur for a minute, what other work have you been into?
P. Hoffman: Well I’ve been doing a lot of festivals and club level bands. The small scale is fun because it is not as intense both from a physical setting up standpoint and from a programming stand point. But really I take as much work as I can put my hands on. I do like festivals though, you get a variety of bands to work with and you can always make it a good time.
A. Pryor: Speaking of festivals can you tell us a little bit about Osyrus Fest?
P. Hoffman: Osyrusfest is a small festival my bro and I put in in Pennsylvania. It’s like everything about a festival without the bullshit that comes with a big festival. It’s more like a big party. Bands, music, and lots of lights.
A. Pryor: Lots of lights!
P. Hoffman: it’s a chance for my brother and I to experiment with new ways of setting up lights and new techniques that we have been working on. The festival is an all inclusive type of thing so for the entrance fee you get free food and beer all weekend; all you need to do is bring a tent.
A. Pryor: It’s a good theme. You can attract a lot of people with that.
P. Hoffman: So you don’t have to worry about feeding yourself. You don’t have to worry about going to the beer store. You don’t have to worry about any of that stuff. Take a shower? You can take a shower. All inclusive. I have a monster grill there. It’s like a hundred years old and tons of food. You just throw a couple burgers on the grill. A guy did a pig this year. Yeah, we get a lot of our stuff locally from Amish farms and stuff. So the food is pretty good. I’m right on the... right on border of Amish country.
A. Pryor: So what’s the next step for Pulse?
P. Hoffman: My brother and I have this company Pulse Lighting. We were a local lighting shop with some gear and could do small tours, shows or festivals. We work with a bunch of different bands. Pulse is now growing up and becoming less of a local lighting solution and becoming more of a lighting design firm that can work anywhere. We can take the client’s needs and budget and design something that works and either use our gear if it makes sense or use a local vendor to supply gear to the site. We don’t want to be geographically pigeon holed. Our strength is design and implementation.
A. Pryor: Do you still do Mobias Project?
P. Hoffman: A little bit. Yeah. And usually the only time that we get together is at Osyrus Fest. Because we’re all so busy now. I mean our guitar player’s in another band who we work for, Honor By August. We’re going to be doing one of his shows at the 930 Club when I get back. Paul’s really busy. He’s doing Widespread and Pulse stuff. He also does sporting stuff. He does figure skating, swimming, gymnastics and he lit the Final Four last year.
A. Pryor: Have you ever learned something you had to unlearn?
P. Hoffman: Yeah. Oh, I’ve had lots of bad habits. I’m trying to discipline myself. I know how to... I know how to do it the way it should be done. But time sometimes plays a part in that. Sometimes you just don’t have time to build things in pieces. Because a show is built like a building. You know? You have foundation stuff, and then you just build up. Components are based on the components that you built before. And they get built into the next level of elements. And they get built into the next level of elements to the point where you work up sort of pyramid. And a lot of times sometimes you just don’t have enough time and you needed a couple things that you know you need.
A. Pryor: That creates problems?
P. Hoffman: It makes it useful for that one time. But when you... when you move venues and your lights aren’t in the same place... Instead of adjusting something at the bottom of the pyramid which trickles all the way through, I mean you’re left with like something that’s... you have to remake it each time. And then if you have a whole shitload of those, you run out of time. So the idea is that you want... you want the stuff at the top to be based on the stuff at the foundation. So you go in and you change, you change one aspect of it to make it look right, and it trickles all through everything that is based off of that. And that’s the way the board... the Grand VMA is founded on that type of building process. So that if you do it correctly and you spend the time to build it that way, touring is much easier. If you do it sloppy, you’ll pull your hair out every day.
A. Pryor: So what’s the smallest show you’ve lit with Furthur so far?
P. Hoffman: Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.
A. Pryor: How many people were there?
P. Hoffman: Eleven hundred maybe.
A. Pryor: What venue was that?
P. Hoffman: The Sherman Theater, it’s a famous theater, kind of rundown in Stroudsburg. What happened was we had a show booked in Vermont that got cancelled, because they pulled the permits. And so management scrambled to book another show, and that’s, the band got booked there. And we barely fit in there. It was super sold out. That place was packed to the gills and it was hot as hell. And on stage it was even hotter. It was probably 120 degrees on stage. No a/c.
A. Pryor: Did they ever, is there anything that they use to keep performers cool? Because I know it gets really freaking hot up there sometimes. Or do you try to just keep cool, keep hydrated?
P. Hoffman: They use fans. If you come offstage, you can always go into your bus, and they usually keep it like 65 degrees, nice and chilly. The only other place I had an experience like that was at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia. It was easily 110 degrees. I saw the band walk offstage and they looked like they just got out of a swimming pool. They bolted straight for their bus. And you can get sick that way, jumping right into something really cold when you’re wet. I pretty much couldn’t hang anything in that Stroudsburg Theater.
A. Pryor: So how do they decide who they are going to produce these dates with?
P. Hoffman: It’s always been kind of a mystery to me. I do know that they decided not to use Live Nation. I don’t think it was a slight to Live Nation, I don’t think it’s like a big fuck you, we’re not using you. I think it was more like everyone uses Live Nation and we want to do something a little bit different.
A. Pryor: They use Another Planet, right?
P. Hoffman: Well, Another Planet’s a lot of festival stuff. But they use AEG a lot, as the alternative to Live Nation. I don’t know whether that’s; let’s give other guy a shot, let’s give some business to the other guys.
A. Pryor: There’s a lot of Dead Heads that really don’t like Live Nation, they’ve got a thing against Live Nation.
P. Hoffman: Well, Live Nation’s just become a monster, because it’s huge, and it’s very hard to do a concert without Live Nation.
A. Pryor: I’m torn. Because I’m all for companies becoming more and more and more successful, and sometimes even at the expense of other smaller companies, that’s just how it is. But sometimes I feel like there’s got to be a limit. Like Live Nation, Ticketmaster, come on. Give me a break. I don’t want to see the same logo above very concert I go to.
P. Hoffman: Well, it’s more about; Live Nation wants to hold every aspect of live music. That’s why they now have control over ticketing. They own tons of venues. They want to be in control of promotion. It’s all a control thing. But it’s also a huge money thing. When every aspect goes into the same company, when you’re taking Ticketmaster fees, and then you’re renting the venue to the band, and you’re being paid for promotions, and you’re making all the money off concessions, you’ve got it on lockdown.
A. Pryor: Yeah. I think the larger population, the larger percentage of the population went to live music, I think it would be more of an issue. I think it might not even be allowed to happen. More people would be against it, you know what I mean?
P. Hoffman: Well, the music industry is certainly moving towards live music.
A. Pryor: Do you listen to the Dead on your own time, when you are on tour?
P. Hoffman: When I first started. When I’m at home I put on recent recordings a lot because I pick up on timing and versions that are more current. On the road when I started I would get the set list the night before and really study the songs best I can. I don’t seem to get the set lists until show time these days but I know the music much better than I did a year ago.
A. Pryor: Do they not do that anymore?
P. Hoffman: They do sometimes. Sometimes they don’t. There was some time when I was studying a lot. Especially songs I didn’t know. Because as a more sort of casual Grateful Dead listener, there was a lot that was not on my radar. So there were songs like, I would look at the set list, and there would be three or four songs that I had no idea what they were. Songs like Black Peter, I would see it on the set list, and be asking our recording guy, Peter. He used to be a taper, before he became a recording guy, so he knows the Dead inside and out. He was my go to guy, give me a couple of notes on this song. He’d be like oh, it’s one of the really old songs. I’d be like was it chill? No, no dude, it’s not chill. See, the only Dead albums I really owned were, I owned American Beauty, and a couple of others, I geeked out on that for a long time. I really liked that album. That’s also one of their more commercial albums. Then on the other end of the spectrum, Blues for Allah, that’s a total trip out. At Calaveras they did all Blues for Allah. The album re-creations were pretty cool. Because there’s a lot of stuff on the albums that are not in the songs, or there are segue songs that don’t get played. They had Theresa Williams and Larry Campbell playing with them, I think it’s on Blues for Allah has some song that just a real spaced out female vocals, Sage and Spirit. There’s almost no instrumentation at all. And it’s super psychedelic. Really trippy, and I had never heard any of this stuff before. I was just trying to flow with the vibe of it. Just turn the whole stage red. Whenever anything gets real dark and eerie, I like to pull down the front lights and wash the band totally in red. I do that a lot for dark stuff.
A. Pryor: So does the band know where they’re trying to take it from here? Or does it seem like they’re just riding the wave?
P. Hoffman: I think just riding the wave now. The band’s only a year or so old at this point. I think they’re still feeling it out. I know that our fall tours are much bigger. Our east coast run is all arenas. All arenas. We’re ending with two nights in Madison Square Garden. That’s going to be a highlight. My brother and I have this little competition going on. Who can light which venue legendary venue first?
A. Pryor: Are you beating him to Madison Square Garden?
P. Hoffman: Yeah, I don’t let him forget it either. I got to light Radio City Music Hall first, and he got to light Red Rocks first.
A. Pryor: I think you beat him out with Madison Square Garden.
P. Hoffman: Yes, anytime that he tries to trump me, I always ask how many nights do you guys have booked at Madison Square Garden? That usually shuts him up pretty good.
A. Pryor: Well thank you for all the hospitality and your time for doing this; it was a lot of fun.
P. Hoffman: Absolutely; let’s do this again sometime, it was good seeing you.
I caught up with Preston Recently to see how things have developed since we had sat down in Berkley.
A. Pryor: So NYE was incredible Preston! What was it like to light the New Years gig at Bill Graham Civic?
P. Hoffman: Like I mentioned awhile back any show in SF is special for this band. It was my first new years with this band. It was an awesome time with the whole float parade and having Bill Walton on stage as father time cracked me up. There was a great energy going on as you would expect from a new year’s show. I had a great time!
A. Pryor: What kind of equipment are you using for the new rig? (Board, lights etc.)
P. Hoffman: The new rig is a lot more sophisticated than my previous rig. First of all my new spot lights are just killer, they are Clay Paky Alpha Spot HPEs which are just great lights; you will see a lot of different kinds of things coming from them. For wash lights I have Coemar infinity washes, which are nice as well. I particularly like the vertical tower feeling of the new rig. I think this rig is going to be a lot of fun in the upcoming run. For console I’m running the MA2 which is a really great board!
A. Pryor: What has led you to choose this new rig, and what differences can we expect to see from the previous one?
P. Hoffman: The new rig is great because it all ties together from floor to ceiling. The last rig was more about having a wall of light behind the band where all of the trusses were horizontal. This rig has more of a vertical feel to it with towers coming up from the stage and vertical trusses hanging down from above kind of like ice cycles. This rig is also very adaptable as we are going from very small to very large stages so it will scale nicely. This rig is also one of the first times we have toured without a backdrop sp the focus will be much more about the light beams themselves.
A. Pryor: What has been the defining moment in your career so far?
P. Hoffman: The defining moment has to be the 2 night stand at Madison Square Garden. We hung trusses with lights on the all the way around the arena in 360 degrees. That was the first time I had run lights in that room which was a thrill by itself but to run a 360 rig in that room was just amazing! I was just exhausted after those shows; they took everything out of me. I had brought a photographer to the show and he really captured the room so well I will cherish those pictures for some time to come.