Andrew Cass, Lighting Designer for The String Cheese Incident, took a moment out of his busy production schedule to discuss his lighting style before SCI’s upcoming Hulaween and New Year’s Eve run. Cass has been a fixture in the String Cheese community for years now, but fans have seen his work for the last decade while lighting acts like Bassnectar, The Disco Biscuits, Dr. Dog, Passion Pit, Pnuma Trio, Future Rock and STS9.
The Poke Around: How did you begin working as a Lighting Designer?
I went to college at Northeastern University in Boston as an Electrical Engineering student and was going to a lot of Phish shows at the time. I started working at the local college radio station, WRBB and was in a college jamband called Jester’s Dead. I was never a good musician, but I had timing, and with a propensity to engineering I started to focus on stage production. One day after failing a calculus test because I had spent the weekend on tour doing lights for a different local jam band called Addison Groove Project, I decided to switch my major to Music Industry and from there everything changed. College was a breeze from that point on as I was already living in the world I was supposed to be learning about so I locked myself away in the winter months of Boston and then Colorado and taught myself how to program lights by studying the guys I liked and trying to simulate what they were doing.
Who was the first “big” artist you worked for and how was the experience?
I had just started working for Matisyahu right before he blew up in the media and we were doing shows for 200 people where I had 6 lights. Then six months later we were in tour busses and I was working under an LD named Marc Janowitz (My Morning Jacket, Trey, etc.) and we were in arenas. Looking back it was an awesome moment that I learned so much from and Marc and I are close friends to this day from making it through those experiences. I remember opening for O.A.R. at Madison Square Garden and I was 20 or 21 and I thought it was pretty easy to get famous. You write a song and boom, 6 months later you’re at MSG. I’ve never worked a show there since that day, and it’s a goal of mine to get back to that moment with all that I have learned so I can appreciate it more.
How do you design your rig and light shows? How do you choose what effect is right for which artists and songs?
Limitations is where I start. Every tour I will have a budget and I’ll get info about the rooms to make sure I can fit the rig into as many places as possible along with truck space and staff. With SCI we do a different design for almost every tour, so for fall tours I’m designing for indoor theaters and for summer it’s more about the flexibility and integration with festival rigs. After that I’m always looking for one or more entirely new elements to add to the show like the lasers for Red Rocks 2015 or the projected video for New Years Eve 2014 and 2015.
The SCI show is programmed in two ways, the first is the songs. For about 100 songs I have made preplanned decisions about how I want them to look with information about color, timing, effects, etc. The second, is the improvisational moments in the music or during any songs that are not part of my pre-programmed 100 songs. During these improvisational moments I am following along and matching the feeling of the music and when the songs return the improvisational programming is turned off and the “look” of the song is returned as smoothly as possible.
What are the different components of your rig and controller system?
My light rigs generally break down into 4 categories. Spot fixtures, beam fixtures, LED Fixtures and downstage fixtures to light the musicians. When I go to a festival my goal is to have the light rig cover these four bases and still be as balanced as possible. My controller system is based around the GrandMA2 console and I also have a fairly elaborate MIDI system to do things like tap tempo my effects and do color sweeps across the stage. In some cases like Red Rocks with Kyle [Hollingsworth], I can take MIDI signals from the stage and integrate them into the show. This is something I’m looking to explore further for fall tour.
What are the differences in approach between an electronic act like Bassnectar, or a live improvisational act like SCI?
Well the major difference in your two examples is video. With Bassnectar the video is the star of the show and for good reason. When operating lights for a show like Bassnectar, I would take my few moments of relative darkness and make as much impact as I could given those moments and work with the video department to integrate my lighting with what they were doing as much as possible.
The goal with SCI is completely different because I can pick and choose my moments to make an impact with lighting and when to let the music or the moment be the star of the show. Songs like “Windy Mountain” or “Struggling Angel” stand on their own and don’t need any lighting to make an impact but the final chorus in “Shine” is the opposite where the moment is just as much about the environment as the music. It’s a balancing act of adding to the show at the right moments without overtaking it.
How much of your show is improvised? I imagine you have certain go-to effects for specific pieces of music.
Songs like “Birdland” have 62 cues and some songs I have decided to keep simple like “Rollover” with 2 cues because it changes so dramatically from time to time and I’d rather keep it improv. It’s really based on the setlist and I’m constantly fixing old songs and preparing for new ones. I’ve got a great cue stack ready for “100 Year Flood” whenever they decide to play it. Sometimes if I’m at a festival and the songs aren’t looking good I will improv the whole thing. It’s all based on the situation. Some songs, I love the way they look, like “Restless Wind” and some songs I have been wrestling with since day one, like “You’ve Got the World,” and I will continue to work on until they feel right.
Do you plan a festival light show differently than a show at an indoor venue?
Oh yeah. Festivals are an entire different ballgame for me. I build every festival in 3D in advance, and program the whole show that way and then go on site and check it. This is sometimes more work then it’s worth but leads to a more consistent show and I end up better prepared for disaster then onsite programmers. Indoor shows without any haze restrictions are what LDs dream of. Many fans don’t realize how much of the quality of the light show is affected by the amount and distribution of fog and haze in the room and outdoor that drops by 50% if not more based on the weather. Many venues now a days have restrictions on the type or amount of haze allowed in the venue.
What has been the most memorable moment of your career?
There isn’t one that jumps to mind but I’ve had many with SCI. I moved to Colorado to intern at SCI Fidelity, the band’s record label, and I had ambitions of having this job some day and I’ve had some long time friends who have thanked me for my work that have been incredibly memorable. This year’s Red Rocks show was the first design of mine that I had complete control over and I was proud of it, so watching happy people after the show on the last day is something I don’t want to ever forget.
What’s some advice you would give to someone trying to break into this field?
I get this question a lot and I have a few answers, but the best one is that you better be motivated by the love of music, and not money or positive feedback. I am incredibly lucky to have people tell me how much they enjoy my work but most people who work behind the scenes don’t get nearly enough credit for what they do, or compensation. The value in this job is not financial and those people who makes lots of money in music have to work incredibly hard for it and sacrifice many things to get there.
What have been, in your opinion, the major advances in light and controller technology of the last few years, how have they changed the craft?
Technology is moving so fast right now that the console manufacturers can barely keep up. Manufacturers like Ayrton and Clay Paky are coming out with new groundbreaking products every few months, and with DMX channel counts going up and up the amount of networking infrastructure is growing. Gone are the days of a 2 cables running to FOH. Now the big rigs are using ArtNet and SaCN to communicate and this is opening up a whole new world of technical issues for us to solve. The modern LD is not just a button pusher but needs to be fluent in networking, plotting, 3D rendering and all sorts of changing specialties. This has lead to an increase in specialization with right-brained operators and designers who come up with ideas and left-brained programmers and techs who implement those ideas.
What are some emerging technologies that will make more creative light shows? What is something you wish existed that would expand your abilities?
Now it’s all about integration. It’s the same video walls, projectors, lights, and scenery that’s we’ve always had, but how do you integrate it all into a cohesive show that doesn’t look like separate operators trying to get their piece of the spotlight. I’ve been using ArtNet merging for about a year now where I can take a video image and turn it into lighting language and put it up in the light rig. The idea behind the laser rig at Red Rocks was not to do an improvised laser show like they do in EDM but to integrate the lasers into the overall look and flow. Not just laser moments and lighting moments, but both, and complementary to each other. The fall tour rig is all about integration of different mediums.
What has been your favorite moment with SCI so far?
Well like I said there have been many and I’m hoping to have many years to come of SCI memories. I do have one that happens at almost every show right when the show is over and the band puts down their instruments and waves goodbye that I light up the crowd and let you see the person standing next to you and everyone is cheering. That’s the moment that makes all the hard work worth it.
Care to drop any hints at what fans can expect at this years Hulaween?
As of yet I have no hints to drop but the lineup is freakin’ incredible and there are lots of amazing LDs that will be there so it’s sure to be amazing.
While we do know that SCI will have a unique lighting rig for this year’s Hulaween, we have yet to see anything but a tiny preview from Andrew. He posted a brief video, highlighting a piece of equipment he’ll be using this Hulaween. Check it out below:
The Poke Around will have comprehensive coverage of Suwannee Hulaween, and we look forward to seeing all of you there!
Written by Tom Cunningham
Photographs by Josh Timmerman, courtesy of Suwannee Hulaween.