Lighting and production designer Marc Janowitz joined Phish lead singer/guitarist Trey Anastasio and his band—TAB for “Trey Anastasio Band”—for his latest solo tour in support of Paper Wheels. We caught up with the designer to see how this design compared to his last outing with TAB, and how, in many ways, it remained the same, given the challenges of recycling scenic elements from the previous tour.
Live Design: Let’s talk about the background with Trey—your relationship with him.
Marc Janowitz: It started as a result of a Justin Bieber tour back in 2012. Previously, Trey had always utilized his Phish team, including Chris Kuroda. Chris got hired into the Justin Bieber camp for that large spectacle show. The search was on for a designer to come in for the TAB project. I got a call from Trey’s tour manager, Richard Glasgow. A meeting was arranged a few days later with Trey, Richard, and myself. We walked out of that meeting with a design. It was all pretty fast!
Trey had written and recorded a new record that was about to be released in fall of 2012 called Traveler. That toured on and off for about a year and a half. For the most part, during all that time, we were using the same design, and that design had been based off of the album artwork.
LD: Then moving on to the latest tour: How did you get to the overall aesthetic?
MJ: We had originally discussed a new design for this tour that was loosely connected with the visual concept of the record, a play on a cipher code.
I often go to the album art to look for a starting point in design discussions. Once that artwork is complete, the band has typically invested a fair amount of time and effort in establishing and approving those visuals. Perhaps there are geometric forms, or some type of artwork or genre that’s referenced, or some type of color palette’s reference, or some sort of stylistic element. It can be a good departure point for approaching the live design.
We talked about whether it was worth delving into the album art for Paper Wheels. The record wasn’t actually going to be released for a few more months. Then the topic came up: Perhaps we should hold off and pursue a different direction—what I termed a bit of a “palette cleanser”—that wasn’t tied to any record, perhaps an abstract canvas not tied to any sort of specific or literal themes.
For the Traveler design, we had a custom painted backdrop and fabricated contour pipes to go with it. I started thinking about what could be done using more or less “off-the-shelf” items.
LD: Did the smaller venues on the tour affect the design at all?
MJ: We talked a lot about finding some way into a world of a white aesthetic, even using a large white cyc and making that a featured piece of the show.
However, I definitely had my concerns overall with some of the venues we were going to. It was essentially a club tour. We still had to fit everything we were carrying into a 15' bus trailer. In order to utilize a white cyc, there are certain physical requirements to do it properly, like having a certain amount of depth, and a lot of lights. In looking at the routing in places like the 9:30 Club, it just didn’t seem like we were going to be able to achieve even the basic physical requirements to successfully do the white cyc idea.
But the notion of white combined with the theme of “visual palette cleanser” resonated a lot. I started looking for some off-the-shelf pieces that could get recombined in a way that could become a new type of canvas but would be more forgiving than a large contiguous white surface. When you put a perfect white surface up, like a cyc, any imperfection really kills the look for me. I started thinking we could implement a design whereby the imperfect nature of the elements would become their strength.
LD: So how did all those pieces come together?
MJ: One of the things I think, as lighting and production designers, we often get into our mind is that structures that are designed to have lighting components to them have to be substantial and heavy. I wanted to go the other way and essentially make a design out of dangling pieces that was actually made to seem a little bit unstable, whimsical, or wispy.
LD: So how did you create a set out of things that are “wispy”?
MJ: Thinking of white, abstract objects that are easy to tour, I went into the Rose Brand stretch fabrics catalog. I found a piece that seemed perfect in that it was almost a tear-drop shape that was made to be flexed and twisted in any way you wanted to. It was a good reflective white surface, but also small and modular. The fabric was inexpensive and off-the-shelf and would store flat in a bus trailer. In trying to fit an entire lighting and scenic package in a trailer, you really can’t be carrying truss and motors and rigging. You have to really be thinking about what can be rigged counting exclusively on local venue provisions—the idea of “hang it on whatever we find at the venue each day.”
I got a sample piece and took it down the street to VER, our lighting vendor, to test some concepts. I went about and started to play with these pieces, and asked the shop guys for some specific hanging hardware. They pointed me over to a shelf in the corner of the building, which ended up containing all of the curved and twisted pieces of pipe from Trey’s previous tour. The entire set was just shrink-wrapped to a palette on a shelf. I had really been looking for some straight pipe, but I saw these curvy pieces from Traveler and compared them to the twisted curved shapes that I was making with the Rose Brand fabric, and it occurred to me that they actually worked really well together.
The seven curved pieces were all meant to form a horizontal shape for the Traveler backdrop, but when I turned a few pieces vertically, it took advantage of the asymmetric, whimsical nature of the stretch shape. As I started twisting my stretch fabric around the curvy pipes, it occurred to me that this was exactly the boundless use of dangling structure that I was looking for.
Stay tuned for more on the lighting design in Part Two.