Fenton Williams: Moving in Time With the Band
August 18th, 2006
From the Randall's Island Satellite
Fenton Williams began his DMB road odyssey in 1991. He began as road manager but soon won the role of lighting director for the band. He’s also had a hand in directing two of the group’s DVDs (Live at Folsom Field and Live at the Gorge), although, as Williams explains in the conversation that follows, he prefers his perspective on DMB from the lighting board.
Boyd Tinsley is effusive in his praise for the LD: “Fenton is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met in my life. He’s a really good friend of mine, a really good friend to everyone in the band and he’s one of the best light men in the business. Sometimes we’ll finish what I’ll think is a great show and someone will come up to me afterwards and they’ll like the show but the first thing they’ll say is, “Oh my god, the lights were amazing.’”
The Satellite tracked down Fenton just prior to his arrival at Randall’s to talk about this weekend and the years that preceded it.
Looking back, can you talk about your impressions of last year’s Randall’s Island event?
It had that great festival-type feeling. I had a great time checking out the second stage. It’s a great way for people to come together for a couple of days and enjoy music, wander around check out other music and enjoy the day.
Of course, there is quite a bit of work to be done before that happens. Can you walk us through the process of loading in and setting up for this event? When does that begin?
I have a feeling on Thursday they’ll go in and do a pre-rigging: The riggers and production managers go in. Then about 8AM on Friday we’ll start unloading lighting, video, sound and band gear. Then there will be a soundcheck and when it gets dark, Aaron [Stinebrink] and I will stay until midnight or so programming the lights and getting that ready.
Mostly what we do is program the focus positions of the lighting. They change dramatically. We’ve been playing mostly amphitheatres and Randall’s Island is a great field so when you do positions to light the audience it’s drastically different from the previous show where you have an array and everything is spread out and gets wider to the lawn.
You mention programming. Can you explain how much of what you do on a given night is improvisational?
I would say 95% of the show is improvisational. I have my board set up where I want all my buttons and faders. I have a button that will fade in three seconds to a different color or I have a button that will do a ten- to fifteen-second move from the stage to the audience. So when I hit those buttons I know that they’re going to go to different looks but the timing and everything I hit on the fly live.
It’s different every night. One night I’ll pick a bassline to try to follow during a certain part of the song, where two nights later if they play that song again, I might go ahead and mess around with what Boyd’s doing on violin. But that is all run very live during the show.
Are there particular color tones or palettes that you always associate with specific songs?
Sure. “Hunger for the Great Light”—I always envision that song with a lot of yellows. “#41” I envision richer colors, blues and cooler colors. “Granny” is another hot song I envision in deep reds and ambers.
Do your views on those ever change, depending on how the band might interpret a song at a given show or just your approach on a particular night?
Absolutely, and the nice thing about it is I can do that on the fly, if I’m feeling that it’s a little different or my mood’s different. I should also mention that if you were to see a song like, say, “Pig” as number three in the setlist and then you came to a show a week later and it was song number twelve, it’ll have a whole different feel to it because there are so many different elements that are added as the show goes on. This whole design is about layers and depth. We have so much going on upstage behind the band, with five or six different layers of stuff that will eventually appear during the show including new low-res video walls that we can use as a lighting effect, and a fiber-optic drop.
How much preparation will you do before a tour as you add in new elements?
I would say a good 20-25 days in terms of playing with this and figuring it out. We spend a month before the tour up in Connecticut. To give you an idea of how far out we work, we’re working on next year already.
To what extent does the band play a role in providing feedback as you develop new ideas?
I will show them what I’m working on just to make sure they don’t say, “Holy crap what is this?” But for the most part they’ve been very supportive of what I show them and the direction that we’re going in. The only time they see it from out front is before the first show.
We’ll come in the night before and then the band plays for an hour and a half or so. Then we’ll have dinner and they will come out and wander around. We’ll crank some music over the p.a., whether it be Dave Matthews Band or something else that people like, and Aaron and I will just go out there and have fun, so they can see what’s going on and have a feel for what it’s going to be like.
That’s always nerve-wracking because it’s always the first show and things get tighter after about six or seven shows. We figure out a lot by trial and error: “Wow, that works really well!” But you might not find it until the third or fourth show. I’m finding new things all the time.
Do you have favorite songs to light?
I really love the song “You Never Know.” I love lighting “Kit Kat Jam,” which they haven’t played in a while. I love “#41” and “Last Stop.”
You also directed two of the band’s DVDs. Looking back at those after a few years, what are your thoughts?
Folsom Field I was younger and I think looking back maybe I had too much energy. I was trying to get too much across. There is multiple-screen stuff and shots sliding in and out which I thought was cool at the time but when I look back, it seems a little too fast-paced. When you get to The Gorge, it’s a little more simple. I think there’s still a great energy to it but it’s not boom boom boom trying to get everything in. During Folsom Field I wanted to get every bass idea, every drum roll and then a few years later I realized it’s not necessary to get every single shot in there.
Do you have any future plans to direct?
I would love to do more but it all depends on timing. I moved over for a few years and directed video, but it got to the point where I missed doing the lighting. You’re playing along with the band much more. My first love of doing anything with this band is the lighting—I want my fingers to be moving in time with the band.