Ask anyone who has attended a Tool concert in recent years and they will tell you that the music is greatly enhanced by the stage lighting, lasers and video projections. (Indeed, the elaborate production has often been compared to Pink Floyd’s live show.) For this month’s newsletter, I had the great privilege of conducting a rare interview with Tool’s long time Lighting Director, Mark ‘Junior’ Jacobson. The interview with Junior is, in my opinion, long over due (we’ve been toying with the idea for years). But now that Junior has moved closer to the city, and, hence, I’ve had more opportunities to ‘nudge’ him about doing it – it only took a pint or two or three at the local pub for the new proud Papa to finally agree to answer some of my questions. The result, I think you will find, is a revealing glimpse into what it’s like to do professional stage lighting, especially for a band of Tool’s caliber.
BMB: Let’s start at the beginning: Was there a particular band’s live show, live video, or other theatrical event that first got you interested in stage lighting?
JUNIOR: I did a little bit of lighting in high school for plays and dances, but the first bands that got me interested in lighting were Pink Floyd and Rush.
BMB:Who were some of the bands whose lighting and stage shows you most admired prior to getting involved in lighting yourself. And what bands’ stage lighting and/or stage show impresses you today?
JUNIOR: Some of the shows that made me take notice of lighting and production were Iron Maiden (Dave 'Lights' Beasley/Derek Riggs), Talking Heads (Beverly Emmons/David Byrne), Don Henley (Steve Cohen), Sting (Nick Sholem), Prince (Roy Bennett), and the aforementioned Rush (Howard Ungerleider) and Pink Floyd (Marc Brickman).
I don't go to a lot of large shows anymore, but I still enjoy seeing what Rush does. Roger Waters "The Wall" tour was a production marvel, although it wasn't about the lighting as much as it was about the actual Wall and the video on it. The lighting itself was actually quite minimal for a show of that scale, but it was fitting.
In some ways it's difficult for me to go see a show without having an opinion of the production/lighting. It's good to see what is going on out there in terms of innovation, and whatnot, but I feel it can also stifle ones own ideas as much as it can inspire. You can get caught up trying to keep up with everyone else to where it just looks like you took their ideas, or the "one-upsmanship" path that just keeps piling on to where it just becomes a giant mess. Of course, you can also try to further what you've seen. Very little hasn't "been done" already. The key is to find new ways to incorporate and present it all.
BMB: Do you remember your first time doing lights for a band or other event, and what was the first band to actually pay you for doing their lights?
JUNIOR: In the spring of 1988, when I was 18, I got a job helping a local band in Madison, Wisconsin called "The Cheeters". They had won 2 rounds of "Star Search" and were building a regional following. They had 2 crew: a sound guy (Steve) and a lighting guy (John), both known to the band as "Bob". They had to set up everything themselves and drive the equipment truck from city to city. I was eager to learn the business, so "the Bobs" hired me out of their own pockets to go with them and help. Initially it was $10-$20 a day, and I was setting up drums, keyboards and guitars as well as helping to put up lights and sound and take my turns driving the truck. Eventually the band figured out who I was and put me on salary ($35 a day). They also nicknamed me "Junior Bob", as I was still 18. The Bobs would show me how sound and lights worked. Occasionally one of them would need to go to the stage to fix something, so I would run lights or sound as needed.
John took a job with another band, which left The Cheeters without a lighting guy just before they were about to play a big Thanksgiving show at Madison's premiere club, Headliners. They were perplexed, but John insisted I could do it. He had known about his new job for a while and had been showing me how it all works. From that day forward lighting has been my main focus.
BMB: What bands prior to Tool did you do lighting for, and what bands, events, etc. have you worked on while Tool is not touring?
JUNIOR: I spent about 7 years doing lighting for club bands in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and the first half of the 90's working for a regional sound and lighting company in Minneapolis called Southern Thunder. From Southern Thunder I got a job touring with the band Filter in 1995. In 1996 I did a tour with Rage Against the Machine, and then started with Tool.
When Tool is not touring I've worked for a number of other bands over the years. Love Spit Love, Limp Bizkit, Stabbing Westward, The Melvins, Linkin Park, Staind, Siouxsie Sioux, Clay Aiken, "The Good, The Band and the Queen", Korn, Duran Duran, Devo.
Recently System of a Down, Puscifer, and A Perfect Circle have been keeping me busy.
I've done a little bit of television work, including some time at Mun2/Telemundo, and splitting duty on the first season of "America's Best Dance Crew" with Breck Haggerty (Tool's Video Director). While at Southern Thunder, and more recently with Delicate Productions (Tool's lighting and video equipment vendor) I've done a number of large and small-scale corporate events ranging from product launches to lighting President Clinton (that was a while ago) to sales meetings. Some require glitz, while others just need to be right.
BMB: How did you get the Tool lighting director gig?
JUNIOR: The Tour Manager for Filter (Pete Riedling) was also the Tour Manager for Tool and Rage Against the Machine. He introduced me to Adam at a Filter show in Ventura, and then later to Danny (at the Opium Den) after a RATM show at the Palladium. Those intros got the ball rolling on me joining the Tool organization.
BMB: Over the years, is there a particular Tool song that you are especially proud of with regards to the stage lighting? Also, any particular show that really stands out?
JUNIOR: It's not easy to single any of them out, but I've always liked what we do with 46&2, Lateralus, and Ćnema. Those songs have so many parts to them. Recently 46&2 has been the song where the show opens up a bit. When Wings/10,000 Days was in the set I felt it was a real showpiece. We did some really cool things in that song that we had never done before. It was also the introduction of the lasers each night, and just had a very epic feel to it.
There've been a lot of great shows. I wish I could remember them all. I used to be able to, but some of it is turning vague. The first 10,000 Days tour arena show (2006, Vancouver) stands out, since there were a lot of firsts for us, and a lot of "I hope this works" going on. The first time the band went to New Zealand (1997) was intense. The fans were very excited to have Tool there.
BMB: What was your favorite Tool tour up to now?
JUNIOR: Difficult (again) to choose.
1996-1998 (Ćnima) was my first with them, so there is an attachment to that era, I suppose. The 2nd round of Lateralus (2002) was a favorite of many. I'm happy with the end result of 10,000 Days (2006-2011). It took a lot of work to get there, but I think we accomplished a lot, artistically.
BMB: Knowing that Tool uses lots of projections, lasers, etc., how do you coordinate with the others to keep things balanced?
JUNIOR: Video (Breck Haggerty), Lasers (Scott Wilson) and I will often work on ideas independently, but ultimately there has to be an overall plan. When it was just lights and video the show was a bit more organic, in that Breck (or his predecessors) and I would operate mostly independently, but off of each other, almost in the way that jam bands play. Sometimes it was magic and sometimes it was a mess. When a good moment occurred it would usually make its way in to the show permanently. The show was constantly evolving, and sometimes devolving. It became clear that we should coordinate to a certain point, at least. Over time we made a more concerted effort to make sure lighting and video colours didn't clash, or at least progressed together.
On the "10,000 Days" tour we introduced some new elements. Video made its way on to more surfaces instead of just a screen or 2, we added the ability to move lighting trusses around and re-shape the look of the airspace during the show, and it was also the first time we used lasers.
With Adam's idea of the completely white stage and a minimalistic look, we decided to make sure the show progressed from small to big in the right way.
Ideally the audience would either consciously, or subconsciously, initially think the show would be similar to shows in the past based on what they saw when they walked in and during the first few songs. All of the lighting rig was at the same height and flat, which doesn't catch the eye. The whole stage was white, so the video screen just blended in. We wanted to keep the lasers as secret as possible, so we covered the word "lasers" on all of Scott's cases (even his chair) that were visible to the crowd.
Granted, in this day and age it is impossible to keep secrets beyond the first show as too many of the audience have seen set lists, video clips, and descriptions on the Internet.
Starting with just lights, then adding some video gave the appearance of "nothing new", so that when the stage floor video appears later, then the moving trusses, and then lasers each new element got a proper introductory moment and made the show grow.
All of this required the various departments to be more in touch with one another than in the past, and a number of different scenarios ready to go on moments notice.
BMB: How long does it usually take to prepare the lighting for the average Tool tour, and is it, in part, a work in progress that changes with each show?
JUNIOR: In 1996 the lighting was largely improvised and required very little pre-production time. The venues were also smaller as was the lighting system. It was mostly set up by me and one other person, with some help from local stagehands.
As the shows got bigger the size of the lighting rig got bigger, to where improvising can start to look sloppy. There also needed to be more definite ideas and the systems themselves became more complex. Recently we have taken as much as a week on a soundstage to build the system and pre-program as much as makes sense without handcuffing the ability to improvise. We currently carry a lighting crew of 4, plus me. The lighting crew also get help every day from the local stagehands at the venue. The ideas for the show can start to formulate months ahead of time. There has never been a Tool tour that is not constantly evolving. Some days there is not time to add to the show, but there have always been changes throughout the tour. Nothing is set in stone.
BMB: Somewhat related to the last question, how much of the lighting for a Tool show is programmed as opposed to being improvised?
JUNIOR: Certain parts have to be programmed. Sequences and effects will look a lot better if you use the technology at hand. On the other side of that, there are certain aspects that will be emotionless if a human is not directly executing them. With Tool there has to be a human operating all of the key moments. Nothing is run from time code, and the band don't play to a click track, so the production has to follow their lead. Everything the band is doing is susceptible to improv (and mistakes) so the production has to be, as well.
BMB: Over the years, have there been certain ideas about the lighting that you have presented to the band members, but that were rejected for cert6ain reasons, If so, care to elaborate? Also, have the band members ever had ideas that you have rejected for whatever reasons?
JUNIOR: None that I can remember. They've always been very receptive to trying new things, both in their music and in the live show. There have been ideas that the band and I decided weren't right for the show, but those are going to remain as buried memories for now. There are also some that will probably work some day, but the logistics or technology doesn't exist quite yet. For the most part, any ideas the band have introduced have worked out. There have been some that made me wonder "How are we going to do that?", but we get the necessary brains together and make it happen.
BMB: How does working festivals compare with individual shows, and for a lighting director for a band like Tool what are the particular difficulties and advantages (if any) with each?
JUNIOR: I can understand the appeal of festivals to fans, but I can't stand doing them. There's always compromise of the intended vision. Festivals are great for bands that play during the day and/or don't have a "production". The video and the mood are a big part of the Tool live show, so it's not an easy task. On an arena tour, the dimensions are nearly the same every day, which is a lot less hassle. Set it up, make sure or all works, focus (aim) the lights, and maybe there'll be some extra time to grow the show, or fix cues that don't quite look right. There is the added bonus of being indoors, so the venue lights can be turned off for a while in the afternoon to make the adjustments a lot easier.
At a festival, you are outdoors in the sun. Not exactly conducive to working on lighting and video. In the best case scenario, the scheduling will allow for setting up the night before the show and getting it all done then. Unfortunately, that's not always possible.
Also, at a festival, your band usually isn't the only concern of the promoter. There are a number of other bands that need their space, or their backdrops, or a video screen, or whatever. This usually means something of yours might need to move, or (worse) get removed. Some festival situations (usually Europe) have a set of lights that everyone uses instead of using the ones you are touring with, so that can make for a long day of trying to make it look "right", and often times on those shows you are driving in from a show in another country and don't get there until mid-day, which makes it even more difficult.
Outdoor shows, in general, can be detrimental to shows with production. Backdrops, smoke, video screens and other elements don't have much tolerance for wind, and electronics really don't like rain.
BMB: What fan disruptions are worse: flash cameras or laser pointers? Any stories about unruly fans that you’d care to share? I don’t want to give someone any ideas, but you must have seen a lot of people doing thinks that there not supposed to.
JUNIOR: I think both are pretty disruptive. They both have the compounded disruption of triggering the local security to wave their bright flashlights all over the place, and these days they all have super-bright LED flashlights.
Laser pointers probably have the edge, in that they can be harder to locate, and they will make a squiggly distracting mess all over the backdrop, as well has hitting the band in the eyes.
BMB: Anything new and exciting in the works for the next Tool tour that you can reveal (or, at least, hint at) at this time? Or is it still too early to know what changes and additions might be included for the tour(s)?
JUNIOR: I have some ideas, and I'm sure Adam has some, too. We haven't formally talked about any of them. It's never too early to start getting ideas together, but the actual plan would have to happen closer to a tour start date to be able to utilize the latest gadgets and technology.
BMB: What’s the most difficult thing about being on the road for large stretches of time, and, conversely, other that getting paid for doing what you enjoy, what are some of your favorite things about touring? You’ve certainly seen your share of the world. Any favorite cities that you’d like to return to?
JUNIOR: The most difficult thing is that it makes it hard to have much of a home life. You can't make plans very far in advance. I've never made it to any high school reunions, for example (some would argue I'm not missing anything, there). You have to learn to be spontaneous and adaptable with your schedule. The people around you have to try to understand this, too. I don't get to see my daughter and her mom as much as we'd like.
I enjoy exploring other cities and countries, although sometimes you just don't feel like leaving the hotel. I'm trying to get to as many baseball parks as I can, so if there's a game on a day off, I'm there.
There are a lot of great cities.
London, Tokyo, Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Auckland, Adelaide (good wine, there), Santiago (more good wine), Vancouver (good sushi), Toronto, Paris, Moscow, Berlin, New York, Chicago, San Antonio (go Spurs), ... it goes on. Too many to mention all of them, really, and I can't narrow it down to one.
BMB: If you had it your way (meaning no budget concerns), what, if any, changes or additions would you like to see as far as Tool’s live show?
JUNIOR: I don't really feel that it's lacking. There's always the desire to go bigger and better.
We'll see what we can do next time.
BMB: Is there are favorite story that happened on a Tool tour that you’d care to share?
JUNIOR: There have been a lot of great times. Some of them can't be printed here, for various reasons. One of my favorites was in 2001 when Tool played the Air Canada Center in Toronto. Howard Ungerleider (lighting designer for Rush since 1974) was at the show. He told me that Alex Lifeson was there, but was up in his box seats, and wanted to know if it was ok for him to watch from FOH (front of house: our lighting and sound control area in the middle of the crowd).
Of course, I said yes. Howard brought him in and introduced him to us. At the time, the security team were using airport codes on the guest passes in order to signify the city. So there is Alex Lifeson with a pass on his jacket that said "YYZ". After the show we escorted him backstage. The band members did not know him yet, and did not know he was there, so they had quite a surprised look when they saw him in the hallway.
There have been a number of VIPs in our FOH area over the years. At Wembley arena I turned around during the show and saw Brian May standing there. That made me do a double take.
BMB: I know that you’re a sports fan – particularly when it comes to the L.A. Lakers, Kings, and Dodgers. What have been some of your best experiences watching these teams play live?
JUNIOR: The Lakers have to share time with the Spurs, for me. I know some people (especially Mike Patton) who would have me up in front of a firing squad for that, and although I cheer for the Lakers, the Spurs were my introduction to the NBA, and they'll always have me as a fan, too.
I've been followings the Kings for a few years, and am partnered in season tickets for them with one of the owners (Gus) of Delicate (the lighting and video company Tool has been using for many years). We got to see a great season last year, and I'm hoping this season happens so we can watch them defend the Stanley Cup.
I had been a big baseball fan in the 70s and 80s until the strikes in the 80s turned me off. Back then the Brewers were my team. The Dodgers became my team after I moved to LA, and Buzz (from the Melvins) invited me to a game. I was hooked again, and being 20 years removed from the Brewers I suddenly had a new team. I've seen some great moments at Dodger Stadium, I just hope I can remember them all years from now.
BMB: What football team would you like to see come to L.A. ?
JUNIOR: I'm not sure about that one. I was born a Packers fan, and remain one to this day. I guess a team is destined to come here, but I can't say that I favor one choice over another.
BMB: What do you think about your good friend Buzz and the Melvins doing 51 shows in 51 states in 51 days? Would you like to be on that tour? And while on the subject of Buzz, have you ever been to a live sporting even with him that they DIDN’T put him up on the large screen?
JUNIOR: I wish them luck, and if any band can do it, they will. They have a different approach to touring than most, anyway. I think they are almost half-way through it. The journal entries have been a fun read.
It would be interesting, and it would be quite different from what I'm used to. I think with the right attitude it could be a lot of fun. Buzz does seem to attract attention. He doesn't "blend" well. So it goes.
BMB: When I saw ELP do the “Brain Salad Surgery” tour back in the early 1970s, they were using unusual color gels (for the time), including ‘street light’ greens, rose, violet to name a few. Are there any colors or shades that you haven’t seen used by a band, that you might like to experiment with for Tool or one of the other bands that you work with?
JUNIOR: There are so many colour possibilities. I do what I can to incorporate oddball shades. I like off-whites, and tints as much as solid colours. Another band that I have been working with has as many as 27 songs each night (their songs are a lot shorter than Tool's), so I need to have a lot of variety.
There are some colours, and combinations, that I use with Tool exclusively. We created a bluish shade of white for the "Ćnema" video, and another for "Schism" that are unique to those songs. The Melvins have always wanted to find a way to have all red light and black smoke, but we decided that outside of burning a tire on stage that it might be hard to pull off.
BMB: All right, let’s get technical for a minute. Can your describe your arsenal on the last tour? How many lights were used and the various types? Also, what’s the operating system that you use?
JUNIOR: We went through a few different fixture types throughout the different legs of the 10,000 Days shows. The most recent touring package had:
22 Mac700 profiles
19 Mac2000 wash
16 VL3000 spots
12 Atomic Strobes with colour changers
12 Pixeline110ec LED strips
10 Mac301 LED wash
5 Mac2000 profiles (these had the custom-made Alex Grey gobos for the backdrop)
All the lights and touring personnel were from Delicate Productions. Delicate have been supplying the lights for Tool since the mid-90s. They've also supplied the video equipment since 1998.
Jerry Kaiser was the crew chief from 2007 onward. Prior to that it was Leigh Fordham.
The 2010 touring crew were Bart Buckalew, Mary Wistrom, and Spencer Smyth, and at other times included Paul Eaves, Adam Walden, Richie Steffa, and "Pippi". I've probably forgotten someone, but we did a lot of shows.
The lighting rig also included 8 Show Distribution computer controlled variable speed chain hoists, operated by Fred Jacques. These were used to make the curved trusses move up and down during the show.
The lighting is controlled with the MA Lighting "GrandMA" console. Breck also uses one to control the video. We've both been using them for Tool since 2002.