How To Party with Matt Wukman
How does a concert's lighting designer tell a story? MATT WUKMAN AKA MATT WOOKIE AKA "MATTY LIGHT" talks LIGHTING DESIGNING FOR KHRUANGBIN
If I died tomorrow, whoever was in charge of selecting the music that would play as people mulled around and filed into the church, or wherever the funeral was, would probably put a Khruangbin song in there. I can hear it now–right between, like, “Ladyfingers”, and “Love and Death” by Ebo Taylor–and at the same time it would be playing in some restaurant, in some Uber, some airport. Which Khruangbin song? Who cares. They all provide roughly the same utility, to fill whatever space they’re in with the sound of the Spotify-era World muzak, to be tantalizingly modal enough to make the listener feel adventurous, but vague enough in its cultural coding so as not to disrupt whoever happens to be trying to get laid or stoned.
So, at the Lena Horne Bandshell in Prospect Park on a Thursday night this summer, as lightning flashed ominously and a woman half-passed-out either from heat or drugs was being force-fed Liquid Death by her friends, a DJ played “Love and Death” as the audience waited for Khruangbin to take the stage. Liquid Death, by the way, is water, rebranded with heavy metal aesthetics so it can be advertised on podcasts and sold at a premium at events like this alongside $13 (not including tax and tip) cans of Stella Artois. “We need more water,” her friends called, until an NYPD officer came instead.
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I don’t know what to say. If this doesn’t alarm you… we have different outlooks on life.
I wasn’t in a good mood. Khruangbin is a crowd-pleasing band with no enemies, and I was prepared to be their first. As they dug into the beginning of their set, I thought, it takes seeing Khruangbin twice to start to realize how exactly you’re being played–to see how their oft-touted global range of influences collapses into songs that sound remarkably similar to each other, and then into a live show that’s remarkably similar to the one they were putting on in 2019, and then to wonder if they were wearing the same wigs as then too, and whether they wash them.
At that time, I liked Khruangbin a lot. I had listened to them for the first time on a long train ride through California, watching the desert prisons go by. I’d never been to a desert before, and so, as unplaceable and inoffensive as ever, Khruangbin’s music expanded to fit the mystery.
This summer, I eventually had to admit that much of that 2019 spark was still there. Live, Mark Speer’s guitar leads sound technicolor, Laura Lee’s bass is breathless, gasping every note, and drummer DJ Johnson is effortless in his tempo changes. I felt my disgruntled mood begin to wash away, and when a giant disco ball figuratively exploded with light, I was dazzled. I was more mad at the humidity than I was at Khruangbin, honestly. It wasn’t just the music charming me, though. The first time I saw Khruangbin, I stood near the lighting console at Brooklyn Steel, and noticed that their lighting designer, Matt Wukman doing what seemed remarkably like playing a digital instrument, hitting lighting cues in time with the music. After seeing the show again, I realized that I had years worth of questions built up for a first interview with a lighting designer–what tools do they have to convince a curmudgeon like me to have a good time? How do they tell a story, build and release tension? And what lessons can the critical partier learn from the practice? I gave Matt a call and asked.
I’m here to ask you about your lighting career, but it would be incredibly irresponsible of me not to mention that you’re a contestant on competitive mini golf reality show Holey Moley on ABC. How long have you been playing golf?
Haha! I got my first set of clubs in high school, but that was all driving range sessions with friends. A buddy ended up on our high school golf team, but I wasn’t serious about it at all. Once I moved to LA from NYC it became more of an activity with friends. Especially during Covid, it was about the only thing I was able to do to keep me sane.
When I first saw you with Khruangbin it was in Brooklyn in 2018. I just happened to be standing by the lighting console—at that venue it’s kind of in the middle of the crowd. I remember thinking it seemed very rhythmic and musical, like you were playing the lights like an instrument. Do you have a musical background yourself?
I appreciate that you noticed! And first of all, if you ever go see any show, the front of house is the best place to experience it. That’s where we have designed it from. It sounds the best and looks the best from those angles. You will either catch me there or in the pit for a song or two. I played bass for a hot second, but I decided I didn’t like being on stage, so moved into lighting design in college for theatre.
With music, the lights are not stagnant very often. In theatre, you build a 5-minute scene that doesn’t need changing of colors or a lot of moving lights. In music, a song is building a scene, but that song could have 18 scenes. Opening, verse, chorus, bridge, verse 2, et cetera. A lot of lighting designers came up at music venues, and are used to that. But I came up through theatre, and try to make these specific moments.
With regards to rhythm, there’s a couple ways you can do that. There’s MIDI controls–if any band has a computer on stage, basically, they send MIDI time-codes to the lighting console, triggered by the musicians, typically the drummer. In those instances, we spend a good week programming it all before we ever play in front of an audience. But I’ve worked with a lot of bands that don’t have any computers on stage, and in those cases, we make cue lists. So, as I know that this beat’s coming, I hit that lighting cue. You do have to know music timing, and it’s always about the drums and bass, not the vocals. When the rhythm section changes time, the lights have to change time.
A lot of bands just want the same show every night, but with Khruangbin, the songs might be completely different live. We get thrown into the jam band scene with bands like Phish, who I don’t really listen to, but they have one of the best lighting designers of the time, same thing with like, Umphrey’s McGee, because they can adapt. So you anticipate when they’re going to jump to the next movement, and making sure you have every tool accessible to you if they go wild. Being able to adapt live without stumbling. It’s my job to know their songs better than them basically. So if they miss a beat, which happens, I can continue just as they do. I need to be able to know if the audience is feeling it, and if they’re not, I would then take control and be like, let’s get them a little more pumped up, and the band might change the set list, if they’re comfortable with you as the lighting designer, they can go almost wherever they’d like.
From your perspective in the audience, you must be really in tune with how the crowd is feeling. How would you get them more pumped up?
Pushing lights into their faces will help, or having it scan them from above. As an audience, I’ve always felt that when the lights are always on stage, you’re just staring that way. But once they start hitting you, you’re now a part of the show. The easiest way is obviously audience blinders, the white lights that light up the audience. They say, “hey, sing along now!” But if you’re not working with a singalong band, you can find other ways, like if you’re at Red Rocks, you can light up the scenery. The first tour I ever did was with Beirut in 2011. The designer’s name was Ben Stanton. We had festoons, or string lights that went over everybody, and that brings the audience into it, brings them to the stage. That communal feeling is what I’ve always tried to create.
When people take out their phones, you know you’re doing something right. When I came up, the sound people would always say, “they don’t go home humming the lights!” Well, now it’s like, “they don’t go home putting your mix on Instagram!” Now, whenever you see an Instagram post about the band, the first thing you see is the lights. It’s changed so much, we have to have a good photographer, video is much bigger, now there are livestreams on Youtube.
I’ve always wondered how lighting designers decide on what colors to have on when. Is that a purely personal decision? Or is there some class at trade school that teaches best practices? And do you essentially play the same set every night?
There is a huge personal presence. My idea is that I listen to the songs and try to think what the audience wants to see while expressing the bands vision. I learned basically, and this is the hugest overstatement, that slow songs are cooler colors, like blue, lavenders, or even pinks or magenta. That’s an easy way to make it one look. Faster songs are usually gonna be reds, ambers, yellows. The end of the set, I usually go for straight up white lights, because that’s usually gonna be a banger, and then I use audience lights and let everybody have their moment where the crowd is partying together. That’s how I treat the end. Other people like darkness, but I like that everyone leaves on a high note.
That’s interesting, some people see white as stark and intense.
It depends how you do it! If it’s on mirrorballs, fuck yeah, that’s a party. But if it’s only on the band? Because the idea for myself is that the lights are on the audience, and then the band gets to see the audience, and they see themselves seeing each other. And they’re like yeah! You know? If you go a little ambery that also works. But a whole bunch of red on the audience just looks…evil.
But everything’s a rainbow, so I’ve had slow songs that are red and fast songs that are blue. It’s just about the vibe, and the movement of the lights. Wilco does a great job of the slow, big songs. It’s about taking the artist’s song to a bigger realm. Then it has to be complimentary. Unless you don’t want to, haha. Some lighting designers live by a two-color-per-song rule, but I think that’s fading. It’s more of an old school thought when there were only Parcans in the air. Now our equipment can accomplish anything.
What kind of input does the artist typically have in the lighting of the set? I imagine it varies, some artists will care more than others. What’s working with Khruangbin on their show like?
On all of my designs with Khruangbin, it was an extremely collaborative effort. Like the spaceship thing we designed, that was a lot of phone calls, a lot of communication getting everyone comfortable. Art works best with more minds. I like to be really collaborative the bands I work with, but it really depends on the artist. Some I’ve worked with are like, “no, here are the color combinations I want.” It’s truly about making the artist comfortable onstage.
If they have an opening act, do you typically do lighting for them, too?
The headliner’s design and gear won’t get used. It’s also the entire production staff’s few hours off between soundcheck and show. So maybe family is in town, or you’ll need a nap and dinner.
I’m interested in how artsy your job gets. A headline set is usually like 90 minutes Do you have a vision for how to tell the “story” of the set with the lights? Or is it more utilitarian than that? I imagine it’s a mix of both.
Lighting is all about tricks. How do we make sure you don’t see everything that we’ve done until the end? How do I keep you entertained until the finale? With Khruangbin, it’s all about mirrorballs. When I brought on mirrorballs, I decided I wasn’t going to bring it in until halfway through the set. Then, once that trick is exposed, you have to use it a few more times. You can’t just throw lasers and mirrorballs at the first song. You’ve got some tricks up your sleeve, some colors and some themes that we’ve talked about for a long time.
Do you care a lot about the lighting in your own space? Or is that more of a work thing for you?
I’m very specific. No over head lights unless it’s a kitchen. Lamps and dimmers on every thing. I don’t have the crazy color changing lights, but I need it to have a vibe. Every light should be dimmable in my house.
If some artist wanted to bootstrap lighting design for their own show, how would you tell them to start thinking about how to pair light with music?
I’d hop on a call with them! Don’t overthink it at the start. Have songs with colors, find out what hits with audience, and build off that. Always make it your vision, if you want a green song have a green song. I’m not the person that is stealing your vision. I’m only trying to bring it to life!
Here are some updates on some stuff pertaining to the blog. I want to get more ambitious with it, but in a smart way. You know, live music content really is a tough sell on the internet, and if I want to see this blog become big I have to think about ways it could be useful to a lot of people (I’m being serious).
In addition to falling behind on this blog and pretty much everything in my life, I’ve fallen woefully behind on my party-throwing practice, which is really important to me. I’ll be rectifying that soon.
Once, I demoed a feature called “Fortnite” (lol), where I’d give a list of upcoming events in New York I was interested in. The pandemic put an end to that, and I’ve been resistant to bringing it back because it’s too big of a job for me–when I first moved to NYC there was a Twitter account called Plugville that would round up a bunch of upcoming parties. It was great, and that’s a way to add utility, but I just don’t think that’s my style. Instead, I’m considering just… adding a list of the events that I am literally going to myself, to be like, “this what I’m excited to do,” and since you follow this blog that could matter to you? Let’s try and see how it feels:
this week I’ll be going to: my friend John Shakespear’s show, tonight (11/29) at Rockwood Music Hall, my friend Brian’s booksale on Saturday (12/3) and Dog Breath at TV Eye (12/4). Maybe I’ll do something Saturday night, too.
I had a lot of fun hosting Cat’s response to my Alex G piece last week. A good number of other music writers follow this, so hit me up if you’re interested in doing something similar.
As important as in-person performance is to me, I grew up outside of the U.S. as a fan of American bands. Performance videos on the internet were pretty much the origin of my love for music, so I want to try paying homage to them by featuring a performance video I really like every week. Here’s a really pretty performance of some ‘70s pop on an old music TV show called Solid Gold, which I’d be quite interested to watch. Send me any ‘70s pop you like:
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