Light and Sound: An Interview with Phil Salvaggio and Greg Ellis of Pretty Lights

Yesterday, Sue Rice recapped the Pretty Lights show at the Times Union Center. Today features an interview with Pretty Lights Lightining Director Greg Ellis and Production Manager/Audio Engineer Phil Salvaggio. After the show was over, Chris McMullen sat down with the Oneonta natives to get a look at the behind the scenes of producing a Pretty Lights show.

Chris McMullen: When did the lighting rig really reach its peak?

Greg Ellis: Well the funny thing is we debuted the pillar style video rig last year at Bonnaroo but we used the festival light rig and it was very sub-par. After that was when it all kind of came together. We followed that with a string of festivals and then during our fall tour was the first time it was a complete package. Its been a couple years in the making. We’ve been taking care to make sure the equipment does what we want it to do. The visuals are particularly a challange because I can improvise with lights but Video is so delicate.

Chris: Who does the visuals?

Greg: Its a company called Radio Edit AV out of Chicago. Led by this kid that we know Dave Najarian.

photo by Anthony DeVincenzo

Chris: Have you had a memorable show on this tour?

Greg: The last two nights have been my favorite shows I’ve ever done. We grew up in Oneonta and our whole crew was here tonight. And last night my friends from Connecticut, from when I lived there attended., so its been one huge family reunion the last two days. THere was a moment last night when Something just kind of happened. From then on out its been full steam ahead.

Chris: How did you get involved with PL?

Greg: When I moved to Connecticut, he moved to Colorado and bounced around and started to find his groove. He started working with PL and convinced me to come out there.

Phil: I had to work with all these dudes, and all had this gear and they all sucked…and I was like, I know this kid…give him the right tools and he’ll slay these kids. And thats what happened. haha

(As Chris and Phil were talking, they were interrupted by alcohol and women, a few follow up questions ensued)

Chris: What is your favorite NY venue?

Phil: Now, I’m partial to the Times Union Center, it’s a large scale big arena. I saw my first Phish show there in 1998. I was pretty stoked to get in there and do a show.  As far as places to see a show, Radio City Music Hall is pretty awesome.
Chris: Any pre show rituals?
Phil: I usually take a nap between sound check and showtime, its the most time I have off during the day.
Chris: What are you listening to lately?
Phil: Muse: 2nd Law, totally sick, new modern record, bands just don’t do this kind of stuff anymore, this band can actually play live, they are sick, they are the real deal. There music is very rock opera-ish. Brings me back to my youth. Its like Queen meets Radiohead meets a Broadway show or something. You should watch their making of 2nd Law. You’ll understand what I’m saying.

photo by Anthony DeVincenzo
Chris: Craziest tour moment?
Phil: The Crazy tour moments are less and less these days as we have advanced into such large venues. These days its way more low key backstage. Just playing the Boston Garden was pretty crazy to me. I saw Phish 20th anniversary there, so that was crazy. That or this past summer doing the Gorge, then Sunset Festival in Tampa, then Summercamp, with the help of charter jets. Literally opposite parts of the country.   EDC Vegas… 100,000 people.. I am returning to this, Full Flex Express Tour, It was the 2012 version of Festival Express. Use your imagination…
Chris: Favorite tour moment?
Phil: Favorite Tour moment for this tour… Kickin it with my friends backstage at the Times Union Center in Albany. Everyone seemed to have a blast, and it was great to bring my old band mates and friends into that element, in a venue where we had seen so many epic shows.
Chris: Any word on a Pretty Lights festival?
Phil: This is something we have been talking about forever. We do so many festivals where we are limited from a production standpoint. Our touring rig is bigger than most festivals we play, and its OUR thing. We did EDC Vegas and Electric Zoo, both were great and had HUGE productions. But we’d rather walk into doing our OWN thing with artists we want to play with.   We did just did a co-bill festival with Skrillex in Nashville, the weekend before Halloween, it was called “With Your Friends.” We used our rig, it was Awesome, we can show what we are really about when its our stuff.  I would love to do what Phish did, or rather something similar, with artists we like or are on the label etc…. Create a really cool brand, something that people can remember. So, in terms of any word on a festival, NO, but its been in our minds for a minute.
Chris: How did you meet Derek?
Phil: I was living in Fort Collins CO. Playing in bands and booking a club. I started doing Audio for a company down there. I was in some bands that were just struggling. He was in a band, I was in a band, we had mutual friends. I did his first real show in Fort Collins, I brought in lights and extra subs for his show. About 4 months later he needed a sound guy, for his first ever multi date run in the south. I hopped on a plane and the rest is history.
Chris: When did you realize that Pretty Lights had gotten big?
Phil: Well, I remember our first tour bus, then our second. Then we had a semi, now we have 2 busses, and 3 semi trucks. And we headline all the big crunchy festivals… Wakarusa, Summercamp, All Good… etc..  I think it was All Good last year (2011) there were 30,000 people there rocking the fuck out. And we were playing after bands I used to go see all the time… moe… Primus… And we put on a pretty mind blowing production.
photo by Anthony DeVincenzo
Chris: Advice for up and coming acts(djs bands producers)?

Phil: Follow your dreams and don’t be a rockstar until you are ready, no one has time for that jazz.

Chris: Any thoughts on Pretty Lights live? (ALA shpongle, Bonobo etc)?

Phil: The new record was recorded with a live band. Basically there were a bunch of players, locked in a studio for about 2 weeks in New York. We had various different instrumentation per session. I was super stoked to play with some of my favorite musicians, Adam Deitch, Eric Krasno Nigel Hall….   The sessions went from me and Derek making noises on guitars and basses, to full on 12 piece band locking into grooves.  The sessions were all “live,” and recorded to 2 inch tape. Then all the tapes were dubbed to vinyl plates. Then Derek took the records, and chopped them up in his usual style. He basically created a library or samples that were his own. The grooves and breaks that we locked into were absolutely amazing, and the engineer, Joel Hamilton of Studio G in Brooklyn,  is a genius. They have so many old pre amps, compressors and processors from the 60s and 70s. Which is what Derek wanted for his record, to really have the sound of that age. He ended up going back and doing it again in New York and New Orleans with singers and more musicians.  It was really an awesome process, we literally took the tapes, hopped in a cab, and dropped them off at Salt Mastering. I got to see the whole process go down. It was pretty amazing. The record should be out sometime early this year.

As for a live band, There have been talks of this as well. However I think there would have to be some serious time off and a lot of planning and rehearsing for something like this. Derek is a perfectionist…. It is not something that would happen over night.  I am pretty sure it is a dream of his.  He drew a picture of himself when he was a kid, standing at Red Rocks with his bass guitar. I think this dream is still alive in him. I could see it happening. But are there plans now… im not really sure to be honest. But again, we’ve been talking about it for years.