You can take the LD out of the clubs, but can you take the clubs out of the LD? Apparently not, as David Wolfe has discovered. A longtime club LD in New York and elsewhere, he drifted out of the scene during the 1990s ending up, of all things, an academic. Now he's back, working live at the recently redesigned Stereo nightclub in Montreal.
Created by internationally famous DJ Angel Moraes, Stereo is one of Montreal's most popular after-hours clubs, with an eclectic clientele (In the words of one fan, “expect drag queens, club kids, fashionistas, ravers, students, and many more styles to be on display”). Originally modeled on New York's Paradise Garage, Stereo is aimed at the hard-core crowd that comes to dance all night long. According to one regular attendee, “It is impossible to describe how amazingly fantastic Stereo is. The main room is the very definition of perfection. The room appears to be a perfect cube, and, combined with the speaker system, creates the most perfect sound I have ever heard. Each time I turned to face another direction, it seemed as if I was in a different club with different music and different lights. It is too weird to explain.” Another aficionado writes, “I have been to Stereo countless times, probably in the realm of 90-100 times in the past four years. That's a lot of late nights, but this club is that good. I know people who have tattooed themselves with the logo of the club, they love it so much. It is addictive and it is a cult. The people who go become like a family, regardless of whether or not we actually know each other, and the dance floor is our living room.” (These comments come from club-oriented websites.)
David Wolfe is now a regular part of the Stereo family. After years of design work, he gave up the life, more or less, in 1993 to become a computer salesman. The two careers, lighting and computers, were intertwined from the beginning. Graduating from NYU in 1980, with plans to work as a theatrical LD, he says, “I went for my union lighting exam, but there was drafting involved and I can't draw a straight line with a T square.” As a result, he started working with the earliest version of AutoCAD, a decision that led to a second career selling computers. “At that point,” he says, “I started lighting fashion shows, reggae shows, industrials — you name it. Also, I got a job with Bob See at [lighting supplier] See Factor — I became the darling boy there for about a week, then I blew up a truck on a Rush tour, and lost my preferred-boy status.” He got into clubs, working in the 1980s mega-venue Palladium, then went on to become technical and lighting director at The Red Zone, a top New York nightspot.
By the mid-90s, however, Wolfe was supporting himself by selling computers. “I did guest spots at [New York] clubs Twilo and Sound Factory, and also at raves, where the people who ran the lights knew me,” he says. In 1995, he moved to Vermont: “I sold and consulted for a while, then started teaching.” He's now a full-time professor at Champlain College in Burlington, teaching website design and management. Even then, he adds, “I would put together a video rig and rent small moving-light packages for local raves and house parties; I also started working as a concert security supervisor at festivals like Bonaroo. Five or six shows a year seemed to take the edge off, for a while.”
The Turning Point
Still, club life beckoned. In 1997, Wolfe was in Montreal and attended a DJ event that featured, among others, David Morales, a top DJ (who just this year received a lifetime achievement award at the winter NAMM show). “I've been working with him for 13 years,” Wolfe says, “and if there's an opportunity, I'm his lighting guy.” Wolfe managed to talk his way onto the crew, and programmed a Compulite board, which he had never seen before. “The next night, when David took the stage, I ran the show. The master electrician came up to me after and said, ‘Man, I don't know who you are, but what a show!’”
Their relationship renewed, Wolfe began working with Morales on an occasional basis. In 1999, when Morales accepted a once-a-month residency at Stereo, Wolfe came along as his lighting person. Club management resisted the arrangement at first but, says Wolfe, “I spent four or five hours every month programming and, on those months when my programming was wiped away [out of the board], the local operators couldn't do the same kind of show. I always leave my programming in the board and it is used exclusively.
“That began a three-year process,” Wolfe continues. “I went up to Montreal one night a month, just for David's show. The fortunes of the club grew over the next three years.” However, he adds, at first, “100% of the equipment was working, then 75% was working, then 30-50%. Below 50%, there isn't really a show. One of the luxuries of working with David is that if you call and say there's no light show, he's on the phone with the club owner in a New York minute. He really cares about the light show.”
At this point, new management came in and the club was refurbished, with a new lighting rig installed. “We used to have 120 pinspots on a chase rig,” says Wolfe. “They were taken out and everything is moving lights now, except for some [Martin] Robocolor 400s for controllable architectural lighting. The rest of the gear package is a mixture of Martin products [MiniMACs, Wizards, MAC 250s, and Atomic strobes] and High End Systems units [Technobeams®, Studio Colors®].” The units are deployed around the rectangular dance floor, which is dominated by a huge mirror ball. Gear is supplied by Kloda Productions of Montreal: “One thing you learn in the club business,” says Wolfe, “is that the relationship with your supplier is key. Harry Kloda and his people treat you like family. If you need to get into the shop at midnight, there's somebody there. This New Year's, I wanted a laser. The local stock was poor, so he bought one for his rental house.”
A Hands-On Approach
The club's lighting board is the Compulite Spark 4D, with a submaster wing. The latter is particularly important to Wolfe. “One secret of my success, such as it is,” he says, is “all of my chase effects are movement only — there's no color, no gobo, no shutter, no nothing. I assign the color, gobo, and shutter constructs to the submasters. With all the submasters down, you're running a wide-open beam. Move the slider, and you start changing the colors, the gobo, or the rotation speed. You can change the colors and effects on all your units in an analog manner. I prefer to give the operator a very live and hands-on ability to control color, gobo, shutter, focus, prism, whatever. Charles Foisy-Marquis is my other operator and we have our hands on the board for 12 hours.
“One strong point of the Compulite board is that, if I have four strong chases, I can change the tempo all at once, from one wheel,” he continues. “That gives us the ability to follow the music so closely, to be responsive to changes in the moods. When we do our work best, we don't really exist. A good DJ plays music that works for the crowd; a great DJ plays music that draws the crowd along. The best light jockey turns what the DJ is doing into light. If you do that, you'll always be in synch with the crowd. But, in order to do that, you have to have the instantaneous ability to go from yellows and reds and fast movement to blues and greens and slow speeds. I've set it up so the operator has fine and immediate control over the constructs.”
Here's a specific example of his working method: “One thing we do is use the rotation speed of the gobo to ‘sing’ the vocal part of the music. The way the gobo rotation speeds up and slows down, it looks like what the vocal sounds like. Then, with my setup, one hand on the gobo rotator and one on the movement chase speed, you can slow down and speed up the rotation and speed in time with the vocal. You can't do that digitally. With a mouse, it doesn't work. If someone could find me an analog MIDI control that I could use to run a [Martin] LightJockey, I'd try it, but until they do, I want faders that go from 0-100, with infinite intermediate steps.”
There are more changes in the works for Stereo, including covering the truss with UV paint, “then taking the regular ballasts out of some blacklight fixtures, and putting in instant-on ballasts, to create a very fast blacklight chase.” Other planned additions include the return of the pinspots, as well as a spin head unit and full video rig. At any rate, Wolfe is once again a regular club LD; apparently, he is never going to escape his life as a club guy: “I push buttons in time with the music,” he says, unsentimentally. Then he adds, “When David drops a Stereo remix and I hit a cue dead-on, 1,500 people scream. It's a feeling like no other.”