An Interview With Johnny R. Goode: The Fifth Member of the Disco Biscuits
Zachary Franck interviewing Johnny R. Goode
When it comes to a rock show, the lighting designer can be just as important as the musicians. He has a major role in making sure that the show becomes engraved in the minds of the audience forever. The Disco Biscuits have become known for their mesmerizing light show, and Johnny R. Goode is the main reason for that. Since 2002, he's been lighting up the stage and taking the band's live show to the next level.
ZF: How and when did you discover the Disco Biscuits?
JRG: I heard of the Biscuits from a friend at Auburn University in 1998. I met the band when they played the Chameleon Club in Atlanta in 1999. At this time, I was a graphic designer doing websites for bands. I followed them around the South on their Tour in 1999 and hosted them at my house in Auburn when they played there. Later that year they returned the favor when I attended their 1999 New Years show at the TLA in Philly. After that I started learning about lighting and touring with a small band out of Columbus, GA called Skydog Gypsy. I did lights for Skydog for 2 years. At this point Marc Brownstein heard, through mutual friends, that I was doing lights for a small band and was pretty good. On Halloween in 2001, I got a call from Marc - he was basically asking me if I would fly out and finish the tour for them because their current LD wasn't working out. I told him of course and he said that he would call me back the next day. He called back the next day and told me that they had worked things out with their current LD and he would keep me in mind for the future. I was bummed but continued along with Skydog and put it out of my mind. Fast-forward to May of 2002, I got a call from FOH Audio Engineer and Band Manager, Jon Lesser. Lesser asked me if I would be available for a summer tour. Again, I said of course.. I was told that I might be the LD or the assistant to the LD. I said it didn't matter, and either way I would do it. My first show was at the Gothic Theater in Denver on 07/25/2002. When I arrived, I was told that I would be the LD and that was that. The rest is history and I've been with them ever since.
ZF: I know you're a music lover, and saw Phish before the Biscuits. What separates the Disco Biscuits from other jam bands?
JRG: First time I saw them, I was blown away by the energy they created. I had never seen a band play with such intensity for an entire show. With other bands you might have one or two moments a show where they play at top gear. But the Biscuits are the opposite - they give you one or two moments a show to catch your breath.
ZF: Besides being the LD, you're obviously an enormous fan of the music . What did you think of the Capitol shows?
JRG: I think the band played better than they have in a long time. But I've noticed a steady rise in the band's live performances since Camp last year. I think it took some time for them to learn how to work with the current schedule of time between shows. But the CAP shows further pushed the bar on this wave of connectivity between the guys on stage. I personally think that it's the best time to be a Biscuits fan since Sammy was around. And it's only going to get better.
ZF: When I interviewed Marc a few months ago, he explained that he has personally found a balance, and feels that the band has as well. What do you think?
JRG: Yes, I think that the band needs to be in a comfortable place mentally to perform at their highest level. I think they have all found balance away from the band. Which has allowed them to become comfortable with the evolution of the band. They are all in a good place now and it shows. Not just on stage, but behind to scenes as well.
ZF: How underrated is Jon outside of the Bisco community? His improvisational skills are obvious but some of his compositions are otherworldly.
JRG: He is highly underrated outside of our circle. I just don't think that people who don't follow the Biscuits realize how talented he is. I also think he makes what he does on stage look so easy that people take it for granted while it's happening. That being said, I think Jon likes flying under the radar. He doesn't need anyone to say he's the best or write about his skills. All that matters is when he's on stage and the fans are going crazy, that tells him all he needs to know. If the people that come out to the shows enjoy it, then he is happy. The other stuff isn't important to him.
His songwriting is one of a kind. From Hope to House Dog. He has written some of the most unique compositions ever. People who think he's not a good songwriter should have a listen. I think they would be very surprised. A personal dream of mine is that one day someone will do a theatrical, Broadway style version of the Hot Air Balloon. It is truly a classic tale and would be beautiful to see.
ZF: So you've known Allen the longest since you did lights for Skydog Gypsy? How much has he grown behind the kit over the years?
JRG: Allen has been the robotic beast he is since I met him in 1999. I always knew he had the ability and skill to be a professional musician. I think his days with the Biscuits have taught him more about the music business and how to navigate through this industry. I think he would agree that it's been his greatest growth. But as for growth behind the kit, with Allen, I think it's more about unlocking of skills he was born with.
ZF: When and where did you learn how to be an LD?
JRG: It started with Skydog Gypsy in 2000. I was asked if I would be interested in running a small light rig that they would rent from a guy in Tuscaloosa. I went out on a few shows with the owner of the gear, Scott. He would show me how to set it up and how the controller worked. Then he would let me run the show. After a few of those he started letting us take the gear out without him. For the next 3 years I just learned all I could on my own. I bought a cheap PC based controller so that I could sit at home and practice. After a year with the Biscuits I moved to Austin, TX in 2003. The purpose of the move was to get a job at a production company and learn all the things I didn't know. I worked for Midnight Lighting in Austin under a old school LD named Hawk. Hawk taught me a lot about how the production business works. I was his second on every show for 2 years. Only time I wasn't working at Midnight was when I was out on a Biscuits tour. I left Midnight after a few years but I will always remember the things I learned there. Those years were very important to my career and life in general.
ZF: Since you're pretty much the 5th member of the band, Looking back, what are some of the shows that stand out to you the most?
JRG: The shows all seem to melt into one for me. The last show is the one I remember. But when I look back at the shows Sammy last show at Camp and his last New Years are ones I remember the most. Also Camp Bisco 2011 and 2010. First time at Red Rocks as headliner the Tweeter Center New Years shows. Jam Cruise 1-2 the first year when we did 2 cruises back to back. Mishawaka Amp shows. All Hammerstein shows.
ZF: How has the Disco Biscuits lighting rig changed over the years?
JRG: Over the years the lighting rig has grown. From 8 lights on the floor upstage to 100+ lights on numerous flown trusses. We've added layers to the production. But I would say the most impactful addition has been lasers.
ZF: Is there any band's light show that inspired you to get into lighting design? If not, what was the catalyst that made you want to have a career in it?
JRG: 1. Pink Floyd - Birmingham, Al 1994 & Pulse DVD
2. Grateful Dead - 1994 Tour
3. Phish - (1994 - 1999 Tours).
4. NIN - Beside You In Time DVD.
Pink Floyd was the first thing I'd ever seen that made me want to do lighting. It was 1994 Division Bell Tour - Birmingham, Al - Legion Field. That tour was the place that the footage came from for Pulse DVD. I've watched that a million times, at least.
I got to see a Dead show when I was a senior in high school. Birmingham, Al '95. I'm always thankful for that.
Then came Phish and I spent a lot of time going to see them mainly in 1995 Fall Tour. Most memorial show to this day is ATL Fox run from fall '95. And Halloween '96 Remain in Light.
Last but not least after being a lighting designer for a few years I really got into Nine Inch Nails, Beside You In Time DVD. I would watch it every day. I was just amazed at the level of production and the amount of layers to the lighting show. I never miss a chance to see their show live.
ZF: What have been some of your favorite venues to light up?
JRG: These are my favorites in no particular order.
Congress Theater - CHI, 1st Bank Center - DEN, Hammerstein Ballroom - NYC,
Tweeter Center - Camden, Stubs - Austin, Tabernacle - ATL,
Montage Mountain - Scranton, Fillmore - Philly, Auditorium Shores - CHI,
and last but not least Capitol Theatre - Port Chester.
Common theme to all of them is big stages with high trim. Trim is the height of the room.
ZF: If you could give future LD's advice about the profession, what would it be?
JRG: Do your best to learn all you can about the business. Don't forget that people come to see the band first. Make sure that you are on the same page as your artist and that you make them happy. Realize that it takes help to pull off a production and surround yourself with people that will work hard for you and respect the hard work that they do. Never take all the credit. Never let yourself get to comfortable. Don't be afraid to fail.
ZF: Where do you hope to see yourself and the band in two years?
JRG: For myself, personally I would like to be designing and programming shows for other artists and festivals. Then letting an operator take it out on the road. As for the band, I would like to see us get back to a touring schedule. Not a ton of shows, but more than we have done in the past 3 years. I think we are all ready to get back out there and bring the fans what they want and deserve.