The next Artist Interview Project installment features award-winning media, set, and production designer David Gallo of David Gallo Design. The first part of this post includes a student’s reflective summary. It is followed by the full interview transcript.
Find more information about David Gallo on on his business’ website. You can also follow David Gallo Design on Facebook and Twitter (@DavidGalloDes).
Learn more about the Artist Interview Project course assignment in Dr. Jenkins’ introduction to the series. You can follow the Philosophy School of Phish on Facebook, Twitter (@phishedu), and the course’s public website.
David Gallo, of David Gallo Design, is a Tony Award-winning scenic designer, a concept and media artist, and renowned visual storyteller. He also happens to work alongside Phish as creative director for many of the band’s zany and famous gags — last year’s New Year’s Eve Petrichor performance, for example — and so much more. Mr. Gallo often finds himself in a unique position when working with Phish, as he is both a steadfast phan and a creative collaborator with the group itself. Though we spoke at great length, my interview with Mr. Gallo mainly focused on his artistry, the concept of beauty, and how Phish inspires him as both an artist and phan.
Mr. Gallo is one of a kind. Standing at 6 feet 3 inches tall, 270lbs, and usually sporting a long-peppered beard, he isn’t what one might imagine as being nicknamed “Mr. Whimsy.” But Mr. Whimsy is exactly who he is.
His portfolio ranges from the dark set design of the European production of Beauty and the Beast to the sinister cabin set of the Off-Broadway production of Evil Dead: The Musical to the vividly stunning, solid black set designs for the Blue Man Group. He ultimately caught the attention of Phish because of the whimsical flair he added to the productions of Yo Gabba Gabba Live.
“I think it’s just that my internal child never became internal,” Mr. Gallo said as we spoke about his work. But he added, “I don’t want to define myself. I constantly try to avoid putting anything in a box. It makes me very wordy and overly complicated.”
What he does appreciate, however, is a blank canvas. He explains:
I’m obsessed with the blank canvas. And the joy of what I do is that all of the projects start with a blank canvas. And then you add a script or a score, or a band or music and you work with that. But it starts out blank.
But then, when you get into Phish there is an aesthetic, again because they’re a band that has a visual history as well as a musical history. So you have a certain aesthetic to fit into. Although, I’ve got to say, they are as eclectic visually as they are musically. You can pretty much do anything — their style is everything on Earth. It’s pretty damn open. Some people would say the aesthetic is quirky. It’s never pretentious. You know, there are certain things you can say it’s, ‘Never this’.
Mr. Gallo’s work parallels with Phish in this regard, and is reminiscent of Jnan A. Blau’s claim that Phish is, “Pervaded by an improvisational ethos,” specifically, “a commitment to flexibility.” To clarify, this isn’t to say that Mr. Gallo’s work, or Phish’s for that matter, isn’t careful and methodical in its creation, but that both artists open themselves up to the imagination that awaits them in the craftsmanship of their work. As Blau states:
Truly, one of the defining characteristics of Phish is that seemingly all musical styles or genres are fair game…Phish’s relation to genre, it could be said, functions as a way to maximize possibility, to encourage experimentation, to foment discovery.
This methodology is perhaps best described in Eduard Hanslick’s The Beautiful in Music, in which he says:
The musical material in the hands of creative genius is as plastic and pliable as it is profuse…Now, as the union of sounds (from the interdependence of which the beautiful in music flows) is not effected by mechanically stringing them together but by acts of a free imagination, the intellectual force and idiosyncrasy of the particular mind will give to every composition its individual character. A musical composition, as the creation of a thinking and feeling mind, may, therefore, itself possess intellectuality and pathos in a high degree… The object of every art is to clothe in some material form an idea which has originated in the artist’s imagination (73).
In this passage, Hanslick emphasizes the essential qualities necessary for a musician to create inspirational, beautiful music. It is not enough to “mechanically string” sound together. Formulaic, theoretic knowledge of music will only take an artist so far. Instead, cultivating a unique composition requires an abundance of free thought, imagination, and the ability to mold the malleable “creative genius” that lies in the minds of musicians who understand that the potential for a new sound, a new creation is limitless.
The key that unlocks both the work of Mr. Gallo and Phish is their ability to engage, create, and adhere to the inner workings of their mind and their imagination. Creativity guides their work. By remaining flexible, Mr. Gallo and Phish allow themselves to engage in improvisation, beauty, and aesthetics that might not occur, should either attempt to reign in the blank canvas of possibilities. Their genius stems from their ability to let go and interpret where their creative eye is leading them.
To do this properly, Mr. Gallo focuses on the emotional responses that accompany his work, as well as the creative works he so often interprets as a visual storyteller (such as a Phish song). When asked the question, “What are the emotions that you’re hoping to convey to audiences?” His response was simple, yet profound:
“Well, what are the chords that they’re playing?” He expanded by stating, “Emotion is based entirely on the music.” For Mr. Gallo, “Everything comes from the band” and the process of creation is uniquely important. He explains:
The joy of my work with Phish is that the process is different every time, it’s just always improvisational. So — not talking about any ideas past or future — but let’s say the band says they want to play this song. So, I go, ‘Okay that song.’ And then I listen to that song a bunch of times, and I go back in and say, ‘Here’s what I get from it. Is this what you get from it?’ So, it gets developed, maybe, in a back and forth… That’s an example.
And when asked what makes his designs especially beautiful, he responded, “For me, everything really comes back to that emotional response and what the story was telling. And that’s really the goal.”
According to Tolstoy in his essay “What is Art?,” true art relies heavily on the emotional responses that are created in the audience. In his definition of art Tolstoy states:
To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by the means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling — this is the activity of art.
The purpose of art, Tolstoy suggests, isn’t simply to put paint brush to canvas, guitar pick to string. Instead, the purpose of art is to connect an audience to the emotion that inspired the creation of the art itself. By first tapping into a deeply rooted emotion, an artist then develops a way to express that sentiment through music, through art. Artists will then convey this emotional message to the best of their ability so that an audience can feel the same sentiment. Art, Tolstoy claims, is an activity. It is a verb. Not because of the physical act of creating art – though this is an aspect of art – but because for the artist there is conscious, intentional effort put into the creation, the implementation, and the interaction that their work will have with an audience. They want their audience to feel, and the audience wants to understand an artist’s intent.
And it is literally Mr. Gallo’s job to transmit emotions to audiences. “It is all about making an emotional connection and delivering it.” He said, “That’s what I do, you know. I’m a pop gun. You load me with whatever bullets you want and then you aim me at your audience.” He understands that when people come to see a performance, they are expecting to come away from the experience feeling.
Above all else, he understands that there is a specific goal that an artist intends to convey and yet there are many ways in which that message, his art, and Phish’s music can be interpreted. And it is because he is such a skilled visual storyteller, that his work so often speaks for itself.
One of the most compelling aspects of our interview was Mr. Gallo’s reflection of a particular Phish “gag” that stands out in his memory and speaks of his ability to transpose emotion, memory, and history onto Phish audiences both young and old. When asked if Mr. Gallo had a particularly memorable or favorite performance that stuck out in his memory, he replied: “I think that the JEMP Truck gag. This was for their 30th anniversary in 2013.” He continued, “The JEMP truck can’t really be bested simply because it fired on every possible cylinder it could have, I thought.”
The JEMP Truck set was a creative masterpiece. To ring in the new year, and in honor of Phish’s 30th birthday celebration, Phish opened up their second set by driving into the center of the audience in the JEMP truck, their first touring truck, and playing their set while standing on top of it. For this gag, the band used the same instruments, same lights, same music — their earliest music — as they did when they first began to play together as a band 30 years before.
“It just showed literally the miles of Phish.” Mr. Gallo said:
And in fact the original title for the gag I had was JEMP Truck’s Last Mile. It was all about how the truck breaks down as it’s just pulling into the arena, and the fans push it. I just thought it fired on those cylinders. You were seeing the band playing a much more stripped down signal chain. The instruments they were using and the equipment were the same gear as they played back in the day. Exactly the same stuff. It was a time machine. The JEMP set was the closest I’ll ever be able to travel through time.
Art often does seem to possess the ability to transport people back in time. In his article, “Affect and Embodied Understanding in Musical Experience,” D. Robert DeChaine speaks about the influence music has regarding its ability to transport people into memories with the single strike of a chord and its unique relationship to affect. Affect, DeChaine states, is:
The circuit through which the past and present, as well as the imaginings of the future, become confluent. It enables the process of becoming, entangling our bodies, minds, memories, histories, thoughts, and feelings to the point where they can’t be imagined apart from each other (86).
And “affective musical experience,” DeChaine continues, “lead us to a fuller understanding of ourselves” (87).
If there is one thing music can do, it can connect past with present, memories with future possibilities, and can then intertwine these sentiments together so fluidly that it is impossible to differentiate where one ends and the other begins. And music does this by utilizing the conduit of musical affect. In these brief moments where histories and futures co-exist, people are able to think beyond the immediate present, their troubles, and their daily concerns. Instead, people intrinsically understand that there is a deeper history to humanity that involves the celebration and the inclusion of peoples’ past, present, and future.
During the New Year’s Eve Extravaganza, Mr. Gallo was able to communicate “times remembered” with audiences who might not have even been alive during Phish’s first tour. By tangibly connecting the Phish’s past with its present, a deeper appreciation of the music, the journey, and the artistry of the band was physically represented. The JEMP Truck set is layered in affect and in memory — the band’s experiences, the band’s history and memories, not to mention the history and memories of the fans who watched this band evolve from such humble beginnings to the beloved, respected, and celebrated band they are now. Furthermore, by offering a small glimpse into the world of Phish that is 30 years past, Mr. Gallo invited new fans into the narrative of Phish’s story. “Memory,” as DeChaine states, “is also a collective activity, moving across social and cultural space, and signifying a shared sense of experience” (90).
And it is the “shared sense of experience” that Phish is all about, including the community, phandom, appreciation that both musician and audience have for one another. Mr. Gallo is acutely and intuitively aware of this relationship and of Phish’s ability to create such a unique and exceptional atmosphere. He explains:
That band has the ability to transport you wherever they want you to go, unlike anybody else on this Earth. I really do believe that. They’re an incredible thing that happened… And it happened because of their hard work and artistry.
Mr. Gallo continues:
What they have is really something that can move anybody… I mean, really in the end of the day my love of this band is bonding with people that have a similar sense of humor because that’s really so hard to find. In a way, the music is a bonus. It’s an approach to life that I agree with, let’s just say.
Mr. Gallo’s designs, his philosophies, and his work with Phish demonstrates the significance of imagination, emotion, and community to art and music. Each trait is an essential quality of the Phish aesthetic. If there is one reoccurring theme that connects them all, it is the way in which each characteristic encourages and supports the connections between artist and audience, Phish member and phan.
Thank you to David Gallo for allowing me the opportunity to interview him and learn more about his work.
Student: So, our philosophy class, we’re kind of unpacking what it means to what art means and what beauty means and how we are impacted by it and why it gives us emotions and things like that.
David Gallo: Okee doke.
S: I’m really excited to talk to you. I am a theater kid at heart. Just community theater and stuff like that. I actually saw Beauty and the Beast on Broadway, years and years ago.
DG: Okay, I didn’t do that one.
S: Oh, you didn’t?
DG: I didn’t. It’s OK. But I just I basically I did, after that one, I did the big European one. I will tell you what is. The Broadway version, what you saw on Broadway was lovely but it was very much the movie.
S: Yes, it was.
DG: And that’s what it was supposed to be. And when we did it, you know we originated the production in Amsterdam. And so, the producer was very conscious of it being approached as a grownup show. So, although he never actually even said that. That’s just kind of what we did with it.
DG: The other works great for kids, but our production was very dark.
S: I mean I’m actually excited about that. That’s pretty cool.
DG: The production, and maybe this is helpful for your piece, where the Broadway production was very cool and beautiful in a, you know, very Disney way, and the movie had that aesthetic. And it was a wonderful adaptation of that idea. We treated it like this seriously dark European opera.
S: That’s so cool.
DG: And I got to tell you, you talk about beauty. When they hired me I was like, “Beauty and the Beast, whatever.” You know, stupid cartoon, great songs. I didn’t know! I was ignorant! And then we were done, I was like, “This is one of the greatest musicals that’s ever been written.” And here’s why, and it’s so simple: There’s no other musical that if the boy doesn’t get the girl, every person dies, and that’s a serious fucking state for a musical to go.
DG: Anyway, I babble, if you haven’t noticed.
S: No, that’s OK! I’m glad!
DG: In What direction do you want me to babble?
S: Sure! What we’re kind of focusing with your work is this the last New Year’s Eve gag that you did, the umbrella one. It’s just gorgeous. And so, I want to talk to you about that and your work with Phish in general. My first question is: How does the music of Phish influence and/or inspire your conceptual designs for the shows you produce for them?
DG: Well, just remember that when you use the word ‘design,’ I mean, I write those things, I direct them. I do absolutely everything. My role for Phish is quite special, and what I do is I conceived the idea with the band and then take that idea all the way to fruition. This includes production design, but that’s just a fraction of what I do. It’s tricky because of the word “design.” In the case of David Gallo Design, it really means “The design of all sort of life’s elements.” It’s not it’s not one thing.
S: OK. Yeah!
DG: So, back to the question. The music is everything. When you design anything, there’s always a prime motivation and a primary inspiration. When you are working with Phish, you are starting off at least with a canvas or a palette that includes thirty something years of music, antics, and community. Everything that is Phish is the palette that you have in front of you and the canvas is Madison Square Garden. And so, you start there, and it can take many different paths from that point of course. But of course, the music is the most important thing.
S: So, do you listen?
DG: Yes. I listen.
S: So you listen to the music and then, are images coming to you? What is the process?
DG: Yes. But that comes later. One of the oddities about me is that even though by trade I’m a designer or visual artist, when people work with me it takes them a while to realize that I don’t put a lot of thought into what anything looks like until late in the process. The ideas are everything. Let’s say I’m at the point of the process where there is a song that we’re going to do a gag for. If I’m in that point in the process, then I would listen to that music again and again. I will create the entire gag in my head. I write the whole thing in my head while I pace in circles, on the roof of my building, or sitting in my office. But listening to the tunes is central. I have to create it while simultaneously listening to it.
DG: Here’s the thing that adds some complexity. It’s not just the song. You have to find the version of the song. I mean, this is Phish, so every time they play a song, it’s different. If we settle on a tune, then I ask, “Which version of that tune has the right attitude?.” So, then I have to narrow that down. And then I have to create a gag and then I have to go back to the band to explain, “This was based on Chicago 19-whatever.” And they put their heads into that. But the music is obviously the most important thing when we’re creating anything.
S: Yes. So that brings us to one of my most important questions: How do you prepare for a visual show, while also leaving the concept open enough for an improvisational performance? How does the improvisational aspect of their work influence what you create? Do they jam with the New York Eve extravaganzas? Do they do that?
DG: Oh, yeah. They do. The work that we do is always very thoughtful and it’s always moving ahead in a very organized manner. But what we are is we are temporarily participating with improvisational events and with improvisational musicians. So, yes, when you do these things you have to be able to keep up with the changes.
S: And OK, so what does that look like? How do you coordinate your actors or lights? How do they improvise with the music?
DG: Well, first of all, the light people was Chris Kuroda and, in the case of the gag, often Mike Baldassari and Andrew Giffin.
DG: So, to be clear, and because I want to be able to answer your question, when we talk about being able to keep up with and the stick with the band, nobody can do that better than those guys [laughter]. So, bear in mind that, in their case, nobody knows the music better. Chris Kuroda and Andrew Giffin have lit thousands of Phish shows. Mike Baldassari is a guy who I’ve worked with a lot, but I bring in for gags specifically. They all collaborate. I just want to be clear that when I talk about working with a band like that, nobody does it like Chris Kuroda. That aside, the actors– that’s all of the other people. It’s just like anything else. When you’re doing Broadway, you make changes either that somebody is the producer or the writer-director says well, “We’re going to do it different!” So, in my case we might get a note or a change, and since I’m the director, we do it.
S: So, do you have a headset on your ear when you’re watching this show and telling them what to do?
DG: The way that it works is that we rehearse to get on with the band at sound check, and then they go off and have dinner and do the show. The moment the soundtrack is over it’s done. I’ve learned that the best move is not to run around making everyone insane with last minute tweaks [laughter]. I learned that the best thing to do during the sound check and the show is hang out with my kids.
S: I understand that! Yes. Does the music of Phish move you, personally?
S: In what way? How are you inspired by Phish?
DG: I think that as a 51-year-old man with a rather exciting and sober career in the Dramatic Arts, it’s very hard for me to talk about Phish, because I do sound like a Phish Phan.
S: I’m glad! I was going to ask you if you were!
DG: That is a good thing because it doesn’t always sound seemly coming out of my lips [laughter]. That band has the ability to transport you wherever they want you to go, unlike anybody else on this Earth. I really do believe that. They’re an incredible thing that happened. And by all rights it never should have happened. It’s like four guys playing weird hippie music, these long songs. Everything about them does not end at, “And then you’re going to sell out Madison Square Garden!” So, it just happened. And it happened because of their hard work and artistry. But I think that what they have is really something that can move anybody. And I have a lot of very sort of personal feelings about rock and roll. I believe that it’s changed the Earth more than just about anything.
Rock and roll ended communism and all this other shit. And I mean, it did — Bruce Springsteen played and then the wall came down. That’s what happened. It’s true! I think that that Phish has the ability to move anybody. They’re playing guitar and drums and keyboards and bass, but what they’re really doing is playing an entire room. I found that remarkable. And I had to learn that because I didn’t know anything about the band when I did the first gag.
S: Oh, really?
DG: I knew they existed. I found out later that I actually have better stats than many of the fans! I saw my first show in 1990.
S: Oh, wow!
DG: I didn’t remember until this year. I met with a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time, and she said, “You don’t remember going to the show? We were doing summer stock, and we went to this Phish show!” I was sure that she was misremembering, but she said, “You went on and on about the vacuum cleaner guy!” There you go. But, like everybody, I don’t remember the show. [laughter].
S: How did you meet up with them and get hired? What happened? What is your background with Phish?
DG: I have a theatrical agent. But, I’m a part of one of a big agency, so there’s a certain amount of crossover. I do rock and roll and theater. It was actually just an agent thing. My agent called me and said, “We’ve got this band, Phish.” My agent and I are really good friends and mostly we bond on music. So, the email, I’m sure was something more along the lines of you know, “Dude. Could you possibly see yourself working with Phish?” I was like, “Phish? I don’t know it sounds cool.” So, I met with the band’s managers, and they said that they dug me because I designed Yo Gabba Gabba. You remember that crazy show?
S: Oh! Yes, I do.
DG: Oh yeah. So, they love Yo Gabba Gabba. So, I took a train to Philadelphia and I saw a Phish show that night. I hung out backstage, but I didn’t know anybody. I met with the band the next morning. And we just talked about ideas and that’s where the first idea came from. We just rolled from there.
S: That’s really great.
DG: A huge part of Phish is that the band members truly are the principal creators. I have breakfast with the guys and we just started talking. It was very surprising to me because it’s rare that something is so completely open. Because even if you’re going to design a rock tour, the band or the artist is going to say, “OK, this is what I want to do,” and then you build the show. These were guys that already had a show. They just wanted to do something interesting, different — for a minute — and then never do it again. Holy mackerel! It could be anything.
We sat there and we talked about a hundred different ideas. And then at the end, one of the dudes in the band said, “Oh! Is there anything else that you thought you always wanted to do, but just never did?” And I said, “Yeah, there’s something that I always wanted to do that is stupid, funny, and expensive, so nobody’s ever going to do it.” I explained it to them and they said, “Yeah, do that!”
S: Is there a particularly memorable or favorite show that you did with them that sticks out for you?
DG: I think the JEMP truck gag. This was for their 30th anniversary in 2013.
S: Why does that stick out?
DG: Because it wasn’t a gag. It was the best way to celebrate everything that is Phish in one package. It was never really conceived of to be a gag. It was a unique thing that happened.
DG: But for me the JEMP truck can’t really be bested simply because it fired on every possible cylinder it could have, I thought. You’ve got the band playing in the middle of the venue for the first time ever. You’ve got them standing on top of the touring truck that they began their careers on. The truck shows the evidence to the audience that we were pushing these road boxes up and down the thing around the clock. It showed what we had for crew; people slept in this thing. It just showed literally the miles of Phish. And in fact, the original title for the gag I had was JEMP Truck’s Last Mile. It was all about how the truck breaks down as it’s just pulling into the arena, and the fans push it. I just thought it fired on those cylinders. You were seeing the band playing a much more stripped down signal chain. The instruments they were using and the equipment were the same gear as they played back in the day. Exactly the same stuff. It was a time machine. The JEMP set was the closest I’ll ever be able to travel through time.
DG: There’s the four guys, with their same set up they had back many years ago. So, I thought that, you know, and then the lights! We gave we gave Chris Kuroda the same amount of light we had in you know 1992 — 80 scale or 85, whatever it was. So, it just stripped everything down to the essence of Phish, and I think that based on the fans response, I thought it was pretty successful.
S: Yeah. that’s awesome.
DG: If you want me to get all “college-y” on you, I am an adherent of Aristotle’s Poetics. So, you have plot, character, thought, diction, music, and spectacle. Those are in order of importance, which was very important to Aristotle. But Aristotle didn’t have video projection. So, I think we can rearrange the poetics to our liking, based on what we’re doing. And in that particular gag, spectacle was the least important. There was no attempt to spectaclize. Other gags, we think, “Let’s do something spectacle-y.” I just keep rearranging the dominoes of the Poetics or whatever it is that I’m trying to do.
D: Oh, that’s fantastic.
DG: I know I talk good. I don’t look good but I talk good. [laughter].
S: That’s awesome! One other question I have for you is about the ways in which art evokes emotional responses in audiences. Do you believe that your work, especially with Phish, portrays emotions that audiences can interpret?
DG: Yes. That’s what I do. I can’t be coy and answer that question because that’s my job. I’m a very odd type of designer. I’m a very odd perspective because what it looks like is almost irrelevant until the last possible second. So, it is all about making an emotional connection and delivering it. I don’t do pretty. I can. I don’t approach anything with “Let’s make this beautiful.”
S: Yes. OK! My next question to you is: What are the emotions that you’re hoping to convey to audiences?
DG: Well, what are the chords that they’re playing? Emotion is based entirely on the music. That’s what I do, you know. I’m a pop gun. You load me with whatever bullets you want and then you aim me at your audience, and I just shoot them. If you’re trying to connect with this kind of a concept, with this sort of emotion, or you’re trying to tell this kind of story– whatever that is– you just load me up with it and bam! It comes out the front.
S: Does Phish guide you in the emotion that you are supposed to present? Or do you feel an emotion and then you run with that when you hear the music?
DG: Wow. That’s something. I really have to break that question down because, really to me, the question is — let’s say once you have a song or idea, how do you determine the point of view or not? The question is very difficult because it’s actually a series of other questions and I’m just not able to articulate them right now.
S: I understand.
DG: But I can talk about what I feel from your questions.
DG: It all really comes down to the process. The joy of my work with Phish is that the process is different every time; it’s always improvisational. So — not talking about any ideas past or future — but let’s say the band says they want to play this song. So, I go, “Okay that song.” And then I listen to that song a bunch of times, and I go back in and say, “Here’s what I get from it. Is this what you get from it?” So, it gets developed in a back and forth.
DB: That’s an example. Maybe they come to me and say, “This is what we want to do. This is the story we want to tell.” And then I go, “Okay, is this a good way to tell it?” And they go, “Yeah!” Or, “That’s another way.” It’s really all improvisational. Everything comes from the band… I translate their mojo. That’s my job. That’s it. I don’t really contribute my own, that would be vain. It’s very important to me that I don’t show up in the gag anywhere.
DG: I spent 30 years as a Broadway set designer. I don’t show up in the Broadway sets, either. Nobody goes to see the show and goes, “Oh shit, there was Dave Gallo again.” They see the musical or the play and they say, “Oh that was cool — Oh, cool, David did that too.” It’s very easy for people to misunderstand me and what I do. Especially for Phish. All I’m saying is I’m a guy that is utilized like one of their instruments in that they say, “This is what I want to have happen, emotionally, or musically or whatever.” And then I’m the person that figures out the best way to show that to the audience.
S: How would you describe the visual aesthetics of your designs? You said they aren’t beautiful, but what are they?
DG: Well some of them are beautiful. I’m just saying that beauty is rarely the motivation or the point or the goal.
DG: I’m obsessed with the blank canvas. And the joy of what I do is that all of the projects start with a blank canvas. And then you add a script or a score, or a band or music and you work with that. But it starts out blank. And I think that I’ve managed to retain that, in spite of reaching 51 years old, I still start everything from that.
DG: That’s very important to me. But I’m sorry, I don’t even remember that question now, can you say it again?
S: No, that’s okay. How would you describe the visual aesthetics of your designs?
DG: Oh, exactly. So, now I’m saying OK we’re coming up with an idea. We’re developing an emotional idea to respond to the story. My aesthetics is just based entirely on what’s appropriate for the piece. Like I was saying earlier, if you went to see six different plays I designed, you wouldn’t know that they were done by the same person. So, that’s my approach, philosophically, to what I do a little more clearly. But then, when you get into Phish there is an aesthetic, again because they’re a band that has a visual history as well as a musical history.
DG: So you have a certain aesthetic to fit into. Although, I’ve got to say, they are as eclectic visually as they are musically. You can pretty much do anything — their style is everything on Earth. It’s pretty damn open. Some people would say the aesthetic is quirky. It’s never pretentious. You know, there are certain things you can say it’s, “Never this.”
DG: And most of those aren’t nice things anyway.
S: When I look at your work, especially with Phish– and I’m sure you hear this word a lot in your work– but I think about terms like ‘whimsical’ and ‘playful’ and those sorts of things. Is that the mood or the tone of the music that inspires how your shows will run and look like? What makes your designs especially beautiful?
DG: Well, beauty is just so many things. And I don’t want to sound like some guy writing an art grant proposal, but I mean, beauty can be very ugly — beauty can be so many things. Maybe I don’t know what beauty really is. I mean, I’d look it up if I wasn’t sitting here. For me, everything really comes back to that emotional response and what the story was telling. And that’s really the goal. And if something should be an aesthetically pleasing version of beautiful, that’s certainly something that I do. At the end of the day, the Phish gags look great. And we like people to take away, in general, certain feelings just from what they look like.
DG: We do want it to be something that is beautiful to look at. Certainly, last year we wanted it to look beautiful. I don’t mean to be vague, but it’s hard for me. I don’t want to define myself. I constantly try to avoid putting anything in a box. It makes me very wordy and overly complicated. [laughter] But like I said, walking away from something thinking, “Wow! That’s really beautiful! That’s very attractive!” is definitely one of the goals. If I had to describe the physical look in general terms, also I would say we try to keep things simple and uncomplicated. It’s very important that you have a strong sense of scale because working in the Garden is challenging. You have to get the scale right. Those are all elements that go into creating aesthetic. The lights are always going to be the most important thing.
S: Oh, that’s one of my questions.
DG: Second to the music, of course. But there’s no gag I’m ever going to come up with that’s going to be able to compete with the light. The lights are just this incredible thing. And they’re a huge part of everything that is Phish. And so, you can’t fight it — you wouldn’t want to fight it. You realize that you play a certain role with the visual that works at a higher power. I don’t know. I think that you used the term ‘whimsy’ which if you Google “David Gallo and whimsy,” you’re probably going to get a lot of hits.
S: Yes! That’s true. I see that a lot with you.
DG: Yeah, I’m Mr. Whimsy. When my career first started to break, I was doing all these shows that everybody using the word “whimsy.” And then I’d get these phone calls, “Can you come meet with Hal Prince?” Like holy shit, Hal Prince. I’d walk in there and all I’d hear is, “Mr. Whimsy.” I’m six foot three and 270 pounds. I have a giant beard and giant boots. And he says, “Hold on, I wanted the whimsy guy.” But yeah, I’m the whimsy guy. I think it’s just that my internal child never became internal.
DG: I just really enjoy that sort of thing. Yeah, and whimsy is great for Phish. I mean, really in the end of the day my love of this band is bonding with people that have a similar sense of humor because that’s really so hard to find.
S: Right? That’s true. And that’s also an emotion, I think.
DG: In a way, the music is a bonus. It’s an approach to life that I agree with, let’s just say.
S: That’s awesome. I read that it took you nine months to put together the dancing umbrellas at the New York extravaganza last year. I’m just curious about that show, can your contributions to it be interpreted as an artistic expression by those who see it? Is it an artistic expression?
DG: Yes, but in the sense that our intentions as artists are one thing and then the interpretation of it is many things. But, it’s an artistic expression. The point of view of that and the term ‘point of view’ is a very specific thing to me as a theatre person. The point of view behind what we did, I’d like to believe is strong. And so, when I say ‘art’ that does sound very lofty for what we did [laughter]. My intention is not for it to come across as overly artsy. I thought that last year was great. It was as close to burning up in the sun of Brooklyn Academy of Music pretension as I ever want. Does that make any sense?
S: Yes, it makes total sense.
DG: Do you know what The Brooklyn Academy of Music is? The Brooklyn Academy of Music is a series of venues in Brooklyn. It’s a not-for-profit here in New York City. They’re the ‘artsy’ ones. They’re the ones that do a rotating program of Bavarian folk singer jugglers who wrote an opera with Philip Glass.
S: Wow. Yeah.
DG: I don’t want to make fun because they have brilliant shit there. I mean, it’s really New York venues for the artsy-ist types of performance. Right. Do you know Robert Wilson’s stuff?
DG: OK, so all of that was the preamble. My phrase for that nine months was, “That’s too BAM. That’s too Brooklyn Academy of Music.” [laughter]. I designed Blue Man Group back in the day, and the phrase back then was, “That’s too Cirque du Soleil!” That’s what we always used to say when someone would say, “Hey let’s do this!” No, that’s too Cirque du Soleil! “Damn it. Back to the drawing board.” [laughter]. That was for the Blue Man Group, but anyway. [laughter] It just seems like you’re looking for a little bit of a definition of the Petrichor’s umbrellas, right?
DG: All right. Well, that’s a hard thing because for me. You should never have to explain this. I can’t go around to twenty-one thousand people and individually say, “Well what this really was supposed to be was…” It really has to speak for itself. But let me just say that what I appreciated by the responses that I saw, the feedback that I got from fans, was that they thought it was super fun and super great. I got the sense that people didn’t feel that it crossed the line into some other, I don’t know how you put it! It was just some people dancing around with umbrellas and shit. I mean, we buried them in cats in the end! We can’t be too Brooklyn Academy of Music. Petrichor was approached with the same aesthetic of whimsy as everything else is that I do with the band.
S: Okay, that’s fair! We can do that. Thank you so much. I think that you’ve answered all my questions even just through speaking. I had a few more but I think they’ve already been asked and answered, and I’m so unbelievably grateful for your time. This absolutely meant so much to me and it was really fun to research you, your visual storytelling, and all of the things that you’ve been a part of. It meant a lot.
DG: Oh, sure!