Andrew Cass has fulfilled a variety of roles in the music industry over his 10+ year career, including working as a stage manager, lighting designer, and equipment tech with bands such as String Cheese Incident, Disco Biscuits, and Bassnectar. A jack of all trades, some might say.
While he primarily serves as the Lighting Designer for String Cheese Incident nowadays, Andrew Cass worked with the Disco Biscuits for many years beginning in 2008.
Live For Live Music recently spoke with Cass about filling in for current Biscuits LD Johnny R. Goode for some of their 2019 winter-tour stops ahead of their four-night New Year’s run at the PlayStation Theater in New York, NY that is currently in progress.
Cass was open to discussing his early career, working with String Cheese Incident, up and coming bands, and all things Disco Biscuits.
Live For Live Music: When did you first realize that you wanted a career in the music industry?
Andrew Cass: I got a music industry degree from Northeastern University in Boston. I wasn’t a very good musician. I mean, I was okay, but I knew being a musician wasn’t my path. I just always felt there were more realistic opportunities in the tech side of it than the musician side. That would’ve been in 2000/2001. I was an electrical engineering major at first and I switched majors to focus on music.
L4LM: What were some of your first jobs in the music industry?
AC: I started off working with a band called Addison Groove Project.
L4LM: Oh okay, their keyboard player currently plays in Star Kitchen with Marc Brownstein, right?
AC: Yeah exactly, Rob Marscher. I bought a little gear with money that I had borrowed and started a small lighting company. I never really expected to own lights, but it was my way in the door.
L4LM: When were you first introduced to the Disco Biscuits?
AC: The first time I saw them was in ’98 or ’99 I think. I grew up in Rochester, NY and attended Penfield High School, which has produced multiple generations of Biscuits fans. I went on Biscuit’s tour as a fan from ’99 to ’06.
L4LM: When did you first officially work with them on their production team?
AC: Holidaze 2008. I took a chance in doing backline. When I took the Disco Biscuits job, I had never done a backline gig before. I was the production manager and lighting guy for Bassnectar at the time, touring the country in vans. I got a phone call from Mike Polans—their Tour Manager at the time—and took the gig right away. I was obviously already a fan and a lot of my friends were fans. Frankly, I didn’t really know what I was doing at first. It was a huge turning point in what ended up happening in my career.
L4LM: So, what was your role in the production team?
AC: I was Marc [Brownstein] and Aron [Magner]‘s tech, and was responsible for making sure the bass and keyboard rigs got set up and operated correctly. Before I started tech-ing for Marc I had never picked up a guitar in my life. The other tech was a guy named Tuch. He was really good with guitars so when I had guitar issues he helped me and taught me how to be a proper string tech. He now works for Grace Potter and a few others.
L4LM: What were some of your responsibilities during this era?
AC: I worked with Magner on rebuilding the keyboard rig. It was right when digital keyboards were coming into prominence. The addition of Ableton and computers was something that I was directly involved in with the musicians. The syncing of the computers was a big deal—”Caves of The East”, “Caterpillar”—all those songs came about during those years once they had the ability to play with backing tracks. One of the things that I pushed for when I took over the keyboard role was consistency in patches and keyboard choices. As most diehard fans know, they went electronic with the introduction of the JP8000 keyboard. It wasn’t in the rig when I first took over. I pushed for them to go out and buy JP8000’s and bring them back into the rig. Some early songs like “Voices” and “Crickets” were written with patches on the JP, so I wanted to make sure they sounded as intended. There are keyboards that are essential to different songs. The Novation X Station is no longer in his rig but many the songs from the Conspirator album, like “The Key”, came out of it. Yamaha V Synth is all of the vocoder stuff, songs like “On Time”, are specific to those keyboards and have specific needs. “Gangster”, originally written on an MS2000B, had a microphone input to do vocoder stuff. When it was retired, it was replaced by the Yamama V Synth.
L4LM: Did you do the same thing with Brownstein and his bass rig?
AC: In 2015, I helped rebuild Marc’s bass rig. Before that time, the signal path would go out of the guitar, into his pedal chain, and out to his amp system. The major change was to a MIDI-based true bypass system. In this system, the signal comes out of his bass and into a rack-based MIDI switcher. The MIDI signal tells the rack whether or not to send the signal into a specific pedal, and you get a cleaner signal. All the pedals and effects are going to sound cleaner and it allows for greater signal redundancy. The most important part is now he’s not physically stepping onto the pedals. If you have a vintage pedal, you’re killing it slowly when you’re stepping on it night after night. Now that you’re stepping on the MIDI controller, your potential for failure goes down. If you listen to the slap bass sections in “Morph”, you’re going to hear the exact same effects settings every single time he plays it.
L4LM: It’s crazy to think how much you’ve helped shape the band’s setup sound over the years. Any other notable contributions that the fans should know about?
AC: [Laughs] Here’s a fun fact: You know Allen’s “thirst quencher” patch that everybody loves? I was telling him that he needed to bring it back because the fans kept asking for it online. He explained that he lost it and was unable to find one that was identical. We were backstage at the Electric Factory in 2015 and I thought we could replicate it, so I took a big swig of Sprite and let out an “ahhhh” and recorded it.
L4LM: That’s awesome and hilarious. How long have you known Johnny R Goode?
AC: I first met him before I started working with the band. I was working with Pnuma Trio at the time and we were opening up for the Biscuits at Exit In in Nashville, Tennessee. At first, he told me I couldn’t use any haze, and then in the middle of the set he came over and he put the fader up and let me use it. It was a cool moment. It was like a sign of his approval. Johnny and I are still good friends to this day. He’s my boss. I work at a company called Clearwing Productions, he’s the General Manager and I’m the Production Design Manager.
L4LM: How does it feel to fill in for him as LD from time to time?
AC: Johnny has responsibilities as a General Manager, and besides that, he has a family. The first time I covered for him was during the birth of his first child. This last time he had to go to a lighting convention in Las Vegas for our company. We have a great relationship and it’s always cool when I get a chance to link back up with the Biscuits. I consider the band and crew to be some of my closest friends.
L4LM: It seems like the fans always enjoy it when you’re lighting the band. People often comment on your tasteful minimalism. What’s the biggest difference between your approach and Johnny’s approach?
AC: Okay, so we both use The Lightwave Phenom for lasers primarily. Johnny runs them using ILDA and Beyond software and all twelve are always getting the same signal. On the other hand, I individually communicate to every fixture on its own using DMX control. There are benefits to both ways. I can do left to right color sweeps and dimmer effects, but I’m limited to about 15 frames per second using the internal DMX control. The way he does it allows for a higher frame rate for laser output. They’ll look better on camera which is significant to the stream. In-person, the lasers won’t look like they’re flickering, but on camera, they can—based on the camera settings. That’s one of the big operational differences between us. We also use different lighting consoles and have different programming techniques which together leads to the shows looking different, but I have taken most of my color choices for songs from years of watching Johnny.
L4LM: How many streams have you directed for the Biscuits?
AC: I’ve directed streams at a few different venues for them, mostly in Colorado. I use all remotely operated cameras. I like to do slower and more cinematic camera movements and put remote cameras over the keyboard and drum rigs so you can peek in on what they are doing. I also played with some effects a few times and started using the picture in picture options on the mixers so all 4 musicians are on screen at the same time. When I’m directing a stream, my goal is to give the fans at home a representation of what the room feels like. Not just what they are playing, but how the crowd is reacting and also what the light rig is doing. For shooting lasers, I usually drop the frame rate of the wide shot so they look smoother.
L4LM: How did it feel to rejoin them for a few nights on their first tour in ten years? What makes this current incarnation of the band, their sound, and their fan base special?
AC: I loved it, especially in Syracuse. What I love about the Biscuits is the potential for the magic that can happen any night. The thing about those shows was the quiet moments had one kind of energy and the crazy moments had a different energy. The band is more patient and more confident than they’ve been in years. I think there’s something about getting out there and playing the music the way YOU want to play it. There’s new excitement in the band and the fan base. Because the show is entirely improvised, the new songs are a challenge for me to light. I don’t know those breaks like I know the classics. I have to pay attention and be sure not to take chances when I don’t really know what’s coming.
L4LM: What’s your favorite Biscuits jam of all time?
AC: That’s a tough one. “Resurrection” has always been my favorite song. I will always remember Jon sitting on the front of the stage at the Ogden or great memories of shows on the beach at Holidaze. The shows at Red Rocks with the drummers from the Grateful Dead or getting rained on at Camp Bisco. The jams run together over the years but my best memories are of times with the crew or touring on the bus.
L4LM: When did you start working with The String Cheese Incident and how does running lights for them differ from the Disco Biscuits?
AC: I’ve been working with SCI for six years. There’s a significant difference because there’s more structure. The complexity of the show file is dramatically different. I have more staff when I’m on tour with Cheese. It’s less off the cuff but more complex. When it comes to Cheese, I’m lighting the band a lot more, whereas with the Biscuits I’m not afraid to turn their lights off. The Disco Biscuits are fueled by improvisation and with SCI the song structure and video show are my main focus.
L4LM: What’s your favorite SCI song of all time?
AC: There’s a song called “It Is What It Is”. The reason is that it starts with a normal song structure, but there’s a big [Michael] Kang led jam that leads to this blackout moment. It’s intended to feel unexpected to the audience. I love how if you’ve seen Cheese a million times it has all this power, and if you’ve never seen them it shocks you. I love the power in that moment of turning everything off. I also love some of the classics like “Good Times Around the Bend”, “Windy Mountain”, and “45th of November”.
L4LM: What are some of your personal all-time favorite experiences as an LD, with any band?
AC: There is something about those Biscuits shows that will be different than every other show I’ve operated in the sense that I’m nervous. There’s this unknown element of how each show is going to go. There is no band like the Disco Biscuits. I have off nights too, and I’ll have other nights where it comes together effortlessly. That fleeting moment of when it all comes together, that’s what it’s all about. That happens with Cheese, Nectar, Biscuits—when you hit a cue perfectly and the crowd screams and you get that adrenaline rush like you’re in the audience. My favorite part of any show is the end when the crowd is cheering and the band takes a moment to look out and appreciate the experience.
L4LM: You’ve been around the scene for a while and have seen a lot of bands blow up over the years. Who are some up and coming bands that people should look out for in 2020?
AC: I think this Goose band is going to crush, and Pigeons Playing Ping Pong is definitely well on their way. For bluegrass, Greensky Bluegrass and Billy Strings. When it comes to playing raw improvisational livetronica, I definitely think there’s a space for some up and coming band to fill.
L4LM: I agree, you should definitely check out Space Bacon, I feel that they’ll be the ones to do that. Who are some of your peers or up and coming LD’s that inspire you to always strive to up your game?
AC: I got in this game because of [Chris] Kuroda. I’ve seen over 100 Phish shows and he continues to impress me. I’ll even take notes at a Phish show. Frankly, Johnny Goode was a huge influence. I saw over 200 Biscuits shows sitting on the side of the stage watching what he does. Saxton [Waller] from STS9 too. I operated with him in the early years. I definitely took a lot of inspiration from him. Marc Janowitz—his main gig is My Morning Jacket—he was my mentor in lighting when I was younger and I learned a lot from him. Industry stuff specifically. I still learn a lot from pop artists. I’ll go to any show and be open-minded. Magnaball—the secret set in the grandstands—that inspired a lot of what I do video-wise with Cheese nowadays, especially camera angles. I immediately said ‘I want to do that’— add integrated cameras into the video show—and bring that to String Cheese. When it comes to the younger guys, Manny Newman definitely stands out. His timing is incredible and he knows every note that Pigeons is going to play. Kuroda was influenced by the Dead, we were influenced by him, and now the younger guys are influenced by us. It’s pretty special.
On the day off between the run’s 3rd and 4th nights of the Disco Biscuits’ New Year’s run on December 29th, the side projects of both keyboardist Aron Magner and bassist Marc Brownstein will perform in the city.
First, in the afternoon, Magner’s jazz trio, SPAGA, will deliver an intimate performance at DROM (Doors: 3:00 p.m. / Show: 4:00 p.m.). Tickets are available here.
Later, Brownstein’s Star Kitchen will host a late-night blowout at Sony Hall (Doors: 11:30 p.m. / Show: 12:30 a.m.) featuring help from guitarist Eric Krasno and the Trey Anastasio Band horn section (Jennifer Hartswick, Natalie Cressman, and James Casey). Tickets are available here.