During a global pandemic, it’s important to remember two things: Wash your hands and be productive. With the rapid spread of COVID-19, the world found itself having to press pause. Slowly, we found out what it’s like to be on house arrest without knowing when life would go back to normal. Obviously, the state of current affairs isn’t ideal, but as a global collective, we’ve all been given a priceless resource: time.
For some, “time” might look like “binge-watching Tiger King in one day.” For Greg Ellis, a.k.a the Lazer Shark, it’s given him the time to dive deep into projects and push the creative bounds even further. This has allowed him to fully embrace his latest project, a series of live streams that will pay tribute to the musicians that inspired him dubbed, Modern Mythology.
“As a lighting designer, we don’t really have the luxury of sharing who inspired us the same way our musician brethren do,” Ellis explains to Live For Live Music. “This is a way for me to cover my favorite artists. It’s a love letter, it’s to the music I’ve grown up on and been inspired by.”
Within the realms of Greek Mythology, there are 12 gods of all power and ability. So the story goes, Zeus, the ruler of the gods, once slept with the Titaness Mnemosyne for nine nights and she, in turn, gave birth to nine muses:
1. Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry
2. Clio, the Muse of history
3. Erato, the Muse of lyric poetry
4. Euterpe, the Muse of nature
5. Melpomene, the Muse of tragedy
6. Polyhymnia, the Muse of hymns
7. Terpsichore, the Muse of dance and chorus
8. Thalia, the Muse of comedy and idyllic poetry
9. Urania, the Muse of astronomy
It was Ellis’ goal was to take his list of musical icons and match them with their respective muse. Once that was figured out, he would livestream a set or live performance of that artist—but with a twist. He would be using everything in his toy chest to create an otherworldly visual accompaniment. The nine muses would be split up into three separate series, each with their own theme: 1) Past, Present and Future; 2) Forefathers; and 3) My Generation.
Last week on The Phoebus Cartel Facebook page, Ellis launched the series with one of the most mythical figures in all of modern music, Jerry Garcia. Following the first stream, Ellis posted that, to him Garcia represented Erato, the muse of lyric Poetry and the embodiment of the past. The second installment paid tribute to Trey Anastasio, with Ellis explaining that Trey was none other than Calliope, the muse of epic poetry. Tonight, Monday, March 30th, Ellis will bring “part one” of the series to a close with the “Future” featuring Derek Vincent Smith (Pretty Lights) as Terpsichore, the muse of dance. At 8 p.m., in honor of his Terpsichore, Ellis will be streaming a landmark Pretty Lights Live show from 2016 on his YouTube page.
Prior to the show, Ellis will be hosting a Q & A to give fans the chance to ask him anything they want to know. Until then, we had the chance to talk with him about his newest project and all things Lazer Shark.
Live For Live Music: How did the Modern Mythology project come about?
Greg Ellis: The Phoebus Cartel came about when I knew about the Pretty Lights hiatus at the start of 2018. We all kind of knew we were gonna take a break, but we didn’t know for how long. The original mindset was to create a new production entity, and kind of leave this “Lazer Shark” moniker behind with Pretty Lights. It really became apparent to me while working at Ravine and really when I was working on tour with Banks that this whole “Lazer Shark” persona reached a lot further than I ever really thought.
You know, our community—whether it’s the jam band community or the EDM community or whatever that crossover area is that we exist in—thinks that a lot of the things we know and appreciate stay in that bubble. So, when I was on tour with Banks and I’m working with all these pop people and different music industry people that I’ve never worked with because I’m in a completely new environment, people are going, “oh, Lazer Shark, it’s so nice to meet you!” It dawned on me that at this point there was no leaving the “Lazer Shark” with Pretty Lights. At this point, I pivoted the Phoebus Cartel into an experimental art platform—things that don’t have to do with concerts, in theory. I’m using it as a new platform for myself to try new things. So then, any production work that I do or anything in the live setting will be done under the “Lazer Shark” tag, but this weird, art-fringe-experimental sort of sh*t I come up with, that’ll be the Phoebus Cartel stuff.
Live For Live Musc: So, that would put your Modern Mythology project under the category of Phoebus Cartel stuff?
Greg Ellis: Yeah, I think of it as like a side project, ya know? Trey, he’s got his Osyterhead. The Phoebus Cartel is my Oysterhead. I can be a little weird. I can try some shit I wouldn’t normally do.
Live For Live Music: What were you going to do differently with The Phoebus Cartel?
Greg Ellis: I’m hoping that maybe doing a more deliberate and refined approach within a different medium, I can look back in 10 years at this print I made and think, “you know what, that was really f—king cool. I feel good about that.” Because I really don’t feel that good most of the time about my performances [laughs]. I try really hard to not look back. Even with the Pretty Lights 10 Year Anniversary shows at Red Rocks, the whole thing was an homage to essentially every rig we had ever designed. I brought back old graphics, brought back the old tower designs and kind of evolved it, you know? There were so many elements that were thrown on that stage. Some of them were more subtle than others, but there was a very deliberate attempt to represent everything we had ever done in 10 years in some way or another here. With that being said, when the time comes, expect something completely different. That’s all I’m gonna say about that.
Live For Live Music: With the last two Modern Mythology streams, it’s clear that you’ve been putting in extra time working on analog visuals. Could you tell us more about what goes into that process? Was there a moment when it all came together for you?
Greg Ellis: There’s always a means to an end with anything that I do. The analog visual stuff is very much a part of the live performance, but I can recognize the fact that there’s this whole other artist endeavor that I wanted to approach that I never had time to. Last year, maybe even longer than that, there was this desire to create artwork through this analog medium. I’ve got a disgusting amount of footage that sits on hard drives and I’ve gone through it from time to time and I’ll extract frames and think, “this would make an incredible print.” I feel like the great artists, at some level, embraced a tangible normal before they went abstract. So, even in Dali’s most famous images, there are tangible objects within his surrealism. I had this idea right around the turn of the year, and the best way for me to begin to explore in this tangible art space was [with] portraits. It all happened very quickly; Phoebus is the Greek god of light. I was going to take portraits and present it under this Greek mythology box.
Modern Mythology, I’m gonna take [a look at] my god-like inspirations. In the music world, we look at these certain figures as very high-standing authorities in one way or another. I’ll speak on the first two that I’ve done, Jerry Garcia and Trey Anastasio. Mythic figures in the music world. I’m breaking it apart into three different series. It’s going to be blocks of three, and they all tie together in a weird way. This first one is Past, Present and Future. So, it’s basically the generational icons, from my perspective. Jerry was the forefather, Trey kind of picked up the mantel, and it’s my hope that with Derek, we can kind of be that next generation of that thing. You know, that big, long-running, jam-band kind of communal thing. That’s how I see the future [playing] out. Who knows, I could be right I could be wrong.
Originally, the idea for all of this was to do the three series and release a set of three prints for each series. The idea to kind of further this along was that if you bought all 3 prints, you’d get a VHS. On that VHS would be the recording of each song that created that print. Fast-forward a month. Things happen everyone gets locked down and I decided to stream these sessions.
We were doing some projects at Ravine, so that video wall that I’m playing on is part of the inventory for a production company that we’re starting down here in Atlanta called Beware Productions. We’ve got a massive amount of video wall product. We were building it to test all the processors, and blah blah blah. I didn’t want to do all that work to set it up just to tear it down, might as well do something with it. That’s when all the wheels started turning and I thought, well sh–t man, with this wall, I’m gonna build a box and play inside the box and stream this thing and just have fun.
Live For Live Music: After you would pick your muse, how did you go about finding the corresponding show/footage?
Greg Ellis: Originally, because it was based on a song, I wanted that song to correlate with that facet of the muse part. For Jerry, that show was based solely on the “Terrapin Station,” that was it. But that show as a whole was amazing because of a few different things. The way that the camera shots are done, there’s tons of negative space. Because it’s so minimalistic, but there’s a ton of contrast, too, which works out great in my system. Then also, obviously, the cooking scene during set break. There’s a lot of fun sh–t going on. I picked the Magnaball set because it is hands down my favorite performance that I’ve ever witnessed.
Live For Live Music: Can you tell us more about the programs you are using to make this all happen?
Greg Ellis: One of the biggest challenges with trying to explain how all this works is that you can see how it’s an 8×4 table just full of shit. Everything does something. There’s stuff in there from the ’80s, stuff in there from the ’90s, and some of the most cutting-edge sh–t from today. It’s taken me years to develop this system where all of these things coexist harmoniously—we’re talking about frame rate science, sync, horizontal sync. Video is a very finicky medium because there’s so many little things you have to sort out for it to work the way that I’m able to make it work. Over the years and with tons of experimentation and tons of research, I’ve been able to put this whole crazy f—king thing together to create what I think is probably some of the most unique live visuals that are out in the world today.
Live For Live Music: I think part of what has made the streams really enjoyable so far is that you are essentially presenting older shows like these and have them presented in such a fresh and new way.
Greg Ellis: That was the whole thing, ya know? The concept of Modern Mythology was that there are these iconic figures in the music world. Now, my iconic figures and your iconic figures may differ, and that’s totally ok. These are just my Greek gods of modern day, so that’s how I looked at it. I thought it would be a really interesting way to engage the fanbase and really open up this conversation. One thing that I really do take tremendous pride in is my relationship with the fanbase. I come from that same world. I’ve been following Phish around since I was a kid, I still follow those idiots around, and I love every second of it. The communal aspect is what’s dying a very ugly death and there are artists out there that are trying to keep it alive the best as we can.
It’s weird because as social media has impacted the world, it has also disconnected the world so it feels like we’re living this bi-polar existence and you see what’s going on now with misinformation and you see this very visible split of people that either take things too far in either direction. The world is a crazy place, and I understand that what I do, at the end of the day, doesn’t hold a tremendous amount in meaning in the world when you really get down to it. But what I do is provide a service of joy and distraction from those terrible things that are going on. I’m happy to do that.
Live For Live Music: The world is a really crazy place right now for sure, but it’s not all terrible. It’s given people a much-needed step back. For you as a creative, what has this new downtime meant for you?
Greg Ellis: That’s the scary part. I’ve made more progress in the development in this system in the last month than in the previous 6-8 months. One of the cool things about this whole thing is that it’s leading to a more realized and fully encompassed approach to live concerts and video creation in general. There’s never a finish line for me. There’s never gonna be a day where I’m satisfied. I would say that, in the last month, I’ve made 20 or 30 breakthroughs. There’s a massive number of things that are happening for me, and I love that. I know it’s a really bad time for most people, but if you can, get yourself to a place to say, “lets figure out how to be productive right now.” Whatever that means to you. Think outside the box. Open yourself up to new experiences, open yourself up to learn more about whatever you’ve been wanting to. Now’s a great time to do it!
People kind of lose track of themselves a little bit. I fall a little too far in the other direction you know. I’m a little bit too in tune with myself and have lost touch with the real world in some degree haha. In these times it’s just about finding a reason to wake up with a smile.
Live For Live Music: Well, we love you for giving us a reason to smile with your newest project. It’s really been incredible. When will you be revealing the 6 remaining muses?
Greg Ellis: I’m still working that out right now. I do worry [that] because of how heavy people have been live streaming, I see some people getting fatigued by that already. Just make sure you check out The Phoebus Cartel pages for when I have it all figured out.
Live For Live Music: Gotta know, which Pretty Lights show are you gonna do for tonight?
Greg Ellis: Well, I was thinking either between the 10-year anniversary because both of those shows are so amazing and there’s so much insane shit going on there, or do I dig deeper? If I had to pick one off the top of my head, it would be the second night of the Nashville show in the Municipal Auditorium. It’s this legendary, old school venue. It’s basically like a mini MSG in the South. Those are the kind of venues that just make my f—ing heart jump out of my chest. I can feel the vibe the second I walk into that building. That’s, like, my favorite show we’ve ever done. You know, that was the first time where it all clicked. Like “oh sh—t, we’re a jam band now. We’ve evolved.” That was the night we leveled up. To me, that show has always stood out in mind as something that was really special. That was the night where we turned the corner from the big band party and uplifting thing to now this thing has gotten a lot deeper, there’s a lot more happening and it’s much more open. It’s what I’ve always hoped Pretty Lights would become.
Live For Live Music: It certainly has been fun to see it develop into what it did in 2016. That year really changed everything for Pretty Lights.
Greg Ellis: That’ a weird thing for us. The correlation between Pretty Lights, in theory, becoming an improvisational act, corresponds with Pretty Lights not playing festivals anymore. We lost a lot of the fringe fans that we had. It very much became the Pretty Lights fanbase coming to Pretty Lights shows. The average fan, or whatever, they don’t know about the last three years of Pretty Lights. For better or for worse, I don’t know. Maybe we didn’t sell as many tickets, but the people that were there, they f—ing got it and were along for the ride.
Phish used to be that way. Phish never used to play festivals in the ’90s. Their fans came to everything, that’s who they were playing for. They said, “f—k it, let’s throw our own festivals.” Then you have new Phish, as they’ve gotten older and as their fanbase has gotten older, [saying], “alright, maybe we play at least one a year, so we gain some new fans,” and that’s a smart move on their part. 30 years later, at some point, you either watch your fanbase dwindle or you get new fans, you know? So, we made a choice, let’s do our thing for our people. Let’s just build this thing from within. That’s the thing with festivals—you have to make a lot of sacrifices to be a part of those festivals. There are all these limitations that exist and that you have to adhere to. Some artists don’t see them as limitations. Some see that as exactly where they want to be. But we didn’t want that, we want to play for 3–4 hours, we want to build these crazy, absurd stages that don’t make any f—ing sense but are really cool to see and you’re not able to do that in a festival environment and that was a huge reason we kind of stopped performing at them. Who knows if that’ll be the case when we come back. If we come back. Maybe. I don’t know anything…