I’m With The Band: Manny Newman & Pigeons Playing Ping Pong

Posted on March 30, 2017

In the five years since he’s become a lighting designer, this New Yorker has worked his share of one-offs for some name bands like the Beach Boys, The Doobie Brothers, and Billy & The Kids. More recently though, he’s focused in on a single group, becoming the fulltime LD for the much traveled band Pigeons Playing Ping Pong.

Last year, he played 122 shows from Maine to California with the peripatetic psychedelic funk group. Amidst all this traveling, he found the time to talk to us about life on the road and what it’s like for an LD to become a member of the band.

So tell us how you hooked up with Pigeons Playing Ping Pong?
“I was the House LD for the Late Night Cabin Stage at Strange Creek Music Festival 2014 and Pigeons Playing Ping Pong were scheduled for a set. Pigeons LD at the time was Aaron Kovelman. I was impressed with the band and the way he ran his show. We stayed in touch and I would go see PPPP shows when they would play NY. Eventually I got the phone call he was leaving Pigeons to join the Hauss Collective. He is now touring the world with The Chainsmokers. He offered me the job and without hesitation I said yes.”

Do you regard yourself as a member of the band?
“I feel like the lighting console is my instrument; and I do feel like another member of the band. Stage lighting adds another element of energy in a live setting. We played 122 shows in 2016, so the live show aspect is very important for the band. Also — nobody says they are going to ‘hear a show.’”

Can you estimate how many miles you traveled with Pigeons Playing Ping Pong?
“Well as of early March 2017, I have done 189 shows with Pigeons Playing Ping Pong. I’ve done shows with them everywhere between Maine, Florida, Washington and Arizona…. so it’s a lot of miles.”

You’ve done a lot of one-offs at places like the Brooklyn Bowl and for groups ranging from Billy & The Kids to The Beach Boys. How do these gigs compare to being with a band over an extended period?
“With one-offs the show tends to just have the meat ‘n potatoes of operating. When you work with a band over an extended period you know where all the little nuances of the song are and you figure out how to compliment them. In the beginning of working with any act there’s a lot of trial and error when you test how certain moods and FX drive the music.”

Manny Newman, pictured bottom right

Manny Newman, pictured bottom right

Based on what you just said, do you punt a lot during shows?
“My whole show is punting. Not one song has a cue stack where you’re just pressing GO. I have done so many shows with Pigeons that I have all the “cue stacks” memorized in my head. I know what I want to see on stage and having a show file designed for punting really allows me to flow through a song and compliment jams without having to think what page to flip to.”

“So you have an idea of how I can run my show without switching pages, I’ll give you the quick rundown of the console I built. The console is running GrandMA2 on PC and is based around MIDI controllers. It has 308 Buttons, 8 Rotary Knobs, and 26 Faders. It really allows me to have all the cues I need in order to jam with the band without flipping pages.”

Does the band get involved in your lighting design?
“I have full creative freedom when it comes to design and operation. Every so often Greg Ormont (Lead Vocals/Guitar) will come up with an idea for a cue and we will test it. Sometimes they work and sometimes it does not translate well, so we scrap it.”

Do they get involved in your decision to add fixtures to the rig?
“Whenever we have the opportunity to use additional fixtures in our rig the band welcomes it. However, it always depends on budget for the show or run.”

What are the big advantages of having a good long term relationship with a band?
Having a good relationship with the band makes touring much more fun and makes you feel like you’re part of a family instead of being a hired gun. Plus, you will only get better at your craft if you keep working at it and knowing the music will only make you look better as an operator.

So, how did you get started in lighting design?
“Well I’m a huge Phish head and NYE 2011 at Madison Square Garden really was the run that changed the way I look at lighting. Chris Kuroda, who is the lighting Designer for Phish, is my biggest influence. He is the fifth member of the band, his instrument is the light board, and he is a wizard. You ask most lighting designers in this scene who inspired them, the answer is Chris Kuroda.”

“I worked at B&H Photo in NYC for four years as a Pro Audio Salesperson and used my full time job as an opportunity to learn about stage lighting. It allowed me to purchase my first fixtures and DMX controller. On my available time I was working freelance live sound and had a recording studio in Queens, NY. Eventually I was getting more phone calls to provide stage lighting for music festivals than sound gigs, so I sold all my audio equipment and focused my energy on lighting. My lighting gigs started to conflict with work, so I knew what I had to do– I left my stable full time job at B&H to pursue my career in lighting design.”

If you had to sum it up, what’s the secret of a good band- LD relationship?
“Don’t eat all their cheese. Supporting and respecting each other’s creativity. But, seriously don’t eat all their cheese.”