Interviewing Projection Man Michael Laton

Posted: October 6, 2011 in Other Key Interviews

Sunday, August 26, 2007: the second day of “Geezerfest” at Seattle’s Crocodile Café.  The concert capped my second trip to town for research, and I got to enjoy artists like Coffin Break, Love Battery, Down With People, Robert Roth, Capping Day, Lamar, and others.  The venue was somewhat empty as compared to the previous day, allowing an opportunity to chat with a number of people whom I would later interview.

Michael Laton was one of those folks.  Laton handled lighting and projections for Down With People (which featured the same line-up as Room Nine, Seattle’s mid-’80s psyche progenitors.)

Michael, an elder gentleman with a gruff voice, approached me when he found out about my book project.  We chatted for a bit about his experience doing projections for Room Nine back in the ’80s.  I took his phone number and gave him a call after I returned home.

Sometimes we don’t realize what surrounds us.  I had no idea who Michael was…turns out he also played a part in San Francisco’s music scene of the ’60s.  (He is even a minor character in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.)   He did projections for everyone from the Grateful Dead to Janis Joplin to the Doors.  So he actively participated in music scenes influential to two generations.

Michael grew up in Southern California. “Most of the people I befriended [in San Francisco] had grown up in Southern California–we all rushed to San Francisco because that’s where it was happening,” Laton says.  “I went to do graduate work up at the San Francisco State College, along with a bunch of other people.  Of course, at that moment in time, everything was way more interesting than the classroom, so some of us–myself included–we just stopped going to classes, ’cause it just wasn’t important anymore.  I mean, there was just way more interesting stuff going on.

“I was a theater person, and we wanted to put on European theater,” Laton continues, “….Somebody suggested, ‘Well, why don’t you hire these local bands, and you can pay for your theater,’ and we said, ‘Cool.  What a great idea.’  All the bands were the bands, you know–Big Brother & the Holding Company, the Grateful Dead, Country Joe & the Fish–all of that.  Their theater was way more interesting than ours.”

Laton orchestrated light shows for a number of San Francisco bands.  He quickly gained a reputation for creating a psychedelic atmosphere by using projected images and colors along with the music.  After the San Francisco scene dried up, he moved up to Ashland, Oregon and continued his shows at all-ages clubs.  By the late ’70s, Laton’s images were displayed at punk rock shows.  He referred to his punk rock-accompanied projections as “dark shows” as opposed to the “light shows” he created in San Francisco.  “I had put together these visualizations with all the new music, and all these visuals in a kind of–I called them the ‘dark show’ because it was significantly not the Grateful Dead,” Laton recalls.

In 1980, Laton arrived in Seattle, where he believed a better environment existed for his art.  He began working with Red Masque, a Bauhaus-esque dark post-punk band, and then eventually became Room Nine’s personal lighting man.  Laton immediately recognized a sharp contrast between San Francisco psyche and Seattle’s version. “In relationship to San Francisco it was…the whole cowboy thing,” Laton says.  “You can look at the clothing that everybody was effecting in the ’60s and into the ’70s, whether you’re looking at Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young on the cover of Déjà Vu, where they’re all dressed as gunslingers, the whole Eagles thing, that whole– whatever.

“Up here [in Seattle],” Laton continues, “…it all looked like–and I was a Marvel Comic books reader, so maybe that had something to do with it–but it all had that Valhalla Viking warrior kind of thing.  It was a whole other kind of folklore in everybody’s head.  This was not ‘John Wayne Cowboy.’  This was not ‘Alternative Cowboy.’  This was not ‘Bob Dylan Alternative Folk Hero’ bullshit.  This was not about that.

“The mood up here is really different….It always seemed way more serious to me [than San Francisco.]  And whatever people do for partying in Seattle always struck me as being like having a good time had more to do with making things that I never quite understood go away.  I’m more interested in having a good time.  I don’t think I ever heard anyone talking about ‘Let’s have a good time,’ or ‘Let’s go out, and let’s go to the beach.’  You don’t hear that up here….Don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not trying to be glib or silly about it, but it’s very different here.”

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