Butch Allen, the proprietor of Ugly American Services, has spent that last 20 years working in the concert touring industry. His career runs the gamut from the heavier end of the heavy metal spectrum (Ratt, Danzig, Mötley Crüe, Guns N' Roses, Black Sabbath, and Ozzy Osbourne) to the lightest of pop (the Backstreet Boys, Christina Aguilera, and Ricky Martin). He has also worked with some of the more colorful personalities in the rock music business like Courtney Love/Hole and The Smashing Pumpkins. Most recently he designed the set for Bow Wow's tour (with Peter Morse as the LD); however, for most of 2002, he has been traveling around the world with Garbage on the band's Beautiful Garbage tour. Not only did he design one of best-looking club/theatre shows of the year, he is also simultaneously handling the unenviable duties of production manager. While doing so, he sometimes likes to wear a bunny suit. Anyone have a problem with that?
photo: © Steve Jennings
Catherine McHugh: How did you get your start in this business?
Butch Allen: I went to college at SUNY Fredonia in the theatre program, which has an excellent staff that instills a great work ethic. It was a very positive experience, even though I was not smart enough to see the value of finishing. Regardless, I found that I had more of a passion for music lighting and moved toward that. And I moved my way up from bar bands to the exalted position that I am in today.
CM: What bands did you work with?
Allen: There were a few bands out of Buffalo — Buxx and Rred and Talas. Then I did a short stint with Chuck Mangione — flugelhorn player from Rochester — and then SpyroGyra.
CM: Have you always done lighting?
Allen: Yes, although when I first started out, I sometimes had to be the drum roadie as well. On one tour with Mr. Big, I not only did lighting, but I also polished 1,017 cymbals — we counted them up.
CM: When did you move to Los Angeles?
Allen: I moved to California in 1991 on New Year's Day. Because as much as my wife and I love Buffalo, I needed to be somewhere where I could get work all the time. And it's true. You can work all the time in LA — or you can spend all of your time in detox. It's really up to you.
CM: How did you put together the design for the Beautiful Garbage tour?
Allen: We were in Australia doing The Big Day Out and in the catering room there were these big Spandex tubes lying all over the place. So I asked the band if they thought it would make a cool set. They agreed, and we had the party decorator build us 10 of them for $600. They collapse into a road case, so our whole set fits into the trunk of a car. It's nothing new or mind-bending, but it works.
CM: And the lighting?
Allen: First I explained that I like to make shows simple and bright — and that there are a lot of people out there who will tell you that I don't know how to light anything, so I made sure they were clear on that. Of course, they then told me that they like it dark. So I did my best to find dark ways of making it bright, such as using floorlight downstage and a lot of lekos all over the place. We also looked at alternative light sources, so I got a bunch of 100W lightbulbs and strung those up and ran chases with them. There is also the Encapsulite — the fluorescent tubes — which is the coolest thing ever invented. I like them a lot and they really work for Garbage. The first time I mentioned fluorescent to them there were thumbs up and bright eyes all around the room. It's behind them and it's kind of creepy — so we only use them on the happy songs. The goal is to do it wrong. Use the creepy lights on the happy songs and the happy lights on the creepy songs and see how it turns out.
CM: Just how difficult is it being both production manager and lighting designer?
Allen: At the end of the day, a production manager should stick to doing production first and lighting guys should stick to lighting. But when you're a lighting guy, nowadays you are also either the production manager or the drum tech. It's not easy, and it's important to have people around you who are very self-sufficient. So you can completely drop the ball and they'll just mock you, but they'll get on with their jobs. That's the truth about how this tour works.
CM: Is it better than being the drum tech?
Allen: Yes, it's far superior to being the drum tech and the LD. But doing two jobs is not so bad. I've had worse.
CM: What is worse?
Allen: It would be worse to be the tour manager, because you have to deal with the money and the people and the travel and the hotels. It's a political gig, so you have to be nice to people, whereas when you're the production manager you never have to be nice to anyone.
CM: Who has influenced you as a designer?
Allen: Philip Ealy trusted me with shows when he barely knew who I was. I did a Ratt tour for him and he let me go out and do Guns N' Roses. Phil is very particular and very perfect in everything that he does. He taught me a lot about calling spotlights and notating a show.
Jonathan Smeeton does outrageous experiments. He took me out on some really big shows like Def Leppard and Yes. He's very creative and he's really good at making art out of nothing. He can take a big spool of rope and make an amazing set out of it. Then, Peter Morse — well, what can I say? It's huge and super-spectacular, but it's got to be right every day. Peter is cool to deal with and between working with him and all of his programmers, it was like finishing my college education. I learned a lot about how to program a show from just being around those guys.
CM: How did you get into set design?
Allen: I love to do set designs — I'm not the best at it, but I'm getting better. The way sets and lights work together is what it's all about. Of course, when you have a separate set and lighting designer, the two people working together through collaboration can find so many more things than just one person sitting in a room trying to figure it all out. and I have no problem getting on the phone and saying, “This sucks — what were you thinking? Let's do something else.”
CM: What was the first set you did?
Allen: It was in 1996 for a great band called Vaya con Dios — a Belgian act with a Spanish name. The set looked like unfurled rolls of toilet paper, but it lit beautifully.
CM: You've joked in the past that “Light the Money” is your middle name. Can you describe your lighting style?
Allen: When someone's paying $125 or more for a concert ticket, they want to see the artist. There are all kinds of dark and shadow and texture and all these really cool moments you can dream up, but at the end of the day, you are lighting the money. When I'm acting as lighting director for designers, which I do quite often, we spend a lot of time talking about it — although admittedly not in such brusque terminology. It's a primary concern to actually see the artist in the right light. Ha! But you can also over-light and that creates this bleached-out white spot at one end of the arena and a pool of darkness. Or the Vegas syndrome. Now everyone in Vegas is going to send me hate mail, but what the hell. They know who they are.
CM: What advice would you give someone who wants to go into your line of work?
Allen: First, if you're old and you want to do this, then you're too stupid to do this because you should be old enough to know better. This is something you only do if you start when you're young and you realize it's either this or “Would you like Biggie fries with that, sir?” So, first, you've got to go to school and learn what you're doing. Second, you must be willing to give up your entire life and live on a bus that goes from place to place. As part of your training, I recommend that you go five days in a row without showering and while wearing the same clothes. It's necessary to find out if you can live with a certain crust. And save your money, because it's not the world's longest career. Oh, and STAY AWAY FROM DRUGS. It does not make you more creative no matter what anyone says. Remember, this is a business like everything else.
CM: How do you deal with the stress of life on the road?
Allen: When you're touring, it's really, really easy to lose your temper at everything that goes wrong. But after a while, your constant nuclear assault on everyone around you diminishes the fact when you are genuinely pissed off about something. So it's much easier just to keep your cool. As Loree, my wonderful wife, says to me when I get a little on edge, “Did you teach anyone to read today? Did you feed anyone who really needs a meal — not just your crew?” The answer is NO. So while it's important to do a good job, don't forget that there are people out there who are doing really valuable work in this world. That is not us. It's important that we are working, but we are not saving lives. So cut it out and get over yourselves. It's just a job — that also happens to be a lifestyle.
CM: Do you still enjoy touring?
Allen: Yes, I do. Because even though you're doing the same show every day, it really is very different and there are all kinds of hurdles to overcome from personal difficulties to physical gig-related traumas. When it's month five of the tour and you and the band are kind of in the same spot, asking, “Why are we here?” The answer is because it's fun — and it's a good way to make a living. I've been everywhere. I've never had to wear a uniform and I didn't have to cut my hair until it all fell out. Plus, doing this tour has been like a reward for doing three years of pop bands. Nothing against the pop bands, but holy moley, Shirley and Butch and Steve and Duke have true moments of inspired passion. And I get paid? Yeah, it's pretty damn cool.