One day after Western Michigan University's commencement in 1984, Mike Duncan packed up his old Buick and drove from Kalamazoo to Los Angeles. His time spent lighting college theatre productions had led him to explore lighting music, where he worked on arena tours that came through town as well as in local venues. "I didn't really know anyone, but I showed up at Show Lites because I met some people from there and they had told me to come out when I graduated," Duncan says. "Since I actually did just that, they gave me a job in the shop, and within a couple of weeks I was on the road. I knew this was what I really wanted to do. Of course, I wanted to design, but I had no idea how to get those jobs at first. So I was a lighting technician for years."
In the early 90s, Duncan was living in Chicago but working for San Jose, CA-based Morpheus Lights. "I actually worked for them for two years before I ever met them in person. I just stayed out on the road most of that time." Eventually, Duncan stopped taking technician jobs and made it known that he wanted to be an LD. "A really good friend of mine, Charles Trotter, decided that he didn't want to tour anymore, so he offered me Counting Crows in 1994."
In the past five years, Duncan has built a strong relationship with the band, and has branched out to design other projects as well. "Counting Crows was truly my first tour as an LD and they've been very helpful and supportive. They're a great band to work for and they've offered me a lot of opportunities. From working with them I've learned to light film and videos, as well as various sizes of touring rigs. It was the kind of opportunity I'd always hoped for."
In 1996, Duncan was the LD for the Goo Goo D olls. He lit the then up-and-coming band in almost every conceivable venue, from fairgrounds to arenas, where they opened up for Bush. When not touring with Counting Crows, Duncan has also acted as a lighting director for other LDs. "I ran Soul Asylum for Joel Reiff, who is a good friend. He's got an uncanny sense of color. I've been fortunate in that I've worked with some really talented people."
Duncan recently acted as lighting director for Ringo Starr and the All Starr Band's two-month US tour, designed by Jeff Ravitz. He spent the second half of last year serving as lighting director for the B-52s tour designed by Norm Schwab.
Duncan is presently working on his design for the upcoming Counting Crows tour, tentatively scheduled to begin in late spring. "I'd like the next Crows tour to be as theatrical as possible. For the last tour I collaborated with [set designer] Tom Strahan of Scale Design, and that was great. This time I'd like to have even more input."
Although generally not a big fan of automated luminaires, Duncan says he'll probably go the automated route for this tour as well. "The B-52s tour was all automation: There wasn't much of it, but it was so cleverly used, that it was really beautiful," he says. "That was all Norm. So I may go that route and use only moving lights, but again, not many of them. I'll just try to use them as cleverly as possible."
Yet Duncan is far from deciding what type of automated lighting to use, as he has no favorite type. "I enjoy using conventional lights," he says. "I love incandescent and quartz light, and big, fat 5k fresnels with color changers on them. I love those huge washlights; they provide a very warm feeling. I also really appreciate people like Willie Williams [U2, R.E.M.] who go out of their way to seek out fixtures that you see every day but don't really think of in other applications. He finds a way to use them that is just stunning."
Duncan did take some time last year to become more proficient at using the tools of his trade. "I learned how to operate the [Flying Pig Systems] Wholehog II console. The people at AC Lighting were very helpful and that was a really good move. It's a great board, it's readily available, and it's really powerful. I also took the time to learn the Icon Console(TM). I haven't had much opportunity to work with it lately, because you really have to be out with a band that can afford an Icon system, but it's amazing. I also got more proficient on my Mac and various design programs like CAD."
What kind of future does Duncan envision for himself? "I'm interested in TV and film work, and there are some bands I'd like to design for, but I really enjoy directing as well. There are certain projects I might never have the chance to design, but some LDs need people to direct for them. So that gives me an opportunity to work with both a great band and a great designer. Getting that kind of experience is invaluable.
"As much as I enjoy what I do, I find that I miss home more and more," he continues. "I just built a small house and I like it there. I'd like to continue doing concert work, although I'd eventually like to tour less. I'm at the point where I can stop taking on projects with artists I really don't enjoy working with. It's so much better to work with people who enjoy having creative people around them. I like being part of the process."