“This is a weird experience for us,” said James Murphy, front man of the dance/rock band LCD Soundsystem at the start of the last show they would every play, at Madison Square Garden on April 2. "In keeping with the history of our band, we hope it's going to be a weird experience for everybody."
Indeed, the whole thing did seem a little weird, even by New York standards. Here’s a band that decided to call it quits after less than a decade, with three albums that consistently showed up on critics’ Top Ten lists, and a hipster cache that would make most indie bands drool with envy “A lot of the songs I’ve written are as good as I’m going to do,” Murphy told The Clash last year. “I don’t want to repeat myself. So, what becomes the next goal? Being bigger? The next goal becomes about making more money. It’s just not all that interesting.”
In order to go out with the proper bang, and in turn give their fans one last thank you, Murphy and crew hit on the idea of doing one last gig in their backyard, MSG to be exact, never mind that most venues the band played were less than half the size of the Big Room. And yet, when tickets went on sale for the April 2 gig, it sold out in minutes, though not without some hiccups on availability and online ordering. Murphy, in a now-legendary rant on his website and Twitter account, went after scalpers ("i will try to figure a way out to fuck these fuckers. NO MATTER WHAT WE DO, IT IS NOT WORTH THAT KIND OF MONEY TO SEE US!") and announced the band would add an additional four shows at Terminal 5 in New York the week before the MSG gig as an additional thank you to the fans.
In the end, that final show at the Garden was the money shot, and it proved to be one of the seminal events of the New York scene in the past decade, reaching near-legendary status already for its length (nearly four hours, in three sections, with a middle section consisting of a 45:33 song called, yes, “45:33,”), its sartorial splendor (the band asked that everyone dress in black or white for the show, and thousands complied, some in tuxes and party dresses, and a few braves souls inexplicably in panda costumes), its hipster cache (Hey, it’s Arcade Fire, singing backing vocals! There’s Spike Jonze, filming the show! And is that Aziz Ansari crowdsurfing?), and, perhaps most gratifying for all, its, well, weirdness (a full on-choir, a pair of spaceships housing DJs Shit Robot and Juan McLean, did we mention nearly four hours and a bunch of guys in panda suits?).
It was also a bit weird for Eric Cathcart, who served as the band’s LD (and board op) for its last tour, and who was tapped to design (and run) both the Terminal 5 and MSG gigs, and who, like the band, had never worked the Garden before. Much like the band he worked for, Cathcart suddenly found himself thrust on the big stage. With a lot to do. Honestly, how often does an LD also run the board at a Garden gig?
For Cathcart, the road to that last gig really began when he was first hired to light the band’s tour. “I had an iChat with James, and they decided to go ahead and use me,” he recalls. “This was LCD’s first foray with a lighting designer, so they weren’t exactly sure what they were doing. James had a ton of ideas; some were feasible, some were impossible, and some were just so crazy that they just might work. James would mention something that he thought would be a good idea, I’d respond with, ‘OK if you want to, but that isn’t how it is typically done.’ He called me Passive-Aggressive Lighting Designer.”
One of those ideas was the use of MIDI to trigger cues. “He asked about using MIDI, and I was like, I don’t know, the consoles all have MIDI connectors, but I don’t know anyone who’s ever used it. It was one of those things where I begrudgingly agreed to it but I embraced it after a while.”
Cathcart used a MIDI expander that converted midi to RS-232 along an XLR cable out to FOH, where there was a second box that converted it back to MIDI. On stage there was a MIDI-Merger that allowed four MIDI devices to run down one MIDI line. For the triggers, Cathcart used a device that would assign a MIDI note to each different trigger.
“For about half of the tour I had the keyboards playing the lights on the song ‘Movement,’” he says. “That song was pretty straightforward, assign a cue to a note and away we go. As I started doing more research I was adding more parts. Eventually, the keyboard was playing lights on ‘Tribulations,’ the percussion triggers in synth land were triggering lights on ‘I Can Change,’ and the clap pad at the drum set was used for the intro to ‘Movement’ and on ‘Tribulations’ as well.”
The rig itself grew over time as well, starting with little more than a few mini strips and a handful Martin MAC 700s for a few initial surprise gigs in the NY area followed by Coachella, and then moving to Europe. Upstaging, who Cathcart credits with getting him the gig, was the vendor for the early US shows, while Adlib handled the UK gigs. Once the tour moved back to the US, Bandit become the vendor, and Cathcart’s rig expanded slightly. “At the Terminal 5 shows back in May of last year, I still just had a floor package at that point,” Cathcart explains. “I had three rows of Martin Stagebar 54s on the floor, and a few MAC 700s on the side fills. Eventually that grew into four rows of Stagebars, and three rows of moles, and that grew into putting the same thing on the sides, and it just kept growing and growing and got quite modular. The main elements of the Garden show were the same as when we started doing full production shows.” (For a look at the various iterations of the rig over the year, check out the photo gallery of lightplots.)
Two elements remained as constants throughout all the iterations: a GrandMA console, and a mirrorball, the latter serving as something of a mascot for the band as it graces their first full-length album. For some of the European festivals last year, all Cathcart carried with him was a console and a 4’ mirrorball. For the Garden show, the mirrorball grew to 5’.
Once the Garden show was announced, work eventually turned to how that would look. I was kind of working on it while we were in South America on the last part of the tour, earlier in the year,” he recalls. “We all sat down and had a meeting to discuss what we were doing; the set list was about twice as long as normal. We added a bunch of songs just for that show. The Terminal 5 shows were technically a rehearsal; they had never played most of those shows live up to that point.” Cathcart estimates he had a little over a month to put it all together: three weeks of pre-production, then straight into programming, one week at the Bandit shop, and then another week at Sonalysts Studios in Waterford CT, where they were able to load in the whole rig, though without being able to match the trim height for the Garden show.
“When it came to the final show James was happy with what we had been doing for the previous year,” Cathcart says. “Once he decided what songs they were playing, we knew where lights were needed, and then I just needed to add a little oomph.”
For that final rig, Cathcart swapped the Stagebars for Bandit GRN battens and moving washes. “When I programmed it I just did a fixture type change so that all the color info I had done with the battens on the previous tours I just had to add pan and tilt,” he explains. Other new gear included the Bandit Motodata motorized truss, a dozen Martin MAC 2000 Performances added to the downstage truss, and a variety of Vari-Lite VL-3000s.
Colors and fixture locations were also relatively set by the time they hit the Garden. “James did have a few things in mind that were right in line with what I wanted to do,” says Cathcart. “A lot of light from a source low and behind the band was something he wanted. Most of the things that he suggested were things like dumbing things down, and making it way less ‘fancy’. There were several things that he wanted to do that I thought were a huge mistake, but for the most part they worked and they worked so well that I used them and don’t even remember what they were.
“The colors just kind of happened,” he continues. “On ‘Yeah,’ James just requested that it be dumb and rave-y. Green just came to mind. The red, amber, and green on ‘I Can Change’ was James idea. We were going off of the idea of the silly stop light lights that used to be in novelty stores in the ‘80s.”
More notable than the use of color on the show was the lack thereof. Perhaps in keeping with the black and white aesthetic of the band, Cathcart made extensive use of white light. “I’ve always wanted to do an N/C (no color) show. It just seemed to fit. For the first leg it was pretty much entirely N/C or color correction except for maybe three songs. When I changed from moles and zip strips to LED battens is when the color came into play. Also as the tour progressed the band started learning and playing new songs I started using more color as I programmed those songs. When I did use color I wanted to keep it within the primary and secondary colors. In the end I think I had about eight color palettes total and three of them were off white.”
If the Terminal 5 shows were the rehearsals, then the Garden show was by far the biggest one-off Cathcart had ever been involved in. Because of the limitations of the Sonalysts space, he never actually saw the full rig in all its glory until he walked into the Garden on April 2. “It was great when I walked in there, but also a little nerve wracking,” he says. “We had done all the songs at Terminal Five, so I got very familiar with the songs, but it had been a week since I saw the whole rig and programmed it, and then I had done four shows without seeing the side trusses. And then I had different fixtures at T5 because I used part of the house rig, so I had to do fixture changes so some of the stuff I programmed got messed up in the fixture swap. So going into it I didn’t have time during the day to look at everything again and familiarize myself with some of the cues.”
Still, despite a few bumps—the board froze at one point, and Cathcart moved to his backup, forgetting for a moment to switch over from slave to master mode—the show went flawlessly. “Overall, I thought I nailed it, considering that it was a one-off,” he says. “I could sit here and critique myself all day long but at the end of the day it got up, it happened. There were a few of the songs when the crowd was bouncing and singing along that were spine-shivering. The way that ‘All My Friends’ continuously builds and the audience progressively builds as well was a great moment. The guitar solo in ‘You Wanted A Hit’ had a great reaction, especially the end because it stops so suddenly. On ‘Yeah,’ when it dropped into a big rave feeling was also a great reaction. These were prevalent throughout the tour, but the sheer mass of people at the Garden made it seem huge.”
Cathcart, who has his own design company, Big Time Lighting Design, based in Kansas City, moved onto other projects afterwards, including an awards event in Talladega, AL, and some work on the current tour for Cake. But he still has fond memories of that very weird night in April. “It was very exhilarating, and frustrating,” he says. “Every positive and negative emotion that you could come up with was what I went through that day.”