The roving spaceship that was U2 360° touched down for the last time in Moncton, Canada on July 30, after two years and $700 million in ticket sales, leaving nearly 150 industry types (including, weirdly, 33 Belgians) looking for work. One of those finally finding some free time again is Willie Williams, who served as the creative brainchild and show director of the tour.
During rehearsals in Barcelona, Williams joked about the birthing process of The Claw and its various parts. (Live Design provided extensive online coverage of the tour when it debuted in 2009). Now that the three 29,000sq-ft. steel structures have all grown up and headed out into the world (they are actually for sale for anyone with a cool $20 million lying around), David Johnson recently caught up with Williams, who has returned to the bucolic tranquility of his nursery in Suffolk, for a post-mortem.
David Johnson: After 110 shows, and, apparently, 11 babies born to staffers, your baby, U2 360°, finally came to a close last month. How does it feel?
Willie Williams: I’m well aware that rock tours don’t end gradually; they steam ahead at full speed until smacking into the dead-stop brick wall of the final show. Injuries can result, so with something as monumental as the 360° tour, I made a point of pacing the final month or so of the tour. Watching the show each night, I’d make myself consciously aware that these were the final occasions on which this extraordinary thing would exist and that, shortly, it would go away forever. I watched it from all over the building and, in Pittsburgh, even made a point of dragging Ethan Weber up to the nosebleed seats, as he’d only ever seen the show from behind the lighting console.
The general feeling among the crew was one of finishing college. Nick Barton, lighting crew chief, pointed out that it had been remarkably like attending college—a three-year course with its various breaks, when we’d part for a while before regrouping at the start of the next semester. As with leaving school, we now go into the world feeling a new life chapter has started—older, wiser, and looking for work.
DJ: The look of the show changed quite a lot between the first show in Barcelona and the last show in Moncton. What factors drove that?
WW: U2 360° ran for such a long time that it was really three tours that changed quite distinctly in 2009, 2010, and 2011. Part of the drive for change came from our going across North America and Europe twice and wanting to not just trot out the same show, especially as the DVD of the ‘09 version was already on sale. My goal for going back to North America in ‘11 was to have at least 50% of the show be entirely new since the DVD.
Another driving factor is simply the personality of U2, which never rests on its laurels and continually evolves creatively. Having most of the facilities we needed on tour with us, making new material and adding new songs wasn’t overly costly, with a couple of exceptions, so the beginning of each new leg would always bring changes. There’s also a permanent desire within U2 to make the show relevant to the city or country that they’re in, so a great many songs and elements are bespoke per show. This is, of course, endless and exhausting to keep up with, but it keeps the show alive and vital. The audience appreciates it enormously too, so it is definitely time well spent.
Some of it was just carried by its own momentum; we did it because we realized that we could. We have a great ongoing relationship with NASA and the loose “space station” theme was really fun. Starting with the live link-ups to the International Space Station, through to Commander Mark Kelly giving shout outs to each city, singing “Beautiful Day,” and quoting the David Bowie song lyric while floating in space, we were just showing off, really.
DJ: What is your most memorable moment of the tour?
WW: Of course it’s impossible to narrow it down to just one moment with so many extraordinary landmarks along the way. If I had to pick one thing, though, it would be the high mirrorball, as I can be entirely sure that nobody will ever pay for something as insane as that ever again—a meter-wide mirror ball with built-in lightning conductor placed 150' up in the air to be hit by eight 5K Xenon [Zap Technology] BigLites, each of which had to be craned up individually to locations 85' off the ground. On good fog nights, the entire stadium filled with the snow-globe dots and moving beams, so massive, so completely kitsch and yet undeniably moving, like the missing scene from Lord of the Rings.
DJ: Any other highlights?
WW: The astonished delight in the faces of seasoned professionals on seeing the first inconceivably enormous pieces of The Claw. Opening night in Barcelona: seeing this thing surrounded by an audience for the first time. The Mexico City shows: three nights at nearly 110,000 people per night. The apocalyptic rain in Zurich. A stadium-full of cell phone lights. Wading through the mud at Glastonbury with Allen Branton. The week when we did two video content shoots, one in space and one in Burma. Commander Mark Kelly’s rendition of “Space Oddity” from the International Space Station. Creating a set list that referenced every single U2 album. Hugh Masekela joining the band on stage in Johannesburg to play horn on “Still Haven’t Found…,” possibly the most musically magical moment of U2’s entire career.
DJ: Where on earth are concerts going to go from here?
WW: U2 360° is certainly a milestone in rock history, but I am not sure how much direct influence it will have on what other bands do. For a long time now, U2 has existed in its own adjunct of the performance world. Somebody said that this was the “Beijing Olympics of Rock” in that, while clearly being the pinnacle of something, it’s also the end of something, especially with civilization having collapsed since this project began. I can’t think of anyone who would be brave enough to stake what it would require to emulate this kind of tour design, unless Pink Floyd or the Stones come out for one more trip round the block.
As for U2, we’re already talking about the next one, and I’m excited about the ideas and the potential. It’s funny, on the Zoo TV tour, people would ask, “However will you follow this?” to which I would reply, “The next one will be bigger,” which, of course, it ended up being. This time around, though, I don’t think that’s a promise I’m going to make.
DJ: We know you will be enjoying some downtime in the short term. Any long term plans?
WW: I have a lot of video content projects on the go via my partnership with Sam Pattinson at The Third Company. I really enjoy these, as I don’t have to be so hands-on, but the projects are interesting—Batman arena show, Elton John’s Las Vegas show, etc. I’m also involved in the development of a couple of theatre shows and my own domestic art projects, but there’s certainly no master plan to follow the U2 tour. Career strategy hasn’t really been a hallmark of my life other than just to follow things that I think are interesting and to work with people who are inspiring. In that sense, I suppose I’ll be carrying on as normal.
DJ: I suspect you might want to give a few shout-outs some of your team members who made it all possible. Shout away.
WW: There would have been no 360° tour without Mark Fisher, my co-designer from start to finish, or without Jake Berry, who, from the word go, was determined to make this impossible task become possible. The enthusiasm of Hedwig De Meyer and Stageco was vital in gaining early confidence that this might be feasible. The willingness, yet again, of Joe O’Herlihy to design his sound system around ludicrous parameters, but without compromising audio quality, was key to this becoming an environment in which U2 might actually want to perform. Frederic Opsomer conceived the expanding video screen and sought out Chuck Hoberman to figure out how to engineer an object that expands through three dimensions simultaneously. Tom Krueger is probably the only man alive who could have calmly looked Jake Berry in the eye and told him that we needed 14 cameras on the road to shoot this, and Stefaan “Smasher” Desmedt, who switched those 14 cameras each night and effortlessly became the best touring video director currently living. Ethan Weber for all his input and for remaining the bastion of calm even though yoked to the grand experiment that was Alex Murphy. Craig Hancock for stepping into the breach so admirably. Nick Barton for knowing no fear and the lampies for so fluently blending talent, verve, and good looks. Raff Buono for the video screen aerobics. Luke Halls, Damian Hale, Run Wrake, Eoin McLoughlin, and all the video creatives. Sam Pattinson for making video content painless for once. Stef Vanbiesen for video programming and operation. Declan Gaffney for his countless sonic contributions and for not minding me being all over his ProTools. Sharon Blankson for the laser jacket. Morleigh Steinberg for the hanging microphone. Gavin Friday for the objective eye and ear. XL Video, PRG, Tait, Clair, CAT, and Brilliant Stages. Rocko Reedy and the entire 360° touring crew who not only made this insane project happen but managed to make it an enormously fun enterprise. Paul McGuinness and Arthur Fogel for their trust and confidence. And, of course, U2 themselves who, somehow, even in the face of 200 trucks of gear, managed to keep the show first and foremost about music.