Anticipating having dinner with a rock star is, well, nerve-wracking. All you designers out there do it all the time, of course, but in the world of production technology, the designers are our rock stars.
So while awaiting dinner at New York's Rainbow Room with Motley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee and his new performing partner, DJ Aero, prior to their live broadcast at Sirius radio, I wondered how this discussion would go. For starters, how did a professional drummer connect with a DJ and start touring and VJing a show? The 2007 Electro Mayhem Tour has been hitting major cities and venues with success, and people seem to respond to the fusion of talent the pair has created.
For their tour, self-described by the duo as “dirty electro house music,” they use a variety of gear, including two Pioneer DVJ-1000 DVD players and an Edirol V4 video mixer for visuals. On the DJ side, the show employs a Pioneer DJM-800 mixer, two Pioneer CDJ-1000 MK3 CD players, and a Pioneer EFX-500 effects unit. Both Aero and Lee work off Apple MacBook Pro laptops using one TFT LCD 3-in-1 color monitor. Additional gear includes an Alesis Control Pad USB/MIDI Percussion Pad Controller, Akai MPC1000, M-Audio FireWire Audiophile audio/MIDI interface, M-Audio Oxygen 02 Keyboard, and a slew of software, including Ableton Live 6, Rane's Serato Scratch Live 1.7.2, Replicator, Devine Machine Software's Lucifer 2 VST FX plug-in, Sugar Bytes' Artillery 1.3 multi-effects plug-in, and Plogue's Bidule 0.94, a virtual modular studio.
Here's what they had to say about working together and why it works.
LD: How did you two start working together?
DJ Aero: In 2000, Tommy was putting together the band Methods of Mayhem — right after some Motley Crüe stuff he did — so during the recording, he was working with Mix Master Mike, DJ QBert, and other DJs in the studio. When it came time to put together a band and go tour the record they had just created, Mix Master Mike was unavailable due to other commitments with the Beastie Boys.
So I had a friend who knew the other singer in Methods of Mayhem, and I got a QuickTime movie to Tommy while he was in Australia. Tommy saw me, just scratching and being retarded, and I got a call back, went down to rehearsals in Los Angeles, and we've been together ever since.
LD: Where's the tour going?
Tommy Lee: We set out to pretty much smash in as many days as we could between July and September. I think our main focus was to get out here and really do it and not just weekend DJ — to really make some noise and get this thing off the ground. Then we're going to finish some original music that we're working on and just focus on doing good gigs instead of just trying to play every city — focus on the places with really good…
DJA: …sound system and lights, like a Bliss nightclub or a Mansion in Miami.
LD: Describe your show and how you work live.
DJA: I basically use CDJ-1000s, the Pioneer CD turntables with a Pioneer DJM-800 mixer, and I handle beat mixing and scratching the audio. Then I send a signal out of my mixer that goes to Tommy's computer. We use a special program called Artillery with a keyboard, where Tommy can manipulate the sound or the music with that program. He also uses a Pioneer EFX-500 so we can add delays and echoes and cut the bass in and out and all kinds of cool stuff. So we're always working together to put the performance on.
TL: We're using an MPC drum machine; there's pads, assorted percussion, and the DVJs, which is taking what we do to a whole other level, manipulating the visuals that coincide with the music. That's been a lot of fun. I don't know how much more we could be doing back there. We're constantly updating an image or manipulating the video or tweaking a sound, so it's a lot of work. After the second or third song, we're sweating.
LD: It's sort of becoming more like a light and video-jockeyed show, like the way light jockeys have been big in European clubs for years.
DJA: Yeah, that's something I never really experienced, other than raves in Los Angeles.
TL: It's so important. I see it all the time — when you look up to see the lights and the guy running lights in the club just has it on some random chase. It doesn't change for three songs, and maybe we've just broken down the whole song and it's mellow all of a sudden, and we just want him to kill the lights for a minute. The music does one thing, and then there are video images, and then the lighting, and they all have to stay in tune with one another. The lighting blows out the video sometimes, or the video blows out the lights…
DJA: …that's what's cool about our show. We can control the visual aspect now, in addition to the audio, which we've always done. I don't think we can add a lighting rig to our set at this point!
LD: Well, how does your stuff integrate into the venue when you get there?
TL: I always ask to see if the LD is there during soundcheck. When they are, I let them know, ‘Let's not hammer anyone with just video or lights constantly.’ I'll even let the video go to black to let lighting do its thing, and hope they'll let the lights down to let the video roll. We make a conscious effort to work with the guy that's there.
LD: Are most in-house people pretty agreeable?
DJA: Actually, we haven't had any problems. We've just been getting a lot of cool people, and some have cameras set up in the clubs already and give feeds to Tommy's Edirol mixers to mix all the video, and he can now mix multiple sources of cameras in the club. We just played a club in Connecticut called Room 960, and they had three CCD chip cameras in the club, and that was insane…
TL: …one camera up above us that I can mix in with the video from one of our cameras blasting into the crowd. People love to see themselves, but we also mix in clips of us so they can see what we're doing back there. That's always fun when the house guys are willing to work with us like that. It makes the whole evening better.
LD: So that's your live content. What about prerecorded content?
DJA: Tommy and I hired Brian [Dressel] from OVT Visuals. He's doing a lot of stuff with The Responder — he invented that. We commissioned him and gave him a mix CD of what we play, and he came back with a DVD with images mixed to that audio, so now we have custom-made visuals for the genre of music that we play. Tommy is able to mix that stuff live with all kinds of other weird stuff he has in his DVD case.
TL: I've got three monitors near the DVJs, and I can select what goes up on the big screens.
LD: Do you rely on what the venues have in-house in terms of surfaces to project video?
TL: In places that don't have surfaces or screens, we ask them to provide it, so we're always trying to max it out, but most clubs do have something.
DJA: We're finding that most clubs do have some kind of projection and some sort of screen. Mint in Miami has video walls from top to bottom, all the way around the club, with a DVJ guy on one end of the club and the DJ on the other end. Tommy and I played there at Thanksgiving…
TL: …we didn't have the DVJs then, but the entire crowd is surrounded by all four walls and floor-to-ceiling video. You can make people nauseous with that much video.
LD: So what do you ask for if they don't have it in-house?
TL: Just some large, flat-panel LCD screens…
DJA: …1080i screens and then the largest white surface we can possibly get. A couple of clubs have had cool shapes cut out in the ceiling that project, so that always looks really great when it's really dark. As you know, clubs are getting more in tune to the visual package, and Tommy and I are finding it much easier to give them an RCA line in, and then we're ready to go, no problems.
LD: Do you rehearse or have jam sessions?
DJA: It's pretty much free-form. The music that we play changes daily, so we get new tracks. As we hear the song, Tommy finds a clip that most relates to that sound. It's always changing.
LD: I would imagine you don't want your show to be set in stone and the same every night.
DJA: Exactly — some of the clubs we've played two or three times already, so playing the same show would be terrible.
TL: In the beginning, we did get together and got images ready, not really under the rehearsal category, but we did get to jam.
DJA: It was more of a vodka-tasting session. Tommy had a huge screen that we hijacked, and we sat by the pool and just went for it.
LD: Any other challenges worth noting or kinks you've worked out along the way?
TL: You've got Aero and me as a drummer — basically two guys with rhythm working together. There are other dual crews out there, but not too many where one guy is a drummer…
DJA: …and playing dance music…
TL: …right, and playing dance music, so there's a percussive element that we bring, and with the video and music, it's something you just don't see all the time.
LD: Well, Tommy, have you experienced anyone remarking about you being a rock star and trying to be a VJ, or just not to your face?
TL: We've got a lot of respected DJ friends, so everyone has given us love and support and even shared tracks — so far, so good, but I'm sure somebody is out there going, “What the f**k is going on?” But you can't blame them when you have Lindsay Lohan behind the turntables in some clubs stinking the place up. At least I'm a musician and a drummer and playing dance music, which makes sense. At least I'm not Lindsay Lohan.