Artistic inspiration comes in many forms, but it seems that LD Willie Williams has been blessed with a maverick muse who has a particularly zany sense of decorum. As the driving creative force behind such extravaganzas as U2's Zoo TV and PopMart tours--as well as R.E.M.'s 1995 Monster tour--Williams has shown not only a consistent flair for the dramatic, but also an admirable lack of fear in trying out unorthodox means and methods of creating touring concert lighting. Nowhere was this more apparent than on R.E.M.'s most recent tour. The band performed on a stage surrounded by almost 50 charming, puzzling signs made entirely out of rope light. Plus, there was a marked absence of any white light.
Having carried on and recorded Up despite drummer Bill Berry's decision to leave the group, the band initially resisted doing a formal tour. "This R.E.M. tour was sort of off-again, on-again, and the compromise was that we did a series of obscure TV shows," Williams explains. "It seemed to help them remember what they enjoyed about being in a band. We did these little club gigs, which were televised in whatever country we happened to be in. By the time the second TV leg came around, they knew they were going to do some dates, so it also gave us some time to discuss what we might do."
For the Monster tour, Williams subscribed to the "premeditated chaos" approach to design by projecting abstract films onto opera gauzes and venue walls behind the stage. "Performing in front of a moving image that nobody understands is the way it's done now," Williams says. "We took the idea of film projection and turned it into a light show of its own, and extrapolated it as far as it could reasonably go. So the band didn't want to use film on this tour. Happily, with R.E.M. you still have a lot more leeway than you would have with a lot of other groups."
Williams drew his first inspiration from two distinctly different geographic regions. "It's no secret that I've been a long-standing believer in the glory and power of rope light," he says. "For me, its two appeals are that it's great fun and can be really kitschy, but it also has a certain elegance to it. There were actually two main influences for the show's look. The first was obviously the Chinese New Year in Hong Kong. They cover the sides of the buildings with these huge images of dragons and butterflies. They look like colorful children's drawings, and it's really beautiful. All the more so when you realize it's all miles and miles of rope light."
The other part stemmed from the LD's childhood memories of visiting the Victorian seaside resort of Blackpool, England. "They've had a go at tarting it up a bit, but it's a little timepiece of a town," Williams says. "They had this idea to extend the season up to Christmas by putting up what they call 'illuminations.' They decorate all the streets with endless strings of festoon lights and big billboards of hundreds of lightbulbs in different patterns and crude animations. It's very low-tech and simple, but it has a certain something about it. So the combination of those places resulted in this idea of taking the rope light and making the two-dimensional images on the frames."
Williams then contacted Light & Sound Design's John Lobel, whom he knew had been present at the 1997 celebration of Hong Kong's reunification with China. "He worked with a lot of people over there who work in rope light, but in the end, the original contact I had with Neo-Neon was that they had an ad in Lighting Dimensions," Williams says. "Of course, they have no European or American outlet--they are based deep in the heart of rural China. So I sent off a fax asking if they would consider doing custom-made pieces. I got a very prompt reply and the rest is history. Their English is very good and they seemed to understand exactly what I wanted."
Williams then started collecting and sketching out images. "I wanted to take this traditional Eastern form and use Western clip art images. R.E.M. is very fond of those images anyway--they've used them in their artwork for many years. I raided all the clip art books I could find. I also got in touch with R.E.M.'s graphic designer, Chris Bilheimer, who was very helpful. I've learned that having some recognizable things on the stage is important, because the audience feels like they can relate to them. So there is a mix of new images as well as some that came directly from the CD art and merchandizing."
After putting together almost 150 different designs, the designer faxed them to the band members for feedback. "Mike Mills was very helpful, but Michael Stipe particularly got into it and started suggesting some new ones that we might do," Williams explains. "For instance, the anatomically correct bathroom symbols that flash are his. I had to guess as to how many we would need, and we honed it down to 50 different designs. Then we had to work out the appropriate scale for them. So I sent piles of drawings to Neo-Neon. For each one, not only was there the artwork, there was also the way they divide up, because they were quite big and needed to break up into 8'x4' panels for transportation. We also had to break down how the colors would be laid out, and for the ones that had more than one circuit, all the circuitry had to be worked out."
By this point Williams and longtime collaborator LD Bruce Ramus were working on the more conventional aspects of the lighting system. "Neo-Neon sent us a sample sign and we were pretty impressed, but we really wanted to avoid that Spinal Tap moment where they all show up and they thought we meant millimeters but we meant centimeters," Ramus laughs. "One of us had to go, and I lost the coin toss--so I headed to China to check it all out."
After arriving in Hong Kong, Ramus took a three-hour boat ride and was then met by one of Neo-Neon's employees. "He was this young lad who spoke broken English and he was very excited. I asked him if he had heard of R.E.M., and he said that he had heard of the music group, but not our R.E.M. So I said, 'Well, this is for the music group.' Then he was just beside himself! It was a great place; they were ever so friendly. I took Willie's line drawings and between Neo-Neon's engineers and myself we adapted them so that they would work for our purposes."
The designers put the system in an aircraft hangar in Alconbury, north of Cambridge, England. Neo-Neon delivered the signs two days before rehearsals. "It was a huge leap of faith to do it, but the more you do this, the more you're able to take those kinds of risks, because it felt very good dealing with the company," Williams says. "We found the signs had a lot of power when we used them in groups, but also, for certain songs, you could just put one of them on, and it becomes almost meditative, when you start to examine it. They had enough strength to be used one at a time."
The rest of the system was fairly simple, although it was filled with odd fixtures that Williams and Ramus tend to seek out. One of the standout examples were the truck lights. "They were Bruce's idea," Williams says. "You see them endlessly coming down the freeways at you at night, so he went off and got several copies of Auto Week and we got lots of samples and picked out the ones we liked. And they do make a lovely amount of ambient light onstage."
"They were marker lights that are used on the top of truck cabs. Since they were all 12V or 24V, we took the bulbs out and got some 110V bulbs," Ramus explains. "It's just part of Willie's and my own fascination with putting objects that you see every day into a show. It's not the light that emits from it that we're interested in, it's the light itself to look at. We've done that on every tour we've done. I was really pleased with them because they were real workhorses. You could leave them on in every song and they worked. We got some great bounce off the flooring from them as well."
The police beacons were given ACL lamps and a new color as well. "It was some revolting lime green that Bruce found," Williams laughs. "The police beacon is a tried and trusted effect--we all know what they do, but to see them in such a shocking color gives them a whole new lease on life."
Williams dipped into the extreme end of the spectrum to light the Monster tour; for this one, the LD immersed the system in unorthodox colors. "I really wanted to try and light the show using no white light at all and no sharp-edged fixtures," says the LD. "It probably wouldn't work for a lot of bands, but R.E.M.'s music has that mixture of big, dreamscape numbers and punk rock songs. Mike Mills, the bass player, was also partially responsible because he really hates playing under white light. So for all the TV shows, he was in hell. I tried lighting him in different colors, but he just looked like he had some kind of disease. Come the actual tour, it got me thinking that it would be very interesting to put together a whole system that never went quite white."
Not only did the LDs eschew white, they actually spent time looking for colors most artists would find abrasive. "We found some truly spectacular ones this time," Williams says. "One of our reasons for choosing the High End Studio Colors(R) was that Bruce found this color, Straw, that actually looked brown, lurking inside them. The color palette was pretty shocking, but it worked."
In addition to Straw, Ramus lists Barely Blue, Piss Yellow, Bastard Amber, and Lime Green among the designers' favorites. "They were all non-saturated, flat hues, but they worked," he says. "Partly because the band was mad for it and also Michael, the singer, looks great under any light. He can take any color, so that's a big bonus."
Because the rope light signs in the system gave off so much ambient light, the LDs worked with that feature rather than against it. "The Studio Colors became all the more appropriate because they put out a soft-edged beam and have some of the qualities of a PAR can with a lot more output," Williams says. "I knew I was going to have to use an automated fixture because the trusses are surrounded by the rope light, making everything highly visible. I didn't want the trusses to appear cluttered, so automated lighting kept the number of fixtures to a minimum."
The rear truss held eight Coemar 1200s. "The Coemar 1200s are ever so bright, but the unevenness of the field on the units we had was pretty horrible. They also varied greatly in color, but it ended up working out very well. Because nothing was going to be white, everything had to be gelled up," Williams explains. "For the audience blinders we used Lowel-Light Totas, and we had to use dichroics because ordinary gel would have incinerated instantly. We chose Lee 100, which is a really horrid yellow. Since the Totas have a long tungsten source, they produced this huge color shift within the dichroic. Weirdly, it matched the field on the Coemar 1200s. It was quite interesting and unusual. There was a very subtle mix of colors around one main color, which I really enjoyed seeing."
The two LDs also enjoyed running the show together. Ramus ran a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II console and Williams an Avolites Pearl. "The Pearl board was important because more and more I'm finding I like to put together a show visual which by and large ignores the structure of the songs," Williams says. "It's a brave stance because you need a band that understands it, but I don't like being a prisoner of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, chorus, chorus, blackout. An audience can certainly be taken a lot further than that. Of course, R.E.M. has an album called Out of Time, so we knew this was the right band to do it with. On this particular show I felt we could run the lighting in a way that had its own rhythm."
Many of the rope light songs were done on chases which often had hundreds of steps, although the looks were quite subtle. "Because the band played a different set every night, the same look didn't always go with the same song," Williams says. "It's actually more challenging getting cues to run out of sync than it is to be in time, because it's directly against what everything inside you says is right. Plus, to have six or seven different elements running in rope light and make them out of time with each other required building separate chases for each one.
"We also enjoyed making the segues and the chat looks part of the show," Williams continues. "If the show is running a look and the song finished, we would often just keep running the look, and ignore the fact that the song was over and just carry on. There are very few blackouts--I think we keptit to one per evening, which gave it enormous power. Bruce and I did have to plan them, though. We would get the set list about an hour before each show and then we'd talk more about the segues and the blackouts than the songs."
While not a greatest hits tour, the band did embrace its back catalog, which delighted audiences and kept the show fresh. However, it presented quite an initial challenge for the LDs. "We got a list of 64 songs to program and I had thought that if we programmed about 30 we'd be safe," Ramus says. "As we began, we decided to use the motifs more and more. Even one motif in a song was strong enough. Bizarre, true, but powerful enough to sustain a look. Then we realized that we didn't need to program all 64 because the looks we had were strong enough to transfer and generic enough to work. It doesn't really matter if the 15' banana was on for 'The Wake Up Bomb' or 'Pop Song 89'. People are going to wonder why it's there no matter what. We were really hoping that it would drive the die-hard fans crazy trying to figure it all out--why is there a washtub and what does it all mean?
"Obviously, I could have run the whole thing off the Wholehog, but in terms of fun for when Willie arrived on tour, we decided to use both desks," Ramus continues. "It was really great for programming because I concentrated on the moving lights while Willie constructed his 400-step motif chases and that made it easier on both of us. Plus, this was my first opportunity to run the Wholehog, so I had a bit of a learning curve to conquer there as well. I had a bit of a run-through with LD Vince Foster, and Nils [Thorjussen, of Flying Pig Systems] was on the other end of the phone many times, but it worked out well."
Overall, the only negative feedback about the tour was its short duration. "It was the perfect length for the band because it left them wanting to perform more, not less," Williams says. "I was very pleased. The absence of white light and sharp edges gave it a very dreamlike quality--everything was slightly blurred, so it does kind of put you in this dreamland, which is, of course, what R.E.M. is all about anyway. Then the rope light does all the work."
Production manager Roy Lamb
Tour manager Rex King
Lighting/production designer Willie Williams
Lighting director Bruce Ramus
Lighting crew chief Jeff New
Lighting technicians Mark Hitchcock, Don Lockridge, John Wyer
Rope light supplier Neo-Neon
Main lighting contractor Bandit Lites
Lighting equipment (1) Avolites Pearl console (1) Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II console (37) High End Systems Studio Colors (42) Lowel-Light 1kW Tota lights (10) Coemar CF 1200s (17) Anytronics Deathstar strobe lights (17) Police beacons (10) Custom red truck marker strips (4) PAR-64s (7) Half mirror balls (2) Lycian 1271 Starklite followspots (6) Reel EFX DF-50 hazers Neo-Neon custom shaped rope light