We're fools whether we dance or not, so we may as well dance – Japanese proverb
Most of us have been to a performance of some sort or other, whether that be a play at the theatre, or a weekend-long festival in a muddy field. And if you've ever taken part in a show, you'll know that there's a mammoth amount of work that goes on behind the scenes. I caught up with my busy son in the week of his 18th birthday, and asked him to tell me about his work as a member of the local crew which assists the roadies for major touring bands.
What goes on so that the show can go on
"The main areas that have to be organised are the stage itself, sound, lighting and other visuals such as videos, and sometimes catering too. When bands are on tour, they bring all of this with them in trucks, and the number of trucks is an indication of how big a gig it is, and consequently, how many of us there would need to be! Last night I was doing the Manic Street Preachers at the Ulster Hall, which was fairly small and they only had two trucks. The largest gig I've done was Whitesnake and Def Leppard at the Odyssey, and they had 56 trucks! That included all their own stage, as well as instruments, lighting and such. We had about 40 or 50 local crew assisting with the load-in and load-out. And since load-outs start straight after the band comes off stage at about 11 pm, it's a late finish for us. There's a lot of heavy lifting too, so it's important to wear proper safety boots. I do get annoyed with hard hats though, cos they keep falling off my head when I look up, but there's an awful lot of heavy equipment up in the air, so hats are an important part of our gear.
The digital age has brought some changes to our work: digital sound desks, as well as being much smaller than analogue ones, can keep the settings from a previous gig, so that sound checks can be quite short since all the levers and switches are already roughly in position, and just need a bit of final tweaking. But some bands like to take longer on their sound checks – I've heard that The Killers wrote most of their latest album during sound checks for their last tour! The "flown" speakers – the ones that seem to be hanging in mid-air – are the ones that need the most adjustment to get the angle just right. They're sometimes called banana speakers, as they are hanging on a banana shaped frame, and you need to make sure you wire them BEFORE they get raised into the air..."
I asked him about the other perks of being a sound engineer, aside from being among the first to hear a band's new material.
"Well, I'd like to be able to go on tour and see a bit of the world while doing what I love, but then touring is tough cos I miss home so much. My favourite gig that I've done was probably Nickelback, because I got to sit next to the monitor engineer. He or she controls what the band can hear on the stage, while the front of house monitor controls what the audience hears. It's easier for the band just to signal over to someone at the side of the stage to adjust what's going through their monitors, than to try to get the attention of someone half way down the hall.
I like to keep my access all areas passes as a souvenir collection, but it's usually forbidden to take many photos. Many bands have their shows copyrighted, and anyway flash photography is very distracting during a show, and definitely not allowed!
Multi-core cables save a lot of space, and can take the feed from all the mikes and instruments plus effects down one teeny tiny cable, and then through a splitter at the other end. This kind of cable is very expensive, and if it's an outdoor gig then you need hundreds of metres of it. The very latest cables are fibre optic, but we often run a back-up cable as well made from the older thicker material."
Finally, I asked him what his next assignment was.
"Well on Friday morning we leave Belfast at 5 am to go to Dublin to set up for the Take That concert in Croke Park, which is on the Saturday night. I pretty sure there'll be a whole fleet of trucks to unload for that one!"