Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Daniel Kohn introduces us to Seven Design Works, the people behind many of your favorite concert tours.
Concertgoers rightfully focus on the talent onstage. Even as a concert reviewer, it is easy to overlook one of the most important aspects of a live set: the actual light and stage show. Often the only time you do remember the stage show is either when something so over-the-top happens that it leaves your jaw gaping or when there’s a mistake so egregious you have no choice but to notice.
Formed in 2012 in Los Angeles, Seven Design Works has played an instrumental role in shaping the live shows of some of the biggest names in music. The team of LeRoy Bennett, Cory FitzGerald, and Tobias G. Rylander handles stage production, which includes the lighting, staging, and visual aspects of a show. The trio has tackled everything from club tours to the Super Bowl halftime show. In their combined 50 years of experience, they’ve produced shows for the likes of Madonna, Lady Gaga, Nine Inch Nails, and Paul McCartney.
“It’s all about how much the crowd enjoys what you’ve done, even though they’ll never know your name,” FitzGerald says.
FitzGerald and Rylander may be junior members compared to Bennett, who got his start working with Prince in 1980, but they’re by no means amateurs. As we spoke at length about their experiences, they explained the ins and outs of putting together live shows, which vary from artist to artist, project to project. The ones mentioned below are among their favorites.
Since you started working with Bruno Mars in 2011, how has his live show evolved from a visual standpoint? What’s his role in helping you shape that aspect?
Cory FitzGerald (CF): He’s always been involved and interested in all aspects of his performance. [He] had a show and a pattern before I was involved, and when I came in, I helped put a visual element to that. It’s definitely grown with his increased popularity; there’s been a lot more development in the show with what we can do and what he wants to do. It’s still a rock ‘n’ roll band, and we try to keep it focused on the music as much as possible. It’s really about him and his band performing on stage and keeping that interesting.
What’s been the biggest change you’ve seen from him over the years?
CF: There hasn’t been a dramatic change. Instead, it’s been appropriately building up. It’s been great to look backwards and see how we held ourselves to a high standard. Looking back, we see how we’ve grown with what we expect and anticipate. It’s a testament to the work we put in and time we spent.
Were you involved in the Super Bowl XLVIII halftime show?
CF: We worked on it, but Roy was more involved in the hands-on, day-to-day aspect, because he had more experience with the Super Bowl. But we met with their team and worked with Bruno to help come up with the ideas and staging, transforming some of the stuff they had brought to the table and he was comfortable with. He’s very hands-on and wants to be involved in everything. He’s very communicative when it comes to his visual medium.
Does he gives you a framework for what to do, or do you go to him with a concept?
CF: It’s a little back-and-forth. There’s no real formula for it. He’ll say, “I want to do this song at this venue, and I want it to feel like this,” and you work with that. Or he’ll come in with a photo and say that he loves this reference and ask how can we achieve this vibe. Sometimes I’ll listen to the album and draw a bunch of different things and spitball some ideas, and that’s how it will come about. Other times we’ll watch a bunch of different clips together to get an idea. Everything is more organic than it probably sounds, but it still evolves as it should.
On the Run Tour (Jay Z and Beyoncé)
How did you get involved with Jay Z and Beyoncé?
CF: We’ve been involved with the Beyoncé live shows since 2012. For On the Run, combining her with Jay Z was a big thing, and a stadium show was a big deal. We had the experience and knew what she was looking for. I’ve seen his shows and know people who have been involved with him. It was really about melding the two worlds, which were different at the time, but they came to the table with the idea of it being about a movie and a single piece with an art installation that was geometric and a lot of really specific looks. It was a great experience. They’re incredible performers to work with, and we had a very short amount of time to get it done, so that added to the heightened sense of “hurry up and make it look fantastic.”
For something under a time crunch like this, how much extra work does that entail?
CF: I took about a week or so of preparation that we call pre-visualization, where we build the show and the rig inside of a computer dish model, and we can control it that way and pre-see what we’re looking to see in real life to get some work done ahead of time. I think we had 16 days of on-site rehearsals to get the show done from the time we started to the time of the first show. We had a lot of work done from the Mrs. Carter world tour and knew what we had to get done and took advantage of everything we had to do to get it done in time. I stayed out on the road with it for about six weeks and 21 shows. We continually made changes, tweaking stuff, making it look better. They made song adjustments — he added a song, she added a remix — throughout the whole run, but by the third show, it was pretty much locked in, and we were all happy with it.
What are some of the challenges with producing a stadium show?
CF: Everything being outside and dealing with an outdoor space with weight limits for what you want to do with the show. You’re also dealing with weather — not to harp on the outside part, but you’re dealing with the scale and the environment. We really only had rain for two of the shows, but there’s wind and we’re trying to do smoke and fog effects during the show, which are already hard to do outside. A lot of stuff is tough because the rehearsals are done inside. And obviously the scale of doing things for 60-90,000 people — you have to keep in mind the way you light things. We choreographed all the camera moves and the camera cuts, which were all part of the rehearsal. It was definitely an experience on a much larger scale than normal.
When did you start working with Miike Snow?
Tobias G. Rylander (TR): I met them when I was working with Lykke Li, who was the support act. Just for fun, I started running lights for them as well, since I became good friends with them. From there on, I designed everything they’ve done, basically, and been on tour with them since.
How has their live show evolved over the years?
TR: They’re very innovative both musically and visually. I’ve always loved doing lights for them. On the last tour, we built and I designed the main instrument that they played on stage where everything was with the light show. They had buttons and filters to control the lights.
How involved are they in working with you in designing their show?
TR: For that piece, we designed it together. I drew and they let me know what I needed to do to make it how they wanted it to look like.
What’s the difference between their headlining shows and their festival shows?
TR: I always try to design in a way that the show has its own expression, and it should always be scalable to both and be a good show. I want it to feel impactful and interesting whether it’s a small club show or a headlining stage.
How did you first get involved working with The xx?
TR: I was introduced to them after they saw Fever Ray. They saw that show and liked it and contacted me asking to meet. And we liked each other and started working together.
What makes theirs different from some of the other shows you’ve designed?
TR: They’re so ambitious, in a good way. They constantly want to make something different, and they really want their shows to be a gift to their fans. It’s very important to them. They’re very creative and artistic in the way they do things, which I appreciate.
Does that make things challenging from your perspective? Do you match what they’d want, or do they lay out an idea and you can mock up something and get back to them?
TR: It’s challenging in the way that it has to be perfect. It has to be of a certain artistic quality and has to be very, very high. But it’s easily one of my favorite projects. The New York show was one of the projects I’ve enjoyed the most.
TR: Because of the room and the way the show was produced. It was as much an art piece as a show, which made it so unique. It was interesting not having to design for touring, but for a specific stage. It’s very different, and I really enjoyed that.
Have The Strokes’ past few tours been different from one another?
TR: The last thing they did was to go very retro. They’re very specific, with no front lights on.
How involved are they in helping design their show?
TR: I go to them with ideas, and if they like them, they let me go do it. I’d be with them through the first rehearsal, and I would complete it in the rehearsal studio with them. That way they can actually see if they like the look.
Photo by Philip Cosores
Do you have to program a different show for each type of set they do?
TR: I program a different look per song, but always where I could change something where it goes along with the setlist in the sense that it’s easy for me to know the songs as well as they do.
How is this type of show different from that of a rock band or traditional pop musician?
CF: I was brought in by the Production Club, which is a group that has worked with [Skrillex] for a while. Sonny [Moore, aka Skrillex] has very specific ideas, and they work with him very well. They worked with him to come up with the idea for the spaceship, and I added an element of lighting. They ended up creating a show based around the performance at Coachella. We worked on that and built it into a tourable show from a rock ‘n’ roll perspective with the same stuff, which is not something the DJs normally do. The main difference between a rock band and him was the amazing amount of music that could be played in any given order at any given time based on the room and vibe of the crowd. For me, creating a show that could organically flow from one song to another took some time to engineer, but I think it came out really well. We came up with a system that works for us, and I think it looks really good.
Photo by Philip Cosores
Did you have to generalize some of the concepts to fit a changeable set?
CF: You build a variety of different looks. The way the console is set up in the architecture of the show file is that you build the ability to flow from one idea to another. Our operator, Davey Martinez, is amazing and knows the music so well and can anticipate where he’s going to go next. We built the show in a way that it’s very musically based in the sense that it controls lights instead of sound. The lights represent the sound, and they’re timed in a similar way. For us, our philosophy is to make what you hear what you see. If you’re trying to feel something emotionally, you want to be able to see something that correlates with that.
With a DJ like Skrillex, does the lighting help set a crowd’s mood?
CF: Yeah, that’s the job. You try to represent what a feeling is and you guide the crowd towards the same conclusion.
Daniel Kohn is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. His work can be seen in LA Weekly, OC Weekly, FILTER, Vice, and more. You can follow him on Twitter.