"There's always room in rock 'n' roll for some stuff to start happening at a grassroots level, and the most interesting stuff seems to start there."
The Full Willie, Pt. 1
An exclusive interview with Willie Williams about 20 years with U2
June 12, 2002
It is May 2002, and Willie Williams finds himself in an odd place. U2's longtime lighting director-cum-tour designer suddenly has free time on his hands.
"I'm loving having a less pressurised existence for a while, not least to be able to answer e-mail and so on," Williams says. "It has been wonderfully cathartic to immerse myself in thinking about U2 for a while."
The reason Williams has been thinking about U2 lately is this: 2002 is his 20th year working with U2, and the award-winning designer has agreed to an exclusive interview with @U2 (conducted via email) to discuss the highs and lows of two decades with the biggest band in the world.
U2 has staked its reputation on live performances and no one is more responsible for U2's live image than Willie Williams. From the white flags of the War tour to the video screens of Zoo TV and PopMart, and most recently the heart-shaped stage of Elevation 2001, Williams' fingerprints are all over U2's live shows. He's been the point man for the creative, technical, and developmental aspects of the shows millions of fans have seen since he began with U2 in 1983. He's also responsible for the formation of Propaganda -- U2's official fan club and magazine -- which has been the band's direct link to its most ardent fans since 1986.
Fresh off his stint as lighting designer for the current West End musical We Will Rock You (based on the music of Queen, Williams describes the show as "somewhere between Zoo TV and the Rocky Horror Show"), Williams answered questions about tour ideas that didn't quite make the cut, hatching Zoo TV on the island of Tenerife, how history will vindicate PopMart, his favorite U2 shows, working with other artists, the neverending debate over U2's concert setlists and (of course) the world famous Tour Diaries.
20 years with U2. You seemed surprised when I approached you about doing this interview and talking about this upcoming anniversary. Does it not seem like it's been that long??
Like all things to do with time (and senility) some memories of the War tour feel as fresh as this morning but at the same time it feels like we've all lived ten lifetimes since that intrepid band of children set out to conquer America.
Let's go back to the beginning. Your first time out with U2 was the War tour which started in early '83. How did you come to join that tour and how familiar were you with the band?
I'd been "doing lights" for perhaps four or five years for a variety of bands at club and theatre level (including being on the very first headline tour by Duran Duran!). It was a very exciting time in post-punk England and I was always on the lookout for new bands. I heard about U2 from a promoter friend of mine who said he thought they were a band who would do well, so I kept my eye on them. It sounds completely absurd to say this now, but the first time I heard Boy -- the moment I heard the opening chords of track one, side one -- I knew with absolute certainty that whoever these people were, we belonged together.
Later that year (1981) I saw them play but didn't meet them for another year or so. I had heard that they were working on an album and so assumed they'd be touring. They didn't have an office or any kind of organisation then but I did get hold of Paul McGuinness' phone number so I rang him up from the pay phone in the hallway of my bed-sit to ask if they had a lighting guy or if he'd be at all interested in me sending them something. When he said "yes, actually we are looking for someone, it would be great if you could send us something" it was all I could do to not drop the phone.
What responsibilities did you have at that point? Clearly you weren't designing a huge multimedia production around a couple of white flags!
With most bands (at any level) by default the lighting designer tends to become responsible for all the visual content of the show. This is usually because s/he is probably the only one interested in that side of things, but for someone as mad keen as I am it does present opportunities. With U2 I was hired to look after the lighting but one thing leads to another...
From a design perspective, everything the band did in the '80s was so minimal compared to everything they've done since then. Even when the Joshua Tree tour played stadiums, there was -- relatively speaking -- nothing to it. It was all very static back then. Was that by design, part of the image the band wanted to portray? Were you itching to do something more spectacular at this point?
In the post-punk euphoria of the late '70s & early '80s any band worth their salt would have gagged at the notion that they were in show business. Real bands were about raw energy and "authenticity" leaving elaborate productions to dinosaurs like ELO or to manufactured boy bands.
The irony is that designing something ultra minimal is, in many ways, a far greater challenge than designing a spectacle. We used to agonise over how to play bigger and bigger venues whilst maintaining the club atmosphere and stripped down production value. Up to arena-size places (20,000 people indoors) I think we did incredibly well. They were electric shows with no gimmicks, carried purely by the relationship between U2 and their audience. When it came to stadiums (up to 70,000 outdoors) it probably came unraveled to some degree -- I recall doing Wembley Stadium in 1987 without even a backdrop, never mind video. The only saving grace would have been that most of our audience wouldn't have expected a great deal more at the time, but it is a little toe curling to think of it now.
Having said that, from the earliest days the seeds of what was to come were already present. The first year I knew him, Bono mentioned to me that at some future point in their career he could envisage wanting to do "Pink Floyd-size shows." We had talked about a stunt for the US Festival -- a modest event in California with an audience of 400,000 at which U2 were about 30th on the bill -- where we would launch an inflatable cruise missile over the crowd and then explode it. It escapes me now quite why we wanted to do this, but it serves to show that U2's minimal phase was due to intention rather than lack of imagination.
Before we leave the '80s, I have to ask: Why is "Streets" always red? How did that come about?
I honestly can't remember. It was probably Bono's idea -- an expressionist Blood Red Sky or something along those lines. Once established as an iconic visual element, though, it took on a life of its own and that moment has consistently been a high point in U2 shows ever since. It's fantastic how the audience respond to it, recognising the approach of "Streets" even before they hear the intro sequence. Finding new ways of creating that huge red scene is always one of the treats of designing a new show.
Can you ever picture a tour without "Streets"?
We talked about not doing "Streets" on PopMart, but I can't seriously imagine trying a show without it. In an odd way it has become the most indispensable song of all. Every other song we have done shows without at some time or other -- "Pride," "With or Without You," "One," "Bullet" -- but "Streets" is the gift that keeps on giving. The way it reinvents itself every tour is probably part of the magic -- we've never got bored with it.
Now about Zoo TV... I'll go to my grave believing that tour was the ultimate marriage of music, media and message. I've seen some reviews calling it the greatest stadium tour ever. Was it?
It certainly felt like it at the time, on every level imaginable. First and foremost because 12 months prior to this U2 had been written off by the critics in the post Rattle & Hum backlash. Secondly, the band had completely reinvented themselves and brought to the fore a side of themselves that most people had no idea existed. Thirdly, U2 had just released a jaw-droppingly great record and were having hit after hit. Fourthly, we had some really great ideas drawn from the spirit of that time and we were lucky enough to turn them into reality before anybody else did. Fifthly, surprise was on our side. Nobody expected this kind of behaviour from U2 and almost without exception people got it and embraced our effort wholeheartedly.
Behind the scenes, that tour must've been a complete mind-blower. Whose idea was it and how did the idea develop over time?
Some of the strongest elements of my collaboration with U2 stem from the fact that between tours I don't see them very often -- not least because of my living in San Francisco for many years. We keep in touch to some degree -- odd phone calls, Christmas cards, etc., but we certainly have very separate lives which allows us to explore new ideas independently of each other. Each time we regroup at the start of a new campaign it's like observing a child you haven't seen for a long time -- the changes are obvious in a way that they wouldn't be if you'd seen them every day.
Each time we regroup after an absence, I bring with me a whole agenda of my own in terms of things I want to do, developments that have happened since the last tour, new technology & new ideas. All of the members of U2 do the same -- not to mention that they'll be in the middle of making a new album -- so we inevitably begin the process with plenty of different concepts to toy with. It usually starts with an incredibly long phone call between Bono & I where he'll call to fill me in on the previous two years and tell me what he has in his head for the tour to come and vice versa. This stream of conscious dialogue is invariably the most revealing part of the whole process and no matter how many ideas we explore subsequently, the key principles are almost always unearthed at this early stage.
In the spring of 1991 Bono called me having just got home from U2's exile in Berlin. He asked me to come and join them in Tenerife where they were going to see the carnival. He told me they were making the most exciting album of their career and that it would demand a live show unlike any they'd done before. He had a phrase in his head -- "Zoo TV" -- which he felt was a key to something, oh, and an absurd pair of oversized sunglasses which he felt were important, too.
In Tenerife we talked for hours as Anton photographed the band on various beaches, in bars, dressing up in women's clothing, etc. They had also air freighted a small German car -- called a Trabant, I was informed -- to the island, so I knew something was up. I'd just done David Bowie's Sound & Vision tour which utilised film projection to fantastic effect and had some video content too -- mainly of the side-screen camera close-ups variety. It was the first time I had toured with a full scale video package and it was very clear to me that there was potential to take rock show video to a level as yet undreamed of.
My goal was to create a giant video installation that was part of the physical staging -- to use cameras as props, use television images, static interference, all the mad stuff you can imagine. A couple of days later it was Bono who came back with the final piece of the puzzle. He said we should put out a press release saying that U2 were taking a TV station on tour. We should not only bring live satellite images into the stage screens but also send out live broadcasts from every show -- to individual homes, to space stations, TV channels, you name it. One thing I have noticed about good ideas is that they get bigger by themselves. Once Zoo TV was up and running the ideas just kept coming -- everybody had ideas and for once we found ourselves able to put them into practice. More and more video sequences were made, the legendary "Video Confessional" appeared, the on-stage telephone call became a daily feature, the stage got bigger & bigger and so did the venues.
Frankly we were giddy with the success & excitement of it all and in the most glorious way the whole thing spiraled out of control. The tour riggers took charge of the party calendar and would mount incredible spectacles of their own; there were enough crew to spawn at least five 11-a-side football teams; the band decided they were having such a good time that they'd record another album right there & then; and we did daily live link-ups to the war in Sarajevo. The tour was extended to nearly two years duration and everyone but everyone in the music industry knew that this was the only place to be.
You mentioned working with David Bowie. So you're working with him and a new idea comes up...what if your next gig would've been an R.E.M. tour, for example, instead of U2? I guess what I'm getting at is -- when you work regularly with more than one band, as you have, how do you decide which Big Idea should be shared/used with which band? Has that ever been a dilemma?
Mercifully most of the big ideas aren't transferable (Travis never expressed a desire to climb out of a giant lemon, for example), but I'm forever in a situation where an artist will suggest doing something that either I've done before, or someone else has done, or I'm about to do. Diplomacy is no small part of my job description! It's simply that we live in the same world, are exposed to similar influences and to a great extent find ourselves drawing from the same well. For some reason every band in the world goes through a phase where they want to perform in front of big red velvet drapes, usually with a chandelier hanging about. Looking for new directions, new influences & generally avoiding the crowd is very, very important.