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Interview: Willie Williams Talks Secrets, Pairs of Shows & the #U2ieTour Narrative

As U2 heads to Europe, we trade emails with Willie Williams, Creative Director of U2's Innocence + Experience tour.

U2 performs in Vancouver

U2 is just days away from taking the stage in Turin, Italy, to begin the second leg of the Innocence + Experience tour. The online fan community is especially anxious to see what U2 has in store as it embarks on what's currently scheduled as a 34-concert run through 10 cities. Can we expect changes in the band's set list? What about the production itself? Questions like those -- and lots of speculation -- are flowing freely in forums and on social media (not to mention in several of our recent podcasts).

Few people know better what's going to happen Friday night and beyond than Willie Williams, U2's longtime tour collaborator and officially the Creative Director for the I+E tour. As he's done a couple times over the years, Williams agreed to answer a few questions for @U2 via email.

While getting ready for our questions, Williams says he paid a quick visit to the @U2 forum to see what fans were discussing about the tour. "I'm normally too frightened to look in and besides it's never very helpful for me," he says. "It's a bit like reading the Bible in that, if you collate random selections you can pretty much come to any conclusion you like."

We sent Williams a bunch of questions for this Q&A, some of which he said he couldn't answer, some of which he didn't know the answer to, and others that were, in his words, "interesting for me to think about."

It's from that last group that we present @U2's interview with Willie Williams as the #U2ieTour heads to Europe.

Matt McGee: We just published a story on @U2 recounting some of our crew's favorite moments from the first leg. Mine was in Phoenix when that guy got up to play "In God's Country" and went crazy hugging the band and jumping all over the e-stage. What's your favorite single moment so far?

Willie Williams: David Harrington, the musical director of Kronos Quartet, once said that he loved premiering a new piece of work because up until the moment of performance, it's like a secret. Only the composer and players are part of that secret and then one day you have the chance to reveal your hand. Clearly Kronos aren't used to having members of their audience record their rehearsals from fire escapes and post them on the Internet, but the spirit of what David says is true for U2 also.

Even if this time around the sonic rehearsal elements were leaking out of the building, we still had the satisfaction of knowing that we could at least keep the big visual ideas under wraps. Opening night is always a thrill and I love to observe the audience as they experience something unexpected. On opening night, when the lights came up on Bono walking down Cedarwood Road there was an audible gasp from the audience -- audible even over the music. It'll be tough to top that moment.

MM: You mentioned the challenge of keeping things under wraps. Fans and fan sites, including ours, were reporting what happened during the first tour rehearsals in Vancouver. Then as the tour went along, if the band soundchecked a new song in the afternoon, the news spread online immediately. How do you feel about stuff like that?

WW: I guess secrets died out with the 20th century. The situation was actually worse on [the] 360 [tour], because any of the new material being soundchecked on stage was essentially being released. I remember sitting with Luke Halls (video creative) watching a Twitter stream as the guys soundchecked "Scarlet" for the first time. You could feel the heads exploding outside, it was hilarious.

In truth, I really hate the fact that everything in performance is now so public, but that's the way life is. Frankly, if you want to open the presents early and spoil the surprise on Christmas morning, then don't complain to me about it afterwards.

MM: A couple months ago, you told Live Design magazine that the original plan to do pairs of shows with different setlists "wasn't really viable." Can you go into more depth on that topic for our readers?

WW: My overriding emotion about the two-show thing was the thrill of realizing that we absolutely could have done it. However, reality began to dawn with the fact of the vast majority of the audience only seeing one of the shows. Did we really want to produce something as extraordinary as the "Iris"-to-"End-of-the-World" sequence and then have 50 percent of our patrons not see it?

For those who remember vinyl, there's an analogy that there are many great double albums that, with some judicious editing, could have been truly brilliant single albums. I still occasionally look at the two-night set lists and think what fun it might have been for us on the tour, but I'm 100 percent confident that we made the right decision for the audience.

MM: You and the band have talked about the video screen being a kind of dividing wall that cuts the crowd into two sides. You're dropping pages of classic literature on the audience, and I bet you won't be surprised to learn that fans online are tracking everything that falls on us. Do you think the audience is getting the drift of all this, or is it proving to be a bit too cerebral?

WW: Regarding the Divider, the Berlin Wall, the books, the elements on "Cedarwood Road," etc., none of these is crucial to enjoying the show, but all have given us a depth of understanding about what we're doing. The narrative has been extremely helpful in putting the show together; it's far easier to figure out what does or doesn't work when you have a strong sense of an overall context.

I'm also aware, of course, that for the punters who want to dig into the relevance of everything, this is an absolute field day and I encourage them to do so. The level of scrutiny thus far has been approaching the forensic -- I particularly enjoyed the inference from someone at @U2 that the descent of the mirrorballs is a visual metaphor for puberty. [Ed. note: Sherry Lawrence made that reference in an early conversation with U2's tour crew.]

We tend not to over-explain the ideas in the show partly to leave room for personal interpretation on the part of the viewer but also because we simply might not quite understand them ourselves yet. With U2, and indeed generally with show design, it's a encouraging sign that you're onto a cohesive overall concept when some show ideas seem to arrive purely via instinct and it's only after the fact that you understand their "symbolism," if you like.

A good example here is the "Mother & Child" sequence. Having had an hour or two "out in the world" with its glossy, real-life chaos, we peak with the fluorescent "incidental crosses." Following this, "Mother & Child Reunion" very obviously implies a rebirth, reinforced by returning to the naive Oliver Jeffers drawing style, to echo the mother and child of "Iris," now seen through the other end of the telescope. It's one of the clearest parts of the narrative but I swear that getting there wasn't an intellectual process at all. The ideas came along separately and it was only in putting them together I smiled and thought, "Well, look at that...."

MM: The intermission video has changed a few times -- why was the punk rock collage dropped after the first two shows, and then what prompted the addition of "The Fly" later in the tour?

WW: We always intended the intermission to be a bit of a moveable feast. There are still at least two more intermission pieces that we haven't shown yet, with ideas for more beyond that. The only trouble is that I'm currently so in love with "The Fly" that I can't imagine ever not wanting to show it.

MM: At a couple of the early shows, I saw you down on the GA floor during the band's first set and even into the beginning of the second set, standing maybe 15 feet away from the video screen with fans on all sides of you. What are you hoping to see or hear when you do that?

WW: I'm simply there to experience it -- or more to the point to experience it communally. On opening night I was up at tech control, just in case anyone's mind went blank, but from show two onwards I've tried to get around the building. It's remarkably good from almost everywhere but I love how visceral it is on the GA floor. It was wonderful to witness the crowd at the centre of the walkway barricade simply not knowing what to do when the screen landed at the end of "Raised by Wolves" -- "should I stay or should I go?"

By now, of course, the word is out and the crowd actually starts to move in anticipation of what's coming up in a song or two's time but, hey, see comments above about Christmas morning.

MM: How'd the idea for the Meerkat segment come about, and are you happy with how that's worked out -- even with the occasional technical hiccup? And on a related note, how do you feel about the audience's use of Meerkat, Periscope and other tools to stream shows as they're happening?

WW: We liked the echo of Zoo TV's "BonoCam." The "film me" narcissism of ZooTV has become the default state of the Western world so it seemed the perfect time to revisit the idea. The technical hiccups are the best bit because, as with ZooTV, when it goes wrong the audience understands that it isn't being faked.

I don't think anyone's worried about punters streaming the shows -- that ship has long sailed. The only thing I would say is that watching the show via your phone is one thing, but when the performer comes to play to you at the barricade and you turn your back to get a selfie, that borders on rudeness.

MM: Some elements of the show are really U.S.-centric, like Bono's mentions of Ferguson and Baltimore, and when he sings "The Hands That Built America." Is it safe to assume stuff like that will be dropped for the next leg?

WW: Christmas morning, etc., etc.

The second leg of U2's Innocence + Experience tour begins Friday (September 4) at the Palasport Olimpico in Turin, Italy.

(c) @U2, 2015.