"This image of 'the unforgettable fire' applied not only to the nuclear winterscape of 'A Sort of Homecoming,' but also the unforgettable fire of a man like Martin Luther King, or the consuming fire which is heroin."
The @U2 Interview: Willie Williams talks about The Joshua Tree Tour 2017
June 08, 2017
In an odd bit of scheduling, U2's Joshua Tree Tour 2017 just had a full week of downtime after only two weeks of shows. Some of the band's team went home to Europe, some stayed in the U.S. and enjoyed the break and some even worked a few other gigs.
What did Creative Director Willie Williams do? Among other things, he started answering our questions about the tour -- how it came together in just a matter of months, what the set list discussions were like and what technical tricks they're using this time out. And yes, what was the story behind the seven-day break.
"Scheduling is one of the few things that doesn't come through my in-tray, so I don't really know why we have had this early week off. It may be that somebody had a family commitment, or perhaps the knowledge that rehearsals are so knackering meant that we'd probably need a moment to regroup," he said via email from Chicago a few hours before the tour resumed on June 3. "It has been very welcome, though, and the mood was really good in Soldier Field [during rehearsal] last night."
By the time our email conversation ended several days later, Williams was on his way to Bonnaroo, skipping U2's show in Pittsburgh so he could get some extra on-site setup time before U2's first headlining performance at a U.S.-based festival. "I'm sure it's going to be a complete rugby scrum," he said about the show Friday night in the dirt and fields of Tennessee. "But part of me is rather looking forward to it."
We're looking forward to it, too. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Our conversation began as U2 was settled in Chicago, ready to restart The Joshua Tree Tour 2017 after an early week off.
Matt McGee: First, the online fan community will kill me slowly and painfully if I don't ask what happened to "A Sort Of Homecoming." Why has it been dropped these past three shows?
Willie Williams: As is the U2 way, we're still tweaking and futzing with the set. It's fair to say that this show settled remarkably quickly; the universally positive response has been a little overwhelming, to be honest. Consequently, we're tweaking from a position of strength rather than out of desperation, which always helps the party go with a swing. The internal debate about Act I has been whether keeping it short and high-energy helps to give the Joshua Tree section better liftoff, or whether having more air at the beginning of the show gives the evening a more satisfying structure. As has been noted, we have been playing with this but, rather inconveniently, a different group of people comes to see the show each night, plus climatic conditions change, so we're never really comparing like with like.
I realise that the question you really want me to answer is:
MM: Will we see it again? (The correct answer here is "yes.")
WW: Yes. There, I've said it.
[Ed. note: Sure enough, "A Sort Of Homecoming" was played two nights after this reply at the second Chicago concert. It was also on the printed setlist for the Pittsburgh concert, but the band decided to play "Bad" instead.]
MM: You've told me how on past tours, you'd start discussing ideas with the band a year or two in advance -- sometimes even longer. From what the band has said already, this tour came together late last year, so you didn't have as much lead time. How did that impact the creative process?
WW: When the idea first came up (around August 2016) it was accompanied by a myth that, because of the nature of the show, the staging could be very simple, which meant it would be achievable with a reduced lead time. Naturally, I didn't buy into the "simple" notion for a minute, but it helped me see that a huge part of the lead time of a regular tour is consumed by finding the idea. What's the show about? What should the canvas be? How will the new music sit with the old?
With this Joshua Tree tour, we began with the idea, so we knew for sure what at least half of the set would be. We also knew it would be performed in stadiums with the stage at one end, so at least we had a reference point to start from -- i.e., the '87 stage. It's actually been a huge "get out of jail free" card for me, because it lifted the burden of how to follow U2360 -- and how we could move back to one end of a stadium without it feeling like a retreat.
It was also obvious from day one that Anton should make the films for the Joshua Tree part of the show -- it's his aesthetic and he found the damn tree, after all. These two factors helped accelerate the process enormously. Plus, of course, we knew we had to get our arses in gear and get it done. I won't lie to you, it was pretty much pedal to the metal for six months but it never felt like we were sacrificing any of the usual creative process.
MM: Speaking of Anton's films, how did that come together? I mean, did you and the band just send him out with instructions to shoot a bunch of films, or were there specific requests for each song -- we want Morleigh swinging a lasso for "Trip Through Your Wires," we want Zabriskie Point for "With or Without You"?
WW: I had several meetings with Anton ahead of time to go through the parameters of the show. We really wanted to give him free rein but, of course, at the same time needed to make sure he was pointed in the right direction. The stance and mood is entirely his though; the pace of the films is what gave the rest of us the confidence to let the whole show have as much breathing space as it has.
MM: Settle an argument, please. Half of us think that's Morleigh also painting the barn during "Trip" and half of us think it's someone else who happens to look like her.
WW: It's two different people. Any resemblance is entirely coincidental.
MM: When you started planning the show, what was the big picture mission? What was the thing you said, "If the show does nothing else, it has to do this"?
WW: I started the same day I heard the idea and, as above, the bare bones of the show came together almost in the first conversation. We looked at the '87 stage and even wondered for a minute if a festival-style proscenium stage might be interesting to play with. It's so completely out of fashion that maybe U2 in the 21st century might be able to do something interesting with it. When it came to it though, the sight lines from a stage like that just don't work any more, at least not if anyone wants to see the drummer. So we took the spirit of that stage and ran from there. I do think you can see the '87 stage in what we're doing now.
Clearly the goal was to present The Joshua Tree in its entirety. There was never any internal discussion about breaking the album into chunks. However, it was equally clear that this was not going to be a nostalgic show -- no baby pictures or home movies. They also definitely wanted to include at least one brand new song. Quite how we thought we were going to be able to present a 30-year-old album and make it feel forward looking I'm not sure, but that was the unspoken goal and, weirdly, we sort of seem to have done it.
MM: Let's talk about the show itself. Tell me about the symbolism of having the band start out on the smaller stage with no visuals.
WW: As ever, having a sense of the set list is vital for me to know what the show is. Early on I presented about eight variations of how a show like this could run -- open with TJT, close with TJT, put it in the middle, make it chronological, make it thematic, etc., etc. And everybody picked the version that we're doing now. We felt that we really mined Boy and October on the last tour, so preceding the main event with songs from War and The Unforgettable Fire felt much fresher. We also all enjoyed the notion that U2 would open for U2 -- kick off by being the U2 that used to play mid-way through a festival bill and just kill it with no production at all, then switch on the big telly and present "the high mass of The Joshua Tree" as Gavin called it.
MM: What a great description. The last few tours had incredibly big and inventive screens, but this time the screen feels like you really want us to watch movies instead of the band. We don't even see them until "Bullet The Blue Sky." Is there a risk of upstaging the band -- that they're playing second-fiddle to these beautiful clips and this gorgeous screen?
WW: Clearly we made a decision that this needn't be as personality-led a show as we've done in the past; "Punk Floyd" I was calling it. It seemed like a unique opportunity to let go of some of the "rules" that we've developed about how U2 shows work and in that respect I've found it very refreshing. Given the relative sizes, of course the visuals upstage the performers for parts of the show but I honestly don't think the visuals ever upstage the music. The music will always be louder than the pictures.
The times when we felt that an imbalance was happening, we made sure to fix it. A good example is "Running to Stand Still." Anton made a film for this song which was present-day video portraits of the band members. It was extremely beautiful -- a really brave and "naked" piece -- but when it ran during rehearsal, the film was so engrossing that it became difficult to "hear" the music. "Running" is now the point in the show where we really meet the band for the first time, which I think is entirely appropriate.
MM: How on earth did you find that perfect video clip before "Exit"? There were a couple news articles about it during the election, but I don't recall it being well known that some 1950s TV show had a guy named Trump trying to save people by building a wall.
WW: Bono found it. I think it was doing the rounds during the election but there were remarkably few views on YouTube. It's entirely authentic -- the edit is ours, of course, but nothing is dubbed or faked. I love that it says everything and nothing. It really got us out of a jam, too, because it would have been ridiculous to do this show without any mention of The Current President but we didn't want to labour the point.
MM: Let me get technical for a bit. We've seen how incredible the screen looks when it's on -- and when it's off, it somehow looks like cardboard. Is it 4K or 8K? What else should we know about it?
WW: The films were shot in 8K and the screen works out to be about 7½ K; it is the size of three regular IMAX screens side by side. The combination of the scale and the resolution is what is unprecedented. I was amused to note that the screen is more or less that same size as PopMart, but it's 400 times the resolution. The 3D feeling is something I'd never seen before. Anton made us laugh -- he was pretty awestruck looking at it for the first time and said, "I have never seen my work like this before…" to which we replied "nobody has…!"
The screen is physically painted silver and gold. We went back and forth over the value of doing that rather than using a regular black screen and making the tree in video. However, it was clear that only doing it for real would produce the sleight of hand that we have; this great big plywood-looking billboard that wakes up and becomes the monster drive-in from Mars.
MM: And what other new technologies and tricks are you guys using? I'm curious, for example, why I don't see any lighting riggers -- or whatever they're called -- being lifted above the stage and screen like I've seen on past tours.
WW: How observant you are. I haven't said much about the technology on this tour because most of the real breakthroughs are invisible rather than showy. However, seeing how you brought it up....
There has been a lot of comment about how "pure" and "complete" the aesthetic feels. This is a lot to do with the fact that all of the speakers, lights and other roadie crap are cantilevered over the screen from behind and hang higher than the screen. The upshot is that there are none of the usual lighting and sound towers in front of the screen, giving a completely unobstructed view of the picture for much of the audience. As a comparison, take a look at the "Desert Trip" stage online. It's a similar-scale screen but the image is interrupted by a giant "bus shelter" that completely rains on its parade. [Ed. note: Desert Trip is a California music festival. Here's a good image from its website showing the stage.]
The absence of "lighting riggers" is due to our using a new kind of follow spot that I helped PRG (lighting supplier) develop. Since the '80s, there have been attempts to develop a spotlight that could be controlled from the ground, negating the need to hoist burly men in yellow T-shirts high into the air. Some of these have involved joystick controls or tracking devices attached to the performers, often resulting in moments of high comedy.
The PRG ground control has a dummy spotlight unit on the ground that speaks to the light in the air. There's a camera in the light and a screen on the control unit so the operator sees the PoV of the light, as if he was up there. The operator is using something that feels familiar and works the same way that a regular follow spot works, so the learning curve is gentle. U2 had the first two units on the I+E tour and, being deemed a success, full production commenced in force. I love them because it means you can have human-controlled spotlights in locations where you couldn't fit a human. You can also have a greater number of spotlights than operators, but I won't go into details as I imagine you're already nodding off by now. Suffice it to say that the design possibilities are enormous.
MM: Not nodding off at all! I'm glad to know why you're not lifting big men up in the air 20 minutes before showtime. But let me get back to the show. You mentioned earlier that there was never any talk about breaking the album up. In some interviews early this year, however, Edge wasn't 100% certain they'd play the entire album in sequence. What do you remember about the discussions on how to handle those 11 songs?
WW: I was certainly never party to a serious conversation about anything other than presenting the album in order. Frankly, from my point of view, if we can lock in half the set before we leave Dublin then I'm a very happy man. Methinks Mr. Edge might have been laying false scent there.
MM: Were there any discussions about how front-loaded the album is?
WW: There was a worry that there might be a lull during side two, but I pointed out over and over that these songs will not be unfamiliar to the bulk of the viewers. Like acting in Hamlet, the audience knows the lines better than half the cast. Naturally, there was a bit of head-scratching about how to present the side two songs -- Faithfully? Reimagined? Full band? Acoustic? -- but once they'd spent some time getting to know the songs again, they really embraced all of them.
MM: Our staffer Tim Neufeld made what I thought is a really smart observation and I wonder if you agree. On a typical U2 tour, he said, you guys have a narrative you want to tell and you get to choose the songs and song order to fit that narrative. But on this tour, it's the opposite: You already have the songs and the order and the challenge is to fit a narrative around them.
WW: It's always a dance between the two approaches, to be honest. With any tour, about two-thirds of the set comprises songs that have to be included (one-third being material from the new album & one-third being songs whose omission would incite rioting), so the storytelling has to encompass both of these aspects. The remainder has more of a free rein, which is always fun, but still has to work in the context of the entire set. It takes a lot of listening, both to the individual songs but also to what they seem to produce as a whole. This can often be quite surprising and, in any case, you never really know what you've got until you add an audience.
The coherence of this show has been the most satisfying part; that and the fact of The Joshua Tree feeling like it's their new album. Maybe a big part of the reason that this whole enterprise doesn't feel nostalgic is that it's simply a much better show than it was in 1987!
MM: When we talked during the I+E tour, you mentioned the audible gasp you could hear the first time Bono showed up inside the screen for "Cedarwood Road." From your current perch on this tour, can you hear it again in "Streets," when the screen transitions from the red and puts us in the middle of that lonely highway? In all three shows I saw, people around me pretty much lost it at that moment.
WW: Now that my team has really hit their stride, I can leave the mix position more frequently so I did "Pride" into "Streets" in the middle of the audience on the field at Chicago 2. I'll confess that I was taken aback by the feeling in the crowd; the one-two punch of the big light cue and the descent onto the road really did have grown men in tears. It seems to be a bit of a "crying" show, which must be to do with the kryptonite quality of the emotion-memory combo of the music.
I never take this for granted for a minute, but it struck me profoundly yet again what a great, great privilege it is to be part of something that makes so many people so happy.
(c) @U2, 2017.