Live, with strings attached, Echo & The Bunnymen reimagine their greatest hits as they tour the UK with full production from Entec.

No doubt still smarting from Real Madrid’s defeat of his beloved football team in the Champions League Final, Ian ‘Mac’ McCulloch ambled across a smoke-filled stage at the Royal Albert Hall as the Merseyside band he has fronted for the best part of the last 40 years prepared to bring their latest UK tour to an elegant close. And a rather unusual tour it was.

Backstage at the world-famous Kensington Gore venue, the word ‘renaissance’ is being uttered in hushed tones. It’s been four years since the last studio release from Echo & The Bunnymen but, thanks to new global deal with BMG, October 5th will witness the unveiling of The Stars, The Oceans & The Moon, an album of “transformed and reinterpreted” versions of past glories including ‘Seven Seas’, ‘Bring On The Dancing Horses’ and ‘The Cutter’, recorded at Abbey Road with a full string section.

“It’s beautiful… a real laid-back affair that still has edge, only in a different way,” said production manager Adey Willson, who explained that the tour – featuring McCulloch’s fellow mainstay, guitarist Will Sargeant, alongside the Cairn String Quartet from Glasgow – was part of a plan to test this orchestral concept in front of live audiences.

Although it’s only six UK dates [in Edinburgh, Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, Gateshead and London], it’s a full production tour with two Brian Yeardley trucks carrying sound and lighting exclusively from Entec, and I’m delighted to say it’s been incredibly successful with all gigs sold out. Finishing at the Albert Hall is the perfect way of ending on a high.”

For Willson, whose co-conspirators included tour manager Ian ‘Heinz’ McCowliff, FOH engineer Robbie McGrath, monitor engineer/system technician Bertie Hunter and lighting designer Ronan Conway, the tour was an opportunity to reacquaint himself with the west London rental company he got to know in the early ’80s through working with The Police and Gillan.

“Apart from TV appearances on shows such as ‘The Tube’, I don’t believe Entec had previously worked with the Bunnymen,” he said, “but Robbie and Ronan were both very supportive of my wish to go with them. Certainly with regards to the Albert Hall and the company’s annual residencies here on the Teenage Cancer Trust shows, there is no better supplier. Their crew have been absolutely fantastic all the way through and we’ve had some good laughs on the tour bus.”

In 1984, soon after Gillan’s demise, Willson was on the hunt for work as a drum/keyboard tech, specifically with the Bunnymen, and turned to McGrath. “Robbie was already installed as their FOH engineer and as they were one of my favourite bands, I was hounding him to give me a gig. Instead of the Bunnymen, he hooked me up with Tears For Fears and that lasted for five years. It’s funny how Robbie’s ended up coming back to work with the Bunnymen and he finally got me into the camp as the PM this January. It’s a real privilege – this magnificent music and Mac’s familiar voice have been giving me goose bumps every night!”

FOH SOUND

After basic workouts at Parr Street Studios in Liverpool, the crew loaded into Edinburgh’s Usher Hall for two days of production rehearsals ahead of the first show. Leading the audio mission was Robbie McGrath, a FOH engineer who requires little introduction but, if asked nicely, might reveal that his early ’70s entry into the big bad biz through Celtic rock pioneers Horslips was followed by stints with The Boomtown Rats, AC/DC, Simply Red, The Rolling Stones, Kasabian, The Stone Roses, Spandau Ballet and, in the mid-’80s, the Bunnymen.

“I started with this band a couple of years after I left the Rats, and it was great fun when we were all still young and skinny, and wore combat jackets,” McGrath reminds us with a sigh before dragging himself back to the present.

“Once you bring strings on to a live stage amongst guitars and drums, you’re immediately in trouble,” said the Irishman, “but it’s only the usual problems like halls and environments that you’re dealing with – stuff that I’ve learned to cope with over many years. For the rest of the tour, we’ve had normal left and right hangs with infills [a total of 24 d&b audiotechnik J-Series cabinets and 12 J-SUBs], and that worked very well, but you have to pay a lot of attention to the Albert Hall, otherwise it’ll eat you.

“Fortunately, the J-Series has been tried, tested and perfected here by Entec, who have been tweaking the configuration of the system on the Teenage Cancer Trust gigs for years and got it down to a fine art. The J is great for firing down on the audience at a distance – it gets sweeter the further you are from it.”

At this final show, Entec’s sound crew – Bertie Hunter, Matt Grounds and Tom Olorenshaw – replicated the permutation used so successfully for the TCT season this March, with 16 J boxes flown per side {p.s.), 14 V-Series side hangs p.s., four V8 balcony fills p.s., a pair of Y10 front fills p.s., and eight J-SUBs flown as a central with a further six positioned under the stage. Powered by D80 amplifiers, the system benefitted from d&b’s ArrayProcessing software that, three years ago, was applied for the first time in a live situation by Entec in the same auditorium.

Jonny Clark, Entec’s head of sound, said: “Being a bigger affair all round than any of the preceding shows, with additional PA and increased pressure, Matt’s experience as a project manager and audio crew chief for several TCT seasons was extremely valuable, and he ensured that we had enough local crew to assist with load-in and set-up. The attention to detail on this show and, in fact, the whole tour was quite profound. Both Robbie and Adey came to see us a couple of times, and we spent a lot of time dealing with many aspects of the production. Getting to know each other properly was a big factor in everything working so well.”

“One of the reasons I like working with Entec is that they still talk about sound, which is the thing I love,” McGrath responded. “Jonny and I appear to be kindred spirits, and he really turned me on to their way of doing things. We talked about approaches to mixing, new products, moving the game forward, what digital brought to the table and what’s missed from analogue.

“I felt a great vibe and I started looking at Entec through a fresh pair of eyes. I mean, they’ve always been there but I now appreciate them much more for being ‘ground level’, especially at a time when all you seem to read about is the latest big corporate acquisition. They’re still interested in the gear and their explanations of what’s going on and how they do things make a lot of sense to me as a sound engineer.”

McGrath specified a DiGiCo SD7 for the tour, knowing he would be using it in conjunction with a Waves Soundgrid plug-in bundle as well as Waves Tracks Live recording software. He explained: “It took me a little time to get used to how Waves is integrated and working with an Avid desk was my learning ground. That spoiled me in a lot of ways because the interaction worked so quickly, but it’s working really well with the SD7. We filmed a show in Liverpool and we’re taking a lot of care over the soundtrack for that, so we’ve been multitracking everything through the Waves platform. It’s so easy to do that these days and it contrasts wildly with the massive hoops you had to go through to record a gig when I was new to this business!”

Entec also supplied a standard package of Sennheiser and Shure microphones, along with a few specials including a Shure KSM9 condenser for Mac’s lead vocal, Shure VP89 shotguns for ambient miking and, for the strings, a set of DPA d:vote 4099s. “I originally specified Schertler transducer mics for the string quartet because they have superb rejection, which was essential due to the amount of onstage level I was expecting,” stated McGrath.

“I didn’t realise that the guys would accept having their amps moved offstage, so that made me rethink the mic choice because they sounded quite dry and I needed more warmth. My alternative was the 4099, a beautiful little mic that I’ve used on saxophones and trombones with great success, and they’ve worked a treat on this.”

AT STAGE LEFT

McGrath’s “wing man” during rehearsals was Bertie Hunter, the system tech who later took over the role of monitor engineer. “Together, we successfully guided the band through the often-difficult transition to in-ear monitoring,” said McGrath. “I just said to Bertie, ‘You drive the board and I’ll do the politics’. The idea being that the band would tell me what they wanted – ‘there’s too much grief in the sound and not enough toothpaste’ – and I would translate that into tech-speak for Bertie.”

Not too long ago, the very idea of the Bunnymen moving to IEM would have been unthinkable, however, the evidence suggests they have willingly embraced the technology – in this instance a combination of Sennheiser and Shure hardware. Hunter commented: “Mac has a foot in both camps – he’s been using one earpiece with a pair of d&b M2 wedges. The rest of the stage is wedge-free apart from another M2 that’s paired with a Y-SUB for the drum fill. Just in case the band weren’t able to adapt to in-ears, we had 10 wedges reserved for back-up, but as soon as they heard the quality of the mix, those wedges were discarded.

Delighted with the band’s acceptance, McGrath noted: “The more you work with singers that use in-ears, the more you find yourself avoiding any sub-low spillage on stage. Unless it’s a heavy band that’s naturally swamped in sub-low, the singer doesn’t want to be hearing it at all and that’s why I’ve been happy to use the J-SUBs, which have cardioid dispersion. The cleaner it is onstage, the more intelligible the in-ear mix will be – it’s always been the rule.”

Including the string quartet inputs, the monitoring channels totalled 58 with Hunter delivering eight separate stereo mixes to the stage from his DiGiCo SD12 console. “The SD12 was definitely the right desk for the job,” he said, “not only for its compact size and its style of layout, but also the way the interface allows you to spin around the in-ear mixes so quickly.”

LIGHTING

Returning to the Bunnymen camp after a six year absence, LD Ronan Conway “fell in love” with the forthcoming album upon receiving an advance copy, and immediately set to work on a sensitive lighting design. “I’m a big fan of this album. Even some of the die-hard fans won’t recognise some of the songs in the way they’ve been rearranged. The new twists that weave their way into these numbers is a thing of beauty and, consequently, the styling of this live show is more ‘An Evening with the Bunnymen’ than a regular gig,” noted Conway.

Based in Ireland, Conway is accustomed to using a range of suppliers but this was his first time with Entec, who supplied Martin MAC Viper Profiles, Aura XB compact washes, ChromaQ Color Force 72 LED battens and PixelPar 44s, as well as all necessary rigging, motors, star cloths and drapes… and a trio of chandeliers.

Said Conway: “This was always going to be leaning towards a theatre-style design rather than rock’n’roll so it’s fairly static-looking compared to what the Bunnymen would normally do. These are seated gigs which is unusual for the band and the overall flavour of the presentation is somewhat determined by the slower tempos of the songs, the presence of the string quartet and, to a greater degree, the lead singer’s wishes. When I arrived on the scene, I met Ian for dinner to discuss the project and it became evident that he had his own vision – one of elegance and darkness. That was all very well but the kind of venues we were playing did call out for more, so I suggested bringing in the chandeliers and mirror balls, and the design began to slowly evolve from there.

“We added a grey gauze, some star cloth and moved the whole thing forward, while remaining open to the possibility that he might accept something one day and dismiss it the next. I would like to see some more movement but that’s probably my memory of the rock’n’roll tunes getting the better of me. That said, I did get a little movement into the design against what Ian wanted and I’m getting away with it so far! Every night has been different but I haven’t had any complaints.”

Driven by the theatrical approach, Conway ran the show from a High End Road Hog 4 with a Hedge Hog 4 hired as a spare. “Although you can achieve the same with other desks, Hogs have been my long-term preference. The idea was to lay it out really simply with very little movement and ensure that the rig could be accommodated at every venue.

“Until budget realities came into force, there were going to be 40 moving lights but the spec was pruned down to a more practical number, after all, there are only two of us and a few local crew putting this in. There’s nothing fancy going on here. All I’m doing is placing some kit around the stage and achieving some nice looks and scenes,” he said, modestly.

“The equipment from Entec has been phenomenal; we haven’t had an issue with a single thing,” added Conway, who was assisted by lighting technician Tom Crosbie. “Their package includes a decent amount of conventional lighting. We like silhouette effects, so there’s some floor lighting, 2-lite Moles, four bars of ACLs, and strobes make their presence felt near the beginning of the show. We make a feature of half a dozen Robe PATT 2013s in a line at the back, firing up and glowing with that retro tungsten vibe.”

Conway’s approach to building the dynamics of the show very much depended on the indomitable frontman, as he explained: “I have to keep an eye on what Ian’s doing and then react. He’s not a great fan of light being on him or coming through him – in fact, he doesn’t like seeing any fixtures outputting light at all – but it’s gratifying that he’s allowed me a little more free rein than I was expecting. I’m just poking some light in and getting some levels, and he seems to be OK with it. It’s dark and it’s very smoky, and it’s the music that’s really doing the talking.

“Obviously, the strings are influencing certain moments and those scenes have been a joy to light. They also brought in a baby grand for things like ‘The Killing Moon’, which is sounding extraordinary in its new ‘torch song’ form but, ultimately, it’s still about the Bunnymen. Am I happy with my end of the show? I’m never happy with anything but that’s just restless creativity! It’s always a work-in-progress with me.”

Forty years into their chequered career, the future is once again looking bright for Echo & The Bunnymen. It’s just as well Mac still wears shades.

www.bunnymen.com