BEHIND THE HUMANZ EXPERIENCE WITH JOEL STANLEY

 

Since its first show with Blur in the early ’90s, west London-based Entec Sound & Light has sustained a loyal and fruitful partnership not only with the band but also the numerous live projects by front man Damon Albarn, from The Good, The Bad & The Queen to his solo live band The Heavy Seas and the world’s most successful virtual act, Gorillaz.

The brainchild of Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett, Gorillaz are now in their 20th year and, following the April release of their fifth album, Humanz, they are currently in the midst of a highly celebrated world tour with Entec providing a comprehensive audio package.

The man leading the circus from continent to continent is production manager Joel Stanley, a 32 year old ex-professional drummer who rose from behind his kit to set a new career tempo for himself on the other side of the stage curtain for an impressive roster of acts including Bastille, Kanye West, Major Lazer, Iggy Azalea, Kygo and Darren Hayes.

“Some people in my position start off as riggers, lighting techs or sound guys, but being a session drummer [for the likes of Sarah-Jane Morris, Tony Iommi and Foals] gave me the advantage of seeing touring from that side of the stage,” he says. “My last pro gig was 10 years ago when I played on Damon Albarn’s stage musical, ‘Monkey: Journey To The West’. A drummer in the modern world has a certain shelf life and the enjoyment was wearing thin. Through meeting Damon’s tour manager Craig Duffy and several members of his crew, I started to get a feel for what they did.

“When Blur came together in 2009 after a long break, I assisted Craig and their production manager Steve ‘Pud’ Jones. Other than some bits and pieces I’d previously done, like driving, being a runner, and doing some minor tour managing and backline work, this was my first serious break and it was a fantastic experience. I soon realised that production was not only my forte, it was what I enjoyed the most.”

Humanz is Stanley’s first tour with Gorillaz but he might have gained an earlier start if not for a kidney transplant in 2010. “Timing is everything!” he jokes. “That spell in hospital kept me away from the Plastic Beach tour so it’s brilliant to finally be involved this time around because the way they’ve evolved has been fascinating. They began as a virtual concept and have done shows with holograms; they’ve appeared as silhouettes, playing behind a screen, and been fairly hidden. Since that last tour, however, Gorillaz have become more of a band with Jamie’s artwork and the characters on-screen.”

Audiences are witnessing the considerable fruits of the long-running creative bond between Albarn and Hewlett, who discarded the previously favoured but prohibitively expensive idea of taking holograms on the road to form a joint venture with Gideon Berger and Stephen Gallagher, a.k.a. Block9, who specialise in radical set and environment design.

Says Stanley: “Block9 were hired by Eleven Management to get Jamie’s ideas and artwork into the live setting, whether that’s on the screen, as a set piece or using cameras. So between Damon, Jamie, Block9 and myself, we created the show we now have: a band with a big riser, a big upstage screen and a pair of I-Mag screens. The thing that makes Gorillaz so unique is that on any one show, they’ll have a set of 27 songs and for each of them they may have a different guest singer, rapper or musician, from De La Soul and Kelela to the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and Carly Simon.”

As tours go, Humanz had an auspicious introduction, with a pre-album release showcase on March 24th at south London’s Printworks where the special guests included Noel Gallagher, Savages singer Jehnny Beth, electronic music pioneer Jean Michel Jarre and Albarn’s Blur colleague Graham Coxon. According to Stanley, it came at a time when the show design was still a work in progress. “It was really a preview of the tour, which was then another three months away,” he says, “but the reaction was seriously encouraging.”

He continued: “From January, right the way through, Damon was very involved and attended weekly meetings, looking at different concepts and evolving the show design. He has a level of attention and commitment I’ve never really seen with any other bands I’ve worked with. Together with Matt Pitman, the LD I hired, we were looking at live WYSIWYG renderings of how the lighting, video and staging would look for each song. That was really interesting for me. Jamie, meanwhile, was in the studio working on all the crucial animation, the music videos and the Humanz album artwork. For a while there, it was real hive of activity.”

LOGISTICS & SYSTEMS

Freight specialist Global Motion has been ensuring the safe delivery of Gorillaz’ key equipment – the audio consoles, stage wedges, in-ear monitors, radio microphones and line systems supplied by Entec, along with lighting and video control, and backline – from the UK to North America and South-East Asia.

“We’ve had a couple of last minute moves because the schedule kept changing especially when, at three days’ notice, we added three promo dates in New York, but it’s all gone smoothly,” reports Stanley, “We have some big moves coming up: after another North American leg, we return to Europe for five weeks and end the year in South America. Throughout all of this, we’ve managed to cover everything by touring a universal package, while the rest gets picked up locally.”

A particular favourite of FOH engineer Matt Butcher, d&b audiotechnik’s ‘ArrayProcessed’ J-Series is the chosen line array system for the tour, with Entec supplying it exclusively in the UK and Europe, while Colorado-based Brown Note Productions covers requirements in America. “What we have is a very complex and demanding audio set-up for a rock’n’roll show,” said Stanley, with some satisfaction. “We have over 400 lines running up and down the Optocore loop, which is everything from wedges, sidefills and in-ears, to radio mics and 128 channels of playback, and it’s a 13-piece band with a lot of guest vocalists.

“This is one of the first tours to benefit from a new piece of audio format conversion equipment from DiGiCo called the Orange Box. It’s an ‘anything in, anything out’ solution that takes all of the playback channels in BNC format and outputs them as Optocore, enabling them to be shared amongst all the consoles via the Opto-loop. Before we even built the playback rig, our monitor engineer Dave Guerin was talking about this great, new product and we were on a Skype call with DiGiCo and our MIDI and playback techs, after which Entec purchased it for us to have on the tour.

“Ironically, we don’t have a record split on this rig. The only way we’d ever be able to do a festival audio stream would be to either provide five feeds of MADI or, preferably, have Matt Butcher send them a left/right mix from FOH. We’ve actually done both this year but with Matt being such an incredible live, studio and post-mix engineer, that would always be our go-to solution.”

Butcher and Guerin are each presiding over a DiGiCo SD7 console, the latter being an Entec purchase specifically for the tour. Due to the myriad audio demands of the production, however, Guerin also uses an SD11iB, the broadcast version of DiGiCo’s smallest console. Having managed the rare feat of “maxing out” his SD7 by using all of the audio paths available within the Opto-loop, Guerin needed to create additional space to cope with the playback aspects of the show and the crew’s shout systems, while also allowing him the freedom to do line checks during festival changeovers.

DECIDING FACTORS

Stanley now operates his business under the carefully chosen name of Production Value, as he explains: “Not only do I want audiences to go away from a show thinking that they just saw a tremendous production, I also want artists and their managers to believe that they get what they pay for when they hire my services. As much as I want to make a good living from what I love doing, I’m not driven by money – above all, I’m here to work with good people and be transparent in all of my activities.”

The Humanz touring crew includes several members who share years of experience as part of the Albarn/Blur camp, although as Stanley points out, there is always room for a few new faces. “When this tour came about, I’d just done three years with Bastille so I hand-picked some people from that crew, half of whom went on to Major Lazer, another act I work with, and the others joined Gorillaz. I need to know that, regardless of the venues I walk into or the vendors I inherit or choose, my right-hand men and women will understand my working ethos and attention to detail. Of course, with Entec having been involved in Damon’s career for so long, I knew they would provide crew [system tech James ‘Kedge’ Kerridge and, for the London launch, RF tech Peter Eltringham], but it’s also very important to me to have my own core team.”

When it comes to choosing production suppliers, Stanley will usually focus on price as a judgment tool, but it is certainly not the only factor. “Reputation is a big yardstick,” he says. “Whether it’s a company that’s new or familiar to me, I need to gauge how their operation is perceived by others. But one of the most important qualities is how they handle themselves when things go wrong, such as some gear breaking down or not making it to a venue. You need to know that the supplier you’ve chosen is able to resolve the issue calmly and professionally when the shit hits the fan, regardless of where you are in the world. That’s the real litmus test.

“Working with Entec has been really good. The last time I worked with them was on Blur when Dick Hayes was still heading the sound department, and it’s a pleasure to be dealing with Jonny Clark, his successor. No request has been too big for Jonny; nothing has ever been a problem. Whenever we have identified a piece of equipment that we desperately need, Entec has ensured that if they don’t have it in stock, they will purchase it without hesitation. They’ve been solid and I feel like we consistently have their complete attention.”

After completing their North American tour at the Austin City Limits Music Festival, Gorillaz begin the European leg of their Humanz tour at Luxembourg’s Rockhal on November 1st and arrive in the UK on November 27th for a string of six dates including a pair of homecoming shows at London’s O2 Arena. Plans to extend the tour into 2018 are underway.

Photography by Denholm Hewlett, Mark Allan & Justin Jones

www.productionvalue.co