Mark Cunningham reports on how Gorillaz came to life in a fascinating live production staged over two nights at London’s Roundhouse in April 2010…

Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett are genuises. There, I’ve said it. To create a fictional cartoon band so compelling that it eclipses a vast portion of real contemporary outfits is one thing; to then present it as a living, breathing, multi-media/multi-artist live experience such as the one I witnessed along with an audience of wide-eyed disciples was quite another.

Expectations were high amongst the eager crowd who queued up along Chalk Farm Road at the end of April to be close to the front of the stage when Gorillaz played their first full UK show in five years at London’s Roundhouse.

Bobby Womack, Shaun Ryder, Super Furry Gruff Rhys, Mos Def, De La Soul, Kano, Rosie Wilson and an on-screen Snoop Dogg: these were just a few of the featured artists appearing in succession to front a seemingly effortless combination of world music, hip-hop, rock, drum’n’bass and melodic pop, drawn from the latest album, Plastic Beach, as well as the sophomore Demon Days and the eponymous début.

They – and the virtual characters of 2-D, Murdoc, Noodle and Russel Hobbs – were the icing on a musical cake that relied on a massive array of around 60 musicians, including former Clash compadres Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, the seven-piece Demon Strings, the 10-piece National Orchestra of Syria and eight-piece Hypnotic Brass, with everything falling under the savvy stage management of Eric Durett.

And then there was Albarn himself, the restless musical mastermind, providing lead vocals throughout and brutally bashing away at his piano. Not even this colourful cast could eclipse the magnetism of the Blur frontman who was enjoying every second of seeing his studio ‘baby’ come to life on both the big screen and the stage.

MERRY-GO-ROUND

I arrived at the Roundhouse midway through an afternoon soundcheck and watched the proceedings with fascination along with Jamie Hewlett and a friendly chap whom I later discovered was none other than Mr. Womack. Very soon, I was in the company of tour director Craig Duffy, who has been working with Albarn for 14 years but still considers himself the new boy in comparison to other crew members whose association dates back to Blur’s early days.

“We all happily get sucked into the continuing Damon Albarn merry-go-round and generally get involved with anything he’s doing – from Blur to Gorillaz and most things in between,” he said, whilst negotiating Eat To The Beat’s provision of dressing room catering.

For the earliest Gorillaz shows, the musicians were hidden behind screens, performing a live soundtrack to Hewlett’s projected animation. In 2005, the Demon Days production at the Manchester International Festival and in New York marked the first time that the musicians and special guests were brought out on to the stage.

Initially rehearsed at John Henry’s north London studios with Steve ‘Pud’ Jones leading the production, these new shows took that format one large leap forward and Craig Duffy promised that the Roundhouse production will be dwarfed by what’s in store this September at London’s O2.

He said: “It’s a reduced ‘teaser’ show here that still requires three trucks’ worth of gear and hours upon hours of Pete The Greek’s finest rigging. It’s very theatrical with a running theme and although it’s not a fussy design as rock shows go, there’s a lot of precision involved in how the music lines up with the video content, especially when there’s lip synch with artists on screen.

“The extent of video content means that the band rely heavily on a click track which Damon wasn’t keen on, but there’s no practical way around that at the moment. Damon is master of all he surveys up there; he’s annoyingly ‘on it’. He constructed the record in his own studio and knows exactly what he wants. His ears are tuned into the most minute detail of the music and he works closely with Mike Smith, the MD and main keyboard player [formerly the sax player with Blur] who organises the band.”

Jamie Hewlett is the man behind all of Gorillaz’ imagery and animation. He and producer Cara Speller at his company, Zombie Pictures created a mesmerising video package for the shows that combines stills from storyboards, original music videos and specifically shot footage, plus pre-existing library material, including film from the Vietnam War.

“Jamie and Damon share a building that accommodates their individual work, and they’re long-time best friends so they inevitably collaborate on each other’s projects,” said Duffy. “Although their creative processes are separate entities, there is shared input and reaction.”

VISUALS

Along with all video production hardware and crew, the Barco NX6 LED screen was supplied by XL Video, whose account manager, Des Fallon, was proud to be involved in his third Gorillaz project. Richard Turner designed the overall video system.

Meanwhile, Entec Sound & Light continued its long association with Albarn and lived up to its company name by supplying kit to both departments. “It’s a company that have supported Damon all the way through the Blur days and now with Gorillaz, and there’s no reason to switch to anyone different,” said Craig Duffy. “They’ll do anything at the drop of a hat for these guys. They always supply reliable gear and great crew.”

Now working for LED fixture manufacturer, i-Pix, Dave Byars was Blur’s lighting designer throughout their original incarnation and has returned to the Albarn fold as the designer of the striking lightboxes that spell out the Gorillaz name onstage.

As Duffy explained: “The idea is a follow-on from something we used on Demon Days to silhouette the band. We wanted to make large letters as an oblique reference to The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle, which acted as lightboxes and that could change colour at the click of a button, as well as be tour-friendly.

“The obvious way to do that was with LED but there were limitation with what you could do with LED and get a smooth finish. Dave came for a chat about this and brought a carrier bag full of bits to XL where we sat in a room, trying out various sources. He went off and started ripping apart some i-Pix BB4s to create the ideal light source. The boxes themselves have been custom-built and then loaded by i-Pix to run off the lighting desk.”

As well as racking up credits with Ray Charles, Atomic Kitten, Billy Ocean, Sugababes and The Good, The Bad & The Queen, LD Lec Croft has been lighting Gorillaz since Albarn and Hewlett first took their concept to the stage in 2005. “It was the first time I’d ever been asked to work with a cartoon band and my brief was not to light them, which was interesting!” he said.

“We had a stage that was 15’ deep with a 15-piece orchestra, a choir of 30 and a big band, so it was quite difficult to keep the band absolutely black, in silhouette – I was only allowed to light the featured artists.”

This time around, Croft appeared to have greater freedom. “I’m now allowed to light the musicians, which is good, but the main aim is to complement the video and create a mosaic out of the whole scene.”

Commenting on the aforementioned lightboxes, Croft said: “Because the BB4 controllers in them are set up in 16-bit mode, we can make each letter do all sorts of tricks… at least when I’m allowed to. I keep getting told off by the art department for taking the focus away from the big picture above me!”

Croft’s main contact at Entec has been “the lovely” Noreen O’Riordan. “The rig has changed on a few occasions in line with a tight budget and originally we weren’t going to use Entec at all and go ahead with the house rig which would have proved difficult as it would have meant having to re-program the entire show.

“I managed to convince Craig that getting Entec in would be the best solution and Noreen was able to supply the whole rig and a couple of great guys, Ryan Brown and Matt Arthur, with almost no lead time at all.”

Although Croft originally specified Vari*Lites, he finally chose a heap of Martin MACs, with 18 MAC 2000 Profiles and 18 MAC 700 Washes throughout the whole rig. “All the fixtures have had to be very carefully placed because I can’t interfere with the screen and have too many blinding lights focused over it, therefore everything is tucked away around the sides.”

Key lighting was provided by 12 ETC Source Fours in the Thomas/Tomcat trussing. “Everyone in the band has a 10° on them while the backing vocalists and the Syrian orchestra players have 26° fixtures, which we ride in and out depending on who’s doing what. We also have some Source Four 10° specials reserved for Paul Simonon and Mick Jones who occasionally step into some shards of light.”

Croft controlled the show from a first generation grandMA full-size console. “It’s a good desk for this kind of show. I like to stack up the cues and run theatre scenes for every song,” he said.

“We were toying with the idea of using an Avo Pearl Expert, which would have worked well enough. But because we’re touring around festivals and using other people’s gear, it’s important that I have a desk that can cope easily with the cloning of fixtures and differing sizes of rig. In my experience, the grandMA is probably the most flexible desk in situations where there can be so many variables.”

Six Thomas 4-lite Molefays, a pair of Pani HMI followspots and DF50 hazers were also included in Entec’s rig and although LEDs were used inside the letter lightboxes, Croft didn’t specify any LED fixtures as part of his design at the Roundhouse.

He did, however, mention that for the arena shows later this year, the screen and the lightboxes will be raised, allowing rows of PixelLines to light a rear scrim and create another layer of colour.

AUDIO

With so many musicians coming and going onstage, the job of mixing the Gorillaz show would appear to be a job and a half. FOH engineer Matt Butcher attempts to simplify the task as much as possible, and his weapon of choice is the DiGiCo D5 console.

He commented: “It’s the perfect desk as far as I’m concerned, although the SD7 will be the next step for me. The layout is great; it’s nice and compact, and the groups of eight allow me to do several things all at once. I’m not automating much but when I do, the snapshots are good for getting the mix ballpark.”

A Blur veteran from the 1994 Parklife tour onwards, Butcher was working with 102 mic lines plus comms channels. “The desk is completely full and the stage box looks hilarious!” he grinned. “Having two drum kits doesn’t help, of course, but my tech, Basil Fernley, has really helped to ‘stretch’ the D5.

“I’ve not been able to indulge in luxuries like snare bottom mics and second kick drum mics. We changed to Shure Beta 56As for the snares which has given me what I need without getting silly with the EQ.”

The large amount of open mics across the stage would have posed a serious spillage problem for Butcher if not for the muting system he employed. “This was where the automated snapshots were really crucial whereas the faders are pretty much on the fly. Then we have the 16 VCA groups which enable me to mix the meat, the potatoes and a large dollop of mustard on the side in large chunks. It’s two hours of pure concentration for me and think I’d be in trouble without those VCAs!”

Was he spinning any special effects into the mix? “There are quite a few echo and delay cues, especially on Damon’s voice. I have an outboard rack with a TC D2 and a couple of Lexicon PCM81s in it, plus I’m using some of the internal effects for reverbs and delay for snare drums.

“When I was using a Midas Heritage on the first shows we did, I’d mess around with the tone generator and echo, along with guitar pedals to get some weird lo-fi effects. It was all very analogue and suited what we were doing and I’ve tried it with the D5, but I don’t really have as much time to play with these days!”

Although Butcher described his microphone selection as “very standard”, one departure from the norm was a Shure 527B CB-style mic with a modified push-to-talk switch that was used for distorted vocal sounds on songs such ‘Stylo’ and ‘Rhinestone Eyes’. “I’m a great believer in getting the right sound at source,” said Butcher.

MONITORS

While Entec supplied the mics, control and monitor package, Gorillaz took advantage of the Roundhouse’s resident Outline line array.

Like Butcher, monitor engineer Dave Guerin also had his hands full with masses of inputs and mixes on a DiGiCo SD7 that Entec sourced from Paris before buying its own.

“Mixing monitors is always a tricky job but on this it’s like looking after four or five bands simultaneously,” said Guerin. “At the last count, I had 40 mono outputs in use and 12 stereo outputs. There are 27 different in-ear mixes onstage covering strings, percussion, BVs and click tracks — it’s going on everywhere. I’d normally give the strings a generic mix but the SD7 allows for them to each have their own mix, so that’s what they’ve got.”

The hard-wired IEM systems were Shure P6HWs, while Sennheiser G2 300ew was the wireless choice. Also in service were d&b M4 wedges run in passive mode and Q7s as sidefills.

Guerin claimed that no other console that he knew of would have been able to accommodate the sheer volume of activity. “There wouldn’t be enough graphics on the D5 and none of the rival desks would have enough inputs or outputs without some clever bussing.

“I wanted to keep everything straightforward within the one desk and the SD7 was the only one capable of being structured for what’s needed here. It took me nine hours to program this gig into the SD7 and as I hadn’t used the desk before, I went to DiGiCo’s HQ to ensure it all went smoothly.”

Assisted in monitor world by Adam ‘Shabby’ Draper, Guerin added: “The internal processing is brilliant but the one thing not included is an octave-up harmoniser, so I’ve got a Yamaha SPX90 Mk.II for that – my only outboard item.

EYES & EARS

The last member of crew to come under TPi’s scrutiny was Stuart Lowbridge who, along with Ossie Henderson and Jason Wardman, runs the good ship ‘backline’. But Lowbridge would be the first to admit that his role as Albarn’s ‘man on the ground’ far exceeds that of a regular backline tech.

He explained: “I suppose I’m Damon’s eyes and ears, second to Matt at FOH. On a show that’s as epic as this, Damon needs to trust someone as his ‘representative’. Having worked with him for the best part of 20 years, through thick and thin, he relies on me to be the person who ensures that the show is running the way he wants it.

“I spent a month in a studio with Mike Smith and engineer Steve Sedgewick, isolating all the individual parts on the Plastic Beach album and assigning them to the musicians. Now that we’re live, I’m with Matt during soundchecks to approve the backline layout and observe the sound from a musical perspective.

“Matt is a brilliant engineer, the best I know, but there might be a very subtle aspect of the music that needs to be brought out. Everyone has their part to play, and this is a job I’m very proud to take on.”

Photography by Tony Wooliscroft & Mark Cunningham