Celebrating two decades since the release of their self-titled debut album, Gorillaz, the world’s most successful virtual band made history yet again this August, embarking on two monumental homecoming shows at London’s O2 arena, as well as a pop-up show for friends and family at the indigo. The first arena show, on 10 August, was performed to NHS key workers and their families, with a sold-out capacity show for Gorillaz faithful the following night – each boasting a stellar line-up of guest artists, talented tour crew and technical suppliers, firmly setting a benchmark for post-pandemic arena shows.
Following proof of a negative lateral flow test (LFT), the adorning of accreditation and a brief backstage tech tour, TPi was greeted by Tour Manager, Rebecca Travis, who joined the Gorillaz camp six months prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’ve had a lot of opportunities to be the first out of the gate,” she began, recalling the months spent working, budgeting and planning Gorillaz’s acclaimed Song Machine Live in December 2020, before the easing of restrictions permitted the go-ahead of Damon Albarn’s appearances at Live At Worthy Farm, Manchester International Festival, Latitude Festival and Edinburgh International Festival in support of his upcoming solo album. “We are pleased to be the first to open up the O2 arena after it’s been asleep for so long. Although it is hard work, everybody is grafting to make it the best show possible.”
The vendor roster comprised the collective expertise of Neg Earth, Video Design, Entec Sound and Light, Brilliant Stages, Opto, Fly By Nite, Mission Control, DART Rigging, Radiotek, Block9, Pixelmappers, The Pantry Maid, Band Pass and Executours. “All the suppliers involved are longstanding collaborators,” Travis noted.
With featured artists spanning five states in America, and stretching as far as Italy, it was up to Travis and the touring team to navigate the logistics of a COVID-19 secure pathway for multiple artists to take the stage. “When we first spoke, we were going to use UK-based artists. However, many are from the United States and as regulations eased slightly, we found we were able to bring them if they were quarantined. Many were also double-vaccinated, so were able to quarantine for much less time.” Despite taking daily LFTs and optional mask wearing, being on site, for the most part, was a surreal experience for the crew involved. “When we see a sold-out unmasked audience, it feels a world away from where we’ve been over the past 18 months. It’s exciting but overwhelming,” Travis said, acknowledging the monumental task at hand. “Performing in front of NHS staff and their families was a fantastic and rewarding feeling for the band and crew. We are all excited to be back but also giving back to key workers and Gorillaz fans.”
Having advanced the two shows, including a low-key warm-up set for friends and family in the indigo at the O2, with upcoming visits to Boardmasters Festival around the corner at the time of writing, Travis often spends most of the shows wrangling the feature artists. Unusually, this time she was able to see some of the action from the side of the stage – thanks in part to her crack team of Production Manager, Tyrone Brunton and Assistant Tour Managers, Shadien ‘London’ Mars and Marcus Duffy, the son of late Gorillaz Tour Manager, Craig Duffy.
“I’ve worked with Tyrone for around 22 years on and off, from Riverdance to Franz Ferdinand, to Basement Jaxx, before coming full circle,” Travis recalled. “London and Marcus have been phenomenal, working closely with the artists; they are both full of beans. It’s been special for Marcus to continue his father’s legacy.”
Production Manager, Tyrone Brunton said: “It feels very special to collaborate with our crew and suppliers again. With so much uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been a privilege to be involved with the first indoor full capacity show for over 18 months. I would like to thank everyone involved for the their efforts and hard work, for going above and beyond – as touring crew always do – to embrace and adapt to these very strange times.”
View this post on Instagram
‘PUSHING THE ENVELOPE OF INNOVATION’
Block9 Creative Director, Stephen Gallagher said: “We’ve been working with Gorillaz under Jamie’s direction for the past four years, starting with the Gorillaz-curated Demon Dayz Festival at Dreamland in Margate in 2007, which was the first show we worked on with them. We started with designing the festival but as things progressed, we were asked to jump onboard the creative for the live shows.” And the rest, as they say, is history…
“This show brings together everything we’ve been working on over the past four years, tapping into the Gorillaz archive; it includes the work we made for the Humanz record, which was the first tour we worked on, through design for The Now Now and Song Machine – Season One: Strange Timez,” Gallagher said, explaining the concept. “To commemorate 20 years of the band, we’ve melded the highlights from across their discography and archive material into a two-and-half-hour show, which is fun yet challenging given the genre-spanning musical styles of each record, from punk to gospel.”
Stuart Lowbridge worked closely with Damon Albarn and Musical Director, Mike Smith on the setlist, stitching together the musical flow of each show, allowing Block9 to focus on weaving in complementing visuals. “We follow the emotional curve of the setlist, bringing in interstitial segments of video in line with the lighting department.”
Block9 Producer, Alexa Pearson listed the carnival section of the show among her favoured looks. “The new carnival section is cool and a fresh outlook on Gorillaz live shows. We’ve taken Jamie’s artwork of Trellick Tower and created video content off the back of that – Jimmy Jimmy isn’t running to timecode either, so it’s ‘live-live’, with video content that is triggered manually.”
No stranger to innovation having replicated feature artists, Fatoumata Diawara and Beck in hologram, AR and VR formats during prior Gorillaz projects, live experimentation is part and parcel of the band’s live shows, Gallagher assured. “They are the perfect band to experiment and pilot new ideas, given their starting point as a virtual band.”
Nowadays, Gallagher said, technology exists to make innovation possible. “We are interested in pushing technology in the live events space further using the archive of amazing visual and audio material associated with the band. Over the past 18 months, embarking on livestream experiences during lockdown has been an exciting creative exploration. Perhaps the merging of the realities of an audience in room and a global audience online is the next logical step forward for us.”
View this post on Instagram
‘REESTABLISHING LIVE EVENTS’
Embarking on his third project with Gorillaz, Lighting Designer, Matt Pitman of Pixelmappers retraced the evolution of the band’s live output. “Musically, it changes significantly from show to show, as do the visual elements – what we try to achieve gets more ambitious regarding the levels of programming, timecoding and integration with Block9’s video content,” he commented, having collaborated with the collective several times over the years. “Slowly but surely, we add more facets to the show as and when we can.”
As creative directors, Block9 submitted a treatment based around the objectives of the band and management from show to show. “There’s an ongoing timeline of Jamie’s artwork which is developing throughout Gorillaz’s career,” Pitman explained. “Each time we visualise something, elements change and they are corralled and directed by Block9 on behalf of Gorillaz. They submit that to me and I respond with lighting for each circumstance.”
Tasked with specifying and designing a lighting rig fit for theatre, rock ’n’ roll and carnival themes, Pitman explained his challenging fixture selection process. “Despite not being the largest lighting rig, it has multiple uses and is challenged quite heavily,” he said, gesturing to the rig. “We have a lot of discharge lights; we require a lot of lumens out of the rig in order to compete with such a large video surface, otherwise it doesn’t show up.”
Of equal importance, Pitman said, is beam quality, flexibility and brightness, as well as availability. “This rig requires something with many facets and we design around the parameters of the project. We needed to be able to respond to 87 songs and make each look unique with only a certain amount of equipment, so the rig has to be versatile.”
Joining Pitman at FOH was Lighting Programmer, Ollie Martin. When the show is run perfectly, around 80% is to timecode, with 20% manually operated. “There is nothing fixed about this show; it’s the most challenging element to working with this band but it is something I thrive on – it courses adrenaline through you at every performance. Not only not knowing what the band will be playing until minutes before they hit the stage, but also not knowing if they’re going to play what is on the running order, just those few minutes beforehand,” Pitman noted, recalling the assembly of talent involved in the project.
“It takes a great amount of diligence from many talented people to keep up with the creative and technical demands of the show. The entire show is a collaboration. The camp is made up of a team of people who are excellent at what they do. Just like the band, those that make the show happen are a huge part of the collaborative team that make the shows possible, which is how everyone feels about this project.”
Pitman and Martin used MA Lighting grandMA3 consoles for control. Spaced across four flown trusses and a floor package, the Neg Earth-supplied lighting rig boasted Claypaky Mythos and Sharpy Washes, Robe Robin BMFL Spots, TMB Solaris Flares, 2Lite Molefays, Martin by Harman MAC Aura XB LEDs, GLP impression X4 Bar 20s and Chroma-Q Color Force IIs. A RoboSpot system was deployed for followspots. While JEM AF-1 fans, Look Solutions Viper NT fog generators and Unique 2.1 hazers provided atmospherics, despite the venue’s extensive deployment of AC systems to account for a COVID-19 secure event.
The Neg Earth lighting team comprised Account Handler, Sam Ridgway; Lighting Crew Chief, Adam Morris; and Lighting Technicians, Blaine Dracup, Callum Humphries, Mark Bradshaw, Tom Comrie and William Frostman.
“It’s lovely to be back working with Neg Earth again,” Pitman said. “The idiosyncrasies I requested for the lighting rig on the last campaign were done as default this time around. I’ve also had people from the control and moving light department asking me if I was happy with things discussed on prior tours. That level of attention to detail and client interaction is much appreciated. They look after the show with the same amount of love that we put the show on with.”
Summing up his experience on site, Pitman referred to the “special” experience of providing a show for NHS staff and their families. “It was special and significant. I’ve got a huge amount of respect for the NHS and being involved in creating a unique experience for them was a gift I’d give in an instant – to do it with a project so important to me felt really special and I am privileged to be involved in the reestablishment of live events.”
‘THE RESPONSE HAS BEEN AMAZING’
In keeping with Gorillaz’s propensity for digitisation, Video Design supplied a giant upstage screen made up of ROE Visual CB5 LED panels with Brompton Technology processing, which was used as the stage’s backdrop. Winvision 8mm LED panels were specified for left and right IMAG screens, which were pushed further upstage than usual to accommodate a full-capacity crowd. Content was captured by a full HD camera system with processing coming courtesy of a disguise gx2c media server system.
Camera Director, Mark Davies oversaw eight cameras on stage – three Sony manned cameras, three BR Remote robotic cameras and two Marshall minicams. “The looks vary each night, however, we’re trying to curate a show which encompasses the entire band, feature artists, and the crowd, as opposed to a frontman,” Davies explained.
Outlining his favourite look as the moments where Damon Albarn is at the downstage centre, encompassed by the back wall of LED, Davies was pleased to be capturing live crowds. “The content on the screen is really good, so we tend to include that in the IMAGs as well. Work has been quite sparse over the past 18 months, so I’m glad to be back to business. It was nice to see a crowd in and the response to the band from the crowd was amazing.”
Media Server Operator, Rich Porter and Luke Collins oversaw two disguise gx 2 media servers – a main and a backup. “Luke and I have both been involved with programming and touring the video for Gorillaz over the past few years. We worked together to amalgamate these previous show files, adding the new tracks from the upcoming carnival record,” Porter said. “It was an absolute pleasure to be back producing a live show again. There couldn’t have been a better show to return with than Gorillaz and their guests.” Collins added: “It was an absolute pleasure to do some gigs with an audience. It made sense to have the pair of us combine the show files into a project we can both take forward.”
The Video Design team comprised System Engineer, Alan Yates; Crew Chief / LED Engineer, Jack Middlebrook; LED Engineers, Gary King, James Crossley, James ‘Oz’ Ross and Camera Operators, Roger Nelson and Rod Williams. Video Design’s Alex Leinster commented: “Seeing everyone back at work along with a crowd enjoying live music is amazing – that’s what made the past 18 months bearable. We’ve all pulled our companies through by the skin of the teeth and now we are gradually beginning to reap the rewards. Everybody involved in this project is at the top level and has been doing it for years.”
‘A PROPER GIG’
Having spent the past 18 months split between mixing Gorillaz projects, home schooling and vintage electronics repairs, long-time FOH Engineer, Matt Butcher was pleased to be back to some semblance of normality – mixing Gorillaz in front of 20,000 fans with no shoes on. Butcher mixed on a DiGiCO Quantum SD7. “I love the control surface; I really like Mustard Dynamics. The parallel compressor has given it a whole new dimension with another EQ. As a control surface, it’s simply brilliant.”
The SD7’s 200 input channels were put to good use with a 128-channel record system, with six channels of steel drum pan mixed to stereo and brought back into a group, among the key talking points of Butcher’s workflow. “Damon likes to add things, such as an entire string section sometimes, so we’re well prepared for late additions.”
With a revolving door of guests over the course of two nights to mix, Butcher regaled TPi with stories of past big-name collaborators. “The roll call for guests over the years has been brilliant, from Shaun Ryder to Mark E. Smith and Lou Reed all in one afternoon. This year is no different with the likes of Robert Smith, Posdenous and Little Simz.”
TPi Award-winning Sound System Designer, Liam Halpin specified an Entec-supplied d&b audiotechnik PA system – specifically 20 boxes of GSL on main hang, 16 KSLs on the side hangs, as well as 14 V-Series boxes as a rear hang to account for the venue selling out on the lower bowl.
The entire system was processed and powered by D80s with Lake Processing LM44s on the front end running a Dante returns system with main and spare units fed through separate systems, thus allowing the amplifiers to monitor. “Something I’ve noticed over the years, working in various venues, is that your box counts stay similar. If it’s a short throw, wider vertical conversion box then you need a couple more to get the throw. If it’s a narrower vertical throw, then you need more to get the coverage angles right,” Halpin said, explaining his design process. “I’ve always done the O2 with 20 boxes of d&b J-Series, so I started with 20 GSL on the main hang. Given that it’s a higher-output box, you think about dropping boxes, however, it’s over 100m to the back row of seats, and I’ve never been a fan of bringing in delays to the O2 arena because I believe the in-house Bose delays do the job fine.”
With an approach to system design that hinges on the reluctance to use delays to replace boxes on the main hang, Halpin instead opted for delays as an HF lift, to bring some of the “sparkle” back into the system.
“I always go for a bigger main system with house delays and run with that. My preference is to go for three hangs for arenas, even if you’re going 180-200°, keep them fairly clustered together to minimise the distance in the times because if you get it right physically, you don’t have to compensate electronically.”
Moving away from using lip fills, Halpin opted for a pair of clustered V7Ps situated in the downstage corners, acting as a traditional ground stack. “It seems unnatural if you’re standing 5m from the stage with a band in front of you but you’re hearing them come from the roof – it’s just wrong in my mind. So, having those V7Ps at head height, acting as a ground stack, even when you’re firmly in the coverage of the GSL, because of the way the mind works, stills brings the focus back to the stage,” he noted. “The idea is to keep the downstage as clear as possible, bar a pair of centre fills and two stacks of SL subs.”
Halpin disclosed a ground level of anxiety involved in the build-up to the show. “With it being the first full-capacity arena gig in 517 days and the challenge of Gorillaz projects, I was quite anxious,” he confided. “However, it has been a fantastic experience and I’m glad to be back doing what I love.” For Butcher mixing at FOH, simply hearing a PA in an arena space once again was worth the long hours. “When this system came out, we borrowed a demo rig in 2017, and it’s been a game changer. The cardioid all the way down really works and it’s so much better than prior systems – much nicer top end and d&b ArrayProcessing works nicely with it. It’s a phenomenal system; the SPL you can get off the main hangs is amazing,” Butcher added, praising the audio vendor. “Entec is a very personable company with great people and fantastic kit.”
Another stalwart of the camp is Monitor Engineer, Dave Guerin. “I was a PA Tech and monitor babysitter in ’95 during Blur’s first arena tour, and I have been involved in most of Damon’s projects since 2007.”
A DiGiCo SD7Q was Guerin’s tool of choice. “Quite simply, no other desks have enough inputs and outputs. I’m using 170 channels out of 200 available, 25 monos and 70 stereos, most of which are in use. There are only around six channels I’m not using.”
Albarn was not on in-ear monitors. However, the rest of the band were, with everybody sharing click tracks aside from the frontman. “I use the SD7Q as an analogue desk, each performing artist has a channel and the output if they need it, and a generic mix which Damon likes for the side fills and wedges; it’s not a particularly loud stage by any stretch.”
With a stage boasting d&b sidefills, wedges, Radial DIs, Shure mics on double kick and snares, with Sennheiser mics on the toms and overheads, Shure KSM8 mics were specified for vocals, marking a considerable change from the trusty SM58s harnessed on prior Gorillaz projects. “We’ve found there is much less proximity effect, so when he’s not singing on the mic, it doesn’t thin out as much as it did previously,” Guerin said. “Damon really likes KSM8, so we made the leap to bring them in after 33 years of SM58s and he prefers them.”
As well as assisting Guerin in monitor world, Stage Technician and professional Damon Albarn wrangler, James ‘Kedge’ Kerridge, spends a lot of time fishing for the frontman’s 45m cable mic. “The challenge with this show is the sheer volume of input count and the spontaneity of Damon. We have to be prepared for the likelihood of him one day turning up with a Russian imitation Moog synthesiser – anything that’s happened once before, there’s a possibility it can happen again, so we have spares for days,” he grinned. “A few songs in, I realised it’s been 18 months of not doing this and looking out and seeing 20,000 smiling faces was a lovely thing to be a part of. It’s a pleasure to be involved.”
As the dust settled on a successful opening night, Guerin looked forward to mixing for a follow-up, full-capacity crowd. “It was great to be back doing a ‘proper’ gig – it was like we’d never been away. During the NHS show we had around 24 feature artists turn up in addition to the band, so it’s a gig which keeps me on my toes. I find all of Damon’s work and concepts diverse and creative. It’s about the textures and layers of sounds, as opposed to a textbook rock ’n’ roll show.”
View this post on Instagram
‘THE FEWEST POSSIBLE CREATIVE LIMITATIONS’
Given the vast array of moving elements, the show is relatively demanding from an RF point of view. Having dealt with coordination on prior Gorillaz showcases, Mission Control’s Ali Viles was brought once again as RF Engineer.
“We are running almost 60 RF channels on this show to accommodate the band, BVs and all the guest performers. Almost everyone apart from Damon has some form of RF involvement, from the guest vocals, wireless backline and an array of IEMs through to wireless steel drums.” Viles said. “Mission Control looks after the RF licencing and spectrum management for this run of Gorillaz shows making that process simple and straightforward for production.”
The RF system comprised 24 channels of Shure PSM1000 IEMs and over 30 channels of Shure Axient Digital microphones supplied by Entec. “The wireless mics and beltpacks are powered by NiMH rechargeable batteries helping us be as environmentally friendly as possible,” Viles remarked.
Mission Control supplied two Li.LAC microphone disinfectors, with Gorillaz and Entec investing in one each. “The Li.LACs enable us to quickly and easily disinfect the handheld radio mics during the show, allowing us to safely share mics between guests. The Li.LAC also gives us all peace of mind that all the vocal mics are clinically cleaned every day, helping to keep band and crew COVID-safe.”
Entec also supplied THOR UVC robot to ensure the air and surfaces of the band’s rehearsal space were COVID-safe and free of any viral load, minimising risks of any type of infection. “This high-output disinfection robot by FinsenTech kills all germs and pathogens. The whole crew loved it and it made them feel cared for and safe,” Entec Chairman, Nick Pendleton commented.
“It’s great being back in the O2,” Viles said. “It’s been a while since I was last here and it’s exciting to collaborate with such an amazing team once again, creating a unique and special live event show for a capacity crowd here.”
Live Music Producer, Andrew Hamwee of Opto who runs the playback department for Gorillaz picked up the story: “What makes the playback on Gorillaz more involved than most shows is the fact that we try to play as much as possible live. By expanding the technological capabilities of this system, it has allowed us to have the fewest possible creative limitations, elevating the live performance to a new level, sonically and musically. For example, where on many gigs you may have 50% track, 50% live band, we try to keep the linear track elements minimal, instead opting for more sampling and emulation of keyboard and drum sounds for MIDI triggering.”
Although the music stemmed from playback may seem minimal, every musician and guest artist on stage had their own click with varied timecode references and flexibility to allow the band to loop and record individual live parts. “It’s a mammoth system,” Hamwee said, gesturing to the outstanding setup in which MIDI Technician, Darren ‘Dazza’ Clark dealt with the stage end – everything behind the rack – so Hamwee could manage the incoming data.
The system was heavily integrated into audio, with Hamwee considering the setup more audio than backline. “We’re running everything on Optocore DD2s, across multiple systems, as well as a DiGiCo SD11 purely for monitoring purposes for the playback department. During a changeover, we can check all our lines independently of the audio department, and then hand them over for the show,” Hamwee explained.
The whole rig ran at 96k with playback across 70 channels. “We’ve maxed out all 16 channels of MIDI and are putting the rig through its paces,” Hamwee explained. “In previous years the electronic drum setup reached capacity using hardware samplers, so we’ve migrated to software with Mainstage being the chosen DAW alongside the original Mainstage keyboard setup. Every electronic pad and drum trigger runs through this system, so it’s quite substantial. The entire system is likely to expand going forward, which is unbelievable given its size!”
With Guerin piloting his own custom software he wrote for iPads on stage, Hamwee also piloted relatively custom software. Running 10 iPads on stage over PoE and nine laptops off stage provided the team with maximum control and flexibility to allow musicians to interact with them and communicate with each other.
“Being back at the O2, I really took for granted the ability to perform to such a large capacity crowd and the energy you receive, how it affects the overall performance and your decision making process. To be the first ones back in the O2 doing a full-capacity show after 517 days away is an incredible feeling”.
Hamwee concluded. “This system was designed with optimum redundancy and power distribution in mind, specifically for this environment and format. It is fantastic to be able to use the system to its full capabilities after so long – it’s a challenging but wholly rewarding project to be a part of.”
‘18 MONTHS IS A LONG TIME TO WAIT’
Keeping morale high and stomachs full throughout the project was The Pantry Maid’s Lucy Bell. “I’ve worked for Damon for 12 years now – he was one of my first clients when I set up The Pantry Maid,” she began. “Gorillaz shows grow year on year, so it’s always a fun challenge to keep up the pace.”
Having spent some of the past 18 months waitressing amid the lockdown of live events, as restrictions slowly began to ease in November last year, Bell invested in a food truck – which has appeared on several livestream projects with the likes of Gorillaz and Dua Lipa at LH2, as well as stints at London’s Printworks and catered for TV and broadcast shoots with Pulse Films – to weather the economic storm of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The food truck is the way forward,” remarked Bell. “18 months was too long for a lot of the crew to wait, and I’ve seen quite a few caterers fall through the cracks and not return to the sector,” she said, explaining how staff working on the Olympics compounded the struggle to find tried-and-tested staff.
“However, despite the initial struggle of finding crew, I’ve realised that good things come out of that, such as the melding of unique personalities and faces. I’ve got a really random team involved in this show, like the owner of the restaurant I was a waiter at during the pandemic, a butler for private gigs, and all sorts of talented people with interesting backgrounds. Above all, it’s fantastic to be back and be around creative people again, collaborating to make something special.”
‘A NEW ERA FOR LIVE EVENTS’
Ensuring the kit was transported from A to B was Fly By Nite. “I’ve got a good team of drivers here with seven of our trucks and two other vehicles loaded for PA,” commented Lead Truck Driver, Phil Infield. “Once we’ve loaded, three of us are off to Newquay for Boardmasters, which Gorillaz are headlining.”
Recounting a tough 18 months, Infield praised the tireless work of FBN Managing Director, Dave Coumbe. “He’s kept all the drivers going despite operating in different sectors, working for the likes of Royal Mail, Amazon, Halfords, and various other companies amid the COVID-19 pandemic, to keep the wheels turning,” he said, conceding the loss of a couple of drivers to other sectors. “We’ve also gained some drivers during the pandemic. We’re starting to see old faces filtering back. We’ve got around 85 event drivers; 170 trucks and we plan on keeping the general haulage side of the firm going until live events return to full strength.”
Infield’s scope as a lead driver has seen the veteran oversee the logistics of everything from a one-truck tour to Drake’s mammoth 41-truck tour prior to the pandemic. “We’re happy to be here; it’s good for the team and there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel now,” he said, brimming with enthusiasm. “This is a great venue – one of the best in Europe, because it caters for everything. It was good to see plenty of smiling, happy faces and people enjoying themselves. Let’s hope this is the start of a new era for live events.”
This article originally appeared in issue #265 of TPi, which you can read here.