Marking one of the first touring campaigns out of the gates post-lockdown, The Neon Tour – announced following the release of Erasure’s 18th studio album – celebrated a return to some semblance of normality for the live events sector in the UK. Having steadily toured the globe and released new music over the past 36 years, the British synthpop duo have experienced somewhat of a career renaissance in recent years, making a step back up to large-scale shows reminiscent of their early commercial success. Despite the growing popularity of the band, their cult following and DIY ethos remains as relevant as ever, as TPi discovered when chatting to their core touring crew.
As Erasure’s promotional representative for 18 years, Mark Dawson, in his newfound role as production manager, harnessed his extensive knowledge of the band to assemble a formidable team of touring crew and technical suppliers. Unlike most operating out of the production office, he opted for a hands-on approach to show design and set construction.
“We pretty much built the set ourselves instead of using a one-stop solution from a set company, largely because we had all the time in the world over lockdown. We also used an alternative product to the traditional LED tape and neon, working closely with a manufacturer who typically operates outside of the touring world,” Dawson informed TPi, having spearheaded a design which includes a giant, steel structure that features 600m of neon and LED. “I’m fairly sure it’s the most [neon] ever taken out on the road for a rock ’n’ roll show.”
Dawson’s technical suppliers of choice included: SSE Audio, Christie Lites, Video Design, Popcorn Catering, Fly By Nite, Phoenix Bussing, SetWorks, and EnVisio. As well as incorporating video for the first time into the band’s live offering, TPi Award-winning Show Designer, Rob Sinclair was brought onboard to curate the show’s aesthetics, taking inspiration from unlikely sources in 8-bit games, neon signs, a Monopoly board, an antique shop and playground equipment painted silver – the latter the suggestion of lead singer, Andy Bell.
“I’d run away from London in March 2020 and had just moved into a tiny cottage next to my brother’s house. My entire work schedule for the year had just been cancelled and I was trying to work out what on earth was going on. Cue a phone call from Mark [Dawson] about an Erasure tour that was scheduled to go out in September 2020, which seemed reasonable at the time. We made some renders that month and in April, the band seemed to like them, and the set was built as soon as the first lockdown started to lift,” Sinclair recalled, highlighting the collaborative process and collective reliance on Zoom and WhatsApp as core communication tools amid the lockdown. “Things were delayed, but Mark was super smart to use the time to reduce costs and make the project happen when, at times, some of us had lost all hope.”
With Sinclair on board, Dawson began enlisting set companies. “After a number of phone calls, it became apparent that not many companies understood what we were looking to achieve or were busy trying to consolidate and considering their immediate future, following the devastating impact of lockdown on the sector,” he reminisced.
In a twist of fate, with the luxury of time on his side, Dawson took it upon himself to bring Sinclair’s preliminary sketches of a giant, steel structure to life. He approached steel bending specialist, Barnshaws, which agreed to supply and roll the steel into the shape of the design – an oval-shaped centre screen, with three bracket shapes/wings per side, flanked by left and right oval shapes, designed to house IMAG screens. However, to make the vision a reality, the team required steel welders.
Step forward, SetWorks, a production and manufacturing company that ordinarily fabricates high-end installation projects. “There was a lot of collaboration involved with SetWorks because they’re not used to operating with a touring hat on, and creating things that can travel,” Dawson explained, praising their ability to create the steel shapes and wooden treads to house around 600m of neon and LED tape. Like the steel, Dawson shopped around for a local supplier of neon and LED tape, outside of the usual rock ’n’ roll channels. “Rob and I discovered this company called Ultra LEDS, which manufactures LED neon that can be controlled via DMX, which they had specially made and flown over to us from the Far East,” Dawson said.
In keeping with the DIY ethos, when the team came to attach the LED neon, which was made of silicone, to the steel set structure, the team discovered that only strong double-sided sticky tape was worthy of the task.
“The way the set is designed and built requires the use of rattle guns to put the nuts and bolts of the set together,” Stage Manager, Jack Brewis-Lawes, pointed out. He oversaw the logistics of the project, ensuring the global ‘tourability’ of the giant, steel structure set to visit a range of different-sized performance spaces on the tour, from theatres to arenas.
“Unfortunately, the moment you let an external member of the tour party, such as local crew, handle the construction or deconstruction of the set during the load in and out, they could potentially compromise the infrastructure of the set, which we have to rely on throughout the tour,” he added. “Equally, from a supplier perspective, there’s not always enough kit to go around, so it’s been a complicated process,” he pointed out.Having split his time between collaborating on tour advancing for Erasure and working at a COVID-19 test centre during lockdown, Brewis-Lawes ensured the safety of the artists, technical production crew and in-person audiences on the tour by outlining specific travel corridors and routes for the band and crew, without mixing or compromising touring bubbles, in addition to the crew’s widespread adoption of PPE and social distancing on site.
In keeping with Sinclair’s vision, Video Design provided Winvision 9mm LED panels for an upstage central screen and the left and right oval-shaped IMAG screens, with on-screen content driven by disguise media servers.
“The screens extended the visual aspect of the stage beyond it by making the IMAG a part of the show design, as opposed to traditional left and right IMAG screens for people who couldn’t see the action,” Dawson explained, praising the support of Video Design Managing Director, Alex Leinster and a team of six on-site crew members. “Alex and the team were fantastic; he invited us down to fly everything and put the screen up so we could properly envision the show before it went on the road.”
In fact, one of Video Design’s two warehouse facilities in Bedford was affectionately referred to as the ‘Erasure warehouse’ among staff members, given its longstanding residency in lockdown.
“Simply building the set was quite a feat, given its complexity and the unique circumstances of lockdown,” Leinster commented. “It’s always a pleasure working with Mark [Dawson].”
Lighting Designer, Chris Bushell oversaw a flown Christie Lites rig that comprised 17 Martin by Harman MAC Viper Profile, 32 Axiom, 10 Quantum Wash, 14 MAC Aura XB, 12 GLP JDC1 and 16 Chroma-Q Color Force II fixtures – the latter were rigged as vertical blinders.
Dawson recalled the challenge of wiring the giant structure. “We needed really fine soldering work, with the LED tape requiring around 500 connectors to connect to video on a daily basis. We enlisted the support of EnVisio, who were able to come up with a solution and 42-page schematic,” he explained.
“Interactivity is at the heart of our business currently,” EnVisio Technical Director, Max Middleton said. “We have been a pixel specialist for around six years and as other companies are catching up with the dark art that is addressable LED, we find ourselves having to push the boundaries, which for a small business is often difficult, but luckily we have a great reputation in this niche industry and get to play with some wonderful budgets and push boundaries from time to time.”
However, when Dawson and the team went to invest in 500 XLR connectors, like most in the sector, they were faced with shortages. “Our usual manufacturer was unable to get them to us in time, so we ended up with CPC UK Speakon connectors,” he reported.
The team also required 200m of cabling, which Ultra LEDS was unable to source due to global supply issues. “In the end, I found a guy with a reel of it online. At one point, I was worried we wouldn’t get what we needed to make the set possible,” Dawson conceded, before going on to praise the ingenuity and fortitude of the crew. “Despite being one of the first tours out of the gate, we spent so much time dealing with set construction, it never really felt like we were away. Thankfully, it kept most of us occupied amid the pandemic.”
Middleton concurred, adding that while the lockdown has had a negative impact on most businesses in the sector, it has also afforded creatives and companies the luxury of time to invest in ‘workbench’ projects gathering dust. “Some of the projects post-lockdown are nothing short of breath-taking, and I genuinely believe that’s because designers and producers have been afforded rare breathing space to let their creative juices flow,” he said.
For Brewis-Lawes, after a year-and-a-half evaluating this show design, an ecstatic crowd reception and positive reviews each night, “made all the sleepless nights worth it”.
Embarking on his second touring campaign with the band, FOH/Monitor Engineer, Dave Swallow was involved with everything from setting up backing tracks with MIDI/Guitar Technician, Howard Rider, to mixing live for the audience and band.
“Erasure’s live sound setup has evolved in recent years,” he said, explaining his newfound reliance on timecode to handle the monitor mix, while simultaneously mixing FOH on a 24-channel Avid VENUE S6L console. “This console was essential given the amount of automation required for this project. The thing I’ve always liked about Avid is the fact it’s a relatively stable system and available in every region we visit on tour.”
Erasure began touring with one person mixing both FOH and monitors during Robbie Williams’ The Heavy Entertainment Show in 2017. “I was slightly nervous about inheriting this setup at first, mixing monitors while being a long way away from the band in case anything goes wrong,” he noted. “For peace of mind, we always ensure our vendors, SSE Audio in this case, have a dedicated person on stage [Chris Spears] to handle RF, while I mix.”
According to Swallow, communication is key, especially in the likes of London’s O2 arena, given the sheer distance between the engineer and the stage. A radio ‘shout setup’ was employed to facilitate communication between the band and crew. “Mixing FOH and monitors is ambitious but given the level of professionalism and reliability of the band – it works,” he remarked.
It is also one of the reasons why timecode and automation is so crucial. “If I have to make slight monitor adjustments or set up another song, having that automation in place is key to making sure everything runs as smoothly as possible,” Swallow added. “I, in effect, use automation as my A2 [Audio Assistant].”
To enhance the mix, System Technician, Mark Pantlin oversaw a d&b audiotechnik J-Series system with up to 22 boxes per side on the main hang, 16 boxes per side on the side hang, along with 24 J-SUBS and J-IFRA subwoofers, in addition to Y10P and V7P sidefills – driven by Dante at 96khz.
“One of the challenges with this tour is we visit a range of venue sizes from theatres to arenas, so we required a consistent system throughout, and the d&b audiotechnik J-Series was the perfect choice,” Swallow said, praising Pantlin’s sound system ‘wizardry’.
“This was a really great tour with a fantastic band,” Pantlin added.
Sennheiser 5000 Series with 5235 capsules were the mics of choice, while the band used Sennheiser SR 2050 IEMs. “Having the band on IEMs makes my life mixing monitors much easier,” Swallow explained. “I run a tech mix through a matrix to provide the crew with the band’s mix with our shout microphones on top.”
Having wrapped up a successful run of shows in 2021, Swallow cut a figure of enthusiasm. “During the first show, Andy [Bell] hit a particular note and the hairs on my arm stood on end, it was then I got a sudden pang of realisation that we were back,” he reminisced. “The time off was also humbling; it made me consider how lucky I am to be in a position to travel the world and curate unique experiences for live music fans.”
Given the popularity of The Neon Tour, at the time of writing, a further five UK dates have been added to the tour calendar as part of the band’s May 2022 European leg. Albeit far from a straightforward show, Dawson believes the various constraints imposed by the lockdown inspired a surge of creativity and extended an olive branch to technical production crew, companies that operate outside of the touring world and, above all, live music fans.
“I took for granted the shared experience prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, being in an audience and being immersed in what is going on the stage,” Dawson concluded. “Now, I fully grasp the significance of that as a form of collective escapism, in which you simply can’t get at any seated, socially distanced shows.”
This article originally appeared in issue #267 of TPi, which you can read here.