Following the release of his widely-acclaimed second studio album, TYRON – and hot on the heels of THE SOMETHING TO LOOK FORWARD TO TOUR in support of small venues post-lockdown – slowthai and his production crew commenced a countrywide campaign in March, wrapping up with two back-to-back, sold-out headline shows at O2 Academy Brixton, whereby ‘creative integrity was at the forefront’ of production values, as TPi discovers.
Tasked with telling the story of TYRON on stage was Stage Designer / Creative Director, Lewis James, who collaborated with slowthai and his Manager, Lewis Rest, to curate stage and production design, show scripting, and video direction.
The resulting design saw the artist perform the majority of the show perched atop a figurative roof and chimney of a house, which doubled to create a ‘soft box’, while a stream of video content, measured lighting, and pyrotechnics – including fire cannons and hazers – created an atmospheric, sensory assault befitting a ‘nightmare’ narrative, constructed by its architects.
“The show’s narrative is meant to portray a sense of a nightmare, feelings of being trapped and anxiety but also moments of bliss — the classic pitched roof house and chimney was a metaphor for a make-shift home that has been built inside of his mind, a symbolic shadow where all his thoughts and feelings live. The stark boxed frame that contains the stage gives the space a feeling of containment yet also a space of protection, a framework that would allow us to tell the feelings of the album,” James said, explaining the creative concept of the show.
Lighting Director, Michael Straun collaborated with James to enhance the visual experience, storytelling and narrative of the show. The duo employed a filmic, almost photographic style of lighting to complement the stage design. The majority of the lighting was based around the scenic structure of an illuminated soft box.
Referring to James as the ‘artist’ of the camp in addition to slowthai, Straun triggered flickering of lights around the soft box to create a naturalistic look based on the creative director’s drawings.
GLP JDC Lines came into full effect during some of the high-tempo tracks such as Drug Dealer, where the lighting units enhanced the energy of slowthai and the crowd. There was no front truss installed by Colour Sound Experiment, at the behest of the design brief. Instead, rows of GLP JDC Lines surrounded the top and bottom of the stage outside soft box framing encompassing slowthai, providing a “beautiful and extremely bright light” that played with the audience when the artist was no longer standing atop the figurative house.
“As a creative decision, we decided not to conventionally key light the artist,” Straun explained. “Instead, we focused on a silhouette look, using the soft box as a soft light. However, we did track slowthai’s movement on stage with a few Robe RoboSpot followspots on the balcony, as well as punches of colour and gobos to add texture to the front lighting.”
Spectra Flood Q40s were placed around fabric to backlight the interior of the box, with an upstage row of GLP impression X4 Bar 20s sat beneath the house, allowing Straun to uplight a Blackout-supplied gauze placed in front of the video wall. MA Lighting grandMA3s consoles, operating in MA2 mode, helped control the show. For synchronisation, the show operated to timecode via a ShowKontrol system, which converted timecode from CDJs to the lighting director, as well as triggering video.
While design discussions had constantly been evolving and progressing from a creative standpoint since early 2022, piecing together the programming of the show happened within the space of a week, with James and Straun embarking on two days at Colour Sound Experiment’s new previsualisation suite to programme scenes for 24 songs.
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A digital model using Syncronorm Depence² was used to visualise most of the show before the crew arrived on site. While the video and film for the show was shot in Northampton at a pre-shoot a few weeks before the opening tour date. “I think producing such an ambitious show in almost two days was a really tough challenge,” James said, praising the hard work and determination of the crew involved in fulfilling the brief.
“The entire production team did an excellent job at streamlining the process, while making sure creative integrity was at the forefront of discussion.”
UNCANNY, a London based design studio run by George Muncey and Elliot Elder, were brought onboard to provide video design and content in collaboration with the creative team. “We had a day to capture everything we needed, which was a challenge, but George Muncey and Elliot Elder from UNCANNY, were able to film everything with relative ease and then design the videos into scenes for the show,” he recalled.
According to James, video, as is becoming the focal point of modern stage designs, was key to the aesthetic of the show. “The video was designed to echo thoughts inside slowthai’s mind as if it were an outside voice that peered through a giant letterbox to the audience,” James stated. “We wanted the show to feel filmic and tell a story, something which creates a space beyond the screen and use a bit of a ‘fourth wall’ – almost every visual on screen has a meaning, even if it isn’t apparent on first glance.”
Throughout the show slowthai, energetic and piercing in his delivery, peers through to the audience inside the frame. “There’s a few moments where we suddenly see his portrait appear through the gauze smashing his head on the house or trying to break out of the screen, these scenes brought the entire concept together,” James said, enthusiastically highlighting some of his favourite moments of the production.
“Another great moment was when Deb Never joined the stage, slowthai sat nonchalantly on top of the chimney and Deb below the house with a mass of fog akin to clouds,” James pointed out. “A single cloud is then displayed on screen directly above the house and brings a sense of calmness and a different side to the stage.”
From FOH, Straun had the best vantage point to see a young, raucous crowd appreciate the artistic endeavours of slowthai and the stage design constructed by his touring crew, juxtaposed by swirling circles of mosh pits.
“What’s nice about this show is that it’s concept heavy, and alternative to what you expect from an artist like slowthai – a lot of shows in his wheelhouse don’t necessarily lean on this style of production but it really works,” he noted.
In addition to the perfection of show design, the safety of audiences at the almost 5,000-capacity venue was of paramount importance. “We want to make sure that we keep the crowd as safe as possible, especially when we’re coming back to quite a lot of staff turnover in some of these venues,” Production Manager, Josh Barnes said, having spent the best part of the COVID-19 pandemic working with the Tour Production Group (TPG) and examining industry working practices.
“There are small improvements every production team can make to be mindful of how we treat the venues, touring crew and the planet,” he continued. “I believe having a good open door policy and checking-in with the crew makes a big difference to the success of a show.”
With the crew striving to be more sustainable, they relied on All Access Staging’s ability to hinge their decks to create the rooftop set piece. Using standard 8ft by 4ft Versa Deck panels, a custom hinge was fitted to allow the team to create any angle on stage.
“There aren’t many artists that could put up with performing at a 17° angle,” James remarked. “I think any less of an angle and the apex wouldn’t have felt sharp enough for what we wanted to achieve.”
The Hell Is Home Tour team featured Artist Manager, Lewis Rest; Production Manager, Josh Barnes; Creative Director, Lewis James; Production Coordinator, Phoebe Millard; Tour Manager, Andy Picton; Stage Manager, Ian McCarthy; FOH Engineer, Gerry Parchment; Monitor Engineer, Doug Maddison; ShowKontrol Technician, Ryan Barnsley; Colour Sound Experiment Lighting Account Handler, Alex Ryan; Video Account Handler, Paul Gilzene and Crew Boss, Jon Ricketts; Blackout Director, Kevin Monks; All Access Staging Carpenter, Kay Ramnikkumar; SSE Audio Systems Engineer, Tom Woolsey.
“It was great to get back out there and load a show into O2 Brixton Academy again, especially with such a passionate artist and audience in tow – I’m really glad that the artist enjoyed and embraced the unique stage design and used it to his full advantage,” Barnes concluded. “All of our suppliers – Colour Sound Experiment, Blackout, All Access Staging, Dynamite FX and SSE Audio – were accommodating and flexible to make sure that we could meet the needs of this design.”
For James, watching the show take flight was more meaningful knowing that much of the audience hadn’t heard this music live before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I feel like we are now just about getting to some sense of ‘normality’,” James concluded.
This article originally appeared in issue #269 of TPi, which you can read here.