U2's Longtime Stage Designer Talks 'Joshua Tree' Tour 2017

Willie Williams, the man responsible for every U2 show of the past 35 years, discusses big plans for live revival of 1987 classic

U2's longtime stage designer Willie Williams chats about the look and feel of the group's upcoming 'Joshua Tree' tour. Credit: Rich Fury/AP

Had U2 never come into contact with Willie Williams, their career would have likely unfolded in a pretty different way. The set director has created all their stages for the past 35 years, dating back to the October tour in 1982 when they were still headlining clubs.

As U2's popularity soared exponentially, so did Williams' budget and grand vision for their concerts. He's responsible for the multimedia overload of 1992-93's Zoo TV Tour, which still looks innovative a quarter century later. He managed to grow even bigger with 1997-98's PopMart, scaling back for the Elevation Tour in 2001 and Vertigo Tour in 2005-06 before creating the biggest stage in rock history for U2 360° in 2009. The 2015 Innocence + Experience Tour, featuring an enormous video cage that divided the hall in half, looked unlike any production ever before seen in arenas, and right now he's deep in the process of putting together the Joshua Tree Tour 2017, which will roll out to stadiums across America and Europe in May. We spoke to him about what to expect from the massive show.

How did you first hear about this tour?
When we were doing the show production rehearsals for iHeartRadio [Music Festival] and Dreamforce last year there was talk of doing this, but initially it was just an idea to mark the anniversary and do one or two shows. The idea was maybe one in the US and one in Europe. That was the first time it came across my radar. I was rather pleased it became a proper tour.

That's just a few months ago.
We were rehearsing in September.

Don't you usually know a year or so in advance about a stadium tour? That's a huge undertaking.
You're right. What's interesting is that when we had the first proper meeting about this everyone was really excited about the idea. I don't mean to sound surprised. When we initially meet in the very beginning of a tour cycle, it's kind of fantastic because you can talk about anything. There's absolutely no limits and you just put it all out there. Then you have to hone it down and the reality of making it fit and affordable kicks in. It's more towards the end of the process where you realize what the good ideas are and you get a bit more traction and people start to get excited. I suppose because this is a very clear idea, it's an idea we began the process with. Normally a big part of the process of putting a show together is figuring out what the idea is, so we can absolutely cut to the case.

Also, we're aware the album is only an hour long and the show needs to be longer than that, so how do you place it in the show? How do you make it work? Do you play it continuously? Do you disperse it with other works? All those things are still being decided, really, to be honest. But the overriding idea was there from the beginning. That was very, very helpful. What I didn't expect was the excitement of knowing you're onto something great has been there since Day One, since normally there's a big wilderness period when you're deciding a show and you're trying to figure out what it is you're doing. Yeah, so everyone is very excited. It takes very little imagination to turn this into something that can be great. 

How did the idea go from one or two shows into a worldwide tour?
I don't know. I won't lie to you. Most of what I know about that process is what I've read this week.

It's playing in stadiums. Will the staging be similar to the Joshua Tree tour of 1987 or will it be totally different?
[Laughs] Well, yes and no. We looked at the original staging, which is hilariously minimal. We used to call it maximal minimalism. Certainly for Europe, there was no reinforcement video for stadiums at all. At some of the largest stadiums in the U.S. we started putting up screens, but only behind the mix position, so only the back half of the stadium got camera images. It was amazing how music, just the music, filled those stadiums. Now, of course, production expectations are stratospherically higher than they were 30 years ago. But we looked at the original staging and it was real cute. I was quite drawn to the idea of just looking at the traditional festival stage, which is what that was, basically a box with PA on either side, and saying, "What can you do with this? This is the most outdated idea for touring imaginable, but through U2's eyes can we do something interesting with it?"

The truth of the matter is the sight lines don't work anymore. When you make a fake proscenium stage in a stadium, the sight lines only go to 150,160 degrees and they have to be all the way around. You have to have someone standing at the side of the stage who can see everything, so we let that go. We took the spirit of that kind of minimal CinemaScope idea where the look was a huge stretched image of the Joshua Tree that ran as wide as we could afford on a given day, and we've taken that spirit and run with it. But, yeah, there will be camera pictures.

It's going to be a classic end stage, though. It won't be anything as unusual as the 360 stage on the last stadium tour.
What's great to me personally is this has come as a Get Out of Jail Free card for how to follow U2 360° because that really was the stadium show to end all stadium shows. It'll be very unlikely we'll ever see anything like that go out again. And so what do you do after that? How do you go back into stadiums with something that's not that? Whereas this, The Joshua Tree absolutely can be at one end of the stadium. It can be a nod to how it was 30 years ago and the spirit of that stage can be there, so it's perfectly legitimate. You don't have to explain why you've gone back to one end of the stadium; it's just obvious. So for me personally it's just great because next time around we play stadiums we can do what we like. It's worked out real nice.

I'm looking at a seating chart now. Is the B Stage in the shape of a tree?
Oh, is that a commercially available seating chart?

Yeah, it's on Ticketmaster.
[Laughs] Oh, OK, gosh. Yes. If it's on Ticketmaster, I don't mind telling you. We're still kind of working that out, but the shadow of the tree is on the pitch.

Do you think the video content will be archival footage of them in the desert?
I'm sure we will, but there isn't very much of it. What there is we have used to death, basically. And again, as I've said before, we'll certainly take the spirit of that footage and aesthetic. We're not going to invent a new aesthetic for that album and that time. It's basically just 8 mm movies that Anton [Corbijn] shot when he was doing the album-cover shoot. And we've used them to death [laughs]. They were even in the Zoo TV show. But the spirit of that will certainly be around, but as has been said by the guys in the band, the purpose of this is not to recreate the Joshua Tree tour. It isn't about nostalgia. It's just looking at that record now and it's become horrifyingly pertinent, really, given that record was made in the Thatcher/Reagan era. As Bono and the Edge have said, it feels like the world has come full circle in bizarre ways.

I spoke to the Edge a couple of weeks ago and he said he wasn't sure if they should start with "Streets" and go right into the record, or build to it later in the show. How do you think it would work best?
Yes, but I'm not going to tell you [laughs]. I can't, really, but all will be revealed on opening night. Clearly The Joshua Tree is about an hour long and the show needs to be almost twice that length. Part of the reason I can't say is we won't know until we hear them play it. I think we have a great strategy, a really solid way of doing it without it being a classic-album nostalgia show, but we just won't know until we hear them play it.

Did you see Springsteen play The River or Roger Waters do The Wall? Have you gone to any of these other album concerts?
I saw Roger Waters do The Wall. He was fortunate it was two hours long so he can just do that and nothing else.

You played arenas on the last tour. What challenges do stadiums present that you don't have with arenas?
The elements, obviously. In a fun way, stadiums are more consistent as a canvas. With arenas, when you're inside a smaller building like that, day-to-day things can change in more ways. Things still look consistent in stadiums, but daylight, weather and those things aren't on your sides. Also, the gestures just have to be so much bigger. I was thrilled with Innocence + Experience because we could finally play with morphing or merging human beings with video content. You can only do that if the scale of the human being makes sense to the human eye, and we haven't been able to do that in a long time. Obviously that you just can't do in a stadium because the person in the back row has no impact on the human scale. You need to be much bigger and much broader, but that's always fun. What's always been great with U2 is each tour has been a change of canvas. Almost always if we go outdoors we go indoors next, or vice versa, or a totally different approach. That keeps it interesting. I'm really enjoying being in stadiums again. Simplicity is probably the wrong word because it's still a big production, but I think there will be a cleanness about it that will be refreshing after the last one. What's funny is Innocence + Experience looked like a simple gesture, but it was one of the most complicated shows that U2 has ever done. This will be simpler, larger gestures and letting music fill the stadium.

After the 360° tour, did you worry you couldn't top that?
I didn't worry about it because back at Zoo TV people were saying, "How on earth will you follow this?" My joke was, "The next one will be bigger," which of course it ended up being [with PopMart]. I never worry about it. Because with U2, they are absolutely aware as I am that if you go out with the same canvas next time you've got nothing else to throw at it since a lot goes with a U2 production. As I said earlier, it's wonderful to go back into stadiums with something as different as 360°. It just follows very naturally and very thematically since they've never been a band for looking backwards. It's ironic, but if there's any complaints this is about nostalgia it's probably the same people who to go a show and insist on complaining that U2 are playing their new material. You're absolutely damned if you do and damned if you don't. So many reviews will have a little go by saying, "Did they have to play so much of the new record?" They certainly haven't been people to look back, but with Songs of Innocence having been so much about the genesis of the band and that time and place ... it's so apropos to look at that period of the band, the Joshua Tree [era] and to follow that with Songs of Experience and what we will do with it when we come back. It feels like a very natural progression.

Do you think the next leg of the Innocence + Experience Tour will have the same basic staging as the last one, or could it change around a bit?
That was always the plan, of course. But it was going to follow within months originally, where now it will be two years later. There will be all sorts of compelling reasons to keep the same staging since I feel like we only scratched the surface of what we could do with that. But two years will have gone by and the world is an entirely different place. But we'll cross that bridge when we get to it.

U2's The Edge explains how 'Joshua Tree' has come full circle.