U2's Stage Director Breaks Down Band's 'Experience' Tour - Rolling Stone
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U2’s Stage Director Breaks Down the Band’s New Experience + Innocence Tour

Willie Williams on U2’s latest set list, their augmented-reality app and why he briefly thought about disarming everyone’s phone

U2's Stage Director Breaks Down The Band's Upcoming 'Experience' TourU2's Stage Director Breaks Down The Band's Upcoming 'Experience' Tour

U2's longtime stage director reveals all of the group's big plans for their 2018 Experience + Innocence Tour.

Olaf Heine

On Wednesday, U2 will take the stage at Tulsa’s BOK Center and kick off their Experience + Innocence world tour. It’s the culmination of months of rehearsal, though they originally envisioned the run taking place right after the Innocence + Experience Tour of 2015. But that was before they decided to take 2017 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree with a worldwide stadium tour. It was also before Bono had his still-undefined “brush with mortality” that caused the band to drastically re-work Songs of Experience, their newest LP.

Despite everything that’s happened in the world of U2 in the past three years, the Experience + Innocence Tour will initially seem very familiar to anyone that saw the group on the Innocence + Experience Tour. They are using the same basic stage, though it has many new bells and whistles that emerge throughout the course of the evening – beginning with an augmented-reality section during the opening number viewable to anyone that has the U2 Experience app on their phone.

During the manic final days before opening night, U2’s longtime stage director Willie Williams phoned us up to talk about the show.

At the time you first conceived of the Innocence + Experience and the Experience + Innocence tours, did you know they were going to be two separate tours with a big gap between them?
No. That wasn’t the plan. But a few things happened. This whole thing started with a big huddle with the whole creative team and the band at their place in the South of France. We had a weekend to really get into it. It was actually five years ago. [The group’s stage architect] Mark Fisher [who died in 2013] came, so that’s how long ago it was. We really got into it. They were playing us the new music and really stating to unwrap this idea of Innocence and Experience and the two journeys. They were very clear about the first journey, which is teenagers growing up in Dublin in a violent world and being in your bedroom and looking at the world outside through the window and trying to figure out how you fit in. That seemed quite clear.

We always had a sense that, in some way, part two would be the journey home when you’ve gone out in the world. There were several things that came up. One was a pair of phrases, where the first one was borrowed from [their 1981 song] “Rejoice”: “I can’t change the world, but I can change the world in me.” That’s the sort of attitude that they had as teenagers, which is not uncommon. The companion is when you’re a grownup, especially a grownup with some influence like they are, it’s “I can change the world.” In some small way you can change the world. You realize that given the human condition you can’t change the world in you.

Those two lines were very much part of the initial narrative. The first part of the journey was dealing with violence outside. Then when you’re a grownup it’s more about dealing with the violence and things that are inside you, who you are. All of those things came up. We spent the most wonderful weekend with them just telling stories about growing up on the same street and all that kind of thing. Sharon Blankson, who grew up with them, was there. She is their stylist and she’s on our creative team. And Gavin Friday was there and he grew up with them. I came from a not dissimilar situation. I grew up in Yorkshire [England] in the 1970s. We’re exactly the same age, similar kind of social position. There was an awful lot of resonance.

What’s been remarkable about that is that some of their stories and ideas and the things that came up, the images that we produced, in the end we put them all in a big physical scrapbook. This is myself, Es Devlin and Rick Lipson from the creative team. We actually made a physical scrapbook since we’re so tired of doing CAD [computer-aided design] drawings. That scrapbook has over five years been an ongoing source of inspiration. Even for this show, we went back and looked at the things we talked about. It’s been, without doubt, the most coherent narrative of any show I’ve worked on with U2 or anybody else. That’s been great.

What were the original ideas?
I initially proposed that we should do a trilogy of shows, three shows over three different nights. That was quickly brought down to two shows, which makes more sense. It was the journey out and the journey home. Initially, we thought we’d do a tour where we’d do pairs of shows in each city and do a night one and night two where night one was Innocence and night two was Experience. Of course, it became obvious that to do that they’d have to play an enormous amount of unreleased material. A lot of the Experience songs were very much in formation.

In the end, we thought the thing to do was Innocence one year and Experience the next year. Then with one thing and another and life getting in the way, one year became two years and then the idea of The Joshua Tree came up. That was going to be just a couple of celebration shows and it turned into a year-long stadium tour. Life got in the way a little bit. I smiled when I realized that if you count The Joshua Tree, which has somehow become part of this narrative, we have ended up doing the trilogy of shows. Even the things we thought had gone away were still there.

It’s really been great to have such a strong conceptual framework and such a strong narrative to work with because the big question forever at so many rock shows, not so much with U2, is that you can design something wonderful and the question you never quite answer is, “Why was it there?” Obviously, the iconography and narrative of most rock and pop shows is completely arbitrary whereas this has been a lot more about storytelling. It can be a bit of a cliché, but it really is. Now we’re back to finish the story.

How did your conception of the Experience Tour change over the past few years?
Had we gone out in 2016 with Experience I’m sure we would have used exactly the same staging and just told the second part of the story. But as time goes by the technology develops at such an extraordinary rate we can do more now. Also, since we’re coming back [after three years] we felt it couldn’t be exactly the same. At first glance, it looks exactly the same, but everything is much cleverer than it was.

There are few things more boring to talk about than video screens, but the screen we’re using is nearly 10 times the resolution than the screen we used just three years ago. It’s also 40 percent more transparent. I don’t even know how that’s possible, but that’s the kind of rate things are developing. And with the Joshua Tree screen being so stunningly high-res, it is nice to come back to this one with a screen that’s really crisp. It could have looked rather crunchy by comparison. It’s partly because the technology has developed and we can do these things just because we can and partly because we needed some other tools to continue the storytelling.

But when I walk into the arena, the stage will look very similar to how it did in 2015?
It will appear to be the same, yes. Obviously, we’re preserved what we call the Innocence Suite, which is the core of the storytelling, the “Cedarwood Road” part. We’ve preserved that as a piece because obviously that’s very important in the storytelling. But about 75 percent of the show is brand new.

Then there’s the app with the augmented-reality component of the show.
Indeed! That came about just through technological curiosity, really. It’s funny. We looked at what has come to be known as augmented reality for the 360 tour. We actually tried to do something, which now you’d just recognize as augmented reality. We built a jacket for Bono that had markers on it and in-camera you would have animation for it. Our model for it was the Peter Gabriel “Sledgehammer” video. Back then, given the scale of doing it at stadiums eight years ago, it just wasn’t feasible. But that sort of thing, being able to play with live images, has been in our minds for a long time.

I started looking at this probably a couple of years ago. Of course, augmented reality on the phone is pretty commonplace now, but I became intrigued about doing it on a large scale. The whole point of a rock show is that it’s a communal experience. Normally you’d just have your face stuck in your phone, so we wanted to turn it into an experience you share with thousands of other people at the same time. That seemed quite intriguing. It’s by no means the backbone of the show, but it’s another tool for the storytelling. When you see it in context you’ll understand the part of the story that it’s telling.

There were two concerns I had about it. One was, I just didn’t want to be in that situation where suddenly on screen there’s something that says, “OK, everyone, get your phones out. Press the red button.” Nothing crushes the vibe of a performance more than issuing instructions. Also, of course, I suppose there’s a little bit of irony in that the bane of 21st-century entertainment is that nobody is watching. Everyone is just on their phones. And so it’s a little bit tongue-in-cheek that there’s one part of the show you can only see by looking at your phone. In a way, it really reminds me of the mood in which we approached the first large-scale video screens for Zoo TV. Up until that point, U2 were absolutely about authenticity and the live experience and not wanting cameras to get in the way. But on that tour, they were the center of the whole proceedings and the first 15 minutes of the Zoo TV show it was impossible to look at the band because there was so much going in. In a sense, there’s a similar little wink there because this is us saying, “If you’re going to look at your phone we’re going to give you something to look at that’s part of the narrative rather than you just making a movie that nobody is ever going to watch.”

Another part of that is that the point of the pre-show is for you to figure out how to use it and you’re not spending the first song figuring out how to use the app. Then it’s done and and the story moves on, so it’s not the backbone of the show. It’s very much a detail, but it does add to the storytelling in a way that I don’t think anything else would have.

My biggest annoyance in going to a show is dealing with everyone around me on their phones the whole time. At these shows, I’m hoping that after people use the phones for the first song they’ll put them back in their pockets.
I had a couple of thoughts about that. One was that the app would run its course and then it would crash your phone. That was one. Or that it would suck the life out of [the] battery to the point where you couldn’t use it. But then I thought about the lawsuits, the reputation … [laughs]

How different will the set list be from the Innocence tour?
Probably I’d say about three quarters of the show is new. Also, what’s lovely is that if you consider these shows as a trilogy – and that this is the third new U2 tour in four years, which is unbelievable since it usually takes us four years to get through one cycle, let alone three – I didn’t feel the need to check all the boxes. If you’re playing in stadiums and the band hasn’t been to the U.S. in four years it’s a very different kind of expectation, whereas I think it’s incredible that they were able to present The Joshua Tree last year without it being labelled as a sell-out/greatest-hits kind of thing. So it’s really important that this show is forward-looking. There’s still plenty of hits, but we were able to take a different stance, really.

Were they ever tempted to play no songs off The Joshua Tree to balance out the last tour?
My first thought – and a lot of things with me are provocation – was that we shouldn’t do anything from the previous two tours. [Laughs] I have to say, that would have been a little brave. Obviously, we are repeating songs from both of the previous tours. But if a song is there it’s because it is part of the storytelling. There isn’t the same sense of obligation because we haven’t been through town in a long time. It’s been quite liberating. Then when there’s a point in the show for a classic song, there’s kind of double the resonance, actually, because it doesn’t feel like you’re just trotting it out. Everything is there for a real reason.

The band has said they want to play older songs they’ve never done. Are they doing that?
Yeah. Again, let’s not speak too soon because we’ve still got another few days to go. Invariably the last week is where a show struggles the most. It wrestles with you the most. Yes, they’ve certainly rehearsed things they’ve never done before, which is really exciting.

How much flexibility do they have from night to night to change around the setlist?
Initially it’ll be pretty locked down because, as with Innocence, the show is enormously complicated. My favorite thing is to design a show that has these amazing set pieces which are completely locked down and there are certain portions of the show between these pieces where anything can happen. So you can take a chance and if it goes completely off piece everybody knows in two songs time we can regroup and get back into the groove. That’s how it will end up, I’m quite sure. Initially, of course, you have to rehearse a show and then you give yourself some wiggle room.

There’s always that B-stage segment. I’ll see them bring a fan onstage to to play guitar on a song they haven’t done in years.
Those things tend to find themselves. Those things by definition aren’t things you can really rehearse. We used to laugh about carefully rehearsed spontaneity. You have to sort of assemble the beast first and then see what you can do with it. I’m sure that will be similar in that respect.

Do you think the tour will go into 2019?
I have no idea, but we may as well. We might as well just tour for the rest of our lives at this point. [Laughs]

Is any part of you burned out by having to do three tours in four years?
It should be. But as I say, I think because everything we’ve done over the past five years has come from this very clear narrative, in a funny way the physical designing of the show has been less of a burden than it might normally be. Also, of course, for this tour the fact we know we’re going into the Innocence/Experience structure, the show will deliver many surprises, but the shape of the stage isn’t one of them and so that kind of removed a layer of burden. We should be a lot more exhausted than we are, but when something is going well it’s incredibly invigorating. For people of their stature to be making new work at this level is really invigorating. Physically, of course, it is exhausting. We’re all getting older and just the travel and the stamina is much harder than it used to be, but creatively it’s fresher than it’s ever been. That’s what keeps the ship sailing.

Is any part of your mind plotting out a possible Achtung Baby 30 tour in case they want to do one in 2021?
Absolutely. Why not? I was so amazed that they were talking about doing a Joshua Tree album show. I just laughed. Bono told me himself so I knew it wasn’t hearsay, but I just laughed because it seems to be the least likely thing they would ever do. That having been done, all bets are off. Nothing would surprise me now.

I’ll be in Tulsa. I can’t wait to see the show.
Come see our first night stumble through. [Laughs] No, it’s going to be night two where the wheels come off. Night one is just manic energy.

At the first night on Innocence, the Edge fell off the stage. Do you remember watching that happen?
No. It was the very, very last moment of the show. Those of us who travel with them, we obviously have to be in the vehicles. They call it the Runner. During the last song we leg it out of there. We were in the vehicle and knew nothing about it until we all got back to the hotel. We were high-fiving each other and then someone said – and this is a 21st-century moment – someone said, “The Edge fell offstage at the end.” We were like, “You’re kidding.” This is after the tour got postponed and Bono fell off his bike and all that business. We were in Vancouver waiting for the elevator in the hotel and somebody looked on YouTube and it was already there. Miraculously, he was OK.

Imagine if he’d shattered his arm or something.
That would have been it! We waited five years for that show and we would have done it once and that would have been that! Let’s hope we get through this first one unscathed. 

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