Story & photos by Michael Raine
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Professional Lighting & Production magazine
When two creative minds meet and strike a synergy, it’s an exciting moment. Two people that see the world in a similar and complementary way can exponentially expand possibilities and challenge their imaginations to achieve a shared goal. When lighting designer and all-round production Renaissance man David Boris Mahon discusses first meeting Josh Ramsay, the charismatic frontman for Marianas Trench, he gets visibly and audibly excited. His eyes widen and voice rises, recalling, “We start talking creatively, and it’s like that first day, we fell in love! It was magic.”
The LD and rock star met a few years ago when Mahon was tour managing for Canadian pop star Carly Rae Jepsen, who co-wrote her world-conquering song “Call Me Maybe” with Ramsay.
“We started talking and, creatively, we gelled right away and my background with Cirque du Soleil and people that he’s liked, we just gelled back and forth because of that,” says Mahon.
“We were like, ‘We found each other! You want to do the biggest, craziest things and I want to build them and make them happen!’ Most artists are like, ‘I don’t want to take away from the show or take away from me on stage,’ but Josh is like, ‘I want it to be all about the show and I am just another mechanism to entertain.’ Also, just having a person who is so down to earth and willing to go with ideas and try them… When you’ve got that kind of an open mind, it helps a lot.”
For Marianas Trench, who have earned a reputation as an exceptional live band, a tour is more than a promotional vehicle for an album – it’s a creative extension of it. As such, for the Never Say Die Tour that travelled through hockey arenas from Ontario to British Columbia in March and April 2016 in support of the band’s fourth album, Astoria, Mahon and Ramsay began discussing the show design while the album was still being recorded. Both the visual and musical concepts of Astoria and the corresponding U.S. and Canadian tours are heavily inspired by the classic ‘80s teen adventure movie The Goonies, which every child of the ‘90s is intimately familiar with because it was seemingly always on TV.
While all concert LDs must be familiar with the music to design a show, it’s rare they hear an album before it’s finished. The band would send Mahon songs almost as soon as they were recorded in order to brainstorm show ideas that suited the music’s ‘80s aesthetic. Mahon describes first hearing “Astoria” and “End of an Era,” the songs that open and close both the album and live show: “I listened to [‘Astoria’] five times in a row and my mouth was just open the whole time going, ‘Oh my god, this is going to be so fucking amazing!’” he excitedly recalls. “The beginning and end of the show, which to me are always the most fabulous parts, when the band first takes the stage with the excitement and adrenaline and everything going, I think it’s the most highly anticipated moment in the arena and then, of course, when you’re winding it down and you want to leave them wanting more and you’re pumping out all that excitement again. So ‘Astoria’ and ‘End of an Era’ were written for that big rock intro and outro. There are no better songs that will t that. For me, that makes my job easy because we’ve got all this juice to play to whereas some songs don’t have a lot of dynamics and a lot of ups and downs in them. But these, they go from almost an opera song to a full-on rock song to a folk song and back, so we’ve got a lot of dynamics.”
A central component of the Never Say Die shows was animated content projected onto three large panels set up in a shallow trapezium, which, along with the staging, were supplied by Solotech. VER provided the six Panasonic PT-DZ21KU HD DLP projectors, two on each panel, that were used alongside a Hippotizer V4 Media Server to deliver the custom video content produced by Toronto-based IAMSTATIC. The content takes the audience through various “worlds,” moving from neon palm trees and sun to a Goonies-inspired cave and then a nighttime scene of silhouetted trees and a prominent full moon, ultimately closing with a cityscape with helicopters. Animated sequences featuring a “Naughty Josh” character, a mischievous animated portrayal of Ramsay with top hat and cane, provide transitions between the songs and worlds.
“We looked at doing an LED wall and a lot of other things, but we ended up going with projection for two reasons,” Mahon begins. “One is because we wanted to cover a huge area, and the second thing is Josh had seen a show that had projection in it and where there was a lot of interaction with the characters on the screen and vice versa and the LED, the pixilation, didn’t give as much of a real life look. We want him to look more like a real character on the screen as opposed to a pixelated character.”
At IAMSTATIC, company directors Ron Gervais and Dave Greene were the creative leads on the animation, going back and forth with Marianas Trench’s Production Manager, Randall Knight, to find the right looks. “They did an amazing job on getting it together. Custom animation can lead you down a very expensive road and we needed to find a design house that could deliver what we needed without blowing our budgets. What they delivered was way above and beyond,” says Knight. “I think they just got excited to do the project. It was supposed to be a couple of static backgrounds with maybe a movement here or there and it ends up that all of them have lots of movement and different layers of things that we can do, so we’re triggering multiple layers of video at once. We decided to use our main backgrounds as one video layer and then any of the movement in separate layers. That means we were able to compile our sequences together when we did pre-production. We weren’t 100 per cent sure when these things were going to move and couldn’t really figure that out [until pre-production] so it needed to be dynamic. To say the least, this was quite an interesting process from concept to final product.”
Budgets, of course, are a primary concern for every tour, but especially so if, as with Mahon and Ramsay, imaginative minds go wild. “We developed the concept just talking about it over the years and when it came down to knowing this tour was coming up, that’s when we really started putting it down on paper and started to dial in things and price things out and bring it down from a dream to a reality, because it was a much bigger dream,” says Mahon.
Nonetheless, Mahon and company’s ultimate goal is to always provide more than you would normally expect. Granted, Marianas Trench are very popular, selling out theatres in the U.S. and Australia, arenas across Canada, and having won numerous MuchMusic Video Awards, JUNO Awards, Indie Awards, and more. But as any Canadian tour manager knows, touring this vast, sparse country is costly.
“We try to juice it up more than any other band that’s going through [a venue] and add a little more entertainment value,” says Mahon. “We go in everywhere like an arena touring band and then represent ourselves with a big light show, a big everything, because if you make them picture you in there, they’ll put you in there, I think. Whereas, if you go backwards and go out there like, ‘We’re going to save some money and nickel and dime this,’ well then you come out looking like every other band that plays that room.”
For the Never Say Die Tour, given the 1980s theme, the overall plan was to go with an old-school look but with modern effects, filling the air with gobos and moving fixtures. “We wanted to just make it bigger than life,” says Mahon. As well, the LD says, especially because there were left and right stage wings that protruded into the audience, it’s important that no matter from which angle you see the stage, it still looks like a big rock show. “I find that if you don’t have every single angle covered with lights behind [the band], then you take the rock star out of the environment and now he’s just playing in nothingness, right? It kind of takes away the rock star effect, so if you want him to really look like a rock star, you want the smoke and you want the beams and the colour and the silhouetting.”
For this, Christie Lites supplied dozens of Elation Professional and Martin fixtures. The Elation fixtures included 50 Platinum Beam 5Rs, 22 ZW37 Wash RGBW LED moving head beam/wash luminaires, and 14 ELAR 108 Par RGBWs. For Martin fixtures, there were 17 MAC Viper Profiles, 18 MAC 101 LED moving head washes, 22 MAC Quantum Profiles, and 14 Atomic 3000 DMX strobes.
Speaking about the Martin MAC Quantum Profiles, Lighting Director and Operator Jaye Murphy says he has been really impressed by the new LED product. From his viewpoint behind the grandMA2 Light console at FOH, Murphy says, “They’re really great in a 2,000-seat venue, that level, and we’ve had them out here on the arena level. With a little help from the Vipers, they’re getting it done. I’m very impressed with that fixture because it’s taken the market a long time to get LED technology in a spot that looks that good and that’s the lamp.”
For Mahon, one of his objectives was to create a lot of silhouette and shadow looks on the band members as they moved around the stage for that “chiselled” body look. After all, they’re young, good looking, toned rock stars and their audience includes a lot of young female (and male) fans. “I moved the front truss a little closer to have more of a down light so I get more shadow under the abs and things like that. I want more of a defined, chiselled look to them as opposed to a more washed-out front look,” he says, noting his own experience lighting fashion shows. “If you’re blasting too much front light, then it just whites it all out and an arm becomes an arm as opposed to looking all ripped up. You know how guys are – when you flex, you want to see it,” he laughs.
Of course, any time that lights are used along with projection, there is concern about the video being washed out. Mahon and Murphy say they avoided this by building their preset effects parameters so that everything is off the screens. Of course, there are reflections from the stage, cymbals, and such that reach the screens, but it wasn’t too much of concern. As Mahon says, the screens of animated content act as a backdrop, mostly static images with spurts of movement, while the band is playing. Between songs, when there is a transition to a new animated world, the lights go down to draw attention back to the screens. As Murphy adds, “We don’t want the kids watching TV; we want them watching the band and so we didn’t want to sacrifice lighting to help pull video in.”
At FOH, on his grandMA2 console, Murphy has about 375 lighting cues and nearly 90 video cues programmed, and credits Erik Agur with helping him program under tight time constraints. There are six timecoded video interludes while the majority of the show is controlled manually. “I like to keep the lighting-hard hitting and exciting because the band comes off that way on stage and Josh wants it epic. So the cues are epic and the design of the show is really wide with the Platinum Beams out on the wings, which gives a really wide look,” says Murphy.
One of the complicating factors for light and projector positioning is that nothing could be hung dead centre because of the band’s fly rig. A highlight of Marianas Trench’s recent shows has been Ramsay flying over the audience, contorting himself upside down and doing flips while singing. The fly rig is owned by the band and was designed and built by Mahon and his Las Vegas-based team. “I’ve designed a lot of different things for Cirque du Soleil and stuff over the years and have been building flying systems for a long time. When Josh heard about that, he wanted to fly, of course, so that was his first thing he asked me when we met – ‘Can you make me fly?’” laughs Mahon.
With the centred fly rig, no trussing could cross the centre of the stage, meaning all trussing and cabling had to be positioned in a separated stage left and stage right arrangement. “[That] is an obstacle when you’re hanging projectors and trying to get a symmetrical centre shot,” says Mahon, noting the two centre screen projectors had to shoot from slightly off centre from the divided front truss. “Same with lighting fixtures; when you’re trying to light dead centre and you’re coming in from the angles, you don’t have a happy place right above it. That is another reason why I did the silhouetting from behind as opposed to from the top, because we couldn’t get that dead centre point and to have two fixtures coming in was too much wash.”
As is Mahon and the band’s style, no detail is left ignored on stage, and this extends even to Ramsay’s microphone stand and the band’s guitars. Ramsay’s mic stand is another custom creation by Mahon, who transformed a typical bland rod into another element of the light show. Inside a transparent cylinder is a fibre rod wrapped in 510 RGB LEDs. There is an internal battery that connects to both ends of the continuous LED string so there is no power drop off. Those 510 LED channels are controlled by Murphy at FOH via wireless DMX. “We can change any colour we want or we can have chases going up and down and around it to make it look like it’s screwing into the ground. I have one chase we use that makes it look like that Star Trek-like effect where it looks like it is atomizing and it’s all over the place with little white lights through it,” explains Mahon. He also notes the band uses LED-adorned guitars, which are triggered by the band members because it would take another console to accommodate that many additional wireless DMX channels.
While Professional Lighting & Production spent a day at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre with Marianas Trench’s crew ahead of a sold out show, it was obvious this team had a little extra love for their role on the tour. Speaking with Mahon, Murphy, and Knight, as well as some of the audio and staging crew, they exuded positivity and excitement, which, truthfully, is not always apparent when dropping in half way through a national tour. Also apparent was that this feeling started at the top with the band. “Of course it is [more fun] because the artist is so into your own creativity and just lets you roll with it,” attests Murphy. “They want to see that. They want everyone’s creative input, which is great. You know, as opposed to some other typical, standard rock shows, this is definitely a fun one and one that you can put up on your wall and be proud of.”
Michael Raine is the Assistant Editor of Professional Lighting & Production.