View from the Crew — Blur live

Blur played at the Brixton Academy in Jan ’98 and I was there to coax interviews from a horrendously hungover crew and get the lowdown on the band’s gear.

Published in the Melody Maker, 17 Jan ’98

Going for that lo-fi sound? Then let Blur be your guide, with a little help from Suw Charman.

It’s not often that you hear Blur described as being “just a four-piece rock set-up”, but that was the opinion of their backline techs, who seem convinced that there is really nothing special about the band at all. Whilst the humble punter may care to disagree, it does appear that their equipment is fairly normal, if not actually run of the mill.

Graham uses a Marshall Super Lead 100-watt amp, a basic all-valve clean amp with no reverb or distortion, which he uses with 1968 vintage cabinets. “Those are his own paintings on his Marshall head, it’s his favourite,” says Jason Cox, the guitar tech. “He’s also trying out a new Marshall head, a Dual Super Lead. They gave us one, and Jimmy Page and all the other rock ‘n’ roll-type players. It’s superb, it’s got two channels so you can have two different types of distortion. You’ve got more EQ and it’s got a spring reverb on it, which you don’t normally get on Marshall amplifiers.”

Graham’s main guitars are a Gibson Custom Les Paul and a 1952 Fender Telecaster, both of which are reissues. He’s also got an original 1962 Gibson SG, a Telecaster Thin and a 1993 Gibson 335 that’s one of only three in “Autumn Sunburst”. A further two Strats, a spare Les Paul and spare ’52 Telecaster lurk in their cases at the side of the stage. Jason also looks after Damon’s Guild acoustic, which makes only an occasional outing during the gig.

The pedalboard that provides Graham with the means to do his screechy, fuzzy or just plain howly bits starts off with a noise gate and a digital delay. Then there’s Jason’s home-made wah wah which, “rather than using it as a wah wah, you can just set a frequency and turn it on and off”. Other effects include “an old Boss vibrato, which they stopped making probably five or six years ago, two Rat distortions, a new Boss tremolo, a new Boss flanger, and a Dod Punkifier, which is his favourite”.

Indeed, Graham does his stuff impeccably throughout the gig, especially in ‘On Your Own’ and ‘Killer For Your Love’, where he seems more to just swipe at the strings than actually play them. ‘Bank Holiday’, which live has always been fairly fast, is now reaching ridiculous speeds and it’s a wonder that they all manage to keep up. These days, though, ‘Chinese Bombs’ accompanies it in the lets-see-how-fast-we-can-finish-this stakes.

It’s another all valve system with the bass amp, as Alex James prefers the Ampeg SVT2, a 300 watt head with valve pre- and power amps, a seven-band graphic equaliser and rotary tone control. Although no longer in production, the SVT2 is a favourite with many bassists and is still quite common. Used with the Marshall Shreadmaster distortion pedal, it gives the nice deep bass sound that James prefers.

Although previously he used a Fender Precision, according to the bass backline tech, Alex McCartan, “he changed his mind at the beginning of the year and now we’ve got two Ernie Ball Musicman StingRays. I don’t know why, I think it’s because they look more glamorous. The sound engineer hates them, he wishes we would use the Precisions, but I think they sound nice; they’re nice to play and they’re shiny as well.”

Indeed, the black and rosewood StingRays both get a comprehensive polishing before the gig starts. With such attention to coolness, James has managed to subordinate his bass playing almost entirely. Whilst there are plenty of bassists out there with better technique, there are few that can produce sounds that swing so effortlessly between extremes of subtlety and full in-yer-face-ness and you’d have to be a real spaniel to ignore how much his bass adds to songs like ‘Beetlebum’ or ‘Girls and Boys’.

Alex McCartan also looks after the keyboards for Diana Gutkind, an Ensoniq ASR10 and an Akai keyboard running off the Akai S3000 sampler that lives on Dave’s drum riser. Diana’s been lurking in the background of Blur’s gigs for “at least three years. She’s not really supposed to be looked at, she’s just doing what she’s got to do.”

If the objective is to keep the additional musicians out of sight, it’s achieved with ease as, although you can hear them, so therefore they must exist, the keyboardist and four-piece brass section remain essentially unlit and virtually invisible.

Damon, who used to play more of the keyboard parts, now only has the Korg MS10 synthesiser that he “just fiddles about with now and again when he feels like it”. It’s housed on the riser, just in front of the kit, and Damon only uses it once throughout the whole gig, but has problems hearing it in his monitor.

Dave’s kit is a Pearl Masters Custom Maple, with Remo Ambassador heads. He’s got a steel shell snare, although Stuart Lowbridge, the drum roadie, will be changing it soon because “I’m just bored with it. It’s not loud enough anymore.”

There’s a smattering of hi-tech additions too.

“We use a Tascam DA30 Mk II DAT player for songs like On Your Own and Death of a Party where Dave’s playing along to a backing track. The Q-Logic metronome is for a couple of tracks where he needs to keep in time with Graham’s effects.”

There’s an Akai S3000 XL sampler with an ME35T trigger unit for effects like the sound of breaking glass at the beginning of ‘Parklife’. “He doesn’t use it so much now,” says Stuart, “only on about four tracks.”

Without props like the standard lamp and wardrobe that have accompanied Blur in the past, the stage is fairly clear and uncluttered, especially as most of the speaker clusters are flown. The stage is dressed in a very minimal way with camouflage-style fabrics in the colours of the Blur album cover that almost disguise the lighting and the video walls. The drapes at the sides of the stage are largely missing, so you can see just exactly how big the stage area really is at London’s Brixton Academy, which is surprisingly small.

This conspires to give the gig a very lo-fi feel, despite the hi-fi quality of the PA. The support bands have a completely separate front-of-house (FOH) set up from Blur, and, although the gear is “all rented in, just close to our specification”, Matt Butcher, the FOH Sound Engineer does favour Midas. “If it says Midas on it, we like it.”

Blur’s desk is a Midas XL4, which has automated switch functions and input levels, just to make life easier. “You’ve got all the song names, and you programme in various things” to give the basic set-up which is then tweaked depending on what’s going on. “I’m always trying to work out what the hell they’re doing on stage,” says Matt, “I need to know where Damon’s climbed up. If he starts climbing over the PA you have to follow him round stage. It depends what sort of mood they’re in, quite often they just start messing around and if it’s not exactly as it was every night then I just stand here and go ‘What are you doing that for? You know I don’t like it when you do that.’ And I get very annoyed if anyone starts forgetting the words. Come on, even I know the words.”

But it’s not all standing in front of a big bank of “little pretty flashing lights” pushing buttons and smoking for Matt. “I try to wander around,” he says, “and it’s a bad gig if I don’t get away from the mixing desk. There’s no point standing in just one place in the room if there are a couple of songs I can actually get out in.”

He’s thankful that, on this occasion, Blur choose not to sound check as it’s not strictly necessary this close to the end of the tour. “We just line check with the backline techs and do it festival stylee,” he says. “We’ve been touring the same gear every day so once it’s roughly set up, you can just move on from there.”

That way, there’s no need for the band to come in and just be “sitting around, getting very bored” and “making filthy amounts of noise onstage. They do tend to just indulge themselves with simply lashings and lashings of decibels for hours.”

Simon Higgs, the monitor engineer, is Matt’s long suffering other half. He agrees with the FOH engineer about Midas desks. “This is the XL3 which is designed as a dual purpose front of house and monitor desk” — and on it he has 14 separate mixes, ones for the each member of band and side fills that cover the whole stage, and each one of those has a graphic equaliser on it.

“I’ve got Beringer Composer compressor and expander unit which is used on the bass and acoustic guitar. The reverb unit for Damon’s vocal is a Lexicon PCM70 and the multi-effects unit is a Yamaha SPX1000. Plus I use Drawmer noise gates just on Dave’s toms although he doesn’t like gates on any of his drums — he doesn’t like the sound. He doesn’t have toms in his stereo drum fill speaker, which is a different make from the others, it’s the only one he likes – a 5,000 watt Nexo PS15.”

The floor wedges are 1,500 watts each, so that’s over 25,000 watts in monitors alone. Matt didn’t seem to know how powerful the PA was, but standing out front you get the feeling that you’ve just spent one and a half hours having an ultra-sound massage.

The Video Wall
“The equipment we take out on tour is basically a mobile TV studio,” says Richard Burford, the Video Engineer for Presentation Services Ltd (PSL), who are contributing the video screens and expertise to run them. “We’re cutting live cameras to, in most venues, four screens, but in the Brixton Academy it’s only two because it’s too small to fit the other two in. Most of the show is live footage and in a few songs, like ‘Beetlebum’, ‘Song 2’ and ‘Girls and Boys’, we’ve got video clips running.”

All these clips are on computer.

“That’s instead of having them on conventional tape, which takes time to rewind and re-cue,” says Richard. “The Flamingo computer has 54 gigabytes of hard drive space, which is enough to store four hours of broadcast video. Plus We’ve three manned cameras, one in the pit, one out at the monitor desk giving us a wider shot and a hand held on stage, and three fixed shots from minicams up on mic stands.”

The manned cameras are digital Sony DXC-D30s, which are very sensitive and work well in low light levels. It’s Richard’s job to “match the colours of the pictures and make sure they’re not over-exposed, which is easy if you’re in a TV studio, but because the lighting’s here for effect, we have to account for a lot.”

The lighting is very lissom, especially during the song ‘This is a Low’, when blue and white spot lights, which can only be described as stripy, sweep out across the audience, then all converge on Graham for his solo.

The set-up for the video at the Brixton Academy was slightly different than SPL would use for the larger arena venues, as Des Fallon, the video director, explains: “The normal screens would be 20ft wide and 15ft high on average, but we’ve gone for smaller screens so we can tuck them into the ends of the lighting rig. The screens are dressed in the same material as the rest of set so they look part of it, they don’t look like two TVs stuck left and right of the stage. That comes from working with David Byers, the Lighting Designer, who is very video friendly and cool enough to understand that there shouldn’t be a battle on between video and lighting, that we can both use what each other is doing for a greater effect.

“I also think it’s brave of Blur to spend as much money as they have done on video and, after the first few shows, to really start to appreciate it.”

In between the support bands, the two screens show a couple of music promos and, horror of horrors, adverts. Initially it was a bit strange so see ads for mobile phones and banks at a gig, especially one so small, but most of the audience didn’t bat an eyelid. At times it felt a bit like being in an oversized Sky pub, with 2,000 people all staring at the screens and hardly talking. Obviously the revenue from the ads helps pay for the video and Cube TV, who put together the ads, give the management and the band the chance to choose which ones will be shown.

“It works well in the arena shows,” says Des, “because we play the adverts on only the two side screens so we don’t take away the surprise when the centre projection cube walls come up as Damon starts to sing the vocals at the beginning of ‘Beetlebum’. It’s also good walk-in music, it’s not just a CD player, there’s visuals and some of the tracks they’ve got on there really whip the crowd in to a frenzy for the main act.”

Most of the equipment Des is using is new. “One of our sister companies, Proquip, designed and built the flying projection cube system and this is the first time it’s been used on tour, so there were parts of my anatomy twitching at the production rehearsals, hoping that it would come together as easily as it has done. I wanted a computer controlled projection cube wall that was bright, reliable and would allow me to do all my effects, and the tour manager wanted something that was not astronomically priced, as video equipment usually is. This system has worked out very well. We’ve got a brand new For-A vision mixer which had never toured, three of the crew I’d never toured with, and the portable production unit was on its first tour as well, so I was a bit of a nervous wreck for the first few shows.”

The only problem they’ve experienced was at Brixton.

“All the instruments and rigging equipment is on the stage here and the vibrations just unsettled one of the video board cards causing the cube to go white, but it’s only happened once, so that’s not bad going!”

The screens actually work out really well, especially if you have Abnormally Tall Man standing in front of you all the time. As Des explains: “I was a bit apprehensive that, because it’s such a small venue, that the video walls might be too much in your face, so we have toned down some of the stuff to hopefully enhance what you see.”

A large amount of style and flair is also contributed by Bruce, the handheld cameraman, whose fleet-footedness and nifty camera work ensures isn’t the same head and shoulders shot all evening.

“Bruce was called in to see Dave Rowntree after the second show, and we were thinking ‘Oh my god, what’s going to happen?’ but Dave just said that he’d had loads of camera people covering him before and that Bruce was the best cameraman he’d ever had, that he didn’t get in the way or touch anything and just did everything perfectly.”

“The show’s not choreographed, but there are certain obvious things, like the intros, the vocal bits, the solos and the middle eights. Conversely there’s a time when Graham will go down to play with his peddles and he likes to do that privately — he doesn’t want Bruce to have the camera there.

“Some things we should get every night, we should get the drum intro, the bit where Graham does his Pete Townshend jump because he always does that at the same place, and Alex lighting up a cigarette, but because of the audience or the hangover they’ve got, or whether Chelsea won, then they do things differently every night, so that keeps us on our toes. I don’t particularly like doing the same show all the time anyway. It would be like doing three months of Cliff Richard’s ‘Heathcliff’ where he always walks to exactly the same spot. It would drive me crazy.”