Concerts are more than just the star beneath the spotlight. From sound, stage design, to lighting, there's an entire production involved in bringing you into a completely different universe where nothing matters more than that moment.
One of the biggest contributors to Phoenix, The Strokes, and Gesaffelstein shows is French lighting director Pierre Claude. He began his career at the age of 18 in Paris before heading out into the world with some of the most exciting live acts today. "I like the idea that each show is the same and offer the same experience in each city," he tells Bandwagon, "if I'm tired or not in a good mood it will not be seen in the show." Through his expertise, Claude plays with colors to shift the mood in a venue, and at times fiddle around with giant mirrors and Vantablack for a creatively different touch.
Bandwagon caught up with Claude to talk about his life as a lighting director, his top three favorite shows he worked in, and what it's like working with Phoenix, The Strokes, and Gesaffelstein.
How did you get your start designing for live music? What drew you to the lighting aspect of stage design?
When I was 18, I started working for night clubs like Le Queen, a legendary club on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, but I had this frustration of being in the same place every day and not being able to evolve. Live music was my goal, but it took a while to get there. Music has always fascinated me, I do not play any instrument, but I really like to say that I participate in my way.
How has your work grown over the years?
I went through all the steps to get there, I started as a button pusher for weddings, but since 2013 it was very fast. My meeting with Franz and Fritz which put me on the tour of RONE in small clubs in France in late 2013 and a few weeks after I prepared with them the world tour of Gesaffelstein - that led me to Coachella for my first "real" tour. Since then, everything started going very fast.
Shows on a similar scale tend to go all out with the stage, effects, but your work keeps to simple staging and videos, while utilizing lights that dance to the music. Is this coincidence or an artistic choice on your end?
It's completely a choice for me, I think the priority of my work is to put music and artists in value, I'm here to accompany them and surround them with a universe that suits them without doing too much. Make a scene that is ugly and cold, warmer or conversely, create a precise atmosphere for this artist. Then highlight the music. You will find very few movements in my shows, it is not mandatory to make the show dynamic.
Can you walk us through your process designing the Ti Amo Tour light show, from conceptualization to production rehearsals?
Phoenix contacted me in November 2016 and the first show was in May 2017, so it lasted 6 months. At the beginning we talked about the general idea, is it innovative? Will the audience like [it]? Is it technically feasible? Will it cost too much? Once the decision is made, it is necessary to begin the discussions with their production manager (Peter Van de Velde, who has previously worked with Bjork and Massive Attack) who is in charge of the technical feasibility and who will be the responsible person that the show is done every day. Then find an engineering company capable of building this massive set piece. During this time, I worked on how to properly illuminate the band, make a lighting plot, find a technical crew. With the band, we thought about the visuals and worked with an NYC company to do them.
This whole period was full of doubts, but once the construction started we could not go back, for example, a few weeks before the premiere, The XX was doing their first show in Paris, with a decor full of mirrors, we are there went very stressed and finally the scenography was different and we decided to continue. Then comes the programming part, I stayed with them in the studio where they made the album to program about 40 songs, that lasted 2 months. Then we arrived in Miami, one week before the first show to discover the set and do the rehearsals. It was very stressful to discover this scenery for the first time, protective plastics hid the huge mirror hanged, the technicians removed it and we all looked with that smile that finally removed this stress.
As a lighting director, how do you work with the concert director for the stage design and visuals?
I have always worked with bands very invested in the visual of their tours, so it's directly with the artists that I work. Sometimes some of the band are interested in this part, Phoenix does everything together. They had the idea of this mirror but we worked light and visuals together. More and more often the director of lighting is also the set and visual designer. I work only for indie bands so the creative team is quite small, most of the time I'm alone, sometimes there is a set designer.
I am not interested in doing very big productions, I like to know and discuss with the artist with whom I work.
I also appreciate very much the vision that artists can give us about their own music, it's very important and I think that it is sad that some bands are not invested in their own show.
You clearly put a lot of effort customizing the lights to each part of each song. Can you shed some light on how it works for such a time-critical job; do you still trigger some things manually?
I like the idea that each show is the same and offer the same experience in each city, if I'm tired or not in a good mood it will not be seen in the show. Even if we have already done this show hundreds of times some songs are complicated to follow manually. In the meantime, I am busy refining colors and positions. In electronic music, the music will be almost the same, but Phoenix can change the setlist in real time and there are songs where the structure can change so I resume by hand.
For The Strokes everything is manual[ly trigerred], there are no rules, they start the songs when they want. It's a very long process but it's worth it for a long tour. Phoenix will change the structure of their songs a lot during the tour, it's hard to keep up with timecode but that's also why we love them. They are perfectionists.
Given that you have to tweak your setup for every venue of the tour, how much of the job is logistics / technical planning?
It's the work between each tour, as soon as I get home, no rest, never. Haha! This is discussed between the tour director who manages the budget and the production manager who manages the teams, equipment, and logistics. Most of the time when we go on tour for a few weeks it will be to make equivalent rooms, clubs, festivals, arenas, so I can rework the show depending on the crew and the amount of equipment. Again, with Phoenix, there are no rules, Monday on a TV late night show, Tuesday in a club, Wednesday in a huge festival, Thursday in an arena, fiouuu ..
Anything you noticed in terms of venues and equipment while touring around the world?
Obviously, the equipment in the US or Europe will not be the same as in Peru or Africa for example, we can see a gap of several years for lighting, sound or video and also human skills. You do not have to be demanding and disagreeable, understand that these people only know this and offer the best they can. Most of the time the local crews who have little equipment are even more motivated to welcome well-known bands and give the best of themselves, it remains the most beautiful memories of tours. For example, when we played in Lima, a technician had to hit my console every minute to keep it running.
Any advice on how to work with little equipment?
Actually, this is one of the most difficult parts of the job but also the most exciting, to have the same render in small venues with little equipment and be ready the day after to play in arenas or big festivals. For this, I'm using Previz software at home before every tour and reprogram the show for small and large venues. This also helps not to be bored with the same show because you see it from a different aspect every day. One day you are in the middle of a huge, very cold arena and the next day you are in the middle of the crowd, you feel the vibrations and smell of beer.
How does the process differ when lighting for music festivals, or guest performances at events, where you’re forced to work with their own setup? What are the things you consider when lighting for indoor vs. outdoor, and day vs. night?
In a festival [setting], we use their light in the air and bring our floor package. They must provide a standard package of lighting consistent with the size of the stage. We call this "cloning" for example the action of one projector will be seen on several at the same time, it is a minutious process often done very quickly because of a short time. You have to be smart to have a consistent result. Then the difference between the outdoor and indoor shows is mainly smoke, an essential element to have a beautiful light, without smoke the light is not visible, then the festivals often have a lot of parasitic lights on the stands, the security etc, which ruins the effect of a complete blackout. Then the day shows are often very frustrating for us, we cheat by changing the positions of lighting on the public.
Aside from Phoenix and The Strokes, you’ve also worked with Gesaffelstein and Boyz Noise. Are there nuances when lighting for music of different genres?
Of course, the main difference between an electronic artist alone on stage and a rock band will be the vision of the show for the viewer. For example, the Gesaffelstein or Boys Noize show is an overview. For Phoenix or The Strokes, the spectator watches the band play and the light creates the atmosphere around it. Light becomes an indispensable element for electronic music. We can also understand when we look at the size of the crew. For a rock band, the audio and backline crew will be about ten people against two or three in light and video, in electronic music that is reversed.
Congratulations on the spectacle that was Gesaffelstein’s Coachella set! Obviously, there were so many moving parts to take into consideration. What would you say was the biggest challenge of executing your vision for that particular show?
Gesaffelstein at Coachella 2019
Thank you so much! The biggest challenge was to go directly to Coachella for a first show, it was what the artist and management wanted but it is a big risk. We have a lot of technical issues because nobody was trained for such a quick changeover with such a big production. Then a show takes time to be developed, there are always new things between rehearsals and a first show, we can not be happy after a first show. The show was, however, very well received and we did a lot better in NYC last week. For shows as big and complicated technically, I depend on too many elements that must all work so it's complicated to have a perfect rendering. It's very stressful.
How was your experience of working with Vantablack? Do you think it has the potential to be a game-changer?
It's exactly like the Phoenix mirror, we think we know how it's going to work, but once in the real life, we're surprised. In all the shows we add matter, elements, but this time we wanted to remove it. Have a black hole feel and it works. It is impossible to light the Vantablack, it has no interest, on the other hand when the light comes from behind or only Gesaffelstein is illuminated, everything takes another dimension. I do not think that it will change the world of entertainment because it is peculiar to him but it proves that there are still many ideas to have.
In terms of the lighting and production, how would you say Gesaffelstein’s differs from your approach with Phoenix?
It's a completely different process, Phoenix will be able to play 20 songs selected from 40 in a random order every night, so it's hard to write a story, you have to be prepared for everything to be played. For Gesaffelstein, the show will be the same and so we can see a show with a meaning, a beginning, a middle an end. This will be an important role in the construction of the show, the visuals, the movements, etc.
To fully do justice to an artist’s live presentation, how thoroughly do you acquaint yourself with the artist’s music?
To be honest I do not think I'll be good if I do not like their music. I work only with artists I love. You must listen so much to their music and understand the intention they wanted to put into it.
Would you say that what you notice/look out for when you listen to music differs from what the average music fan picks out?
I would not say that, but I'm always surprised at the level of musical culture of the festival public, it's good to see that guitars bands are still as successful in the musical poverty of what we can listen on the radio. I like meeting Phoenix or The Strokes fans, they are really passionate about music, they are the best!
Pierre Claude at work
What's the hardest part of the job?
The preparation and the rehearsals, I do not have much confidence in me so this period is very stressful, I present everything in bands on computers and I am always afraid of their reactions when they will see the rendering in real life. These are very stressful periods or I sleep very little, I work with them during the day and make the changes at night. You listen so much to the music and see the show so much that you do not know if it's good or not. We wonder why we do this, this work does not deserve so much stress but after the premiere, we understand why.
Any touring cliches you try to avoid?
To party every night, drugs and alcohol. Obviously, it's wrong, the only one who had an addiction in the tour of Phoenix is for ramen, haha. Actually, the nights are sometimes very short, the exhausting days in the heat and the dust, the same day you have a flight, hours of set up, a show, a loadout, a lot of tensions, you have to sleep as soon as you can and eat healthy food.
Are there new equipment or techniques you’re looking forward to including in your arsenal?
Not really, I'm not very attracted by the new [equipment], when I have to create a new show I understand that new technology could be good for that, but it's not something that I try to put absolutely.
Any LDs you look to for inspiration, or tours that you think are game changers?
I like touring and operate my shows and make them evolve, and I will not feel able to have enough imagination to create several shows every year. There are LDs who do just that and who always have brilliant ideas. It's complicated to stay level with so many good LDs around. My first inspiration is James Turrell.
Can you recommend resources or further reading for interested readers who might be looking into a career as a lighting designer?
Go see a maximum of shows and listen to music in [a] loop! There is a lot of tutorial on the internet to learn the consoles.
Top 3 performances you’ve designed lights for?
Obviously Phoenix in 2017 then Gesaffelstein and The Strokes this year.
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