Cork City (live in Dublin)
Title on the Road
Day to Day Role
Front of house mix engineer, live sound engineer.
Also Worked With
Rory Gallagher, REM, David Bowie, Stevie Nicks, The Undertones, The Cranberries.
How it Begins
If there is a tour scheduled Paul McGuinness will say, for example, that it will start in arenas. This could be twelve months ahead of the start but it gives me the clues about the kind of venues we will be in.
After that, many, many conversations begin, not least with the design team of Willie Williams and Mark Fisher - for example what kind of sound system I might want to use for an arena tour.
Then it's into the studio to listen to the new songs, which is how we begin to figure out the best way of approaching, the transition from recording studio and rehearsal to the live show. In the period when the band are promoting a new album, which usually also involves a lot of TV performances and radio promotion, we put together a guerilla crew, design an audio spec strictly equipment related for each song - so that the band can deliver live what they have done in the studio. For instance this time we put together a system on the back of a truck through the streets of New York for the video shoot for All Because of You which ended up under the Brooklyn Bridge with a live show performance... For something like that - which was quite spectacular really, given that in the end we seemed to have about an hour and a half to set it all up! - we got a great result.
The next chapter is going into rehearsals and it's really the same formula all the way back to the first tour twenty five years ago. We spend a substantial amount of time putting together the new songs and trying to reconstruct them for the live situation in a way that is suitable for the band to play. That rehearsal period is very intense for the backline crew, the monitor engineers and for myself and the band. You are dealing with a blank canvas, trying to accommodate all the sonic values of what happened in the studio and at the same time accommodate the adrenalin-type sonic values that come into play in front of an audience. Bringing these two disciplines together is a tough task. This time that took place in Dublin before Christmas, in Mexico after Christmas, in Vancouver ahead of the tour and in Los Angeles right before the tour.
Also working on sound for the live show
In my immediate department at this moment there is front of house - that's the mix position you see in the middle of the arena which takes care of sound in the room - and then under the stage are two monitor stations. Robbie Adams and Niall Slevin take care of Bono and Edge's monitors, Dave Skaff takes care of Larry and Adam's monitors. We also have my system engineer of 20 years Jo Ravitch, who is the audio crew chief and directly responsible to me for putting together the system to my specifications. His role is to make sure every day that the physical PA system, the black boxes you see hanging from the ceiling, are set up properly. The audio crew also have a stage technician, Rachel Adkins, and we also have 2 PA technicians Tom (Duds) Ford and Ben Blocker.
I come in when the system is flown and in position and we 'noise' the room - that means we run a spectrum analyser into the room to see what frequencies are proving difficult in each building. That tells us the acoustic environment of the building. We have an EQ system for the PA which we modify to suit the building. Then I might play the show from the night before through the PA to see how it responds. Most of these buildings we have been in many times before so we know which are notorious. Once that is done and the backline crew have set up we soundcheck all the bands instruments.
I start with Sam O'Sullivan who plays Larry's drums and we individually check each instrument on his kit - bass drum, snare, tom-toms, hi hat, cymbals, tambourines etc. Then we move to Stuart Morgan who will play many of Adam's bass guitars and to Phil Docherty who takes care of Bono's Electric and Acoustic guitars then its time to check all of Edge's guitars with Dallas Schoo.
We have a set list that has 22/25 songs at the moment which involves Edge in 18 guitar changes, so Dallas has his work cut out. I will test about a half dozen of them. Each one would be plugged into one of six different amplifiers - The Edge orchestra as we call it - and it's my job to test all of those amps each day.
Then we go to Terry Lawless the keyboard technician responsible for Edge's keyboard parts and sequences. He also takes care of the piano that Edge uses in New Years Day and Running To Stand Still.
Then it's into the process of checking Bono's three different vocal microphones. We walk through on the Elipse catwalk - because he spends most of his time in front of the PA system, we have to ring out the bad frequencies so it doesn't feedback when he is singing.
By now it's time for the backline crew to play some songs which they do very competently and that gives me a great opportunity to check the sonic value of the room. This means that when the band arrive to soundcheck it is only fine tuning from my perspective. When we soundcheck with the band we go through any particular songs they feel the need to work on, any arrangement changes, and any new songs because they do tend to change the set around, especially at the start of this tour.
First Time I saw U2
That was the end of September 1978 and it was at the Arcadia Ballroom in Cork City at a UCC gig. I've been with them ever since. At the time I was supplying the sound company for the UCC downtown campus gig and U2 were the fifth band on in a typical five-band college gig. I remember a lot about it because there was no one in the hall when they went on but a couple of girls went to sit on the floor - with their backs to the stage. I remember Bono jumping off the stage to confront them. He went down in front of them with the microphone and was playfully jostling with them. That was the tail end of the punk era and it showed me what the future was going to be all about.
How I Ended up Working With U2
Having supplied a sound system for that show, I was also supplying it when the band came down a month later, the end of October 1978. Paul McGuinness came to me and said he was really happy with what we were doing and wanted to know if we did this on a regular basis. I said I had just come off the road with Rory Gallacher. That had started in January 1972, we'd toured the world, and I had then started my own company Stage Sound Hire, with Dennis Desmond and Eamonn McCann.
Paul said U2 were going to be doing a couple of things and would the system be available and how much would it cost ? With a bit of a shiver at my response he went off and I thought that would be the end of it it. But true to his word he called me and I started doing quite a few shows with them in universities and pubs particularly - I remember that Larry was still too young to be in a pub, let alone to be playing in one.
Up to the end of '78, and '79 it was the same, with very sporadic gigs here and there, mainly in Ireland. Then we headed to the UK for gigs with Talking Heads amongst others and a couple of early UK tours at places like the Half Moon pub and The Hope and Anchor in Islington. I remember the famous Garden of Eden show in Tullamore where we were a support band with just a handful of people who had heard of U2. They weren't used to this kind of music - this was a place for showbands - and everyone stood still at this incredible noise with the strange keyboardist in the middle of the floor. That's who they thought I was!
Working with U2 compared to other touring bands
The great thing about U2 is the intensity of their commitment to doing things at the highest possible level. The standard of presentation and quality is exceptional.
Favorite memory of life on the road with U2
My favorite memory would be quite a tearful experience - Aprils 1st 1984 when we played Madison Square Gardens for the first time. Having worked with Rory Gallagher, the torch bearer for the Irish rock industry in the 1970's following on from Van Morrison, a torch to an extent picked up by Thin Lizzy - finally here and now at Madison Square Gardens, was an Irish band with Irish management and an Irish crew. We had arrived. We had made it. It was our turn to carry the torch onwards. I sobbed my way through the gig, I was overcome with joy and emotion.
Sometimes you do what you do and there is whatever reward at the end, but what we do with U2 is beyond reward. It is a lot deeper, it is hard to quantify. Working with U2 it is a spiritual thing. I feel absolutely blessed. Many people hate what they do for work, but I get up and I feel touched everyday with what I do with this band. It's more than rock music with U2 and it has been ever since the Arcadia Ballroom in Cork. Most bands have a good front man but the message is limited even so. But with U2 the level of commitment and communication is definitely on another level and every night I have the best seat in the house.
The show is a fantastic experience and the one thing that sums up those emotions is when everyone turns around to leave at the end of the show, seeing the smiles, the sheer joy, feeling the love as people leave and flood past me at FOH. It is really special.
What Are You Doing During the Show ?
Once the show starts I do what I do, which is the sound mix for the band. I'm listening to what is going on in the room, dealing with incredible decibel level from U2's audience and making sure the level of music sits on top of this other noise in an intelligible way. When the crowd are chanting and singing along you have to come up with the best blend. And the crucial job is to have pristine vocal intelligibility for Bono's vocal.
If you don't hear the singer you don't get the message.
Best Thing About Touring
The best thing about touring with U2 is not only earning a crust but the incredible job satisfaction. To participate in the presentation of another great U2 record is the best thing about touring. In the studio you have a finished product that closes a chapter with a group of songs but when you play those songs live, a whole new book opens.
Worst Thing About Touring
Missing out on family life. It is a hefty price to pay when you have been doing this for 33 years. I'm married to Marian, we have four kids and I remember I was away when Mark was born, when Damien was born, when Sarah was born, and she is now 24.
But here's a story of the wonderful family that U2 is. We were on The Joshua Tree tour and filming Rattle and Hum and we had to go back to Sun Devils Stadium in Tempe Arizona for the stadium shoot. We had scheduled to finish the tour in Hampton, Virginia on 12th December 1987 and Marian was due to have our fourth child on the 16th. This gave me just enough time to go home and be present for the birth of Louise... and then be back for the shoot on the 19th.
The band decided they would send me by Concorde to make it as quick as possible and I thank them because there is nothing as simple as the timing of a baby birth. So I get to Washington and fly to New York and ring home to find that my wife has gone to the hospital and it is all going off.. so to speak!
So here I am - supposedly enjoying my trip on Concorde at the speed of sound - and I get to Dublin at about 9.30pm and am picked up and dropped off at Mount Carmel Hospital. I got there at 10.05 and my daughter was born at 10.26. I delivered her and it was the high of a lifetime. You have remarkable things happen to you with a band like U2 but this really was the biggest natural high I have ever had.
Anyway I had a couple of days to enjoy my daughter Louise and be with Marian and then I flew back to Tempe where we finished the outdoor shoot. Then I flew home for Christmas and woke up sometime in January wondering where am I and what just happened to me..
Support Act Most Looking Forward to
We seem to be very well stocked with all the best people around at the moment. Kings of Leon, Snow Patrol, Franz Ferdinand, The Killers, Keane... I really like the new breed of acts.
Highlight of the Show
Beginning at the start and getting to the end in one piece. It still makes me very nervous after all this time. You've got to concentrate 1000% all the time, the nervous energy is intense all through the show.
Would Love U2 to Play
'Threw A Brick Through A Window' or 'Twilight'. One of the most difficult songs I find to listen to - for personal reasons - is 'One Tree Hill' and I think I would love to hear that from the stage because of the friendship I had with Greg Carroll. I'd probably cry my eyes out too. I'm sure as the tour progresses we might get to it.
Worst (Touring) Nightmare
It happened during the second show in San Diego. There was an equipment failure and Larry and Adam's monitor desk blew up just an hour before soundcheck. We have back-up systems for every mixing desk - with two even three different power supplies just in case. This time two power supplies went down and took out the main mother board which rendered the whole console destroyed. We were lucky that we had a replacement console but it took us most of the afternoon to sort it out which is why the doors were held that night. We needed time to get the spare console set up in time for the band to soundcheck before the show. We made it by the skin of our teeth.
Who has the easiest job on the road?
I do, when the band are on song. When the band are hitting every note and it is brilliant and magical, I am just a fan again. When it is coming off the stage like that, it is heavenly, the best job on the tour, the best job in the world
Who has the hardest job on the road?
That's the band because it is their responsibility to deliver the perfect performance every night. Everything is down to the band delivering and when they do that, then I have the easiest job.
The last one I had was hijacked by the band. I remember screaming my head off in the studio in Berlin, 'Achtung Baby!' But I think on my headstone, at the end of it all, I'd want, 'Turn it down to unbearable!'