Roger Waters Tears Down The Wall

With speakers strategically positioned all the way around The House That Ruth Built — a.k.a. Yankee Stadium — and buttressed by a multimedia visual presentation second to none, Roger Waters and his ace band tore through Pink Floyd’s seminal 1979 masterpiece The Wall in full on July 7 in the Bronx. There was no standing still with it, for The Wall Live is the pinnacle for how to present fully encompassing audio and video on such a large scale. Stadium acts, take note — The Wall is the benchmark by which live presentations must be measured.

As anyone who’s attended stadium concerts will attest, the conditions are often against both artist and audience. Weather issues, sight lines, sound delays, video miscues — anything can and will go wrong and/or come across as less than optimal. More often than not, we discerning attendees tend to put aside many of our A/V expectations for the joy of simply “being there” for “the spectacle.”

But not with The Wall. Building on the standards set by the indoor arena Wall tour of 2010-11 — a live quad mix supervised by James Guthrie, the prime architect of Pink Floyd-related surround-sound releases, and precision high-definition video projection on the wall that gets built onstage during the performance — the stadium presentation struck an even deeper chord with me. I first saw Waters and company’s expert reconstruction and deconstruction of the 1979 Pink Floyd masterstroke on November 4, 2010 at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey from the floor, fairly close to stage left, and was continually blown away by the caliber of both the visuals and sonics. What impressed me at Izod got ratcheted up a few more notches at Yankee Stadium, where I was ensconced dead-center on the floor, two sections back from the stage (or essentially shallow centerfield, for all you baseball fans out there). “Roll the sound effects!” shouted Waters just a few ticks before the onstage plane crash at the climax of “In the Flesh?” — and it was still quite jarring, even though I was expecting it. The all-enveloping, swarming helicopters that signaled the arrival of “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2” made it feel like we were in the jungle during Apocalypse Now. Audience members near me looked up and around somewhat nervously, expecting those phantom ’copters to begin dropping in on us at any moment. (The infamous floating “propganda pig” did drop in on the crowd near the first base line late during the second set, though.…)

If you want to see it in the flesh yourself, there are a handful of North American dates left on this leg. Waters recently reported that he’s looking to extend the tour into 2013, most likely in Europe. Some of the 2011 shows at the O2 in London were filmed for what promises to be a standard-setting Blu-ray, though no release date has been set. (If the gods are willing, the surprise appearances by Waters’ fellow surviving Pink Floyd members David Gilmour and Nick Mason will be included in that package.) However you choose to experience it, believe me, you will become comfortably numb — in a good way.

SinceThe Wall Live’s audio and video presentations set our Reference standard, I had to go right to the source — in this case, production manager Chris Kansy — to find out how it was all done. It’s all coming through, in waves…

Chris, as someone who’s been involved with The Wall Live night in and night out, what stands out to you as its best A/V moments?

I love all the special effects, especially the beginning of “Brick 2” [“Another Brick in the Wall Part 2”] and the helicopter sequence, where you see the spotlight rising from behind the stage and then it tracks forward over the audience. The helicopter starts on the stage side, then it comes out of the front end of the PA and works its way through the other channels, and before you know it, it sounds like the helicopter is right above the front of the house and ready to land on top of you [chuckles]. That is just unbelievably impressive if you’re sitting in the sweet spot.

What’s the story behind the TV that Roger is watching in his hotel room “perch” inside the wall at stage right during “Nobody Home” in the second set?

The most important thing about that TV is that it was the size that Roger wanted. It’s 27 inches. We just went into Best Buy, walked down the aisle, grabbed the one we wanted, paid for it, and brought it straight to rehearsal.

You’ll also notice that the television is time-coded with what’s showing on the wall — that is, the exact same thing that’s on the monitor he’s watching is what’s going on with the wall projections.

The hotel room he’s sitting in there is basically an homage to how it was on the 1980 tour with the Tropicana sign. We’ve since changed it completely, so now it has more of a motel feel. It’s got the same New York City backdrop, but with more modern furniture, and a Barcelona chair. While everyone appreciated the direct homage to the original, Roger wanted to take it one step further.

Were you given a specific sonic goal from the outset of the tour?

We had the basic tools in place to do live quad since it had been done on Roger’s Dark Side of the Moon tour a few years ago [2006]. The extra homework was done for that by James Guthrie, one of the original in-house engineers on the 1980 tour. He was charged with finding and sourcing all of those odd bits of noise from the record, recording them, and putting them in a format that we could use in quad. [Guthrie is listed in the The Wall Live tour book as being in charge of “music & quadraphonic preproduction.”] James, Trip Khalaf, our tour manager and sound engineer who’s been mixing Roger for years, and Mike McKnight, who does our audio playback, built the stems and recreated all the bits.

If you sit there and close your eyes and just listen to the show and not take in the visuals, you’d notice that the quad is an effect. You won’t be hearing Roger’s bass guitar or a snare coming through the rear; nothing like that. The quad is in support of and an effect for the airplanes and the other sonic vignettes from the record: the laughing, the car door shutting, the wall falling down.

Describe the video mask process and how it informs the way the audience sees the projections on the wall while it’s being built.

At the most basic level, we’re taking projectors and shining them onto cardboard. [chuckles] When we project images onto the wall, it’s not like we’re “adding” projection to what’s going on — it’s something that’s always there, it just has what’s called a video mask in front of it. So when we start to take the video masks away, we reveal more of the video. When a carpenter adds a brick to the wall itself, we manually release the video mask for that one brick with stroke of a finger on the lighting console. That one brick goes up at the same time and in the same sequence every night, and the same mask is released every night within a few seconds. Because the carpenters are stacking it all manually, we have to release the mask manually. We have people on headsets talking to the carpenters along with video technician who’s the one releasing the mask to make sure it all flows and happens in that order.

It’s one of the most fascinating things about the show. I talk to friends, fans, and people afterward who know little or nothing about concert production or modern technology and they always ask, “How do you do that with the bricks?”

The standard that had to be achieved out of the box with this tour’s staging was pretty high.

Luckily enough, this project came together early on. We talked and built and discussed and had 3D animated phone calls; we were well-prepared going in. Roger knew well enough it needed extra time, and he gave us ample rehearsal time. We spent a month in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania rehearsing the building and the knocking down of the wall without having even one guitar in the building. There were no musical elements involved at all — just us focusing on the sequence of building the wall and then knocking down the wall.

What kinds of changes have been made to the show over the course of the tour?

In terms of upgrades, we’ve changed a lot of the wardrobe for the Nazi era in the second half of the set. We’ve tightened it up to smart, military-looking outfits for the band that really look quite impressive.

The flag bearers at the beginning of the show were supposed to be wearing ski masks and exhibit terrorist kind of behavior, and now they’re in riot gear, helmets, uniforms, gloves, and big shiny boots, and they also have sidearms.

Roger is involved in all aspects of the show’s production, isn’t he?

Roger takes a DVD of the show back to his room every night, watches it, and makes notes. Today, he came in — as he did yesterday and will do again tomorrow — with handwritten notes for the lighting director, the sound engineer, the monitor engineer, the carpentry team; everybody!

Most of the time he gives us lighting notes and lighting cues about spotlights or how part of the set is lit, or maybe he has a comment on an intensity level. He’s everywhere out there — on the main stage, the forestage, the motel room — and there’s a different way to light all of it: “Here’s one more thing we’re going to try today.” There’s always a new idea. Always.

These notes are expected, and no one really complains. I’ve been working with Roger for 6-plus years now and one thing I’ve learned: No matter how “odd” his request might be, or inconvenient, or untimely, we implement it. Then we watch it in the show that night and look at each other and go, “He’s right. It is better!” Or, “It’s cool!” Or, “How did he see that little thing that makes such a difference?” He just sees the big picture and is on a constant quest to improve this performance, this show, this presentation. It’s all about making it the best it can be.

That said, Roger’s not chasing perfection — he’s not that guy. But this is what he does. He’s that artist who walks into the studio, thinks about what he painted yesterday, and then thinks about how he’s going to add to it.

We’re all very proud of this tour. As a group and as a team, we’ve taken ownership of it. The timing’s right, and it’s very current. All of the ideas strike home with a lot of people. Between all the rehearsals, soundchecks, and performances I’ve seen, there are still moments where I still get a tingle and some goosebumps, and are a little hair-raising. We know we’re taking part in a great show that has a historical aspect to it.