U2 is full steam ahead on the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour, playing arenas this time around, rather than the huge stadiums of past tours like 360° and continuing on after the blow of the band manager’s unexpected death last week.
We caught up with creative director Willie Williams for a multi-part interview on working with set designers Es Devlin and Ric Lipson (Stufish), sound designer Joe O’Herlihy, the evolution of this tour design, and designing U2 without the late Mark Fisher.
Live Design: So, given the propensity for you and the band to start early, how long ago did this one start?
Willie Williams: The first meeting of the band and creative team was in March 2013, so the design process was a little over two years. That said, the first conversation I had with Bono about “the next tour” was on the last tour, which tends to be where these things start. Even then, on the 360°  tour, Bono was asking where we should go next and suggested that, in contrast to the 200 trucks of steel, we should start the next show under a single, naked light bulb.
The tour was due to start in the spring of 2014, but, what with one thing and another, ended up being delayed for a year, so we had a very extended design period.
LD: What were your design goals, as well as the band’s?
WW: As ever, this U2 show was borne of dialog with the band. Every U2 tour has had some kind of touchstone from which everything has grown—white flags, The Blues, architecture, a job reapplication, and of course, once it all stemmed from a pair of wraparound shades. On this project, the genesis was narrative. It’s the narrative that runs through the album: the story of four teenagers growing up in ‘70s Dublin looking out of their bedroom windows and trying to figure out how they fit into the often violent and disrupted world outside.
LD: We talked at LDI about this notion of two different shows, alternating nights. Did that happen?
WW: We fully intended to have two different set lists and make it a pair of shows. This idea survived all the way to the beginning of the music rehearsals, at which point it became apparent that it wasn’t really viable. I really believe that they could have rehearsed enough songs for two shows, and I would have very much enjoyed being able to delve into the catalog, but the question of which songs would be left out of any given show became too big to get around. The potential upset that a punter buys a ticket for the “wrong” show, depending on their personal taste, began to make it a bit of a minefield.
LD: What is the overall feel of the design?
WW: We appear to have created a mash-up of performance, sound, video, and lighting, some of which I honestly don’t think anyone has been seen before. It’s quite a strange show in some ways, but the arc of it manages to hang together in an unexpected and pleasing way. The centerpiece is this screen-bridge-stage-light-rig hybrid object which at times is the performance area and at other times obliterates the performance area. I say it’s the centerpiece, but for much of the show, we completely ignore it, opting for the most basic rock ‘n’ roll stance imaginable.
At the other extreme, the more theatrical moments combine all of the show elements in a new and entirely modern way. After half an hour of no-bullshit rock ‘n’ roll, a giant double-sided television fills the airspace of the arena. We show some pictures, and then the singer climbs into the television, and we see him in there, physically part of the video images, hanging in the middle of the room. It’s really quite odd but entirely magical.
Stay tuned for part 2.