IN CONVERSATION WITH SMITH & LYALL
WORDS BETH CUTTING - PHOTOGRAPHY ELLIOT JAMES KENNEDY
Over the last 25 years, the Chemical Brothers have gone from performing small sweaty club nights to headlining festivals across the world and arena tours with their multi-sensory live shows.
Adam Smith began this journey with them using 16mm film and 35mm slide projectors as one half of the Design partnership Vegetable Vision. He has been working with them since their first live show in 1995 leading to him being referred to as the “third Chemical Brother”.
Since 2009 longtime collaborators Adam Smith and Marcus Lyall (aka Smith & Lyall) have worked together as show directors for the band’s legendary live shows. They create an experience where the music becomes part of a transcending audio-visual experience of music, film, lights, lasers, large scale props, and physical effects.
Adam Smith is an award winning filmmaker who has directed feature films, including The Chemical Brother’s immersive concert film Don’t Think along with groundbreaking TV drama and Music videos. Marcus Lyall is an acclaimed installation artist who has also created tour visuals for Metallica, U2 and The Rolling Stones among others.
F Word’s culture writer Beth Cutting got the great chance to catch up with the guys and speak with them about their input at the Design Museum’s current exhibition Electronic: From Kraftwerk to The Chemical Brothers.
Beth Cutting: Let’s go right back to the start, is it true you started putting on events and working with the likes of U2 and Oasis in Manchester in the 90s? And how did you get into collaborating with the Chemical Brothers?
Adam Smith: We started off making visuals for clubs and raves in the late 80’s. It’s been a long journey from getting paid in bags of pills for our work at raves, to our work now being in a museum. I met the Chemical Brothers because we were doing visuals for clubs they were DJing at and had mutual friends because we are all going out to similar places. I made some visuals for U2 a while after this which consisted of filming some Mercury that I had brought on Brick Lane for a tenner. Marcus then helped edit and re-colour it using an early incarnation of After FX. Brick Lane’s Sunday market was a bit different then.
B.C: Where did the ideas and challenges arise for the very first time you did the show visuals?
A.S: Ed and Tom really liked the visuals we were making so they didn’t specify anything. They just let us get on with it.Their first set was only 20 minutes long so we (Vegetable Vision was our name at that time which was myself and Noah Clark back then but we used to collaborate with Marcus on editing and animation) decided that the whole show should be black and white. This was partly so it could be as bright as possible and partly an aesthetic choice. Early challenges were varied in those days. I remember the tour manager once turned up with an ice cream van (he claimed it was all he could get…) to take us all to a gig in Leeds, it was a bit of a squash even though we didn't have much equipment back then.
B.C: And where do the ideas and challenges arise from now, over 25 years later?
A.S: The main technical challenge is how to design a show that will work at different festivals around the world. Putting the show on is an incredible challenge for our amazing crew - we have 4 metre high robots that fire lasers out of their eyes which have to be put up during the changeover between bands as they only appear for one song. Creatively the challenge is to keep making new work that feels like we are making something different and maintaining the relationship between the lights and the visuals (which is a crucial part of the show). It’s great working together because we challenge each other and push each other out of our creative comfort zones.
B.C: Technology is moving so quickly, how has this affected your approach in order to keep up?
Marcus Lyall: There’s no point in just using technology for it’s own sake. We’re not really trying to keep up. There are definitely bigger shows with more gear and flashier techniques but they don’t always land any emotional punch. We definitely use a lot of technology. Motion capture and 3D lighting pre-visualisation have totally changed the game for us. And VR will probably start getting used much more in the design process.
B.C: What’s the strangest place you have taken inspiration from?
A.S: We take our inspiration from everywhere. My kids are 4 and 7 and often have some brilliant ideas. The initial idea for the Keep On piece was inspired by the documentary film Paris is Burning but unless you knew it I’m not sure anyone would make that connection. It’s always the music that is the main inspiration.
ML: Underwater wedding photography? There was a trend for jumping in swimming pools in your wedding dress at one point. This influenced the costume for the visuals now seen in Wide Open.
B.C: Do you get a brief from Tom & Ed (The Chemical Brothers) or is the brief the music?
AS: Very rarely a specific brief. Probably a handful of times over the years. Sometimes it’s a feeling and sometimes there will be a vocal sample that they say they are excited to see what character we will come up for that. The music is the brief. They trust us and that’s something we are incredibly grateful for. We listen to the new music and come up with ideas which we show them and they let us get on with it. It’s amazing. That level of creative empowerment is very rare. I think the incredible body of amazing music videos and artwork that Ed and Tom have commissioned shows how they pick people and ideas they love and then trust artists to do what artists do. Sadly that's a rare thing, especially in Film and TV where you often get people trying to micro manage everything you do.
B.C: How involved do they get during the process, I read that once they actually changed the song to better fit the visuals?
AS: Once we are all agreed on the idea (whether that is the stage design or the visuals) they let us bring it to life. And it isn’t always totally locked down when we present it, it evolves as all healthy creative endeavours should do. It’s very rare they get over involved the process because they are artists and they respect artists and understand. During rehearsal there is often some tweaking. When they do have a specific note it is always a good one. Once on the song Mad as Hell (the mask of which is in the current Design Museum exhibition) there was only one time the vocal sample came in but when Tom and Ed saw the visual they changed the track so the sample appeared twice. They saw that it was a great show moment and worth doing twice.
B.C: How long does it take to pull together visuals for a show?
ML: Generally it’s about three months of preparation and then a couple of weeks of production rehearsals. We normally make a number of new pieces for each tour, and recut, remix and rework existing footage. There are some tracks where the visuals have become audience favourites. We also reprogram the lights and lasers. We also tweak things throughout the tour. It’s only when you see things working with an audience that you know how it’s really working.
B.C: Do you ever see the show and wish you had done anything differently?
A.S: We are always taking notes at every show and looking at ways of making it better. We have a hugely talented Lighting Designer (JC) who is dedicated to this too. And yes some of the pieces I would love to re-shoot or shoot a different idea but when you see the joy the audience get from this show you just feel so wonderful to be a part of this experience that makes people so happy. We are very grateful.
B.C: Does directing the show visuals feel rewarding in a different way to your other work?
A.S: For me it comes back to that creative freedom and trust. There’s nobody trying to control your creative soul or over analysing or overthinking what you do, or second guessing or worrying what an audience might think. The work is made from a place of faith, not a place of fear and this is an incredible thing. Having said that there are incredible empowering and wonderful executive producers and commissioners in the Film and TV world but as a culture I feel we need more of these people. I feel lucky to have been able to work with some of these people. I directed a few of the first season of Skins and the main writer, an executive producer, really wanted new directors and empowered us to do what we did. We have very little creative interference and, although it didn’t all work, the series really connected with the audience. Mike Skinner of The Streets was an amazing commissioner (along with John Hassay) for the video I directed for his song Blinded by The Lights. He just said he wanted me to direct it and didn’t want the record company interfering. The current head of BBC drama Piers Wenger is one of those special people too.
ML: I do a lot of interactive art installations, and although it’s also a live audience, it’s a very different context. I think a large concert crowd reacts in a way that’s very different from other types of audience. The show is always a feedback loop between the band and the audience. The reactions are immediate and infectious. You can feel when something lands, and when it doesn’t.
B.C: When I went to see The Chemical Brothers no one even started sitting in their seats, it’s the only live music event I’ve been to where the seats weren’t even considered to be used, there was an expectation to dance. Is that the aim?
AS: We had the same thing happening on the screenings of The Chemical Brothers concert film we made called Don’t Think where everyone in the cinema was up and dancing! But it’s nice when my mum and dad come and see a show that they have somewhere to sit.
B.C: I also read that someone damaged their hip when watching the film you made called Don’t Think…Any comments?
AS: True story. At a cinema in LA. Then the police got called because no one would get back in their seats.
B.C: Do you ever feel the pressure of the high levels of anticipation and expectation?
AS: Sometimes but it passes. All you’ve got is the now. Fear lies in the future and resentment in the past, so it works best for me when I just get on with it. You don't have any power over how people are going to react to what you do, so my policy is to always try and be as true and authentic to your creative voice and trust that. If you’re coming from the right place and you’ve got a gift for what you do then it usually works out. I like thinking of being a vessel for creativity rather than it being me. Takes the pressure off and keeps the ego at bay…
B.C: What’s been the hardest visual to pull off?
AS: They all have their individual challenges; the rotor ride for EML ritual visuals was tricky. Our entire cast where violently ill and unable to go back in the ride. We ended up in a rapid re-casting session involving the art director’s son, an executive producer and myself.
B.C: Onto the Electronic exhibition at the Design Museum; how hard was it to scale down from the massive, all-encompassing show visuals (usually viewed in a space of physical freedom) to the confined museum space, where viewers are usually in a more observational headspace? How did you tackle that change of space and pace?
AS: It was a really interesting creative challenge. Also because we had to imagine it in virtual 3D - we couldn’t set it up and try it. So it was a bit of a gamble but we remembered back to what we used to like when we did smaller clubs ad raves. Marcus's experience with his brilliant light installations and his skills on cinema 4D was invaluable. It was exciting to put the viewer right up close with the visuals, and totally immersed in the lights, and it felt very different to the live show and that was creatively really rewarding.
B.C: When I went to the exhibition I could see some attendees desperate to dance, and by the time they had reached the final room they kind of went for it and danced. Was that intentional?
AS: We had always hoped they would. It’s been so lovely to see.
B.C: Please can you start a festival?
A.S: I would love to. Oddly I was thinking about that the other day. We are working on a very exciting project called Another World with The Chemical Brothers which is a creative dream come true. Details to follow soon.
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