U2 show designer Willie Williams on his 37 years with one of the biggest bands on earth
The designer, who’s responsible for U2’s first India show next week, is recognized as a visionary in his field
In his early teens, Willie Williams wanted to be a physicist and was all set to study at University College in London. But when he was finishing high school, punk rock happened. In love with the music, and inspired by the movement’s ethos of “anybody can do everything", he ended up becoming the lights designer for punk bands like Stiff Little Fingers and Deaf School. In 1982, when Irish post-punk band U2 hit the road in support of their second album, October, he “stalked them" till they offered him a job.
Thirty-seven years later, the U2 show designer is recognized as a visionary in his field, having created some of the most ambitious and forward-thinking live shows in touring history. Ahead of the band’s first show in India in Navi Mumbai—organized by BookMyShow—Lounge spoke to Williams about his work with U2 and what to expect at the concert. Edited excerpts:
You have been responsible for some of the most innovative concert experiences in recent years, including the Zoo TV and 360° tours. Is there a lot of pressure to up the ante with every new show?
Someone once said that we go to U2 shows to see what the future looks like. Which is a terrible amount of pressure to be under. But the thing with U2 is that it’s not about doing more of the same, they have never lost their creative drive. They don’t see any point in doing something if it is just repeating what they have done before.
You and the band have been early adopters of new technology, like the augmented reality app that accompanied the ‘Innocence+Experience’ tour. How do you ensure that the tech and production doesn’t shift the focus away from the music?
It is always a challenge to keep that balance. We are all very excited about the new technology and new discoveries, but we never lose sight of the fact that the show is centred on the music. For me it always has to work as a rock show first. If the production starts to get in the way of communication, if it just becomes spectacle, then that really doesn’t work for U2. It’s all about communication between the audience and the band through the music. U2 shows are very emotional, and harnessing that energy and emotion is really the goal. But we can use technology and production to heighten all those emotions. You want to give the audience what they want but not in the way they expect, and surprising the audience is something I love.
This is the first time U2 are touring behind an album from the back catalogue. Why go back to this record now?
I was really surprised when we decided to do The Joshua Tree tour, it is really unusual for them. It didn’t sound like the kind of thing they would do. But I eventually came to understand that this is not an exercise in nostalgia. They are basically building a show around this record and treating it like it’s a new record. But also, quite unfortunately, the themes of this record are once again very relevant to the world that we live in. I guess we thought a lot of that has passed, but the past few years those things seem to be recurring. So it seemed like a good time to look at it again.
How did you go about reimagining The Joshua Tree tour? Did you take a lot of inspiration from the original staging?
Everything about the show is new, except that the songs are 30 years old, so it has been very exciting to reinterpret them. (photographer and film-maker) Anton Corbijn went back to Zabriskie Point and some of the other original locations where they shot the album cover photographs, but he made films about America now. There’s a film with Native Americans, there’s a film with a whole cross-section of American citizens, but it’s very contemporary. It’s very much a 21st century look at what’s happening in those places now.
I really wanted it to have the kind of flavour of the original stage (from the 1987 tour). Obviously, the staging of the original Joshua Tree was incredibly simple, it was a kind of festival stage with the big sand-coloured backdrop and side wings with the tree. And that’s kind of what the current stage looks like, but instead of being a fabric backdrop, it has a gigantic video screen. But I do think the feel of it when you walk into the stadium is not a million miles away.
The album’s only 50 minutes long, so the show is divided into three segments over 2 hours. What went into figuring out the set-list?
There were different ideas, we could play the album, take a break, and then play another hour of material. But to do that puts a lot of pressure on the second half, and also it relegates The Joshua Tree to be kind of the opening act. The album also has a very dark finish, particularly the last two-three songs. You couldn’t finish the show like that. When you get to the end of The Joshua Tree, it’s like the audience has had a very big three-course meal and they are kind of stunned. So we experimented with different ways of doing it, but I was keen on having a short-ish opening act. Particularly in Europe, where we started in daylight, having half an hour of other material to begin with allowed it to be fully dark when we started the album. And Act 3 is kind of a party. I am very pleased with the way it came out.