“Any final thoughts?” I asked the man who designed the Daft Punk pyramid, the famous set-piece covered in lights and video screens that defined their Alive tour in 2006 and 2007. It was a bad question to ask Martin Phillips, a man with the artistic vision and aptitude capable of turning a concert into a full-on light show. Phillips had just spent the better part of a half hour on a technical screed, describing the merits and demerits of LED tape and expedient arrangements of power and video cables, yet his reply was simple: “The Presets are awesome. I have always enjoyed working with them.”
For their headlining slot on the Check Yo Ponytail North America tour, which began on October 26, Australian duo The Presets are treating audiences from Montreal to LA to their signature sounds, as well as to a massive custom light show designed by Martin Phillips. Featuring an all-star lineup of innovative artists including rappers Le1f and Antwon, and DJ (and Check Yo Ponytail owner), Franki Chan, the tour is the prime place to premiere Phillips's Presets visuals.
Martin Phillips first caught wind of The Presets in 2009 when they were opening for another act he worked with. Phillips told his buddy who was stage managing the show to “go into their dressing room and tell them I want to work with them. I don't care how big or how small it is, I really want to work with them.” Then and there, The Presets began working with Phillips and Bionic League, his event creation and production firm whose past clients include Nine Inch Nails, Deadmau5, Blink 182, and Kanye West.
What separates Phillips and Bionic League from other stage designers is their canny ability to sync their visuals to the sonic stipulations of their clients. At the time of Daft Punk's Alive tour, as Phillips tells it, the visual element of large-scale dance music concerts was largely based on strobe lights and non-linear video. "At the time, the norm was do whatever you want to do, whenever you want to do it. In the course of a show, the lighting and video guys would have some sort of primer on what was happening [in a performer's set]. So when [the performer] play a song, the video guy would know 'oh ok, I'll play the video of the monkey running down the road' and the lights are going to go green and yellow, strobing."
But Daft Punk “was enamored by the freestyle nature of Ableton [Live].” Explains Phillips, "We talked long and hard about giving them the ability to freestyle through the show, and what kind of communication technology we would use to sync light and video to the music. Given the amount of the time that we had, I kind of locked them into a set shell. They weren't keen on it initially because of how enamored they were by the freestyle nature of Ableton [Live], but as we progressed, what I was trying to sell was the idea of trying to present a show that had a beginning, middle, and an end."
This kind of sonically storytelling show would require an elegant communication between technologies, with pieces of music from Daft Punk's live set triggering certain video elements and lighting gestures. It should be noted that the resulting tour experience would cause Skrillex, then better known as Sonny Moore of emo band From First To Last, to have a life-changing experience, as he states in a 2012 interview with Pitchfork. The Alive tour came just before the North American EDM explosion, and much of its legend centers around Phillips's pyramid.
Phillips admits that the stadium electronic concert is fundamentally different than stadium concerts from a few decades back. “It's not like you're watching Freddie Mercury up there,” he says of today's live music. “In the last few years, certainly in the electronic music genre, performance is a very different thing. You're limited to someone doing a DJ set and your performance tends to be limited to a particular spot [on stage]. The performance becomes more about the show, what is being presented.”
Over a Skype chat, Julian Hamilton of The Presets expressed similar thoughts. He sees electronic performers as “the leaders” in live show innovation, stating, “They have the best lasers and the best lighting shows.” He contrasts them with rock bands who “stand up there and play their instruments.” Even when The Presets featured an on-stage drummer, making them look more like a rock band, they couldn't resist the possibilities of dynamic optics. “We bought a laser which we attached to the drum kit,” reminisces Hamilton. In this vein, their partnership with Martin Phillips has been a happy one.
A strong visual element has always been crucial to Presets performances. Today, an array of Plexiglas hexagons, each with their own LEDs arranged to create a video resolution of roughly 200 pixels wide by 400 pixels high, provides a strikingly abstract and low-res treatment to the videos played through them. The Plexiglas itself has been scratched to give the lights their own frosty glow.
Designing and constructing these hexagons was an intensive process, with Phillips collaborating with two Los Angeles firms to bring the set pieces to fruition: German Light Products helped him find the perfect material for these hexagons— Plexiglas wrapped in LED lights—and Fernando Lau of Vision Scenery executed the construction and logistical legwork of figuring out how to make a hexagonal cluster of LEDs function as a video display.
As such technology becomes more widespread and elaborate lighting and video rings becomes more feasible for smaller-scale touring bands, it's less and less uncommon to walk into a club and see a high-caliber spectacle on any given night— though it also doesn't hurt to impress the designer behind the most iconic pyramid in music.
CYP TOUR DATES w/ THE PRESETS, LE1F, ANTWON, CHELA and FRANKI CHAN:
10/29 - Toronto, ON @ Danforth %
10/30 - Montreal, QC @ Club Tulipe %
10/31 - Brooklyn, NY @ Warsaw *
11/2 - DC @ 930 Club *
11/4 - Atlanta, GA @ Variety Playhouse *
11/5 - Nashville, TN @ Marathon Music Works *
11/6 - New Orleans, LA @ Tipitina’s *
11/8 - Austin, TX @ Fun Fun Fun Festival (The Presets Only)
11/8 - Austin, TX @ CYP FFF After Party / Empire # (The Presets DJ set) FREE!
11/9 - El Paso, TX @ Tricky Falls #
11/10 - Albuquerque, NM @ Sunshine Theater #
11/12 - Las Vegas, NV @ Brooklyn Bowl #
11/13 - San Francisco, CA @ Warfield *
11/14 - San Diego, CA @ North Park Theater #
11/15 - Los Angeles, CA @ Regent #
* w/ Antwon
# w/ LE1F
% w/ Saint Pepsi