When my good buddy James asked if I’d like to do a Q&A with his friend and Metallica stage manager, Mike Washer, I said “absolutely.” I knew a Q&A with a dyed-in-the-wool Metallica “roadie” would be an interesting convo and a good read.
But first, James read me my Miranda rights. I had the right to ask Mike about his job, his roles and responsibilities, his day-to-day stresses and challenges, etc., but no personal questions about the band. “You mean I can’t ask if (guitarist) James Hetfield wears Dolce & Gabbana or Prada?” I innocently inquired. At first there was dead silence…and then a burst of laughter.
Of course, James then realized that Copper isn’t People magazine, and that the questions I’d be asking Mike would be for audio geeks and music lovers, who neither care for idle gossip or even idol gossip. They’d certainly welcome an inside look at Metallica’s massive traveling road show, something Mike Washer has experienced firsthand with over eleven years touring with the band.
Metallica’s WorldWired Tour is a state-of-the-art production. The tour began in late 2016 and is still rolling, with over 130 concerts to date, not a particularly large number of gigs when you consider the years involved. The tour is currently on pause due to COVID-19 and band considerations, but it’s scheduled to resume in September. The unprecedentedly long tour has worked well for Metallica (and crew), with two weeks of concerts generally followed by a two-week hiatus, a nice reset that benefits everyone in the food chain.
Metallica’s WorldWired Tour uses 48 trucks, takes three days to set up, is equipped with 83 laser fixtures that required 640 hours of programming, and walls of sound that deliver more than 350,000 total watts. Each night’s show in aggregate (lights, sound, etc.) could power roughly 1,800 homes for a month.
The tour’s arena setup includes 52 massive LED cubes, each weighing 500 pounds and rigged to the top of a venue. Each cube’s four-sided panels has light, video and computer graphics capabilities, with the majority (36) motion-controlled, so they can rise up and down over the stage area. The cubes are programmed so every song has a unique look and feel.
The tour also features 100 super-lightweight drones (32 grams each), choreographed to fly and swarm above the stage like bees, with their lighting creating a particularly dramatic effect.
As a tour progresses, the directors and crew – stage, rigging, sound, lighting, video, pyrotechnics and so on – have to adapt in varying degrees to each venue’s footprint, dimensions and structural impediments, as not all venues are created equal. For example, arenas and stadiums have different ceiling heights, which will impact the rigging, lighting, pyrotechnics and, of course, sound. On some stops, the tour’s 500-pound cubes had to remain motionless, out of concern that their heavy weight and movement were not well-suited for the venue’s stress capacity.
As everyday audio enthusiasts, us mere mortals frequently grapple with room acoustics, speaker location, adding a second sub, new cables/interconnects, diffusers, isolation feet, etc., to enhance our system’s sound. Metallica’s sound guys have to deal with a range of different variables, many in the hands of, well, a “higher authority.”
With outdoor concerts, the sound guys contend with not just rain at times, but also altitude, wind, humidity and high/low temperatures, each affecting how sound travels. Drums, for example, are far more robust in an indoor vs. outdoor environment, though with indoor venues there’s a continual problem with sound reflection, that even Paul McGowan’s Audiophile’s Guide – The Stereo book might have trouble addressing.
“Big” Mick Hughes, Metallica’s legendary sound engineer, had this to say: “The best environments (for sound) are flat fields, like with (playing) festivals. There are fewer reflections. PA systems like it slightly humid and warmer than colder. Air is dense in cold temperatures, so it offers more resistance to the audio. When you do industrial audio, like we do, it’s tough ’cause certain (environmental) things affect the high end and certain things the low end (of sound).” Top-of-mind Mick recalls a particular show from Quebec City years ago where the Gods were in full compliance and the sound was exceptional, but noted that that’s happened very few times in his 35-plus years with the band.
With indoor concerts, each venue has different acoustics, some brighter than others. Plus, when you’re doing sound for a performance in the round, as this tour does, there are particularly large sound balance issues, as speaker columns are frequently placed where they’re aimed towards one another. Sound reflections can also change dramatically from sound check, when an arena is virtually empty, to full capacity, when patrons are seated (or sometimes not).
Companies specializing in tour set design, lighting and effects are constantly being challenged to deliver new and exciting experiences for bands and their fans. It’s a costly endeavor, affordable only to a few artists who can consistently deliver both high-ticket pricing and large-venue sellouts. All likely not a big concern for Metallica, as to date their WorldWired Tour has grossed over $416 million, the eighth-largest revenue-producing tour of all-time.
For artists with elaborate staging, like Metallica, the Stones, U2, Roger Waters and so on, their studio recordings are like an appetizer to the live show experiences. Each tour is enriched by whatever state-of-the-art technology is available during tour planning, with custom staging, sets and sound considerations often taking a year or more to map out, design and build.
A Metallica concert is a totally immersive and visceral experience. It’s theater as much as it is sound, but the theatrics are designed to enhance, not distract, from the band’s performance. A Metallica show is still musically as intense (and loud) as a concert ever gets.
If music fans were asked to describe in a word or two what comes to mind when thinking about Metallica, “angst” would be a common response, certainly far more top-of-mind than, say, “community service.” Unbeknownst to many music fans, however, is that Metallica are large benefactors of community-based support programs and strong advocates of volunteerism. A few years ago, for example, the band’s All Within My Hands foundation, named after a Metallica song, inspired over 1,000 volunteers to spend the day working at local food banks to support the fight against hunger. Another program of theirs is the Metallica Scholars Initiative, in collaboration with the American Association of Community Colleges, that funds training programs for students entering the workforce. Each participating college, chosen from a rigorous application process, receives funds to support student training. In 2021 the program plans to donate $1.6 million to 23 community colleges.
But let’s not digress any further, shall we, and continue this conversation with Mike Washer, Metallica’s stage manager, who has a lot of big time music tour experience. As background, Mike has also crewed with The Stones, U2, Aerosmith, Pink, Joe Cocker, Luther Vandross and, wait for it, Pokémon Live!
Stuart Marvin: Hello, Mike Washer. Appreciate your time. So, tell me, what’s it like being a concert stage manager today?
Mike Washer: As a stage manager (SM), you’re on the ground first thing, meeting with local labor, local promoters, etc. You have to know where storage is for all the various departments, for empty set carts, empty cases and various other items. You need to know what can stay in the truck, what goes back in the truck, and the order the trucks rotate through (for equipment load in and load out). Of course, you rely on all your department heads, truck drivers, bus drivers to take care of their own areas, but they come to you for advice, final decisions, direction and timing. Everybody works together, and gets on a local level with whomever or whatever they need. I’m on my feet all day moving from department to department. I’m a big clock-watcher, making sure everything is okay, and if we’re not where we should be (schedule wise), then I figure out why and how to get it remedied.
SM: What’s the difference between touring with artists like Metallica who have very elaborate staging and artists who don’t?
MW: Generally, with the larger shows you tend to get more experienced crews in each department. For management there’s probably a bit less to worry about. The lighting and sound vendors, for example, they have guys who they want to represent them (on site) for the big tours. So you tend to get a better-quality technician for lighting, sound, pyrotechnics and video. The crews also tend to be larger, so there are people who can cover [for others], if need be, to get things going. They’re generally professional, self-motivated and disciplined. But then again, it can be hit or miss.
SM: What are the challenges from a SM’s perspective with indoor venues vs. outdoor stadiums?
MW: When you’re outside, weather will always be your enemy, whether it’s too hot, too humid, [or] it’s gonna rain, snow or whatever. That all gets taken away [when you do a show] indoors. I don’t have to worry (indoors) about where all the plastic or Visqueen (a brand of plastic sheeting) is located. Or notify my guys if a storm is coming in. Your hands stay warmer, and your boots stay dry. There are some great times to be had in outdoor stadiums, and the electricity of 80,000 people is simply amazing, but I prefer being inside. The older I get, the drier I want to be, I guess.
SM: As an SM are you ever consulted upfront about stage design?
MW: Not as a stage manager, but as a carpenter or head carpenter (what Mike was before becoming stage manager), carpentry crews would often be sent to the vendor building out the scenery to help finish it up, get it out the door, and to put [their] hands on it to better understand how it comes together and comes apart. This could also include saying, “if we did this or did that, it would pack (or unpack) easier.” So from the carpentry side of things, you can possibly have input before scenery leaves the shop.
SM: How many in the Metallica crew are part of the national touring road show, and how many crew are sourced locally?
MW: With truck drivers, bus drivers, office support staff, catering, wardrobe and all of the departments, probably near 200 people. With local crew, we were probably between 80 and 90 for load-in, and then probably around 120 for load-out. In some heavy union shops (venues), the sound guy can only do sound, the carpentry guys only carpentry, etc., so you need to be strategic in how you use labor. Sometimes the local union will step in and say, “we’ve seen your show and we think you need this (number),” and then management will then have to compromise with crew staffing.
SM: What’s more stressful for you, load-in or load-out?
MW: I like load-in because every venue has certain challenges that you have to overcome. But when you get to (work) enough venues over time, you kind of remember. But the challenge aspect of load-in is a lot more fun. Load-out is all about, “let’s get it done.” Get it done quickly….and get it all into the trucks!
SM: What’s the role of an advance team?
MW: It’s an important function. They can answer all of your questions before you walk in (to a new venue). And now with e-mails, texts and photos, while you’re loading-in one show, they can be in the next city advancing it. For example, they can send a picture of a door that may be too small to get through. And you’re like, “okay, we now have at least 24 hours’ notice to start thinking about it.” A lot of time we’ll send an advance team of riggers ahead with a full motor package [used to operate lights and staging], if it’s a difficult rig. You save a lot of time cause you can [then] immediately jump into load-in. A lot of tours could use them (advance teams) and don’t. It can be an important tool.
SM: With effects, lasers, pyrotechnics and heavier concert touring rigs these days, how have safety concerns grown and changed?
MW: I like it when my crews wear PPE (personal protective equipment). Some venues may require them, particularly in Europe where local touring crews are required to have both hard hats and vests. I like to see that everybody at least has safety in mind when they put on a helmet. I’m always in a hat and a yellow vest. I like to be visible. It’s getting to the point where, you know, OSHA is getting its fingers into everything, which is for better or worse, whatever your opinion may be. People need to be taken care of, and everybody wants to go home (safely).
SM: I noticed that Metallica’s concert tours are scheduled with two weeks on and then two weeks off. That’s pretty unusual, no?
MW: There’s not a lot bands that do that. It’s so you don’t dedicate your life to being away from family. Everybody has a chance to watch his or her kids grow up.
SM: Does Metallica deploy multiple sets of trucks and rigs when touring?
MW: Fortunately, with the way Metallica tours, their shows are spaced out far enough [where we don’t have to do that]. Our own rig team would go in the day before and have the luxury of a full day to load in, and the luxury of a full day to rig. But other tours, where they’re doing back-to-backs, they might have a (separate) full set of motors and steel ready to go (to the next show).
SM: You and other Metallica crew have been with the band for a long time, does it feel like family?
MW: Yeah, it does. You know, there’s always a certain amount of trust you build with (your own) family that you can (similarly) build with the people on the road. It’s referred to as the “Metallica Family,” and that extends to their fans and audiences. It does have a good family vibe, and you welcome that (feeling) when you work somewhere. Everybody wants to succeed, and you want everyone else to succeed, too.
SM: Why do you think Metallica has such staying power in such a competitive field?
MW: It’s the fan base, plus you have parents passing the music down to their kids. It’s the love they have for this band, and like the Rolling Stones, it’s still going strong. I guess they hit at the right time, with the right sound, to the right people. It’s a dedication, (that goes) back and forth, between the band and the audience, and the audience to the band. It’s hard to explain, but it’s a rare occurrence.