Five Finger Death Punch Behind-the-Scenes Tour By Brandon Webster
Thu, 31 May 2012 12:01:01
Five Finger Death Punch Photos
Five Finger Death Punch Videos
Five Finger Death Punch's battlefield is the stage, and it's only getting bigger, better, and more brilliant every time they tour. On this summer's Trespass America festival, they're going to have their most incredible show yet. Leading up to the tour's launch, we were curious about the men behind the stage…
Five Finger Death Punch's tour manager, lighting director, and production visionary Brandon Webster has been with the band since 2009. Alongside founder and guitarist Zoltan Bathory and Cym Lighting owner Kevin Swank, Webster finds unique and unforgettable ways to communicate the group's larger-than-life vision on tour. They also manage to do it so the band's costs aren't Katy Perry or Watch the Throne-size. Webster and Swank are artists.
Webster talked to ARTISTdirect.com editor in chief Rick Florino about how it all comes together in this exclusive and fascinating interview.
Where does a stage and lighting setup begin for you?
That's a funny question. I would be lying if I didn't say some designs started in the midst of a whiskey-fueled night deciding that the impossible should be attempted [Laughs]. Most of them do begin like that in one way or another. Generally, when I have taken on a project and decided to design a stage and visual show for any artist, there is a certain amount of time that involves getting to know the talent. That preempts the actual pen-and-paper stage of the design process. I find it particularly helpful to actually see the performance in its current state before I start to spout off ideas. It's necessary to take into account the personalities of the members, their physical attributes, and how animated they are on stage. Once I have an understanding of the people, then I go to the drawing board. I always start with my sketchpad and a pencil—just as if I were designing a logo or rendering of any kind. It takes a number of revisions until the process is ready to go to plot. At that point, I sit down with my partner-in-crime Kevin Swank and we discuss the likelihood that we can actually create 30-foot tall pneumatic missiles and launchers that will double as the lighting towers and set pieces. He and I will work for days on each piece of the puzzle, and he will come up with the actual nuts and bolts to make the idea safe and effective.
At what point do you know that a production has come together or that an idea will be possible?
I don't think that a production ever "comes together" as if it were complete. The performance is a living breathing animal all its own. The five members that I am doing this with are constantly rehearsing and changing the show. With each day comes the possibility of new songs being written or new spins on the way a song is presented by the band. That will often find me making a 180-degree turn from the visual direction I was going. That being said, once weights are calculated and stages are measured off to the inch, set pieces are built, trucks are ordered, and crews are put together. The process then feels like it's starting to take shape. To be honest with you, the "coming together" part involves all of the above. The moment I feel like we are moving in the right direction or at least "gelling" myself and the artist that is, they can come to me and say, "Hey, we are going to go acoustic on this song and turn what was once a grinding roller coaster into a ballad which will be played at someone's wedding." Flexibility is key. A design has to be able to conform to the artist's vision. I am here to try to provide a visual environment that compliments what the artist is doing audibly.
How do you find a way to create a larger-than-life, memorable production and keep things economically feasible?
I only know one way of approaching a design. My "go big" or "go home" motto has served me well. I had a lighting designer I looked up to when I was young—Charlie Unkless—tell me, "Kid, you're only as good as your last show". I took that to heart. For me, this has proven to work out in the long run. I don't advertise. Every job I've had has been the result of someone seeing what I was doing and asking if I would come on board. It's very flattering that people take notice of anything you put your heart into. I am not the best at what I do—not even close—but I have always said you would be hard pressed to find anyone who takes as much ownership in the final result as I do. I take as much pride in the final performance as does any band member I have ever worked with. Because of this, I have found myself also being a tour manager and having to concern myself with the utterly non-artistic part of the performance with "LITTLE" issues like budgets, tour income, and staffing costs. This has forced me to look for strategic partners that can help grow the size of my light shows and also give the artist what they are looking for—a memorable concert package that will bring the fans back saying, "I can't wait to see what Five Finger Death Punch, Metallica, U2 or Alice Cooper does next!" Lights are lights in my opinion. I have a hard time giving credence to the notion that one light is necessarily better than another. They all do just about the exact same thing. A light should turn on when you want it to turn on, go red when you ask it to, and shut off when you tell it to. Some make a slightly different red than another or are a bit faster in the pan and tilt speeds. However, the truth is what brings the light show to life is not the newest and most expensive light I convinced my band to rent. The skill set of the operator and timing is everything. You can teach programming to anyone, but you cannot teach a light rhythm. With that I go back to my partner Kevin. I tell him what I am looking for in horsepower, and he will come back with options that fit my budget. The importance of a good relationship with your vendor is crucial. Kevin owning CYM lighting and T&S rigging gives me a unique opportunity in my designs. If he doesn't have it, he will make it. If he can't make it, he will buy it and if he can't buy it, he probably would go out and steal it for me...
On the last Five Finger Death Punch tour Share the Welt, the production was going to be the largest-to-date that the band had undertaken. Budgets were tight, and we stretched every dollar we could. We tested and settled on products that were not generally toured with. After testing light after light, we decided to go with Elation products to see where this would end up. It was a gamble to place all our eggs in one basket but it worked out in the end. 95 Lights were purchased—50 Design wash, 60 L.E.D. fixtures, and 45 platinum beams. The results were great. And in the end we proved to ourselves that the same show could be produced with a light rig where no individual light cost more than $1000 dollars. This allowed the band to have this massive show at a fraction of the cost had we went with any of the other major light manufacturers products. The financial landscape of the touring industry has changed massively. Gone are the days when bands are getting rich off of touring. Gas prices are through the roof. The cost of living is out of control and taxes are hitting everyone. This leaves only one area to work with—creative finances.
How closely do you collaborate with the band? It seems like you’re completely in sync with the guys on so many levels.
I should have an extra bedroom built in my house. For the last year of my life, Zoltan and I have been on the phone till 3 AM talking about ideas and fine-tuning or scrapping the work done the previous night. There were a number of times I found myself on the couch out like a light—pun intended—with my phone still on my ear. The scary part would be when I startled myself awake I would hear his voice on the other end saying the same thing, "Shit, I fell asleep man, where are we?" That working relationship is what makes this project great. The band and I work side by side on the design and its implementation. Without this, it just wouldn't work. We have a system that came into existence in Europe a couple years ago. We had a day off at the corner of Luxembourg and Germany, we found ourselves sitting in the lobby of this little hotel again with a pad of Parker and a lot of ideas. It was there that we had our first war room meeting, and it was there that we came up with the stage design for the Rockstar Mayhem Festival in 2010.Ever since that day, we have kept the same method of design. We break out the paper and pencil. Make a list of everyone's ideas and then I start building. It's best case scenario for a guy In my position.
What separates your work as a stage designer and lighting director?
Well, designing a stage and the architecture are different. However, when doing it all under one roof, it makes the process a little more streamlined. I only find one person to argue—myself. However there are drawbacks to this. When I am stumped, I tend to have a bit more time to examine my creativity. This really isn't so much of a factor because of the working relationship with the band. We come up with a general concept of how the stage should look and with the five heads helping and putting their spin on it, it's a blessing for sure. The major difference is that a set designer is more concerned with the placement of the rose on the table and how it looks. As the lighting designer, I have to be concerned with how to light it appropriately.
What makes a show memorable for you?
There have been many. The groundswell of energy that surrounds the 75 minutes or so around the night's performance is easy to get swept up in. It's not something that is early described though. There are two that stick out in my head that I can tell you about. First was my first trip to Argentina with Megadeth. The show was held in a soccer stadium, and it was miserably hot all day. I had never been there before so didn't know what to expect. During the show while I was at front of house doing my thing, I found myself listening to the crowd sing so loud it was nearly drowning out the PA. This combined with the fact that I could actually feel the dirt under me shake because they were jumping up and down in unison was amazing. I found myself actually choked up and teary-eyed. All I could think at that point was, "I wish my parents were here to see this". They've never seen a show I've been a part of. The other which was equally memorable, if not more so, was in late 2010 when Five Finger Death Punch made their first televised appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!When I was in the green room downstairs, I saw everyone come to terms with the fact millions of people would be watching this performance. They handled this like champs. They quelled the tension while I was walking them to the stage by breaking into our own rendition of "Piano Man". They were fond of torturing me with this song whenever I was headlong into accounting or some other task that required total attention. People looked at us like we'd lost our minds as the band was walking up the stairs to the stage. Needless to say, I watched them deliver a flawless performance and, once again, I found myself standing there with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat because I had no way to express the gratitude that I had to be included in their project. It was a major milestone for them and for me. Later that night, we found some random bar on sunset to try to watch the show air. It was loud and music was playing and a handful of college frat folks were making this a rough situation to handle. Talking amongst ourselves, I decided that I needed to tell the bar to shut up and watch for a moment. Everybody thought this was a bad idea but what other option was there? I got up on the table and proclaimed a moment of silence so these people could see these boys on TV. Amazingly, the bar silenced and everyone watched and, at the end, there was applause and handshakes around for them. Again they impressed me and everyone around.
How did you get your start?
I started lighting in high school. I went to a high school that had a great performance department. That was the beginning…I did this for a while then took a break and went back to college and got my degree and license in addiction counseling. For years, I was a counselor and clinical administrator in hospitals in the San Diego area. One day I was contacted by this guy Len Paul. He owned a club that I went to in High School called Soma in San Diego. Through some twist of fate, he invited me to be a part of reopening the club bigger than had been done before. His pitch was great. Being clean and sober for years, his vision was always to provide an environment for kids of all ages to come to a safe place where drugs and alcohol were never sold and also gave the kids a place to work and learn about the industry. I was into this idea and signed on. I had equipment in storage that I moved in and away we went. Little to my knowledge, what was a hobby doing two or three main room shows a month turned into 200 shows by the end of the first year.
This brought me in front of a band from San Diego called Switchfoot. I was asked to do the lighting design for their first full-length video that was to be filmed in the club. This wasn't because of skills, mind you. I was the option at the moment and am grateful that I was! This video went on to win "Long-format Video of the Year" at the Gospel Music Awards. After that, my phone started to ring. I wasn't sure why because I had no idea of the success of the video, but this gave me the opportunity to make a choice. I had to choose one life over another. Needless to say I went on and had many doors open because of this start.
What resonates with audiences about Five Finger Death Punch?
From the moment they start, it's like having brain surgery without anesthetic! These guys have the unique way of powering the crowd with balls-out unapologetic music from the heart. When you're listening to it, you can't help but connect to what Moody says. They speak to the masses in a way that the message can be heard with truth and painful honesty that you cannot deny. The words resonate with the crowds no denying that and that is fucking special.
Do you have a favorite place to go with the guys?
A favorite memory yes... On that day i mentioned earlier with our first war room meeting in Luxembourg. Zoltan and I went for walk together and found ourselves on a bench eating ice cream and messing with my new blackberry trying to get maps to work. He asked me, "When do we know we are getting famous?" I looked at him and said, "Dude, I don't know where you are, but you already made me famous! We are sitting on a bench at the corner of Luxembourg and Germany playing with my phone oblivious to the fact that nobody in my family will ever get to do this." And by this I mean take for granted for a moment where we were. It was profound for both of us to realize that this is such a blessing to be a part of. Because of their talent and gifts, we are all able to travel and experience things that most will have to work their entire lives to see just a fraction of. So with gratitude I say... My favorite place? Everywhere tomorrow is going to be another adventure.
In terms of building the lights and setup, you mentioned it’s like an erector set. Do you feel like anything can be done with these elements?
Absolutely! You are only limited by your imagination and the basic laws of physics. Taking that into account! YES anything can be done!
What do you hope people take away from your stage setups and the shows?
Nothing…I don't want the design to be more or less memorable. If it were, it would be a bad thing. The show cannot and must not upstage the performer. You can't have lasers in a period proper performance of Romeo and Juliet. I try to provide the complement to the guys' performance... The delicate balance that just makes the night memorable...Nobody goes home humming the light show! But EVERYONE remembers the band singing in the dark!
Have you seen Five Finger Death Punch live?