September 14, 2004
Keyboards on the Re - Invention Tour
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When Madonna goes on tour, it's news. E! News Live will keep you updated on Mads' devotion to Kabbalah and the sometimes bizarre related tidbits , like her adoption of the name Esther for the purposes of her studies , or the Swear Jar she's said to keep backstage to collect fines from anyone using profanity in her presence (this interview would've been spendy had Ms. M been within earshot). A Madonna tour is news not just for the celebrity dirt factor, the predictably controversial stage imagery, or the staggering sums of money the tour spends and earns. No. When Madonna goes out, she goes big. Big stage sets, big video, big lighting, and, most importantly, big talent in the band.
Rumored to be her farewell to touring, the Re - Invention Tour finds the keyboard lineup intact from the last tour: Marcus Brown is the principal keyboardist. Musical director Stuart Price divides his time onstage between playing bass guitar and sculpting synth sounds. Master of Everything Mike McKnight occupies what might be the hottest seat in the touring sphere as the guy who makes it all run and plays supplementary keyboard parts from his sub - stage bunker.
After tussling with a security crew that would've done Tom Ridge proud (at one point a guard hassled McKnight because his badge didn't entitle him to escort us anywhere), we sat down with Brown, McKnight, and keyboard tech Peter Wiltz.
What's the biggest difference between this tour and the last in terms of gear?
Brown: Not a great deal, actually. Things haven't really changed that much. Mike's gone from G4 to G5. . . .
McKnight: Yeah, and There's the V - Synth. . . .
Brown: This time 'round, the Triton's the main keyboard, sort of. That's the real workhorse. For the main part of the show, that is. For the "other" part of the show, we went in with the Roland guys. They came and brought us a couple of goodies to play with. The V - Synth, the new Fantom stuff.
What do you like about the V - Synth?
Brown: The V - Synth's great. What I'm using it for is , There's a couple of key samples, and it's fun to mess with them.
You've sampled some sounds and you use the synth features to freak them during the show?
Brown: Yeah. Fantastic. It was the last thing into the rig, so it's kinda like my little toy on the road in that it's the one keyboard that's more open - ended. I'm adding things to it all the time. I've got a bank of stuff I've made up from the Nord Lead 3. I was using the Nord for bleeps and squelches and farts and such. Some of them are set up with quite complex delays. I just bunged the stereo out of the Nord into the V - Synth and made these noises into one - shot things, but I can still manipulate them with the touch pad on the V - Synth. A lot of what we do onstage is about the visual aspect, and this way people can see me messing about with the sound. And I adore the Fantom. it's got everything there. it's great to be able to do a part of the set, like five or six numbers in one go, where I'm only using one keyboard.
It's called the Re - Invention Tour; have all the songs been re - invented?
Brown: Oh, definitely.
McKnight: Some of the songs, they get started and you're going, "What is this?" You'd never guess. Then some signature element comes in or Madonna starts to sing. "Burning Up" and "American Life" have gotten kinda rocked up. "Crazy For You" is totally unrecognizable until she starts singing.
How were the new arrangements created?
Brown: We'd start the day off with Stuart bringing in whatever he was working on the night before. Mike would load it in, and we'd have a track with everything on , essentially a remix of the song, already cleared with Madonna. We'd basically all stand 'round Mike and go, "Well, I'll do that bit, can you do that other bit. . . ." [Laughs all around.] We'd take it really simple, with only one part each, which can be a little bit weird at first, cause you think you're doing nothing. Then we'd start looking for places to fill in: "I'm not doing anything in this part of the chorus, I can take that sound now." And There's certain things you don't bother with: "That bit's a waste of time! We Can't recreate that, so let's just leave it in Digital Performer." Anything that's like, sixteenths, you know.
Yeah. Keep it tight.
Brown: [Laughs.] Right.
Wiltz: it's pretty straightforward.
McKnight: [Gesturing toward Brown] He's the main keyboard player. Then Stuart plays icing around that. Then whatever's left , there are some songs where it has to be live all the way through , I'll pick up the slack and play those parts. Maybe a little string part, or a piano part, a little synth thing, but. . . .
Brown: There's loads of little bits. I think that's the general idea about this kind of show and about playing keyboards on a gig like this. Like, although I'm not playing all of the time, I'm probably up to about 120 patches already. "Bang, There's that one. Frizz, There's another," and on and on. You might have the same sound three times within one song, but you'll need three patches for it because you play it at a slightly different volume each time. Sometimes it's five of the same sound chained one after another, but something is ever so slightly different for each part of the song. we're that precise with things.
Do you get much freedom to play out, or is Madonna like James Brown in that she'll spot any hot - dogging and give you the stink - eye?
McKnight: Madonna knows where every light is supposed to be, where every dancer is supposed to be, and where every note is supposed to played , and how loud it's supposed to be. For the most part, we have to keep within those parameters. There are a few places we have some freedom.
Brown: The freedom, I would say, isn't in the playing side, it's in the sculpting side. We have fun with delays, and with Nord parts that are sort of effecty.
McKnight: There's a different interpretation of "Deeper and Deeper" in the show, and each night Brown plays some really nice piano on that; he can take liberties with it.
Brown: Never mind the piano, Mike's got an amazing bass sound.
McKnight: Yeah, the 260MB [Spectrasonics] Trilogy upright bass. It has all the slides, different things happen on the release stage depending how hard you played the note. it's awesome.
Brown: Mike's really got it together on that. it's fantastic to play piano over, really. it's not like someone just going fum, fum, fum, fum on a synth sound. He might as well be under there playing a real bass, it sounds that authentic.
There's a lot during the acoustic section where we're all playing live, maybe with one instrument on Digital Performer. Then There's a couple more where we're off the click entirely.
McKnight: It pisses off the video guys, 'cause They're accustomed to having time code , when I start my Mac, it sends time code to the lighting guys, video, everything.
Oh, man. You must eat Maalox like candy. . . .
McKnight: Yeah, if my shit goes sideways, everybody's hosed. But if they get too bitchy I become the time - code Nazi: "No time code for you!" [Laughs.] There are a couple songs where we go off time code at the end because Madonna wants the freedom to do . . . whatever she might want to do there. And [the other department heads] come to me, going, "Can't we just keep the code going?" I say, "No. Work it! What did you do before time - code - locked shows? You did it manually!"
Brown: it's the same as us poor bastards up there; There's this sinking feeling when the click drops out. "Fuckin' hell, what's happened?" We forget how to do it, we get so used to doing it this way.
Do you all have the click in your in - ears?
Brown: No, we all have different things.
McKnight: I have two click lines. One goes to the drummer, and it's incessant. No breaks. Then There's a second line for the band guys, for when they need the click. There's nothing worse than having a stinkin' click in your ear all the time.
Brown: There are certain parts in many of the songs where the drums aren't playing. That's when our click pops in. Mike does really cool things; he's got a really nice sample of himself going, [Imitates American accent.] "One, two, three, four." [Laughs.] it's great. We can ask for that, and it was really helpful in rehearsals. we're lazy, basically.
McKnight: The stage manager keeps threatening to record the stage cues in there. Nobody wants a goddamn robot going [in monotone voice] "MOVE. . .STAGE. . .RIGHT" in their ear.
Brown: "LIFT. . .GOING. . .UP. . ."
Wiltz: "Danger, Will Robinson!!" [Uproarious laughter all around.]
Brown: But the stagehands have caused us a few little dangerous moments, though, haven't they?
McKnight: Oh, my God.
Brown: I got launched vertically. There's a big lift in the middle of the stage. And my riser moves about on a track sunk into the stage. Once, it was on its way back to the side of the stage, still partially on the lift, when it stopped moving. Then the lift started to go up. My riser went diagonal , the whole fucking thing did a wheelie. But when you're playing, your reactions are delayed cause you're concentrating. "Something's not right here. . . ." Someone tapped my shoulder and shouted, "Get off!" All I could think was that my keyboards were going to be destroyed, it was going to take all the guitars out, and There's another eight feet on the other side where I'm going to fall off onto the floor. We were in the middle of "Holiday," as well, weren't we? [Hysterical laughter.] I shouted, "STOP!" Once I realized I was OK , all the keyboards were kind of crumpled on top of me, I could just see the Triton in the dark , I reached up and played [the song's signature synth melody], and the last note got stuck. That was a good one.
McKnight: Luckily that hasn't happened since rehearsals.
Brown: Then there was the night our riser started moving during a moment in the show when me and Monty, the guitar player, are the only ones playing. it's a really gentle part of the set where I'm playing a harp sound. we're sweating like bastards at this point because someone's put kilts 'round us, and the sweat is all over the keys so my fingers are sliding around. Halfway through this, the riser's supposed to move back and the curtain comes down and that's the end of that part of the show. you're looking forward to this because you can nip off and have a piss as well.
The riser moved, right on cue, but at full speed instead of starting off slowly as planned, and then it just stopped. Madonna's strapped into a prop electric chair at this point, so she Can't turn 'round to see what the hell's happened. It was just dreadful! It was so Spinal Tap; the drive mechanism hung up somehow. So I've already played a dirty great clunker when the riser lurched backward, and now I've recovered it's gotten stuck and the stagehands are underneath, banging on it. I'm thinking, "Fuck off! What are you doing? SHUT UP!" And Monty's falling backwards and forwards, trying to keep playing. It turned out they were under there with a hacksaw, sawing the motor off 'cause it had sheared and was chomping a bloody hole all the way across the stage. It was my Derek Smalls moment.
What do you do to keep your chops up on the road?
Brown: I don't. I don't think I'm really that kind of player. In light of the work I've been doing in the last five or six years, There's not that much call for it. As heavy as it gets on this tour is "Hanky Panky" and "Deeper And Deeper," which draw heavily on my jazz background. it's not as simple as that; don't get me wrong. This job is about being an all - rounder, for a kickoff. . . .
McKnight: And being consistent.
Brown: Being very consistent. There's no room for, "Give me five minutes while I work that out." That sentence doesn't exist. The sentence that goes before that , the one that would make you say it , is, "Play something now." It requires that you think and provide the right part instantaneously. And There's no margin on that, really.
Wiltz: it's about trying to pick it out of her brain. She has something in mind but she doesn't necessarily know how to explain it in the language that musicians would use. You just gotta try something, and then something else, and then something else.
Brown: She'll say, "I like that, but not that tiddly stuff."
Does it keep you out of "the musician mind" and more into a listener's mind?
Brown: Absolutely. Each of us is capable of putting a record together on our own; most of us can swap over and play each other's instruments anyhow. So maybe that's why we all come back , this puts us into the frame of a listener.
Is it like having five producers onstage?
Brown: I wouldn't quite go that far but I know where you're coming from.
Wiltz: There's definitely only one. [Laughter all around.]
McKnight: One ring to rule them all.
What do you think gives Madonna the ability to intuit musical decisions so quickly and accurately?
Wiltz: She's just brilliant.
McKnight: I dunno. She's always had it.
Brown: "Holiday" was a good example of that , we'd gotten to the point where she was saying, "Play something now," and nobody was playing anything. We were all standing 'round going, "What in blazes are we gonna do?" I think I started with the Triton; "What we need is an arpeggio. Let's start with something really bleedin' simple." I found an arpeggiated patch, spun the wheel through until it said, like, pattern 46. And then I hit B. It did its thing and she went, "What's that? What's that?" I said, "Uhm, it's . . . a thing. A thing I'm working on." She said, "It's great. Let's start with that." I think two hours later we had the version.
Some programmer at Korg is going to be jumping up and down when he reads that.
Wiltz: Nah, it'll be Jack Hotop, and he'll just smile.
Brown: The problem is he won't get the credit for it because I know what I did. I changed a note fourteen steps into that pattern.
The Vanilla Ice approach. "It's totally different! I changed one note!"
Brown: That's right! [Laughs.]
What do you do to keep sane on a tour like this?
Brown: [Maniacal laughter.] Right, this is the bit where I take me clothes off and run 'round the dressing room!