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We talk with Mike Stevens, musical director of the UK’s biggest tour to date which caused the most female screams since Take That split up the first time. Welcome to the record breaking Progress Tour. Grab your ear plugs…
OK Mike, so you’ve recently come off the biggest tour the UK has ever seen – the Take That Progress tour. While most people have heard of the band, the role of musical director is more mysterious – can you tell us a bit about yourself? Sure. I was brought up in a musical family – my father was a professional drummer. I originally studied the clarinet, of all things, as well as the piano, then I went off to seek fame and fortune – well, I went to music college in Birmingham anyway, which was a start. While I was there I studied composition and conducting and, after leaving college, I inevitably formed a band – typical rites of passage stuff – and we ended up playing on cruise ships and clubs in an effort to ‘pay our dues’. While still at college I got into the sax and in the late 80s made my first (sax) solo album and was signed to RCA records. I also started sessioning at this time and played on many records! As a solo artist I toured supporting many well-known artists of the time including The Temptations, Brenda Russell, Dionne Warwick, Freddie Jackson and also Bill Withers, which was my first musical director role. I brought out a second album with RCA in the early 90s which had some success in USA. In 1992 I met and started working with Take That, becoming their touring Musical Director from 1993. I stayed on the road with them until the breakup in 1996. After Take That I became much more active as a touring MD working with 911, Atomic Kitten, Sugababes, Geri Halliwell and B*Witched. By this time I was also producing and writing with a range of artists including Westlife, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sugababes and Patrizio Buanne. I started working with Annie Lennox from 2002 as full-time touring MD and later as producer, working on the albums ‘Bare’, ‘Songs of Mass Destruction’ and the ‘Christmas Cornucopia’. Then, when Take That reformed in 2006, I went back on the road with them as touring and live Musical Director which goes on to the present day. I’ve also supervised and performed at many charity concerts including Children in Need, 46664 (The Nelson Mandela Concerts), The Prince’s Trust, Peace One Day and Live 8 2005, to name but a few.
WOW – not much going on then. How did you get into the industry? A couple of lucky breaks really. I met a production team who I worked exclusively with in the mid-80s as session keys and programmer. We had a couple of successful artists on the roster and from that, and lots of hard work, I started to get my name around. Also touring with Bill Withers as musical director was a big leg up. So how did you originally get the Take That gig? I had a friend who was working in the studio with them and he got a band together for them to tour, of which I was a member. He left very quickly after that and so I took over. The way I got the gig seems funny now – it was literally a quick phone call asking ‘could you do this gig?’ and I was around so said yes, although I hadn’t heard of them at the time.
What do you look for when picking a team of musicians? Did ‘the boys’ have a say? The choice of musicians was completely mine. In all the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve always looked for great musicians with no egos – this is sometimes difficult to achieve, but we nailed it with this tour. You’re all together for months, so you have to get on and gel.
What was the process leading up to the beginning of the tour? Always pretty much the same! We’ll have around a month to rehearse the band on our own before the guys come in. I will then work a bit with them on vocals during this period, then we get together again later, for a couple of weeks, to knit it all together and get it tight. The set list is generally put together by the guys and Kim Gavin, the show director, but this often changes during the rehearsal period.
How do you recreate the sound of the record but scaled up to fill a stadium? In a stadium it’s very often what you leave out that works best. It’s not good to cram too many things into the soundscape because they just get lost in translation with such large spaces and so many variable factors. For a tour the size of Progress the main problems are acoustic – when the sound gets too big. A LOT of work goes into the front of house sound, in which I also get involved, and between myself and the FOH guy we decide what works best.
Can you tell us how a show of that size comes together? By a miracle (laughs). No, we have a fantastic production team who sort all the logistics and a great production manager who brings it all together named Chris Vaughen. The crew alone was well over 300 people.
Progress was a BIG tour. Did the size and scale of the tour cause any issues? Many! Usually to do with staging. We had the big 60 foot tall mechanical man – called Mr. Om – who was very difficult to work with, as sometimes he just refused to move! And he is a big guy! He would have ‘issues’ quite frequently and also we had a couple of scary moments with “The Flood” when staging locked up. There were a couple of long pauses which we filled with music while they fixed them. But it always comes out alright in the end and usually no one notices anything – apart from us.
As MD, the musical portion of the show rests on your shoulders, did you feel the pressure and how did you cope with it? Yeah I do sometimes feel the pressure: it’s such a big thing and it can go wrong sometimes, but I have a great band with me and we have worked on all the new shows together, so it really helps knowing we’ve done it all before. But you do the prep and you know your stuff and trust the other guys to do the same, and then all you can do when you’re waiting for the lights to dim is hope it all works.
During the show Gary Barlow strapped on a battery-powered AX-Synth: how did that work out? Yeah, it was great for the bit in the show where they all played a bit. He specified the AX as the one he wanted.
Describe your typical day if there was a gig in the evening (from the time you got up)? Up at 10 (AM) for breakfast, wander out for a look round the new town, check in with tour manager about 1PM, leave for soundcheck about half three and start soundchecking about 4:15. Then it’s back to the dressing room for a snooze, chat with the Take That guys over any issues from the last gig, dinner at 6-30, get dressed about 8 then it’s show time at 9.
Was there a different vibe at the European shows? To be honest it’s all very much the same although I would say some of the Italian crowds were very noisy.
Tell us a secret about something that happened on the tour? Not a secret as such, but Robbie really did get on great with everybody, despite what people might say: he’s a great bloke.
What did you do after the final show of the tour? We had a big party in Munich and drank too much. A messy night indeed, that one.
What advice would you give to people hoping to get into the industry as a session musician? You’ve got to really want to do it because it’s very, very hard work and it has to be a bit of a labour of love, especially in the early days when you’ve yet to make it and the bigger gigs have yet to come in. You’ve just got to keep the faith and keep plugging away at it. Be professional, be respectful and leave your ego at the door and even when things are starting to pick up – never think you’ve made it, which is probably the single most important thing I’ve learned in my career.
Loved it. I used it exclusively to create acoustic guitar sounds. It’s so much easier to deal with than a real acoustic on such big gigs and retuning is just the touch of a button. There were obviously no feedback issues either and it was so fast and easy to detune for certain songs during the set. It’s definitely the future on this kind of gig. I’ve used Boss compacts in the past but to be honest you don’t really need them if you’ve got the GR. We also used the first Jupiter-80 in the UK on the tour as well – always nice to get to use some new toys on tour. I love the sounds on the Jupiter especially the strings which I particularly love! Not sure about the colours though (laughs).