How to Rock a Live Show
Something we get asked a lot is "how do you guys perform?" and it's a question that's not only about the technical side of things, but about the way to keep two guys (or one guy) with laptops from looking like a college computer lab in the dark. I think when we're on, we have a pretty good live show. I'm not always confident about mixes and about recording stuff, and I'm not going to say we have the best designs or the coolest website or anything, but I think when it comes time to rock a show, we do pretty well. So, with that in mind, here are the things I keep in mind about live shows. This only relates to me and to what I like to see, so obviously, this list is only as useful to you as your experiences are similar to mine, but here goes:
- Get the right tools. Rock bands don't seem to have as much of a problem understanding this, but the instrument you play determines a lot about how you will come off onstage. A lot of folks are boiling everything down to just a laptop which is what we do, but in doing that, you have to treat whatever program it is you are using like your instrument. You need to be skilled, not just competent with it. If you were playing guitar with only a rudimentary understanding of how the guitar worked, you'd come off as amateurish. It's the same with software. Just learn whatever tool it is you want to use, and get used to performing with it, not just composing with it.
- Throw away your mouse. A mouse is not an adequate interface for an instrument 90% of the time. Pointing and clicking and dragging all takes fairly precise, deliberate movement. That's not condusive to any sort of physicality in a performance, so lose the mouse. Get a midi controler with knobs or sliders or touch pads, or a mixer, or build your own box that interfaces with something, or get a bunch of pedals and stomp on them, but don't expect anyone to want to watch you running a mouse pointer along on the screen. It just ain't sexy.
- Practice. I've heard from people time and again "we just wrote this song today" or "we just hooked up midi for the first time 10 minutes ago." That's fine if you want to fly by the seat of your pants and hope that it all works. Really seasoned performers can improv like that and if you work with someone else for long enough, it's sometimes easier to anticipate things and do it on the fly. But the one thing I think a lot of folks forget is that you need to practice. This doesn't mean remixing and recomposing tracks over and over until you have a live version, or playing around with something for 45 minutes high on weed and fascinated by everything. It means figuring out your setlist or what you want to accomplish live, then doing it over and over again with no one watching until you know you can do it. It will honestly take some of the spontenaiety and risk out of your live performance, but if you are confident in your ability to pull of the set, you can experiment live. It's one of those "know the rules before you break the rules" kinds of things.
- Your music needs to groove. (Keep in mind that I said that this is just my take on things, based on what I like.) For the most part, watching a guy who's written some home-grown software to process streaming mic feeds into shards of digital sound, no matter how cerebrally interesting, does not make for a good show. You can't engage an audience with any energy if you aren't producing some energy yourself. Drone ambient sets are cool, and can have their place, but 90% of the people I see are trying to play some sort of beats live. If you can't get that shit to groove, people won't know how to move to it. Groove is a subjective thing, but as fractured and intricate as Richard Devine's music is, it still grooves. Autechre, though impossible to count off, still grooves. You can have really chaotic beats that groove, the key is just maintaining a rhythm that relates to people. Leave the really experimental and ambient stuff at home if you want an audience to get pumped up during your set.
- Move Sucka! It's all starting to congeal, isn't it? If you have practiced to where you know your set backwards and forwards, and if you have the right tools to allow you to be expressive, and if you write or at least select the right tunes that have a groove, you can pull it all together and get into it live. Usually, the stoic laptop screen face comes from people who are too involved in some minutae in their software, or too worried that something will fuck up, or are trying to compose live on the spot with a mouse, to be able to react to the music in real time. If you are slamming beats, your body needs to show some semblance of a reaction. A head nod is fine, jumping up and down wildly is great, but something for the audience to key off of is a must. I love Cocteau Twins, but their live set is boring and terrible because it's a bunch of guys staring at the ceiling struming guitars, motionless. It's not fun to watch, it sounds beautiful, but so do the records. You should probably be sweating at the end of a good show, or at least moving around.
- No sitting. We all sit every day in front of a computer. It's boring. It encourages a lethargic, office-worker-like physical presence. Most people aren't used to rocking out in a chair, so the moment you sit down, the chair automatically pulls your energy level down. We've tried chairs and it never works. I always kick the chair out after a minute or two because it feels like a prison.
- Don't do too much. Performing is not composing. For people who use generative software or high intensity processing plugins and stuff, this can be hard to work out, but the goal of your live show doesn't have to be 'create an album of material in real time.' There' a balance between playing mp3s from your hard drive and acting like you are doing something, and trying to produce every sound on the spot with two hands.
- Make your set a jounrey. Playing live should be about more than throwing some songs together to fill 45 minutes of time and space. I like shows best when they are themselves a journey with a definied beginning and ending. When someone finishes a set and I can't tell if it's over or if it's just stopped for a moment, that's bad. I don't obsess over set lists, but I do plan them out so that the music takes you from point A to B to C in a deliberate way. It's always good to go out with a bang, too.
- Never wear out your welcome. I've been asked to play 60 and 90 minute sets and I usually back that down to 45 minutes at most. somewhere between 30-45 minutes is optimal for me. I always think you need to leave people wanting more rather than leave them feeling like "the first 30 minutes was cool, but..." Know when to stop. In the weird and rare event of an encore, be ready to do something fun, but it's much better to be done, to walk out, and to leave people so amped that they just have to buy some merch. :)
Of course, knowing when and where to break those rules is the key, too. Laptop/computer performance is still in its infancy. For every Cex or Otto von Shirach, there's a hundred bald dudes who look like they could be updating their stock portfolio to a beat. The main thing I always keep in mind is that while writing and recording music may be a very personal thing, something that as an artist I do for myself, performing live is for an audience. If you aren't engaging and communicating with an audience in real time, your live show is pointless. If you are going to plink and plonk with some generative synth toys, make sure you've booked the right venue for it, and don't expect people in a dance or rock club to get too excited over your technically marvellous science fair-dub.