An innocuous DIY gig in Evans Bay. The stage is someone’s cleaned out living room. The PA, the crowd and the band are crammed into the makeshift space. In the kitchen, where most of the audience stand, the doorway frames a partial view of indie rock band Macho Macho plugging in their guitars. As they start playing, a cartwheeling lightshow splays out across the small flat. Each drum hit is crystalized by a burst of light, the pulsating colour mimicking the bassist like a metronome. The intensity of the music is reflected by fiery colours. Then, as the song abruptly ends, the room is suddenly submerged in a cool, deep blue.
In the back corner of the room, carefully manipulating a set of faders, stands Marcus J Laurence. With his company, Oosh Productions, he works as a lighting and sound technician for some of Wellingtons local up and coming acts, and if you’ve been to many gigs, you’ve likely seen his work. Marcus once found himself at the forefront of the event production industry in NZ, working for a trailblazing company called The Production Co, known for immersive large-scale event lighting. Yet, he was drawn to the windy capital of Wellington, where he has made a name for himself lighting small gigs for a new generation of young Kiwi musicians. Marcus sat down with us and had a chat about the creative role of lighting technicians, why the job matters, and what drew him away from the big business of event production.
When asked why lighting matters, Marcus replied: “on a really basic level, it only matters because you need to see what’s going on”. He explains that when people attend a live show, they expect to see, as well as hear the band. He also points out that the performers spend countless hours perfecting their music, so it makes little sense to then play through a bad PA with a couple of bedroom lamps. “But then, because humans always like to push for more and better, you start thinking well, if we light them from this angle, then it provokes this kind of emotion. Then we can start talking about colours as well, which opens another can of worms”. After the basics are covered, the job of lighting engineer can become a creative discipline, where lighting is used to accentuate the emotion of the music, highlight its dynamics, and represent its key themes. “It ultimately doesn’t impact the sound of the music or anything, but everything we see around us impacts how we feel and the way we respond to things. The way the lighting shapes your perception of how the music is being performed can be really powerful”.
Marcus admits that before doing lighting, the visual side of a gig experience hadn’t occurred to him. He reasons he must have been to plenty of gigs with great lighting but was oblivious to its impact. “Although I would have felt it” he adds. “When I started getting into lights and I first saw someone do a big gnarly strobe right on a breakdown drop, and I felt the bass and I felt the lights, and the entire stimulation go together, I was like oh okay. I made that connection”. On the other side of the coin, moments of restraint proved equally impactful. “Be it the strobe on the breakdown or be it the nothing-but-the-spotlight for when the band drops away after the last chorus of the Heavy Chest set, or whatever, you know. Sometimes those really understated subtle moments are just as powerful as those big strobe moments. It’s all contextual.” He realized that lighting had always been a visceral part of his musical experiences, whether he knew it or not.
To those who know him for his lighting, the idea of Marcus being oblivious to how a gig looks is unfathomable. But Marcus’s journey to establishing himself as a technician in Wellington was more complicated than simply getting some gear and trying it out. He grew up in the small town of Waitara, several kilometres northeast of New Plymouth. He remembers first getting into playing music after taking lessons with Brett Fox, the bassist from Eight Foot Sativa, a New Zealand based metal band. “He showed me how to have fun and how to rock, and I just taught myself shit from there”. As a teenager, Marcus became involved in the gig scene in Auckland. “I fell in love with music and the social things you can get out of it. Going to gigs and playing in bands. The whole music culture and scene was just like yeah, sick”. Playing in bands throughout his youth, he wanted to have a career in music but knew it wasn’t the easiest way to make a living. The last thing he wanted to do was start making music he didn’t enjoy. Writing jingles, Marcus explains, was a worst-case scenario. Instead, he took up an electrical apprenticeship. But after several years of training, he found himself craving a return to music. “I approached events companies and I ended up doing three months of Marquee building for random field day events before I found the next thing, which was a full-time job at The Production Co. in Auckland.”
The Production Co. were at the forefront of the events management industry in NZ, which historically didn’t have much regulation. “You could hang three tons of PA on top of 10,000 people without any licence to do so. That’s pretty nuts eh!” says Marcus. The Production Co. served as a benchmark for regulation and training within the industry. This created an environment allowing Marcus to hone his skills as a live music technician, a process he describes as “a cutting of the teeth”. The Production Co. are known for large scale event management, as well as their creative approach to unconventional production ideas. One project saw them deck out a venue’s ceiling with a canopy of multi-coloured cubes, which would light up in time with the production happening onstage. They have also provided live lighting and sound engineering for a hoard of NZ’s musical icons: Alien Weaponry, The Black Seeds, Crowded House, Dave Dobbyn and Fat Freddy’s Drop to name a few.
Still, Marcus found himself craving the intimacy of the small DIY gig environment in which he was raised and left the big business of Production Co. He decided to move to Wellington, drawn in by the thriving music scene. “I came to Wellington and the music scene was fucking sick. We got good people, we got good music, we got a very supportive community. We got some musicians who really want to make their mark on things”. Marcus, once again fully immersed in gigging, began forming connections with bands he liked. If he was a fan of the music, he would introduce himself, get to know the musicians and begin a professional relationship. The people, he asserts, were of the utmost importance. “It started on that really personal level, which is how I want it to be. I want to be out here doing things with good people as first, and good music is a close second”.
One group that initially struck Marcus as promising was four-piece indie rock band Macho Macho. The group have now been playing for three years, producing a strain of high energy indie rock. The band is comprised of Logan McAllister on guitar and backup vocals, Connor Lyttle on bass, Dayne Robinson on drums and Lachlan Burne on guitar and lead vocal. “I really enjoyed their shows when I first came to town, and I thought they must have been gigging for a while. But they’d only been playing for six months at that point, so I thought that was really cool”. Working closely with the band, he gained an intimate understanding of the music, learning to reflect every sonic intricacy in his lighting. In this regard, watching Marcus control his lights is not dissimilar to watching the band play their instruments. He is intensely concentrated, as he must be totally in time with the players, without the luxury of being onstage with them.
Also, the technique required to control a lighting console is comparable to playing an instrument. “You can push a fader up and down in a lot of different ways, you got ADSR, attack, decay, sustain, release on each of those lighting hits, just like you would on any other musical note. You can just flash it on and off, or it can be slow in, slow out. Everything else in-between as well. With Macho, their music’s very bah bah bah, so there’s a lot of points where I’m making big, blocky movements with the lights to reflect that” explains Marcus, miming out the action of controlling a fader. “You go even more up the rock and roll side into your Sea Mouse stuff, and instead of it being sliding bounces like Macho, it’s very boom … boom, big movements like that. I’m still coming up with ways to use the same tech to do different stuff as well, which is awesome. That’s where the technician side and creative side of my brain have a lot of fun working together”. This musical approach to lighting served the band well, and Marcus went on a nationwide tour with the group in February of 2021.
Working closely with his musicians, Marcus also began to gain an understanding of different band’s interpretations of their music. “I always really like to try and have those conversations. Try and pull things out of them, like how they perceive songs”. Subject matter, mood, key themes, or performers own visual ideas are used to translate the sound into a technical result. Oftentimes, musicians hadn’t realized the creative potential of live lighting, and became excited about developing visual ideas. In other cases, they leave it entirely up to Marcus. He lists off several examples: “During the Spook The Horses set there’s lots of big aggressive red and whites on the stage, but then when they said: this songs really slow, doomy and swampy, we went for some greens and purples. Got some muted colours out. Versus if we were trying to do a really jovial, cheery song, like Macho’s ‘You’re So Silly’, it has always been yellow and purple. And ‘North Canterbury in the Winter’ was a cold, icy green cyan with blue and little bits of red. These colour themes are sort of set to invoke the feeling of the songs”.
Despite the length Marcus goes to do his bands justice in a live setting, as well as make sure the audience has a visually captivating experience, he remains modest about his job. “This is the perfect little support role, where I get to help enable all this stuff” he says. “People don’t need to know what we’re doing. They’re here for the band, and we’re just here to make sure the band gets represented properly”. Also, an answer to why Marcus finds himself lighting small local bands, opposed to world tour acts, came towards the end of our conversation. He said “for me it’s really not about the lights, it’s about the music. I don’t want to do big shows unless it’s got good people and good music first, in that order”.
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