From Fink to Fever Ray: bands tune into stagecraft

Whether it’s theatrical sets or performing in costume, bands are taking stagecraft seriously in a bid to stand out from the crowd

Fin Greenall has spent more than a decade working in front of live audiences – first as a DJ for the Ninja Tune stable, latterly as singer/guitarist of a downtempo folk trio called Fink – so he knows something about getting a crowd's attention. And the best way to do it, he maintains, is to abandon the idea that the paying public is happy simply to watch musicians playing instruments on a bare stage. Ahead of a 49-date European tour, he decided Fink needed to make their gigs feel, as he puts it, "less spit and sawdust": something extra was required to make them stand out from the hundreds of other small-to-middling bands on the live circuit.

So he and bandmates Tim Thornton and Guy Whittaker set about raising their game. When their tour starts next week, there will be nothing spit-and-sawdusty about it. Fink will still be playing the hazy songs from their current album, Perfect Darkness, but the stage will be dominated by a set made by 59 Productions, a theatre-design company whose previous commissions include the National theatre's War Horse and Damon Albarn's opera Dr Dee. It's a sweeping steel structure with 48 lights, augmented by five gauze screens that show a different short film for every song. Seen at close quarters, in a cavernous soundstage in east London, where Fink are having their first full rehearsals with it, it's quite a thing. It's particularly impressive for a band which, even after four albums, still rely on word-of-mouth to fill venues.

"59 Productions have given us a good price," Greenall says in response to the obvious question about how much this is costing them. Though the band had to borrow money from Ninja Tune to pay for it – and for the hands-on attention of 59's director, Leo Warner, who's spent the day fussing behind the computers that run the lighting – he's confident it will open doors. "The fact that we have a stage show designed by a theatrical company means we can go to arts venues and say, 'This show has been done by the guy who did War Horse.' There are churches on the European tour, because we think the light show in an awesome church will be amazing. It's a way of standing out from the crowd." Moreover, sections of the framework can be removed if they're playing a venue too small to accommodate the whole thing. "We didn't want a set where, if we're in a territory where the promoter [books us into a small venue], we had to give up eight grand and not play because the set is too big."

Practical as well as aesthetic considerations, then – but it's not the practicalities that excite Greenall as much as the "immersive experience" the show will offer. It was inspired by "going to a Björk gig, where you're just transported to somewhere else for 90 minutes." Despite operating on a fraction of Björk's budget, he predicts their show will have the same sensual, thought-provoking effect. "The imagery and power and music will consume the halls we play."

The band sit down and feel their way through one of the songs from Perfect Darkness. Behind them, the four dozen lights are like a densely grouped constellation, casting beams in every direction. ("Domestic anglepoise lamps from Ikea," says a grinning Warner.) And Greenall is right: though the music is meltingly beautiful in its own right, the lights and projections make it feel floating, dreamlike.

Warner rarely works on what he calls "rock'n'roll tours", and is critical of many acts' attempts to make themselves visually interesting. "There's a lot of bands that have big, moving-light shows, which is the last step before you get into effects and projection, and I tend to find that tedious." But he feels that what he's produced for Fink "will heighten people's emotional experience".

Creating an emotional experience is the aim of every artist who has ever set foot on a stage, but presentation is often the last thing on their mind, especially for smaller bands. For many at Fink's level, the main objective is just to get out and play without getting into hock, and many don't have the inclination to add bells and whistles. Yet a surprising number of young artists take presentation as seriously as they do songwriting, seeing it as critical to their musical identity. They're not just trying to create a point of difference – they regard elements such as visuals and even the space they play in as integral to their performance. Take Brighton-based Elizabeth Walling, who plays eerie electronica under the name Gazelle Twin: her gigs are intricately plotted, down to apparently inconsequential details such as what time the audience is allowed into the room where she's performing. They're kept outside until moments before she appears, to increase anticipation. Once inside, they're soon confronted by dimmed lighting and a masked, robed Walling. Little of her face or figure can be discerned; even her gender is unclear. It's not a million miles from what Karin Andersson of the Knife does in her solo project, Fever Ray, which Walling readily admits is a primary inspiration.

"Fever Ray gave me my epiphany," she says. "I have a problem with being a female artist, because I'm expected to be confident, sexual, revealed, and that doesn't sit well with me. Then I saw Fever Ray perform, and she was completely hidden and you didn't know where this voice was coming from. It was amazing." Walling says that when she plays, there's invariably an intake of breath from the audience as she walks on stage. That's exactly what she wants: in putting together her show, she had a set of goals, and causing goosebumps is one of them. "I wanted fans to witness something they weren't sure was real or not. Second was that they felt compelled to dance or lose themselves. I also wanted people to feel a little bit afraid." To go by her reviews, which are peppered with descriptions like "eerie" and "not necessarily human," she's managed it, and on a budget so small she makes the costumes herself.

Walling – a pleasant, unalarming sort when not in character – says costuming herself gives her a dollop of empowerment she didn't experience when she performed "in more conventional ways". Interestingly, Liela Moss of London garage-rockers the Duke Spirit uses the same word: she so savoured the "empowering" feeling of playing a gig inside a boxing ring a few months ago that what was intended as a quirky one-off is going to be the focal point of their next tour. The band have hired a ring, which will be set up in the middle of venues that have the space for it. Fans can surround it, as if at a boxing match, and see the band from a different perspective. The idea ties in with the title of their next album – Bruiser – but Moss also sees it as "the ultimate feminist gesture of taking on a man's world". She's hoping, perhaps a bit ambitiously, that the ring will make punters "reconsider our animalistic inclinations, that brutal part of our psyche". Does she really expect that to happen? "Hopefully," she says without hesitation. "I want to feel like fans are sucked up in the centre of a maelstrom, like we've all gathered together with some kind of pride and power."

Using visuals and costumery as a means of shoring up confidence and provoking disquiet isn't restricted to women, but it's worth noting that two young male artists I talked to see their own efforts as purely for entertainment. One-man rave act Orlando Higginbottom, aka Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, only aspires "not to be boring," and his literalist way of avoiding it is to perform gigs in a dinosaur costume, complete with metal spikes down the back. Sometimes he has a tail, too. Meanwhile, Welsh disco-poppers Bright Light Bright Light have a more expansive approach, but are essentially on the same page.

Their leader, Rod Thomas, says: "I want fans to get a sense of my personality and humour. I want them to come to the best house party they've been to for a while. It's nice when fans see something amazing." He was so set on staging a spectacular show that he enlisted a creative director, who put together something that sounds like a cross between David Lynch and a gay disco. There are transvestites, smoke, "glass shards" and "Twin Peaks-inspired lighting," all of which encourage audiences to get swept up in the moment.

There's a dearth of "atmosphere and mystery" in modern life, Higginbottom complains, and he hopes to redress it, in a tiny way, by creating a spectacle. And he means it: when he played Bestival – the sole festival where he might not automatically stand out, given its fancy-dress theme – he rose to the challenge by embellishing his dinosaur outfit with balloons containing LED lights. "Putting in a bit of extra effort just helps create an actual 'act'. Unless you're politically motivated, I don't know what you can aspire to do besides entertain."

What he could have added is that, with many more artists touring to supplement declining record sales, there's a lot of competition for the recession-hit punter's pound. If it takes a dinosaur suit or a boxing ring to be different from the rest, and add an unforgettable zing to a gig – well, a band's gotta do what a band's gotta do.

Fink's tour begins at St Mary's Church, Brighton, on 23 September.


Caroline Sullivan

The GuardianTramp

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