"I GET TO PLAY IN THE BEST SANDBOX IN THE WORLD" - A Chat with Dan Braun

October 6, 2017 / Digital SW!

Ross Halfin

For over two decades, show designer and director Dan Braun has been helping to conceive, create, and execute Metallica’s exciting and inspirational live productions. Steffan Chirazi discusses the WorldWired production with a man who insists he is only one piece of the puzzle.

“It is all about the team we have out here, Steffan, and I don’t think that people understand how much it is.”

Dan Braun fixes me with an earnest stare; nothing malevolent, more one which serves as a resounding reinforcement of a core point, feeling, and even emotion that Dan Braun feels whenever talk of production comes up. That this production – all of this production – which sits around us as we chat in Amsterdam before night one in the Ziggo Dome, is here because of everyone. Every single WorldWired Tour employee. Despite being the man behind the concepts, despite being the man who leads this entire charge, Dan Braun refuses to take one shred of credit more than anyone else. “Please make sure you make that clear Steffan,” he says to me again once we’ve finished the interview, as he has done in the past when we’ve chatted for So What! because he genuinely feels it. Braun doesn’t do platitudes; he is not that guy. When he says something, he says it because he means it.

I was pleasantly surprised to find Braun in ebullient form when we sat down. As I alluded to in “Roadwired to Succeed” last week, he often walks the corridors of a venue buried deep in his own thoughts and seemingly lost in an intense space far away from the building itself, but this is because Braun is all-in 110% at all-times, and if he is in a venue these days, it is because he is in full directorial/supervision mode. I suspect sleep is an afterthought during these weeks. Nonetheless, when Braun later told me how happy he was to see the show, how good it felt, I was personally delighted to see him enjoying both the moment and his work (their work, the team’s work).

Steffan Chirazi: When I first looked at this show, I wanted to know where it came from. What were you looking at? There’s sort of an art installation feel with the way it works and the way it moves, but you tell me.

Dan Braun: All of this starts from the band. So really, it starts with the music. It starts with looking at what the band is doing, what direction they’re going, and where are they at. And 14 months ago you start thinking they’re gonna have an album that’s gonna be done eventually. So if they have an album done we’re gonna do something, and we should probably do something new. So you start looking for some ideas and this one came really kind of out of the blue. I was messing with some things, I literally did go in to [see] an art sculpture that was installed somewhere and was fascinated by it. I walked in and was very fascinated that it was capturing all of these elements I’d been loosely thinking about. Strange, forced-perspectives, simple shapes juxtaposed on top of a simple shape, juxtaposed on top of a simple space, and they were playing with moving, kinetic color. I was somewhat fascinated by it, as I tend to get, and after several minutes, I looked and said, “That’s our next show.” The show is not that art installation, but that was what drove the concept of starting to play around with a bunch of simple shapes, trying to create some very complex looks.

SC: There is a synergy between the huge summer stage and this one. When you were conceiving the stadium shows, had this idea already happened?

DB: It’s a work flow process, because you’re working on one thing and suddenly you realize you’re moving into the other thing and trying to find a way to make sure that the platform that’s being delivered for the band to work on allows them to exchange energy with the audience without a barrier. That’s kind of the baseline of everything I do: eliminate any separation between band and audience. A Metallica show is 50 percent band and 50 percent audience. And the band drives energy that hopefully can pour without barrier off the stage into the audience, and that audience takes that and amplifies it, and returns it to the guys. And they do the same thing and return it to the audience. Then we have a Metallica show. And so as I’m moving through things, everything is about how do we affect, how do we create the best possible platform for that to occur. And then have some fun with it because we can.

SC: Let’s go back to the AT&T Park show, when I look back at that now, and I think of looking at those screens, there was no obvious trussing so to speak. To me that seems to have been a birth point for everything that’s come from it. Would you say that’s accurate production-wise?

DB: No. We started a long time before that. The AT&T show was the show where we said we’re gonna do that. Again, it’s all about barriers. Metallica has broken barriers forever, and the guys didn’t want to be contained. We’ve done a series of festivals [over the years] where you’re in what Lars would refer to as “the box” – this refers to the conventional festival stage where there are vast side-stage wings and a very conventional stage. Can we get rid of the box? Well, I’d been messing around with trying to make it look like the box didn’t exist, for years, and on The Night Before show, we said, “Well, what if we just make the box [actually] disappear?” And so we did. And it was very, very successful. Well, then, when we came back to do the North American stadium run, we said, “Let’s finish it.”

I started this by saying it all starts with the music. By the time we got going into the stadium run, we had an album and we had some artwork to look at.  I literally picked up the album artwork and said, “Well, I guess everything’s gonna be white.” That’s a very simple statement but very bold when you do what we did to try to keep something white, and so we started attacking from there. If we had a bunch of white things, what were we gonna do around them? Our use of video in the stadium couldn’t have been more different from what we’re doing here. In a stadium, you have people who are six, eight, eight hundred, maybe almost a thousand feet away from the stage in some cities. So the goal with our video presentation in the stadiums was to try to take the energy that the guys are driving onstage and get it to the kids in the back. Why? I used to be that kid in the back. Okay, so I’m trying to reach that kid all the way in the back. Nothing makes me happier when I’m at a show than if I look up into the very last seat, the furthest seat from the stage, and I see that kid’s fist in the air. I feel like we won. Not because we won but because that kid is having the experience that we’re trying to get them to have and they’re having an intimate relationship with their favorite band. And to me, that’s an incredibly special moment, to turn around and look up and see that.

SC: So essentially you’re serving two masters. You’re serving the band obviously but also the audience. You’re equally cognizant of the fact there is an audience, and some kid who’s paid his last pocket money to get that ticket out there…

DB: …Yeah, when we go out and talk to the kids, and you find out that some kid has saved his money and been dreaming of seeing this band for a long time, I was that kid! And so I’m serving that kid as much as I’m serving Lars and James. The interesting thing is I have a great band to work with; they know how to do this with their fan base to have this intimate relationship, which is unique. There aren’t a million bands that have that relationship. There’s dozens, maybe.

We have that band, and it really is a way to find a nexus to create that communication if you will. So again, it starts with the music, it starts with the guys, and then how do we enhance it? How do we make it more fun, how do we make it a little more special? How do we make the kid in the back feel special, how do we make the kid in the middle feel special, how do we make the kid in the front feel special? Because when you’re entertaining 55,000 plus people at a time, that’s a pretty big task! And then we have four guys onstage, how do we make it easy for them to reach their fans?

SC: And so that Snake Pit becomes a battery that they can plug into and then give that energy back out.

DB: Exactly. We’re trying to remove a barrier, any barrier between band and audience, and make that as easy and quick as possible because – you’ve been to enough of these – there’s nothing like a Metallica show when it’s working.

SC: Right. And that “battery” is pretty vital to keeping the show moving at a good pace. It really is.

DB: It’s just, it’s a pleasure; I have to tell you. Watching that energy flow is – it’s why I get up in the morning. When it works… and thankfully it doesn’t “not work.” It’s been a long time since we had one not work.

SC: Let’s talk about this production and the fact that when we walked into the building in Copenhagen you guys had already been in Malmö I believe, you’d already been working. At this point, all I can imagine is you’ve come with these ideas. Bring us through the process of actually facilitating them. Who do you reach out to? What’s the chain? You reach out to TAIT (the staging company) and say, “Look, this is what I need. This is what I want.” How long does it take?

DB: The first thing I have to tell you is there’s no “I” involved in this, because it’s a concept. And you start going out and saying “Okay, what if we do this? Can we do this, will this work? Here’s an idea. Is this possible? You want to do what?” And we start building what’s possible and what we can do. TAIT Towers [helmed by the company President, Adam Davis, and whose CEO, Winky, will be the subject of a SW! story soon – ED] has been building our sets for a long time. They’re amazing design partners, they’re amazing technology partners. And remember that everything we’re building, with the exception of the three drum risers we have, is one of one. So we figure we can do that, and then we start trying to figure out how to do it. And that’s the process, and it takes incredible collaboration from everyone. To go through the process on this show, here’s a concept. Go to TAIT [on the US East Coast in Pennsylvania – ED]. Meet with them. You look at things, go back and forth on what you can and cannot do, and you end up with this thing that finally converges.

SC: And what’s that time frame? 

DB: Months. Two or three months depending on things.

SC: Two or three months is still an incredibly short amount of time for such a complex production in my view, right?

DB: Probably. Yeah, we move pretty quick. We probably spent two to three months planning. Then we got something that we thought, “Well okay, here, this is something. Let’s look at what this would be.” And we had two basic concepts, two directions, both inspired from the art installations I mentioned that I saw, both in New York City coincidentally. And so then we get something that’s like, “Okay, this is – we can show this.” It’s no longer scribbles on a piece of paper. We now have something to show. So then sit down with the band. Which is an interesting experience because now I have my child, which I’ve been trying to bring to life, and we set it in front of someone and there’s a very interesting moment of saying, do you like this?

SC: Is it still butterflies when you do that?

DB: Absolutely.

SC: You still get a little-

DB: I mean, nobody wants to, you know, hear, “He says that sucks!” And in this particular instance the response was instantaneously positive, in both directions. We explored both directions. They were close, very, very close. Both elaborate in the extreme. And as Metallica would do it, we picked the more elaborate because that’s Metallica. From day one that I got here, we’ve never ever backed off anything.

SC: And then come the “practical” bits.

DB: Yes. We had to really figure out how to build it, and that process takes a long time, much longer than you want it to because again, it’s all bespoke. So you’re building these things. Obviously there are some easy parts but there are some very difficult parts when you’re talking about moving parts, technology, weight loading. So now the train’s left the station and you start adding people to the train. We have production managers and regulars [Jon “Lug” Zajonc is the production manager, Henry Wetzel is the production coordinator, Holly Harkins is the production assistant and Chad Koehler is the head rigger – ED], engineers [Chris Nichols is the system engineer – ED], carpenters [Brantly Brooks, Alex Larson and Kevin Levasseur – ED] and video content people [there are many fine folks, too many to list here – ED], I mean, the team gets pretty big, pretty fast. And again, in the world of Metallica the team that we have to work with is really an amazing experience.

SC: It appears to me that communication and relationships help maybe halve the amount of time it could take?

DB: I think so.

SC: Because everyone speaks the same language, is that it?

DB: I think partly that. I think partly the calendar makes decisions, as far as in the clock. I think Brett [gestures to Brett Murray, videographer and Met Club/SW! documentarian filming our conversation – ED] was actually in the room last Saturday afternoon when I walked in and said, “Well, the good part is the clock’s gonna start making decisions for us because we’ve got five hours to go.”

SC: That’s interesting, yeah.

DB: Doors for the first show [in Copenhagen] were at 5:30. At 5:25 I said, “Park this, park the rig. Turn everything off,” and walked down the stairs, pulled my phone out, it was 5:26. So we were done early, with four minutes to spare. And we opened the doors on time. It is all about the team we have out here, Steffan, and I don’t think that the people who were involved understand how much it is. If I don’t have a sound engineer [“Big” Mick Hughes – ED] that I can go to and say, “I want to break the mold and I want to do this and it’s gonna sound better but you have to trust us and we’re gonna do this thing.” And if I don’t have lighting people [Rob Koenig is the lighting director, Jeff McDonald is the lights crew chief – ED] that I can say, “This is what you’re gonna do. You’re not gonna see a standard lighting truss in the building.” And a video department [Gene McAuliffe is the video director – ED] that I say, “Here’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna have this, images of the band on video but we’re not gonna have any cameramen that you can see.” And we have an incredible crew of guys who work with the band. Each of the band members has an intimate relationship with the guy who takes care of them, the guy who takes care of their instruments [Zach Harmon, Justin Crew, Chad Zaemisch and Jimmy Clark take care of the individual band members personally, Mike Gillies, James Nelson and Cisco Yañez Loyo deal with all general matters including tuning room. – ED] and makes sure that they can deliver off of the platform we build. And go to them and say, “Yeah, this is not how we normally set up, but for this tour we’re gonna do this.” I’m very fortunate to have people who don’t just say, “Yes, I’ll do that, you SOB. Why are you moving me to the loading dock to mix monitors?” [Those fine gents are Adam Correia and Robert Cowan. – ED] They embrace the concept and say, “Hell, yeah. That looks awesome. We’ll do whatever we can to make it better.”

SC: Right. There has to be a lot of trust.

DB: It’s beyond trust. It’s an embrace of the concept and pushing it to the next level. It’s not unlike what I’ve been talking about with the band, where you take this idea and you throw it out at people and you’re hoping that they’ll buy into it, and this bunch of people go, “Hell, yeah. Not only that, we’re gonna take it and make it better.”

SC: So this crew has an identity of pushing the boundaries as well. They enjoy the challenge.

DB: James talks about the Metallica family. We truly are.

SC: But you enjoy the challenge.

DB: Absolutely.

SC: Obviously there are grind moments.

DB: It’s a massive struggle. But the goal with every single person on this crew is to make the show better when the house lights [are] off and the guys are standing on whatever it is we built. And that doesn’t matter if we’re in some little tiny market somewhere, doing a promotional show in a club, if we’re doing 55,000 people in Soldier Field, if we’re doing 90,000 people at Rock Am Ring, or if we’re doing 15,000 people opening night in Copenhagen. This crew… to do what I do and work with this team… it’s hard to describe.

SC: Was there a moment where you thought, you know, “I’m just not sure. This might be the first time it doesn’t quite click”? Or can you not even afford to go there? I know when I write I have to trust my instinct, I have to trust myself. You must end up doing that a lot, right?

DB: For me, the process is questioning everything. I question every assumption. Every time I think it’s not good enough, I break it down, “Why don’t I think it’s good enough?” And I try to question every assumption. I think one of the reasons that our shows are so powerful is that our entire crew is constantly pushing and questioning, “Did I make an assumption which is not as good as it could be? Can I make this better?” It’s so strange, I don’t possess the self-confidence to sit back and say, “It’s good enough,” because personally for me “good enough” just isn’t. That’s sort of a mantra I’ve lived by. I don’t accept “good enough.” So when I have those moments of crisis, the process is to break it back down and start questioning how did I get here, where did we start, what’s the path, going back through the check boxes and assuming nothing.

SC: Can I ask you what the last check box was on this production?

DB:  I don’t think we’ve found it yet. The show is this show because you’ve seen it now. The amount of variables that are in this show mean this show will iterate for a long time. This show is very “live.”

SC: You referred to it as a baby. So it’s like you’ve delivered your baby and now it is gonna grow?

DB: This show will grow as we go, as the band does on a tour. This tour is going to go a long time. We have some awesome new music. We have, of course, a remarkable catalog to present. As the tour goes on, I’m guessing that we will work more and more music into the tour.

SC: This is probably an important element, that the work is never done. You’re constantly watching this show and seeing, “Well, I could do this, we could do this, we could do this.”

DB: And this particular show really has potential to change things and look at things differently. I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun and very special. And I don’t think we’ve hit the last check box.

SC: The production has some great balance between new and old. There are the drones, which we will talk about in a second, but then we’ve got some old school flames for everyone as well.

DB: I guess I’m a little… I enjoy the history of rock.

SC: I honestly thought you were gonna say, “I’m a bit of a pyromaniac!”

DB: I enjoy the history, the evolution of rock, how different shows evolve. And so usually in our show there’re some homages to people who were here, or things we did in the past, and we try to revisit those things. The stadium show had that. This show has that. There are some moments that are reflections of things we did in the past, or people who worked with us who are no longer here. We try to do that and move forward.

SC: What happens when the singer turns around and says, “By the way, it would be super cool if we could have a few drones flying around?”

DB: James has been kind of wanting to play with drones for a while, and the barrier line on that became, and is, safety. [A couple years ago] Enrique Iglesias was messing with drones in a show and about took his fingers off. I said to James then, “No, it’s not safe.” And so [with this tour], as we were dabbling in some high-production, James said, “Well, what about drones? You gonna finally get drones together?” We checked again and we found a solution way beyond my mental capabilities. We got some math wizard [Federico Augugliaro from Verity Studios – ED] to write the algorithms and whatnot, and so we had drones the other night. It was magic.

SC: So it was a case of, “Okay, we’ll get onto it. We’ll find our people and we’ll get it working.”

DB: It’s kinda like on The Full Arsenal [Through The Never stage] thing when we did the electric chair. We looked at all different ways to make sparks and I said, “Look, if we’re doing this thing at this level, let’s get some Tesla coils.” “Well, you can’t use those!” Every production we’ve done for years is fraught with, “We can’t do that.” Okay. We seem to enjoy a challenge.

SC: Was there anything in the concepts that you presented, and in the concept that’s ended up being executed, that was considered too crazy and too difficult or out there?

DB: Again, in addition to working with an awesome crew and all that stuff, I work with a great band. So no. We laid out a path of what we were gonna try to do and we have chased that path. I think we have something really special. And it will evolve over the next couple of weeks as we fine tune some things and see some things. We’ve never done this, no one has ever done anything like this, so it’s an “earn as you learn” program because we’re looking at things saying, “That works, this is gonna be great, um, maybe not.” So we’ve had some moments of that, but as far as stopping at any point and saying we can’t do that? Well, it’s Metallica. They’ve never backed away. We played in Antarctica.

SC: Let’s get back to something we’ve discussed in previous interviews but which some of our readers today might not know about you – the influence of a Pink Floyd show. Talk about that Pink Floyd show. Talk about watching the pigs, and the pigs in the sky, the sky becoming a canvas…

DB: I grew up going to concerts; that’s what I did. When I was growing up, we would get handfuls of tickets, so if I was gonna go to Pink Floyd and you were gonna go to Uriah Heep, I would get six, eight, ten tickets and you would get six or eight, ten tickets and we’d cover each other. It wasn’t, “Are you going?” It’s, “Well, here’s your ticket for this.” We went, we saw concerts and we saw everything. The great thing about that is the exposure to music, whether it’s Cat Stevens or Uriah Heep or Deep Purple or Mötley Crüe, Queen or King Crimson or the Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd or whatever. So yeah, Pink Floyd was a big deal for me. They played a 60,000 seat stadium in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1975 and I was fascinated by how they reached to the audience. It was a massive thing to me to think that you could take 60,000 seats in a baseball stadium and reach everyone in the audience. And coincidentally it rained prior to that show. It’s a very famous story actually in Milwaukee, but a huge thunderstorm came in and there was a guy crawling across the PA putting Visqueen over the PA at the time and I looked up and I went, “That looks like a cool job.”

SC: Which is probably not the reaction most people would have.

DB: But I was fascinated by that. I saw Pink Floyd again in ’77, and again, marvelous.

SC: That was the Animals Tour, right?

DB: Yeah, it was Animals, right. The ’75 tour was the kind of in between Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here tours, ’77 was Animals. And again, I was fascinated at how this band could eliminate the separation between audience and band. An interesting band too, as most of them could walk down the street, no one would recognize them. But they were able in their concert experience to make a 60,000 seat stadium part of the show. And I was fascinated by that concept. By this point in time in my life I’d been to a lot of concerts and I could only relate a few shows that were able to break that barrier, and they had a huge influence on me of how do you make the last seat in the building the best seat? Because over the time of going to concerts I literally had sat front row center. This is back when standing in line, literally waiting for tickets to go on sale, I got a front row center seat. I also sat in the last row of the arena. And I thought, “Well, how do you change that experience so that you can reach people?” and that’s always been a huge deal to me. Having been the kid, having spent every penny I could on concert tickets or albums, it’s a responsibility to make sure that we are able to do that.

SC: Would you say Pink Floyd is the band that showed you that, you know, the air or the sky can also be a production platform? I mean I’m obviously thinking about the pig, the impact of watching that pig fly across the stage…

DB: Absolutely. We saw the pig. They had the airplane that flew through the stadium. They had all of the inflatables that supported the lyrical content from Animals. You know, it certainly was a thing of saying how do we use more space. It’s all about reaching across that area. The object is to try to make the entire arena the stage. So if you look at the amount of lighting we do in the audience and things like this, it’s because the audience is part of the show.

SC: Those corner lights? They bring people right in.

DB: We did well with that, and we’ve always had a lot of audience light. On the stadium run we took lasers back out into the house where people have never put lasers, trying to involve the people at the back of the stadium, so that they weren’t looking at them, they were sitting in them. We did do the inflatables on the stadium show, which is certainly something that I saw at the Floyd shows. Without a doubt. And that is a complete homage to not just that show but to Mark Fisher who designed with us for years and was a great mentor and friend who’s sadly no longer with us.

SC: Are you already thinking ahead to the next production?

DB: This show’s not done, but I actually did start sketching some stuff. Because when these things come to you, they need to be put in some form where I’m gonna be able to remember them.

SC: So there’s still a child in there that’s enjoying the idea process?

DB: Oh, yeah. I mean Steffan… I get to play in the best sandbox in the world! This is – don’t probably say this to the band – but I really believe that this is the greatest live rock band that’s out.

SC: I don’t think you’ll hear anyone disagree on that count.

DB: They’re a band. They play. They’re four guys who are playing in a band. They’re not playing covers of songs they wrote. They play like a band. They live like a band. That means that we sometimes have some struggle, and it means we share joy. These are the kids who were in a garage saying, “We’re gonna be kings of the world.” And they became kings of their genre, and have maintained it. So I feel very fortunate. The journey with these guys has been just remarkable.

SC: I’ve gotta be honest. One of the things that I never see – because you’re on point – I never see you experiencing the joy. So it’s actually really great to hear about the joy and to see the kid in you. It’s kinda cool.

DB: If you had been standing next to me at the end of the show Saturday night [in Copenhagen] you would’ve seen that joy.

SC: And relief, I’m sure. I mean there was relief?

DB: No.

SC: No?

DB: Pure joy.

SC: Good. Oh.

DB: Pure joy. It was an incredibly magical moment. Obviously in Copenhagen, it’s Lars’ home town. There’s a huge amount of pressure that goes with that. All shows are equal. Some shows are more equal than others. Lars’ home town is a big deal. As New York is, as San Francisco is. You know, all shows are important. Bismarck, North Dakota is important. Everywhere’s important. But in Copenhagen, Lars has family and friends out there, right? We don’t want to have a train wreck. We don’t ever want to have one but it’s a big deal. It’s also, and I didn’t really think about this until during the show, it’s also kind of a nice place because they love Lars so much that maybe there’s a little leeway there in case we did have a problem. And it was just a joyous night, and after an incredibly intense week, an awesome show. The band had an awesome show, and it was all smiles.

SC: The baby came out healthy.

DB: It was all smiles. It was a big, big night.

SC: Is it fair to say that this production is married very much with the sound design?

DB: Absolutely. We set out with a goal of not making the best Metallica concert, not making the best heavy metal concert, but making the best concert experience that ever existed, believing that if we don’t attain perfection, we’ll find some awesome experiences for the Metallica family along the way. And so included in that was looking at sound in a different way. We have some cool stuff. I don’t know if you’ve talked to folks about our very low frequency extended cabinets…

SC: I believe James called it, James referred to it as the “brown note” [Creative members of the SW! readership will quickly conclude what said-note refers to. – ED] and Big Mick went into some other details [another subject of an upcoming SW! story – ED].

DB: We created some very interesting effects, and again, the Metallica family is extended. It’s awesome to work with people like the folks at Meyer Sound.  And everywhere, there’s such… the number of people who collaborate on our shows. The folks you see at the concert, the folks you see toiling backstage, the guys who are sleeping on road cases occasionally, the guys you run into in catering, that’s one group. Behind every one of those is probably two or three times as many people that are in some place in Nashville or in Berkeley, California or wherever it is who support this stuff. And you might say, “Well, what does that matter?” Well, there are people who ship us stuff every day, there are people who build things for us, there are people who answer the phone so that I can schedule a meeting with somebody and get something built for us. And those people are all part of our support team. It’s a fantastic journey, an absolutely fantastic journey, and right now, I couldn’t be happier.

For more on Dan Braun, read his entry in the TAIT TALKS series »