AIRPORTS TO ME ARE JUST SHIT! - A CHAT WITH BIG MICK HUGHES
BY STEFFAN CHIRAZI
Every time Big Mick and I sit down for a chat, two things always come up. Firstly, Mick came on board with Metallica just a few months after I’d done my first stories on the band. Secondly, he tells a magnificent story about when he was doing sound for GBH at a cinema/theater somewhere in the British midlands and a massive fight broke out between skinheads and punks during the interval, but still the ancient ice cream and candy ladies insisted on making their way through the crowd to sell whatever they could amidst the punches. There’s also a cracker about landing in Kingston, Jamaica with Musical Youth and their “greeting.” And then there’s… you get the message. Big Mick is a premier league raconteur with substance (i.e. he tells a great story extremely well).
It is very (and I mean very) easy to take Big Mick for granted. I certainly have done so for decades. A wave, a hello, a wink toward the bacon tray (Mick loves a good bacon sandwich) and that vibe of brotherly familiarity. A lot of great history. But it is what he does with Metallica’s front of house sound that is at once so finitely excellent yet also taken completely and utterly for granted. Big Mick’s approach mirrors that of Metallica to their work and the two have a language and understanding that in many ways make him a “band member” – such is his synergy and importance with, and to, the band.
Born in Birmingham, and having worked in electronics with British Steel Corp, and as a Judas Priest roadie pre-the current band when Allan Atkins was the singer and Bruno Stapenhill was the bass player! In fact, notes Big Mick, it was Bruno that came up with the name Judas Priest (apparently it’s from the Bob Dylan song “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest.” Hughes worked as an engineer with PA company Techserve for several acts including UB40 and Yellowman before Q Prime Artist Management asked if he would work with their newly signed act Metallica back in the latter part of 1984. Big Mick’s working relationship with Q Prime started back in 1981/82 when he was working with The Armoury Show. When said band was dropped by Q Prime, up came the Metallica suggestion and neither party ever looked back. Since then, Big Mick has done the sound for somewhere around 2,500 Metallica shows plus he’s worked with GBH, Slipknot, Steve Vai, Def Leppard, and Led Zeppelin’s reunion concert at the O2 Arena in London back in 2007.
On the WorldWired Tour, Big Mick has been working with a new system Meyer Sound has developed which uses VLFCs (very low frequency control) to work as a special effect which enhances the entire show’s production. Here’s a quote Big Mick gave meyersound.com about VLFCs which nutshells exactly what this very physical, visceral audio element is all about:
“We use the VLFCs as a special effect to create a realistic experience of an explosion, one that you feel in your chest more than you hear with your ears. When they do the pyro for songs like ‘One,’ the VLFC arrays complete the visual effect. You have the flash of light and then you get the concussion of this massive subsonic wave. It moves a lot of air. You can definitely feel it.”
How Big Mick got into VLFCs was the main thrust of our conversation, but not before we covered a little bit of the aforementioned old ground.
Steffan Chirazi: So, you’ve officially done the band’s sound since…?
Big Mick Hughes: 17th November 1984, Rouen in France, I believe, on the Ride The Lightning European tour.
SC: Yes, I remember the Ride The Lightning tour, definitely remember. We’ve been seeing each other around for a long time then.
BMH: So fucking old, aren’t we?!
SC: Well, we still haven’t lost our sense of humor.
BMH: No, thank fuck for that, eh?
SC: That’s why we’re still here. But let me jump in and ask you from a WorldWired Tour perspective, what is the difference between the stadium shows this summer and then coming into this arena set-up?
BMH: Well, from an audio point of view, this is tough, in the round, because you create your own ambience. I’m listening to two hangs of PA that hang towards me while another six are filling the room with ambience. That in itself explains the difficulty of this, but it’s the same for everybody in the place. If you’re standing over there you’re listening to one in front of you while another seven create the noise in the room. And then you have the people in the round. You’re not aiming at them, because they’re all around you. So the noise in these places is the enemy. Outdoors in the stadiums, glorious. Glorious, glorious times. No whinging, no nothing. The best thing is a flat field, like the big festivals, flat field, no reflections. That’s Metallica at its best.
SC: So the higher a wall around you, the more of a challenge it is.
BMH: Yeah, because of the reflections.
SC: Got it. And let’s bring people through your day right now as you’re preparing for this sort of thing on this tour. You’re coming in pretty early I’m thinking.
BMH: Moderately so. What they [system techs] have a lot of, is they have a lot of measurements they like to take with their computers and stuff. Now, it gets pretty boring standing there watching some geezer operate his laptop for three hours. And you have no idea really what [it is], you sorta know what he’s doing but you go like, “Yeah, okay. Ten measurements.” So I leave ’em to it and I come in about midday so they can get on with it and get it all worked out before I get in. Then I have to go through getting all the inputs working and it’s just about dialing in from that point on.
SC: How have you managed to protect those innate sensibilities and “feel” for what is right these past 34 years?
BMH: See, there’s a perception that Metallica is very loud, right? Now you gotta remember I sit there with an SPL Meter [a sound pressure level meter] all night. It tells you how loud it is, and it’s a volume thing, which I have it displayed on a screen in big numbers [gestures] that big. Because I’m not gonna punish myself, and I certainly don’t want to punish everybody else in the room. But what I will do is I use all the frequencies in the spectrum. I don’t want it to be a wispy buzzy guitar, I want it to have some meat and two veg!! So when you actually fill it up with a bit of low end, the perception is it’s louder than what it really is. So when you do fill in all these gaps, let’s be honest, Metallica makes a wall of noise. And I have to filter out what bits we’re gonna use, what we aren’t and what works as the overall sound. So that in itself can be perceived as quite loud. And I’m not saying I haven’t been loud, because I have been [Big Mick’s band nickname was “Full Roar” for many years because he always wanted it louder – ED]. I’m actually quieter now than I’ve ever been over the years because I don’t want to be deaf when I’m retired. And when you get into these environments, it’s very tempting to be really loud because you’re trying to beat the ambience but you can’t. You gotta go with it and use it to make it sound bigger.
So far as keeping the band’s sound together, it’s embossed on me. It’s 34 years. We came up with that sound together in the early days, I’m the keeper of it, and I maintain that on their behalf. We brought things to it. The click on the kick drum, that was a necessity that we had to do because when Lars went into the double shuffle thing it became just a rumble. So we needed to put a bit of a pointy edge on ’em and we started doing that many, many years ago. And that just went on and became what it is. The volume thing overall is something I’ll judge in the environment. Sometimes it needs to be a little more, a little less.
SC: Okay, let’s bring you away from that and get you into “pop quiz” questions. What do you listen to when you want to get away from this?
BMH: Nothing. I don’t listen to music. I’m kidding…
SC: I mean is it one of those where you’re gonna sit and listen to some ambient music or something?
BMH: I’ll listen to absolutely anything, believe it or not. I mean, I don’t mind some Skrillex and stuff like that. I have to be honest, I listen to frequencies.
BMH: When I say I listen to frequencies, I don’t put head phones on and go “beep, beep.” It’s not that kinda thing. But if I listen to something like Infected Mushroom, the frequencies contained within that music is spectacular. Spectacular. So I’m more into production and more into the way the overall thing sounds. The musical content of it is what the artist wanted to do. If it sounds really good, and it’s a good part, then I’ll like it. It doesn’t matter what band it is.
SC: Would you ever sit and just drift off listening to, say, Ambient 1: Music for Airports by Brian Eno? Because that’s got frequencies and tones?
BMH: No. Airports to me are just shit. I don’t like ’em, I don’t like airplanes and more often than not I try to be asleep! But Pink Floyd and that kind of thing, I love. I still listen to Jethro Tull for that. Old bands, really.
SC: Let’s get back to the routines. You have a very consistent daily approach, right? I mean your schedule is-
BMH: Absolutely. I’m ritualistic in that respect, because I have to be. I walk in and what’s the room like? I look at how reflective it is, the size of it. The tuning of the speaker system. Then once the system’s all working, we move into the inputs. Has anything changed? The tonality of things, are mics in the right place? That sort of stuff goes on… and I do like a bit of a quiet bit before they go on. I never watch the opening acts, ever. I keep my exposure to noise at the minimum. I don’t want to be out there for hours and hours listening to [an opening band] and then have to mix Metallica for two and a quarter hours. That beats you up too much, the whole thing, the whole night. And you know yourself; we’re not young men anymore. It’s getting harder to do this. So I try to take it quite calm, to be honest with you. Keep out the noise. I don’t have to field many questions once it’s all up and running.
SC: Yeah. I mean have there been any venues where you’ve felt, “We’re in trouble here”?
BMH: Round ones. Perfectly round ones are the worst.
SC: So the O2 in London, for example, will be a challenge?
BMH: That is a challenge. There is a low-end thing in the O2, but it’s really big and a little stretched. I’m on about the places that are literally round. You know, those arenas in America that are round. Equal angle of reflection. Because I guess if you could see audio, it’d be a Spirograph.
SC: But you’ve got your cheat ways around that, right? Or is it just always “play it by ear”? And you talked about temperature. Does that make a difference when playing an arena?
BMH: Humidity. Absolutely massive difference.
SC: What’s better? Humidity or not?
BMH: PAs like it slightly humid and warmer [rather] than colder. Air is dense at colder temperatures so it offers more resistance to the audio passing through it. So you know, PAs will be quieter when it’s really cold. When we used to do the old places with ice [hockey arenas – ED], some days if it was really, really cold you’d see a haze coming up off the ice. And if you were putting sound from the PA to front of house through that, it sounded like a tremolo, as it sped up through the less dense air then slowed down through the more dense air.
SC: That’s crazy!
BMH: It is crazy. You know, with audio, everybody thinks you can put a speaker up and listen to it. But I’ve realized when you’re doing industrial audio like we are, wind’s a horrendous thing for us. Temperature. Humidity. Altitude. All the environmental constraints can act quite heavily with audio.
SC: Sounds like South America’s probably the ideal place to play.
BMH: Well, no, because the altitude’s not a good thing for it. That’s like playing into a big compressor. It’s like when you do Mile High Stadium or Red Rocks.
SC: Where’s the ideal place?
BMH: Off the top of my head, probably somewhere like Abu Dhabi. Maybe. That’s really low humidity. It’s a tough one, because certain things affect high-end and other things affect low-end so you want a happy medium where you’ve got it all.
SC: I guess it’s never gonna be perfect.
BMH: Rarely. We had one in Québec a few years back. It was the most perfect weather ever. It was still. You’re just in a t-shirt. You weren’t sweating, you weren’t cold, nothing. It was a neutral environment. And the fact there was no wind. It was beautiful, it was perfect, and that was one of those shows that I can remember where it was like everything aligned. The band aligned with the weather, and the overall show was quite spectacular. In my 34 years with this band, that’s probably happened ten times. That all the elements aligned to give you the environmental, my attitude, their attitude, everybody’s attitude.
When you mix a band it’s like being a musician onstage. I play them like a keyboard, really, if you think about it. I have all these faders and I have at my disposal all the different sort of sounds that make up Metallica, so I do bits that make parts do what they do. So if I’m in a shit mood or the parts are not coming off, or Lars doesn’t hit the snare as hard at that point or James misses his vocal bits or whatever, it fucks up my little bit of plot right there. Or if the security’s tried to throw you out on the way to the desk, you turn up late, you’re in a bad mood! However, I’ve found that if I’m in a bad mood, or I’ve frightened myself before the show to where my adrenaline’s up, I have a fucking great night [more so] than normally.
I frightened myself on the way to Donington one year on my motorbike, doing over 100 miles an hour on my motorbike, racing a guy on a Suzuki 750 on my 1100 Kawasaki. Couldn’t catch this guy. And then we ended up racing towards Donington in the fucking two-way traffic, and he’s doing over 100 miles an hour. And you know, you come ’round a bend and into a traffic jam waiting to turn into the Donington car park; he just went out down the side of the traffic, over 100 miles an hour. I had to go out, because I couldn’t stop fast but I braked and went, “Fuck that!” This guy just went. I was, like, “Wow!!!” But when I got off the bike, I was vibrating. I mean literally, my whole body, I could feel the vibration from head to foot. So when I got out to the desk, I’m like, “Fuck yeah, we’re rocking tonight!” And it was a very special night that night in Donington, a really good night. So yeah, sometimes when you get the adrenaline up it’s good. You need a bit of a shock sometimes. I think they need one sometimes.
SC: Yeah. That’s pretty good. So, one more question. Two of the legendary supplies that I’ve always associated with you, my good man, are…
SC: Bacon and weed.
BMH: Not weed, hashish.
SC: Bacon and – bacon and a good joint.
BMH: A spliff.
SC: Yeah, a good spliff.
BMH: With tobacco. My penchants.
SC: Your pre-routine is the bacon sandwich.
BMH: Of course. You have to have the bacon in the day. Many years ago, when Dan [Braun] was production manager, he was just like, “I’m gonna put bacon on the rider for you.” Because I used to come in after breakfast, I’d turn up at midday or one o’clock when the PA’s up and getting close to being me doing my thing, and breakfast’s finished. So I’d be like, “Have you got any bacon?” “No, now it’s lunch. Now it’s chicken legs and quiche,” you know, and I wanted bacon! Let me have a bacon sandwich.
SC: And let it be said that troughs of bacon are now presented. I mean, obviously you don’t partake of a trough of bacon!
BMH: No, I don’t have it all. But you know, it’s kinda strange how when I instigated this little thing, how many other people seem to partake of it, enjoy a midday snack of bacon. Well, actually any time in the day as it happens, you know? Pretty cool.
SC: Not confined to a time frame.
BMH: Oh, no, bacon can be anytime. Bacon’s for life.
SC: Have they followed you down the path of a post-gig spliff? That’s what I want to know.
BMH: No, I don’t think the bacon is a gateway drug!