Stuart: It’s always fun to pick up a synthesizer and make stupid noises on it. And when you can do that in the name of music, it’s even better (laughs). A lot of that went on with stuff like the Roland VP-9000, where we pushed the machine a bit.
Mike: On “Human Nature” he has a VP-9000 solo. It’s pretty cool and it’s never the same each night. We could have sampled it, but it’s just not as much fun that way.
Stuart: And again, that keeps that element of live performance intact. I daresay we could have kept the same arrangements and patches from the record, but then it would have been regurgitating a studio record and not giving a live experience. I imagine the set list had to be chiseled in stone, considering the elaborate staging, video sync, costumes, and so on.
Marcus: Absolutely. I walked in and was handed a set list, and it never changed from that day.
Mike: Madonna’s the best to work for in that respect, because you know exactly what’s going to be in the show. Within the first couple of weeks, everything has to be locked in. The choreography, video, lighting…
Stuart: I think something that’s easy to forget in our department is that music is only 50 percent of the experience. The show may have been conceptualized for months, and once that concept is set in stone, it’s set in stone.
Marcus: As a bandmember on this tour, you realize after about two weeks that it’s not really like being in a band. It’s like being in a theater production that travels around the world. It’s a totally different thing.
Even though you’ve been given the creative license to experiment with the sounds, are the basic song arrangements locked to the recorded versions?
Mike: Some are, some aren’t. She wanted some of the songs to be completely different, and that’s when she’d turn Stuart or Mirwais loose. If it was figuring out how to get from one song to the next musically, the interludes, then I’d come up with those sorts of things.
Which songs did you rework?
Stuart: There’s a new version of “Holiday.” During a set, when you’re leaping around between songs that were recorded over a 15-year span, you want to maintain some sort of consistency. Most of the set is new material from Ray of Light and Music, so if you suddenly leap into this 1983 LinnDrum kind of feel, you might lose it. So we reworked that one. It kind of segues into… there’s a reference to “Stardust.” I heard a bootleg years ago in Spain, where they’d extracted the vocal of “Holiday” and used a section over this song called “Music Sounds Better with You.” It’s one of the best bootlegs I’ve ever heard, so we incorporated it into the set. To be honest, that’s the thing that really interests me the most: Taking a song, altering it, and doing something cool with it.
Mike: Stuart also did a different arrangement of “Sky Fits Heaven,” which is just slammin’.
Any plans to release those versions on a live CD or DVD?
Stuart: I don’t know. I think it’s a cool thing that the music remains part of this show. It’s a moment in time. I mean, HBO recorded and aired one of the shows, so it exists in a recorded medium, and there are rumors that something will be done with that. But if it only remains as a memory of the tour, that’s cool too. (Ed. Note: At press time we learned that the concert would be released on DVD.)
How did you determine which gear to bring on tour?
Stuart: We got the latest and the best! (Laughs.) But seriously, for me … it was funny because originally I was using loads of old stuff: Jupiter-8s and whatnot. Problem was, as these things do, they slip out of tune.
Marcus: And your Waldorf was the wrong color, wasn’t it?
Stuart: Yeah, I had an XT, and it was too garish (laughs). But I ended up in a situation where I had to guess the pitch on the Jupiter and tape the pitchbend wheel in place every day. So some of the Jupiter stuff was sampled off. Then I got the Clavia Nord Lead 3.
Marcus: All hail the Clavia.
Stuart: It totally blew my mind. So that was worked in. But Marcus was already using the Nord Lead 2. That’s the 2, not the 3 (laughs).
Marcus: Yes, a 2, but it’s better than a 1. I’d just come off tour with Richard Ashcroft, and the rig worked well, so I only made minimal changes to my setup for the Madonna tour. I changed from Akai to E-mu samplers, but the core rig is the same: Nord 2, Korg Z1, Roland A-90, a couple of Roland JV-1080s, and a Yamaha ProMix 01.
How are you managing your synths and samples onstage – one master patch change for each song, or do you change individual patches throughout?
Stuart: Mine’s all over the place, but Marcus has automated mixer changes going on.
Marcus: The ProMix is automated for each song, but with so many synths and samplers in the rig, what I’ve done is. … If it’s a complicated song with, say, four parts in it, I’ll split two parts on the A-90, one part on the Z1, and one part on the Nord. At the start of each song, I’ll push one button on the A-90 that changes everything, but if there are any individual changes within the song, I’ll do them manually on each keyboard. I’ve mapped out the whole show’s patches sequentially, so it’s just simple button pushes.
And for you, Stuart?
Stuart: It’s still a bit random, but eventually I got it a bit more together. I mean, for a long time my patches were all called “Empty Program” (laughs).
Marcus: Which isn’t necessarily a problem during rehearsals, since everything is constantly changing.
People who saw the Truth or Dare film might wonder what it’s like working for a taskmaster like Madonna.
Stuart: I’ve always thought she’s great to work with. Good fun. Always a straight answer.
Marcus: Yeah, there’s nothing in the middle at all. You know exactly where you stand.
Stuart: I have no complaints. Then again, I don’t do monitors (laughs).
You’re almost 50 shows into this tour. How are you holding up?
Stuart: Great. The other night we calculated that we’ve played over 1,000 songs so far.
Marcus: We’ve been at it for almost six months now.
The tour ends next week. What are your plans afterward?
Stuart: I’ll start a new record for Astralwerks when I get back to London. Over the past five years I’ve basically been on tour non-stop, so I plan to take three or four months off and not leave the country.
Marcus: I plan to take a month off and do some trekking around the West Coast. Then I’ll come back to L.A. and get to work on a couple of things. I want to do some work with Jake Davies (the engineer who handles Madonna’s in-ear vocal mix) and we’ll see how things go.
Stuart: Other than that, we’re available for bar mitzvahs, weddings, and funerals (laughs).