The English rock band returns to touring with a lighting design of many moods

Dec 14, 2022

Never say never with The Cult, the English band that, for nearly 40 years, has persevered through stylistic evolutions, breakups, returns, and, of course, recordings and tours. A 2019 tour, launched to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the album Sonic Temple, was scheduled to run into 2020, but you know what happened.

The Cult was back this summer and autumn with a pair of short tours and the release of a new album, Under the Midnight Sun. Matt Guminski, The Cult’s lighting designer since 2019, crafted a distinctive series of looks for the 2022 tours, featuring strongly articulated arrangements of beams; assertive, yet tasteful, color choices; and artful silhouetting of the band members. Guminski says he first hooked up with The Cult at the end of 2019. “Chuck Randall, the tour manager, was looking for someone to come to the UK and do ten shows in support of the 20th Anniversary of Sonic Temple,” he says

“I went over and played the O2 circuit (which crescendoed at London’s Eventim Apollo) with no lighting package, just a console, punting the show each night on the lighting rig du jour. Then we did a tour in December 2019, ending right before Christmas. And then the pandemic hit.”

This year, with concert touring gearing back up, The Cult hit the road in the UK with Alice Cooper and Creeper, then came to North America with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Zola Jesus on the We Own the Night Tour.

In creating his design, Guminski notes that his clients had one key request: “When we were touring with Alice Cooper, the band said, ‘We need something to compete with the castle’.” He’s referring to one of the primary features of Chris Lisle’s production design for the Cooper tour. To storm Cooper’s castle, so to speak, Guminski acquired a floor package from the UK division of Christie Lites.

For the summer leg of the tour, Guminski’s rig included eight Robe MegaPointes, 12 Robe LEDBeam 350s, 12 Robe Tetra 1s, ten GLP JDC1 strobes, six Chauvet Professional Strike Array 4 and six Strike Array 2 audience blinders, and two Chauvet Amhaze Stadium hazers, along with Tyler Truss; control was provided by a High End Systems Hog 4-18 console and two Luminex LumiNode 12-port DMX nodes. For the fall leg, the rig was reduced to four MegaPointes and eight JDC1s, keeping The Tetra 1s and Strike Array 4s and eliminating the LEDBeams and Strike Array 2s. Gear was supplied by St. Louis-based Gateway Studios & Production Services, where lighting designer Cosmo Wilson (Aerosmith, Joe Perry, Steven Tyler, AC/DC) last year became director of lighting services. “Their customer support is amazing; their gear is all brand-new, and they worked hard to get it all within my budget,” Guminski adds.

“Lan [Astbury, the lead singer] sent me photos of tours featuring Bauhaus and Nine Inch Nails, and what they had in common was a lot of negative space, of darkness,” he continues. “I found it necessary to find something that gave us texture but also could disappear when not illuminated. Previously, we were touring with a sepia-tone mountain backdrop that I could not make go away. Even in darkness, it would still bounce ambient room light and be visible. It was almost impossible to make it disappear. I reached out to RentWhat?, (a division of Rancho Dominguez, California-based SewWhat?) and they had exactly what I needed. It had the shape of an Austrian drape, made out of camo netting,” he says. “It looked very Gothic, which everyone loved. They wanted something that was perfectly imperfect, an old theatre curtain that had been torn up.” Clearly, it was a suitably eerie choice for a band that began its long career under the name Death Cult. “I ended up using the JDCs to uplight the drop and it really accented the swoops and texture of this faux Austrian,” he adds.

Discussing some of his gear choices, Guminski says, “My go-to profile fixture is the MegaPointe because it’s so versatile. You can get a fat beam, but also big, punchy gobo looks that can really stand out. They’re small, lightweight, and fast units. Originally, when I specced the bars in front of the backline for the Cooper run, they were GLP impression X4s, but Gateway had the Tetra 1; I ended up liking that product better because it is brighter and has the flower [Robe’s patented Mult-Coloured Flower Effect]. They’re about half the size of the ×4 bar, so we doubled the number of fixtures to get us to the same length, which made certain effects look much bigger. The LEDBeam 350 is brand-new; it came out this summer. I needed a small-format wash light and Gateway had a lot of them. Cosmo used them on Aerosmith, and he loved them as well.”

Regarding the Chauvet Strikes, Guminski says he loves to do “bumps between rich saturated looks and warm tungsten hits. We also went with multiple types of silhouette looks. This hearkens back to lan’s desire for a less-traditional rock show. Chiaroscuro is the name of the game, a clear tonal contrast to suggest the volume and modeling of the band. The more silhouettes, contrast, and darkness, the better.”

During the summer leg, the designer used six of the four-pod warm white blinders, positioning them on a 12-by-12 Tyler Truss box, with rolling wheels, upstage of the drum riser, flanked by ten JDC1s. The Array 2s were located on two 5′ and two 8″ truss towers. These created “a big wall of tungsten-like light,” he says.

The design on both legs of the tour, Guminski notes, was “moody but with a ’80s-’90s rock vibe to it.” Part of it has to do with the band’s stylistic evolution. “There are these really iconic riffs that Bill Duffy plays that are so unique. The new album has a lot of moodiness to it; go back to earlier albums, like Sonic Temple, or songs like ‘Rise’ or ‘L’il Devil,’ and they’re very rock-forward. It allows me to have really big rock looks but also play with a little more theatricality; coming from a theatre background, I really try to hone in on that.”

Offering an example of this theatrical approach, he says, “With most Cult songs, it starts with Billy on the guitar. l’lI find a creative opening look for him; sometimes it’s just a single MegaPointe behind him creating a silhouette look, or sometimes it’s a full system of lights from the rig above. Either way, the focus is definitely pulled to him. Then, when the drums hit a big downbeat, I’ll hit the blinders and go into a big-rock look. In Billy’s solos, I always find a way to pull focus to him in a theatrical way, as if it were a scene happening downstage left. It helps to drive the focus. It also cuts through the other looks onstage and serves as another way to create sharp contrast.”

In other numbers, Guminski used the floor package exclusively to give a distinctive look to “Rise” and deployed the entire rig for big looks in the late-in-the-evening “Love Removal Machine.”

“I like to tell a story with the lighting, like the artist is telling their story with the music,” he says. “This has always been something that I’ve harped on: Find the peaks and valleys of the set and take the audience on an epic journey they will never forget.”

One challenge, Guminski notes, is that the members of the band “don’t like to be brightly lit from the front. Ian says, ‘I want as much atmosphere as I can get, like a cemetery onstage.’ He likes it very hazy; it sets a mood and, of course, it helps with the lighting. But it makes it hard when I’m trying to illuminate the artists. I have to be very aware of what direction and angle the front light is coming in at. I am also riding the front light all night long, taking visual cues off how the artist is reacting to it. One other challenge is Billy and his white Gretsch: Lighting can easily bounce off it and it ends up blinding him!”

As for colors, Guminski runs the gamut. “I don’t live in the world of two colors for a chorus and two for the verse,” he says. He draws on lavender and white for “Witch,” color temperature orange and color temperature blue in for “She Sells Sanctuary,” and lavenders and yellows for “Sweet Soul Sister.” “It’s very Doors-esque,” he says, “a deep magenta and a purple, with a lot of no-color hits on the drums.” (The comparison is an apt one, since Astbury has previously toured with The Doors, taking over for the late Jim Morrison.) But Guminski doesn’t run wild with deep tones. “It’s saturated but not, say, the entire stage bathed in red. For example, when they’re holding a guitar chord, I’ll put them all in red, but there’s never a static color look on a single number.”

Discussing the reduced rig for the fall leg, Guminski says, “During the summer, I had four GT Truss towers loaded up with MegaPointes. With only four, we had to make more choices. But it didn’t limit me. You always want all the tools but trucking right now is almost impossible to find and afford. So, for a band trying to make money on the road, you go down to what you can do. We were able to fit the backline, lighting, and audio into two trailers behind busses.” (Other key personnel included assistant tour manager Matt “Rescue” Richardson and production manager/front-of-house engineer Stephen McGuire.)

Indeed, touring this way made for certain challenges. “We were held to how good the house rigs were,” he says. “Sometimes we were dealing with 20-year-old, not-well-maintained, lighting fixtures. In September, due to trucking logistics, we couldn’t get the rig from our vendor in St. Louis to Vancouver for the first five shows of the tour. The band noticed and felt the difference. After months of giving them a consistent and powerful look, we were going back to the house rig du jour.”

Thanks to a little creativity, however, things clicked continually, no matter the venue. The website Cincy Music wrote, “Last night at PNC Pavilion was the best I have ever seen The Cult since the mid-1980s and that’s saying a lot because back then there was absolutely nothing better.” About the San Francisco engagement, RIFF Magazine wrote, “Astbury’s legendary voice, which combines the vibrato and power of Broadway belter Ethel Merman with the destructive urgency of a bandsaw, sliced through the band’s thunderous wall of sound for the entirety of the 90-minute performance. His voice was as full and rich as ever…With a bank of powerful lights directed at the audience and augmented by elaborate color combinations that swirled onstage, the musicians appeared as dark, shadowy figures.” Shadowy, perhaps, but clearly with plenty of creative life left in them.

This article originally appeared in the December issue of Lighting & Sound America