John Broderick: Behind the Scenes, Boom

A reputation for creativity
John Broderick, above, has handled lighting and production design for several of Metallica’s tours. A concert by the band with the San Francisco Symphony featured a set, below, inspired by work of the artist Mark Rothko.

    Through 40 years and 50 countries, John Broderick has built a hugely successful career as one of the music industry’s essential behind-the-scenes figures. As a lighting and production designer who has worked with some of music’s biggest touring acts, Mr. Broderick, who lives in Amagansett, is responsible for visual elements that dramatically enhance the concert experience and interpret the performer’s art.

    The Yonkers native studied music, theater, and English literature at Colgate University while moonlighting as a musician and aiming for success in that field. But, he said, “My timing was better as a lighting designer than as a bass player.”

    In 1975, he moved to New York City with a friend from college, still seeking musical success. “We knew how to read blueprints, so we’d build sets and direct the crews for tiny Off Off Broadway theaters. I met someone who owned a lighting company that was based in the defunct Fillmore East. He said, ‘Do you want to go out on tour?’ I went out on tour.”

    He started at the bottom, observing and absorbing the art and science of concert tours. In a couple of years, “as you do when you are young, I said to the management, ‘I can do better than that,’ and they said ‘Show us.’ I took over some acts, and got accounts by doing that. In my early years as a crew member, I went around the world with Queen and Deep Purple. Then I got the Aerosmith account — I was with Aerosmith as a lighting designer for 10 years, went around the world with them.” After a few years on the road he returned to school, earning a certificate in filmmaking from New York University.

    By the mid-1970s, the touring industry had matured from a decade earlier when the Beatles, whose amplifiers were woefully outmatched by 50,000 screaming teenagers, gave up live performance, in part because they could not be heard by the audience or each other. The music industry was immensely profitable and countless artists were touring the world. Sound-reinforcement equipment developed to accommodate stadium-sized concerts, and Mr. Broderick was among the pioneers alongside the sound engineers. “There weren’t really touring rock ’n’ roll lighting designers per se,” he said. “We sort of invented it as we went along.”

    On any given night he might have worked at Avery Fisher Hall with the band Queen, or at the 80,000-seat Pontiac Silverdome with Aerosmith. “You had to design a system that could do anything, from a large club to an arena,” he said. “You would go from a theater one week to a stadium the next. It was a crazy time, and very, very intense work. But there was nothing like that buzz of the doors opening . . . and there’s still nothing like it. The audience comes in, the house lights go out, and boom, you’re in it.”

    Mr. Broderick has earned a reputation for creativity, but he is quick to note that perspiration must accompany inspiration. He draws on any and every discipline imaginable, from poets and painters to literature and history. “It’s really important to know the basic rules of design, learn them all, and then break them all,” he said. “Poetic license, like e.e. cummings, Jimi Hendrix, Jackson Pollock. Look at the modern composers like Philip Glass or Steve Reich. They base their work on Hindu mysticism, or weird, obscure literature. That’s my influence too, the way they draw on other things for inspiration.”

    For Madonna’s performance at the Grammy Awards in 2001, he and the Material Girl went to the Amagansett Library. “We picked through images in a book of Japanese water gardens,” he recalled. “Madonna is great, extremely clear, and would visualize things in her head and present them to you. I would evolve on those and bring them back to her. She would listen, draw on all her sources, and make artistic decisions.”

    For the hard-rock band Metallica, with which he has worked extensively, Mr. Broderick and the band’s drummer, Lars Ulrich, studied works by Mark Rothko for a concert with the San Francisco Symphony. “The whole design was based on Rothko paintings. We went to the Rothko exhibits and incorporated that thematic stuff into the design. Metallica has always been at the forefront of show design and production. They take chances, and they’re heavily involved.”

    Mr. Broderick has similar tales of working with recording artists including Josh Groban, Annie Lennox, Ice Cube, Tim McGraw, and Smashing Pumpkins. He has also worked on TV specials, fashion shows, sporting events, and Broadway productions. Along the way, he has earned plaudits from the industry and media. In December, he taught a master class to industry professionals and students at the University of Southern California.

    With all the experience and acknowledgment, though, his is a career that demands reinvention and a fresh approach every time. “Designing, for me, is an agonizing thing,” he said. “Unless I’m totally terrified when I’m designing, I don’t feel I’m going to do a good job.” He tries never to repeat himself, or to do anything someone else already has. A disciplined approach to an artist is the only constant. “I’ll study all their history from the ground up,” he said. “I’ll get all their music and play it 24/7. I play it in headphones, in my house, when I’m cooking. You become a fan of the music, so you design through the eyes of a fan. That immersion is critical. Then I let all that go into my subconscious and do something else — go to the gym, walk on the beach, clean the house — and let it sift in my conscious for a day or two or three, and then something will come out of that. Occasionally I’m really fortunate: I’ll be listening to a song and I’ll see it in my head and know the look I want.”

    After four decades of touring, he remains an in-demand designer for artists as diverse as Metallica and the classical-pop vocalist Mr. Groban. “I’ve always said, I’m just a translator,” Mr. Broderick said. “It’s the Josh Groban show, not my show. I’m interpreting Josh Groban visually to his fans. At the same time, my job is to make sure they see him. If you ask them what they did last night, they’ll say, ‘We saw Josh Groban,’ so you need to make sure they do. I call that ‘high performer visibility.’ It’s my mantra.”