Mike Stevens has worked with some of the world's biggest pop acts at countless high-profile live events, including the Queen's recent Diamond Jubilee concert.
As Robbie Williams kicked into a rabble-rousing rendition of his late-'90s hit 'Let Me Entertain You', backed by trumpeters and drummers from the Coldstream Guards, a 56-piece orchestra and a full backing band, the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Concert on June 4th was finally under way. The dazzling three-and-a-half-hour event was orchestrated on a purpose-built stage in front of 10,000 flag-waving royalists who dutifully squeezed into The Mall outside Buckingham Palace, while around 17 million viewers tuned in on the BBC. A slew of stylistically diverse musical artists from around the world and from across the decades performed, including Gary Barlow, Rolf Harris, Jools Holland, Jessie J, JLS, Sir Elton John, Grace Jones, Sir Tom Jones, Lang Lang, Annie Lennox, Sir Paul McCartney, Madness, Kylie Minogue, Sir Cliff Richard, Ed Sheeran and Stevie Wonder.
Although the audience naturally focused on the A-list acts taking centre stage, a huge amount of credit has to be handed to the organisational team, who'd been slogging away in the background for months to ensure that every aspect of the show was delivered as seamlessly as possible.
In any large-scale event of this kind, one of the most important figures, both on stage and off, is the musical director (MD). For the Diamond Jubilee Concert, co-organisers Gary Barlow and the BBC hired one of the biggest names in the business: Mike Stevens. Over the past 20 years, Mike's CV makes for seriously impressive reading. He's been Take That's musical director and leader of their backing band since 1992, while Geri Halliwell, Bill Withers, James Morrison, Will Young, Gary Barlow, 10CC, Mika, the Saturdays and Annie Lennox are just a few of the other artists to have enlisted Stevens' services. Mike has also directed numerous high-profile multi-artist musical events, including major concerts for Children In Need and the Prince's Trust.
Mike studied classical music at the Birmingham School Of Music (now the Birmingham Conservatoire), and by the mid-'80s, was plying his trade as a jobbing musician in London. Although he was a multi-instrumentalist,, it was Mike's premier talents on the sax that secured him a major-label record deal later in the decade.
"I did two solo albums in that sort of smooth jazz style. It was a bit like Kenny G, if you like, but actually before Kenny G,” Mike explains. "And that's also when I started doing my touring stuff. I was signed to RCA in the States and I toured a lot, supporting people like Barry White, Brenda Russell, Dionne Warwick and the Temptations.”
While he was enjoying his status as a successful solo artist, Stevens' career in music suddenly took a life-changing twist. In 1988, Bill Withers was scheduled for a three-week tour of the UK, and Mike had been booked as the main support act. "I got the gig to support him but he didn't have a band, so essentially my band became his band,” says Stevens. "I was quite young but, all of a sudden, I had my first experience of musical direction — and it was with Bill Withers! He came over as an artist without a band and it was like, 'OK, well, your band needs to play music for him as well as for you.' It was quite daunting. He was a big, legendary artist — and he still is — but back then he was very big.
"I suppose I approached it as I did everything: very diligently. We learnt all his songs and we rehearsed them for weeks; it was very, very intense. He arrived about a week before the tour, but the surprising thing was that when he arrived he wanted us to almost jam it. What he didn't like was things being too perfect. He kind of loosened us all up and it was a real experience to work with him. So that was sort of the first thing I learnt about [being a musical director]. We did a three-week UK tour, which was great, and I continued on down that path.”
Stevens spent the next few years balancing a few musical hats. While continuing to build on his own burgeoning solo career, Mike also became heavily involved in writing for and producing other artists, such as Glen Goldsmith, as well as touting his skills as a musical director. Then, in 1992, he was contacted about an up-and-coming British boy band who were looking to go out on the road with live backing musicians.
"I got a call to play with this pop band called Take That,” explains Mike. "They were starting to get big, and myself and another guy got a band together for a tour and it took off. By '93 or '94, they were the biggest band in Europe, and I was MD'ing throughout. I also played keyboards, guitar and sax with them, and also sang [as Stevens still does to this day] because the live backing band with Take That has always sung extra vocals as well. In the '90s, we never used any backing tracks of any sort; it was just a band, and it did everything. We played all the instruments, and all the vocals had to be done within the band — we didn't have a backing vocals section. We went through until '96 when they split up, and it was all pretty intense touring up until then. After '96, I was in quite a lot of demand to put bands together and play for different artists.”
Having seen Mike develop Take That into a powerful live act, many other pop artists wanting to hit the live circuit wanted him on board. "I worked with Geri Halliwell on her first campaign after she left the Spice Girls, and lots of other pop acts in that era,” says Stevens. "There were lots of pop bands, and I think that many jobs came off the back of Take That, like Boyzone, B*Witched, 911 and 5ive. So I got involved with a lot of them, just getting them on the road really. I worked pretty constantly doing that the whole time and then, in early 2000, I started to get back into the studio a bit more.”
Notable studio work for Mike Stevens since has included both 'Songs Of Mass Destruction' (additional production and arrangements, 2007) and 'A Christmas Cornucopia' (producer and arranger, 2010) for Annie Lennox, with whom he has also toured across the world as MD.
The exact role and responsibilities of the musical director vary from artist to artist and project to project, but there are always general similarities. "Essentially, the role of a musical director covers every aspect of a live show,” Mike explains. "If an artist wants to go on tour and I'm asked to help out, then first of all it's about getting to know the artist. Then it's finding the appropriate musicians for that artist — and a lot of that's not just to do with how good they are, it's to do with what kind of people they are. It is very much about a connection between the musicians and the artist as well, so you have to find the right people. Then, after that, the responsibilities move into taking the artist's music and turning that into a live show, sitting down with them and trying to interpret how they want their show to be. Some artists want it to be particularly like the way the record is, and some want different interpretations. So it's taking that from the artist and turning it into an actual performance: taking a band to a studio and rehearsing it for however many weeks it needs to be rehearsed.”
After Mike has held discussions with a particular artist as to how they want their songs to be presented, it's time for him to work hard with the band on nailing his arrangements. Some artists get more involved than others at this stage: "In more recent years, I've worked with people like Mika, who has a very strong idea of what he wants musically, as do Take That,” says Stevens. "When Will Young started, he was quite production-led. Now he's totally music-led, but he's always been quite clear on what he wants and the way he wants it. Other people have a natural feel. James Morrison is an easy one in that respect because he likes the music very live and very organic, so it's quite a natural process to go live with that and not just having a bunch of musicians doing what was being done in the studio.
"Essentially, the musical director's job is to turn the vision of the artist and the show director (if there is one) into a reality, musically, and there are many ways to approach it. The public very often, for certain things, want to hear things as they know them. They don't want to hear a completely different interpretation of the music, so sometimes you have to be very true to the record and, in some cases, the only way you can do that is to use programmed tracks, because the sounds on the record were most likely created on computers anyway.”
After signing up to work with a new artist, Mike Stevens has to choose and recruit the best band of musicians available. He views this as the most significant of all his responsibilities. "For me, the type of players have to fit the type of music,” explains Mike. "I always start with the drummer in my mind, because the drummer's very important. There's lots of good drummers about, but thankfully they're all different: you get light subtle players, you get loud rock players, you get flamboyant players and you get guys who have a very big groove to their playing. The sounds that their drums make and the way they hit them is very important for the way that the music is portrayed. Sometimes I can't think of anybody who's right for the job, but I'll know the style I want, and then I'll go out looking and I'll find somebody new. It's important every now and again to bring in new people, anyway.”
Once he's selected the right guys and girls for the line-up, Mike then has to decide how much musical freedom he can afford to give them. "I think that the live performance needs to sound bigger and better than the record,” enthuses Stevens. "The dynamic, the energy and the interpretation are so important. I think that's what, as an MD and as a band, you're trying to achieve. I'm not one for totally copying records. My interpretation in my head is that it shouldn't be a long way from the record, but it should be slightly different. It should be better — and that usually comes from the dynamic.
"Drums very often are recorded within computers, and if you give a drummer a little bit of a chance to expand what he does, he can inject a little bit more into things. You tend to keep keyboard sounds pretty much the same, with little rhythm loops and stuff, but I do like to give drummers and guitarists bit of personality in there. I think it's very important to know how much to do that and to know when to stop. You don't want musicians just going off on their own, doing their own thing, which some of them obviously would like to do. You have to know when it's adding and when it's right and also when to say 'Stop!'”
One major factor contributing to the sound of any musician, whether on stage or in the studio, is the equipment they choose to use. But how far does Mike Stevens get involved in those gear decisions when he's acting as MD? "All the musicians will bring their own equipment, and I will get involved to a certain degree,” says Mike. "Sometimes I do get involved a little bit with drummers and their snare drums, because sometimes I think the approach needs to have a different sound. Guitarists will bring their own rigs and, again, I'll get involved with certain things where I don't feel the sound is quite right, but I won't over-mess with that. I mean, I think if I've brought the right guitarist in, they'll pretty much know the right sounds we need. I take a secondary role in that and I don't get overly involved.”
Another aspect of the job that Stevens loves, if and when he gets the chance, is the opportunity to compose pieces of music as part of an artist's live show. "Quite often, an artist will want to take a track and expand it, or they'll want additional music during a performance,” explains Stevens. "An artist will say, 'I have a section here and I'd like it to be upbeat and I'd like it to work this way,' so you'll need to come up with ideas and work on their music. Incidental music is very much a part of the musical director's responsibilities, in terms of music that opens a show or music that takes you from section to section. That's very often music that I will write, and it would be my job to direct and work on those arrangements, rather than the artist doing that. The artist will have a song and I may say, 'Hey, maybe we could extend this section, let's have a guitar solo here,' and that kind of thing. That's where the musical director comes into his own, creatively. The raw material is there but you've got to mould that into a show.
"I wrote a lot for the Take That shows over the years ,including bits of music for the Circus and Beautiful World tours, usually intros. The intro section to Beautiful World was something that I arranged up from a classical piece, and it was very orchestral. A lot of the time it's incidental, so it's like people almost wouldn't even notice it, but actually, over the course of a gig, there can be quite a lot because you have to drift from one song to another. There might be a section where the lights are being used to create a mood, and so you need to create some mood music. I think I've written stuff for all the shows I work on. I did an overture intro with a brass section we had for James Morrison's previous tour and this year, and I wrote a whole lot of stuff for a Steps tour, which was just overture and incidental music.”
The Queen's Diamond Jubilee Concert was the brainchild of the BBC and Take That's Gary Barlow. In addition to his long-standing role as MD for Take That, Mike Stevens has also worked extensively with Barlow on his solo tours and on various charity gigs, some of which have involved the BBC. So when it came to choosing an MD for June's Jubilee Concert, Mike Stevens was the obvious guy for Gary to call — and, of course, Mike was more than happy to get involved. After an initial conversation, his work began at the start of 2012, "which was when we found out the artists and everybody else who was involved,” says Mike.
"In terms of full-on planning, for me, it was six weeks — collecting, collating and working on all the arrangements, and then spending a couple of weeks with my band in the studio. That was my core band of about 10 people, including the backing singers, who we had for the second week. We then rehearsed at a place called LH2 in Park Royal, which has a big sound stage and that had all the production in. We spent a week there working with just the production team, and then we stayed there for another week when we brought in the orchestra and the brass sections. I had various brass sections for different things, and then the Military Wives came in to do their bit. In total, we probably had 150 or 200 performers to deal with.”
Either the artists themselves or their own personal musical directors had forwarded Stevens their song arrangements prior to rehearsals and, once Mike and his band had worked them up, the artists would pop in to LH2 for final run-throughs before the actual concert. Some of the acts also brought along two or three additional musicians to the rehearsals. Sir Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Sir Paul McCartney would be bringing along their own bands to the gig, so were not involved in the rehearsals at all, while Madness, who would be 'playing' on the roof of Buckingham Palace, were pre-recorded.
"Logistically, we couldn't set up on top of Buckingham Palace and so they couldn't play live up there but essentially they recorded their tracks instrumentally in rehearsals the day before,” explains Stevens. "But effectively it was just them. There was no overdubbing and Suggs and the guys were just singing over their own performance... but all the other acts were done live. I think the biggest undertaking for such an enormous show was deciding to do it all live, which is essentially what we did. That was the big thing.
"The other thing worth noting is that it was very important that the house band learnt everything, rather than reading music,” Mike adds. "I think the reading aspect takes away from the performance in a TV scenario, and it makes band and artist interaction almost impossible.”
The biggest worry Mike Stevens had the night before the big Diamond Jubilee Concert was that old unpredictable English destroyer of many a summer outdoor concert: the weather.
"That previous night, it rained and we'd had to stop the rehearsal,” says Stevens. "I honestly don't know what we'd have done, because I don't think we could have played. There was cover built in, but the truth of the matter was that the cover didn't take into account any cross-winds. At those last night's rehearsals, the wind came over and it just blew the rain sideways so it covered all the instruments. We literally had to get everything undercover and all ran off. I think everybody just prayed that we'd be all right. We had a good forecast and we just went with it, and thankfully the weather was fine.”
Mike's responsibilities during the actual concert were both varied and considerable. "For different songs, I played keyboards and guitar, I did a bit of backing singing and then there was a lot of communication,” he explains. "I was connected up to various people and I was doing a lot of the cueing in terms of the music. For instance, Robbie [Williams] did 'Mack The Knife' and we had to bring on a 14-piece brass section, which we had to get ready for. When you compare that setup to the setups for Grace Jones or the Military Wives, you can see they were vastly different for each song. That all made it quite complicated and scary in places but it all flowed really well in the end. The fact that we hadn't been able to have a dress rehearsal meant these changeovers were very difficult, because you didn't know quite what was going to happen.”
Cueing for a live televised event is certainly a complex and highly pressured responsibility, where everything has to be perfect. "Essentially, I had the BBC director in my ear and also the floor manager in my ear, who was around us directing,” says Mike. "The presenter would obviously be introducing the act, but the floor manager would give me a secondary thumbs up to say, 'OK, you can go!' It can be pretty obvious when it's time to go but then sometimes there can be a problem somewhere and so they have to fill in time because something's not ready. That's when you've got to be on the ball, because there's nothing worse than starting when the act's not there.
"We also ran almost everything to click for various reasons, such as running lights, and I had a guy running click next to me on stage. After I was cued, I would cue him at the appropriate moment and he would then run the click. Sometimes I do that off-stage, but on this gig I chose to run the click track and any backing track stuff from the stage because then, if there was a problem, I could stop it. Also, on the technical side, we ran three monitor desks, which were interconnected — one for the band, one for the artists and then one for Stevie Wonder, Elton and McCartney, who brought their own complete individual setups. So sometimes the monitoring was difficult because of the number of mixes that were being sent to people... but we didn't really have any problems, which was great.”
After headliner Sir Paul McCartney left The Mall stage to rapturous applause, there was just enough time for an impassioned speech by Prince Charles, and an exuberant collective blast through 'God Save The Queen', before the Queen lit the National Beacon and the sky exploded with fireworks. The Queen's Diamond Jubilee Concert had been a resounding success and Mike Stevens duly left the stage a very satisfied man. However, his personal highlight was still to come.
"It was great to meet the Queen,” enthuses Stevens. "I went to the line-up afterwards and she was very interested in how we put it together, which was great! She was very intrigued to know how we could coordinate so many people on a stage to play at the same time. I just said, 'Well, it's luck, ma'am! We have a plan but it doesn't always work.' And Prince Charles wanted to know what I thought of the venue and I said I thought the venue was fantastic and they should do it every year, at which he laughed, 'Oh, no chance! You do realise we live here? People actually sleep at the front of the palace and unloading at three o'clock in the morning is rather noisy!'”
Mike Stevens talked us through the various keyboards he and his band used during the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Concert. It's safe to say he's a big fan of Yamaha...
"I used the [Yamaha] CP1 piano and a Motif 6. There were three keyboard players altogether, and the other two both played Motifs, and then one of my keyboard players had a Rhodes Stage 88 as well. My CP1 was also the digital piano used by all the piano players who came in, but then we also had a big Steinway. We also had one of the new Roland Jupiters on stage — the Jupiter 80.
"I endorse Yamaha, but I've been a fan of their keyboards for years. Yamahas are very strong in the Rhodes piano sort of area, and they have a distinctive sound that really cuts well in the live environment. Most people are attracted to Yamaha pianos because of the fact that they perform so well technically in the live environment. Motifs for me are just the best all-round workstation there is out there. They cover just about everything to a very high standard, they're versatile, have top-quality sounds, and they're easy to work with. You've got really good emulations of things like organs and strings, which are often very difficult to emulate. I've always generally said that if there was something else out there that was better, I would use it, because I'm only interested in getting the best sounds I can. But, for these sort of gigs especially, the Motifs are great. You know, one minute you're doing Shirley Bassey and the next minute you're doing JLS, so you've got to have a lot of versatility with the sounds you have.”