- Words Louis Rabinowitz
Creative directors TAWBOX chat about their prolific range of collaborations with the likes of Stormzy, Dave, Olivia Rodrigo, Weezer, Arlo Parks and more.
Though you may not have heard of the name TAWBOX, the chances are that you will be very familiar with their work. The BAFTA-winning creative duo, comprised of Bronski and Amber Rimell, have been responsible for masterminding some of the most memorable live performances, both in festival and gig form, over the past few years, both in the UK and abroad.
Their calling card is perhaps their ongoing partnership with Stormzy, for whom they designed the now-iconic 2019 Glastonbury headline set, described by The Guardian as “a glorious victory lap for Black British culture”. They’ve also added another massive British rap name to their roster with Dave, for whom, they’ve produced multiple performances including the bombastic staging of “In The Fire” at this year’s BRITs (flame guitar!).
The pair have helped shepherd rising stars to household name status, such as in Olivia Rodrigo and Arlo Parks’ early-career live performances at the 2021 BRITs, as well as working with old hands in the business, such as on the Weezer portion of the highly successful “Hella Mega” tour.
If you were to play degrees of musical separation with TAWBOX, it wouldn’t take much time to find any of the biggest names around – they know Ed Sheeran as simply “Ed”.
With their latest work, the acclaimed and long-awaited “Heavy is the Head” arena tour with Stormzy, close to wrapping up, we caught up with TAWBOX to find out about their litany of iconic performance designs, how they give voice to young artists and what might be coming around the corner.
You just had the big live return of Stormzy with his Heavy is the Head 2022 tour, which came after two years’ pandemic delay. What kind of atmosphere did you want to create?
Amber: This is actually his first arena tour. So it’s really tough, being an unfortunate being two years late. But we definitely felt as a team that we wanted to give the first Stormzy arena tour experience, and a lot of it is led by his energy. We wanted it to be electric, he wanted it to be electric. I feel that when an audience member buys a ticket, to watch a Stormzy show, you know what you’re going to get. You’re going to get an artist who is going to give you absolutely everything on stage, all the energy, all the passion. I think our job is to amplify that even more and support that even more with the creative vision of the show, which goes along with the set design as well.
What lessons did you take from the hit Glastonbury show in 2019 into this arena tour?
Bronski: I think there are two different kind of mindsets between the two of them. With Glastonbury, it’s a once in a lifetime performance. There are only three headliners of the Pyramid Stage each year, and Glastonbury isn’t even every year because of all the fallow years. We wanted to treat that as a one-off special event with very much a cultural story to it. We always spoke about taking South London to the farm. But when it comes to an arena tour, obviously, it’s a very different thing, because we do have to think logistically. It’s something that travels every night, it gets passed down in the next morning, it’s in another city.
There are some things that you do in a show like Glastonbury knowing that you’re only doing it once. The ‘ Heavy is the Head Tour, is tied in around his amazing second album. The bigger concepts for us on this tour was, if your head’s heavy, then your balance isn’t right, so how can we make this tour about balance? Ultimately, balance is the word that we utilised all the way through the tour. So even when it comes down to the pre-set design, we work with Rick Lipson on that, our briefs were very much much around scales and balance and things being in two or half. We could do a video screen where we split in two and obviously, we have the scales in the show, and then the crown, being the title track of the album, was a big part of that as well.
A lot of the Stormzy set for the HITH tour plays with notions of closeness – he’s right on the platform that juts into the crowd at the O2, he’s dangling in a basket, he’s standing high above the stage. Fans come to shows to be closer to the artists they love, so how do you work with that?
Bronski: The stage movement of an artist is really important. From the very opening where he starts really high up and comes through those doors, we were saying that his entrance needs to be an “I’m back!” moment. It had real scale to it. As the show goes on, he is utilising the wide main stage, which really allows the whole audience to have the same view, because everyone’s ultimately seeing him right in front of the backdrop. That was something that Stormzy loves. He loves shows when he feels like everyone gets the same view. One thing that we hear a lot – we say it and the media says it – is that Stormzy is genuinely a man of the people. So being able to put him within the audience as well is a really key thing. The more real estate he gets to cover, the more of a powerhouse performer you get to witness. There are not many artists that can command or use a stage like he can, certainly at the pace he uses.
Amber: With the scales that we had, we had him coming down on the end of the thrust and then lifting him up. People right at the back in what we call “the gods” are still looking down, but they feel slightly closer to him than they have done before. When we were talking with Stormzy, I was saying about projecting out, projecting down, but remember that the people that have been around or all around the thrust, they’ve had a great time the whole show. It’s about enjoying putting Stormzy at the same height as them, so they feel that they’re getting their moment as well. And I think it worked really well.
I loved your work on Dave’s performance at the BRITs! That was such a crazy maximalist thing. How did you try and balance that – making it huge while still letting the viewers and Dave focus on the music?
Bronski: When Dave was offered a performance at the BRITs, he definitely wanted to do this big, spectacular, exclusive performance of “In the Fire”, and share the stage with some amazing heavy hitting colleagues within the genre. We jumped on the opening sample lyric, which is, “have you been tried in the fire”. Between us, we discussed how we can create this space within a set that is fully on fire, and allows the five of them to always be on stage. And normally on a show like that your guest vocal will come in, do their bit, go off and the camera will go somewhere else, someone else will come in. We said that we weren’t going to do that. As big as a production it is, it’s all based on it being so simple that it can actually stay within one area and use that to allow you to get absorbed into the lyrics. The boys were saying, there are some desperate hard truths in those verses, and we didn’t want to detract from that, even though it is a really big production, I know that when everyone saw how much fire we wanted to use, there was a big goal. There were some amazing people and an amazing team with us on that. And we pulled it off. But we did keep it all about the music and the boys and the verses, which we’re really pleased with.
Amber: It’s one of Dave’s last lines, “the fire is different when you’ve been born into the fire”. I remember we were sat speaking to Dave going through the design for that, he specifically asked for every artist that joined him to have their own unique entrance. That then allowed us to build this playground and create these different pockets where all the different boys got revealed. And then they all joined together. And he asked for the guitar in the fire! I mean, that was pretty wild. But we were like, why not? Just to finish it off, celebrate. Dave spent up to four months learning the guitar every day for that moment. We felt it special to create this fire coming out of the guitar as well with him to celebrate that new journey that he’s created for himself.
You worked on the Weezer sets of the Hella Mega tour between Green Day, Weezer and Fall Out Boy. What were the main challenges/exciting opportunities there?
Bronski: I used, as a teenager, to go see loads of Green Day shows and Weezer shows. We just got we just got a call, can we do something with Weezer? And obviously, yes! That’s a really successful tour. It’s smashed America, it’s going to be coming over to Europe soon. Even though it’s a co-headline tour, each artist has got their own segment and creating their own aesthetics to run alongside their show. Actually, the last thing we did before the first lockdown was rehearse this tour in America, but then it never got to go on stage for 14, 15 months. But the ‘Van Weezer’ album was literally coming out alongside the tour, so we were excited to work alongside that aesthetic. There’s always been like lightning bolt ties in with Weezer, they have the Weezer logo. We thought it was an interesting play to utilise the colour palette of the album and be really bright and bold, because they’re the first of the three acts to perform every day, they are in sunlight, so using negative space and using darkness wasn’t a possibility. We really played with that and the colours and stuck to a very niche palette. We were also really inspired by Van Halen, since the album is called ‘Van Weezer’. They have loads of amazing imagery going back decades. We said, let’s go ridiculous on the amount of guitar tabs, and one of the common compliments we get from that design is that we had six kick drums on the drum kit, which is just bonkers, but also plays with that kind of 80s rock kind of aesthetic. It gave us a really big look, and they loved it.
How does your approach differ when you’re dealing with an artist like Olivia Rodrigo, who was so new to live performance when she performed drivers licence at the 2021 BRITs, versus a more established artist with a strong sense of their own aesthetic?
Bronski: When you’ve got a real rapport with an artist, you do learn strengths and weaknesses, and you do know things they like. There are elements of that, that do make the job easier, although sometimes you never want that to be a constraint. When you’re working with a new artist, or doing a one-off for an artist, you do obviously have to build a rapport quicker. And that’s great. We kind of love that challenge. It doesn’t really change the essence of the fact that the music has to come first. Sometimes people will send you a song and say two hours later, what do you think we should do? For us, it’s like, that music’s been in their blood for a long period of time now, and we need to be in that same zone. The music is so important, that’s why we’re all here doing this, regardless of whether it is a new artist, or whether it’s someone that we’ve worked with. We have to look at what our canvas is and who the audience is, and think about that, but always staying true to the music and the artists.
Amber, you’ve spoken about the male-dominated nature of the music industry and how little women’s creative voices get space. What has it been like helping to launch huge female names like Olivia Rodrigo and Arlo Parks?
Amber: I use the word challenging sometimes. I’m not a very loud person, I’m very much an internal thinker that studies and thinks a lot. To try and express that in a room full of loud spoken men sometimes can be a bit challenging. But luckily, I work with very respectful men, and artists that are very respectful to women, which is great. And then transitioning to working for, you know, young female artists, is that I always encourage them to have a voice, and to be a part of the creative process. And that could be something as small as picking a colour to coordinate. Sometimes you have female artists, like Olivia, who will say, “I love butterflies, and how can we incorporate butterflies into my world”? I think, especially nowadays, with the younger generation coming up, they very much want to be aware and to know things that perhaps 10 years ago, they weren’t very bothered about, but they seem to be more engaged, especially creatively and visually. I think that connects with social media and YouTube and music videos and beauty and fashion, and how all those kinds of things have merged together in the last few years.
What’s coming next for you guys?
Bronski: There’s this huge catch up going on, which makes it a bit more challenging to kind of do what we would do normally, because there are more financial constraints there’s less time, et cetera. We been really fortunate that we got an incredible start to the year, and I think we’re looking forward to things to settle into that creative space again, where we get to breathe in and do it. I’m looking forward to that next project. We’ve got some things we can’t speak about. But where there’s that breathing space to, to be even more creative and not have to read your emails asking about logistical things and just be in our creative zone.
We also caught up with STUFISH, the entertainment architect who works in collaboration with TAWBOX, to discuss how he went about building the sets for Stormzy’s ‘Heavy is the Head’ show.
A big theme of the design for the show was “balance” – building off the “heavy is the head” motifs. How did that factor into building the stages?
The stage design has everything in 2 pieces to balance each other. As well as the double elements the stage has lots of angled ramps to physically shift the balance of the performers. On the main stage there is a video ramp that spans the whole stage and slopes the stage from 2.2m – 1.8 and then the doble catwalks slopes down from 1.8m to 1.5m. These different angled floors subtly shift the balance for Stomzy to perform and move around on. Finally the stage is deliberately created as 3 islands. The band sit on the most upstage island, the mainstage sits separated from the band platform, and the thrust stage sits further downstage separated. They are only linked by thin bridges. The gaps around the stages are filled like moats with lighting and smoke. This makes the balance of the performance shift around between the high level staging and the more intimate thrust stage immersed in the audience.
How did you think about building in big entrances for Stormzy, to fit with the huge comeback vibes of the night?
The start of the show creates the most powerful entrance. The slab screens split to reveal Stormzy floating on a high platform above the stage. Slowly it descends to bring him down to the stage. It was important in Act 1 to establish Stormzy in a Regal and Divine way at the beginning to be able to contrast and balance that against when he comes right down the catwalk deep into the audience to be close to the people. He is a man of the people and so the physical different levels allow for this to happen.
In Act 2 we reveal the motif of the show, the Crown. This descends to the stage and Stormzy appears out of the upstage moat to appear in the centre of the crown almost without the audience realising how he got there. By walking up the stairs, this is a more humble entrance into the crown.
For Act 3 in Wiley Flow, the double catwalk has a gap down the centre to allow Stormzy to enter right in the thick of the audience in an unexpected way. Here he leaps onto the stage with massive energy creating a very different moment in the show from his other 2 entrances.