INTERVIEW: James Lawrenson, Foster the People FOH engineer

Lawrenson describes his role at this year's Firefly festival, where the band were surprise headliners.
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James Lawrenson, FOH engineer for Foster the People, has taken time out of his busy touring schedule to talk to API about his recent work with the band.

Lawrenson, who has been mixing front-of-house for the Californian trio since 2011, tells us how a 'trial by fire' scenario at his local pub led to him developing a love for audio engineering, and how handling a headline set at this year's Firefly festival in the US – in the same time slot as Tom Petty and Red Hot Chili Peppers – ranks at the very top of his list of live sound experiences so far...

First of all, how did you start out in the audio industry?

I used to work in a pub in Newport, South Wales that put on bands once a week. We had a little mixer and some powered speakers but I didn't know how any of it worked. One day the manager got quite ill and couldn't do it and they said "you're in a band so you know what you're doing" even though I only knew how to plug in a microphone, that was about it!

But that's how it all started and I then went on to mix more local bands. I ended up preferring mixing bands to playing in them and then I moved to Cardiff for uni and started working in the Barfly there, where actual touring bands would come through. There I hooked up with a band called The Automatic and did some gigs with them, they got signed and then we went on the road for about two years and that was my first touring experience.

You've been working with Foster the People for a couple of years now, who recently headlined and closed the Firefly music festival in Delaware. Can you tell us a bit about that?

I didn't even realise we were headlining at first – we had bands like Vampire Weekend and Passion Pit behind us who had more albums under their belts and we all knew we had to pull something special out of the bag. There was quite a lot of work to put into one show, but they rose to the challenge. It was genuinely one of the best shows I've ever done.

Did it therefore require a lot more from you and the rest of the sound team?Was there a lot more happening on stage than what you're used to?

Typically there are five musicians on stage – three from the band and two session musicians who have been with them since the beginning. Mark (Foster, the band's frontman) had wanted some backing singers for a long time so this was an opportunity to get them in and really go for it, and they sung for the majority of the set. We also had two trumpet players on one song – they didn't want it to be an obvious mic set-up so we put them on in-ears and wireless mics so they could just walk out and it would be a surprise – little tricks like that.

Mark also played one song acoustic so we had a different dynamic with that as well; we were throwing in channels all over the place. They'd just come out the studio as well, so were playing new songs, which meant new instruments, sound and toys to play with. I think my FOH count turned into about 54 channels and they're talking about getting a second drum kit in now for the new year so we'll see how we can squeeze that in.

Could you run through some of the equipment you were using?

We had show files for monitors and FOH which we just decided to add to rather than start from scratch due to where we were in terms of how much time we had. It was a little tricky but we know the consoles inside out – they're very flexible for what we needed to do. Our monitor guy has a Digico SD7 – he's been using that since last summer – and I took a (Avid) Profile out front.

I have a very experienced file and I've recently become endorsed by Waves Audio, so I had a whole plug-in bundle in my arsenal as well. They sound phenomenal, which made a big difference and they give you many options – I was chopping and changing things all the time, which you can't do with hardware.

Do Mark and the rest of the band like to get involved much with their live sound?

They have a lot of input mix-wise, saying "this is what we want to sound like," and it's been dead easy with them. We did a whole playback of the set with them out front, so they were able to hear and see the whole production as it would be, including the new songs, so they were able to comment on that. I've been lucky thogh – every band I've worked with has trusted me to just get on with it.

You've been involved with audio education in the past. Is this something you'd like to do a bit more of in the future?

When I took out the Vi6 last year for a few tours I was in touch with Soundcraft and then after the tour they asked whether I wanted to do 'Mixing with Professionals' to tell people about my experience with the console, and it was great. I had to talk for three hours and I'm not very good at that in front of groups of people but it was a good thing for me to do for my benefit and I'd like to think for other people's benefits.

People said after the sessions that they had a good time and that they learnt a lot. It's nothing I've been involved with before but I feel a lot more confident about it now and I could definitely do it again in the future.

Would you describe the Firefly show as your greatest achievement yet, or have there been other projects that you're particularly proud of?

At Firefly we had Tom Petty on the night before mixed by Robert Schofield and then of course Red Hot Chili Peppers mixed by Dave Rat. I've never met either of them but they're both big names in the live sound world so being in the same time slot as that was a big moment and I was proud to be trusted with that.

We also played Lollapalooza last year supporting Arctic Monkeys with around 60,000 there and that was another great moment; doing The BRIT Awards with The Ting Tings was another one; but Firefly is probably at the top of the list.

To read up on the rest of Lawrenson's career to date, check out his website here.

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