AllSaints Manifestos: Andi Watson

Cutting his stage teeth with Radiohead and Prince, the lighting maverick on his visual language and leaving the tour bus behind

The man behind the magic you see when you go to a high-end gig, Andi Watson is one of the world’s foremost lighting and stage designers. He’s been working with Radiohead since the early days, creating intense, sensitive and mind-blowing light-scapes that fit seamlessly with the band’s own artistic vision. A couple of years ago a book about his work was published, Bullet Proof ... I Wish I Was: The Lighting & Stage Design of Andi Watson, coming complete with an introduction from Thom Yorke. Now he’s being recognised for his unparalleled work with the AllSaints Manifestos series.

How did you get into lighting and stage design?

Andi Watson: I went to university to study engineering and during that time got quite involved with putting on bands in the student venues. It mainly seemed to involve carrying ridiculously heavy sound desks up flights of stars but did allow me to work with the touring lighting designers and crews. I then worked with a small local lighting company before getting a job with a major lighting company as a technician and programmer. After that apprenticeship I left to be a freelance designer.

Is it the kind of career you need to go to university for?

Andi Watson: Nowadays you can go to college and study lighting design and in fact I sometimes do visiting lectures at some of those colleges. When I started that formal training didn’t exist so I learnt everything on the job. Fortunately I had some amazing people to learn from.

How did you end up working with Radiohead?

Andi Watson: I was working with a band called the Frank and Walters and we were doing a pretty tiny college tour of refectory rooms and pubs. The support band were a bunch of shy Oxford chaps called Radiohead. They actually had a very talented lighting designer on that tour by the name of Nigel Powell who left to be a professional (and very good) drummer. When Nigel left the band asked me to work with them.

How does the creative process work between you and the band?

Andi Watson: I have worked with the band on many projects now and I think we have developed a visual language that makes sense to all of us. As a consequence, I am incredibly lucky that they have the faith in me to basically allow me free reign to design for them. Of course there are themes that are woven into the songs and because my designs are reflections and products of listening to that music there should by definition be a coherency between what they are doing and what I am. I’m sure they would be very quick to tell me if they hated something I had created.

How does it feel to be picked for the AllSaints Manifestos series?

Andi Watson: It is a complete honour. Truly. Being a concert lighting and stage designer for many years means that you spend your life hiding in the back of dark rooms with none knowing who you are. To be picked for the series means a huge amount to me. So much work is done by so many people to create the shows that people experience and it is wonderful for that to be recognised.

What are your key inspirations?

Andi Watson: I have been lucky enough to work with some of the best musicians on the planet and their music is the base inspiration for anything I do. Further to that I am influenced heavily by art and architecture and more, so anything by the planet we live on. I can happily spend hours looking at clouds, sunlight reflecting off water or the way light passes through the leaves of a tree and I have my wonderful parents to thank for that. They gave me not only a basic understanding of the world around me but also the desire to observe, appreciate, and make sense of it. 

You worked with Prince - tell us about that experience?

Andi Watson: It was a long time ago! The Prince Sign o’ The Times tour was my first ever ‘proper’ tour and was a pretty crazy introduction! Roy Bennet had designed the amazing show and I was in charge of the intelligent lighting system. It was a lot of hard work, ridiculously long hours, very little sleep and no one had invented health and safety yet so terrifyingly dangerous too at times.

What projects are you working on right now and when will we get to see the results?

Andi Watson: I am in the design stage of a few shows with a couple of big existing clients and also some new ones. I am also lucky enough to be doing some installation work and potentially have an exhibition in the pipeline. Lots of very exciting things and there are a couple of new technologies that are floes to finally making some very old ideas actually possible for the first time.

What are your plans for the next 12 months?

Andi Watson: I am just moving into a new studio so very excited about that. It should help massively with preparing big shows and also setting up some of the installation work. I am also trying to stay more in the studio and less on tour busses!