"Light em Up!"
By: Jeff Hausman
Edited By: Geoff Bell

The Inside (Issue 6, Fall 1996)

We go behind the scenes on the Balance tour with Van Halen's lighting man Chris Stuba

The Inside: Did anything weird happen on the Balance tour?

Chris Stuba: Yeah. On the second or third show, in Jacksonville, we raised the lighting rig after we were done checking it out. Peter Feher, who is one of the lighting guys and weighs about 120 pounds soaking wet, hopped up on top of it. All of a sudden, we heard a stressful, bending sound. We turned around and saw the whole rig come crashing to the ground. Every stage hand in the building took off running. It pulled some video and lighting stuff down and I'm standing there going, "Man, I can't believe this -- I've never seen anything like this in my life!" And one of the stage hands says, "It happens here all the time." Needless to say, we stripped the lighting rig down to a bare minimum and did the show -- with very little lighting.

The Inside: Wasn't Sammy sick quite a bit during the beginning of the tour? How did that affect things?

CS: After Jacksonville, we headed to Orlando. That was the first show we cancelled. But the crew had been working their asses off so it was kind of a nice break. We were thinking, "Let's go to Disney World!"

The Inside: Someone who saw all of the Florida shows said that the best show was when the band turned "You Really Got Me" into a 10 minute off the cuff jam because Sam's voice was so trashed from being sick. He said it was like the club days all over again.

CS: Yeah. It was a rough show. (At this point, several rowdy fans walk by wearing Van Halen bootleg shirts)

The Inside: What do you think about the bootleg shirts that are sold outside the venue at each show?

CS: Every night, you'd see vendors out in the streets and parking lots selling shirts. There are probably people who think that junk is official Van Halen merchandise. That's not the case at all. These people are stealing logos and having the shirts printed up on low-quality, cheap shirts. The band isn't seeing any of that capital. None. Basically, you're stuck with a crummy shirt. It's not a good deal all the way around.

The Inside: What is your official job title and what do you do?

CS: I'm the Autopilot Technician. Van Halen was the second band to use the Autopilot system. ZZ Top was the first, which I did. Basically, it's a wireless belt pack that the band mounts on themselves. The pack sends infrared and ultrasonic frequencies to other receivers that are placed in the trusses so that lights can follow them wherever they move. If you look at the Toronto video, you'll see Sammy clipping something back on his shoulder whenever he changes shirts. That's the part of the Autopilot element that he has to deal with each day. He handles it well. When a performer is on stage, they don't want to be thinking about anything other than the show. But he's got to be aware of this system all the time. Once, he took it off to change his shirt and accidentally crushed it with his foot. He turned around and looked at me like, "What am I gonna do now?" (Laughs) It looks like a small clip on microphone. They still use a few guys to aim spotlights on the band. But all the lights on stage that are following them are operated by this system.

The Inside: I heard that when you were offered the Van Halen job you were excited about the possibility to work with them but didn't want to go back out on the road.

CS: Yeah. I had just finished 140 shows with ZZ Top when the call came in to do Autopilot for Van Halen. Initially, I wasn't too excited about being on the road for another year. But I went anyway and instantly realized how great these people are and how considerate the band is for the people that work for them. I can give you a hundred examples of things they did for us to make us feel like we were part of the organization, and also that we were human beings. Most bands have a lot of things on their mind and, unfortunately, the crew is usually the very bottom of the food chain. I remember when we did the pay-per-view shows in Toronto. We did a lot of extra work for those shows -- lots of long hours. The band chartered a giant yacht -- the Molson Amphitheater is right on the bay -- and took the crew out for a day. We had a great time. They're very considerate of all the work we do. They are just genuinely great peole. I think they'd treat me equally well if I was a garbage man. That's neat because you don't find too many people like that in this business. Scotty Ross (Van Halen's Tour Manager Extraordinaire) is the most right on guy ever! It's hard to find tour managers who have sat in our (the crew) shoes. Scotty was in the trenches with us at one point. Most tour managers don't have any idea what the crew does. Either they're guys from the record label or friends of the band. Scotty's background helps him relate to us -- he's thinking about our best interests. He was my biggest supporter and the reason I stayed on the tour. Here's my Scotty Ross as Popeye impression, (sounds like Popeye yelling with a hoarse throat) "Meet and Greet -- ten minutes!" Later in the tour, somebody gave him a red and white striped megaphone so he wouldn't have to yell. He just got louder. (laughs)

The Inside: Sam told us a long time ago that they were going to film the band hanging around Toronto and possibly add it to the pay-per-view. Did they film any of that stuff?

CS: I'm sure that our video guys didn't do it. That footage probably came from the Much Music guys. Jeff Claire (VH's Video Tech.), filmed an incredible amount of stuff throughout the whole tour -- load-in's, load-outs, backstage. There's footage of the monks chanting, the Leslie West stuff from New York. During the first leg of the tour, they would roam around outside and film the fans in the lot. Then they would show the footage on the Jumbotron during the encore.

The Inside: When did the monks join the band?

CS: In Minneapolis. They came out on stage before "Seventh Seal" with their shaved heads, wearing these red gowns. They happened to be in town. At the last Balance show in Irvine, California, a few members of the crew bought skinhead wigs and some sheets. We came out on stage during "Seventh Seal". It was hilarious! The band got scared -- they all ran to Alex's drum-riser. They thought there was something weird going on.

The Inside: On the last show of the '93 tour, the band members' wives all came out on stage dressed as Playboy Bunnies during "Finish What Ya Started".

CS: Yowza!

The Inside: They should make some sort of documentary of the Balance tour.

CS: I know. They have so much footage. They taped every show last year.

The Inside: Does the band pay attention to the taped shows? Do they watch them later?

CS: As far as I know, Jeff gave Alex a copy of every show. There was also a sixth video camera --just an 8 mm -- that was parked out front of the house so they could get the crowd's perspective of the show. Throughout the tour, there were constant changes and improvements that resulted from critical viewing of those tapes. It definitely paid off.

The Inside: Have you heard the band or management talk about plans for this footage?

CS: Nope. Jeff thought they might do something like Metallica did (A Year and a Half In the Life of Metallica). A compilation of the whole tour. God knows they have enough material from the tour. They also taped some soundchecks.

The Inside: Man! They should sell that instead of the Toronto show!

CS: The footage of the snowstorm in Denver must be outrageous. Even the guys on the crew who have been around for ten or fifteen years said it was the most unusual and memorable outdoor show they have ever done. It was miserable. But we had to make the best of it. The band made it easy because they had a great time with it. A couple of days earlier, we were in some city where it was 106 degrees. When we got to Denver, it was cold and rainy. By 9:00, it started snowing. Nobody in their wildest dreams thought it would snow -- it was September! But it kept coming down. We ended up with nine inches on the ground! Things got a little hairy. But we just had to laugh. We had snowball fights with guys on the back-line. All you had to do was scrape it off your shoulders. Out in the crowd, (at Fiddler's Green) there was no cover over the pavilion area. We were very worried. There was a point, somewhere around 3:00, when we didn't know if the show was going to happen. Equipment could have been seriously damaged. Ironically, nothing did.

The Inside: Was the crowd miserable?

CS: No! That was the best part about it. The crowd made the whole thing happen. Nobody expected it and they certainly weren't dressed for it. Wally, our merchandising guy, did slamming business -- they were buying everything in sight. I have some friends who were out in the middle of it. They said it was the most incredible concert experience of their lives. The whole crowd bonded because they were all going through the same thing. Finally, the band said, "All these people have been out in the snow for three hours -- we can't not do it!" Eddie's guitar got drilled by a snowball and he started firing 'em back. Sammy slipped on his ass. I'd love to see the tape.

The Inside: Did anyone jump on the stage during the tour?

CS: Alan Fitzgerald's keyboard rig was set up upstage in this little, black tent. One show, he's sitting in there waiting for cues -- and it's really dark. Suddenly, this crazy guy jumps from the balcony and lands right on top of Alan's keyboards. I guess he thought the top of the tent was a solid place to land. He was trying to get on the stage. Poor Fitzy, man -- he's high strung as it is and this guy just fell in on him! (laughs)

The Inside: What are your favorite places to tour? Your favorite Balance shows?

CS: In Seattle, there was a place called "The Gorge". Memphis was a memorable show. One of the best shows was in Edmonton. The crowd was unreal. Non-stop standing ovations. We went through Detroit and did multiple dates both times -- pretty amazing. There were over 40,000 people when we did Alpine Valley.

The Inside: That was the first time they unleashed "Poundcake". What a pleasant surprise. After that show, they started adding little teasers to the set -- the intro to "Mean Street" or "Runnin' With the Devil". They'd stop when it was time for the vocals to kick in. Why do they do that?

CS: (Laughs) I don't know man. I liked it when they did "White Room" by Cream. They pulled "Ice Cream Man" out at one soundcheck.

The Inside: Yeah! We were listening to soundcheck at one show and I couldn't believe my ears. They played about half of "Romeo Delight", and pieces of "Runnin' With the Devil" and "Mean Street". They sounded exactly like they did fifteen years ago. I've also heard that they've played "D.O.A." and "Atomic Punk" at least once last year. They still get into those old cuts...

CS: The pressure's off and they have some fun with it.

The Inside: What is the average soundcheck like?

CS: It lasts about 45 minutes to an hour. A lot of bands don't even bother. They figure their techs are trained well enough to handle things without them. It's not fair to the people buying the tickets. They're rock stars. You only have a few responsibilities in the world -- sounding good is one of them. Ed, Al and Mike always warm up together. Usually, Sammy shows up. But he can warm up in his own way. He doesn't necessarily have to be there. It's mainly for the instruments.

The Inside: Besides Leslie West, did anyone else jump on stage and jam with the band?

CS: No. But I stood on stage right for every show last year and there were some pretty interesting guests. Winona Judd, Whoopie Goldberg, Alice Cooper, Hulk Hogan was there quite a bit, Tom Arnold, Alice In Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, a lot of people. Not to mention Valerie.

The Inside: You're on the internet...

CS: Yep. It's mainly for e-mail and keeping in touch with friends because we're always travelling. I also read a lot of Van Halen boards and messages.

(Editor's Note: We will talk extensively about the popularity of Van Halen on the internet in a future issue)

The Inside: Does anyone else in the VH camp read those Van Halen bulletin boards?

CS: Yes. Valerie is on there often. Tucker Williamson (Warner Bros. Publicist) reads 'em too.

The Inside: Do you relay this information to the band?

CS: Absolutely! After they added "Poundcake" to the set list in the middle of the tour, Alex went up to Tucker and said something like, "I hope this satisfies all those Internet fuckers!" (Laughs) I think they're very aware of their online fans. Valerie tells Eddie about the messages. She'll say, "Hey, somebody just wished Wolfie a happy birthday". From what I could tell, fans were really pushing for "Poundcake" and "Summer Nights". I don't know how they can decide what to play. They have such a wide variety of material. It's impossible to totally satisfy their creative genius and keep everyone happy. You can't put together a perfect set list for everybody.

The Inside: Absolutely. There is also a ton of the Dave versus Sammy crap. It's everywhere.

CS: I think the band has a reflex that automatically turns that stuff off. The comparisons are going to go on forever. How many bands have been able to stop dead in their tracks when they were on top, replace a key member, and come back just as big? Very few, if any. About a year ago, this guy made a remark on the Internet that was slamming Michael Anthony. He said they should replace him and hire someone who was more talented. Immediately, about 50 people jumped on him, listing all of these reasons why they love Mike. (Laughs) I printed the messages and handed them to Michael. He got a huge kick out of them!

The Inside: That's great. Don't you think that now, in the 90's, with outlets like The Inside and the Internet serving as a connection between Van Halen and their fans that the band is able to communicate with more people than ever?

CS: Absolutely. I also think that it adds credibility to what we are doing from day to day. Reading The Inside and seeing the amazing amount of people who are on the Internet makes you feel connected to a larger and greater thing. And that's great!

The Inside: When The Inside first came out, did people in the Van Halen camp read the first issue on tour?

CS: Oh yeah. There was always a copy in one of the lounges. The issues were all read quite a bit. Honestly, though, I'd have to say that some of the crew used your merchandising flyers to roll up joints because we had so much merchandise already. (Laughs) I definitely think the band liked the magazine.

The Inside: That's good to know. We want them to dig it. It means a lot. A few years ago, we talked to Scotty Ross about the prospect of making a "fan" magazine and he said it was a great idea but the band didn't really get it.

CS: You know why they thought that? It's because they have no egos.

The Inside: Yeah. There was this writer, Steven Rosen, who was going to write Eddie's biography about ten years ago. It didn't happen because Eddie could never figure out why anyone would ever want to write a book about him.

CS: Exactly. He's a very humble man. He just doesn't get it. I think he goes to bed at night knowing that he is a pretty talented guy but, then again, he works his ass off doing it. He doesn't see himself any differently than anyone else.

Interview 1996 The Inside Magazine