“His work has influenced me!” We heard this sentiment from more than a few LDs when we mentioned that we would be doing a feature on this Danish lighting and set designer. Bjerregaard’s outsized creations for his principal client, the Grammy-nominated multi-platinum band Volbeat, are indeed the sort of sweeping, visionary outpourings that fire the imagination.
Commanding light, video, pyro and automations in a well-orchestrated mix, he creates ecstatic visual celebrations of his client’s complex brand of metal music. His designs are at once frighteningly big and subtly nuanced, immersing the audience, while creating an exciting sense that more awaits.
Bjerregaard did not come about his bold approach easily. There is, he told us at the onset of our interview, a Danish word “Jantelov,” which describes a tradition of keeping a low profile and not standing out in the crowd. Coming of age in the port city of Aarhus, a cauldron of rock music, he got involved in lighting, but found this traditional prohibition limiting.
It was on a tour of the US in 2000 with the band King Diamond that Bjerregaard cut free and decided to let his lighting vision soar. As many fans and fellow LDs will attest, he hasn’t looked back since.
Before we start, we have to say that we really find your name “HappyLightGuy” unique and appealing. Can you give us the story behind it?
“The name HappyLightGuy was to me a joke. In the beginning I used it as a hashtag on Instagram. I was a bit fed up with the music industry as well as my work situation and needed to reinvent myself, so I decided to open a new company, HappyLightGuy. The name was intended to reflect a more happy and positive approach to my work, myself, and life on tour. My girlfriend came up with the idea to use the name for my production company, and it’s grown on me ever since. I must say the name and what it represents has helped my outlook on things and how the industry has perceived me. It’s a weird, but true story.”
Some people might say that the name “Happy Light Guy,” is ironic, since you do so much work lighting metal music, which is typically dark brooding and intense. What would you say to them?
“It’s weird how people outside of the metal music circle perceive metal to be an aggressive and violent form of expression. I view it very differently. Metal people in general are very nice and positive. So, I think the name HappyLightGuy fits right in with this style of music.”
On the opposite side of “happy” is the pandemic we’ve all been going through. How have you kept busy during the past year?
“I spent 2020 learning some new skills, such as drawing in Sketch Up, doing tutorials and learning ChamSys online. The Sketch Up program have been very handy for designing 3D drawings and movies. This has made it easier to share ideas and concepts, especially since Volbeat‘s management is located in North America and Volbeat and I are living in Denmark.”
When do you think you’ll start working live events again?
“It’s been a roller coaster ride doing gigs in 2020 — and 2021 is proving to be just as difficult so far. I have had different tours and venue commitments canceled or postponed, so it’s been hard to maintain a steady work flow. We are currently working on designs for the upcoming Volbeat Headliner European Festival tour, which hopefully will move forward as planned. I have my fingers crossed and can’t wait to get back out on tour and see my touring family.”
Speaking of Volbeat, when the band toured in support of Metallica in 2017, you had four follow spots in your rig. You usually use many more. Can you tell us about the role follow spots play in your designs?
“It’s a very interesting question, because we had so many different follow spot scenarios with Volbeat’s four band members. The guys always hated to be blinded by follow spots, so I had to alter my way of using them many times. In general, I use four spots from the front, four from the side and four from the back, 16 in total. The four spots from the front are normally placed in a high position and operated by follow spot operators with intercom. The four spots on each downstage side and four back truss are remote controlled and are used as moving lights, one for each band member.
“The reason for this is when you have live cameras on video screens you are looking for depth and a constant light source on your band members, so the scenic elements and people don’t look flat or dark. Depth is a key thing in my opinion when you do any rock show. The band will appear well lit and great looking on screen and live when you have depth. You also have direct access to enhance key members for solos and you are not locked into specific position. Plus, the band can move around freely while you highlight different members as needed. On the support for Metallica in 2017 we used four front operated follow spots — that was enough as we played daylight mostly. They were very accommodating and nice to us and we had a great time supporting them.”
In many of your designs, you seem to like to coordinate your video images with lighting chase sequences. Why is that?
“Video screens are a big part of metal shows now. The different looks and feelings, you can make with them are unique and special. I think that the combination of lights and video are very interesting, and I have incorporated this into more and more of my designs. A growing number of bands are starting to use these effects as audiences get more interested in seeing pyro, video, lights and automation work together. So, the exceptions and pressure are higher than ever.
“I implement all video and lights so they work together. We are running two different systems. One system is with a media server that I control from my light desk that runs media content witch consist of special Volbeat art work. Then, the live part is run by a video director in control of live cameras for IMAG and stage high resolution screens. I can override these with effects and color to make them a part of the overall design. We run video clips and stills together with live footage on all screens low and high resolution. It makes the whole look of the stage integrated. For me, it’s always very important that the video content and live content don’t kill off the lights. All media and lights are equal in form and output.”
You just mentioned pyro effects. What do you feel pyro contributes to a show?
“Pyro has always been a big thing for Volbeat. It’s a love-hate relationship, as we tried over the years different scenarios and types. The most successful combination for me has been using fire and concussion, but through the years I’ve added confetti and CO2 jets. I think most LDs will agree with me that it’s a balance how and where you are using Pyro in a set list. It can look silly and out of place very quickly if you over use it. So, I have always relied on my pyro company to help me with advice. I love the huge flames, the heat and impact, the audience loves it so much too. If you look at Ramstein they are truly the masters of pyro and using it to the max. If you love flames and heat you should definitely check out their show.”
Speaking of over-using something, no designer ever wants to go overboard with any particular effect in a show. Is there one type of effect that you would be most prone to over-use?
“I have always been a sucker for the strobe light and par can — and I have had moments with Volbeat in the past where they have asked me to tone it down with strobes. They’re so many different fixtures now and most have multiple usage, which makes easier to handle and make a more interesting approach. However, I still love a good strobe light burst!”
Aside from being the lighting designer for Volbeat, you are also the band’s set designer. Do the two activities feed off each other?
“Yes, the ten years I have worked for Volbeat, I’ve designed all their stage sets except one, which Mads Mikkelsen FOH Sound did for a tour years ago. The new set up for the upcoming album is a codesign by Guy Sykes and HappyLightGuy. The reason for this is we wanted to try something completely different. The new album is not a concept album like the others before it, so we’re looking to change things up and renew our selves.
“Guy Sykes has some great ideas and experience that we are incorporating into the design. The monitor and backline guys also had a part of designing the riser so it accommodates their needs. We will always strive for a greater experience overall. It benefits Volbeat to make their show look better and interesting and it keeps our camp on its toes. When you have crew and band that are working close together for a long time, it’s very important to look for new ways to renew and keep it interesting for us and the audience.”
Volbeat has been very big for in Europe, but now they’re a hit in North America too, reaching No.6 on the LP charts. Do you design differently for North American tours than EU ones?
“Volbeat is definitely bigger in Europe than in North America. We play arenas and stadiums in Europe, and it’s easier to come up with a big design and specials when your overall budget is bigger. That said, we always try to come up with something similar in North America so we show our fans the respect and a great show, but on a smaller scale. It’s always a challenge to change a design in the middle of an album cycle during a touring run, but it’s also very refreshing to do something else when you do a 3-year touring cycle. It also gives Volbeat to chance to change the set list and keep a fresh momentum. We hope in the future we will have the opportunity to make the same impact and show in North America as in Europe.”
How often to you busk in a Volbeat show?
“I used to Busk the Volbeat show all the time when I started working for them. Back then, we played clubs and theatres, but as the shows grew bigger and we brought video content into the mix, I had to change to cue lists. It’s very difficult to busk a big 200-plus fixture stage and get away with it. I do have some effects that I am busking on top of the cue lists to make it live and vibrant, often these are strobes and chase effects, or fly outs. Volbeat is not a time code band, so I am having a great time mixing fixtures and video content together in big looks.”
What’s the key to successful busking?
A good busking show, is all about being able to think ahead in the songs many facets and keep a steady beat on your buttons while thinking about the next break or solo, and how you’re going to make this happen. It takes years to master this art form, but it’s so much fun. When I am not on tour, I sometimes work at a local club in Aarhus to make my busking skills alive
Did you ever light anything other than metal music?
“Yes, very much so. In my 32 Years of doing lights and design I have worked with countless bands representing different music styles. I am very lucky to have had the opportunity to gain this experience. Working with a variety of bands has taught me different music styles, and how to count a beat and how music is build up.
“I spent my first two or three years as a LD at a small club in Aarhus, ”Vestergade 58,” busking four days a week for a variety of different bands, Danish and foreign. We had 24 par cans with different color gels. I tried to change the gels as often as possible, and tried different looks and moods. I have also toured around the world countless times with pop and rock acts as well as metal. I am grateful for every minute and experience I had. There many great bands out there.”
Why do you like metal so much?
“When I was a young man, around 20, I started to watch MTV Headbangers Ball, and got caught up in that vibe. I didn’t particular like the hair metal much. I preferred more the hard-hitting bands — Metallica, Slayer, Van Halen, Judas Priest, and Soundgarden. I felt it was something special. It was not very common in Aarhus, where I lived, to be a heavy metal enthusiast. The style and look scared many people. I have always considered myself to be a heavy metal guy first. I love heavy metal, and found it to be a great style of music to light. The payoff is instant – and it’s amazing to be a part of the energy.”
What are the biggest lessons that designers who work in other genres can learn from metal designers like you?
“Heavy Metal Music is a hard, fast music style with different moods and tempos. I think the versatility and possibilities are endless; only your imagination will set the boundary. Metal bands’ performances often have story lines. As a designer, you get to enhance those stories to create a full experience. One can be lighting a hardcore segment of a light show with lots of strobes and flashing lights, and then the next minute move to a beautiful ballad portion where you create a totally different vibe with dark tones of light accompanied with a beautiful gobo look.”
How did you get started in lighting design?
“I did my first real paid tour in 1991 when I was asked to submit a design for approval by the band and management. So, I went to buy some stencils that were made for theatre lighting designers, and started to draw on paper. It was difficult for me to vision how the paper design would look in real life, but when I saw the whole thing come together in rehearsal I was stoked, happy and proud. It was a small rig, but I remember being very excited. I thought about gel colors and par patches for days. I used this method until the first 2D computer based drawing programs became available. I still have those stencils.”
If you weren’t a lighting designer, what do you think you would have done as a career? “That’s a very hard question to answer. I have been working in the Music industry since 1986, when I had an after school job at a record company. I always knew I wanted to work in the music industry. It was only after I saw a show in my home town with the biggest band at the time that I knew I wanted to do lights. It blew me away seeing this show, and I wanted to do anything to be a part of that scene. I became an unpaid stagehand at first until I landed my first low paid lighting gig at a club when I was 17 years old. I was busking away three or four days a week. I wasn’t old enough to work there, but I lied about my age. I think if I could change from designing and touring it would be in some production job. Basically, I love the energy and thrills this industry offers. Even when it’s hard and you feel burned out, you always find the will to carry on. I tried to change work a couple of times, but I never made it more than half a year before I got bored and quit. Sorry!”
Is there one tour or show that you look back on as the biggest learning experience in your career?
“The two biggest changes for me coming from small Denmark and touring abroad is the first time I went to North America in 2000 with King Diamond, and first time Volbeat played their own stadium tour in 2017. I remember we rehearsed 14 days in Los Angeles with King Diamond and I felt like I was in a movie, walking down Sunset Boulevard, I was so happy.
“This was also my longest time on a tour bus, and it made a big impact on my life. There was a big uptick in my self-esteem, and a big difference in how colleagues looked at me back home in Denmark. At the time, there were only a handful of LDs that toured America. About 17 years later I was on my first genuine stadium tour with my own design. It blew me away – everything I worked so hard for and dreamed so long about was now a reality. I am very lucky to have found a band that could take me on that journey and give me the opportunity to believe and execute in a design. I hope this journey can continue further in the years to come.”
When you view videos of your work, what are the things you look for to determine whether or not it was a successful design?
“I actually hate to watch videos of my work, but unfortunately I always find myself looking for mistakes rather than enjoy the good things I did. I watched a live video from Telia Parken when we played there with Volbeat, and I must admit I am pretty proud to have been a part that show. We were the first Danish band to sell out Telia Parken, which has a 43.000 capacity. So, I do sometimes watch the live shows I do to learn and reflect, but it’s very hard for me to watch.”
How would you like to be remembered as a lighting designer?
“As a Happy Light Guy! I want to be remembered as someone who was fun to be around, and great to work with – but also as a lighting and set designer that made a mark on the industry.”