Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips catches up with Marc Sohier and Paul Butler, two key members of the Cirque du Soleil band currently playing in the show KURIOS
The notion of a circus coming to town conjures up all kinds of nostalgic thoughts. A parade of bohemian strangers arriving in a nearby park, setting up a huge big top tent and creating a carnival atmosphere can be very enticing. Of course the traditional Barnum & Bailey style circus days, where trained animals were the stars of the show have long gone. Today’s modern day circus is all about an extraordinary human experience and since 1984, the kings of the genre have been the Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group.
Established in Montreal, the Canadian organization has brought wonder and delight to over 190 million spectators with productions presented in close to 450 cities in 60 countries. Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group currently has over 4,000 employees, including 1,400 artists, from nearly 50 countries. The latest Cirque du Soleil production which is currently in Australia and heading to Melbourne is KURIOS, featuring a cast of 47 artists from 17 countries including world-class gymnasts, acrobats, contortionists, hand-puppeteers, yo-yo wizards, clowns, actors and musicians. KURIOS – Cabinet of Curiosities is a tale in which time comes to a complete stop, transporting the audience inside a fantasy world where everything is possible. In this realm set in the latter half of the nineteenth century, reality is quite relative indeed as our perception of it is utterly transformed.
Not only is KURIOS a visually stunning show, the music too plays a major role in building the drama and helping to create such an enjoyable adventure for the audience. Marc Sohier, bandleader and bass player for KURIOS has the nightly responsibility of keeping the musical component together.
After studying jazz bass at the University of Montreal and doing freelance work around the Quebec province, Sohier found himself enroute to New York in 1992 to catch up with friends who were performing with the Cirque du Soleil group in the show Saltimbanco. “Two days before I arrived in New York, there were two musicians who left the show, so it was perfect timing,” Marc recalls. “They asked me if I wanted to join, so I joined the circus a couple of months after. I am still working with the company after all those years. I took 7 years off from 2009 to beginning of 2014 with KURIOS. After 7 years break I was ready to start that crazy life again. I’m back playing bass, leading the band and taking care of the music.”
For Sohier, it’s a challenging assignment which requires intense concentration and versatility, while at the same time trying to stay relaxed and radiating a sense of joy. “The job is more like a moving movie soundtrack,” he explains. “We have action happening in front of us which is really organic, changing all the time. The music is played in sections and we may have to expand or extend and improvise, so my job is mainly to keep the synchronisation with what we are seeing but unlike a movie soundtrack, this one is different every day. You have to be relaxed but at the same time, you have to be there mentally. You cannot suddenly start thinking about something else, there is no room for that. You need to be there from moment to moment and be ready to react if the section becomes longer or shorter or they skip something. There may be a brand new challenge that is about to happen, so you have to be ready.”
Marc learned about the importance of concentration very early on in his Cirque days. He had only been playing bass in the Saltimbanco show band for a week when he found himself mesmerised by the skill of the circus performers and had an out of body experience. “At one point I was playing and I became like a person sitting in the house looking at the show,” he laughs as he recalls the moment. “I was hearing the bass and thinking my god the bass is wrong and then I came back in my head and thought, oh no … I am the bass player! I was totally looking at the show and I was gone. I have concentrated ever since because I don’t want that to ever happen again.”
There are four basses which Marc uses in the current show, his main bass being a 5 string fretted MusicMan. He also has a custom made fretless bass which was created by a Montreal-based guitar builder, a Hofner bass, and an NS Design electric upright. “All of this goes through a bi-amp system with the API pre amp. I go into a channel of my API … I go through my Lexicon processor for the effects and I go back and re-amp the signal and then I send those 2 channels to the front of house, there are no amps. We are all on in-ear monitors. So I don’t have my big Ampeg, it’s at home.”
Marc’s comrade in rhythm is Adelaide-based drummer Paul Butler, who has been with Cirque for nine years. Paul came up through the ranks of the Adelaide music scene, idolising the likes of Vinnie Colaiuta and Stewart Copeland and found himself doing a seven year stint with the South Australian Police Band, despite not being a cop himself. Paul has also studied percussion at various respected institutions both here and overseas and has toured the world extensively. Like Marc, Paul’s introduction to Cirque du Soleil was through musician friends who had been performing with the company and suggested he audition. “I did my first show with Cirque 9 years ago, a show called CORTEO,” he says. “I was with that show for 5 years and went through Europe and South America, Central America and Mexico. After that I auditioned for another show KOOZA, and I was on that show for 3 years and we toured Australia, Asia, Singapore, China, Korea and Europe. And now I have joined KURIOS after another audition. Even though you’ve been with shows for many years, you still have to prove your worth and audition each time, which is good. It keeps people honest.”
In regard to his role in the band, Butler echoes Sohier’s thoughts on concentration and the need to be flexible but also not forgetting to inject a little of his own musical flair into the mix. “A challenge is to be consistent and provide a good platform for the artists on stage and not just support them but enhance them,” he explains. “We like to provide a solid foundation but I also like to be creative and put a little flavour in there that will inspire them to enjoy what they are doing. We do a lot of shows, 300 plus a year so you want to keep it fresh. The music does evolve, it’s live entertainment and with the action on stage, we have to move and be prepared to change at any moment in time. The challenge is to do that in the most musical way possible but also to hit the point, to accentuate the action as it happens.”
For KURIOS, Paul is using a basic 5 piece kit, a kick, snare, 12”, 14”, 16”, toms and a bunch of cymbals, ranging from crashes to chinas. There is also an element of electronics that Paul uses in the show. “I use a Roland Bar trigger to trigger some things but I’m also the assistant bandleader, so when I am running the show for the band and giving them the cues for the music, we run through Ableton. Being a drummer I don’t want to be on a talk back and playing drums into the mic, so this way I don’t have to. I have lots of pre-recorded counts and calls and things and I launch them off a Roland SPD FX pad.”
Brisbane audiences have been loving the KURIOS show and in March it heads south for the Melbourne season. Paul is proud of the part he plays in the show and believes everyone should make the effort to experience the magic of KURIOS. “From beginning to end it is just a great show,” he tells me. “Everything is well thought out, well designed. It’s high energy, it’s positive but it also takes you on a journey.”
Marc Sohier also suggests that KURIOS is one of the best cirque shows that he has been involved with. “A lot of shows get so big and mechanical but this is more of a human experience,” he says. “The costumes are amazing, the music is beautiful and it’s extremely melodic. It’s a feel-good show. Everybody will get something out of it. I look out and see people smiling and I think they get much more than what they pay for.”
Melbourne Season: From 12 March – 10 May 2020
Venue: Under the grey and white Big Top at Flemington Racecourse
Performances: Tuesday to Friday 8pm; Saturday 4:30pm & 8pm; Sunday 1:30pm & 5pm
Tickets: From $80
Bookings: www.cirquedusoleil.com/kurios or 1800 036 685
Following Melbourne KURIOS plays:
29 May – 7 June, Adelaide, Showground
15 July – 2 August, Perth, Claremont Showground