How Does a Band Build a Set List?

[26 October 2010]

By Christopher Borrelli

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

CHICAGO — If there was any criticism of LCD Soundsystem’s performance at the Pitchfork Music Festival in July, it was this: The set list needed a tweak. Specifically, the mumbles went, why did James Murphy, leader of the popular dance-rock act, close a high-energy show with ” New York, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down,” a funny, bombastic Sinatra-ish I-love-you-I-can’t live-without-you ode to, well, New York? Didn’t he know this was Chicago? That besides being a ballad, here was a love letter to a city a lot of Chicagoans, having internalized their Second City stigmas, feel ambivalent about?

Was it the right song to end with?

“I couldn’t begin to (care) whether or not that was the right song,” Murphy said via telephone. “It was our Broadway moment. But I love the idea someone would think it’s misplaced. Maybe I should be singing ‘Chicago, I Love You’? Inserting the name of whatever city I’m in that night? I would kill myself before I did that. But people want to be pandered to. No, that’s a perfect song to end with.”

Well, then.

It does, however, raise the question: How much thought goes into building a set list? This is not just talking shop. Set-list science, once primarily the concern of Grateful Dead and Bruce Springsteen obsessives, has gone mainstream. It’s now a morning-after ritual for a more varied audience. There’s even, with 200,000 set lists, from Jay-Z to the Tallest Man on Earth. Three acts — LCD Soundsystem, Max Weinberg and Scottish band the Vaselines — tell us how they build a set list.


James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem:

“We have a couple of different sets. Which one depends on how long we’re playing, if it’s a festival or something. But we don’t make a new set every night. We are not up there jamming. There are prescribed songs. There is a catechism to it. Though we adjust. We’re like a play headed for Broadway, except we never arrive there. What’s annoying about this, though, is there are expectations for a band and crowd to act certain ways. It can feel hollow, like telling someone you love them every five seconds. I think of us as destroying expectations, which gives an opportunity to build something natural.”

This was LCD’s set from a New Jersey show in September:

1. “Dance” starts slow, then explodes — “and so it can’t be played anywhere else but the start or the beginning of an encore. It’s become our most anticipated song, but we get it out of the way fast: ‘Here, shut up.’ With ‘Drunk Girls,’ we get our single out of the way — then get down to business.”

2. “Get Innocuous” fell out of the set for a while, but “we started playing it again because it felt good, and so we put it here because it separated ‘Drunk Girls’ from ‘Daft Punk,’ which comes up soon after, and both those songs feature a bass played like a lead guitar. ‘Innocuous’ lends a different energy.”

3. “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House” and “All My Friends,” Murphy’s best-known songs, are smack in the center. Unusual but practical: It breaks the tension from the spacey duo preceding it, and “there are so many songs where Pat (the drummer) plays sixteenths, I like to break songs up, so his arms get a chance to play different patterns.” The slower “Change” arrives between them “because ‘All My Friends’ is a marathon.” (Band members also need some down time, Murphy added, “to handle the technical equipment things that require the length of entire songs to program” for upcoming songs.)

4. The upbeat “Tribulations,” “Movement,” and “Yeah” “has become a block that works together energywise. This never changes. ‘You Wanted a Hit,’ we recently added right before. And it’s lower energy, so it kind of snaps together with that block — you begin to see connective tissue between your songs.”

5. “‘Someone Great’ is here because we need a break. ‘Yeah’ is just screaming, and you need a breather. It gives some rhythmic variety. Then ‘Losing My Edge’ — we didn’t play it on the last tour, and nobody wanted to this time, but we tried, and it was fun. Plus, this is the end of touring for us, and we’re playing to people who have never seen us.” He said that, when the tour began, they played an equal amount of their three albums, but the mix shifted in favor of the latest album (which is why “Home,” a new song, replaced “New York I Love You”). “A lot of bands build in a lot of songs. Our songs are long. So we usually weed. You can’t get rid of ‘Daft Punk,’ ‘All My Friends.’ That makes us like a Top 40 station. We only fit a certain number of songs into an hour.”


Max Weinberg, of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and the Max Weinberg Big Band:

“There’s an art and science to constructing a set. It’s not by any means random. You want some ebb and flow. And I feel like I learned this art from the best set-list maker in music history, Bruce Springsteen. He carefully constructs the mood of his shows through his set lists. He spends a lot of time thinking about it. He knows how to make the order of the songs say what he wants to say, so that, you, the performer, are ‘in concert’ with your audience.”

This was Weinberg’s set last month in Asbury Park, N.J.:

1. The first number, “This Could Be the Start of Something,” is pregnant with meaning. It’s Steve Allen’s original theme to “The Tonight Show,” where Weinberg worked with Conan O’Brien until — well, you know. “My set changes a bit night to night, but the basic matrix of it stays the same, and the first three are a kind of trilogy. They’re meant to evoke the kind of music to come, and the music I like: This isn’t a rock show, or a jazz show, but a pastiche. I grew up watching variety shows on TV with big bands. I just like that sentiment at this point. The songs are not long. They’re fun. It establishes mood.”

2. “‘Ready Mix’ is a barn burner, really fast, from Bill Holman, the great West Coast arranger. After playing a shuffle (the theme to the TV series ‘M Squad’), this gets blood boiling, the audience’s and mine, but also it’s meant to keep them anticipating what they might hear later.” Next up is a medley of Beatles tunes that Weinberg has been playing in honor of John Lennon’s birthday. “It also serves a nice comfortable purpose: These are melodies so familiar to audiences. The arrangements evoke that time again — big bands on TV in the ‘60s. But mainly it’s important that you don’t just drone on here.”

3. “‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ is a Count Basie-style arrangement of a song on Ray Charles’ great country record. I call it ‘a lope,’ a slow shuffle. A breather. The other thing is I construct my sets to feature certain instruments, and so everyone solos but you don’t want the same guy soloing twice in a row. Which I always take into account. Anyway, here, the piano is most prevalent.” As for “Kid” — that would be Jersey-born Count Basie’s “The Kid From Red Bank,” which “I played a lot on (‘Late Night With Conan O’Brien’), but it’s also a very dynamic song, and one that we use to pull the energy back up.”

4. “OK, what I’m trying to do here is build toward the last 25 minutes of the show. It’s like you’re accelerating now. It’s no longer up and down but a gradual press down of the pedal. We start with a blues arranged by the great Phil Wilson, then ‘Rat Race’ culminating with this section where the tenors go back and forth. The next song I indulge a little. I solo. I never soloed. I’ve been an accompanist for decades and decades. Here I get the spotlight.”

5. “I Want Candy” (from the Strangeloves, 1965) was skipped. So the final songs, both written by Springsteen, delivered what Weinberg knew a big chunk of his audience — “composed of Bruce’s fans and people who know me from television” — anticipated. “Except we don’t just play a backing track without the vocals. This isn’t karaoke. We have full big band arrangements — when we hit that point in ‘Born to Run’ when Clarence Clemons solos, the place goes nuts. It’s great note to end on. We keep others in our back pocket if we get called back, but usually, as Basie said, we leave them wanting more.”


Eugene Kelly of the Vaselines, the influential Scottish indie pop duo:

“A couple of nights ago we went with a random set, and it didn’t work. There was no flow. You do have to think it through, where the peaks should be, where to flow back. Last year we had the same set forever, which was comfortable, but it’s definitely more exciting this way, switching it up every night.”

This is a set list from their show in New York a few weeks ago:

1. “We used to open with ‘Son of a Gun,’ our best known song. And I liked doing that, but Frances (McKee, the co-founder) said to leave it in the middle this time, and make people hungry for it. But ‘Oliver’ is old and upbeat and gets the audience on your side right away, then the next song is just fun, and then we try to slip in something new and see how it goes. So we have played some old, then new, and if it’s easy on the ears, we try another new one.”

2. “After ‘Sex,’ maybe our most familiar new one, we relax and lay something familiar down, something you were waiting for.” This is “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam,” best known (like most of the Vaselines’ bigger songs) from its Nirvana cover. “‘Devil’ is there because it’s good to connect themes sometimes. Then ‘Molly’s Lips’ — another of our biggest, because I don’t believe in teasing audiences by keeping everything they know until the encore.”

3. “‘Such a Fool’ and ‘Slushy’ takes it down, but it’s fine because you know you have a punk rocker, two songs later, in your pocket, ‘Son of a Gun.’”

4. “This section kind of gives the audience a flavor of what you’re capable of. ‘No Hope’ is bleak, almost a folk waltz, then ‘Rory’ is almost three-four time, and it uses a slide guitar. I’m always surprised by this one, because a lot of people sing along, but it’s on the second side of our first single (1987).”

5. “‘Rory’ puts them in a good mood, so you run straight into ‘Ruined,’ which is a kick in the teeth. The set doesn’t really let up from here until the end. Except there’s always ‘You Think You’re a Man’ (a U.K. hit for Divine, John Waters’ late muse), which we save for special audiences who really like us.”

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