Tour Tech Chase Dobson Presses Buttons of the Biggest Pop Stars

Chase Dobson was known in Denver for his two-year tenure with Lipgloss and Analog Space, but in March 2011, he joined pop star Mike Posner's first big tour doing keyboard tech and Ableton Live production work. Since then, Dobson's main job has been touring the world doing similar work for various artists including Kanye West, Rihanna, Dia Frampton, Owl City, Duke Dumont and Kiesza. Until last fall, Dobson worked as a tech for Tycho, which opens for Lotus this Saturday, September 17, at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Starting next week, Dobson will take up duties as a keyboard tech for M83 on its next U.S. tour, kicking off with a show at Austin City Limits on September 29.

Dobson got into this line of work in 2011, when a college friend was coming through town doing tech work for Drake and invited Dobson to the show to introduce him to what the gig involved, knowing that Dobson already had the required knowledge base and skills. Three weeks later, Dobson got on a plane to L.A. to prepare for that tour with Mike Posner. Once you're in the world of doing tech work, like many other professions, you network and end up doing gigs you never would have expected to get. Dobson's former roommate, the Ghostly International label artist Mux Mool, introduced him to Tycho in 2014, and in turn, Tycho's production manager connected Dobson with M83.

Dobson's role is all but completely invisible to the audience, but it's a key to the success of the performance: He's responsible for setting up, testing and maintaining the gear, and for prepping sounds and sound files for greater portability on the road, as well as for use in the actual show rather than for recordings in the studio. We recently sat down with Dobson to get a glimpse into his life as a keyboard and audio tech on tours with some of the recent bigger names in music.

Westword: What is it, generally speaking, that you do for musical acts on the road?

Chase Dobson: The nature of the stuff I do is all the backing-tracks material. Depending on how established an artist is, I'll build their setup to take on the road or they'll have established technology that I work with. With some artists, I'll build the backing tracks for the shows with their musical director, like taking the Pro Tools sessions and converting it so it's smaller and easier to run through Ableton Live. With M83, everything is already built, [so] I'm just going to set it up and press space bar and [troubleshoot if anything goes awry]. [Most] artists run a fully redundant setup. So if you've got a Mac running Ableton Live, there's a second one synched to it. Then there's a switcher to switch between them seamlessly. So if the signal coming out of one computer stops, it triggers the other computer.

Pete Kuzma, the keyboard player with Mike Posner, kind of helped open the door for you to working with Rihanna and presumably Kanye West. What were you brought on to do?

[With Kanye West], I was doing specifically synth and keyboard tech stuff. Ableton was being run by my friend Laura Escude. This was right before Yeezus came out in 2013. So we did his performance on Saturday Night Live, a Governor's Ball thing and some other shows in the area. I worked with his band directly, but aside from a handshake at one point, I never really interacted with him. It wasn't too long after that that I did Rihanna's Diamonds World Tour, which was a full world tour doing keyboard tech work. I would get on stage and make sure the keyboard was functioning properly. Even though there was a keyboard rig, there were two laptops on stage for additional synth sounds, and the playback rig sent MIDI messages to all the keyboards on stage. That made the changes automated. It was a lot of choreography as well in terms of what gear is on stage and who's operating what and making sure things are packed up properly afterward.

The Kanye shows were a small crew because they were one-offs. But when you get into an arena- and stadium-touring environment, there's so much staff. You have set carpenters, audio guys including the technicians bringing in the P.A., wardrobe, security, catering — it's a crew of eighty or ninety people. There would be tiers of travel. The A party, which is the artist and and some of her personal entourage; the B party, which is the band and band tour manager; and then the C party, which is the crew. Everyone fell into line separately, depending on the level of the tour they're on — whereas on the Owl City tour, we were on a bus with twelve of us packed in.
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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.