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Black Eyed Peas see a future with spectacles

The pop group plans a 100-city world tour with a splashy show. U2 provides part of its inspiration.

December 01, 2009|By Geoff Boucher

At the Rose Bowl in October, the Black Eyed Peas got a chance to see the world from U2's vantage point. As it turns out, the pop group enjoyed the view.

Today the Peas will announce a massive 100-city world tour that will kick off Feb. 4 in Atlanta and reach Los Angeles in late March. Inspired partly by U2, the group will greet its fans with a splashy show featuring elaborate lighting, stage effects, numerous wardrobe changes and a newfound interest in spectacle.

It's an interesting move considering that the recording industry is imploding, the economy (and the concert-ticket-buying public) is suffering the effects of a recession and the leader of the Peas, will.i.am, is not far removed from a solo-career outing that he himself calls "a huge flop."

Still, the group seems to have a new motto: "Think big, be big."

"How do you get to the U2 level? Right now that's what we're looking at," said will.i.am, the leader of the hip-hop-informed pop act. "We've gotten this far -- we survived. Most of the people that were our peers, they're gone or way back there now. We lapped them. In the music industry there's a depression, there's a drought. And we have proved that we can survive and lead the way, even in this climate. And the only way to go now is up, to U2."

That sense of confidence defies the grim mind-set in much of the pop world, which is learning to live within niches and appreciate smaller degrees of success in the face of a smaller and more scattered marketplace.

"A lot of times, we've toured and we're always grinding, grinding, grinding, and really there's no production at all; it's just energy and connecting with the audience," will.i.am said. "Now we want more, and we want to do more."

"When people see this show," Fergie said, "they will see us going for spectacle and showing what we can do. This is where we're going as a group."

It was at rehearsals for the Nov. 22 American Music Awards ceremony that will .i.am and the other Peas, Fergie, Taboo and apl.de.ap, sat down to talk about the tour and why the Rose Bowl show turned out to be such a defining moment for the band.

"That was our hometown crowd, it meant a lot to us," said apl.de.ap, noting that all four Peas grew up in Los Angeles. But what the Peas saw of U2 backstage meant even more. "They've managed to stay friends," Taboo said, "all these years and with all that business success, and they've overcome all these obstacles together."

The Peas have had to overcome hurdles of their own in recent years. The band has been together since 1995, although Fergie was a late arrival, turning the trio into a quartet when she joined during the recording sessions for the 2003 album "Elephunk." It was then that the group went from earthy, backpack hip-hop to shimmer and shake hits.

But tensions mounted after Fergie's first solo album, "The Dutchess," became one of 2006's bestselling releases. A year later, will.i.am released "Songs About Girls" and waited for a similar bit of career lightning, but it never hit. Asked about the emotional impact of the well-publicized failure, the Peas leader pretended to be offended.

"Was it hard to accept the fact that it flopped? Is that what you're asking me?" he said. "Nah, look, I learned so much from that project. . . . It's not about how you fall down, it's how you get up. Look, it came out at the same time there was a turning point [in music styles and] the industry had a massive tectonic plate shift. What was once the South Pole is now Minnesota, and the North Pole is now California. I learned that you don't go with what is safe. You have to go risky and see what the people want."

The Peas are not viewed as an especially risky outfit, however, and will.i.am's definition of seeing what people want (he goes to trendy parties and spins new songs before they become singles) will sound like play-it-safe market research to some who are skeptical about the group.

Skeptics aside, the Peas remain one of the most consistently popular acts in contemporary pop. The band has sold 9.4 million albums in the U.S.; its latest album, "The E.N.D.," released in June, has continued the group's run, even as its sound shifted into a more electro-hop sector.

"This album was made for the clubs," Fergie said.

More than that, will.i.am said it was constructed with the club turntable as a starting point; he would play new beats while DJ-ing at parties and clubs, and the material that was embraced most by the crowd would be the foundation of the group's next recording session.

The result, according to Times pop music critic Ann Powers, was a collection that felt "more accomplished and more confounding than any of the foursome's previous efforts."

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