What a blast: the surreal adventures of a Canadian kid who turned pyrotechnics into a very hot business

The surreal adventures of a Canadian kid who turned pyrotechnics into a very hot business

Of this, there can be little doubt: Doug Adams has one of the coolest jobs in the world. As president of Pyrotek Special Effects Inc., he designs and detonates the big explosions, fireballs and laser blasts that have become a major part of pop concerts. Shania Twain, Britney Spears, Metallica–all incorporate pyrotechnics or special effects into their shows, and Adams makes sure it all goes off without any burns to the stars' backsides. Some might say he has a better job than the stars. After all, he gets to hang out backstage, and doesn't have to worry about stalkers or paparazzi. All he has to do is think about new and better ways to blow stuff up. Cool.

Is it any wonder he has to work to stifle the grin that periodically threatens to break across his face? Dressed tastefully and cleanly, though all in black, Adams, 43, is sitting in his company's boardroom, located in a nondescript industrial area in Markham, north of Toronto. The room is lined with signed platinum records from stars like Dr. Dre and Metallica, many of them thanking Adams for his help. “It's been surreal,” he says nonchalantly, about a career that has let him work closely with his musical heroes, as a staff member of the global star machine.

Most recently, he provided the special effects for the Grammy Awards, as he has done for seven years now, while the rest of 2004 saw him handle effects for the music industry's biggest names–including Beyoncé, Prince, Kiss, Rush, Sarah Brightman, Gloria Estefan and Kid Rock. Oh, and when Paul McCartney played the Super Bowl halftime show? Asked for Adams by name. That makes him big in entertainment–one reason his company can charge up to $500,000 per show.

You don't get to the top of the entertainment industry without outworking everyone else, and Adams has talent, dedication and diligence in spades. But it still seems odd to call his job a career–a bit formal-sounding for what might better be described as a succession of cool experiences. But then that's the surreal life that rock 'n' roll can lead you to.

Adams was just 17 when a scout from MCA saw him singing in a rock band in a bar in Hull, Que., and signed him to a recording contract. For a kid from the burbs–specifically, the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, a breeding ground for hard rock fans 30 years ago–that could have been enough for one life. The album didn't work out, and Adams ended up toiling for a sound and lighting company in Ottawa to subsidize his $150-a-week stipend from the record company.

His boss was also doing some pyro, which at the time consisted basically of gunpowder in a soup can. But this was the '70s, dude. The boomers were young, rock ruled, and popular bands of the time were working pyrotechnics into their acts. History will record this as the era during which the discipline of mixing flammable compounds to produce controllable displays, which would in turn produce whoops and hollers and Bic-lighter salutes from mullet-crowned youths, truly came into its own.

Adams found he enjoyed the work, and that he was good at it. His musical background translated into a special talent for detonating stuff in time to music–an evolutionary leap. Adams found himself in high demand. So did the company he was working for. In fact, by 1983, it had more gigs than it could handle. Adams says he eventually became frustrated with his boss, who didn't want to invest in extra equipment to handle demand. Adams stepped up with an offer to buy the pyrotechnics side of the company, and collected $25,000 from friends and family to finance the acquisition when the banks turned him down.

It was the banks' mistake. Adams's career began to explode. In 1985, now back in Toronto, he met Garth Drabinsky, who was looking for new effects for the Canadian production of The Phantom of the Opera. (The version of the musical then playing in New York and London had minimal pyrotechnics.) When Adams demonstrated what he could do with nitrous cellulose (which makes for a tall, narrow flame) and copper oxide (which turns the flames red), Drabinsky loved it–and signed Adams to what would become an 11-year contract. “That gave me the comfort and stability to do a lot of things,” says Adams. Soon he was working with big rock acts such as Rush–themselves sons of suburban Toronto–and bands like Glass Tiger, Platinum Blonde and Triumph. But the connection to Rush turned out to be the big career catalyst, though in a roundabout way.

In 1992, during the Montreal stop of a tour with Guns N' Roses, James Hetfield, lead singer and guitarist for a San Francisco-based thrash band called Metallica, was onstage at Olympic Stadium. A few songs into their set, Hetfield was standing over some pyro he thought wasn't going to be detonated. The band's pyrotechnician had a different understanding. When he blew the charge, the singer was seriously injured, with third-degree burns along his left side; after doctors cut the rings off his swollen fingers, Hetfield wondered if he would ever play guitar again.

Understandably, Metallica began looking for a new pyrotechnician. Since the managers of Rush knew the management of Metallica, Adams got a call to try out. He travelled to Buffalo to set up a demonstration during one of the band's rehearsals. At the time, Metallica was playing technically complex music full of odd time signatures, and Adams's sense of rhythm carried him through. “After they were done, James Hetfield came up to me, looked me in the eye, and said, 'You've got it,' ” recalls Adams. “Again, it was surreal.” A few weeks later, he was on the road with the band, on his way to visit every major city in the world.

As Metallica's fans grew up, got jobs, had kids and settled down, the band morphed from an obscure act on the fringes of heavy metal into a major force in entertainment. Today, it commands an empire worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and is one of the most consistent and largest revenue producers in the entertainment industry. Adams grew along with them. He added employees, brought some of his Scarborough buddies along for the ride, and developed his business sense. Through the years, Pyrotek's client list grew to include just about every major band that has hit the road in the past decade, as well as blue-chip corporate shows and sporting events.

Adams's success depended on discipline. The hard-partying life of the music industry was left behind long ago. “You just can't do it,” Adams says. “You have to figure that out or you won't make it.” He has made a religion of safety. If a performer isn't on cue, he won't hit the detonate button. “When in doubt, leave it out,” he says. “Even if the performer is going to get mad, you have to keep in mind that you can explain to them why you did that, but safety has to come first.”

In recent years, two events have shaken the pyrotechnics business. The first was the terrorists' attack on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001–the subsequent tightening of cross-border security made shipping explosives around the world much more difficult. The other was the 9/11 of the pyro industry: a February 2003 fire at the Station club in Rhode Island, which resulted in 100 deaths. The fire started when '80s metal throwbacks Great White detonated pyro designed for a clearance of 20 feet–in a space about 10 feet high. “That changed everything,” Adams says. “People had been getting complacent. Some cowboys weren't paying attention.”

The day after the disaster, investigators flew to New York, where Adams was working, to interview him as an expert witness. The incident caused some officials to make extreme predictions, and Adams saw his professional life flash before his eyes. “Inspectors began talking about not letting us do this,” he says. The eventual outcome, however, was a flurry of new regulations from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and from Natural Resources Canada, which regulates explosives (most commonly used in mining) in this country.

The new regulations actually helped Adams's career. Much of the value in his business today lies in his ability to guarantee he can make a show happen anywhere in the world. To do that, he has to know the fire regulations and the fire marshall in every city. “You have to know how to get stuff across borders and how to get it all insured,” he says. “If you don't know what you're doing, it can go really wrong.” Over the years, various ex-employees had poached his clients by promising a discount. (White Zombie and Limp Bizkit, among others, are two deserters, who coincidentally now reside in the “Where are they now?” file.) But when regulations tightened, many of those competitors were washed out of the business. Adams's adherence to safety paid off. “Lots of people have tried to do this, but you really have to be dedicated,” he says. “It's not all just fun and games.”

Adams still spends much of his time on the creative aspects of the job. To keep his product fresh, he has to devote resources to R&D, performed at a pyro lab set up in the Las Vegas office. There, the devices used on tour, if they can't be sourced from a supplier, are built from scratch. Testing also occasionally takes place in a field north of Toronto. “One time we were testing a new technique that was packed into a steel container,” he recalls. “But we put in too much powder, and when it blew we never actually saw it come down.”

Adams's latest device is the Dragon's Head, a massive propane gun that can send either balls or a column of flame up to 50 feet into the air. He's also starting to get into water effects–the next big industry trend–and he does lots of work with lasers. Of course, Adams still deploys the tried-and-true, such as cryogenic smoke, pounds of which were used for Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre's Up in Smoke tour. You can't beat the classics.

For Adams, the question now is, What's next? When the bass player for the Beatles is asking for you by name, there's really not that many more hills to climb. There's the Rolling Stones, of course, but his biggest professional competitor, “Pyro” Pete Cappadocia, has had a lock on that file for years. “I'd never try to steal his clients,” says Adams, with a look that seems to suggest he's thought about it.

Still, his is a nice gig. These days Adams can pick and choose acts to work with–usually, similarly dedicated artists like Shania Twain and Mutt Lange, her producer husband. “They're complete professionals–they do everything themselves,” says Adams. And Metallica, he adds, are “still my favourites.” There's also his company's new office in Las Vegas to take care of. (“You've got to be there,” according to Adams, who picked that city for his U.S. operation rather than Los Angeles, which was out of the question, he says, because of the smog and traffic.)

What Adams doesn't do these days is tell anyone he's Canadian. The anti-American comments of some Liberal MPs have been widely noted in the United States, he says. Many in the entertainment industry especially are resentful of Canadians, peeved as they are about jobs moving north. Adams has experienced the resentment first-hand. “I hate to say it, but I try not to mention it or bring it up,” he says. “The Canadians who have been name-calling Americans have to know that they've had a serious effect on what Americans think about us.”

Nevertheless, he finds himself drawn back to Canada. Adams has recently teamed up with partners to develop a planned community north of Blue Mountain. Called Lora Bay, it will see 1,000 homes built around a PGA-level golf course and several deer preserves. “It's beautiful land,” says Adams. “My wife and I love it there.” That suggests a new chapter in his life may be opening, after years spent figuring out how to have a blast. “I can't believe how quiet it is,” says Adams. “It's so surreal.” It certainly is.