Once upon a time, in late September of 2016, Datsik’s Troy Beetles was eating cornflakes, doodling furiously on a napkin. He was struck with a sudden genius to design his stage in the likeness of a Japanese dojo temple. It would fit perfectly with the theme of his latest EP, Sensei, a six-track bass slap to the face with hints of Asian influence and ninja references.
It was all coming together beautifully. Giant LED screens would be fashioned to mimic Japanese shōji walls. A large, curved roof in the Buddhist Zenshūyō style would stand tall above the illuminated booth. It was totally rad, but something was missing—and then he had the wildest idea of all. “What if I become part of the stage?”
“I realized the missing element was the center focus,” he says. “At that point, it was like, ‘Man, would it be weird if I started wearing a helmet? Would kids hate it, or would they think it was cool?’”
Four months later, the Ninja Nation tour and the Shogun stage—with its synchronized LED ninja hat and mask—have become Datsik’s largest and most successful live show yet. Since its mid-January debut in Detroit, more and more fans have embraced the Ninja Nation theme, coming to the show dressed in black and wearing face masks.
It’s been a brilliant endeavor, albeit an expensive one, and it certainly wasn’t easy.
“It was really tough, to tell you the truth,” says Dillon Butz of Beama Visuals. He’s worked with Excision on his massive stage productions for five years and helped take the lead on turning Datsik’s dreams into physical reality.
Standing 40 feet wide and 17 feet tall, the final Shogun stage consists of 200 LED panels, 32 Sharpy moving lights, 24 Elation CUEPIX Blinder WW2s, two Mac 2000s, and 90 universes (strands of up to 152 single lights) of LED tape built into the larger panels.
“We really tried to do the best job we could, and it was really hard to get it out the door,” Butz says. “There was so much going on there, with the LED tape and the scenic or the set cards. Every time we did something, there would be little things that you don’t expect, so there were a lot of little setbacks during the process. It was a challenging project, but I think it turned out really good, and the artistic level of it is beautiful. It’s a real art piece.”
The one thing Beama Visuals couldn’t construct was the helmet, so Datsik turned to Ironhead Studio, the people who made Batman’s suit and Daft Punk’s Tron look. Datsik was afraid it was a tall order, but three weeks later, he was armed with a super lightweight, personally molded triangle hat and magnetic face mask. Fully loaded with LEDs, it could sync with the production onstage, all of which could be controlled to change directly with his music as he performs it live.
The stage and mask alone make the Shogun production a mind-bending experience, but there was one more surprise Datsik couldn’t have planned, and that one came from his longtime tour manager.
“I’ve been touring with her for a couple years now, and I had no idea she’s a black belt,” Datsik laughs. “She shows me this video of her spinning this bo staff and doing aerials. I was like, ‘Okay, you’re absolutely bonkers. You need to teach me this shit.’”
My performance is an amalgam of all the things I used to love as a kid… It’s all coming together at once in some weird blender of awesomeness.
Half the fun of the show is watching Datsik jump around, striking karate poses and whirling nunchucks or sai through the air.
“I’m trying to become a sensei, but in order to become a sensei, I first must learn,” he says. “I’m learning as I go, and I’m trying to stay as open as I can to new ideas and move forward in a way where it’s positive and I can constantly adapt. That has been the coolest part of this tour—just evolving and seeing where this can go, learning as much as I can from everyone I can… To truly believe in something and not live it seems like sacrilege.”
One day, the weapons may be enhanced with LEDs, too, but you’ve got to leave some things for the future. Butz is already looking forward to the end of the Ninja Nation tour. He can’t wait to get his hands back on the Shogun stage to enhance some things that couldn’t get done before tour time, and to add some of the wild ideas Datsik has continued to dream up.
“I’m just completely geeking, because I’m living out my childhood fantasies. What’s crazy is, so many kids are showing up to the shows now, that they completely embody it,” Datsik says. “It’s an artist’s goal and dream to have the branding be completely synonymous with the music and have everything work together as one. I’m basically hemorrhaging money in order to make this tour a lot of fun, and to do bigger and better things. I don’t care; it’s not about the money for me at all. I’m truly happy, because now my performance is an amalgam of all the things I used to love as a kid—and the music, and everything. It’s all coming together at once in some weird blender of awesomeness, and it’s so fun.”
Catch Datsik on his Ninja Nation tour at the following SoCal stops: