While rehearsing for its 2013 Las Vegas residency, Mötley Crüe instructed Nicolai Sabottka, its new pyrotechnics specialist, to set the venue on fire - walls, ceiling, floor, everything. But when flames exploded behind Tommy Lee's head, the drummer, believing he was on fire, freaked out and ran off. Everyone laughed. Lee returned and demanded of Sabottka: "What the f-k is going on here?" To which an unfazed Sabottka replied: "We tried to warn you."
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Sabottka, CEO of Berlin-based FFP Spezialeffekte und Veranstaltungslogistik (which translates to "Special Effects and Event Logistics"), has spent the past 26 years mastering the art of blowing stuff up at concerts while ensuring everybody remains safe. Although he earned a degree in pyrotechnics at a Dresden school specializing in explosives technology, his true studies came from working with Rammstein, the electro-metal band known for towering flames and violent explosions.
He joined Rammstein's crew in 1997 as a tour manager, monitoring rhythm guitarist Paul Landers. "He would just put gasoline onstage and set it on fire," Sabottka recalls. "We thought, 'That's not a good idea.' " Over time, Sabottka learned to be safer and more intentional, innovating flamethrowers attached to guitars and face masks, as well as an exploding backpack for frontman Till Lindemann. One of his proudest inventions was to shoot flames up the delay towers used to spread audio through a stadium.
"I can text [Sabottka] and go, 'I have this idea to have a wrecking ball, and it hits a car and the car explodes,'" says Robert Long, Mötley Crüe's production manager. "And 10 minutes later, I'll get a video of him experimenting with something."
Over the years, beginning with work for British pop star Robbie Williams, Sabottka and FFP have expanded beyond the Rammstein Universe, working not only with reliably pyro-friendly hard-rock bands like Mötley Crüe and KISS but Lady Gaga and, on the Brit Awards over the years, Taylor Swift and Sam Smith. And while rock concerts have set off explosions since the late '60s, Sabottka and FFP are evolving the look, feel, sound and even smell of stadium concerts.
"Rammstein brought a whole other level to what you can do from a pyro standpoint," Long says. "It changed the face of the industry more than most people would admit, because every company is doing it now."
Sabottka, 57, started working with Rammstein in 1997 as a tour manager, referred by his brother, Scumeck, a German promoter. Nicolai declined, believing the press he'd read that Rammstein had fascistic tendencies. But he met with the band in an East Berlin cafe and, as he says in an email, "found out there were no Nazis but a pretty intense bunch." The Berlin band was on the brink of international success, scoring an MTV hit with its anthem "Du Hast."
He accepted the job. Sharing a bus with band and crew, Sabottka and frontman Till Lindemann bonded on long European trips. They'd "sit and drink and talk sh-t: 'Oh, we could do this and we could do that,'" he recalls.
Sabottka earned the band's respect, in part because he sweet-talked European fire officials into approving extreme effects. "He has the right logistics and permits to make it happen at all," Landers says, calling from a Cape Town wind-surfing vacation. "He came up with flames at a height I'd never seen before. I knew, 'OK, he is our guy.' The small, student-looking guy [is] now a serious, professional deadly weapon. He's a big, big part of our show."
Sabottka won't leak details about the effects for Rammstein's upcoming European stadium tour, opening May 20 in Vilnius, Lithuania, but says the pyro will be "more impressive." He'll likely employ a favorite tool, lycopodium, a yellowish powder that creates giant flames that are relatively easy to control.
His pyro obsession began when he was a kid, hunting mice with friends in an open field near his home in Germany where he "managed to set the entire area on fire," he says. Finding World War II ammunition in canals near his house, he drilled into it in his bedroom, with explosive results. Later, his father found black, ashy residue on his car, because Sabottka had tried to make napalm bombs out of a plastic bag to drip onto his toy soldiers. Police occasionally escorted 16-year-old Nicolai home from school. "I launched the largest smoke bomb in school, and everyone knew it was me, but they couldn't prove it," he recalls.
When Rammstein took a break from touring in the early 2000s, Sabottka formed FFP, and worked with other artists, beginning with British pop star Robbie Williams, who requested 100-foot-tall flames and a crucifix catching fire in a stained-glass window. "Most people [in the pyro business] can do what Nicolai can do. What they can't do is talk the fire marshal into accepting it," says Wob Roberts, production manager for Williams, as well as for Smith's recent Brit Awards performance. "He's really calm. Even when he raves about something, he barely raises his voice."
Today, FFP has 70 employees worldwide across the company's offices in Berlin, Los Angeles and London. Using artists' own ideas as a guide, Sabottka and his staff are constantly tinkering. "They know how to take things right up to the limit," says LeRoy Bennett, production designer for the Chromatica Ball Tour. "They're super safety-conscious, but they'll do things that are pretty intense."
Rammstein pays attention to Sabottka's excursions into pop and classic rock. "Sometimes I see a TV show, some band is playing, Mötley Crüe, and I see big flames and I say, 'Wow, I didn't know they had such big flames,'" Landers says. "Then it turns out Nicolai did the show."
In a zoom call from his Los Angeles office, the bearded and bespectacled Sabottka laughs off his incendiary history. "I just like to set things on fire," he says. "It's surprising I'm still alive."
A version of this story originally appeared in the March 11, 2023, issue of Billboard.