Photo by Jeff Kravitz (insidecelebpics.com)
An electrifying cheer drowns out the triumphant coda of “Fluffhead” as fractured flashes of white light divide the ominous night sky. What is most striking is that when asked moments later about the spectacular finger lightning that accompanied his work, Phish lighting designer Chris Kuroda says, “I didn’t notice.” This is perhaps the essence of any great artist: being so focused on his craft that the outside world ceases to exist.
Kuroda has, of course, been an integral part of the Phish concert experience since 1989, long before the quartet’s ascent to superstardom. His surreal use of vivid color, symmetry and dramatic movement creates a psychedelic architecture (Superman’s Fortress of Solitude comes to mind), which not only enhances the live performance, but is as crucial to the process as melody, harmony or rhythm.
When the band broke up in 2004, Kuroda was forced to find other work and subsequently toured with The Black Crowes, Aerosmith and R. Kelly. “The whole time I was on these different tours I’d see other people do new things and in the back of my mind I’d say, ‘OK, I’m going to do that with Phish, if the day ever comes.’”
When Phish returned to the stage this past March, he had a new approach, due in large part to his experience working on R. Kelly’s tour. Kelly’s show was exactly the same each night and required months of elaborate planning—in many ways the complete opposite of the Phish philosophy.
For the first time ever, heavily composed songs such as “Fluffhead,” “Divided Sky” and “You Enjoy Myself” (as well as the new “Time Turns Elastic”) now feature pre-programmed sequences, which allows Kuroda to execute complex lighting cues at the push of a button. This is important, as new technology has eliminated the need for additional board operators. “This year has been more difficult than the 20 years previous because of the new technology. I don’t have to talk to anybody, which is different because with two hands I’m doing what six hands used to do. I really love not wearing that headset. I make a lot more mistakes because I can’t call cues to other people. But I can live with the mistakes for the overall picture. It’s bringing the fun back for me.”
The following interview took place on the afternoon of June 19, 2009 at Verizon Wireless Music Center in Noblesville, IN. It was particularly hot and humid on this day; a detail that would later factor in to the set break “storm delay” which required all fans on the lawn to return to their cars and wait out the storm, while the band’s crew lowered the P.A. due to high winds and heavy, angular rain. But the main concern, as is usually the case, was the lightning. There is a tinge of irony, I suppose, in the fact that while on assignment writing about concert lighting, our night was significantly delayed while the grandest of all light shows took center stage.
JW: After Phish broke up, you worked with a range of other artists over the four and a half years.
CK: I did. It was nerve-wracking at first, not really knowing what was going to come next. I had been in the same camp for so long and it actually took a while for me to start getting job offers because my name has been so entrenched in this world that it’s just assumed I’m never available. Even in my time out here [on the road with Phish] previously, I stayed buried in the lights and didn’t network too much with a lot of people. But, eventually the phone calls started coming and I have The Black Crowes to thank for keeping me afloat when I needed it the most. They came through in the clutch and it’s been a great relationship.
JW: So you worked with The Black Crowes, R. Kelly, and a little bit of Aerosmith.
CK: Yeah, I did The Black Crowes and one day I heard my name was in the hat for Aerosmith and then I got the call. It was a big celebration for us. I mean, it’s Aerosmith, you know? My wife has always said, ‘You know, you should go light Aerosmith. They are the perfect band for you.’ So, it’s always sort of been a joke around the house. Then Aerosmith called and I got the gig. It was really an amazing experience working with those guys and that led to R. Kelly, which was a five-month long, gigantic 14-truck, insane extravaganza.
JW: The role you play with Phish and your involvement in the improvisational process is a pretty unique one. When you were suddenly trying to light someone like R. Kelly or Aerosmith, what were some of the challenges and differences?
CK: Two different experiences actually. With Aerosmith, I came in the day before the first show of the tour. It was not my lighting design and I handled the other guy’s design and they said ‘Make it work.’ So, with one night of programming for a show, the only philosophy I could think of putting into play was what I do for Phish. So I just started building [cues] and playing the music in my headphones while working all night. I know all of Aerosmith’s songs, just like everybody does. So, that tour was very similar to Phish in the sense that I built it as I went and I just kind of ran the whole thing on the fly and relied on my timing. It went really, really well. R. Kelly, on the other hand, was months of pre-programming and months of rehearsals. It was a show from start to finish. Everything was cued. It was more similar to theater than rock and roll. There was a [time code] track that everybody went by. The whole show was very regimented. We had to write lighting cues for every single part of the show. It was exactly the same every night. The cue stack was 770 cues to do the whole show. It was a “Go Button” show. One button triggered lighting, video, music, all networked through the Grand MA console and networked all around.
JW: You were running all of those different elements?
CK: I was, yes.
JW: Did that experience teach you new things that you’ve now brought back to Phish?
CK: Absolutely. Well, the production designer on that tour was a guy named Patrick Dierson, who is also a lighting designer. I learned a lot from him. He’s a great designer. He does a lot of different things. He’s a really good cue-to-cue programmer. Basically, he taught me how to utilize my entire rig. You don’t have to have every light on all the time. You can have some lights on and have them do a thing for a moment in the music. I had always been an “all rig on, all lights moving all the time” type of guy. So, he taught me how to break it up, how to be organized, how to do new things with it and how it can be powerful with only some of it on. He helped me grow as a lighting designer.