Unlike many of his contemporaries, Chris Varrin did not become intrigued by lighting through the magic of theatre. Nor did he set out to be a musician and end up settling for running lights. Ever since he built his first lighting system with a high school friend, "I always intended to be a lighting designer," Varrin says. "As soon as we had the system, we started working with the local bands in town."
While at Rensselaer Polytechnic in Troy, NY, Varrin pursued both mechanical and electrical engineering degrees, but continued to light bands. "I eventually realized that with my personality I wasn't going to be an engineer for a living, so I went on the road."
Varrin quickly got a job as an electrician at Atlanta-based R.A. Roth (now Lighting Technologies), and worked his way up. Before long, he was on his first tour, as lighting crew chief for a 1986 Stevie Ray Vaughan show with LD Mark Miller. "To be 20 years old and end up doing that right off the bat was cool."
The most important skill Varrin picked up from Miller was how to call spotlights. "I'd been calling spots for years on my own, but I had just taught myself, and this was the first time I had heard somebody who was really excellent at it. I based my spot-calling technique on his."
As young men do, Varrin headed west a few years later, and continued to work as a crew chief on tours for the now-defunct lighting division of San Francisco-based Nocturne. "I'd been doing a lot of opening act LD work ever since I started touring,then the Doobie Brothers' LD had to leave their tour. I took over, and that lasted for a few years. That led to Lynyrd Skynyrd, which I'd also been doing as a crew chief for Nocturne."
John Lobel (now a vice president at Light & Sound Design), whom Varrin had met at Nocturne, recommended him for a Joe Satriani tour. This is his eighth year with the guitar virtuoso. "My work with Joe has been the cornerstone of my career," Varrin says. "That was the luckiest break. It's a fun tour to be on, because I'm a fan of it musically, but it's also fantastic music to light, because he's so wide open to interpretation. It's not a big tour, or even a high-profile one--half the people in the business don't even know who he is--but you couldn't ask for anything better."
Lobel remembers that when Satriani needed an LD, he couldn't think of anyone better than Varrin to handle the job. "Chris has a rare combination of talent, ability, and poise," he says.
Varrin has learned to create a big rock look for Satriani on what is normally a tight lighting budget. "The size of the rig turned into a running joke the first year, and since then the 'less is more' concept has become a trademark," Varrin says. "We have more to spend than we used to, but if I had to characterize my style, one of the key features is maximum efficiency in size, truck space, and economics. The smallest rig we had out had 10 Icons(R), four WashLights(TM), and four Molefays--but I got a lot of great looks out of it."
Because he has a limited number of luminaires, Varrin relies on moving lights, lighting only a free-form Santana tour without them. "With them, you can get 10 times more show, with less fixtures, for the same amount of money. Plus, it's more interesting."
While Varrin had just under 40 moving lights on Satriani's G3 tour, a typical system featured between 16 and 20. "People are sometimes amazed at what the show looks like compared to what they see on the rig beforehand," he says. "With this music you can really get away with that. I'm fortunate that he plays a consistent set every night, and the arrangements don't change, so I know exactly what's going to happen at every moment--which allows me to program it precisely. With a small system, you're constantly using 80 or 90% of the lights all the time, so it has to be thought out well ahead of time, or else you get stuck in a corner. That's certainly not a universal approach, but it works great for him."
Varrin also does his best to design a rig that can be built and torn down every day. "I try not to design anything that's stupid for the crew to set up," Varrin says. "I didn't step into this without going through all that first."
Varrin has also been in demand as an Icon operator and programmer for other tours, corporate events, and TV specials. Varrin designed the lighting for the Inner Strength Climbing Gym in Fort Collins, CO, in 1994 and for the Ibex Sport Climbing Facility in Bonner Springs, KS, a year later. "I'm leaning toward architectural lighting, but I can't say I'm pursuing it formally," Varrin says. "It lacks that gratification you get during a show--that moment when you're running it from the middle of the audience at the console, and everything clicks and gels all at the same time, and you get into the flow of it."
Varrin is currently out again on Satriani's Crystal Planet tour. Still, the LD knows full well that the road doesn't go on forever. "There are certainly other areas I'd like to get into," he says. "But for now, I'm hesitant to give that feeling up."