From a bar in New Hampshire, to a field in Vermont, all good things come to an end. It's sad, but true, for Chris Kuroda, longtime lighting designer for the recently retired genre-bending band, Phish, who called it quits to the dismay of die-hard fans after 20 years together, dozens of releases, and years of unrelenting touring.
“I respect the decision,” says Kuroda. “It's been going for a long, long time. How long can you play with the same four guys? They claim they've had enough, and I respect it, but I am going to miss it.”
A salaried band employee, Kuroda's journey started in March 1989 in front of 200 college students packing the Stone Church in Newmarket, New Hampshire. It ended in August with an estimated 80,000 “phans” saying goodbye to the band in a field in Coventry, Vermont.
While the locations are less than 200 miles apart, Kuroda has traveled far, lighting over 1,500 shows along the way. He has learned the technology and techniques of lighting through continuous practice, and he's developed an uncanny ability to light the band's performances. He has also formed extensive bonds among his co-workers — bonds that aren't breaking now that the rig has come down for good.
“It's been a hell of a ride…I don't know how many touring bands are as close. We're all each other's best friends in a kind of musical mafia,” says Kuroda.
“These guys are like my family. We've all gone through a lot of personal things in life. Everybody has been there for each other. We do everything together. Probably 95% of my one-year-old daughter's birthday party was people I work with. My friends are the band members and folks who work for Phish.”
Kuroda started working with the band after an offer from Trey Anastasio, vocalist and guitarist, to carry gear at local gigs around Burlington, Vermont, where the band and crew got started and still reside.
“I was taking guitar lessons from Trey, and he asked one time if I knew somebody to carry some gear locally around Burlington for like $20,” explains Kuroda. “I was a roadie, but I wasn't prepared to travel or anything. Within a couple weeks, I was essentially part of the crew in an undefined way. I didn't realize how deep I would get into it.”
His lighting career started a few weekends later in New Hampshire, when the prior LD took a mid-set bathroom break.
“There was another guy doing the lights. He stepped out for a minute. I jumped in to push the buttons on the tiny little light board, and I knew the songs from seeing the band 50 times in bars in Burlington. I knew, even then, the changes coming up. After that show, Trey called me and said, ‘You're doing the lights.’ I said, ‘I don't know anything about lights. I don't even know how to set up gear,’ and he said we'd figure it out together.”
Kuroda's first rig included eight 500W PAR56 cans on two trees with four colors. They were placed on the downstage corners for front light. Eventually, a third tree was added upstage for backlight. Early on, the band also employed a hand-painted backdrop called “The Minkin” after Marjorie Minkin, the bass player's mother who crafted it.
“The original Minkin was a 30' long painted canvas, and we tacked it up — or whatever we could do to get it up. Sometimes, we'd only get it up halfway, and we'd have to fold the bottom to make it look flat. I had some floodlights from the hardware store. I'd plug all the floodlights into one extension cord and plug that into an extra socket of one of the little dimmer racks we had hanging on the light trees. I had the floodlights at the bottom, and we'd bottom light the canvas. I'd flash it or light it up completely with white,” says Kuroda of the early production.
“We were the only act I knew of that carried our own production. No bar bands carried a light rig and PA. We'd go into a college and be self-sufficient. We would go into bars with little lights mounted in the ceiling, and we would never use that stuff. We would bring our own stuff in, so our show was always the same if we could manage it,” he continues. “New gels were enough to excite me. Gels were $5 per page, and that was big.”
The School of Phish
The early days were both difficult and definitive for Kuroda. Through hard-core touring schedules, Kuroda was able to develop an artistic approach with the limited resources he was able to carry.
“We toured relentlessly. I can tell stories of 29 gigs in 31 days over and over again. We literally went without sleep for days. We joke about it now, but it's a miracle we survived it,” says Kuroda.
“Having such a small amount of stuff and trying to stay creative with it, I just tried to do everything I could with it. I would do a lot of really slow fade stuff, a lot of fast fades, anything I could think of to kind of mix it up. There are times when the band was raging on some kind of jam, and the instinct was to pound all the buttons and make it really flashy, but instead, I would make it really dim, so you could barely see the band, and slowly brighten up another color to create some kind of vibe, instead of flashing the thing,” he explains.
“Even though I had very limited experience, most of the guys from other bands at that level were always just flashing all night long. I always found that irritating,” Kuroda continues. “Right off the bat, I tried to be as artistic as I could. Instead of just lighting it up so the audience could see them, I always thought it was important to time things with the music. I've seen so many light shows where the timing is off or there is no timing at all. I spent a lot of time and effort making sure the timing was right, so when the lights changed, it was right at the right moment.”
Determining the right moment for changes was a full-time pursuit. He spent untold hours attending the quartet's practices and participating in group listening exercises. “I would attend those for hours and hours, and days and days, and weeks and weeks. I would set up the light rig and do something on the lights as the fifth person,” he says.
“I learned how to listen to each and every one of them as they were learning how to listen to each other. That exercise taught me to tune into the band in a way that I could be tight with them with the lighting rig. I was then able to make changes with everyone in the band by listening to everybody at once, instead of a collage of sound. It changed my philosophy,” he adds.
This philosophy continues today. Kuroda says his lighting style concentrates in two areas. “I try to be perfectly tight with the music and use a color scheme that is the perfect vibe to accompany the music. For something peaceful and quiet, I'll use the deep saturated colors: blues, greens, indigos. When something is really raging, I'm going to go with yellows and reds. The thing with Phish is any one song goes through a multitude of emotions throughout the song. If anything, staying tight with the music is imperative. I don't mind putting up the wrong color, as long as it's at the right time.”
Accomplishing perfect timing has come with years of experience. “I know them real well on stage musically. I know what to watch for. I've had a lot of conversations with them, especially in the early days where they'd come up to me after a show saying, ‘How did you know we were going to stop in the middle of this song, because you were right there?’”
“I don't really know how I knew,” he adds with a smile. “It's a combination of feeling it out, knowing them and their tiny signals, and knowing how to watch them. I have a little ESP thing going on, too!”
As the years have gone by, it's also gotten harder to keep up with the band's own advancing interpersonal communication. “I miss stuff all the time,” Kuroda laughs. “I miss more than I used to because, over the years, they've developed more. They are doing a thing now where they'll be jamming and jamming, and all of a sudden, they will all stop except for one player who will keep going on his own. I'll want to throw a spotlight on that one person, and it's practically impossible. I'm 210' away, squinting and trying to pick up on little hand signals. If I get a point or hand signal, I consider myself lucky.”
While his timing may be based on practice and a bit of luck, Kuroda's skills and techniques were honed over the years through hard work, self-education, and frustration.
“Phish has always considered itself cutting-edge in many ways. We got to a point where we were upgrading everything, and the monitor engineer at the time kind of lost his job because he couldn't keep up with the technology. I knew it was time for automated lighting because that was cutting edge technology, so I essentially sent myself to automated lighting school,” Kuroda explains.
After attending training with Vari-Lite, Kuroda and the band chose to use a dozen new Altman Altstars, which were so new that they weren't in the console's library. “I learned how to write the cues in a proprietary code,” says Kuroda. “Until we stopped using them two years ago, I used the code, essentially long-hand. It was beneficial, as I was able to make the lights do things that the later programmer options couldn't do.”
“Those first nights, the band was in the dark. I did not know what was where. I had just written all the cues, and I had forgotten some of them,” confesses Kuroda. “It was a disaster, with a lot of disasters to follow…I broke many headsets throwing them on the ground. When it wasn't perfect due to technology, I'd get frustrated.”
Eventually, Kuroda learned his lessons and accepted life with computers. He designed his conventional lights separately from moving lights and eventually used two different systems of moving lights with completely different elements, boards, and power supplies.
“I'd just laugh and use the PAR cans,” jokes Kuroda. “I would design my lighting systems out of fear.”
Life Without Phish
Such an intensive relationship with band member whom Kuroda calls more friends than employers, has also led him to other challenges and personal lessons. Kuroda's position has been unique in the industry but has limited his ability to work on other projects. This will now change.
“I was a full-time employee for Phish and have been for 16 years. I think that's very unique. I don't know of too many others besides Fenton Williams with Dave Matthews and Candice Brightman with the Dead that are their band's proprietary people,” says Kuroda.
“It's been a pro and a con for me. It's great to have that kind of work and be associated like that and to have the security. The con is that being locked in with Phish has locked down other people's impressions of whether I'm available or not,” he says.
“As wonderful as it's been, it's also been a trap. I'm looking forward to getting the word out that I am available and can work for other people,” he adds.
With the decades of steady work and increasing responsibility over performances came another trap. Kuroda has had to confront both the personal intensity of the experience and the challenges of life on the road.
“Rock and roll and touring around with bands pulls you away from your priorities without you even realizing it,” explains Kuroda. “I went through a period of time when this was my only identity — ‘Chris Kuroda: the lighting designer for Phish’ — not the friend, the father, or the husband. These things were all secondary to me. I had become obsessed with this, and it was very unhealthy.”
Through the years, Kuroda has learned to separate himself from the job he's been doing for as long as some fans' lifetimes. The same evolution has affected the band's decision to break up.
“I realized, in time, how unhealthy it was. I made some changes to [the point] where my job was still the lighting designer, but my identity is person, father, friend, son, etc. That was a tough process,” Kuroda says. “If I hadn't gone through that, I would be a lot more devastated by the break-up than I am, but instead, I respect it and support it. Even though I know I'm going to miss it like crazy, the band members have gone through something similar recently, and I'm behind those guys 100%.”
The Final Days
Giving 100% or more has been the theme on the final Phish tour this summer — a tour of emotion for everyone involved. “It's been extremely emotional and extremely sad. The band is playing so well,” says Kuroda. “This break up has lit a fire under everyone's butt to go out with a bang. It's very important to me to dig deep to pull out any creativity I can. Everybody is just kicking butt for love of the band and for love of the organization.”
Of course, the big question for a band that recently used a disguised family member to stage a prank visit from “Tom Hanks” (picked up by national media) is whether this is really the end.
“I have to go on the fact that it's over, but I don't really believe it,” answers Kuroda. “It's a funny thing. If three or five years down the road, they call me up, I will go back to Phish. That's where my heart and soul is.”
“I've had the honor of participating, and if Phish is going back on tour, I will be there. Until then, I am sure we will all be friends.”