Reminiscences from the Road with Lighting Director Chris Kuroda

Currently on hiatus from almost two decades of live performance, Phish is revered by its avid fans for spontaneity and improvisation during its jam-laden concerts. The same is true for the four-piece band’s dynamic light shows, which match the musical performance note for note with colors, patterns, and moods reflecting and accenting the musical activity onstage.

"My light shows are all spontaneous and customized by me in real time," says its 12-year veteran lighting director, Chris Kuroda. "Phish plays without a set list. They don’t have a song list and they never play the same song the same way twice. And they jam a lot."

Possibly the only lighting director working today who has his own fan club, Kuroda produces his shows with a combination of three independent lighting systems: A conventional system, a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® II-driven unit from High End Systems, and an extensive Altstar rig from Altman Stage Lighting provide him with approximately 150 different looks and 80 different cues during a Phish performance. "Essentially, I just call cues and looks off the top of my head based on how the music is going. I just sort of throw out what I think is gonna fit in next," says the LD.

Ironically, this spontaneous lighting experience for the audience is made possible by the consistent relationship between the band and Kuroda. He has supported the band’s success from small New England college bars in 1989 through the conclusion of its Y2K touring schedule. The band’s activities included: a 75,000-attendee two-day New Year’s event; album promo spots at Radio City Music Hall and on The Tonight Show; a Japan tour; and two national tours of sold-out arenas and sheds. (Contrary to some news reports, the Vermont-based band has not broken up; instead, its members have decided to take a break from touring for an extended and undetermined length of time.)

Kuroda says the most recent rig flown included 24 High End Studio Colors, 24 High End Studio Spots®, 24 Altstar Sunbeams, 174 PAR-64s, 18 racks of ACLs, and 12 Chroma-Q scrollers from A.C. Lighting, plus ETC digital dimming. "The thing we did this time which we’ve never done before is design this entire lighting rig in pods. There are five triangles and a downstage truss," he says.

His modular design travels in two trucks and uses 48 sections of 7-1/2' Thomas truss. "We feel that Thomas looks the cleanest when it’s flown. It’s important to us what the light rig looks like when the lights are off and it’s just hanging there. The entity of the rig itself is a big factor.

"We just kept the rig simple," Kuroda continues. "Part of that desire was to reduce the amount of motors we needed out on the road. But more importantly, we put a lot of thought into how to make things go better for the crew. The rig goes together faster in the morning and we don’t have to wait for an entirely clear stage before bringing the whole thing down. Once the sound is gone on stage left we bring down the two triangle pods on that side and start packing them up. In an hour and 20 minutes we’re usually in the truck and out of there."

Key alliances

Like his own relationship with the band, Kuroda believes in consistent relationships with his equipment vendors. He has been using the services of Westsun International for five years and Altstar Company Inc. (a subsidiary of Altman) for seven.

"Altstar was the first moving light we ever used, and in the beginning it was kind of a prototype light. They wanted a small touring operation to try it out with. We spent a few years with systems crashing and essentially being guinea pigs, but we had a good-size light show within our little budget back when we were in theatres. It was a fair tradeoff. We had a lot of headaches, but when it worked we had a nice-size rig up there," says Kuroda.

These relationships have paid off. Both High End and Altstar have written him specific software to meet his needs on several occasions. "Once, I wrote a cue and I wanted the timing of it to be five seconds," explains Kuroda. "Everything would work except the gobo wheel would snap. We had to call the company and go back and forth over the phone, and eventually they wrote software for us that allowed the gobo wheel to take five seconds to get to where it needed to be."

Consoles on the tour included two full-size LD1500 Altstar consoles (one backup) and a smaller LD500, as well as a Wholehog with expansion wing and a backup just in case. Kuroda relies on a relatively ancient NSI 120-channel conventional console, of which there were only two made, as another consistent element of his light rig. "I’m just so used to it that we deal with its problems and keep it working," he says.

"The console has 36 submasters per page, and I like to have a lot of options before I have to change pages. It’s also got a color select palette that I use to program my scrollers; it has 12 buttons and the scrollers have 11 colors—-it’s just one keystroke instead of having to punch in a number and hit enter.

"The way Phish plays I have to think fast and choose my colors quickly. I really only have time for one keystroke to get my scrollers a certain color. Without those extra seconds I could miss my cue," says Kuroda. "Every year I go to the trade shows and try to find a new conventional console that I’d like more, and I can’t find anything that suits me better than this one."

Kuroda has redesigned his rig every year using AutoCAD and a lot of contemplation. "I sit for about a month moving lights around, plugging lights in, and unplugging them. It’s a big thought process about where I want light and how I want the light rig to look when it’s just floating there. Sometimes there are places where I like two sets of lights back to back because I like certain kinds of looks. I like to put a gobo pattern in one light and a solid beam in another so they envelop each other."

Kuroda programs the Altstar and conventional systems. He is assisted in programming duties by Westsun’s Gary Radakovich, who utilizes WYSIWYG for the show’s overall views and DMX for the Wholehog. Radakovich also mans the Wholehog on tour while Altman’s Roger Pujol runs the third console on the road.

"One of the wonderful things about the Altstar system is that I can write the lighting cues in a text editor. I can sit at home and write them whenever I want to. I already have all the positions in my head, so when I dream up a cue at night it makes it way easy for me to write the cue," Kuroda says.

Cues and colors

Kuroda’s hands-on approach to lighting design is crucial in the real-time execution of the spontaneous light show. He operates the conventional system while watching the band and cues the intelligent systems based on his experience and his anticipation of what’s going to happen next onstage.

"I write my cues with timings because I never want anything to just snap," he explains. "I have 5-, 10-, 20-, 30-, and 35-second cues. When I call a five-second cue I want it to move for five seconds and land on one in the music. So I’ve developed the skill to say ‘go’ five seconds early and have the lights land on one. That’s pretty much the toughest thing that I have to cope with every night."

Regarding color, Kuroda uses simple, solid schemes. "I try not to put too many colors together because I think it looks like mud after a while. I’m a firm believer that blue and red do not go together. The typical rock show is essentially three colors: red, yellow, and blue. A lot of my looks are very simple.

"I actually like white light a lot," continues Kuroda. "I try to use it at the biggest moments. Of course, I have to guess what those biggest moments are gonna be, but I try to save it so that when I do use it it’s more effective. One thing I really don’t like is a big blast of white light using a Molefay. I find it annoying rather than a cool effect, the more shows I go to. I try to amuse my audience with the automated lights and I don’t have any white light crowd blasters."

The evolution of effects

Though the band has resisted the musically unfounded but unrelenting comparison to the Grateful Dead, Kuroda attributes one of his favorite lighting effects to that jam-band’s lighting director, Candace Brightman.

"I try to do my audience sweeps slow. I find them more effective when I sweep slowly over the audience during a big chorus of a song. That’s something I learned from Candace. She’s the first one I ever saw do it nice and slow and I thought it was beautiful. I’ve been to shows where lights are just whipping through the crowd constantly, and that has its place, but I feel the slow move at the right time in the music really enhances it perfectly. I essentially took that move and incorporated it into my show; it’s one of my favorite things."

Other techniques such as gobos, static lighting looks, backdrop scrims, and even rear-stage audience lighting have been developed over time (and sometimes later abandoned) by Kuroda through his continuously developing experiences with Phish.

"I like to build my own big picture. As the music changes I like to move my big picture into new big pictures along with it. I only have so many gobo patterns, so I’m constantly making changes to them through the whole set. I do use some of the same looks two or three times a night, but I still find it effective. I like to fit them in with the music when I can.

"I think leaving a static look for a quieter song is the perfect thing to do. I don’t want to take away from the song, so I don’t do dynamic moves when it doesn’t call for it. On other songs I think the static look would get boring if you left it up for a whole song. I have to change the lighting because the music is so uplifting at certain points that the light should move with it," Kuroda continues.

"We used to use Plexiglas panels painted by the drummer’s mother as a backdrop, and that was cool for a long time. We even made bigger ones as we got bigger. Then one day we realized that people were looking up at the panels more than they were looking at the band—-and we said that obviously this is becoming too much. So we changed our whole philosophy that day. That was about four years ago. We decided to go purist, just lights and nothing else," he adds.

Distraction-free illumination

This philosophy explains why Phish has shied away from video projections and other multimedia effects prevalent on some rock tours. "We don’t want too many distractions," explains Kuroda. "We really want to keep the focus on the band as much as we can, so we just light. We don’t want to have backdrops or projections that change the visual image that someone would have inside their head. People listen to a song and decide what it means to them. If you provide projection or video, you are telling them, in a way, what they should think that song means. We don’t want that."

Kuroda has developed another interesting technique that had grown popular with the band’s audiences. While using the continuous 360º pan of the Altstar system, he noted a cool effect when the lighting swept in back of the stage. He programmed a position to wash the area behind the band in an arena. Taking the lighting off the band and putting it on the audience involves the crowd and creates an interesting 3D effect.

"When you are sitting back there, it’s kind of an obstructed-view seat. Most of the lights go forward, the rises in the house go forward or to the side, and nothing really happens in the back. If you’re a fan and you’re back there and all of a sudden these lights shine on you, it really makes you feel like part of the show. We want everybody to feel as involved as they possibly can," says Kuroda.

Phish fans are nothing if not fervent in supporting the band and gathering as large online and traveling communities. Their appreciation extends to Kuroda’s efforts through a group named CK5, which is dedicated to creating awareness about the lighting director. Its website states: "Chris Kuroda is an intricate part of the music that Phish enlightens our spirits with. Without his key lighting and timing the music would just not be the same." The play on Calvin Klein’s fragrance refers to Kuroda’s initials and the fans’ opinion of him as a fifth member of the band due to his real-time involvement and visual effects during performances.

Though he appreciates the attention, Kuroda is quick to point out that he is an LD and not a musician. "It’s just the nicest thing in the world. I could not be more flattered. It’s good to know that I had no hand in it; that’s the best part," he says about the fan group. "It’s all about a rock band’s light show. But there’s no way you could ever get me to say I was the fifth member of the band. I’m just out there doing the best job that I can. And my job is to hit the ‘pits’ as on-time as I can and second-guess them and light them the best way that I know how."

Donny Emerick is a freelance event producer and writer based in Portsmouth, NH. He has written about performance techniques and technology for Mix and On-Stage magazines, and he has seen Kuroda light his favorite band for over a decade. When they initially met at a college gig the first thing Kuroda did was show him his new colors. Emerick can be contacted at donnyemerick@hotmail.com.

Kuroda recently concluded a stint as LD for Trey Anastasio's solo summer tour.