Chris Kuroda Sheds Some Light
Phish’s lighting director, Chris Kuroda is regarded as one of the best in the business. A lot of fans consider him the “fifth member” of the band. He is responsible for providing the visual element to the concert experience. His light show enhances Phish’s music and at times can even influence it.
I sat down with Chris before the 11/28 show in Worcester to ask him some questions I’ve had on my mind lately. For those of you who have not yet read Dean Budnick’s in-depth interview with Kuroda from 1995, I highly recommend it as a prerequisite, as I made an effort not to repeat many of the same questions.
JW: By now, I think everyone is pretty familiar with the story of how you came to be Phish’s lighting director: March 1989, during ‘Mockingbird, (former lighting director) Chris Steck steps out to use the bathroom, you fill in, and the rest is history. But, you’re completely self-taught as far as lighting goes?
CK: I would say so. As I started getting into more intricate technology, just to keep up, I had to go, take courses at certain places; kind of crash-courses more than anything else. I had to learn how to program these consoles, learn how to fix some lights and just kind of get to know the beast that I was working with. That’s important.
JW: As far as the inspiration for the creativity, were you creative in other ways as a kid?
CK: I wasn’t really much of an artist. I sang. I was always in the school play in elementary school and stuff like that, but no not really. I guess I never really found that avenue in myself until I started doing this.
JW: I know you were taking guitar lessons with Trey and you had good rhythm, which ultimately led to you being such a good lighting designer.
CK: Yeah, I’d say as a person, I have pretty good rhythm and that helps me out a lot. I also really enjoy this kind of music. There’s a lot of funky time signatures and stuff like that, but I enjoy the challenge of trying to keep up with that.
JW: In the early days, was there a certain gig where it sort of clicked in your mind that you might be able to do this as a career?
CK: Well, by the time it was New Year’s ‘90-’91, I knew I was in for the long haul. I mean, when I saw Phish as a college kid, I knew then that they were gonna be who they are now. I thought they were better than just about anyone out there and they were just a bunch of college kids.
JW: Did they know it? I mean, did they have that same vision?
CK: I don’t think they knew it, no. They were just a college band who took a chance and they would often have meetings and discuss funds and say things like “should we do this? Should we take a trip to Colorado and spend all of our money on a whim?” They took some chances. I don’t think they really knew, no. But, obviously everything came together nicely.
JW: OK, so you started off and there’re what, three or four lights in the system?
CK: Yeah, there were about eight lights, four on each side: a couple blue ones, couple red ones, couple yellow ones…
JW: Can you talk about the transition from that rig to the more complex systems that you started to build over the years?
CK: Well, originally that was our light show and we were getting to a point where we knew we needed a bigger light show. The first major change came when we were playing at the Wetlands and the current light show we were using at the time was blowing up for reasons we didn’t know. We were blowing bulbs and we didn’t have any bulbs and we needed to make the show happen. So, Trey volunteered to go uptown in Manhattan and try to get some bulbs at this company. C-Factor was the name of the lighting company. When he came back, he had purchased a $13,000 light show from them. (laughs) Basically, when that tour ended, from Vermont I got in the truck, drove back down to New York City and picked up the new light show, which Trey had bought. It was basically just some trusses and more Par-cans, I mean, nothing major. But, he made that first decision that they needed more lights.
JW: What year was this?
CK: Between ’90 and ’91, probably late ’90.
JW: And Trey literally just spent thirteen grand?
CK: Yeah, he just went and bought it. (laughs) Yeah, I mean it was band money obviously, but he made the decision himself. That was the first major upgrade, but since then, it got to a point where I kept designing rigs with more and more Par-cans until it was just inevitable that we got into some automated lighting. I had checked out a few different (lighting companies), but there was this one, they were just up and coming at the time, the Altsars, which we use now. They were real small. They were just looking for a couple of clients. They didn’t want to be big. Blues Traveler was using them and we thought we’d be the perfect second client. The light was doing some really cool stuff that I wasn’t seeing in other lights, so we took a chance and got eighteen Altstars and cut down our Par-can count. That was our first moving-light tour, which was an absolute disaster on the technical production end because since it was a new prototype light, it was having software problems and we were just getting used to having moving lights and what we could do with them. I mean, I’m still finding new things to do with them, but at that time it was just so much to do and we had a very small cue file. The cue file’s been growing over the years, but when you’re just starting out writing cues and finding time to write cues…
JW: And that was ’93?
CK: ’93, yeah that’s correct.
JW: You introduced the new lights at set-break?
CK: Actually, the first gig we ever used them on was a festival gig that we played with Blues Traveler. So, it wasn’t the second set, it was just our set of that particular festival. However, one tour when we played outside, we wouldn’t fire them up until the second set, because it was summer tour and it was still light out. So we would just do Par-cans during dusk and then at night, we’d fire them up and have it be like a little something extra.