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Published: 2014/02/03
by Sam D'Arcangelo

Chris Kuroda Lights Up Amnesty International

This Wednesday, Imagine Dragons, The Flaming Lips, Lauryn Hill, Cake, Cold War Kids, Yoko Ono, Tegan and Sara and many more will take the stage at Barclays Center for Amnesty International’s “Bringing Human Rights Home” concert. The artists will come together to raise awareness about human rights violations around the world in an event that will be reminiscent of the international nonprofit’s past concerts, which featured performances by legendary acts like U2, The Police, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Radiohead, Peter Gabriel, Joan Baez, Robert Plant & Jimmy Page, The Neville Brothers and Carlos Santana, among others. The show will also include an appearance by Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina of Russian activist punk band Pussy Riot, who were recently released after spending 21 months in prison for protesting the government of Vladimir Putin.

However, the aforementioned artists will not be the only superstars making their mark on Wednesday’s show. Jamband fans will be happy to learn that acclaimed Phish (and Justin Bieber) lighting designer Chris Kuroda will be contributing his talents to the event as well. We caught up with CK5 to talk about Amnesty International, Phish’s 30th anniversary, Justin Bieber and hanging out with fans on Jam Cruise.

How’d you end up getting involved with this Amnesty International show?

It all goes back to friendships. Stuart Weissman, who’s the president of Stuart Weissman Productions—they run this show and he organizes it. He’s been a good friend of mine for twenty, twenty five years. In the early days of Phish, he was a rigger. He used to rig and hang our shows. So we developed a relationship and a friendship dating back to those days. Since then we’ve done a handful of projects together, most of them on the corporate end. But when he started putting this together, he had in his head that he really wanted me to do it.

When he called me up and asked me about it, I wanted to be a part of it simply because of the cause that it represents. We’re believers in those kinds of causes in the Kuroda family. The other thing was that I had just done a year and a half lap around the country and around the world with Justin Bieber, and in a lot of these countries Amnesty helps out and I sort of saw with my own eyes what goes on there. I mean, we didn’t stay in a lot of these neighborhoods and areas that are in need of that kind of help, but we certainly drove through them and you see what’s going on. And this would happen over and over. So when he called me and asked me if I wanted to participate in this, I had flashback memories to some of those moments and I said, “Yeah, I’d love to help out in any way I can.”

Those are sort of the two main reasons that it came to fruition in the first place.

They’ve got a pretty solid lineup for this event: The Flaming Lips, Yoko Ono, Cold War Kids, Tegan and Sara. Do you have any experience lighting any of these bands?

I don’t have any experience with any of the bands that are going to be performing, but I have done several awards shows in my past. At those things bands will play anywhere between one and three songs, then there’s a quick set change and you kind of get the next act going. I’ve kind of done a lot of that stuff—not with these acts in particular—but the format of how a show is put together. I do have a lot of experience doing these things. But I’ve been listening to the music like crazy.

I just got out of a five-day session—a 3D visualization session—where we design a 3D model of the lighting rig and I’ve been programming it for the last five days in preparation of this show so that when we’re in the heat of the moment, we’re prepared for anything. We’ve been doing all the back-end stuff that we can just basically to be ready for anything that’s thrown at us because in shows with this kind of format, there’s often a lot of curveballs and changes thrown in last minute.

So we’ve been trying to cover our butts from anything and be prepared. I literally just walked out of the studio from a five day programming session about 15 minutes ago. So we’re ready to go; we’re prepared!

I imagine lighting a show like this is very different from a Phish show.

Believe it or not, it is and it isn’t. This show, they’re still trying to figure out the entertainment and the lineup keeps changing. I haven’t been given a list of songs yet, like, “Tegan and Sara are gonna play these three songs, followed by the Flaming Lips who are gonna play these three songs.” Believe it or not, that stuff is still TBD and being figured out. So with that stuff I sort of have to put it together the way I would with Phish because, with Phish, there is no set list. Nothing is scripted. It’s a jamband so you don’t know what version of each song you’re gonna get every night; you could get the three minute version or you could get the thirty minute version.

With Phish it’s on the fly, you pay attention to what’s going on and try to follow it and stick with the best way you can. So we had to approach this show with that same blueprint in the sense that we don’t really know what songs we’re getting, we don’t know the order, we don’t know who’s gonna play next. We put it together in a Phish sort of style where we just built a lot of different lighting effects and a lot of different looks and they’ll all be at my fingertips. As the show progresses, I’ll be able to pick and choose how I want it to look and sort of roll with the punches as we go.

With most show formats you get the information about a month in advance. Then you can actually sit and figure out the lighting for each song and script it in that way. But this is not that kind of event. A lot of people are coming in last minute saying, “Hey, I want to be a part of this event, too! Can you squeeze me in? I don’t know what I’ll play yet.” Being in the nature of that kind of thing, we have to be in a position where we’re ready for anything. So in that way we’ve put it together sort of similar to the way a Phish show would be put together in the first place, basically out of the fact that we had no other choice. And in hindsight, I’m looking at it now and feeling like that was the right way to approach it. We feel really confident that, A) it’s gonna look really good and B) it was the right approach, to be ready for whatever curveballs are thrown out way. Some people who were scripted to play one song might, all of a sudden, get to play three songs, and you don’t know what those songs will be. So we need to be ready to light anything that comes our way. So that’s sort of been the approach and we’re locked and loaded.

Are you guys going to be incorporating any other type of spectacle as well? Pyrotechnics, smoke machines, that sort of thing?

There will be smoke machines; I don’t think there’s going to be very much pyrotechnics. Each band has their own thing that they like to do, and we’re gonna allow these bands to have whatever their signature look is. There’s one that likes to have a mirrored ball and their guitarist likes to have control of the mirrored ball and lights pointing at it. And he has a footswitch for it so we’re gonna let him do that. The Flaming Lips—everybody knows what the Flaming Lips bring in for production. They’re very dramatically oriented as far as the production drama, whether it’s video screens or the camera that’s real close to Wayne’s face. They have lots of props; they’re a very prop-driven act. So we’re gonna let them, obviously within reason, bring their props and do their thing. There are a lot of proprietary gags based on the acts provided within themselves. But as far as we’re concerned, at least on my end, we’ve designed a real nice light show. As far as the lighting goes on my end, we’ve got that covered. As far as effects like pyrotechnics go, as far as I know there isn’t anything yet. But even if there was it would be brought in, I would be told what they’re going to do and I would sort of get to dictate how we were going to use it. But up until this point there isn’t anything like that.

It’s going to be pretty straightforward with a lot of information about Amnesty, having some really wonderful music played and trying to boost awareness of what’s going on with those guys.

Everybody knows that Amnesty International was a giant force back in the 80’s and 90’s, but so much has happened in the world that they’ve sort of fallen by the wayside. We really want to re-introduce as many people as we can to what they stand for, what they’re trying to do and what the need is for them on the planet in general. I think this is a good start and hopefully, if this goes well, we can do a few more of these around the world and we can get people tuned in to what’s going on on a planetary scale, in some of these countries that need help. And maybe we can help them.

Absolutely. It seems like the concerts that Amnesty International used to hold in the past were very successful in that regard.

Absolutely, and we’re hoping to get a little bit of that thunder back for these guys. I think they’ve got wonderful talent this time. And, you know, there’s a lot of talent out there that are interested in helping Amnesty International but will not be participating in this particular show simply because the scheduling didn’t work out for them. Everyone knows that U2 is very involved; everyone knows that Robert Plant is very involved. Madonna obviously, who will be at the show. She might perform, she might not. But she’s gonna be there to send the message to this audience and speak to them.

But some of the giant acts from the past—there’s still interest from them. They may not be participating in this event, but might if we do more in the future. You know, the Springsteens and the Robert Plants and the Alison Krausses. People like that. From what I understand, they are very interested in participating and would’ve been participating in this one had their scheduling worked out. And actually there might be a couple of these acts that might perform or speak via satellite from wherever they are in the world. So that could be really cool as well.

You mention earlier that you got this job through a friend from the Phish crew. Does that happen often? Do you find work or projects via people that were involved with Phish back in the day?

No, not necessarily. I usually hunt down my own projects or let my reputation help me find work in that way. But Phish keeps me pretty busy year-round. It’s sort of difficult to find time outside of Phish to do other things. But in this particular case it worked out. And word of mouth and networking and friendships in the industry do play a role in getting projects and helping participate in projects. My friend Stuart Weissman—we’re basically working hand-in-hand together to make sure this is a success—he is responsible for 95% the events that occur in Times Square in New York City. Any time a band plays in Times Square or when someone sets up any kind of event there, it’s usually corporate events or like when Santa Claus comes and lands his sleigh in Times Square—he’s the guy that puts in all together.

He has a long reputation, resume and history of doing these kinds of events in Times Square in New York City. If you want to do an event like this, he’s the guy to call. So it’s not a surprise that he’s the one that got handed this particular project and is making it happen.

So I wouldn’t say it was just a buddy calling a buddy. He’s very successful at doing exactly this kind of thing. Maybe someday there will be a project where my skill-set will fit into what he’s doing, but usually these outdoor Times Square things aren’t the kind of thing. But this came up and it was the right thing for us to work together again and do this project together. So far it’s been an absolutely awesome experience. I got to reconnect with my buddy and I got to see how professional he is nowadays and we’ve both come a long way since we were just friends in the early 90’s. It’s sort of refreshing to see a friend being really successful, and I think he’s really excited to see where my success has taken me in the last 25 years. It’s just sort of a cool thing, and we’re all pretty amped about it.

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