JamBase caught up with Phish light wizard Chris Kuroda at his home in Vermont as he and his wife awaited the arrival of their first child. With the first tour since the hiatus in the books, and Phish's summer tour looming on the horizon, we had the opportunity to let Chris reflect on what has been and what will be. As one of the industry's top designers and every bit an innovator of his craft, this man has truly seen the light.
Andrew Warren: Chris, how ya doin?
Chris Kuroda: Good, How are you?
AW: I am well, thanks. Getting right to it, let's go back a bit for people who aren’t familiar with how you got involved in Phish.
AW: I read that you took over for Phish’s light guy at the time back in 1989?
CK: Well, they were running an ad in the paper, which I did not answer. I was taking guitar lessons from Trey at the time and he asked if I knew anyone who wanted to carry gear for the band and I said “I know someone, I’ll do it!” I was a pretty big fan at the time and so I carried gear for about a week and the guy who had answered the ad and who was kinda trying out on lights, well, for one reason or another it just wasn’t working out. I don’t really know the details of it, but the bottom line is it just wasn’t working out. Trey said something like “Chris, [old light guy] isn’t coming tonight, you’re going to have to do it.” But he’s a great guy, and he’s a friend of mine. They kinda threw me into the mix and it just has gone from there.
Is it true that you took over during "Famous Mockingbird"?
That’s true. He had to step away for a second and I took over and I knew right then two things: one, I really enjoyed doing it; and two, it would give me a purpose during the show instead of just standing there waiting for it to end. And three, I knew the music so well, being a fan, that I already knew the timing. And even though they were trying other people out for the job, they weren’t familiar with the band so when I jumped in they got the instant results. I think that is what they were looking for, instant results.
Well, there wasn’t the repertoire they have now.
There were probably about fifty or so songs and now there are at least a couple hundred, not including covers. Add to that count songs they never play but songs that could come at any moment.
Like "Destiny Unbound." Did you know it was going to be pulled off the shelf after all these years?
Well, they were practicing it but you never knew when it was going to happen, ya know what I mean? That kind of thing. I would obviously listen to practice and since I knew it would be coming, I threw on some old bootlegs that I got from our archivist and just gave it a couple of listens. I remembered the song 'cause once you hear it you're like, “Oh yeah, that’s how it goes.”
Was it the same thing as far as remembering the songs after the hiatus?
You know, I didn’t listen to a note of Phish, nothing!
I think a lot of people did that, I think everyone was ready for a break and ready to get into some other music. It was a positive break for the community. There is so much other music out there right now.
I agree, and then taking the break wasn’t all about the music either. It was just about the general meaning you can give to taking a break: a break from the road, a break from traveling, a break from being away from our families.
I think that musically this past tour... not including the New Year's run, 'cause that was kind of, I mean those shows were good, but that was just getting our feet wet again. I felt this tour musically was the best they have played in many, many, many years.
I agree, this new batch of songs is some of the best I have heard, maybe ever. Maybe!
I am in complete agreement with you there; they are classy, well thought out, just nice pieces of music.
It seems that if that was the part of the reason, then I am up for them taking another break.
Certainly. Though I wouldn’t assign it all to the break. Some of the reasons these new songs are so good is because they have matured over the years. They have matured as musicians, they have matured as songwriters. And I think that this maturity and just getting older played a part in why these songs are so good. I don’t think another break is necessary to continue to mature as musicians, I just think as time goes on, you get better. You know it’s kind of in reverse. When I was growing up, and I’m sure when you were growing up, you would find a band and they would come out with a great album and they would come out with another great album and then the third, fourth, fifth and sixth albums would be complete crap. There are a million bands out there that fall into that category. It’s cool to see that these guys are getting better over time as opposed to worse over time.
So tell us what you were doing on the break? I know you have been involved in a bunch of other projects including Hookahville. I don’t really know too much about it.
Yeah, and I’m doing it again in a little bit here. There is this band ekoostik hookah from Ohio, and I kind of befriended their guitarist. He came to a lot of Phish shows and we got to know each other. So as the break was nearing he mentioned that they do this festival and they were looking for someone to light it and he wanted to get me involved. At the time I wasn’t sure I wanted to get involved and that maybe I wanted to pursue something else instead of doing another hippie band festival. At first I did it for the money, which is why anyone takes a job. But the first time I did it, and this is the fifth one, I went out there and I had a good time. I mean, I really enjoyed it and now I look forward to it, and it's not about the paycheck but just for the experience. It's always Memorial Day weekend and then Labor Day weekend.
So you’re booked for that?
Yeah, I am always available for Phish first or Vida Blue or Trey and everything else.
So you're doing Trey's spring tour?
Actually, I am not. And it's the first time I won't have gone out with any of those [Phish] guys since '89. It's the first time Trey will play without me lighting since the beginning, and simply because it's right over my wife’s due date. We're expecting our first on June 4th.
Congratulations! Boy or girl?
We don’t know, on purpose.
That’s the way to go I think.
Yeah, the last great surprise in life, why blow it? If it’s a boy it’s Tyler, Ayden or maybe even CK6! [laughs]
So you have also done the VH-1 music awards. How did that come about?
I did the VH-1 My Music Awards 2001. That came about from my sister Andee. She is a producer in Los Angeles. She owns her own production company called Kanpai Pictures, and over the years she kind of got in with that crowd. She started working with companies that were producing big shows there. They liked her work so much that she ended up getting these gigs by herself. She eventually got me involved and thought it would be a great way for me to branch out and get some experience in TV. Since I was on break it worked out
It was completely different from running a Phish show, I take it?
Yeah, I was there for about a month for a TV show that ran for two hours. So you had to light all the different acts and the presentations. So, for TV you light for camera and not for the audience and instead of looking at the band and the room, you had to look at the monitor. It didn’t matter what the room looked like, it only mattered what the TV looked like. It was really difficult for me to get into. Everything you see in these awards shows is some close-up of some celebrity's face. So what’s the point of having a graphic lighting designer like me do something like that when you're just going to have white light on the person's face?
Do you think you would ever do something like that again?
Honestly, I’ll tell you, the whole time I was doing it I was telling myself I would never do this again, and when it was over I said I would do it again. It was one of those love-hate relationships.
So do you think this was one of your biggest challenges?
Oh, by far. When I did that VH-1 thing, I felt like I was in way over my head.
When you go to different shows, do you see new lighting techniques that you would like to bring to Phish's performance?
You know, rarely, rarely do I see something that I like. But when I do I do try to bring it over to Phish.
Do band members ever see other bands and mention something they liked about their production?
Absolutely, The Residents is the one that stands out. Chris McGregor is the lighting designer for them. They never have a huge budget, so he has to make do with cheap things and he makes cheap tricks look amazing. That’s his whole thing. I have been hearing about The Residents' light show for 10 years and I actually ended up collaborating with Chris on a few things. He designed the aquarium set for the New Year's '94 run.
I was going to ask you about that.
That was definitely the best New Year's thing we ever did.
I am still hoping it will be brought back out sometime.
Oh well, we still have it somewhere.
So going back, what have been some of your favorite New Year's moments?
Oh, the aquarium for sure and then 2000 because it was just, well... 2000 and we brought back the original hot dog and being in Florida as well. Also, anything in Madison Square Garden. Anything we do there I get really jazzed up for it, for some reason.
Any old tricks you would like to bring back that have been shelved as far as lights go? Like the old strobes in "Mike's Song" or anything like that?
That is the one thing that I was going to bring up, I miss the strobes. [sentimental]
I really miss them but we're just so beyond that now. As much as I want to bring them back it would feel like we were going backwards. That and the smoke for me were such good times. We still have the smoke machines on stage but we hardly ever use them. The ones that fill up the really thick smoke. But I can’t really remember more than once that we’ve used them in the last three years.
But you bring them anyway, they are just part of the system?
Just in case, got to have 'em.
So speaking of systems, do you have ideas about how you are going to light the impending stadium shows, if that ends up happening?
I think that we will pretty much stay on the same course we are on, more than anything else. When you set up in a stadium the one thing I would want to do is keep the main lighting rig the same above the band. Then you have the scaffolding on the side and you need that to support the stage. So I would stretch out my main rig to the scaffolding, just to be able to cover the whole stadium in light.
Do you see Phish playing stadiums in the future?
Umm... yes I do. I have to say I do? But you know, Limestone is kind of like a stadium. It's really a big field but you have the same amount of people there, and in a situation like that we just go with the same light rig we have been touring with the entire tour. So what we're out with in July is what we bring into Limestone and no more. It’s been enough in the past so...
Was there ever a point in the evolution of the light rig where you thought it was just too much? Like you were overwhelmed with lights and things to keep track of during the shows?
Yes. The second to last tour that Phish did. I guess you would call it summer 2000. We had multiple shapes in the air. Usually we have one shape with a scrim. This time we had three shapes, no, four shapes with scrims to light. We had lights all over the stage to shoot up and light them. You know what moving lights look like? The band used to call them the droid army, because there were like forty of them all over the stage taking up room and another hundred lights in the air. The lighting rig was enormous and the band looked like four ants on stage. It looked like Pink Floyd in a stadium, their rig is so insanely huge and the band looked so small; that's what it looked like to me. But being a lighting designer I didn’t really care too much. I thought it was "more is better." But as the tour went on, I got annoyed by it and thought it was too much.
Did you feel you were taking away from the band?
I think that I was. I would see them on stage looking up at the shapes and just thinking "this is huge," and a few of them voiced it. Not to the point where they made any definitive statements, but I could just tell there was little weirdness going on with that.
Do you feel the band is ever taking the lead from you?
There are the rare moments where I feel that way. Sometimes they do take cues from me. More often than not, it’s when they get lost themselves
They are looking for a way out?
What’s your reaction to that?
I am just trying to help them find one as far as 1-2-3-4, ya know? Ah, I like it, I think it is a cool little thing. It is kind of a personal little pat on the back. It almost makes me feel more a part of it. It almost makes me feel like the band member that everyone seems to think that I am, which I am not, by the way.
Yeah, well in reference to that, I think that your improvisional skills on the lights highlight the band's improvisional skills musically. Most shows you see with other bands are the same light show every time, as to where you go in and do a different show every time and make it that much better each time. Hopefully.
Yeah, hopefully. I have been saying this for along time, I like to call it my mental link with Trey. For some reason, I just seem to know where he is going. I don’t know if it is because I developed my listening skills or just because I know them so well. Or it also could be, I mean I take a lot of cues from body gestures on stage or little looks to each other.
OK, here’s a good one: "Antelope." It’s the raging jam and it’s about to end at the one there. It always ends on the one. But you never know when it is coming. It used to be this, Trey would completely turn around and look at Fish and it was a very blatant thing and I knew it was coming based on him turning around. Nowadays he doesn’t. They're so comfortable up there he doesn’t even turn around. He just flashes him a look so fast, the quickest little glance. You know, if you blink you miss it. Sometimes he doesn’t even look, he just flashes a pinky or something. It’s so ridiculously subtle [laughs]. I guess it was all those years of attending practice.
Do you still go to practice?
Not too often, the whole vibe of practice has changed a lot. It used to be a very, very serious thing when everyone used to have to come on time and pay attention. We used to do listening drills around the room for like six hours and things that were totally not even related to the music. They don’t do any of that anymore.
Like "The Blob"?
Exactly, I think we’ve evolved to a place where that kind of regiment has changed to a different place. Now more than anything I am trying to learn the new songs and I just like to get a feel for them and go into the tour and get used to them as the band gets used to them.
So you cut down on the lighting staff. How is that going?
It's going all right, not bad.
Easier, harder? But getting back to the roots?
Definitely, it's core people who just know their gigs so well that we work together seamlessly.
The band has been around for a long time and it used to be such a grassroots organization. It was so small and it evolved into a huge organization.
It is, it's huge, hundreds of people working, 50 people on the road at any given time.
Wow. How many in your staff?
So that’s up from before the break?
It’s down one from before the break.
Is it the technology that’s allowing you to slim down?
Well, it's kind of the idea that we have a lot of different systems and each system runs on its own proprietary language. So you have a bunch of different light boards running any part of the light show and you have different people operating each light board. I'm trying to call the show on the headset while running my own light board at the same time, and the way technology is today, it's getting to the point where certain light boards can run any kind of lighting language. They can talk to just about any kind of light and downsize the front of house aspect. Essentially, we're working on having just having two of us, myself and one other, run the whole thing from the three or four we have now.
by J. Crouch
So you want to cut from eight to two?
Eight are required for setup; even with technology you still need that many to set up the size of the operation that we like to bring into the room.
So who is on your staff now?
Well, it's always changing because we change light companies a lot. But the people who are always with us are a guy named Roger Pujol, and he’s been our AltStar tech and operator for ten years; Gary "Rocco" Radkovich, and he’s been out there six or seven years. He runs all the High End stuff and all the DMX stuff. It’s pretty complicated.
I have a few more for you then I’ll let you go. What is your favorite new song?
"Walls of the Cave," by far. That’s definitely my favorite new song. It’s my favorite to light and favorite to listen to. I am more of a music person and not such a lyric person.
What is the favorite venue on the last tour?
I can’t really say. I like everything on the East Coast. I really liked the Greensboro show, it was a really cool place and I think it's brand new. And it was really great to be in the Brendan Byrne Arena, or Continental Airlines Arena, I guess it's called now. That was a really great time.
If you could go back and change one thing and do it differently, what would it be?
If I could go back and change one thing I would go back and... You know, in the beginning, I didn’t want any distractions from any of the other departments. And by doing that I kinda locked myself out of the loop of a lot of different things that go on in the orginization. Like we talked about before, like New Year's gags or t-shirt designs. A lot of meetings go on with people from different departments. But I was like, "Oh, I don’t want to be involved in any of that stuff." If I could do it again, I would get more involved in the other aspects of the organization.
If there was a Chris's picks in the Live Phish series? What would be your choice for shows?
02.07.89, The Front in Burlington, Vermont. My favorite show and I have never seen a copy if it.
I’m sure someone has it. You don’t have it archived?
I don’t think we do. Another Chris’s picks are some of the others as well. Like 12.30.94 [MSG]. And another would be the one and only time we played the Cow Palace [11.29.96, San Francisco]. That was an amazing time.
Thanks Chris! See you this summer!
OK, thank you Andrew!
Interviewed by: Andrew J. Warren
JamBase | San Francisco
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