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Chris Kuroda never set out to be a lighting designer. Now called the fifth member of Phish, Kuroda was once just a loyal fan while majoring in computer science at the University of Vermont. He was a devoted attendee of early Phish shows at Nectar’s, the Burlington music venue that became the namesake for the band’s 1992 album, A Picture of Nectar. One night after a show, Kuroda asked lead guitarist Trey Anastasio to give him lessons, which eventually led to him landing a gig as the group’s roadie.
Then, during a Phish show in New Hampshire on April 7, 1989, the band’s lighting designer, Chris “Steck” Stetcher, asked Kuroda to take over the board while he went to the restroom during the song “Fly Famous Mockingbird.” Anastasio was so impressed with the lighting during that tune, he complimented Steck on his creative input. Later, when he learned who was really responsible, Anastasio asked Kuroda to take over as Phish’s lighting designer. Kuroda admitted he was inexperienced with lighting design, but Anastasio told him: “Don’t worry, we’ll figure this out together.” Thirty years later, they’re still figuring it out, through experimentation, automation, and a hefty dose of creativity.
5280 caught up with Kuroda ahead of Phish’s annual Labor Day shows at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park to discuss the evolution of Phish’s lighting design and what makes the band’s Denver performances so special.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
5280: I went to a lot of Phish shows when I was younger, but took an extended break until seeing the band live at Dick’s last year. The first thing I noticed was the lighting design. How has it evolved?
Chris Kuroda: From what you saw 10 years ago, we kept evolving down that same road. We had shapes in the truss [editor’s note: a rigid structure used to hold up lights and speakers]—circles, triangles, those sorts of things. We sort of felt like we hit a wall around four years ago? Five? So we all got together and decided to do some experimenting, which is what Phish is all about—taking risks and trying new things. We [did video] for a little bit, but we were trying to do it in an organic….We had a video wall that moved up and down and opened and closed and got bigger and smaller. We did that for a year.
It wasn’t exactly the right thing for us, but it led to what [we’ve been] doing now for the last three years, which is a bunch of moving trusses and making different shapes out of the truss throughout the night, moving stuff around a lot more, and having a lot more what we call “automation.” It opened the door of creativity for us that we would never have explored had we not experimented with things that didn’t exactly work for.
Is it computer-controlled?
Yeah, it’s controlled from the lighting console and from other computers. It’s sort of a symbiotic relationship of how it all works together. It’s not pre-programmed in the sense that every time it’s in this shape, it’s going to go to this shape next, and to that shape next. We have the flexibility to go to any shape we want from any shape we want or to move it in any way we want. We’ve spent a lot of time building in flexibility. The whole Phish mantra is organic, so we tried to make automation organic, and we’re happy where we’re at right now.
How long does it take to set up the lighting, and what’s the most challenging part?
For a show, they’re in at about 6 o’clock in the morning and doing all the rigging, assembling all the trusses, putting all the parts together to make it work. There’s a lot of people involved—50 or 60 people who travel with Phish, and 50 or 60 people who are local union stagehand type of folks. It takes a village to put it all together. Before we even go on tour, just to plan it all out and do all the programming is a multi-month process, before we get to rehearsals or anything like that.
So none of it is really choreographed to any particular song or parts of a song?
Negative. That’s actually the beauty of Phish, right?
Totally. Can you think of the last time something unexpected happened at a show or before a show? How did you handle it?
What you do define as “unexpected?” There are always technical glitches. We are working with computers and moving parts, so things break. Things don’t work. Things stop working in the middle of shows, and you just kind of have to roll with it. For example, one of [the moving trusses] broke and stopped moving, and it was stuck about six feet above Trey’s head. We had to leave it there. But the show has to go on, so we had to rethink how we were moving things around to incorporate the broken piece and make it look like it was still a part of everything that was going on. We brought everything else down to that level and worked from there. You know, you just, you roll with the punches. That’s what you do.
You’ve also worked with artists like Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande.
How do you approach a pop show versus a Phish show?
They’re two completely different worlds. A Bieber show or Ariana show are scripted—it’s exactly the same every night. So the way you structure the lighting and build the show artistically is you know, cue 1 is always followed by cue 2. Cue 2 is always followed by cue 3. In the Bieber show, there over 2,700 cues, but it was always the same order every night. With Phish, there is no order. Cue 1 could be followed by cue 600, which could be followed by cue 18. It’s sort of however I feel to play the lighting based on the way they’re playing music. The structure of a Phish show is a lot more intricate in the sense that no matter where you are and where you go next, it has to work.
When you see live music, are you able to turn off that part of your brain and sit back and enjoy the music?
No, I’m not able to turn off the working brain. I’m always looking at what other people are doing. That’s actually why I go see other shows, to see what they’re doing in their production, get ideas, or be impressed or not impressed.
Can you think of the last time you were really impressed?
I really like what Radiohead does. They’re creative. They’re original. They have really good ideas. Their ideas are really different from mine, so it’s good to see people who think differently than you and see an end result that’s amazing and actually be able to say to yourself, “Huh, I would have never thought of that.”
I’m going to wrap it up to let you go on with your day. What’s your favorite thing about doing shows in Denver?
Here’s the thing: We have such a long history there. We’ve been playing [in Colorado] since basically the beginnings of Phish. There was actually a time when Phish was popular in Burlington and Boulder—those were the only two places we were popular back in the late ‘80s. And the fanbase….You know, when we were young and traveling, playing bars and clubs and that kind of thing, you meet people who are interested in the band and make friends, and here we are 30-some-odd years later and these people are still around. They’re still interested, and we still get to see these same folks. There’s just such a deep, rich, long history with us playing there, the people that we work with, and the people that we know that makes it special, almost family-like.