Thursday 06/30/2022 by phishnet


Almost five years after the interview conducted by Dean Budnick, Chris Kuroda was interviewed by Scott Boyarsky and Hal Waterman, who were involved with the fan website CK5 (, now defunct). This conversation delves further into Kuroda’s work philosophy, his personal tastes, and his life outside the band. A few of the questions are repeated from the previous interview, but Kuroda’s opinions had evolved over the preceding five years.

The full interview was initially published on the CK5 website and republished in the Phish Companion 1st Edition. The interview was then edited and streamlined for re-publication in the Phish Companion 2nd Edition. This blog post includes the edited interview from TPC 2nd Ed., followed by the remaining interview “bonus material” from TPC 1st Ed.

Enjoy! - Matt Schrag aka @kipmat

Interview with Chris Kuroda from TPC 2nd edition

Excerpted from an interview conducted by Scott “Seabass” Boyarsky and Hal “Brother” Waterman backstage prior to the 10/7/00 Shoreline show, the last show before the hiatus.

Kuroda at the helm, Oswego July '99. Photo © 2010 PHISH
Kuroda at the helm, Oswego July '99. Photo © 2010 PHISH

HW: Where are you originally from?

CK: I was born in Princeton, New Jersey. I grew up in Chappaqua, New York, which is in Westchester County. When I was about 21, my family moved out to Allentown, PA.

HW: What’s the most rewarding part about this job?

CK: Well, my whole life when I was growing up my Father was thirty years at the same company, Wall Street, New York Stock Exchange, executive guy, got in a suit, commuted on a train everyday. Throughout my whole life growing up, I said to myself, I will not be a “nine-to-fiver.” So, when I think back about the whole thing, the fact that I actually accomplished that might have to stand out over everything. The second greatest thing is all the support I get from all the fans. I get a lot of support, and you know, as a human being it just makes you feel so good. And believe it or not, an extremely rewarding thing to me is when I nail a “David Bowie.” It brings tears to my eyes sometimes. Doing the job, that’s how I express myself to the world. I get to express myself through light and there is a lot of joy to that!

HW: Do you mind briefly describing how you got your start?

CK: I was taking guitar lessons from Trey, and he asked me if I knew someone who would want to carry some gear from Nectar’s stage to the van after the gig for $20. I said I would do it. I did that for about a week, and the guy who was running the lights at the Stone Church had to take a leak in the middle of the set. He left, and I pushed the buttons for a while. Afterwards, I saw Trey walk up to him and say something like, hey man, I thought you were finally getting it during “[Fly Famous] Mockingbird,” because the guy really had no rhythm, which just happened to be the song that the kid went to the bathroom. So, I thought to myself, do I want to be carrying gear or do I want to speak up for myself and maybe take a shot at doing lights. So I said something to Trey, and the next week he called me up and said, “Oh, for these gigs this weekend you’re doing lights.” And I said, “What happened to the other guy?” He said, “Oh, he can’t make it.” So, I said I didn’t even know how to set it up. Trey said, “I’ll tell ya what, Chris, we’ll figure it out together.” I said ok, great. I found out a couple of years later that actually what had happened is they fired the other guy and put me in the slot.

SB: You can’t miss a show. What if a show’s going on and you’re sick?

CK: I’ve done shows with a 103-degree fever, with a garbage can next to me, throwing up while running the show. I even tried to call in sick once about eleven years ago. We were playing at Keene State College. We were getting up that morning from Burlington to drive down there, and I was sick as a dog. I called Trey at home, and I said I can’t make it. Trey just said, “You have to make it. There’s no such thing as calling in sick. You’re going no matter what.” I said okay, and that day I was setting up lights while dragging a garbage can with me.

HW: The fans want to know about your rig. Can you tell us about your setup?

CK: Sure. The rigs usually come out looking like spaceships, even though that’s not my original intent. Originally I’m just trying to place lights where I want them to light the band, or the audience. You know, they have to be in a certain spot. The current rig is set up to look like the Millennium Falcon. But really, on a more technical end, it’s designed to set up and break down really quick and easy. It’s essentially five pods or five triangles and everything is separate. It’s not all interconnected into one giant massive thing that’s all bolted together. So, once stage left gear is out of the way you can just bring in stage left piece and break it down and put it on the truck. In a lot of ways it’s really designed to be able to get to the venue at 9 am and be able to do a gig by 7 pm.

As far as what’s in the setup, there are about 150 PAR cans (PAR 64), on 1k lamps, typical standard lights. There are 18 ACL racks. ACL stands for aircraft landing light. Those are the bright white ones that I flash. There are 24 studio spots and 24 studio colors. They are automated lighting made by a company called High End. There are 46 Altstars which is another automated light made by Altman. Those are really cool!

SB: One of my favorite effects is when you get the lights spinning either sideways or up/down in a 360 degree motion.

CK: That’s all Altstar. Altstar is one of the few lights out there that has the ability to do a continuous 360-degree pan and tilt. Essentially, there are two kinds of moving lights. There is the moving mirror, which is what Altstar is. One’s called a moving head, which is what a studio spot is. A moving head can only go so far before it hits its yolk, and can only spin so far before it reaches its limit. The Altstar can spin forever. The 360-degree effect is one of those effects that has to be used at just the right time or it looks silly.

SB: Some of the lights you use have patterns in them. Is that intentional?

CK: Those are built into many of the lights that we use.

HW: Does Phish own the equipment or do they lease it?

CK: We lease it because there is always new equipment coming out, better lights being made. Just like a car, as soon as you own it, it’s obsolete. So lighting companies essentially buy the equipment and lease it out. We have such a good relationship with the lighting companies that we use that we can just literally tell them what gear we want and then we’ll lease it from them. We pretty much can have anything we want.

SB: Do the lighting companies supply you a crew?

CK: Yes, but we always keep the same crew. The lighting crew, even though they are supplied by other lighting companies, I always get the same people because they’re the crew!

SB: How many members make up the lighting crew?

CK: There are seven members on the lighting crew.

SB: Who are they?

CK: Myself, Tavi Black, she’s the person that climbs up and fixes everything. Julian Watkins, he’s the lighting crew chief. He pretty much organizes how the day goes for the crew as far as setup and breakdown. Gary Radakovich (a.k.a. Raco), he sits left of me, and runs the Whole Hog (the lights made by High End). I call cues to him on the left. And on my right is Roger Pujol. He runs the Altstar console. I call cues to him. I run the conventional board in the middle. Brian Dyck (a.k.a. Shoopie), he’s what we call a truss monkey. He’s also the automated lighting technician. He fixes the moving lights when they break. We have a lot of spares so we're constantly swapping lights in and out of the system.

Light Rig and Crew, Lemonwheel 8/14/98. Photo © 2010 PHISH
Light Rig and Crew, Lemonwheel 8/14/98. Photo © 2010 PHISH

SB: Are you swapping out lights right in the middle of a show?

CK: We’ll either swap a light during the course of the day when we’re setting up or at halftime (set break). We can never swap a light that’s on the downstage truss because it’s over the audience and the danger of a light falling is too great. Due to liability, if a light breaks during a show on the downstage truss we have to live with it. And anything that breaks after halftime you live with it, because the show’s going on, you can’t send people up during the show.

SB: Have you ever had a part of the rig freeze up on you? You know, where the system becomes inoperable?

CK: Oh yeah! The rig is so computerized, computers crash, the light show crashes all the time. Lights cause the light board to crash. Sometimes certain lights cause all the other lights to crash because some of them are all wired in series and they’re all looped through data. If one light receives bogus data from the console, it will send the bogus data to all the lights. You can fry chips or boards. The disasters are limitless. We’ve had them all!

SB: What’s your course of action if the lights crash in the middle of a show?

CK: Well, years ago I would just freak out and throw my headset and kick things and be really angry, but over the years I’ve learned that this is the way it is and we try all the time to calmly continue with what we’ve got. And that is the whole reason why we have three lighting systems. We’ve got the High End system, the Altstar system, and the Conventional system. So, if one craps out or one fries, you have two more systems to work with. You don’t have the full show, but you have a show.

HW: Has the band over the last few years increased your lighting budget? Because the light show has certainly stepped up over the last few years.

CK: Budget is really not the issue. I mean I can pretty much have the budget I want but we try to keep things reasonable. Size of the light show is a different story. This light rig is currently smaller than the last two. It was just getting too big. The last one with all the scrims, those white screens between the lighting trusses, it was too much, too Pink Floyd-ish. It made the band look small, and that’s not the idea.

HW: Have you thought about lasers?

CK: Well, we’ve thought about lasers, and laser technology has come a long way but it’s still “lasers,” and we want to try and be original, and you know, lots of people use lasers. There’s just not a place in Phish for lasers, at least yet. Maybe at a New Years gig for a cool effect, once. Once in a whole night would be pretty cool, but you don’t want to spend all that money for a ten second effect and then that’s that. Especially with lasers. I mean, on New Years maybe, I mean there are a million things you can do. But in general, no. We try to keep a purist attitude. I’m sure you’ve noticed there are no more scrims, there’s no more backdrops, it’s just light. That’s the philosophy we’re going with.

HW: You have that Escher-esque kind of thing going on where you shine the lights on the walls.

CK: Yeah, a little bit. I try to only do that a couple times just to kind of give some different perspective on the lights, some different dimension.

HW: Have you ever thought about designing your own lighting system?

CK: No, I haven’t really thought about that. I have thought about starting my own lighting company using existing gear. I have had a lot of input in the design of lights like the Altstar. I’ve had a lot of input on how I wanted that light to work. When we first started using it, it was pretty much just the prototype. Through what I wanted to do I had software specially written for us, parts in the lights specially working for us. So in a way, I’ve already done that. I’ve also designed a strobe light for Diversitronics. A few years ago they wrote me a letter and said, “Thank you. We’re going to take your strobe light and make it part of our line. Thanks for helping us design a new product.” And on the High End stuff that we use currently, we had to have them write us special software because I wasn’t able to make the lights do things that I wanted to make them do. There’s a lot of special Phish [lighting] software which is why I can make the lights do things that other people can’t. They’re stuck by the software that they’re using.

Providence, RI 4/4/98. Photo © 2010 PHISH
Providence, RI 4/4/98. Photo © 2010 PHISH

HW: Take a song like “Guyute” that Phish plays a lot. Do you just hit a button and let it go?

CK: No, I’m constantly setting up the guys left and right of me on different things. It’s a very complicated kind of cue calling.

HW: Is it true you have to be a half second ahead of the band because of the delay?

CK: Yeah, between the time that I hit the button and the time the light actually reacts, or between the time that I say the word go and the operator's brain hears me say go and physically decides to push the button – that’s more time than you think it is. So essentially yes, I’m a half step ahead of the band. So if I say go, the lights are going to go even if the band does something different. So if I’m wrong it’s going to look stupid and if I’m right it looks great. So I’m pretty much second guessing the whole time.

HW: Have you ever tried to lead the band in a certain direction with the lights?

CK: I would say that’s never my intention, although sometimes the band members have mentioned to me that the lights have helped. That they’ve been stuck somewhere and I’ve helped them out of it. It’s never really my intention, I’m just trying to do my job and follow them the best I can. The only time I ever try to get the band to kind of do what I want them to do is during YEM, the vocal jams: If I want to do something crazy with the lights, I’ll start doing it and either they’ll follow it or they won’t. Most of the time, they’ll follow it. As far as the music is concerned – not that the vocal jam isn’t music – I would never even dare do such a thing.

HW: Have you thought of running a Kuroda clinic? Teaching young lighting designers how to light?

CK: I’ve thought about teaching a class at UVM. My wife really wants me to do it. I’m definitely going to look into seeing what it takes to be able to do that. I don’t know if it will happen right away, but I’d like to do that someday.

HW: What are your favorite venues to light?

CK: Madison Square Garden, Blossom Music Center, Merriweather, Saratoga Performing Arts Center, and Alpine Valley. MSG is my favorite, hands down!

HW: What about least favorite?

CK: Here [Shoreline Amphitheatre]. Great room for a concert; horrible room for lights. The big white tent just reflects too much light, washes out everything. I can’t even see what it’s supposed to look like. And just in general, I prefer indoor venues to outdoors. I know a lot of designers that I thought would have cared for indoor. But they don’t care, indoor, outdoor. I guess I’m just really picky about how my stuff looks.

SB: Do you use different color tones depending if the concert is indoors or outdoors?

CK: When we do rehearsals for fall tour or spring tour versus rehearsals for summer tour, we use a lot of darker colors because we know we’re going to be indoors. We program for a couple of weeks before we go on tour. We set it up in an arena, and we basically live there for two weeks or so programming the show. When we know we’re going to be doing a summer tour outdoors, we try to use brighter colors. There’s still a place for darker colors in the summer, but a lot of them just don’t read outside, you can’t even see the light.

SB: What is your favorite Phish song to light?

CK: “David Bowie.” Hands down! There’s no question about it! I always like all the worked out stuff, what we call “woked” in the Phish world. For example, “Reba” has a big “woked” section; “Fluffhead” is another with a “woked” section in the middle. “David Bowie” is a “woked” tune, and it’s just my favorite song. It’s a blast to light. The song goes in so many directions. It’s got quiet parts, huge parts, worked out parts. It flows nicely. It’s just a pleasure to light. It’s one of my biggest moments of a night when they play that song.

HW: What’s your least favorite tune to light?

CK: I’ll tell you, they’re both great songs but after all these years I still haven’t figured out what exactly to do with them… They’re not tunes I don’t like, they’re just tunes I don’t like to light. “Punch You In The Eye” and “Lizards.” I don’t know what to do during those songs. You do the best you can.

HW: What is your favorite Phish show ever?

CK: It was 2/7/89 at The Front. A “Possum” to beat all “Possums,” a “Mike’s Song” to beat all “Mike’s Songs.” I used to have the cassette, but I think my car ate it. Another favorite of mine, I can’t remember the exact date, was at UNH or Dartmouth. I think it was UNH. We did some really cool stuff. We took the lighting truss in the middle of a jam and just brought it in all the way to head level and took it back up. And another favorite would have to be the first time we played the [Madison Square] Garden.

HW: How about your least favorite Phish show?

CK: I can’t remember. I mean, there is one, I just can’t remember specifics.

HW: If a fan is going to say hello, when is the best time?

CK: The best time is probably before the show. Intermission is good too. After the show, I’d love to talk to people. But as soon as those house lights come on it’s a crew thing, we’re such a well-oiled machine. We’re pulling plugs, packing up consoles, and if I stop to talk to people, it just slows up the entire operation of getting the band out.

Big Cypress 12/30/99. Photo © 2010 PHISH
Big Cypress 12/30/99. Photo © 2010 PHISH


[picking up with a follow-up response to the “Where are you originally from” question]

SB: Allentown, home of Dorney Park.

CK: I worked at Dorney Park for one year, operating the roller coaster.

SB: Now you live in the Burlington, VT area?

CK: Right outside of Burlington.

HW: Does most of the crew live in Vermont?

CK: Only the [full-time] Phish crew. Myself, Paul [Languedoc], Brad [Sands], the band, Amy Skelton, John Paluska. It’s not a requirement of the band, it’s just by choice. I lived in New Jersey for a few years, just a few years back, when I should have been in Vermont. I missed meetings all the time, or I’d have to fly in to meetings. It’s just better to be there.

SB: What was it like to sing “Possum” at your wedding with the band?

CK: I didn’t want to do it, but I got thrown up there and it was a lot of fun! It sure was better than the last time I sang “Possum”, which was at the Front in 1989 during “Guest Vocalist Night”. I had about ten Bass Ales in me that night, walked away from the light board and yelled, “I’ll sing one.” People in the crowd singing songs happened way back in the club days. At my wedding, I sounded a lot better.

HW: So, you’re married now. What is your wife’s name?

CK: Rhiannon. Her mother named her after the Fleetwood Mac song.

SB: Any little Kurodas on the way?

CK: Ahhhh, ya know. We’ll take that one day at a time. We are planning to have a family someday. We’re just not exactly sure when we’re going to begin. With this time off, who knows? We’re about to take all this time off, so one never knows.

HW: Tell us about the Phish hiatus.

CK: Well, there’s nothing set in stone. It’s a very difficult question to answer because nobody knows. It started out as a year break, and now it’s turning into a “We’re [Phish] going to take a break as long as we feel we need a break and we might go in different directions”. They might go into the studio. Essentially what it really boils down to is that they’ve [Phish] been on the road for 17 years. They’re constantly, when they’re off the road, being thrown projects. They’re overloaded. They need a break to spend time with their families. They need to get off the road. And most importantly, they need to write new music. They all feel that if they take a lot of time, they can really write some good stuff, and get the positive vibes back into what they’re doing. In my opinion, I feel like although they’re doing great, playing great, and having a great time, they’re kind of just going through the motions. Playing the same songs that they’ve been playing for so long.

SB: What types of projects might you be working on with your time off?

CK: Already, since we’ve been on this tour, I’ve been offered to light about 25 TV shows [episodes] for international export over the course of the next year. And running lights for the Tito Puente Orchestra for about a week at Roseland [Ballroom, New York City, NY]. That will be just a fun little thing. And the opportunity to light Major League Soccer’s championship halftime show at RFK stadium. And I’m going to LDI, which is the biggest lighting trade show in the world, and I’m going to go down there and talk to some people to see what else I can round up for myself.

SB: Do you like when people come up to you, fans who want to meet you?

CK: I’m a little paranoid about it actually. (laughs) Just kidding, yes I do, I like it, it’s great!

HW: How does the band feel about it?

CK: I think they’re happy for me. I think their main concern is that the job gets done. They want the show to be the best thing. If people think the lights were good, then the show must have been good. It all works together. If they’re happy, I’m happy. If I’m happy, they’re happy. And if the crowd is happy, everyone’s happy!

SB: Is Paul jealous?

CK: No [laughs]. I am the brunt of some jokes… PL6. Actually, it should be PL5. Actually, now Tom Marshall thinks he’s the fifth member.

Trey and Mike, 8/15-16/1998 Lemonwheel. Photo © 2010 PHISH
Trey and Mike, 8/15-16/1998 Lemonwheel. Photo © 2010 PHISH

SB: Do you still check out the CK5 website?

CK: Oh yes, of course! You bet I do. I spent about ten hours straight one day going through the guestbook one click at a time reading every single one. That’s why we’re doing this interview. People want to know what’s going on. I want to share.

HW: What was it like to light Bob Weir? {10/6/00 Shoreline}

CK: It was unbelievable!

HW: Were you nervous? Was the band nervous?

CK: No, nobody was nervous. I was excited. You know, I’ve seen 250 Grateful Dead shows. That El Paso, if you closed your eyes, it almost could have been the Dead, because it’s Bob Weir’s voice. “West LA [Fadeaway]”, well, it sounded like Phish playing “West LA” with Bob Weir singing. For a couple of moments, though, it really took me back.

SB: So, you were a big Deadhead?

CK: Yes, I was a Deadhead!

SB: Were you a Bobby fan?

CK: [laughing] I really liked Jerry a lot better than the rest of the guys in the band.

SB: How about the Donna years? Do you like listening to shows with Donna singing?

CK: I never saw the Dead during the Donna years, but… I’ve met Donna, she’s a really wonderful woman. We’ve connected on a few levels and have had some nice conversations.

SB: How about Phil [Lesh]? Was it exciting to see Phish with Phil?

CK: Phil is the greatest guy in the world! He’s just such a nice guy and he’s so happy to be alive! He expresses that all the time. I got a Christmas card from him. He’s always asking the band to do more Phil and Friends stuff. It’s a lot of fun, but the band wants to be Phish. They want to play with Phil too, but their priority is being Phish. This is just my opinion but I think they don’t want to be labeled as Phil’s Friends.

SB: How about favorite Grateful Dead shows?

CK: Ones I’ve seen… Augusta, Maine ’84. My all-time favorite Dead show which there is no existing soundboard for is Saratoga Performing Arts Center 6/18/83. An amazing Dead show. Merriweather ’85 was pretty good. Anything after 1985 just wasn’t that great.

HW: What other music do you enjoy, besides the Grateful Dead?

CK: I don’t really listen to the Dead all that often anymore, I mean I do, when I feel like rocking out. Believe it or not, and I never thought when I was 15 that I’d be saying this, I listen to [John] Coltrane, Miles Davis, Illinois Jacquet, a lot of jazz. My wife listens to rap, but only when I’m not around. She likes the Dead too, and all the jazz. But when I’m not around, she pops in the Dr. Dre, or the Snoop Doggy Dog.

SB: What did you think of the Kid Rock show [9/29/00 Las Vegas]?

CK: I loved it! I thought it was unbelievable. I’ve never heard more profanity come off a Phish stage in a ten-minute period in my life.

HW: I think we covered everything, thank you for your time.

CK: My pleasure!

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, comment by cohron1
cohron1 Great stuff, @kipmat! Thanks for uncovering these great CK interviews.
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