In 2016, the Phish lighting team of Chris Kuroda and Andrew Giffin decided to try something new. In a departure from the norm in the visual realm of Phish shows, they added a set of LED video panels to their rig that would start each show in thick stripes across the stage and spread apart via mechanical motion as the night went on. The reaction to the new setup was lukewarm.
“I know the audience had mixed feelings about it, and so did we,” Kuroda tells Live For Live Music via Zoom ahead of Phish’s 2022 summer tour, “but it was something new, and we wanted to take a risk. For the one year that we did it, we thought it was cool and we loved it. And then, I went to the organization when that year was up and went, ‘So… what’s the general feeling around here?’ And everyone went, ‘That was great, but let’s get rid of it. We did it for a year. Video just really isn’t our thing.'”
The conversation moves along to their experiments with lasers, yet another ubiquitous rock concert production element scarcely utilized in live Phish shows. Kuroda likens them to the 2016 LED screens, which he designed alongside Abigail Holmes. “Everybody likes lasers, but lasers are on every show in the world,” he explains. “The thing about Phish that’s not conducive to LED or lasers is Phish is extremely, extremely organic. Lasers and LEDs are extremely electric. … You can’t make Phish look like, I don’t know, an EDM show. … We can’t just grab some lasers and throw them out there and turn them on and make it look like ZZ Top, with green beams and all that stuff. We have to make lasers look like Phish. That’s the challenge.”
“Gif and I did [Justin] Bieber for a year and a half,” Chris reminds us. “That entire show is video, pyrotechnics, lasers, flamethrowers. The same thing night after night after night. That stuff fits a gigantic pop show, but if we did all that stuff every night with Phish, it would get boring very quick. The first time people would go, ‘Oh my God, that was so cool.’ And by the fifth time they’d be like, ‘Okay, enough already.'”
Reconciling ever-evolving capabilities with the delicately honed ambiance of the Phish stage is a constant balancing act for Chris Kuroda and Andrew Giffin. Both pride themselves on being early adopters of new technologies, but their cutting-edge ambitions are necessarily guided by an intimate understanding of the band’s live look—its “atmosphere,” as Gif and CK5 are inclined to call it.
Thankfully for the two wizards behind the proverbial curtain of Phish’s lighting console, that atmosphere is predicated on a willingness to experiment, to try things out, to constantly build upon the last idea in pursuit of the next one. Just take that short-lived 2016 LED wall experiment: While the overall concept wasn’t the right fit, the automation elements introduced that year served as a pivotal first step toward the mechanically mobile lighting rigs that Phish fans have now known and loved for half a decade.
“The LED wall was our first experience with, you can call it automation. The LED wall started out here in the first set,” Chris Kuroda explains, running his hand across the frame at eye level, “and then it blew open. That was the one automation move.”
That brief foray into automation sparked a new scheme. When the Phish organization asked him what he wanted to try next, Kuroda says, “I had the basic idea of, ‘I want trusses that move around, that I can make shapes, and they do stuff,’ which was at the time in my mind an incredibly simple idea that became an unbelievably complicated series of events to make it work.”
[Photo: Andrew Giffin – Phish (2021)]
Phish fans like to contextualize things in eras—1.0, 2.0, 3.0, etc. That practice is not new; we’ve been doing it with art and artists for years, from Phish to The Beatles to Van Gogh to Star Wars. It’s a helpful framework from which to consider the arc of something’s evolution over time, though it is inherently subjective. Oftentimes, the artist and the audience will have different views of “eras,” of the inflection points that define their narrative.
Much like Trey Anastasio bucked the widely recognized, hiatus-dictated Phish “eras” in 2018 and 2019 interviews with SiriusXM Phish Radio and The New York Times, respectively, Kuroda divides his timeline in broader strokes than fans might expect.
As he ponders how to classify the current chapter of Phish lights, he admits, “I never really thought of it [in eras]. I’ve just sort of been following what the audience says. … Oh, we’re in 4.0? Okay, if you say so, I guess [laughs]. For me, and I’ve been here way more than half my life, there was kind of the ‘bar/club era,’ followed by the, ‘Oh my God, we’ve gotten big [enough] that we’re playing Madison Square Garden in 1993, ’94 era.’ And for me, that era lasted from then until the breakup in ’04.”
“People have different eras in the middle of there,” he continues, “and then the next era for me was when Hampton ’09 started. I feel like even though the lighting rig has changed and the philosophies have changed on our end, from ’09 ’til present day for me is the same era. I mean, I could break it down as the ‘video wall era,’ the ‘moving truss era,’ the ‘circles’ lighting rig era. Oh, the ‘ovals‘ era, which lasted like two weeks—you can’t win them all. I took a beating for that one [laughs]. … But I try not to think about it that way.”
Even beyond the band’s reunion, the beginning of Kuroda’s modern era of Phish lights was marked by another important development: Andrew Giffin’s introduction to the fold at Festival 8 in Indio, CA over Halloween weekend 2009.
“It’s the Gif era,” Kuroda says with a smile. “He had the same organic experience that pretty much every Phish fan has, where he came in to Festival 8, didn’t really understand how it worked, didn’t really understand how the current programming that I had at that time worked. He knew of me, so made a choice because he wanted to see what I was all about. So he was like, ‘Alright, I’ll come work with Chris, because I’ve heard of him.'”
“I didn’t even have the advantage of a rehearsals period or anything. I just showed up at that gig,” Giffin explains. “And I just committed to Festival 8. That was it. I was going to go for a few days. I was living in L.A., so it was close. That was it, right? See how this goes.”
“Right when that first set started at Festival 8,” Chris goes on, “he tapped me on the shoulder and he was like, ‘I just don’t know how you do it. I’m looking at your programming, it doesn’t make any sense to me, and I just… I don’t get it.’ And I just turned to him and I was like, ‘Just watch, man. Just watch. I promise your jaw will be on the floor.'”
“I probably was being pretty arrogant,” Kuroda recalls, a knowing grin on his face. “He was like, ‘Really? Yeah, whatever, dude. Whatever.’ And the show started, and we did the first set, and then the first set ended and I turned around to him and he had that ‘holy f—ing s—’ look on his face. And I said, ‘So, by watching what we just did, do you have any new ideas that you think you could contribute moving forward?’ And he went, ‘Probably about 10,000 or more.’ That was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.”
[Photo: Andrew Giffin – Phish (2021)]
Chris Kuroda, now in his 34th year as the Phish lighting designer, is a household name among fans. Andrew Giffin, though he entered the equation only a decade ago, has become an indispensable asset to the operation. “His role has expanded exponentially since we first started working together,” Chris explains. “I hired him as my programmer, and over the years, with things getting more complicated and me realizing the raw talent and just intelligence and understanding of how Phish works [that he brings], we now call him the associate designer.”
Today, the two LDs build the visual element of Phish’s live shows together from the ground up—Kuroda as the auteur, the dreamer, concocting ideas; Giffin as the engineer, crafting the building blocks of those visions piece by piece.
“I obviously operate all the lighting, all the lighting cues,” Kuroda continues, “But when we started adding the automation to the equation, the moving trusses and stuff, I couldn’t operate all that stuff by myself and communicate on the headset and do the lighting and the automation and all that stuff by myself. So, we handed that role over to Gif, just to sort of take cues from me so I could say, ‘Make the automation do this, make the automation do that,’ and that very rapidly grew into a trust between the two of us where … when I cue him and say, ‘Make the automation do something,’ I don’t have a specific idea, I just know things need to be happening. He has the creative freedom to choose what that move is.”
Gif traces his influence on Phish’s lighting operation to the technological breakthroughs that took place in the five-year interim between the band’s brief breakup in 2004 and its eventual reunion in 2009. “The lighting technology, specifically the technology of the controllers that we use, advanced a lot in those five years, so that was really the perfect time for me to get involved. I was able to contribute in ways that helped to improve the way that we control the show.”
“And, of course,” he adds, “we’ve been the Guinea pigs and early adopters of software for years and years now, because we have the application for this stuff. We can find creative uses of the new control technologies that other shows just don’t really need.”
Around that time, Kuroda explains, “There were bands like the [Red Hot] Chili Peppers and a few [others] that were moving lots of little balls, little spheres around over the audience that weigh like five pounds each, and we looked at each other and said, ‘Why can’t we do the same thing with objects that weigh a thousand pounds instead of five pounds?'”
“I wanted to have a bunch of trusses moving around and making shapes, and I thought that would be cool.” Chris recounts. “Okay. Go for it.” Simple enough, he thought. By 2017, automation—the idea that had entered the Phish world as an ancillary aspect of the 2016 LED wall—had become the lynchpin of the new light show, though not without a significant amount of heavy lifting both physical and theoretical.
“So, first thing that happens is we do it, and we turn a truss [from horizontal to vertical], and the light’s pointing at the wall, not pointing at stage. I went, ‘Oh. I never thought about that part [laughs]. How are we gonna deal with this?’ … If we couldn’t find a way to keep the lights on the band members while the trusses are moving, what’s the point? You can’t have a bunch of guys in the dark, you know what I mean? So, we had to get together and bang our heads against tables and try a million different ways to figure out, using trigonometry, how to make that work.”
Both Gif and Kuroda praise the Phish fanbase for its attentive reception to what they do. “They might not have the exact technical vocabulary to describe whatever they saw,” Gif says, “but they know exactly a moment of a song, and what they saw, and they’ll describe it, and they have a comment about it.”
“But the interesting thing is there’s so much they don’t know,” Kuroda smiles, using his hand (as a truss) and a pen (as a spotlight) to demonstrate the intricate X-Y-Z coordinate tracking considerations necessary to keep lights focused on a given spot as their attached machinery travels through space in three dimensions. Gif takes that thread and runs with it, laying out the calculus required to maintain the flowing, “organic” Phish light aesthetic from the kinetic rig’s ever-changing vantage point.
“I mean, it’s so deep. It’s ridiculous,” Chris laughs. “Oh, yeah,” Gif confirms. “You have no idea.”
The logistics of using the kinetic rig are just as complex as the mathematical theory behind it. “It’s all engineered,” Giffin explains of the elaborate nightly setup and operation processes. “There’s entire crews of people that are responsible for building it every day and testing everything before we fly it over the band’s heads [laughs].”
At all times during the show, he continues, there are three people aside from himself and Kuroda watching the machinery—one at the automation control center and one at either side of the stage. “[It’s] a little bit of a burden on them,” he relents, “because most shows that have this sort of technology in them, they know every night that at, you know, the second chorus of this song, this thing’s going to move, right? Well, they have absolutely no idea when I’m going to hit the button on the lighting console that makes this stuff move now. So, they’ve kind of got to be glued to monitoring it all night long.” It’s a burden he says they seem to enjoy.
Phish Lighting Rig Time-Lapse – 7/28/18 – Set To “46 Days” From 11/3/18
The gradual improvements to the rig’s kinetic capabilities have largely been tied to technological advancements and the subsequent easing of operational limitations. Back in 2017, Gif explains, each automation move had to be called in to an operator backstage in real-time. As Kuroda adds, if they wanted to go from a “V” shape to an “X” shape, they had to first go to a flat, “—” shape and then shift from there to their final destination. “The way the new system works,” he adds, “we can go right from one to the other without having to go flat first, and it’s a lot more fluid and it’s a lot less jumpy and jerky.”
Songs like “Run Like An Antelope” have already benefited from that fluidity, as well as from Gif’s increased control over the speed of the trusses from behind the lighting console. “He has the ability now to ramp up the speed and ramp it down and play with that kind of stuff as we’re going. He can stop it from moving on a dime. … When it all of a sudden goes ‘bam!’ after the jam,” Kuroda exclaims, chopping one hand against his open palm, “he can stop it, right wherever it is.”
“It’s still experimental,” he adds of their ongoing incorporation of new technologies. “The current automation system that moves all that stuff around is a brand new automation system this year. Our leash has loosened over time, and that’s given us the creative flexibility to take it deeper and deeper and deeper. … We already know that next year we’re going to be taking it even deeper, and we already have plans for that, as well.”
“Over the years,” Gif explains, “we’ve taken more and more and more control ourselves in the lighting console, which also allows us to integrate the motion with the lighting cues better. But that’s evolved over time, and that’s a benefit of being able to maintain that same design for a few years and grow with it rather than trying to reinvent it every year.”
[Photo: Andrew Giffin – Phish (2021)]
The latest iteration of the kinetic setup, introduced on Phish’s 2021 tour and dialed in for an extensive summer outing in 2022, re-incorporates yet another look first used in 2016: LED elements, this time via fixed, linear panels that line the rig’s individual trusses. The effect they create has been spectacular—sheets of light that co-mingle as holographic, pastel prisms and ripple out in droplets of color across the stage in all directions.
As CK5 explains, “The basic idea behind those LED strips was to show off the shapes that the trusses were in better than we were doing it in the past. We wanted these lines so you could really see the shape. And again, a very simple, organic idea turned into all the tricks we’re doing with them today.”
While LED elements had missed the mark in 2016, the 2021–2022 additions have been met with a chorus of approval from fans. “LED is the wave of the future, so we had to find a way to integrate LED in such a way that it fits into what we’re trying to present for Phish. … We really try to remain cutting-edge. That’s sort of our mantra out there on Phish. The LED bars that you’re seeing right now, we’re the only tour in the world using [them]. When we first started using them, there were only a hundred in existence and we owned 78 of them.”
[Photo: Andrew Giffin – Phish (2021)]
The new setup is helping Kuroda learn to love the margins of the color spectrum. “If I can just fluff Gif for a minute,” he says, “I was really into all the super-saturated colors for many years, the dark purple, dark blue, dark green, true red, true yellow. Gif opened up my eyes to different shades of these colors.”
“Like, somewhere between yellow and white is a color that Gif created that we call ‘dirty,'” he adds. “It’s a color I never would’ve come up with, I never would’ve thought of using it, and ‘dirty’ is a huge part of our show now. … I was very primary for many years, and Gif helped me get my brain out of that, and it’s probably one of the best things that ever happened to our show. Instead of relying on the same 30 colors, all of a sudden we’re relying on hundreds of colors, different shades of this and that and the other, and they’re all beautiful.”
“That’s where the magic is,” Gif affirms. “There’s this sort of adage in stage lighting design that’s like, ‘You get two colors at a time, and then white as an accent.’ If you’ve got more than two colors up there, it’s probably not going to look that great. But somehow in Phish we’re able to layer all these different shades. We sit there meticulously with a lighting simulator for a few weeks before each tour goes out and build these looks and all the effects and things we’re going to use, but they’re carefully constructed so that the colors work well together, and that’s pretty atypical as far as lighting goes.”
[Photo: Andrew Giffin – Phish (2021)]
In addition to utilizing virtual programming technology, Giffin and Kuroda spend weeks fine-tuning each new setup. As Kuroda explains, “Gif and I will basically move into a house together for five weeks, or a lighting studio where we have lighting consoles, and computers, and TV screens, and three-dimensional lighting software running.”
“We also like to get one of each type of light that we’re using in the show,” adds Gif, “to really get a feel of the character of the tool that you’re using. You want to have one that you can see with your own eyes.”
Before the days of virtual programming, Kuroda notes, “You used to have to rent an arena for a month, load in the show, and sit there with the real stuff … just to program, tech, and rehearse. Within the last 10 years or so, 12 years, the fact that you can now do it virtually, a), it’s a lot easier for us to work that way, b), it’s way more cost-effective for a tour. You rent that stuff for a month and it’s just sitting there while you’re programming and it can cost millions of dollars.”
“And the exciting thing about the Phish programming is that it’s never done,” Gif adds. “[Typically], in those kinds of situations, you rent an arena for a month so you can program your tour, and you’re done working when you’ve gotten to the end of the setlist. You started at the beginning of the show, you’ve gotten to the last song in the setlist, now you’re done programming. The tour can start.”
“That’s not how Phish works, obviously, so we’re never done programming. If we come up with a new idea on the road, we’ll add it to the show that day and you’ll see it that night,” Gif explains. “Sometimes, we even add new ideas to the programming in the middle of the show. Talk about something, and the way the network works between the consoles, I can program it while Chris is continuing to run the other cues, show him where I put it, and then when he is ready for it, hey, hit it.”
While they do have their “safe zones” (like the strobe/dimmer chase and opening look Chris often uses on the intro to “Possum”) and their own, self-imposed criteria (“We try not to ‘blow our wad’ in the first night or two … so there’s something fresh and interesting to see every night that you didn’t see the night before, or the night before that,” Chris says), the rest of the performance is up to their collective imagination and ingenuity. “We treat every show exactly the same, and if the energy draws something out of us that we can’t predict, that’s sort of magical,” Kuroda says.
That unforeseen magic at times comes from complications, though they’re used to taking things in stride. Stories drift in and out about what they were doing when Trey got stuck above MSG on New Year’s Eve 2019 and wrote a song about it on the way down (“Freaking. Out. Is that the right answer? Freaking out..”), or the rapid series of events surrounding last year’s postponed New Year’s shows (“We were in the rehearsal space, everybody, the whole crew, all the production, teching what you saw on Earth Day for New Year’s, and then we canceled the show on the 22nd, so we all got on planes on the 23rd and went home. I literally told my wife, ‘I’m going to be home for New Year’s for the first time in 30 years. Let’s have a party or something.’ And then on the 26th, I got a phone call and they went, ‘You’re going back. We’re doing a broadcast instead.’ And we all arrived on the 28th and worked 28th, 29th, 30th, and most of 31st, and then did the broadcast”).
“That’s just sort of what happens with Phish,” Chris Kuroda concludes. “As everyone knows, Phish doesn’t even write a setlist. They just walk out there, feel what the audience feels like, and they just start playing what feels right. So, take that as your base, and then just expand it. It just goes from there. We all do it. We all roll that way.”
[Photo: Andrew Giffin – Phish (2021)]
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