(Guns N’ Roses photography: Katarina Benzova)
Growing up in Satellite Beach, Florida, close to Patrick Air Force Base and down the road from Cape Canaveral, Rob Koenig, lighting designer, director and programmer for Ignition Show Design, recalls seeing the night sky filled with light and wonder. Although he didn’t follow his father’s footsteps to work at NASA, it’s easy to connect the dots between the awe-inspiring sights and Rob’s career in rock ‘n’ roll lighting.
I recently had the pleasure of talking with Rob while he was in Dallas with the Guns ‘N Roses’ “Not In This Lifetime …” tour. It was great to hear about his creative and technical approach to lighting. As a teenager, two of Rob’s favorite bands were Metallica and Guns N’ Roses, and now he’s living his dream as an integral part of both bands’ shows, while also working with such diverse artists as Carrie Underwood, Eric Church, Billy Idol and Aerosmith.
[MM] Growing up around the space program must have been captivating. What stands out for you?
[Rob] Until I was in my 20s, I didn’t really understand how cool my childhood was. We constantly had aircraft flying overhead, rockets being launched and helicopters flying right above our house. I got to see the first shuttle night launch from the press perimeter, two miles away from Cape Canaveral, and saw launch after launch of Atlas and Delta rockets. I even got to see the shuttle piggybacked on a 747 from Edwards Air Force Base while standing on the front lawn of my house! Growing up with all of that, you never stop to think about how incredibly cool and unique it is.
Besides working at NASA, my dad was a classically trained piano player, and I was fascinated by his ability to play music. My dad started me on piano lessons when I was five years old and then, when I was nine, I started playing drums. My home was always filled with music; my dad would be playing classical music, and my mother, sister and brother would play ‘50’s rock ‘n’ roll.
Music has been a natural part of my life, as far back as I can remember. As a matter of fact, when I was five years old, my kindergarten teacher had to tell me to stop bringing our Kiss, Rush and Aerosmith albums to Show & Tell! My number one love growing up was always music—rock, metal, punk and a lot of thrash. Now that I am older, my musical tastes are much more diverse, but I still listen to a lot of it.
[MM] In your wildest dreams, did you ever imagine you would eventually work with bands like Guns N’ Roses and Metallica?
[Rob] If someone told 15-year-old me I would someday be part of the lighting team for Metallica or Guns N’ Roses, I would have said they were crazy. I loved them both! When I was 14 years old, I went to my first concert—Guns N’ Roses opening for Mötley Crüe. Walking into the show, I stopped and bought a Mötley Crüe tee shirt and worked my way up to the front of the stage. After watching Guns N’ Roses play, I turned around, walked right back to the concession stand, handed them my Mötley Crüe tee shirt and asked to please trade it in for a Guns N’ Roses tee shirt instead. To me, they were dangerous, the music was dirty and I loved every minute of it!
[MM] Do you remember the first time you saw Metallica?
Definitely! I was 15 years old and went with some friends to see the “Damaged Justice” tour. Metallica played fast and heavy on the record, but even faster and heavier live; I was blown away. It was the first time they did the “… And Justice for All” destruction scene, when the stage falls apart and everyone thought it was real, that the stage was really crumbling! It was an absolutely mesmerizing experience for a young kid. Now, when I’m lighting their show, I try to channel that kid—and remember what a 15-year-old is seeing and feeling, what he wants to have happen.
[MM] You’ve been working with Metallica for eight years now and also spend a lot of time with Guns N’ Roses, how different are their lighting setups and approaches?
[Rob] I would say the initial approach has surprising similarities, but each artist also has very different twists to their shows. Both bands have their faster tunes and are very aggressive. Overall, it’s an aggressive approach to lighting both bands, without a lot of clean lines and an in-your-face look that matches the music.
Not to say the bands don’t each have pretty moments, but essentially, it’s a very visceral show from top to bottom. Where Metallica has “Nothing Else Matters,” Guns N’ Roses has “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and “November Rain,” to name a couple. There’s a slightly prettier side to the lighting for those songs, but the goal is, of course, to maintain the integrity of the band.
[MM] Does the lighting change much show to show? Do you find yourself deviating from the plan?
[Rob] With Guns N’ Roses, definitely. This is something Phil Ealy [Production Designer, Guns N’ Roses] and I had to take into consideration. Every night, their song intros and endings are different. Sometimes the solo sections are extended, and sometimes they’ll switch-up solos. Slash might solo in a certain song, but every once in a while, Richard [Fortus] will take it, so we’ve got to keep things very fluid. Let’s not forget, our motto is “the set list is merely a suggestion.”
Metallica interacts with the crowd quite a bit, whether it’s off-stage or even on, so we always need to be ready for those moments. We have to be able to react very quickly to what’s happening onstage, and that often means going off of our path.
Both Guns N’ Roses and Metallica have cue lists for every song, but I always need to have a way to get out of the list and highlight a different band member. I’d say they each play at least half of the set differently every single night, but we’re ready for it.
[MM] How do you gear up for a new tour or even working with a new artist?
[Rob] Live performances vary greatly between artists, so I do as much research as possible to see how an artist plays a song live. With bands like Guns N’ Roses, Metallica or Eric Church, there’s no Pro Tools system; nothing is prerecorded, so the show changes night to night, spontaneously. Metallica, Guns, Eric, they bring an energy to their live shows that isn’t necessarily captured on their records; it’s my job to help translate that for their audiences and have it look organic.
I don’t pre-plan the whole show. I know the look and general vibe of what we’re going for but, as I listen to the songs live or recordings and watch them on YouTube, I get a feel for what they’re doing and just try to riff off of it. For example, on the road, Guns N’ Roses performs “November Rain” completely different than it’s recorded, so the lighting has to convey that energy live to its audience.
[MM] How much does lighting add to the concert experience?
[Rob] It definitely adds an element of excitement to the visual experience. You can stick any of these bands up on a stage in broad daylight, they’d bring their own dynamic to it, and it would be amazing. But, when the houselights go out, I think the lighting takes it over the top. We’re able to paint on top of whatever emotion the band is feeling. Lighting is about reading what the artist was saying when the song was written and channeling it every time. With Metallica and Guns N’ Roses, it’s about giving the audience as intense of an experience as possible—giving them what they paid for.
[MM] Did you always plan to go into lighting?
[Rob] When I was a kid, playing drums in bands was my number one thing. My backup plan (because my parents always told me I needed one) was to be a studio engineer. The band thing never really happened, so I started doing live sound for a little while, but it just didn’t do it for me. I knew a couple of guys who had a small sound and light company in Orlando. One day, they told me they needed a new lighting guy and asked me if I wanted to try it. I figured what the heck, what have I got to lose, so I gave it a shot and immediately fell in love with lighting. I guess I was a more visual than I realized. I loved being able to paint a picture with the band.
[MM] Who have been your mentors along the way?
[Rob] Butch Allen [Van Halen, Yes, Def Leppard, etc.] is at the top of the list. We met in 2003 and through the years; I’m proud to be able to call him my friend. He’s been a big proponent for a long time. What I have learned from Butch, I could write a book about. Peter Morse, a gentleman and a scholar, taught me a lot about layering and texturing a stage with color. He has an amazing eye. Prior to Butch and Peter, Mark Workman [Anthrax, Megadeth, Slayer, Motorhead, etc.] and Garrett Rentz, who is currently the lighting designer for Dolly Parton, were major mentors for me. Garrett and I used to run in the same rock and metal circles; I first met him while he was touring with Marilyn Manson. He was a very early supporter and helped point me in the right direction.
[MM] Working on so many different kinds of tours, how do you approach putting your rig together?
[Rob] It varies widely from artist to artist, but it all starts with listening to the music, the artist’s management and production manager, knowing the venue sizes, trucking and, of course, what the budget is that I have to work with. Those are the basics for a starting point.
Then it’s about discussing what kinds of technology suit a show. Metallica and Guns N’ Roses, for example, both require a lot of big firepower, like very large wash lights. With Guns N’ Roses, we have the Martin MAC III AirFX. They’re good versatile lights with a large aperture and can throw a lot of light out.
We also have 48 Martin Atomic 3000 LEDs, which are probably the coolest strobes on the planet. We absolutely love those. I first used them in February with Metallica at AT&T Park for the “Too Heavy for Halftime” show and was very excited to get them again.
Many thanks to Rob for sharing the great insights into his work. Are you a lighting designer or director who works with metal, punk or hard rock bands? Share how you visually support that kind of energy in the comments.