So What! Article

FRIGGIN’ IN THE RIGGIN’! - A Chat with Chad Koehler

Dec 11, 2017

Hitting the heights of tour life with Metallica’s head rigger, Chad Koehler

BY STEFFAN CHIRAZI

When you meet Chad Koehler, you meet a man who is friendly, polite, firm, and who it’s clear does not suffer fools at all. This is probably not surprising when you account for the fact that Chad’s work involves working at great heights with thin margins and multiple tons of weight. It is not a profession where fools can afford to be suffered; the consequences for slack or stupid behavior are far too great. In fact, it is not too big a stretch to say that Chad occupies one of the single most important positions on the WorldWired Tour – not that he will have any of it! To Chad, he is simply part of the WorldWired brotherhood, but So What! knows better. 

Steffan Chirazi: I’m going to start with the most obvious question to me. As a child, were you the kid who was up the tree and all that business? Were heights and climbing a bug?

Chad Koehler: Absolutely. Up the trees, climbing all the time when I was younger back in Ohio. I used to have a tree house, and I was guilty of climbing the water towers in town when you were not supposed to, so things like that as well.

SC: And here you are today literally climbing to the very tops of stadiums and arenas, hundreds of feet in the air; not a treehouse anymore!

CK: Well now with the size of these shows and the sheer amount of advance work, precision, and laying it out, there’s a lot less climbing for me and a lot more pointing. I have 20 guys that actually pull chain and hang the show for us – 20 up and 10 down typically. So that’s 30 guys in each city, plus the two guys I have, Darrell and Skippy, who tour with us. And just to clarify, that’s 30 different local venue guys at every gig, speaking whatever the language is where we’re playing…but we have the common language of rigging! Put it this way, we draw a lot of pictures! I have a bag with chalk and we will literally sketch stuff out on the venue floor. Remember though, those 30 guys in each venue work that venue regularly, so it is important to treat them with the respect they deserve. This show, it’s pushing over 100 tons-

SC: So hang on, 20 guys going up and 10 down?

CK: Yes, 10 down on the ground, tying on our chain hoist.

SC: And over 100 tons is being flown?

CK: Yes.

SC: I’m going to guess that you guys are the first in and the last out of every venue?  

CK: Yes, when we come in first thing in the morning, that’s one of my favorite times of the day. We come into the arena and it’s clean and very quiet. The bleachers are retracted, the lights are off and the arena is clean. Then they kick on the lights and that’s when we lay out our rig. We try to get the show up anywhere from two and a half [hours] to… well two and a half HOURS is our best time and six and a half could be the worst time we’ve had with a higher building.

SC: Two and a half hours to put 100 tons in the air. Just unfathomable!

CK: Well, that’s hanging the rigging that we use to lift all the gear. We have just over 155 chain hoists that we use every day, 48 two-ton motors; it’s quite a bit for a show.

SC: So bring us through how your set-up works?

CK: The first thing that happens for a tour of this size is that we take the designers’ design and integrate it with various vendors to get the show into rehearsal. This process often starts four to eight weeks ahead of the show being assembled. Then we show up to rehearsal, which is when it really starts to come together. The advance work never stops as we move this beast around the world. I’m already working on Lisbon and Madrid which are three months out [the interview took place at the end of October – ED].

SC: And you are probably involved in the design of this rig, right?

CK: Not the design but again integrating the design into the buildings, you know? I was consulted on a lot of the things with that, but ultimately the show is just basically handed to us and then we try to make it work as best as we possibly can.

SC: Have you had to shut anything down for practical reasons?

CK: Well, there’s been some buildings in Germany, I’m not sure if you were at that show. The cubes weren’t able to move in that show. Because of the movement of the cubes, and the speed at which they travel, they add a dynamic load to the roof that sometimes puts us over [whereas] we would be okay if it was just not moving.

SC: So that’s an interesting sidebar. Just explain briefly for us the difference between a static load versus a dynamic load.

CK: The static load is what the gear weighs when we lift it up. There is some dynamic in lifting it because basically when you’re lifting it up and it stops, the moment of inertia stops. Then it increases the load. Like if you were to jump onto a scale, it’s gonna peak and then it’s gonna even out.

SC: If I jumped onto a scale like that it would tell me to fuck off!

CK: It’s funny you say that. I’ve been getting a complex everywhere I go, as every building I call they keep telling me I gotta lose weight!! Ultimately we make it work and we do the best we can. There’s been a few times where we’ve had to remove a little PA here or maybe you’ll see we’ve removed some cubes because there’s some truss overload issues. And it’s tough. I mean, there’s the show, and when we start to take away from it, to me it’s obvious. We’ve got a little bit of a hole or something missing. But we want to be safe and that’s more important than anything in the end.

SC: So when you walk into a building, you know that “there’s gonna be a hole in Section 6” or whatever, because you’ve done the advance work on that. Take, for example, this-here Manchester Arena.

CK: Well, we have to make it fit not only structurally, but as it relates to physical space and heights to achieve trim – “trim” is where the show is designed to be height-wise. We’ve extended things, moved things, shifted elements and I don’t want to walk in not knowing the coordinates of what we moved and where it is in relation to where it normally goes. When I come in the building, I kick on the lights, we find dead center of the building, and then we lay out three tape measures. We run out the three 200’ tape measures: one on each side and one down the center. We start with the “zero” at dead center of the building, then triangulate it – “3, 4, 5” as I say – to make sure the tapes are in line. Once we have all three set, we’ll go run two 100’ tapes left and right and move from 0’ to 186’9” so that the show is exactly where it was yesterday and the day before…even though the roof above is totally different, whether that be because of higher or lower beams, distances between truss, or a total lack of sufficient roof trusses to rig our show from. We work with dead hangs and bridles. A dead hang is when there is a roof truss directly above where we need to rig a chain hoist. If there are two roof trusses that are 30 feet apart, and you’ve got a bunch of chain hoists that have to go in between them, then we create bridles using geometry to make the point hang in that space between these trusses.

SC: This was my next question. It seems like geometry is probably a pretty important component.

CK: It is.

SC: So was young Chad, the climber, also a budding and eager mathematician?

CK: I’m not a mathematician. I did do very well in math.

SC: Did you like numbers?

CK: I did. I’ve always enjoyed math and geometry, and it becomes pretty easy, to be honest.

SC: Yeah, well, okay mate!

CK: [Unruffled by your SW! editor’s math-ignorance!] Explaining that you have two beams. Not only do you have to make it hit that point, but you can’t have it really low. You have to also take into account the height and the location of the chain hoist. And the chain hoist lifts up the trusses that hold the cubes and the speakers and the trusses and all of those things [at this point your SW! editor’s brain is fritzing], but every day we make the show look as it did yesterday, the best we can.

SC: Which is amazing. But I mean when you’re fucking about with protractors and compasses and all that at school, you didn’t imagine it would be leading you to this, right?

CK: No. I didn’t, but it’s important. It really is for my job. It becomes very important, because it’s a big challenge with a show that’s this heavy. Especially in the center. We’re lucky over here [in Europe] they don’t have massive scoreboards like we have in America, where the scoreboards weigh anywhere from 30 to 40, 50 thousand pounds. The one in Cleveland now, the LeBron-a-tron as they call it, it’s massive. It’s huge. [Chad is right, European arenas such as the O2 do not have central scoreboards as professional basketball and hockey are simply not “things” here. – ED]

SC: And do you have to adapt that weight into what you’re dealing with?

CK: Metallica’s Production has hired an engineering firm that’s helping us talk engineering to the structural engineers at each venue, because of the dynamic load. Y’know, when we’re in places where there’s potential for snow, a roof can hold half million to a million pounds of snow. So if you’re playing there in the summer that helps you. If you’re playing there in the winter it hurts you, because you have to account for the scoreboards, the snow loads, and everything else.

SC: So you’ve had to hire a consultancy firm to explain these logistics to people who may not necessarily fully gauge what they’re dealing with when we come into town.

CK: They do [gauge it]. The structural engineers from each venue, the buildings and the folks we’ve hired, Atelier One, they’ve been in the music business since way back. Pink Floyd times really – Pink Floyd along with Mark Fisher’s design I believe [one of the most renowned and innovative architects/show designers ever, who sadly passed away in 2013 – ED], so they’re well versed in what we’re trying to do. Not that the structural engineers in each city aren’t good but they build buildings. As the shows got heavier, and we started dealing with structural engineers, they didn’t know what a “bridle” was in the beginning. They just assumed you could hang it from the truss and adapt the show to what the building is, but we need to adapt the building to what our show is because our show is meant to be the same every day.

SC: That’s intense stuff. I have to go back you as a young man, because I want to know how you landed in this arena. It seems to me that you would be someone who would’ve been spotted for this because everything lines up. You like to climb trees, you like heights, you like geometry, you like math. This is a rare combination, I would think. So what happened for you to end up rigging? What was your first tour?

CK: First tour? I was working at an amphitheater in Columbus, Ohio. I was 22, going to the Ohio State University, and Santana came through. I was the lead rigger, rigging the building and kinda like the crew boss. I made all the crew calls, I handled the crew that day, and I did the rig.

SC: But you did the rig, I mean, what? Is it like everyone sits in a room and says, “Right, someone’s gotta do blah, someone’s gotta do blah and someone’s gotta rig”???

CK: Pretty much. Back then, there were no safety lines. This is 23, 24 years ago. Eventually you started wearing rock climbing harnesses, but there were no safety lines to attach them to, so those were more for rappelling and doing fun things that we liked to do. But I was 22, working at the amphitheater and climbing, rigging the shows, and they were paying us well! And at that age it was really fun. And then Santana’s people came through, would have been ’97, and that was my first tour. Would have been 20 years ago back in June. And I stayed with him for almost six years, and then I went on to Sade, Elton John, Def Leppard, and eventually The Stones.  I did the last two AC/DC tours, and three Stones.

SC: I’m sure, I mean the Santana production must’ve grown over the six years, right? It had to have.

CK: It did. That’s right around when he had his Supernatural album. It went from four trucks to eight or nine trucks. So it doubled, it got pretty big and I was at that time – shoot – I was only 25 years old, and I stuck with the position. And we toured that for better part of three and a half years.

SC: Is there sort of a “rigger’s union?”

CK: Oh yeah!

SC: When we talk about bands, the drummers all hang out together because they’re considered the “eccentrics.” Are riggers considered the eccentrics of a tour? Do you have your own “club?”

CK: Well, the thing is we don’t typically tour together but we all know each other. Lots of respect for a lot of different folks that have done this in the past. Jerry Ritter, Ken Mitchell, Chuck Melton, Willy Williams, Bill Renstal, Jez Craddock, Dave Roe and hell, even “Totally Todd”… all those guys that have done this, all good guys that have done this show or this tour. But it is a small group of guys, and I know a majority of ’em. Not all of ’em by any means, but there’s not a lot of guys dragging around 75 to 100 tons of stuff.

SC: Do you ever share trade secrets? Or not secrets but would you be like, “Hey, by the way, new building, I’ve been through it. If you haven’t been here check this, this, and this…”

CK: Absolutely. Yeah, send ’em the drawing if you can and help each other out whatever [way] we can. Cover [each other], you know, if someone needs two weeks. That’s not uncommon at all. Like, “Hey, I need to go do a wedding or my son’s graduating high school,” or whatever, we’ll fill in for each other. If someone calls you and they really need you, and you’re not doing nothing, you better go help ’em out because you might need that favor down the road.

SC: That’s great to hear. I’ve gotta ask… we all like to tell “war stories.” If you’re a journalist, you tell stories about, “Well, I threw up on myself and wrecked a plane,” or whatever and everyone thinks that’s hilarious, but I bet your war stories are pret-ty intense. Any to share?

CK: No, I’ve been pretty fortunate. I mean, there’s been some [near] accidents that were close, but thank God I’ve never really had any major issues. You know, there’s been some things that have happened that you can’t believe. You’re like, “Wow, we got lucky there,” but…

SC: Nothing actually has.

CK: No.

SC: I just want to say, kids, this is why you need to do your mathematic and geometry homework, because if you do, accidents don’t happen. All jokes aside, that doesn’t happen without meticulous preparation. You strike me as a very, very thorough, no bullshit guy, no margins for error, just the right preparations and calculations.

CK: You gotta make it right. And that comes from starting out working at heights. You know, when you’re 100 feet in the air or 50 feet in the air or 300 feet in the air, you can’t make mistakes. And it goes on to this. Like I said I don’t climb near as much, but you can’t be everywhere. I gotta make sure everything is in the right place, that everything has been built correctly. Watching the 30 guys I have that can do it faster than if I did it myself. Sometimes you’re trying to work 30 guys that you don’t know every day. Of course I come back to this building [Manchester Arena] and the O2s and the Madison Square Gardens. I’ve been in those buildings 15, 20 times. There’s guys that have been in a lot more than me, but they start to know who you are and you start to know their names. You learn a couple each time, but sometimes you go to a city you haven’t been to, or a country you haven’t been to, and to get this type of show up... it’s harder in certain places than it is in others. You know, it-

SC: Any particularly difficult yet ultimately satisfying shows spring to mind?

CK: One of the hardest shows I did was a one-off with The Stones and it was in Rio. We did the show on the beach there in Rio, and it was on the sand, the structure was custom for that show and it was tough. They have a different attitude towards working especially in the heat, and when you’re on a time line you gotta get things going, you gotta get the show up! I’ve done a lot of big shows that you look, standing in the middle of the room and think, “What have I done?” Like heavy, heavy shows… like this one! It’s a 100 ton show. It’s a lot more advance work, a lot more engineer talks, a lot more stuff like that. Not to mention just physically putting it up. I mean we’ve got 24 trucks and I bet 18 of ’em are in the air.

SC: That’s insane.

CK: Just a small stage, pretty small footprint, intimate footprint. And then you have front of house, the production office and some dressing rooms, but everything else is in the air!!

SC: It’s pretty amazing to think about. Let me ask you if I can, just a couple of quickies here. One cube. Approximately how much does that weigh?

CK: Five hundred and forty pounds. The winch that is used to move it: 600 pounds.

SC: Okay. And each of these cubes has a 600-pound winch moving it.

CK: The ones that move. We have a couple that have been made static-

SC: The corners have been made static.

CK: The tips of the diamond. As I said earlier that’s one way we can lose some weight and continue to put the whole show up. Unfortunately we don’t get [all] the movement we like to see. It’s a beautiful thing when they’re in motion, I think. But we do everything we can.

SC: But no one wants a “Stonehenge” [this is a Spinal Tap movie reference – if you have not seen it, stop reading and rent now – ED].

CK: No.

SC: It sounds to me like with what you’re explaining… you could end up with one if you tried to push it.

CK: Oh, yeah. There’s been grids and venues that have failed and were overloaded [Chad’s talking in general, not about WorldWired. – ED] in the last few decades and we’re a lot more technically advanced I think with some of the things we use now. Most of the guys are using load cells. We use load cells provided by KDH Precision, LLC which is a great company offering the most advanced wireless load cell systems around. These load cells weigh what we’re putting up.

SC: Load cells are?

CK: They’re like a scale. They measure. So basically, we have 40 different two-ton hoists on that grid, and if one’s a little bit higher it starts to pick up more. So knowing exactly where your weight is in the building, that technology’s there now and it wasn’t 20-30 years ago. The shows weren’t as heavy [either], but I’m glad that we’re able to employ that technology and actually know where we’re putting the weight.

SC: And… I know I’m gonna get this figure wrong. You said 100, how many tons?

CK: It’s 104 tons with the dynamic loading. The static actual physical gear that we have – the speakers, the lights, the video cubes not moving – is 77 tons.

SC: That’s insane.

CK: It’s like hanging four double decker nightliner tour busses. Puts things in perspective, right?

That it does.

And with that, we thank Chad for his time and watch him return to the math pit.