Baltimore-born Aaron Kovelman, 25, started out playing music, but these days lights up the stage as the lighting designer for The Chainsmokers, who won favorite electronic dance music artist at Sunday’s American Music Awards.
Kovelman always wanted to make it big and go on tour. Lighting design came into his life on a whim one night when he was attending a show at The 8×10 in Baltimore. He saw someone running lights from a laptop and asked them to show him some things and not soon after found himself running lights at the Federal Hill venue, often for free.
He got to fulfill his dream of hitting the road when local funk/jam band Pigeons Playing Ping Pong invited him on tour to Colorado with them. Although the gig was a one-off at first, by the time the tour had been concluded, Kovelman found himself in a full-time position with the band.
Eventually, he was offered a job back in Baltimore with a friend’s company and began to transition into doing more lighting design for dance music. The connections that he had made through various gigs landed him with The Chain-smokers, and he has been touring with them since California festival Coachella in April.
What was getting started like?
You’ve got to get your hands dirty and start from the bottom and work your way up. Ground zero is usually being a stagehand. I had none of that experience; I was a musician. I didn’t know anything about power, about lamps, about anything. Except I knew music, I understood the mood.
Once I jumped to the big leagues from Pigeons, there was a huge learning curve that I fell significantly behind on because I came from the artistic side and didn’t know every little detail. I tried my hardest working the extra amount, and there is still even more for me to learn, but you can’t teach the artistic element of lighting. That is an innate talent.
I first toured with Pigeons for three weeks and decided it was the life I wanted to live. It was a huge light going off in my head, “I’m going to be a touring production guy.” Even though I was at the bottom of the scale of production, I was like, “This is it. This is what I want to do.” I was extremely hesitant to leave Pigeons when I was offered to do so. It was heartbreaking, but I was so excited to go from running eight lights a night to 500 or 1,000 lights.
How do you prepare for a show with The Chainsmokers?
My typical routine right now is I will have the stage design sent to me a week ahead of the show. At home, I spend between one and four hours preparing my file for that show, getting all of the lights lined up as needed on my laptop.
I typically get to the show between three and six hours before doors open. I am at the board, setting up, making sure that the lights all work. As soon as the doors open and the music starts, I’m there plugging away.
You approach it the same way you would any show. The show must go on.
Does the show vary a lot for you?
I typically keep the same moves in mind and in my pocket: “I’m going to do this when this note comes.” But there are two ways to run a lights show.
One is called time code — you spend a lot of hours in advance programming it so when the song starts, you hit play and nothing else and the lights all move perfectly in coordination. I don’t like to do that, I do everything manually. It’s called busking, so that if all of a sudden they want to change and play a different song, I’m ready to adapt. But the goal of running my show manually is to make it look like it’s a time-coded show, everything is right on time and lands perfectly, but I’m sitting there controlling exactly how long everything takes.
It’s kind of like playing an instrument for me. I know where all the keys are and I lay it out the same way every time.
The element of the picture and the photograph has totally revamped the way that I run my lights show — realizing that at the end of the day, all that matters is that perfect picture from the back of the room. That has drastically changed how I run my show, trying to create as perfect of a vision for the camera as possible.