I’m With The Band – Rob Koenig and Metallica

Posted on February 6, 2024

Photo: Todd Kaplan

With few exceptions, most notably traditional Chinese culture, the number 6 is not considered particularly lucky. Metallica and Rob Koenig might beg to differ, however. For a time, after Koenig started his tenure with the iconic band, they referred to him as “Number Six,” a name chosen because he was their sixth LD in 2008. There was never to be a “number seven.”

Neither Koenig, nor his client, has looked back since, with a string of standard-setting tours like the World Magnetic Tour, the World Wired tour and last year’s M72 World Tour, which featured over 600 automated fixtures. All earned widespread acclaim, from critics and fans alike, not just for the music, which remains as fresh and potent as ever, but also for their productions — visual feasts that somehow manage to create a sense of intimacy, while still filling entire arenas with spectacular effects

For Rob Koenig, contributing to this seemingly impossible balance between power and intimacy is one of the best things about his association with Metallica. He spoke to us about this and other creative rewards of working with this band, one he praises for their constant commitment to keeping things fresh and original.

Metallica, he told us, has never “phoned in a show.” That’s something they share with their relentlessly driven light designer. It’s this chemistry, more than any lucky number that has kept the magic glowing.

In 2023, Forbes, describe Metallica as “the people’s metal band.” They were referring to the group’s fan base, which seems to not only be growing larger, but also becoming more diverse year after year. Do you see that? If so, why do you think it’s happening?
“I do see that. They have somehow been able to bridge the generational gaps, as well as lifestyle and societal gaps. I see people my age and older who can’t wait to put in their favorite ‘Tallica t-shirt and show people who they grew up on; it’s still there for them, but I also see the younger generations doing the same thing.

“I’m not a marketing expert so I can’t put my finger on why. I can speak for our team in that when we are designing these shows for the band, the question isn’t just ‘what looks cool for the band,’ it’s always ‘how to get the band as close to the audience as possible?’ Regardless of if this involves video presentation, placement of staging, or the placement of barricade, that’s always the main objective. “

On the subject of fans, Metallica is, as you point out, is extremely intent on forming a close connection to them at shows. How does that influence you as a lighting designer?
“With this band more than any I’ve worked with, it’s all about the spots. It’s about pulling the band out of the big picture and making sure that everyone can see the band doing what they do best.

Photo: Todd Kaplan

“But it goes deeper than that. It’s also ensuring the crowd is lit so the band can see their faces and interact with them. I’ve had artists tell me in the past they don’t want to see the audience. Metallica could not be further from that. The band loves the interaction not just with large sections of the audience, but individual audience members as well. Metallica will always want to recapture the club vibe they started with. We attempt to honor that as much as possible. It was the individual underground tape trader in the 80’s that got this band to where they are now.”

Metallica shows are very big in terms of production and venues. Does this make it more challenging to create that fan connection?
“Of course, it makes it more difficult. We’re blessed with four very big personalities to showcase. All four know how to play to the largest venues on the planet expertly. Our task is take that large personality and get it to the back of the room.

“Doing this involves a lot of things, including audio. We take that part very seriously by balancing the amount of video content and live images. We want to help convey the message or the feel of the song, but that job will always fall heavily on the band. We are there to amplify that.”

Photo: Todd Kaplan

How involved are the band members in lighting design? What kind of input do they have? Do you interact differently with different band members?
“Dan works out the thought processes with the band in the early stages. We all then take that creative and work out what that truly means for the design, technology and the programming. They give us a lot of freedom. They certainly don’t micromanage.”

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned working with Metallica?
“How to stay calm behind a console with all of the mayhem that ensues at a metal show. My console could be on fire and I’ve learned to stay calm through those situations. If you’re panicking, your crew panics, and nothing gets solved in a timely manner. No need to draw attention to the situation.”

How did you get started with Metallica?
“It goes back to around 2003. I had been called to go out with Ministry as Production Manager/Lighting Director by a tour manager friend. I was coming out to replace Butch Allen, who was heading back out with Metallica as LD. He helped me get settled in and we stayed in touch. He started throwing me a gig or two here and there, and I told him if he ever wanted to stop touring, I would take the Metallica chair. He ended up leaving them in early 2008, and got me in the front door. John Broderick came to see me on a Billy Idol tour in 2008 at Hammerstein Ballroom in NYC. He complimented me on a couple things, gave me notes on others which I took to heart. A month later I found out I was the hired. Side note: My nickname for a bit was ‘Number 6’ as I was the sixth LD for the band in 2008.”

Why do you think your relationship has been so successful all these years?
“I fully give them credit for that. They are always willing and wanting to explore new ideas for the shows, just as much as they are with the music. They have seemingly never phoned it in a show in 42 years. Metallica has never wanted to rest on their laurels, or disappoint fans by rinsing and repeating. In turn, they keep us very engaged.”

If you had to sum up you experience with Metallica in three words, what would they be?
“Hang On Tight!”