'The lights are my instruments with which I play the tune' - Chris Binks for fabric London

Words by: Hannah Briley
Posted: 24/4/12 8:52

The Visual Sound Series – Episode 4 – ‘The Lights Are My Instruments With Which I Play The Tune” - Chris Binks for fabric LondonLegendary nightclubs alter the musical landscape; not only through the music programming but through the venue, the sound, the crowd, the lighting, the entire ethos. Legendary nightclubs fundamentally alter the entire clubbing experience. On the 29th October 1999 the doors of what was formerly London’s Metropolitan Stores in EC1 opened, revealing what had been a work in progress for four years after Keith Reilly bought the space, selling his two houses in the process and rounding up a team of people who shared his vision. Together, they went on to make fabric one of, if not the best nightclub in the world.

If you’re a regular at the ultimate adult’s playground, you may have noticed one of those imperative team members, a man perched behind the lighting set up’s in all of the club’s three contrasting yet equally personable room’s.

That man is Chris Binks, quite possibly fabric’s longest running member of staff and the unsung hero who is the artist behind the light shows that play an integral part in fabric’s unique success. Having lit everyone from Doc Martin to Tyrant, Ricardo Villalobos to Sven Vath, Nicolas Jaar to Jamie Jones, Chris Bink’s has worked with them all, with the greatest electronic artists of our time.

If there is one piece of advice I can give you it’s this. Next time you're standing in the heart of room one, the hum of the bass is seeping through every part of your body, you're hairs are standing on end, your hands are involuntary in the air and your eyes are closed... do one thing... open them... and look UP.

First off, for those who don’t know please introduce yourselves and what it is that you do?
My name is Chris Binks aka Chris fabric to family and friends, I am the lighting guy at fabric, you'll find me in room one of the club. I’ve been in the business now for about 20 years starting of as the stage manager at the London Astoria then going on to run my own lighting company which installed and ran the lighting in lots of major clubs through the ages such as The Cross, The Hanover Grand and Bagley’s as well as a lot of underground parties . I’ve also worked on some major corporates like The Brits, Glastonbury and V Festival... I won’t go on but there’s been a few sleepless nights over the years put it that way.

I have a sort of sixth sense which tells me what’s coming next, it’s just the way I hear the music. The lights are my instruments with which I play the tune...How long have you been working at fabric?
I helped build the place so I’ve been here for twelve years, I think I might be the longest running member of staff here at the club and I’m more than proud to say it.

What’s it like to be in charge of the lighting at what I consider to be, the best nightclub this side of the moon?
It’s more than a buzz, when I have a good night everybody has a good night and I often have dj’s ask for me personally to cover their sets and tell me that they feel that they were doing the lights, just as I feel that I’m playing the music. I have a sort of sixth sense which tells me what’s coming next, it’s just the way I hear the music. The lights are my instruments with which I play the tune.

What consistently amazes me is how taken aback I am by the lighting every single time I come to the club. That simply doesn’t happen to me anywhere else...
The funniest thing was when I had Tiefschwarz come out on the dance floor at the end of their set and start shouting “One more!” up to me, priceless! I can’t tell you the buzz it gives me to have control of the crowd. You could play the same record 15 times in one night but that crowd isn’t going to scream until I turn all the lights out.

fabric LondonI try to change things as often as possible and I’m always trying to come up with new programs or even new colour combinations to keep things fresh. It just comes so easy and when it flows I find myself doing different things all the time without even trying.

I’m playing around with smoke levels at the moment and this seems to be giving me no end of options as to the effects I can create depending on the state of affairs in the club, ie:- what time of the night it is and how full the club is depend on what type of show you get sometimes. I’ll just make it look nice with a static position and run a simple Dim Chase with UV and a Fine Amber and leave it like that for the whole track.

I’ve tried to stay away from just smashing the hell out of it, it’s all about the subtleties for me at these moments instead of the impact, I’m just trying to create a pleasant environment for people to be in and it works. Like you said, the club looks like no other and no other looks like it...

Do you ever do any competitive research as such – go to other clubs and see how their lighting engineers are running things?
Without seeming to be a little conceited, no. They come here though, often I have guys from rival clubs from up and down the country lined up along the balcony watching my shows but there is no point in me going to look at other clubs as it frustrates me. As for their equipment levels and performance, I would kill for half the lighting budgets some of these other clubs have but I make do as it is definitely a case of what you do with it rather than what you have. Only recently I had the tech managers from our major London competition going on and on about “Oh your still using this, how out of date” and how their lighting rig was this that and the other. After watching my show for ten minutes he was asking me if I was PAYE or self employed. I just looked at him and laughed.

fabric LondonWhat education did you go through to reach the technical ability you have today?
As far as training is concerned I’ve been really lucky. I’ve never been taught by anyone but have picked up things really quickly and know what looks good. There are simple things that you pick up along the way and I’ve worked with the best of them. I used to crew a lot in my time for lighting guys that I hold in great esteem, not names that you would necessarily of heard of as they also are the un sung heroes, but people who used to work with bands such as Pulp, Blur, The Prodigy, basically which ever was the band of the moment they would be definitely on that tour.

There are a few simple guide lines that you need to follow and a lot of people seem to ignore the fact thatyou should never use more than two colours at one time, well this is my rule as when to lights cross in a cloud of smoke.

Just like paint they create a third and this goes to determine which colours you use together and at which time. I was asked for pink by someone once and it wasn’t a pink moment, but by using deep red and indigo when they crossed in the smoke made an amazing magenta for example... everything I do is self taught, I’m just lucky I guess.

My light shows are inspired solely from the music in the moment, although I often have people say that certain lights look like certain movies or remind people of certain movies...Was there a particular club or other experience that blew you away to the point of inspiring your career choice?
Other club experiences yes, but this is going back years to the summer of love and back to where I discovered my love of music and lights. The London Astoria where I began my career in the business, where I was given the chance to crew for sure is an inspiration, but my mentor Andy Emerson has to be the main one. Seeing the way he was able to control the dance floor was amazing and he was instrumental in the basics of my knowledge, everything I know I’ve learnt from the basics of his shows.

You must have worked with an absolutely ridiculous amount of artists, both live and DJ throughout your time at the club - what would you say has been the most challenging lighting experience you’ve had?
Oh my god! The most challenging light show to date I can’t name that. I find every show as challenging as the last as I was always told that you are only as good as your last show, just the same as dj’s are as far as I’m concerned. Whether you’re getting paid a bundle or just warming up I give you my all as that is what the punters deserve.  It’s my job to make sure that you have the most enjoyable experience at the club ever, there have been a couple of times when I’ve felt like I’ve had to go the extra mile but its normally when I have dj’s come to the club that are residents elsewhere. When Sven came to play from Amnesia I wanted him going away thinking that fabric is the best club he’s ever played in. It worked as he asked me to go to Ibiza for the summer and do his lighting.

fabric LondonIs it difficult to work with artists who have a really specific lighting structure in their minds that perhaps isn’t technically possible?
As for working with dj’s and artists and their views as to how there show should look, I’ll give you a quick insight. I hate it, I’ve been working in this club for too long for people to try and tell me what looks good, I accommodate and do exactly what they ask for until I can’t stand it no more and then sneak in a few of my own little tricks just to polish it a little!

How much pre-planning goes into the live light shows? Is it sound/lighting check in early evening of the show or do you work on it for a longer run up?
I don’t do any pre show work as I busk it from start to finish and base my entire show around what I hear when I hear it, so, I get a basic idea from the 20 minute sound check and then it’s all spontaneous.

Does the lighting inspiration come from nights at the club, or the people, maybe even movies or other personal experiences?
My light shows are inspired solely from the music in the moment, although I often have people say that certain lights look like certain movies or remind people of certain movies. If I do get inspiration from this then it’s nothing that I do consciously.

Other clubs move further forward with LED lighting & this that & the other, I prefer to keep fabric looking different & sticking to the basics. Less is more & don’t ever be afraid of the dark is my moto...Do you think that the audiences are aware of how much their visual and lighting surroundings are affecting their musical experience?
More and more these days I have people commenting on my light shows and how it affects them and their clubbing experience. I get a lot of people come to the club just for the lighting rather than the music so I would say that people are definitely becoming more aware of their surroundings.

How does the experience of programming the lighting for a live show and a dj set compare?
It depends, it’s more a decision that stems from where I want the crowd to be paying attention to. If I have a live act on stage then everything is a lot more subdued and I have to try and make sure you can see the stage past the lights and smoke. I tend to keep the lighting lower and moving more around the act on stage, with a lot of crowd scanning but still hitting it on impact moments where I can. To be honest I don’t really think about what I’m doing, it just happens and seems to fit. Somehow, even if I’ve never heard a track before I’ll still know exactly where to come in and where to hit a black out. I don’t run shutter chases except for when I need two hands to get into the programmer, so I hit every beat of every track with the faders so I’m always on hand to hit the right notes and breaks of the track. I think that’s what keeps me one step ahead of the track, the artist and the game.

Technically, what do the very basics of fabric’s lighting rigs consist of?
Well, I have kit, not the kit I would have chosen if I had the budget but it does the job for what I’m trying to achieve. I like to use moving mirrors rather than moving heads as I like to have the speed in movement that this gives me. I have ten Scan XT 575’s made by Robe and six Robe 575 moving heads to use for the colour washes.

Two Atomic strobes and two RGB colour lasers, so not that much in comparison to most other clubs but as I said, it’s what you do with what you have rather than what you have that counts. This also works as other clubs move further forward with LED lighting and this that and the other, I prefer to keep fabric looking different and sticking to the basics. Less is more and don’t ever be afraid of the dark is my moto.

What are the main differences between Room One, Two & Three that you have to consider and work around within the light engineering?
Styling room one now is big, dramatic, bright and full of colour but can be changed depending on the styling of the music.  Room two is more of an old dirty and dark warehouse feel and that’s totally reflected with the lighting as it complements drum and bass which is the dominating factor of music in this room. It is quite hard to pull off a light show in room two for other styles of music as the lighting fits the room rather than the music.  Room three, my baby, the heart of the club and where I worked by choice for so many years is different again. This is where this is more of a bar feel, when it’s done properly and the night progresses the room looks like a much smaller version of room one. I love working in this room as it the only room where the dj and lighting engineer still stand side by side and bounce off each other.  Room two is totally isolated which I don’t like so much and room one is good but it does get a little annoying at times when I get constant questions or even more annoying, song requests when I’m clearly not playing the music and am totally in the moment! Oh and here’s my favourite – “How do I get down stairs?” Uh...hello?

fabric LondonOver the years you must have seen some real evolution within the technology and equipment available to you – has there been a specific method, discovery or piece of equipment that has really changed the course of your art for you?
I’ve not really seen anything that has changed the way I do things as I’ve not had the budget for these and by not having and not knowing what they can do I don’t miss what I haven’t got.

At the moment I’m waiting to get my hands on some Sharpies then you'll really see something at the club everything these days is moving more and more to LED. I don’t like that as I don’t like the fact that all the colours have to be mixed so when you’re actually looking at the unit you see two colours rather than just the one. That alongside being a perfectionist is more than annoying!  At the end of the day I’m an artist and this is the only way I get to express myself and everything needs to be just right. There is a moving head projector that I would love to get my hands on but not having the space or the money to accommodate it - they are 35k each, it’ll never happen! ..

Does every new night and every new artist and soundscape present a challenge?
Yes, every new night and every new artist is an absolute challenge. I find it hard to operate to people that use a lot of loops in there mixing because the breaks, bridges and drops never fall where they should do and this throws me totally off of my game. Marco Carola did this to me at the weekend actually, it takes a while but after about half an hour you soon get the drift.

Have you ever been thrown off your game to the point where it goes seriously wrong or maybe some technical failures during the night?
It often goes wrong but I get out of it and normally I’ll find a way. Just this weekend the lighting desk went down in room one, nobody noticed but I had a new one delivered, changed the show and desks without anyone even noticing. I went through three desks last weekend and three different versions of software before I was ready to roll to a standard that I was happy about. This resulted in having to program room two and three, again totally from scratch but you put the extra hours in to get the job done when you work somewhere that won best night club seven years in a row, it has certain standards to keep up. My life, my love, my lights.

Photo by Nick Ensing

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