Essays — February 11, 2015 12:56 — 0 Comments

Seattle Sound Guys

I recently sat down with Olie Eshleman, Kieran Harrison-Bulger, and Dave Abramson, sound engineers who work at the Sunset and the Tractor, to talk about mixing live music in Ballard. 

We’re situated at the big round table in the front room of Hattie’s Hat. Late afternoon is slipping into evening, the windows have started to darken and the bar is beginning to fill. Country music plays over the speakers. Our bartender is Hart, of David Hart Kingsbery, a stellar country singer himself. Friendly faces keep appearing and disappearing, exchanging hellos, lobbing bits of banter, even hashing the occasional logistical detail to this schedule or that event. Everyone here seems to have business of some sort with everyone else. Hattie’s is base camp, the central bar and kitchen for the denizens of Ballard’s thriving music scene. Olie has yet to arrive, but Dave and Kieran have already fallen into a loose, familiar chatter. Dave’s eating a chicken salad and French fries, while Kieran and I sip pints of Hamm’s.

“I like jazz, don’t get me wrong, just not the crap they play around here. It’s no B.B. King, Muddy Rivers, or Miles Davis.” Dave is quoting a bartender he once worked with. He recalls his retorting—and he can’t help but verge on incredulous and mocking laughter: “First of all, two of those guys don’t even play jazz, and one of them doesn’t even exist!”

The anecdote poignantly frames the fraught nature of the work that bartenders, door guys, and engineers are faced with: they have to work and get along with a revolving cast of musicians whose work they might not find the most compelling, might not like at all, or worse. So my first questions address the relationship between the engineer and the musicians. Kieran takes a very practical approach:

“It’s not usually our jobs to tell you whether or not your music sucked. We’re tech workers. If you’re asking about a technical issue, that’s one thing, but if you’re asking about stylistic issues, that’s not our job. If we have a bad interaction, it’s not just between you and me, then you’re having a bad time at the Sunset, or the Tractor, and you’ll bring that with you next time. That’s why we have to be more technical about it. Some bands make it really easy, but those bands tend to be really boring.”

Talking about the differences between the Tractor and Sunset, Kieran notes that all the bands that play the Tractor “have their shit together, in one way or another.” Talking about the Sunset, his assessment is a little different: “I really like that quote about there being a place to fail. The booker at the Funhouse, Brian, something he said that stuck with me was that we need these small clubs to continue to exist, so people have a place to fail. You run into people who are really nervous about their stage performance, or nervous about asking for more monitors. They’re not sure how to ask without being rude, especially here in Seattle, where nobody wants to be rude.”

“Totally,” chimes Dave, “Because the Sunset spans the gamut of the Mudhoney guys coming to play, or seasoned local bands, to people who are like ‘This is our first time playing with monitors, and it’s really crazy.’ I’m really proactive about monitors. I’ll tell them, as we’re going along, just let me know. I’ll be light about it and funny: ‘Hey, just yell at me.’ It makes them feel really comfortable, and everyone is mostly happy with their monitor mixes almost every time.”

Each of these guys has their own musical projects. Dave plays in Diminished Men and Master Musicians of Bukkake, Kieran and Olie both play in Corespondents, as well as other bands. I ask them how this informs the way they approach mixing. Kieran’s response is simple and sympathetic: “I’m here to facilitate their special night, and you know that, because we all do it too.”

The mood and swing of the conversation is unassumingly complex. Honest practicalities mingle with flights of comedic irreverence and improvisation. I get the sense that the dialogue is occurring in much the same way that a night mixing bands might take shape: technical details to lay the groundwork, jokes to keep it loose. These guys take their jobs seriously enough to know when not to be serious.

“I have a page that Kwab and I made—a list of the instruments that aren’t allowed on the stage at the Sunset. It’s pretty much every instrument except bass, drums, guitars, and you know, organ or a nice synthesizer. We listed pretty much every orchestral instrument.”

Dave’s absurd humor has a way of giving ballast to the potentially capsizing effects of preciousness. He pushes his phone toward me. “I made a short list.” I read it out loud: “No more than four strings on a bass, no more than five drums on a trap kit, no drum racks, no wireless guitars, no glockenspiels,” and here I protest, “ahhh, really? No glockenspiels?”

“Definitely not, that shit is fucking lame. And there has to be a tambourine taste test if you’re gonna use a tambourine in your band.” Dave’s voice drips with faux disdain. It’s as if he’s followed the impulse, or the idea of the pissy, jaded sound-guy, and taken it to its satirical extreme to render it both joyful and harmless. He’s making fun of himself and his profession as much as anything else.

Olie has just arrived, and sits, immediately adding his own bit to the elaborated joke. “No laptops, no glockenspiels, you can only have three vocal mics, unless you wanna meet Dave in the bathroom and show him the so-called fourth harmony. Those are Dave’s rules.” Laughter swells and crests, and Olie waxes serious, “I guess what you guys were talking about are the dynamics of a song or a set. A good scenario, I think, is this: you have a good band, you get everything set, and you don’t have to touch it. The solos are loud enough, the rhythms are quiet enough, these things are adjusted because the players do it, because they’re good. If there’s a problem with their tone or their playing, you have to compress it and re-add that dynamic. You have to stand there turning it up and down. Ideally, in a perfect world, you do no harm, get it set, and let them do their thing.”

Olie orders a beer and excitedly addresses the table: “You know what I just did? I just went to the U District to meet a dude so I could buy a seven-string BC Rich off of him for eighty dollars.” He’s giddily proud of his purchase in an almost silly, self-deprecating way. His goofy enthusiasm affords the table several rounds of laughter and jokey encouragement. Apparently it’s a metal guitar, and both Kieran and Dave are immensely amused. “Aw, I’m gonna make some awful music with that thing, and that guitar synthesizer I got from BJ.” Dave chuckles infectiously and asks, “Can I join?” Olie responds, “Oh yeah!”

The camaraderie in the group is obvious and heartening. There’s a mutual generosity of spirit in the laughter and the finishing of each other’s sentences. It’s clear that the most important thing is that every one has a good time, and this theme pops up again and again. It seems a difficult proposition when negotiating the hopes and dreams of so many artists, night after night—but the overwhelming sense is that the job is always going to be challenging, and it’s going to be satisfying because it is challenging. Comparing lucrative corporate gigs to mixing live bands, Olie prizes “getting to actually hang out with creative musicians, and not power point presentations. Especially at these two clubs, where it’s good music—not always, but most of the time.”

They talk about ear fatigue, burn-out engineers, and the importance of listening to a wide variety of music. When I ask about band archetypes, Olie mentions the band that shows up with a glockenspiel—glockenspiel is obviously the pariah of the live sound world—laptob, floor tom downstage, and five vocal mics. The joke is “What…are you guys from Portland?”

Olie goes on: “I wasn’t even making up those stereotypes. It just goes with the territory. It’s obviously a totally different experience every night. So it’s hard to address what you’re talking about, because they’re all individuals. It’s funny talking to touring musicians about what they see different sound people across the country doing. Horrific stuff. There was one guy playing pedal steel and the sound guy mic’d the strings. There’s no reason to ever do that. Just mic the amp.”

Dave adds, “I think some of the reason live sound is poor a lot of the time is because a lot of engineers probably don’t listen to lots and lots of different kinds of music. And they’ll be like, this isn’t really my thing, and then they don’t put a lot of heart into it. Maybe when it’s their thing, and their friend’s band shows up, they do. You know, you deal with a lot of personalities, and it seems like a lot of sound engineers get burned out on it, and they don’t have very good ears, and they’re not very present, and then they’re not doing the bands or the audience justice.”

Dave’s explanation of his method: “I mix each and every single song to the best of my ability like I’m mixing your record. And it’s like ten songs, and then it’s over before you know it. If you set up the faders, and go ‘whatever’ and just sit there, it’s gonna take forever. There’s usually at least one good thing about even the worst situation.”

A lot of emphasis gets put on the negative inspiration provided the specter of the lame sound guy, but there’s also the other side of the story. At my first show at the recently and beautifully renovated Sunset, Greg Vandy’s spooky variety night called Day of the Dead Songs, there was a moment in Prom Queen’s set, where at the turnaround in the chorus, the entire song and the entire room came strangely unhinged of itself. The space, already soaked in ghostly vocals and reverb, seemed suddenly to carom impossibly, as if the origin and the destination of the sound were simultaneously exchanging places. Dave was mixing that night, so I looked back to the booth to see what was going on. Olie and Kieran were standing in the booth with him, and they were all in a fit of uproarious laughter and sonically induced joy. So I asked Dave what he’d done that night.

“Slapback echo, with a lot of reverb, and I just kind of flashed it at that last word of that line, right before I knew there would be an instrumental section coming up.” He’d also experimented while mixing Mike Dumovich that night, panning vocals around the room in certain parts of songs to create a more dynamic effect. “I know Mike, and I play with Mike, and record with Mike, and I know that song, and what that section of the song is supposed to do. But you don’t just do that with anybody. Some bands are going to give you license…” Olie jumps in and humorously adds, “Or, as Acid Mothers Temple says ‘You play vis us.’” (For some reason he affects what sounds like a German accent for a psychedelic Japanese band.) Kieran adds agreeably, “Always engaged, that’s the best approach, responding the whole time with that in-the-moment way.”

My old-school mini-cassette clicks off, but the conversation keeps going. Obviously, the conversation is never over. These guys are constantly learning knew things from each other, sharing stories, comparing techniques, working on the next laugh. Kieran has to leave. He’s off to do sound check next door at the Tractor. We settle up the tab, and head outside. I scribble in my notebook one last thing that Olie says, musing on the universal truth it’s angling toward: “There’s an infinite number of great mixes, and an infinite number of wrong mixes. There’s no one right way.”


Caleb Thompson is a co-founding editor of The Monarch Review.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney