A while ago I wrote about my shifting attitude to live music and how I’ve totally changed my live-music-going ways of late. It’s not that I didn’t used to like live music, but there was so much related crap that bugged me, that I very seldom ended up going to shows.
I missed one important thing in that post, though, and realised I should write more about it. So this is my post about how I figured out something about my brain, and stopped being a passive consumer of live music.
I am crap at focusing on stuff if I don’t have anything to do. I can’t just sit down and watch TV or a movie, I have to have something else going on, which is why I always knit or have my laptop open. Music’s the same: I listen to it while I’m on the train, or walking somewhere, or at the gym, or working, or else I actually dive into iTunes and start obsessively categorising and rating and fooling around with metadata. It’s hard for me to just listen, though, without something else to do.
The same goes for live shows. If I don’t have something to do other than consume, I get twitchy. Dancing’s a good start, and throwing myself round in a moshpit is great, but some crowds are too cool for that kind of shit and just stand there with their hands in their pockets. You know how it is.
About four or five months ago I found a workaround for that problem. When I got twitchy, I’d go ask if I could hang out in the sound booth. It gave me something else to watch at the same time as the band, and I enjoyed the mental stimulation of trying to figure out how it all worked and (depending on the show) how I’d do things differently if I were in charge. And the guys I met working sound were generally reasonably friendly and would tell me a bit about what they were doing and how it all worked.
You know where this is going, right? Show me a pile of technology that’s connected to something creative and my fingers start itching. It was only a matter of time.
So it turns out there’s a volunteer-run punk music venue in Berkeley, 924 Gilman St. I’d been to a couple of shows there and had a great time, so I decided to see if they’d teach me how to do sound. A couple of weeks ago I managed to meet up with their head sound guy Rob, and since then I’ve been going out there a couple of times each weekend and working as a volunteer sound trainee/minion. I help with setting up sound gear on stage, sound check, mixing for the shows as they happen, and breaking everything down and putting it away afterwards.
It’s been interesting. The technical aspects of running sound for punk bands are not all that complex (I mean, compared to, say, how the Internet works), but there are a number of new skills I’m having to pick up. Not just how to twiddle knobs on the board and how to position mics, but also how to listen critically to a band’s sound, how to react quickly to things happening on-stage (equipment failure! vocalists switch mics just to annoy you!), and how to navigate a field/industry that’s very different from my day job.
That said, I think I’m picking things up fairly quickly, and I’m having a great time with it. Last night I got to work sound for two bands famous enough to have legitimate Wikipedia entries: The Billy Bones and The Frustrators (Mike Dirnt from Green Day’s side project). I worked the mixing board for Billy Bones and was sidestage in case of on-stage crises for the Frustrators. There were no crises whatsoever, so I just hung out and took photos on my iPhone. Still, pretty awesome to be doing this for a couple of weeks and already have the opportunity to work with musicians that I suspect most people I know have heard of.
Oh, and the other thing that’s improved my live music experience considerably? Buying some decent earplugs. I got a couple of different types to try out but these Etymotic Research ER20s are the ones I like best. Great sound quality, much better than those cheap squishy foam ones. Highly recommended, though if I want to dive into the thick of the moshpit I fall back to the foamies which I won’t mind losing and which won’t hurt if someone whacks me in the ear.
(In passing… I’m also feeling pre-emptively nostalgic about looking back at all these phone camera pics I’ve been taking at shows. I think they will be the faded polaroids of our generation. I’m not even going to apologise for the shitty phonecam quality. There’s something about the grungey immediacy of a phonecam pic that appeals to me.)