New York City's Best Sound Guys Sound Off
Photo: Adam Macchia
In this week's music feature, we followed two of New York City's most revered sound guys--Kenny Lienhardt of the Bowery Ballroom and Rob Sutton of The Knitting Factory--and they were incredibly good sports when it came to showing us the ropes while dishing out some of the more infamous stories of their all-seeing and all-hearing careers. Over the course of a few beers and a clocked-in shift or two, tons of ground was covered and countless absurd anecdotes were shared: Fishing with Bon Iver, New York's vital need for hip-hop sound engineering, and that time a venue caught on fire in the middle of a sold-out Cake show were some of the tidbits dropped on the record, and though they couldn't make it into print, these are some details that further support the fact that these guys are the unsung heroes of New York music. (And now we all know how big sound guys are on details.) See also: The Top 15 Things That Annoy the Crap Out of Your Local Sound Guy
On the transformative power of the right rock club: Kenny Lienhardt: Once you're on that marquee at the Bowery Ballroom, it's like, "Holy shit." Your perception is ... these guys are off the map. I think it's kind of exciting in a way, that people know that if they sell out my place, they're in the slingshot now to stardom. It sounds great and people enjoy themselves there. That's the best thing about the Bowery: the sound's killer, the band is right in front of their face, it's loud, there ain't no bullshit. I don't mess with the [decibel] limits; I like to give 'em a show. If they're in the front row for an hour, they're gonna get it. They're gonna get what they want. They react because it sounds good, and the band goes crazy because the crowd goes crazy. You gotta let people know, it's because of you that that show was great.
On working outside your comfort zone: Rob Sutton: It's called "making a living." If you're a New York audio engineer, you have to do hip-hop if you want to make a living. You could do hip-hop 24/7 if you wanted to. Back when I came here, New York was for hip-hop and LA was for hair metal bands. If you go to Nashville, you're gonna have to learn how to do country music. You're going to run into it constantly, so you might as well do it.
On wading for musky with Justin Vernon's dad: Lienhardt: Justin Vernon, from Bon Iver? He's a great guy, he's a friend of mine. He's a fishing guy. Wisconsin, kid! His father wades for musky. I'm dying to meet his father. Fishing for musky alone is a great honor, but to wade for musky? That's big. It's the bluefish of fresh water, basically--they call them the fish of 10,000 casts, because you have to cast 10,000 times to maybe even see them. They're very elusive and they kill everything. They're vicious fish. You don't eat 'em, you catch 'em, hold 'em up and drop 'em back in. It looks like a big pike, a big, long lean snake! He keeps inviting me to Wisconsin. They have a house there with a tree growing right in the middle of it.
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On the New York City venue echelon: Lienhardt: The Bowery Ballroom holds 600 people. There was no club that size, so we built that intermediate sized club, and it ended up being this ass-kicking sounding room. And that helped us a lot. There are bands that could sell out the Mercury Lounge, maybe two nights there, but they go to Webster Hall or Irving Plaza and they fall on their ass because they fill only half a room. Now, they had a room they could sell out of an intermediate size, and that was a slot that all these Interpols and White Stripes, all them bands, that was the slot they needed to fill. They needed to not play a small club in New York or a half-full Irving Plaza.
Sutton: The Mercury Lounge and The Knitting Factory, we do the same bands three, four times a month. They'll play my venue on Friday and there on Saturday; it happens a lot. The cool thing about working at this level is that the Knit and the Merc are at an interesting place, where if you go down to Glasslands or Piano's, or Cake Shop, you get to do all the bands and you're by yourself, but the bands are all local. You get to the Mercury and the Knit, you get a lot of touring bands, bands that in six months will be playing the Bowery or the Music Hall of Williamsburg. It's fun to get to work with them, but you're still by yourself, doing lights and sound and monitors and stage managing and making sure everything's on time. You go up a level, to the Bowery or Music Hall of Williamsburg, and you're part of a four or five person crew. You can go to either of those rooms and not leave the sound booth for the week. I like the fit at the Knit because you're by yourself, but the bands you're working with are pros and able to go to the next level. When I'm hiring people to work at the Knitting Factory, the point I'm trying to make is that if you want to hook up with any of these bands and go on tour, this is place to do it.
On the best worst shows: Sutton: We kind of keep track more of the [shows] that suck. (laughs) We definitely have a bottom five list. We have text wars with the bartenders, like, "THIS IS DEFINITELY IN MY TOP 5." That's how we discuss it. The worst was probably some high school band that just played Arlene's [Grocery]. There used to be a motif where you had to earn your way onto the Mercury Lounge stage. It kind of seems like that went out the window.
On that time a Cake show almost took a turn for the very worst: Lienhardt: You remember the precedent, the first time this or that happened at the Bowery. Every so often something will happen like that. We've had people walk off the stage in the middle of a show. We've had a fire and we had to clear the room. Cake was just about to come onstage, and I'm doing the monitor, and I look across the stage to the stairs, and I see security running up the stairs, and one of them is carrying a fire extinguisher! They come down and make an announcement: "Everybody's gotta turn around and leave the building. They're having a flame problem." The building behind us was burning, and as a precaution, they emptied everyone out on the street. Everyone went across the street, in front of the vegetable market. It was raining, and six hundred people were lined up watching the Bowery, and then a guy was like, "Alright, let 'em in!" so they just walked back and came back in, and we did the show.
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