By Rachel Birdsell
Sound techs get no respect. At least I think that’s what John Willet was alluding to when he told me “I’ve had to go and get tampons for one of the lead singers of a band in the middle of a show.”
Wow! There are some things that even I wouldn’t ask a stranger to do for me, and I’m a pretty ballsy chick. Maybe it’s true what they say about musicians being divas?
John is a Fayetteville native who has been mixing sound since the punk days of the early 80s. He let me know quickly that while mixing sound is “brutal, hard work,” there’s nothing he’d rather be doing. I think his passion for all things music-related was obvious when he showed up to our interview with his photo album of concerts he’s attended and all of the concert passes he’s been issued. He is also a veritable historian on the local music scene. The man loves him some music.
Willet is recognized by his peers as one of the best when it comes to technical issues. The technical side is also the aspect of the sound business he enjoys the most.
“The thing about doing sound is you have to be able to troubleshoot and adapt on the fly,” he said.
Keith Hollingshead has worked with John and is the drummer for a Fayetteville band called The Odds. He agrees the technical aspect of sound recording is a big part of what keeps the job interesting.
“The best part of the job, besides shooting the breeze with the musicians, is the satisfaction you get from knowing that you’ve done a lot of hard work. It’s just not hard work, it’s very technical work,” he said.
Keith’s favorite gig was mixing the sound for Fayetteville 90s’ punk band Punkinhead at a musical festival in Kansas City. Punkinhead was opening for James Brown, and Keith ended up mixing sound for the Godfather of Soul. I can only imagine that shooting the breeze with James Brown had to be an experience of a lifetime. I only wish now I would have asked Keith if he could actually understand anything James Brown was saying to him.
Mark McDonald, who is better known as Boochie, is another sound tech who has ties to Punkinhead. Originally from Denver, Boochie got his start about 15 years ago mixing the sound for the band and has been the sound technician for various venues on Dickson Street including George’s Majestic Lounge and the Walton Arts Center. Boochie spends most of his time now just being generally cool and mixing sound for Cherokee Casino in West Siloam Springs, but he still helps out small bands in Northwest Arkansas when they need it.
“I go off and help some of the other bands around here — the metal guys. I just do it for beer, just to help them out because nobody else is,” he said.
It’s obvious Boochie thoroughly enjoys what he does and the majority of the time he’s having a lot of fun with it. However, he did let me in on a secret. There is a very dark side to mixing sound:
Journey. Tribute. Bands.
“They’re on my list of guys I want to meet in a dark alley. It was so bad. You can’t imagine. They were the worst.”
Along with having to deal with such horrors, Boochie has also had to cope with equipment catching on fire. When I asked him if he dealt with the fires by screaming and running out of the building, he let me know that doing so isn’t really a very plausible solution to the problem. It’s probably a good idea I’m not a sound person because I think screaming and running out of the building during a fire is a grand idea.
The most pressing question I asked Boochie was if he’d ever had to rough someone up for trying to mess with the sound equipment. When he told me that he had to beat up a bunch of frat boys for throwing a beer bottle into the sound booth, I lost a little of my heart to him.
One of Boochie’s mentors was J.T. Huff, a 25-year veteran of the sound craft and owner of JTH Audio in West Fork.
Before breaking into the sound business, J.T. played guitar with the lead singer of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. After a failed record deal, he left the band and played at various venues in the area. While playing in Branson, Mo., he realized he wanted to stop playing and start mixing sound.
“The thing that really for me got me out of playing was playing at the Roy Clark Theater in Branson. I went ‘That’s it.’ I just hated it. Not that I hated the show — I just don’t like country music that much. It was frustrating for me. There are a lot of toilet jokes in Branson, and I really don’t like toilet jokes.”
I think maybe Branson is the place where a lot of musical careers go to commit suicide.
While most sound tech’s first shows occur with local bands, J.T. started with mixing the sound for George Strait — not an humble beginning. Since then he has worked shows for a variety of bands ranging from rock ’n’ roll to country to his self-declared best show, The Smothers Brothers.
“They were just the nicest guys on the planet, and they were so much fun,” he said.
While we often hear about what demanding jerks musicians can be, for the most part J.T. says they are great to work with.
“On the whole it’s pretty good. Most bands are really easy to work with. But if you’re not capable of doing what they want, then they can be assholes. You can really have a horrible time with them if you don’t have the right equipment.”
I’m a little relieved to know not all musicians expect you to run and fetch feminine products in the middle of a gig. I also can’t imagine anyone being a jerk to J.T. If you have any problems with anyone, J.T., just let me know. I’ve got your back.
Even after mixing sound for more than two decades and being one of the best in the business, J.T. still stresses about messing up a show.
“The thing about doing the shows is that I stress out every week wondering what are we going to screw up, and it just doesn’t happen.”
Before ending my time with J.T., I asked him what the best part of doing a show is.
“The best is right when it starts and everything’s working and the band’s happy and the sound guy’s going ‘Yeah this is great. This system kicks ass.’”
So, what did I learn from talking to these guys? Sound techs are very cool, laid back, fun people who enjoy what they’re doing, and they now have at least one new admirer. They certainly don’t get the recognition they deserve. So, the next time you’re at one of the local joints enjoying some fine tunes, make sure and stop by the sound booth and let the tech know that you appreciate the great job he’s doing. After all, what would live music be without good sound?
Just make sure you don’t touch his equipment.
You might not want to touch the sound board, either.