Rogue Wave: Turn It Down, Love

EarThe Oakland band Rogue Wave played an in-store performance at Brooklyn’s Sound Fix a few weeks ago. It was scheduled for 12:30 pm on a Saturday, which is insanely early for a music event or anything involving travel from one part of Brooklyn to any other. We gathered at the record store clutching giant cups of coffee and stared blearily at the band, who stared blearily back. They all (5 of them that day) complained of the early hour, except singer/songwriter Zach Rogue (a morning person).

It turned out Rogue Wave’s music was a lovely way to enter the day. They were all-acoustic, gentle and melodic. Zach sang in a high, soft, lulling voice. He’d managed to come up with inventive rhythmic patterns in his songs that added new life to the same old chords in an unbelievably impressive way. The drummer was keyed in perfectly, however sleepy he might have been. The band was deliciously tight and together, humming along in these beautiful, bouncy compositions that spread in lovely nuances over the assembled thrift store chic and messy Lord Fauntleroy haircuts. They played and played, seeming to love the mix (which was perfect) and the unexpected fun of playing at the crack of hepcat dawn.

A few nights days later, I went to see Rogue Wave at the Mercury, by accident – a friend of mine was on the bill. Maybe it was standing right under one speaker, but for me they lost virtually every bit of their charm once they plugged in. The songs were not gentle, clever and imaginative, but loud and ordinary. The singer wasn’t singing in soft, lulling voice, but a standard rock voice. The music was crashing and crunching – there was no magic – it was boring. After three songs I left.

Nothing against Rogue Wave, because I really didn’t give them a chance that night, but if the sound isn’t exquisite, I don’t want to be there. If a band isn’t mixed right, I don’t see any point in listening to them. Sound people in rock clubs run the gamut of sadists who seem bent on savaging the ears with the zeal of an Abu Ghraib torturer, to astute folks who actually listen to the band at sound check and figure out how to make the singer’s voice audible (but this is rare, so rare). Most fall somewhere in between – the band wails away, the audience tries to figure out what they might sound like if the sound were better, and – well, that’s it, really.

16 thoughts on “Rogue Wave: Turn It Down, Love”

  1. It’s equally frustrating for the bands, Kristy. When you start out, you’re lucky even to get a sound check. That sound check is usually for appearances though because as soon as the room fills up and two bands have played before you (with different volumes and set-ups, therefore different levels on the mixing board) all is forgotten and you might as well have skipped the soundcheck you got to the club 5 hours early for anyhow. You do get great soundguys sometimes though and better clubs are known for them. Schubas and the Hideout here in Chicago are known for good sound and it’s because their guys actually listen and make adjustments throughout the set. Steve Versaw (also drumemr for the Ms) is the best soundguy we’ve ever had.

  2. Yes, it can be so frustrating. I went to see a band called Orange Park a while ago, on a tip from Johnny L., and the soundwoman decided to give us Madison Sq. Garden-level sound in a small room. It was torture. I had my fingers in my ears until someone tapped my shoulder and showed me how to use pieces of torn-up napkins as earplugs.

    Orange Park were in a funk because the acoustics were such a mess. One of them kicked in his monitor becuase he couldn’t hear a thing. So I see what you mean, Derek.

    Steve Versaw! I can believe you’d be in good hands with him. He was in the legendary Griever Sauliks. And he introduced me to Palace. Invaluable.

  3. Going deaf is no laughing matter, unless of course you’re a deaf clown, in which case it may be funny. But seriously, after years upon years of too-loud monitors for my own band and seeing my friend’s bands under similar circumstances to what Kristy described I have definitely lost some of my hearing. I can’t get my iPod to be too loud anymore. All the way up is good, but it’s not too loud. I can’t hear high-end in my car unless I turn the radio way the hell up, and apparently it’s not the car’s problem because my wife’s ears start bleeding when I do it and for some reason she has a problem with that. I figure I’ll just eventually have a huge headphone amp plugged into my stereo and I’ll sit in an easy chair with giant headphones, pleasantly drooling and enjoying music at levels that would knock down trees.

  4. Matthew Sweet at the Fillmore S.F. gave me a ringing right ear for about a year. But I was only about 14, and I thought it kicked ass. Now I’m much more protective about my hearing. I think ‘club soundguy’ is a very underappreciated position. I always pay attention to what they’re doing (or not doing). This really affects the level of enjoyment you derive from a live performance.

  5. having worked as a sound guy in some very small venues, i would have to say it is not as easy as it sounds. the last thing club owners want to spend money on is a decent sound system, so a sound person has to deal with inferior equipment, and bands that constantly complain about how the mix sounds through their monitors. Also, when bands crank their amplifiers all the way up, it is sometimes impossible for a sound person to control anything at all.

    The places where the sound is good regularly is usually due to venue ownership that recognizes the value of a good PA system, and an experienced sound tech that knows the room. Sadly, those two are in short supply.

  6. what i love is when the mix is terrible but the bands go for it regardless. this happened when i saw q and not u and ted leo on election day last year. i think the sound guy must’ve been a short bus passenger in school. first, ted was far too loud, couldn’t hear the vox, he had no monitor mix and really, all i could hear was his guitar, for which the amp was across the stage from me. he played the set with all his energy anyways (or as much as he could muster, as i heard he had a shitty election day) and it was ok, even though my ears hurt for a while after.

    then q came on and it was the same thing. they sound checked everything. then after thirty seconds the microphone sounded like it was run through a tin can. and chris had no monitor mix, which meant i couldn’t hear the vocals as i was in front, where you usually have to rely on a decent monitor mix to hear anything, since clubs insist on putting the mains out past where the people up front would be able to hear them. they weren’t too loud like the pharamacists were, but it was frustrating for everyone when they had to stop every song and ask for more vocals in the monitors. and then go ‘lalalalalalalala’ for thirty seconds while the sound guy did absolutely nothing. needless to say, they ended their set a few songs early. can’t blame ’em.

  7. You’re totally right, Justin. The absence of a decent system makes getting good sound pretty tough. I wih more venues would put money into their systems. You can usually tell who does.

  8. i can appreciate that mixing is often difficult/impossible in a small club with a lousy system, but is that any excuse to turn up the volume to cell-rupturing levels? i’d rather have shitty sound and my eyeballs intact, than shitty sound and…uh…no eyeballs at all

  9. This is precisely why I bring earplugs to every concert I go to. Once in a while I don’t use them (i.e. when I’m way in back at an outdoor show), but 90% of the shows I go to they are definitely necessary.

    I love listening to music too much to have my hearing screwed up.

  10. I’ve had the guy from the Ms do sound and Schubas, and he is the best sound guy I’ve ever had anywhere.

    In a smaller club a lot of it comes down to the band keeping their volume under control. I saw a band a few months ago in a super small club in Milwaukee – the bass player had an 8-10 ampeg cabinet the size of a refrigerator and both of the guitar players had stacks. Even still these guys were pretty aware of keeping the volume down…until the sound guy says “don’t be afraid to turn those things up”…I lasted about two songs…

  11. The Gospel According the Lemmy: “Everything louder than everything else.”

    For me, it depends on the band and the style of music: metal and punk NEED to be loud. Of course, loud and good is one thing; loud and suck is another matter entirely.

    But yeah…earplugs are always a good idea. When we play smaller clubs, we’re very conscious of maintaining a reasonable stage volume. Good for us and the audience.

  12. Derek, you are so right about rarely getting soundchecks as a newer band. Last Thursday night we were the “local opener” for Limblifter (Kurt Dahle of New Pornographers – his old band) & Doubting Paris, both from Vancouver. Being the only locals we were scheduled to go on first of course, which USUALLY means we would get at least a line check if not a short sound check. In a 3 band gig typically the headliners and the first band will do a soundcheck but not the middle band, since all the settings will change after the first band plays anyway. Not this time. Limblifter spent so long doing theirs and Doubting Paris insisted on checking for some reason, that there was no time left for us. So not only was the sound terrible onstage – none of us could hear much at all in the monitors, not even sure if they were on – but out in the crowd too, as our bass player’s girlfriend attested to. And the whole time the sound man just stood there with his thumb up his ass, while eating chicken wings and talking to his buddies. We had a good time playing, as we always do, but it still sucked.

  13. Being NYC-based –with some but not extensive touring under my belt– I can really only opine about local situations. For example: If we’re talking about 100 or so capacity clubs with 5 or 6 bands on the bill, chances are there will be no soundcheck. However, if the soundperson is a regular staffer at the club and has a clue as to what he/she is supposed to be doing, the sound should be decent. Of course, if the band is inexperienced or uncooperative (dude, if he/she asks you to turn down your amp, pay attention) it won’t be pretty. There are many variables, of course. But all the elements have to fall into place for a cool concert experience: a band knowledgable about their own equipment; a sound person familiar with the venue and the band’s set-up (how many 2 guitars, bass and drums lineups does it take to get it right?); decent club gear; and favorable room acoustics. If any one of those is missing the chances of the sound being crappy increase exponentially.

    But what really sucks is when you pay good money to see a show at a 1000+ venue: the opening act(s) succcumb to mediocre sound at best, while the headliner’s sonic output is superb. I don’t know how many times I’ve experienced this. It’s gotten to the point that if I really like the opening act, I just might wait until they can headline their own shows.

  14. Most sound men (and it always seems to be men!) just don’t give a $*!t, it seems to me. I am inclined to think they are either stupid or lazy, but I’m trying very hard to love all my fellow human beings and chalk it up to indifference instead.

    I have come up with the ultimate solution: We have hired our own soundguy. For the sound guy who wants to eat chicken wings and wank off, it’s perfect, and it’s perfect for us because we have someone who “gets” our sound making sure it all sounds tight like a tiger!

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