What do Mastodon, The Bronx, The Black Lips, and Kylesa have in common? One man fine tunin’ the knobs: Mr. Lewis Lovely.
It’s a tried and tested tale, the peeps behind the scenes hardly get enough cred. In my experience, when working around music– the roadies, the crew, the techs, FOH’s, TM’s– are some of the most interesting people around. Yea, I’m not talking about the whiney babies in bands. In the last decade, I count myself fortunate to have lined shots with this punk in almost ten different cities in the world. I’ve seen Lewis literally kidnapped by Vice to fill shoes for an incompetent FOH at a secret Obits show; I’ve seen him practically unplug a shitty mixer and throw it AND cans of Budweiser at a crowd from The Bronx soundboard at SXSW; I’ve seen him deal with some of the worst rock’n’roll assholes in the awesomest way. Lewis is gold. There’s a reason even David Johansen‘s calling him up.
So sit back, grab a slurpee, readjust your attention span, and enjoy one of the funniest (and longest, mind you) interviews Bad Sounds has had to date.
I first met you in Atlanta, can you tell me about how you got yr start working as a sound engineer at the Drunken Unicorn? Did you ever go to school for it?
I started off in the skate punk scene in Atlanta, which was very spread out at that time. I grew up on the southside of Atlanta in a small suburb called Jonesboro. My interest in skating was waning and turning more towards music. I was listening to a lot of DC/Dischord and Chicago/Touch and Go records bands. I was interested in melody and noise and/or the melodies you could create through noise and feedback. I started playing bass in bands and didn’t really understand the mechanics behind all the amps and cabinets and small supply of pedals available. With skating it was pretty easy to figure out what skateboard, trucks and wheels you liked. It was a very physical type of thing. Electronics was something more expensive and out of my experience range at the time. The few people I knew who were into the same things as I, was in the same boat. We shared as much info as we could about gear, but always had a ceiling to our collective wealth of knowledge.
This was also way before the internet in the late 80’s early 90’s. Our bands eventually got to the stage of recording material to release as 7″s or 12″ records. In Atlanta at the time, not very many of us experimented with cassette four tracks so the logical step was to pool money together and approach a professional studio. This was another level within that really excited me and was complete black magic. In these days there were still the old studio dinosaurs from the 60’s/70’s stomping around like big analogue beasts; Huge tracking rooms, enormous analogue consoles and tape machines lining the walls instead of hard drives storing ones and zeros. I went from trying to figure out how to make my bass sound more like an out of control buzz saw to tracking songs onto 2″ tape through these exotic looking microphones. I was hooked instantly!
I asked my friends if I could tag along to their recording sessions. I saw the full gambit of studio set ups. Large aging dinosaurs to guys who messed around and amassed enough gear to convert their basement into a studio. When the engineer had a little break I would pick his ear and find out how he got his start. They all said pretty much the same thing, I got to fooling around with my dad’s tape deck and then linking more tape decks and eventually onto four tracks, etc. I didn’t have that sort of situation at home. My dad had some cool old equipment, but I wasn’t allowed to handle it or experiment on it. So I would usually end my conversations with, “Do you know of any audio schools?”
The same name would be tossed out, it will remain nameless here. I looked into audio magazines and found ads for this school. I did the footwork and then made my proposal to my parents about going to audio school. I had already graduated from high school and tried my hand at college in GA. I quit and continued playing in bands, but wanted to know more about converting sound through mics and onto tape. I wanted to become a recording engineer. So I went down to the school, liked what I saw, enrolled and one year later graduated with a degree in the recording sciences. That school shit me out with enough crazy info in a years time to make me dizzy. I started in a local studio in Atlanta as an assistant, but wasn’t getting much hands on. I got to witness mic placement, signal flow, cutting of tape and eventually the introduction to digital recording.
Feeling I wasn’t going to get my fair share of actual recording at this facility I decided to leave. Saved some pennies and bought a half inch eight track from my current girlfriend’s father who had his own recording studio back in FL. I began lugging that sucker around and tracking my friends for a very low fee (gas money). I began collecting inexpensive mics and took apart my home stereo system and made a mobile recording studio. Around this time a friend approached me. He had come into some money and was looking into buying a club. He had his eye on a small popular spot that was frequented by the cool kids in Atlanta. He wanted to buy the name and move it to a larger location, the name was MJQ (Manhattan Jazz Quartet).
He wanted me to design the sound system. So this was my introduction to live sound and man was I in for a crash course. We had a live sound class at the school, but I paid enough attention to scoot by. I wanted to be a recording engineer not a sound guy. In 20/20 hindsight I should have done as you always hear from your parents, pay attention and do your homework. We began going to these new gigantic music stores that were popping up, Galaxy Music and Guitar Center. Galaxy had a bigger facility and even bigger live sound section. It was crazy! You could walk in, sit in front of a enormous wall of speakers and A/B 15 different pa’s! The same manner in which you used to shop for car or home speaker systems, but on a extreme level. We eventually figured out what we needed, purchased it, set it up and started the new MJQ. We started booking all our friends into the club and I was employed to mix everyone. I was given eight whole channels and one multi efx unit. Finally all our friends had a place to call home and I was in charge. That club grew and we opened a smaller room and did smaller shows and eventually grew into a third room, The Drunken Unicorn.
At the time, a lot of bands like Black Lips and Deerhunter weren’t even formed- how was it seeing that scene grow? Do you still go back to Hotlanta (I know Atlanta kids don’t think it’s cool to call it that, he) often, or have a strong connection with folks there after you’ve moved to Brooklyn?
I still keep in touch with whats happening back home. I am actually flying down there next weekend to watch two friends get hitched (finally Seth). Apparently all the chefs in the US flocked to GA too after I left. So much amazing food happening in Hotlanta now! Assholes! I created so many close friends/relationships during all those years that you can’t just walk away from. Brooklyn is great, but Atlanta will always be home for me.
It was interesting watching Black Lips and Deerhunter progress. Actually more like I wanted to kick all their asses. I say that loosely and with a large grain of salt. I came from a more traditional background, buy an instrument, learn it, form a band, write songs, practice those songs and then start playing out. This was my first time watching bands show up after a week ago of purchasing ratty old gear, duck taped guitars, broken noise boxes and were asking me for guitar cables or picks. They would get up and make a racket for 30 mins. Cole/Black Lips was always coming in with some new noisey thingamabob to process his vocals through. This usually lead to feedback for the next 30 mins. Half the time I would watch in horror of the performance and the other half I would sit outside drinking a beer because there was nothing I could do with that shit.
“It was interesting watching Black Lips and Deerhunter progress.
Actually more like I wanted to kick all their asses.”
Finally I started asking Cole what he was trying to achieve and fielded some suggestions to him. I don’t think he ever really listened to me, but they started to refine their sound and songs started to come through. Deerhunter was much of the same ilk. I can recall their drummer asking me, “You don’t like us do you Lewis?” I returned with, “No, I don’t.”
More bands started turning up after watching Black Lips make a pile of racket in the same vein. They had a gang of kids who were into it. They all formed new bands and were in each others bands. It seemed like Atlanta was having a drought in music and then a quick summer shower yielded too many goofy bands. I used to heckle all the bands. Mostly from my perched position in the sound booth. Every now and again I would get on the mic and spit out a few gems. I heckled Big Business once through their entire set. I think Jared thought it was funny. Cody, not so much. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I actually heard a Black Lips record. It blew my mind! I yelled at everyone! What the fuck was I listening to?? Out of all that noise came 60’s pop garage rock?? That’s not the hell I was listening to years before live on a stage. I still do sound occasionally for them when they are in NY.
I remember you telling me once that you don’t play an instrument. Now was that an exaggeration, or for real? I mean, did you ever play in a band, even in your parent’s garage?
I bought a Rickenbacker 4001 white bass with Ric-o-sound when I was 18. They came with some fancy stereo pick up. I started with a GK 400RB amp and Hartke 4×10 cab purchased from my buddy Mike. He had recently upgraded to a full Ampeg setup. I eventually moved up to a 71 Ampeg SVT and 73 8×10 cab. I made myself a stereo cable set up and would go into channels one and two of the SVT. I was crafting my mastery of playing feedback and using both channels was clutch. I eventually bought a 68 green sparkle Ludwig kit from Kelsey. He still kicks himself over that sale. I owned a studio at that time, Red Laboratory. I also lived there so I could practice the drums over headphones by playing along to Rocket From The Crypt. That drum kit sounds amazing.
I started touring around this time and bought a Hohner 35 natural wood six string in NY. I took my guitar tech along and was dead set on a Gibson 335. He took me to a few places to look around. I found a 335 and asked him what he thought of it. He said check this guitar out, the Hohner. It was cleaner, bigger sounding and had great bottom end. The 335 sounded like a toy guitar comparatively and was almost three times the NYC price tag. I still have the drums at my parents house and my Hohner sits in the dining room of Kenyon’s apartment in Atlanta. My buddy Mike Keenan has my bass now. He sings for Hawks, you’d like them. I came home from a tour and found that my bass cab had left GA with a friend to PA to join Otophobia. I had him write me a check. I sold my SVT to Donald Durant who doesn’t play much music anymore, which is a shame because he and his two brothers made fun music. Oh! I bought a Music Man HD 120 and matching 4×10 cab. My buddy Craig has been holding it captive now for almost ten years. Amazing guitarist and since fathering a son, I believe he doesn’t play as much as he should either.
…What first got you into music?
A fellow back in Junior High named Sam. It was the 7th or 8th grade. First day of school. This bigger fellow walks in wearing a black trench coat and weirdo hair cut. We are sitting alphabetically so he sat directly behind me. Curiosity or hearing him say funny shit made me turn around I guess and start talking to him. He always brought his cassette Walkman to school. He fed one headphone up a sleeve and could take notes and feign interest in class all the while listening to the Dead Kennedys or The Sex Pistols. He let me listen to that stuff. I came from a world with a pop who listened to top 40 popular music and a mom who was into The Beatles and Cliff Richards. So its easy to say that music didn’t hold too much off a grip on my life at that point. Sam introduced me to the other two weirdos in school and the limited amount of punk music they had discovered. I started skating that year.
The next year we had a new student from Germany, Kathy Weiss. She was easily spotted. Super tall, rail thin, giant red mohawk and sported a leather with combat boots. It was amazing to watch her walk through the halls of Mundy Mill’s Junior High. It was like the second coming of Christ, punk style. The kids would part and she always walked through the middle of the hallway. Easy enough, I was in love. We became quick friends and she introduced me to more punk classics and the lifestyle. She became my personal barber. My mother hated her. I think Kathy is in SF working at a museum. She is now a straight laced nerdy 9 to 5’er. I lost touch with her completely back in the 90’s. She was into New Country when we last wrote. I am going to Google her right now.
Are you one of those sound geeks that nerds over analog and microphones? You never struck me as the sound dude personality typically encountered on tour, i.e. sound nazis (“DON’T TOUCH YOUR VOLUME KNOB WITHOUT FUCKING TELLING ME!”- type deal).
Oh hell yeah! That’s the only way to learn new tricks and what not. I find like minded engineers on the road and swap stories like old women at church socials. I closely watched Hutch from QUOTSA whenever I got a chance after first seeing him work. 2002/03 Queens was on the tour for the red record. I would show up to music festivals and they had all this cool old Ampeg gear when everyone else was Mesa Boogie or some gay new metal crap. Hutch had all his gear pre mic’ed with old Altec Salt Shaker mics and was doing odd old tricks. Nick was using one SVT head and two cabs facing each other. Hutch stuck a single mic in the middle and had him turn up all the way. That was the first time I saw a speaker being used as a mic live. I had seen it in the studio before, but never thought to use it live. I began using that technique on the next tour. Then Yamaha started producing the Sub Kick. Same idea, but about $300 more expensive.
I will ask bands to turn down, but I won’t let my word be the last. I tell them what the sound will be like if the do not turn down and then I let them decide. Most times they turn down and some times they don’t. Coming from being in a band and having engineers ask me to turn down, I know what its like. Some times it just has to be that loud.
What is your secret to being the awesomest sound man ever? I remember when Serena Maneesh came thru and my Juno broke down you worked some weird magic and fixed that dusty ol thang in five minutes.
Shiiiiiiit! I think I just plugged the power cord in or something.
Haha. What are you listening to these days?
I just got back from Australia and was lucky to witness Total Control from Melbourne play in Adelaide on this festival we were touring. The singer, Daniel was wearing a Christian Death shirt so I was paying attention right away. They continued to crush the 50 people watching in a 5000 capacity venue. They definitely stuck out on a indie festival tour. Most of us watching were from the other bands playing that evening. My friends, Cults were there watching too and were blown away. Cults is a band I had the pleasure of touring with last year. I was on this miserable tour with a local indie band and they joined us on the last quarter of the tour in a co-headlining capacity. They had the band I was working for worried that they would look like fools next to Cults. Rightly so.
Last year I tried to digitize my entire record collection. I got a good chunk of it done. Lately, before my ipod died, I would just listen to it on shuffle. Something great was always next on the playlist. I still listen to old 70’s/80’s LA punk, all the post punk guitar rock I grew up in/around and then there is always Otis Redding.
Who were you just in Taiwan (and Japan?) with?
2011 found me mostly with YUCK. They are a new band from London by way of Japan and NJ. I started with them just in the States until they could afford to take me intl. We played in Tokyo and Taipei for two nights. Yuck still needs to go back to do a proper tour in Japan. Asia is probably my favorite of all and that’s not because I am also Korean. Singapore is great and I have met some good friends there. Japan is always an amazing time with amazing people. Taipei, my second time around is even better than before. I need to get back to Bali. The food is so much better there and far more adventurous.
Tell us about the Weezer-boat cruise expedition you guys were just on.
The cruise was fun! My first and Yuck’s first. My birthday happened to fall on the last day too. We played on the top outdoor deck and halfway through Daniel, our singer announced my birthday to everyone. Shots of Jameson started to appear and pile up. It was 1:30 in the afternoon on a wonderful clear sunny day. I did the only thing a birthday boy could do, I drank all the shots and jumped on the waterslide right after our set. Everyone was in good spirits to be on the boat. It was an amazing adventure to start this year with.
What is the awesomest band/person you’ve ever worked with, and maybe, if it’s not too personal, the WORST? (I probably know…hehe…)
The best would have to be The Bronx, hands down. I imagine that as each of those assholes wake up in the morning they all have the same agenda, to be the funniest motherfucker alive that day. Slick wit and a dark sense of humor make for an exciting day. That and they play some of the best rock out there. We were on a tour through the UK and on a stop in Belfast, Matt blew his knee out. Bryan/TM took him to the hospital the next day when his pain hadn’t subsided. He came back with his leg wrapped and a pair of crutches under his arms. He was still smiling and immediately the ball busting started. Amazing insight into how that band works. No one quit or skipped a beat, they stayed on the tour and killed it every night.
They are all the worst in my book. They keep me from my cat, Frankenstein.
“The only band I toured with that I can say really lived to excess…would be Mastodon. I remember turning our entire hospitality rider into a liquid rider on my first tour.”
These days do you prefer the tour managing aspect, or the silent, evil genius soundman character, or doing both?
I enjoy both jobs. Sound comes more easily these days and I learn more every tour, but the TM side of things brings more adventure into my life. I am constantly balancing the line between punk asshole and responsible adult. Its funny to encourage the bands to go get into trouble and then reel them back into safety. The only band I toured with that I can say really lived to excess much the way you would expect a crazy heavy band to would be Mastodon. I remember turning our entire hospitality rider into a liquid rider on my first tour. The second day all the snacks, lunch meats, bread, fruit, sodas went out the window and cases of beer took their place. These guys have tons of friends wherever they go and they need lots of alcohol to entertain people. I started making their friends bring more beer and bottles of alcohol with them to the shows. They get in for free, but they gotta bring booze. I had to buy a couple of extra coolers to divide the alcohol. Some in the dressing room, some side stage and some on the bus.
You have probably some of the coolest tattoos I’ve EVER seen, and I rarely say that to folks. I generally hate people’s tattoo ideas. But you use some great Klimt iconography and such. What else do you have, and didn’t you have stuff done recently?
I just started my right arm after years of nothing. My flatmate, Clue is an artist. He set up a station in our kitchen. He recently started working at East Side Ink in the city. We have done a couple of drunk tattoo nights and some serious sessions. My whole left arm is all Klimt paintings. My right arm is going to be two Klimt paintings combined into one collage. My first tattoo was this celtic cross from a DC band, Ignition. Its funny because when I was 18, I played bass in a band called Scout. That band went through about four bass players through its career. All the bass players had the same tattoo. It just worked out that way some how. I also have a Jawbreaker tattoo. It was their symbol I guess, it appeared on an early 7″ and just sort of became part of their imagery.
Is “Lovely” your real last name?
My pop’s name is Randall Charles Lovely. “It’s the name they gave me.” In junior high the cool cheerleaders would call me Lewis Ugly. It pays to be a little Korean kid in an all cracker suburb in GA. Lovely is mostly English/Irish according to my pop. There is a bunch of other junk in there, but mostly those.
Who do YOU think is the greatest soundman in the world?
I don’t know. When I’m on big festival tours I always make sure to go out front for the headliners and see what I can steal from the big guys. Shirt who does Slipknot is really fucking good and a cool guy. I saw Journey in the Netherlands I think and their dude was incredible. I was working with Mastodon at the time and I had Journey’s prodo mgr ask me if his band could stand side stage during our set. Journey? Fans of Masto? Only if Masto can stand side stage for your band. That was a surreal moment.
I can say generally, that when I’m in Chicago or Minneapolis the sound engineers know their shit and are pretty cool to boot. They will buy you a drink or two.
If you could tour with any band in the world, living or dead (that you havent already), who’d that be.
Any good tour stories?
Tons! There was the time in the Fall of 2002. We were in Seattle and went down to the sound to have some seafood. A good amount of adult beverages were consumed and we made our way back to the bus. Previously we purchased fireworks somewhere in the middle of the states. I have a small fireworks problem. The problem is I like to throw fireworks at my friends and I buy mortars. We parked the bus around the corner of the hotel and near the tall needle building thing. At this time America was still on full alert for terrorist attacks. I believe the needle thingy was on a watch list of some sort. I proceeded to chase my band and crew around with the mortars. We took over this intersection and were chucking these things at each other. When they explode they have a spread of 15-30 feet of colorful excitement!
Everyone was hurling them around. My bass player threw one into a mail box and I felt it was a good idea to roll one under a passing car. That’s probably when the cops were called. We heard the sirens and our TM grabbed everyone and got us into the bus. We turned off all the lights and closed all the curtains. Cops and helicopters were everywhere! These guys in all black with fully auto machine guns showed up and they swarmed the area. They knocked on the bus door several times, but we didn’t do shit.
“I once ordered a $6 bull penis at this izakaya
on Saint Marks. It looked insane and felt really dense.”
What is the weirdest thing you’ve eaten?
I’m pretty much up to eat anything. I once ordered a $6 bull penis at this izakaya on Saint Marks. It looked insane and felt really dense. It weighed like a brick, but wasn’t that big. There was no way that I was going to voluntarily put a dick in my mouth. I mostly ordered it to see who would. My girlfriend at the time was the only one horny enough to take a bite. She said it was jelly like and hard to swallow! I have eaten pigeon in Hong Kong and that freaks people out for some reason. I cooked everyone kangaroo recently at a bbq in OZ. It tasted like lamb and was very lean and tender.
“You just jam a can of beer up a birds butt
and come back in an hour and a half.”
I know you’re a bit of a chef too– what’s a “Lewis speciality” you’d use to charm the ladies with?
I don’t know if I have a specialty. I broke up with a particular girlfriend once and she said she was going to miss the breakfasts that I cooked her every morning. If there is a big party going on I will cook up a few drunken chickens. That’s an easy standby. You just jam a can of beer up a birds butt and come back in an hour and a half. Cooked moist chicken for everyone. This past summer at the apt the bbq grill has seen alot of action. We did an all day drunk which was interrupted with a trip to the Essex St market. Fish monger and butcher was hit. We came back and started cooking everything in sight. That night ended somewhere around 6am with about 8 people tattooed with Drinky Crow somewhere and in various states of coloring. I awoke with Drinky in the palm of my left hand.