[An excerpt from the cover story of the Pittsburgh City Paper, June 14-21, 2000]
Story by Justin Hopper
Photos by Heather Mull
Design by Michael Moran
In the 1990s, at a now-defunct club in Baltimore, there worked a man who was the living embodiment of the touring musician’s stereotype of the sound guy. He was in his late 30s, lived with his mother, and wore taped glasses and moon boots. He always wanted to be in a band, but was frustrated by lack of talent and luck, and threw his disgust into every show he mixed – he hated bands. This Baltimore abomination is the exception rather than the rule for sound engineers, however. A closer examination shows them to be interesting, if eccentric characters.
It takes a particular individual to become a sound guy, the engineer who keeps a music venue’s sound system under control before, during, and after a show. The dangers of the job, rife with electricity and heavy equipment, are uninsurable. The social life is comparable to those of pilots, lighthouse-keepers, and junkies. The pay runs from $25 to $50 a night – when there’s work – to full-time, salaried club employment with benefits. The sound guy’s job usually goes unnoticed, unless there is a disaster. Bands rate them on a combination of technical prowess, friendliness, and ability to acquire beer, food and liquor – some are considered the best only because of a well-stocked fridge. The hours, perfect in rock terms, are horrendous in family terms.
Still, there are those who trade in normality for the nightly chance at a rare moment when the interaction between musician, sound technician and technology goes from struggle to epiphany.
It’s exciting to see a band achieve their potential, and when modern-day hippies and festival-circuit staples The Recipe are making noise-lovers of their gypsy-skirted, Phish-head audience with the climax of their cover of The Beatles’ “Day In The Life,” that realization can’t be far off. The noise is beautiful in its cacophony, and perfect in its execution – but the credit for this perfection doesn’t land entirely on the stage. Geoff Jones, resident soundman at Club Laga in Oakland, is pushing his mixing board like his own instrument, and loving every minute of it.
“I cut my teeth on The Beatles,” Jones says after the show. “When the band tonight went into that song, I felt like I was at home. Tonight, the band pulled me in and made me feel like I was a part of the project and generally when that happens is when it’s best. When the band and you have a ‘simpatico,’ when they make you identify with what they’re doing, you do your best work. It’s an emotional thing as well as an intellectual thing.”
Jones has been plugging away in the soundman’s world of sliders and shade for more than 20 years. Previously he worked at clubs in Cincinnati and Chicago, and all over Pittsburgh, but it was his decade-long stint at Graffiti in Oakland that he came into his own as a house soundman. The club was well-regarded by national and local musicians, and he was able to make a name for himself as a good technician who was easy to work with and treated band with respect. The highly publicized downfall of that club took a part of the music community by surprise, but the rise of Club Laga in its stead hasn’t.
“I really enjoyed working at Graffiti, and was saddened to leave, but Laga made a very fine offer, and I saw a future here. I left almost two years before Graffiti closed, and it looks, in hindsight, like I made the right decision,” says Jones.
Happily employed by Laga now, Jones’ quantity and quality of work is growing quickly along with the club’s prominence on Pittsburgh’s music map. With the addition of the balcony, the capacity of the club has grown exponentially so that it can now house everything from small local indie shows to concerts of massive scale once confined to the likes of Metropol, including the upcoming Wu-Tang Clan show. Things at Laga have grown to the point where Jones will be hiring a full-time assistant, as soon as the right person is found, and perhaps this will help to shave some of the chaos from his daily life. As with all music business people, that life is stretched and unpredictable.
“The average day depends on the type of band coming in,” Jones explains, “and you can have a 12- or 14-hour day, no problem. Danzig was an 18-hour day, and then another five or so the next day to put things back the way they were.
“The first thing I usually have to do is make sure the band’s here,” he says. “Bands are artistic organizations run by highly creative individuals – the art side of music tends to make them, at times, irresponsible. They’re often in ivory towers pursuing their artistic muses, so they don’t always worry about the clock.”
Jones lists Branford and Wynton Marsalis, Bonnie Raitt, and country star Clint Black among his favorite people to work with. New York ska outfit The Toasters have talked to him about joining them on a European tour, and punks Green Day offered him a cut of their paycheck, so taken were they by the careful treatment of them and their much-maligned opening act, Pansy Division. While Jones holds the daily working life of the soundman in high regard, it is those rare moments – moments when artistry of the technician is elevated by the artistry of the musicians – that make him say this is now, determinedly, his life’s work.
“Some artists – for example Eric Johnson, Dick Dale, the Toasters – they just draw you in and there’s an immediate simpatico. You can’t help but become enmeshed in what they’re doing; you see things in it, and you’re moving at the speed of light,” says Jones. “I don’t know how to describe it, but that’s what keeps me in, that adrenaline rush. My wife told me to get back into sound fulltime about 15 years ago, because it keeps my mind working sharply and quickly, and it’s such an intense experience for me. She was right.”
Geoff Jones passed away in June 2016. This article was on display at the funeral. A memorial concert is scheduled for Sept. 10.