El Paso Music Scene

Mike West (Dinnertime Records) Interview

9/20/08

Mike West is a Seattle/El Paso-based producer and recording engineer. He has worked with many acts, such as members of Nirvana, Soundgarden, Tad, The Beastie Boys, Lynrd Skynrd, Our Lady Peace, Theory of a Dead Man, Jim Ward and Sleepercar (He did a solo live CD for Jim's acoustic solo stuff and a Sleepercar live CD that will be released this next summer).

EPMS: You have done a lot of big-time stuff in Seattle. What are you doing here with the local scene?

Mike West: I sometimes work with local bands I like, for low cost, when I am not out of town working for labels or signed bands.

I see you are also starting a label... I am looking to start recording more local bands that are referred to me by locals who have good taste in music. My schedule is pretty hectic but I always can find time to fit in cool bands. I have worked for countless acts over the past 15 years as well as played in a signed major label act with Chad Channing, Nirvana's original drummer.

I have a four-year degree in audio engineering and have learned production and recording from some great producers and engineers, such as Jack Endino (Nirvana, Soundgarden and countless others), Randy Staub (Nickelback and many more), as well as many others I have sat with in sessions.

EPMS: What local bands are you working with?

Mike West: I have not worked for a lot of local bands as of yet. I recorded the single, Broken Promise for Atomic Pink last year. That was the only song I recorded for them. I am currently working on a EP for Jaydens Playground which is turning out very nice. I have been recording a CD that's almost finished, for a year-and-a-half, for Scenic Drive that will be complete in a month or so. That CD is amazing, and will definitely amaze anyone that listens to it. I am also working on a full-length CD for Minefield. They did a one-day demo with me last year for some pre-production, so they could try out singers. It was a very rough demo, with only a few mics at a rehearsal. The drum tracks are almost complete and the CD should be done by November. I take a good amount of time when I work with local bands. To me, I don't care about how long it takes, but how good it turns out. I am a very passionate person when it comes to music, and am very picky. But in the end, the band thanks me and is happy I took the time to not let any mistakes slide. It only benefits them and brings smiles to the fans' faces to hear the final product. I record local bands when I am in town and bored at home. Recording is my work and my hobby and passion. I don't charge much, and sometimes I don't charge at all. I am soooo tired of local bands getting ripped off by un-named studios in the area. If a band is not signed it means they have little or no money. And, studios here charge too much, and ninety-nine percent of them are just a bunch of guys who bought gear and have no clue how to use it, with the exception of a few engineers like Justin, who did the Sleepercar CD.

EPMS: You think El Paso bands get ripped off by local studios? How do you think bands are treated in the live scene?

Mike West: El Paso saddens me, because bands get taken advantage of, and there is very little support from the clubs and radio like other cities. The clubs don't pay bands, even though they make plenty of cash off the alcohol they are selling. The bands are bringing people to drink and making them money, and they think throwing thirty to fifty bucks at them is fair. That doesn't even pay for gas to and from the show these days. And now, some clubs like Zeppelins are charging for sound? WTF is that?

EPMS: A lot of the problem is that El Pasoans don't come out for original music. We have to build the scene back up again; having venues go under right and left has hurt our consistency.

Mike West: I have been seeing how you promote the bands and music in our city. And I believe you have the bands' best interests in mind.

EPMS: Yeah. I lose money on most shows, because I try and advertise the shows, both to make the venue and the bands happy, and to try and build up the scene. I've done a number of no-cover shows, even road bands that I have to pay.

What's frustrating is that some of the local bands that demand money always work to get out the crowds when they are promoting the shows, and getting all the profit, but when I pay them decent money to do my shows, they bring me no crowd at all.

Mike West: Bands need to do their part too; I agree. That's why bands like Jaydens Playground always have people at the shows. But, it takes the help of clubs to help make or break a band, as does the local radio and media helping. El Paso is a weird scene. Most people here just like to drink and go dance to techno. It's not a huge live music scene, at least not as much as it used to be. Everyone likes to go to the bigger shows, like Warped Tour and such, but they are hesitant to go to local shows. Out of everyone I talk to and ask why, the number one reason they say they don't go to club shows is because the sound sucks ass. I agree with them. I have not been to a local club show that sounds good, unless it is a touring band that brings in their own PA and sound engineers. The sound really sucks at the shows I have been to. It would be better if the bands didn't play so loud, even if the PA sucks. At least you could hear them then.

EPMS: I have a big problem trying to get bands to turn down their amps. They don't realize that, if they play too loud for a given venue, they're just muddying up the sound.

Mike West: Yeah, too many bands play too loud. I did live sound for years in Seattle in the clubs, and worked for NAF productions and RATT sound on tour for a while. I worked with Soundgarden, The Beastie Boys and many others on tour. The lower the stage volume, the better the mix. Let the monitors do the work for you and the PA system. But, most bands think the amps have to be on full volume, and the PA will just pump the vocals louder. Too many musicians are not educated on live sound in general. When I mix for live bands, I tell them first and foremost: If you want me to mix you, let me set the stage volume and set monitor mixes up for you. But unfortunately, in this town very few places have a passable PA. None of them want to spend the money to have the bands sound good. What they don't realize is that having killer sound would bring them more business and fans to watch shows. And now clubs like Zeppelins who don't even have a good PA system are charging bands to use the PA system one hundred bucks. How can they charge for a shitty sound system, when they don't even pay the bands that? It's crazy. I am telling all the bands to steer clear of that place. The club owners down here fuck bands over by making plenty of money off the bar, and not even paying the bands one hundred bucks for entertaining the clientele while they drink.

I am working trying to get a few bands record deals with a few indie and one major label. Jaydens Playground is massing a nice local fan base. They always have a decent crowd at the shows, plus they sound great live. Once the demo is done, I have Bruce Pavitt from Sub Pop that wants to look at them, as well as Mercury Records. I think they have serious potential. Minefield is a really good band. The new singer is solid, and the songs are really good. A few definite hits on the CD. It will have ten songs on it, and we are spending months on it. I also have Roadrunner looking at them. If I was a label, I would sign either act in a heartbeat. I think Jaydens Playground would be my number one pick, because they are reliable and always show up on time in a good mood and put on a good show. They have amazing work ethic in the studio, and don't settle for less. It will get them ahead in the end.

EPMS: What do you consider a decent house PA?

Mike West: Every decent respectable club should have a Front Of House console and a monitor console. A splitter box on stage to split every mic, so that each mic goes to a channel on a monitor console and the front of house console. The monitors should consist of a monitor wedge for every band member, and a drum fill, which is usually a large dual fifteen- or eighteen-(inch) enclosure with a horn for attack. Each monitor should be bi-amped with a crossover running at least eight hundred watts per monitor; twelve-hundred would be ideal. Each monitor should have a thirty-two band graphic EQ to tweak the monitor and get rid of feedback. And the monitor console, which is completely different from the Front Of House console, should be running at least six mixes mono and two stereo mixes. That's what basic monitor consoles have. If you're lucky, the band will have wireless in-ear monitors, which is what I use. They make a monitor engineers' job easy. The band should have the amps not loud at all on stage, and the monitors, if the club has a system that's even decent, should do the job, and every band member should hear just fine. I won't even go into the logistics of a true Front Of House system. I ran sound for the nicest clubs in Seattle for years, and on tour with really notable sound companies. Every club in Seattle, and most other big cities has at least a half million dollars dumped into the PA. Here in El Paso you'd be lucky to find a couple of grand.

EPMS: I had this one band, recently, that put their own mixer before mine, since I didn't have reverb, then they kept turning the knobs on it from the stage. I needed to get the show over with, for the owner, else I would have stopped the show. The vocals sounded terrible, which always happens when a singer thinks he can mix his own voice live.

Mike West: You're correct about letting them do what they did. I would have not mixed for them, with him wanting to put a mixer or anything between the signal chain. That's craziness. I bet that drove you insane as a live sound engineer, and you're right when you say it sounds horrible when they try to EQ their own voice. I wish I was there to see that. I would have ran on stage and changed it myself, and straight-up told them how shitty it sounds.

But I hear you when it comes to bands being difficult. Most bands get too caught up with the rockstar ego and treat music as a competition. One thing that bugs me is when bands start thinking the local scene is a competition. Bands should always work together for a common goal.

EPMS: It's an El Paso thing... I get really frustrated with bands that don't even have the courtesy to respond when I offer them shows.

Mike West: People take for granted the people out there that are trying to do good for the music scene. The only reason I work and help out local bands is to help our scene. Unfortunately, I get a lot of haters getting pissed, because I speak the cold hard truth about some of the issues that plague our scene. I have a lot of other studios hate on me because I barely charge bands, and sometimes not at all, and I steal business. Ugggh! I probably have been called a shithead or asshole more than you can imagine.

As for booking bands down here, it is very, very sad to see the lack of promotion I have seen in other major cities. The clubs and most promoters do a very poor job promoting. You actually are one of the few that promotes and does a good job at it. Most clubs in Seattle spend cash to promote shows and help the local following. But, I believe in paying bands. One hundred bucks for a club is nothing. It's chump change, to show a little gratuity for them to haul all their crap out and drive to a show to play, is the least a club can do. I believe clubs should promote more and put the bills together a bit better. And book bands within the same genre, the same nights. I saw a show the other day when a Spanish band playing cumbias was playing with a metal band and a techno band. It was the most akward show I have ever seen. The audience was pretty good with a hundred people there, and by the second band they all got scared and left, leaving the owner with a bewildered look on his face. And I don't even think he got the point. These are just small things I notice, working for years in clubs that are very renowned and do well.

EPMS: Well, for a promoter, a band is really only worth how much crowd they can bring. I get a lot of booking agents talking up their bands, telling me how the band has their own publicist, but if the band doesn't consistently come to El Paso, it's very hard to get a crowd out for them. Unless, they have a really big name, like Avenged Sevenfold, or somebody like that. I recently put on a show for Oh My God!, which is an excellent touring band, a band that makes their money in music, which is very hard to do. I did the show with no cover, and we still didn't bring out too many people.

Mike West: A solution to the problem, as far as bringing people into clubs, as a promoter like yourself, is what they do in Los Angeles and other cities in California. It's Pay-To-Play. Most clubs there give tickets to bands to pre-sell for their shows. That way, the club is assured people at the shows. Usually they give the band one hundred or so tickets. The band sells them, and gives the club whatever the agreed upon amount they want is, and they let the band keep the rest, or they take all the sales and give them a cut of of the bar sales or tickets at the door. Bands down here don't sell enough merchandise as well. They wouldn't be complaining if they got their shit together and sold shirts and stickers. I don't see many bands do that, and it's a shame. But, I would say if you have a problem getting people to shows, work with the clubs and turn it into a Pay-To-Play situation, and have bands pre-sell their own tickets. It has worked wonders for clubs in other cities, and actually has proven to help some music scenes.

EPMS: OK, thanks for your time, Mike.

Mike West: Thanks again for what you do! Keep rocking!

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