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Itinerant soundman John Byrd discusses life in a Death Cab

If you're paying more than $10 for a rock show at a local club, you're probably contributing to food-and-rent funds for the person who's making the band you came to see sound the way they're supposed to. Most of the time, the fee is worth it.

When national skewed-pop or indie-rock bands such as The Dismemberment Plan, Death Cab for Cutie and Burning Airlines have visited Triangle clubs during the past five years, one of our own has been manning the gain in the stage right keyboard channel and taking more high end out of the drum monitor--with some substantial trial by fire, of course.

"I was totally learning as I went along ... I didn't know shit when I started. I did a lot of bad jobs," says John Byrd, reflecting upon his days as house engineer for Cat's Cradle. "You're totally the band's bitch when you're working the house job and they have their own crew and soundman."

Byrd had met plenty of touring musicians while playing bass in dissonant late-'90s Chapel Hill stompers Smearcase (with Snatches of Pink's Kevin Clark and The Comas' Cameron Weeks). When he landed the job at the Cradle, he was able to be in the right place at the right time, getting out of the "band bitch" seat. After one of these friends' bands showed up without a soundman, Byrd saw an opportunity for all involved.

"At the end of the night, I was like, 'You should hire me--you don't have a soundman,'" he remembers of the night Burning Airlines came to town.

The next time the band hit the road for a tour, Byrd was in tow. Soon after, more friends of friends in that particular current of rock bands kept giving him work--The Promise Ring, Jets to Brazil and Death Cab for Cutie, for whom he now works almost exclusively (and whose live John Byrd EP, released late last year, is an obvious tribute). Earlier this year he was hired for a month to go to Europe and run sound for Spoon, signed to local indie Merge Records, when their steady engineer couldn't go at the last minute.

It's not all glamour and glory, though.

"I wake up [after riding to the venue overnight on a tour bus], I brush my teeth, I eat a bowl of cereal, then I go into a dank rock club until 1 or 2 in the morning. That's my entire day," he says. "I don't get to do any of the cool vacationy things that I used to do, but I do get to focus on my job, which is really fun."

The first few years into touring, Byrd became accustomed to most of the popular rock venues across the country, with Japan, Australia and New Zealand's dirty clubs to follow. Given the disparate nature of acoustics in each place, he got a nightly crash course in the mysterious world of frequency adjustments and colorful surroundings.

"It's insanely different from club to club, especially with the bands that I started off working for, who would go to Chicago or New York or L.A. and play very large places. But then you go to the middle of the country and you're playing at, like, Gabe's Oasis [in Iowa City, Iowa], which is a roach-infested hellhole," he laughs.

As the bands he worked with started playing bigger venues, Byrd's job got more complicated. With a larger road crew, he didn't have to be responsible for all the technical aesthetics of the show, but the higher profile shows, including the yearly Coachella weekend in California, have provided new challenges.

"Before, I was the only crew--I was the guy who would talk to the club, the only person doing sound, telling the lighting guy, 'Hey, we need to try this and this,' and coaching the house monitor engineer through his job," he says. "But now we have this huge crew ... [and at festivals] the acoustics are completely different and just the way you run the show is completely different.

"We're used to taking a long setup time, with very detailed soundchecks ... but the festival stuff, it just kills me because I have such a quality control that I always want to run through. You have to be up and ready to go in like no time whatsoever. You can't fuck up."

Death Cab for Cutie's steadily rigorous tour schedule has kept Byrd on the road for close to two-thirds of the past two years, and with a new release (their first on a major label) out at the end of this month, the band will be keeping him busy at least into the middle of next year.

But his life in Carrboro is always easy to jump back into. He and fellow engineer Nick Peterson own a studio called Track and Field right down the street from his house, which keeps him busy when he's not on tour. Given the long periods of time on the road, though, wouldn't trying to adjust to any sort of routine at home take a while to perfect?

"You mean, like, getting home and not having anything to do with your day? It can be weird," he muses, "but I'm getting a little stir-crazy. I really want to go on tour right now, but I love coming home to this town. I really value how relaxed this place is. I always feel like I can pick up right where I left off."

  • On the road with Death Cab soundman John Byrd

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