In this edition of my blog series feature Behind the Art, meet Karrie Keyes. Karrie’s job is extremely specialized because she’s mixing the sound on stage. Her efforts help the artists lose themselves in the music so that they can perform the ultimate show for their fans. With egos not often in check, monitor engineering can be a thankless job. Read on to see how Karrie handles it all, including juggling touring and raising a family. . . plus, funny road stories (including one about bass).
Monitor Engineer for Pearl Jam & Eddie Vedder. Follow Karrie online.
What prompted you to pursue audio engineering? How did you happen into it?
As it is with so many things in life, my path would instantly change over a simple decision. The decision was, what punk rock show to go to: Fear or Black Flag? The choice was pretty simple as my friends were going to Fear and I could get a ride. Black Flag required a public bus that stopped running at 10 p.m., which meant I would be stranded until the morning. Black Flag it was! I never did things the easy way!
The show was a video shoot for the In My Head Tour; Painted Willie and Gone opened up. I managed to weave my way up to the front. Minutes before Black Flag went on, one of their roadies came over and talked to me. He was looking to hook up, but I explained I wanted to learn what he did, to learn to do his job! He told me to hang out after the show and he would show me. Of course, I had no idea what he actually did. So I hung out after the show and he taught me one of the things that he, as a sound guy, had to do: wrap a mic cable.
The next day I found myself in Palo Alto with Black Flag and by the time we returned to Los Angeles, I knew what I wanted to do: Sound. And my new friend, Dave, was going to teach me. He inspired me not to give up.
Shortly after Black Flag finished their tour, Dave and I became a couple, and I started working every gig I could with him. He owned the sound company that Black Flag toured with and did a lot of the So Cal punk rock shows. Dave and I did every show by ourselves for years. Sometimes we would hire a third person, but for the most part it was just the two of us doing most of the punk rock shows in Southern California. I eventually was able to quit my part-time job, and never went back to school.
Are you predominantly a monitor mixer, or do you ever mix from Front of House? Do you also engineer projects in the studio?
Monitor Engineer. That is it.
Who all is on your list of credits?
Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fugazi, Sonic Youth, Eddie Vedder, and Rat Sound Systems from 1986-2005.
How does mixing monitors differ from mixing at the Front of House?
I am mixing for a select few people who happen to be performing onstage. They may not want to hear things the same way, and I need to make those people comfortable and secure enough in the sound so they can concentrate on performing.
Mixing monitors is considered one of the most difficult jobs in the live business, and can be a rather thankless job. How did you happen into specifically mixing monitors, and what makes you continue doing it?
Yes, it is not for the weak of heart. You can’t take things personally, have to work under stress, and sometimes everything is your fault whether you have control over it or not. I enjoy working on stage and spent most of my time there. It just became natural to go into monitors. Now it is too late to get out.
Do you have a specific approach to getting the artist what they want to hear each night?
That is all dependent on the artist.
Do you find it’s easier to mix for artists with in-ear monitors versus traditional floor wedges?
They both present different challenges—neither is easier—they also have pros that make certain things easier over the other. It is really what the artist is comfortable with.
Where did you learn your craft?
At Rat Sound. I started out at the bottom, loading and unloading trucks full of PA systems and working every show I could. It gave me the opportunity to learn all about the gear, how it works, and how to troubleshoot. I did everything: load in and load out, set up the sound system, wired the stage, and did the set changes on weekends—all for, like, $20 a show.
Who’s the first artist that got you started?
Were they the first artist you toured with?
What’s the story behind that?
I worked with the Untouchables as a system tech for many of their Southern California gigs. When their FOH engineer left, the monitor engineer moved to house and I moved to monitors.
You’ve raised twin girls while touring the world with Pearl Jam for many years. How have you been able to make that work?
You just do. I made concessions on both ends. There were goals in my career that I did not achieve, and I missed some softball and soccer games. I had a supportive dad to my girls and we just made it work.
Does your husband work in the music business? If so, do you ever work together? How do the two of you make that work?
Not married. My ex and father of my daughters does work in the industry. He is an FOH engineer and owns Rat Sound. We worked together for years at Rat Sound and on the road with Red Hot Chili Peppers. We were a better audio team than a couple.
As a woman in a male-dominant business, what gender-based obstacles have you encountered and how did you overcome them?
It is an understatement that working in production is extremely hard, whether you are male or female. That being said, women have additional obstacles that they have to overcome. It often feels like, with each new gig, you have to prove to everyone that you are capable of doing the job. Oftentimes the same mistakes that men make can really hinder women. When a male makes the mistake, it is part of his learning and perfecting his trade; when a woman makes that mistake, it’s obvious that she doesn’t know what she is doing. Oftentimes, women are coddled with the physical workload, and this not only slows the entire crew down, but can also injure crew members or the woman herself. There is the day-to-day bullshit and flipping shit, which can often turn hurtful and sexist.
That being said, I have always worked with an amazing group of men who have always been supportive. I have never felt that I was working with sexist jerks or had to deal with sexual harassment. Some of it was because I ignored it—I came up in a generation that was fighting to work alongside men; sexism was a given and sexual harassment was being defined. There was a certain level of crap that I knew I was going to deal with.
After co-founding SoundGirls.org, I have been pretty surprised at how many women are dealing with sexism and even harassment within the industry. Most of us are freelancers, and there is not an HR department to file complaints, and there is the real threat of being blacklisted. So I am not sure what to suggest.
I am happy to see many women working in audio now, as there were very few when I started.
I went from being the only woman on the crew, to now Pearl Jam having six women on the crew.
Kudos to Pearl Jam!
Was there a particular moment when you felt you’d “made it” as a music industry professional?
Mixing monitors for Neil Young on Mirror Ball Tour, Red Hot Chili Peppers at Woodstock 3.
Where do you live?
Ventura, CA. I want to live in New Orleans.
What is your daily routine when on tour?
Load in, set up, line check, sound check, show, and load out. There are some meals in there and a lot of waiting around—so I read a lot. I spend a good part of the day dealing radio frequencies these days.
What constitutes a productive day at work for you?
A happy band after the show.
Of course, on tour you’re at different venues each night, but is there anything unique about your workspace? What do you keep on the console? What’s the view from your workspace?
Nothing unique—we don’t have a lot real estate. I see the stage. I keep Post-it notes on the console with notes.
Do you have a peculiar habit?
Please recommend three songs (any genre, any artist) and tell us why you like them.
Oh jeez. Really, I don’t know, it changes all the time.
Patti Smith—Dancing Barefoot is one of my favorite songs
Toss up of Dr. John—Right Place, Wrong Time or Walk on Gilded Splinters
Public Enemy—Fight the Power, or Sonic Youth—Kool Thing
Any Fugazi and Allen Toussaint—The Bright Mississippi
As I’m also an author, I’d love for you to recommend three books and tell us why you like them.
That is a tough one too . . . I read all the time. But . . .
Songs for my Fathers—a great history of New Orleans Music and Jazz greats, told lovingly by one of their students. A story about race as well and wonderfully written.
Just Kids—I don’t need say anything about it. If you have not read it . . . what are you waiting for?
Black against Empire —We are still dealing with what The Panthers and Blacks were dealing with 40+ years ago. Our country can be better than it is.
Do you have an industry friend who helps and inspires you?
Kevin McKenzie and Dave Rat.
Do you play a musical instrument? If so, which one(s), and for how long have you played?
Do you have any superstitions?
What phrase do you over-use?
Don’t know – Dude
Do you have a funny story related to your job?
Musicians can be dramatic. I once had a bass player tell that if I only would turn down the lead vocal in the center of the stage he could turn down his bass rig. I walked back to the monitor board chuckling—the reason the lead vocal was so loud was because the bass rig was about 120 dB onstage. (It wasn’t Pearl Jam.)
Ha! What is it with bass players and volume?
Also, I had a band tell me that the monitors were too good, and that they could no longer get angry while they were playing. I asked them if they wanted me to make them sound bad?
Stiff Little Fingers told me that the monitors were brilliant, and I was so stoked, only to find out later that brilliant meant everything was fine, nothing spectacular . . . KFC could be brilliant.
What is something about yourself that is essentially unknown and maybe even surprising?
That I am shy.
What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?
Practice and just get out and do it.
What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a monitor engineer?
You need to play many different roles and be able to give attention to several people at a time when all may need you to be someone different or need your job to be different. Keep your head up and out of the console—pay attention to the artist, and don’t fiddle with the mixes. Be honest, and try to make it sound as good as possible each day.