by Jeremy Lemos
Where has it all gone? This year of 2010 is over and it's all a blur . . . As I write this, I'm on a plane back to the States after blowing out the old year with Sonic Youth in London. I'm headed straight to rehearsals for Iron & Wine to bring in the new.
I vividly remember how excited I was when I got the phone call offering me the Pavement gig a year and a half ago. I was in a Berlin hotel, and I've never had a finer celebratory nine-euro minibar whiskey in my bathrobe, before or since.
Back in October 2009, rumors were flying that the Pavement reunion would just pluck the entire Sonic Youth crew up and take them out all year as a unit. Not only are we all close friends, but we've done hundreds and hundreds of shows together in every possible situation, and I knew that we could slay anything from show number one. Plus, we were told that Sonic Youth wouldn't be doing any shows that overlapped with Pavement, to avoid stepping on Mark Ibold's toes—he would be touring with both bands. When I got the call I was honored, but when I heard that for the most part the band were bringing back their old crew from the 90s, I was a little disappointed—I knew how much my Sonic Youth colleagues had wanted the gig.
I later found out that certain members of Pavement wanted to keep it as much like the old days as possible, and that's certainly understandable. I'd worked with Andy, their old backline tech, when I did a fill-in gig with Jarvis Cocker at Pitchfork a few years ago, and he was great. A tour manager is a different story . . . A tour manager can completely dictate how a tour operates, and I told anyone I could that Pavement had to hire Sonic Youth's tour manager—which they did. Dan Mapp is the hardest-working man behind the scenes, and I knew my 2010 would be righteous as long as he was driving the ship. He got his start in Philly with the Dead Milkmen, when they had one guy who drove, did sound, and sold merch. He told me that by the last song of a Dead Milkmen set, he figured it sounded fine, so he'd leave the desk unmanned and go set up the merch table to be ready for the aftershow rush. He still doesn't sleep much.
Fast forward through a year on the tour that many critics considered the best of 2010, and I couldn't have had a better time. You may have read about a few of them. I worked every show Pavement played except, sadly, the final three shows in South America. I don't think I'm the only one who feels that the last "proper" shows were in the States—the Hollywood Bowl in LA and the Matador 21 festival in Las Vegas.
I remember worrying about the Hollywood show for months. OK, it's my nature to worry, but this was going to be the biggest nonfestival show Pavement would ever play! Plus the union people at the Hollywood Bowl are supposed to be really tough on touring crews. Hey, it's the Hollywood Bowl—they've done it all. It's not your show anymore, and you aren't calling the shots anymore—it's their stage, and you'd better be honored to grace it. They had the digital console I liked installed in-house, but they wouldn't let me use any of my files for the show. They also had a crazy rotating stage so you could have two bands completely set up at once and just spin the thing around and have the second one start playing.
Changeovers between bands were scheduled for 15 minutes, and I'd been telling people for weeks that it couldn't be done. We could barely get Sonic Youth off the stage in ten at a normal festival, much less get another band on and checked. Would the stage guys be jerks (like, maybe Austin)? You can only pull off tight festivals and superquick changes easily with a good house crew. If you have the best road crew on earth, it won't matter if all the microphones are plugged in the wrong places by local stagehands.
Would I be able to work for my two favorite bands in one day and pull off this huge show? I realize I "double dip" a lot in these stories, which makes it sound routine, but it doesn't really happen all that often. It's only because of these two groups and their overlapping relationship. . . . It's usually way too much work!
In the end, the show went off more smoothly than I could have imagined. The local crew was fantastic all day and very accommodating, pro guys. Oh, and that impossible 15-minute changeover between two coheadlining bands? We did it in nine. One weird thing was that they had a huge red "Hollywood bomb" timer ticking down how much of each band's set was left. This place ran like a clock, but it was really distracting. No Age ended their last song and played feedback until the timer counted down to one second, and Lee flipped it over on purpose very early into Sonic Youth's set. I knew it must have been making him nuts!
The next day we woke up early and flew to Las Vegas for the Matador at 21 festival. It was to be the rock 'n' roll lost weekend. Six bands I'd worked with and about 50 of my touring friends, all in the strange wonderful adult playland of Vegas.
I have a strange history with this place, and I'll usually be the only one in a group trying to defend it. The first time I ever went to Vegas was between two U.S. Maple shows in Los Angeles (good Lord that was a long time ago). The first show was God knows where, and I met an old friend at the gig. After a couple of drinks we decided it would be a good idea to drive to Vegas after the show (bad movies have started with less of a premise). We jumped in a car and drove all night, headed northeast on I-15. As the sun rose in the desert, we started to see the burnt-out towns between the two cities. (Fifty years ago, a full tank of gas only got you so far in the desert, and this supported quite a few little pull-off gas stations that had some food and slot machines. The modern automobile can easily make it all the way, so there's no reason to stop anymore.) After pulling onto Fremont Street, we played a few hands of blackjack and had some breakfast at the table. In a few hours, I'd won enough money to pay for the gas, and then we jumped in the car to drive back to LA for U.S. Maple show number two. I barely made it in time for sound check, but it was worth every second.
I also happened to get married there at the Little Church of the West on a day off on a Sonic Youth tour while opening for Pearl Jam at the MGM. That's another story for another time, but let's just say I really love Las Vegas. At least for a couple of days—then it starts to get a little weird. And by weird, I mean like no other place on earth. It's a very unnatural place, if you hadn't noticed. Turn off the water, and it'd be a ghost town in a week.
Let's get back to the plot. After landing in Vegas, we headed straight from the airport to the Palms. We were the first touring crew to show up, and who happened to meet us onstage? Andy Turner and Dave Rat from Rat Sound. I've worked with Andy before, and I couldn't wait to do it again. He spent two days with the Sonic Youth sound crew teaching a master class in how to be a professional. Both of the band's sound men thought they knew what they were doing until those two days. It was some real level-two thinking. Priceless information to help make you a little more efficient at every step—repeat every step across a semi of gear, then over a month-long tour, and little efficiencies add up. He basically added a year to my life.
Then there's Dave Rat himself, a pioneer of live sound and a legend in the industry. He got his start with a little band called Black Flag, and from there he built a sound company that designs much of its own gear and outfits Pearl Jam, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the Coachella fest. If you do any kind of live sound, you really have to watch his videos and read his blog. He will make you rethink what you're doing and might flip what you know on its head. I've implemented more than one of his tips hours after reading it.
So I was pretty excited to see two of my favorite sound folks on my side, and from that point I knew it was all going to go well. It's pretty common at festivals (with promoters who know what they're doing, like at All Tomorrow's Parties and Touch & Go 25) to bring in someone to sort of mediate between the house guys and the touring people. Do you think that the guy who set up the PA at 7 AM knows what Wolf Eyes is supposed to sound like?
The plan was for all the other bands on my day of the festival to use the house gear, and my two bands would use all of the Pavement PA. This was great for me because I had my settings dialed in from the day before and was ready to go. The check went well, and I talked a little shop with Dave about his sound system (which impressed me) and showed off my AeroPress touring rig (which seemed to impress him). We set up both bands on rolling risers so that at the ends of their sets we could roll them away without breaking down much gear and be done until later that night. I had to get something to eat and get back in time to see all the other music! When was the last time you got to see Chavez? They were great. Fucked Up? I'd always written them off because of their name, but after seeing them play I thought it suited them. Was it the spiced rum backstage? Something in the air seemed strange. Time to work . . .
For all the hype about Mark Ibold playing bass in both bands, Sonic Youth wasn't having it. They sidelined him and went with the classic four-piece lineup both nights, which meant that they wouldn't play anything after 2004. A classic fan set, and I was definitely one of the fans.
Super short, ten songs in under an hour—but boy, did they get in there. I've seen hundreds of Sonic Youth shows, and this one was one of the greatest. Nonstop pummeling like they had something to prove. Thurston, Lee, and Kim all ended the set ("Death Valley '69" no less) wrestling one another on stage, knocking over mikes and monitors in a wall of feedback. I wasn't the only one to think they were great that night. Three months later and people I meet are still telling me that they never saw SY as good as they were that night.
How could Pavement follow that? It felt like there was some tension as they walked onstage for their last North American show. Then it was all a blur of loading out and hitting the party. We'd been on tour for most of the year, and this was the last big night out. Things spiraled out of control in the way Vegas seems to want them to—a little craps, some drinks with friends you stumble into, a trip to the VIP room (they had a "hardwood suite" for VIPs that included free drinks, two floors, DJs, and a basketball court—drunk girls shooting hoops in heels seemed to fit right in). Then back up to somebody else's room, running into a girl in the hallway in underpants trying to get back into a room she was locked out of (she gave me a look of "This doesn't happen to me every day"), and finally watching the sun rise from a corner room high up in the Palms Hotel. At some point I even ended up in a ballroom where Guitar Wolf were playing?
A night like this comes with a price: a hangover the likes of which I haven't had in years. Good coffee? Forget it. If you don't bring your own gear, then good luck. The only game in town is the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, voted best coffee in Vegas two years in a row. Are you joking? A franchise? At least there was one in the lobby. Alas, coffee wasn't enough to cut through this head of wood. My pal Mark Luecke was there with Yo La Tengo and told me I had to hit Mr. Sandwich, a Korean place that was supposed to be the best in town. And we could walk there! Who walks in Vegas? We did, and it saved my life. Fresh coconut juice and the greatest banh mi of all time. I still think about this one . . .
Superchunk and Spoon played killer sets. I wondered why the Ponys hadn't been invited (or hadn't been able to come?), but I never found out. The choice between Belle & Sebastian and the poker tables was an easy one, but the Belle & Sebastian set would've been a lot cheaper.
GQ called it "2010's party of the year," and I'd have to agree.
Jeremy also has a website, and is probably on tour right now.