A Night Behind the Board With New York’s Best Sound Crews
Like anyone else, Kenny Lienhardt has good days and bad days at work. It’s just that the good days involve reviving a seemingly dead and gone vintage guitar amp or watching Metallica demolish the final strains of “Enter Sandman” before a crowd of 600 people, while the bad ones may result in a member of Run DMC’s crew throwing him up against the wall of the sound booth and threatening his life.
As the most revered and respected sound guy in New York City, Lienhardt’s encountered both extremes countless times a week since 1998, when a dilapidated Yiddish theater on Delancey Street became the Bowery Ballroom. Lienhardt started as the Bowery’s monitor technician in 1998, having gone there upon the closing of The Spiral, the rock spot he’d worked at for six years prior. There was no soft open for the Bowery, and Lienhardt and the rest of the crew’s initial challenge was simply to keep up. “The first crew was just four guys, every night for like a year and a half,” he says of the Bowery’s early days of operation. “There was work to be done. That basement had to be dug out in buckets. Our first show was Bernard Butler from the London Suede, and it sold out. We were all like, ‘Holy shit! We got the solo guy from this band only some people have heard of, and this place is fucking sold out?!’ Talk about hitting the ground running. I think that’s kind of what fueled it right away. People wanted to play that place.”
Since then, the Bowery’s turned into a one-stop launching pad, a safe haven run by a dream mechanic for musicians who have come to depend on the steadfast standard set by Lienhardt and his crew. He vividly recounts the levels Bon Iver hit on the Bowery’s analog sound board, he and Flea gushing over their mutual adoration for Jewel after the Red Hot Chili Peppers sought out the uncharacteristically small room to play a one-off gig, and reviving a dead bass rig of Kurt Vile’s on the spot before his show.
“Dave Grohl came through with Them Crooked Vultures, and he remembered Kenny from when he played there years and years ago,” recalls Peter Young, the Bowery’s lighting director and a friend and coworker of Lienhardt’s for the past six years. “Kenny’s one of those characters people remember. He just has this sort of way of making people feel comfortable around him. Everyone on the crew knows — and Kenny’s instilled this in everyone who works there, from the production side of things — that our job is to make sure that the band touring that night has the best night of their tour. It doesn’t matter whether it’s folk or heavy metal or pop music or hip-hop. We run the gamut of people who want to play the Bowery, and I think the reason is Kenny.”
“The smallest thing stops a show,” says Lienhardt. “Broken bass drum pedal? No show. Busted amplifier? No show. The little thing that holds the hi-hat together? I’ve run to my studio for a hi-hat stand to save a sold-out show more times than I can count for stuff like that. It’s all in the details, let me tell you. The bands need to be happy, the shows need to happen correctly to keep your reputation going. Opening act, headliner, whoever: If they’re on that stage, it’s their biggest show of the year. And that makes it easy to come to work.”
Meanwhile, on Metropolitan…
Between 800 to 1,000 bands pass through the Williamsburg venue The Knitting Factory under production engineer Rob Sutton’s watch every year, from renowned DJs to aspiring comedians to touring bands. Like any production manager with a decade or two of experience under his belt, Sutton hates being asked the same question multiple times; he also hates when bands just move mic stands for the sake of moving them, and he — and his bosses — hate when people get slow and fold under pressure, even if it’s just their first round at the live show rodeo.
“If you can’t do a sold-out show, then you can’t work for me,” he says, downing a Sportsman special at The Levee before heading into work. “Why would I hire you if I didn’t think you could work a Frank Turner show when there’s a line around the block on a Monday night? If you can’t do it, why work here?” And this is where Rob differs from other guys in town who make the rooms of Brooklyn and Manhattan sound great every night of the week: His intensity is born from an ability to work fast and work alone, and he relishes in the opportunity to do it every night of the week.
Sutton’s varied résumé belies the 22 years he’s lived and worked in New York City — working at Power Play Studios on some of hip-hop’s biggest releases, managing the Mercury Lounge twice for a grand total of seven years, a lucrative stint as a futures trader for a hedge fund, to now making sure two different shows go off without a hitch on a busy weekend night at the Knitting Factory. Sutton’s also been behind the board at Governor’s Island and the Barclays Center for the odd gig, and he finds that the seemingly more intimidating arenas and outdoor spaces don’t prove to be as challenging as the Knit when it comes to perfecting sound.
“The bigger the venue, the easier it gets,” he shrugs. “You don’t have to worry about anything folding back onto the stage or feedback from the house to the stage. You don’t have to worry about the bands hearing the house from where they are. All of those outdoor gigs and festivals, you love doing sound because the sound hits you and it leaves — you can be as loud as you want and kill them in the chest with the subwoofers and then it’s gone. I used to say to the [Knitting Factory] bartending staff, ‘I want to get paid when someone yells from stage, ‘Turn my shit up!’ Just pay me $20 every time someone says that.’ But I’ve got it to where they don’t even do that anymore, where the monitors in front of them rip their faces off and the beat in back of them will vibrate their ribcage. I got a style together for that room, and I can do that in five minutes. And it sounds great.”
The “five minutes” part of that is one of his biggest points of pride, and it all goes back to the need for speed to get the job done right. “I can see a problem happening to a band before it’s going to happen,” he says. “Part of being fast is anticipating problems. I’m rarely surprised when something hits the stage. Part of being fast is knowing what’s coming.”
Hilary Hughes was the Music Editor of the Village Voice until 2016 Hughes has written about music, film, television and entertainment for a handful of publications including Esquire, Rolling Stone, Elle, USA Today, Fuse, and Billboard. Her bread and butter is rock, folk, pop, and festival coverage. A Bostonian by birth and Brooklynite by choice, she got her start writing about the local music scene in her hometown for DigBoston before joining the alt weekly’s staff as its Arts and Entertainment Editor from 2010-2012.