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Jazz as a very mental music

Aleksandra Line

Music isn’t about the amount of money or chords. Music is about community, joy, and love

Evilena Protektore

«I can’t take life as a serious talk overall,» begins Miks Strods, who is sitting in front of me with a milkshake instead of a mixer for the first time, even though we know each other for at least five years, if not more. The pandemic time has been sorrowful for everyone connected to the music industry, although it let me meet one of the really busy sound engineers for a long and warm conversation. Miks has stood (technically also sat) behind many jazz, folk, and some other music events, and who else except a sound guy should be asked about some harsh music business and jazz music relationship questions and guidelines for musician’s behavior towards the other industry people? I began with the fact that there’s not much information available on the hero of this story.

Well, tell me how much and what you have found out about me.

Not that much. I know you as a stage sound engineer, and the only thing I’ve found was the fact that you play guitar in some recording.

Yes, I know what you’re talking about. That line-up doesn’t exist anymore — it was a folk music album. We began a folk ensemble, some good friends gathered around, but quite soon, I realized that our perception of music is so different that I didn’t see any sense in participating in it anymore. I have played the guitar in that recording, I had to mix all of it, and when we began recording in the studio, it appeared I needed to produce that composition — leave something aside, play something over. I played a lot over the recorded material during mixing.

Speaking of my connection to music overall and instruments — I was born in Riga but grew up in Ogre during weekends. I wasn’t attending school yet but was going to visit my grandma in Ogre all the time. So I grew up with people like Armands Začs, who is a cool sound engineer now, Matīss Čudars, Kaspars Pļavnieks, Viktors Prūsis. Everyone was playing something all the time — and so I got an old acoustic guitar of Armands, for which I’m really grateful now. So that guitar was along my side all the time — while the others were sitting at home, watching the TV and snacking, I was playing. At the age of 13-14, I thought I needed to learn how to play drums and told my father I’d like to learn that.

So these musical roots are the reason?

Yes. I was seriously playing drums for quite a long time. But see, you can’t find anything about me, so I did my homework quite well. It’s not that I’m hiding anything, but I don’t see a reason to share it — it doesn’t seem to me I’ve achieved something significant. I have played two concerts in my life as a guitar player and even got some money for them. I’ve played in a band called «Parara» for a couple of years, played a couple of gigs at «Depo» club, did a folk jam at «Ala» folk club for a couple of times, nothing more. I’ve played some things over a recording here and there because it was easier to play over then ask people to play what should have actually been played there.

Do these people know it?

I hope not. That’s probably not the most beautiful thing to confess about myself and the industry — I think most people don’t actually know someone has played over their parts, even the most well-known musicians.

A sound engineer who actually can play over his artists’ parts — this is something really fantastic, after all.

It just is what it is. TAtast for me, the biggest problem has been that, growing up in a musician’s family, that music knowledge was way more different than the one you got from actually learning it. You jump into a swimming pool which you don’t actually know what’s going on in, it’s just around you. My dad played in some country bands; B.B.King recordings were always playing in the background at home. It was a different understanding of what you were searching for in music than my classmates had. I have been a part of three bands with all my heart and soul during these years, playing drums in all of them.

And how did your sound engineer’s career begin?

I have to thank my dad for that once again — he has taught me things. My father’s name is Vilnis Strods with a nickname Willy — he hasn’t been playing music as his profession for some twenty years anymore, but he is a buddy of a sadly known Muravey, and many of their musical buddies are dead now. He has played at a 1990-s band called «Rebel» for some time, and then he quit music. As he says, that’s because he loves music way too much. After all, music is more important to him than the money he earns with it. Then he began dealing with cars, and, as a musician who loved music, inevitably ended up with sound systems for cars — that began as a hobby and turned into work. He is a turner by profession, has played with Pete Anderson for many years, recently played with «Labvēlīgais tips,» «Iļģi,» at a whole bunch of old bands. There were the times when he played music professionally, was a buddy of Tālis Gžibovskis, many others, and then slowly quit playing the music he didn’t like, from the people he didn’t like. Then he became interested in machine sound, founded his bureau, and taught me things about music.

When an average person listens to recordings, what is the first thing he hears? There’s voice, and there are some elements of the mix that stand out — guitars, drums. But not a lot of people have their own technical equipment good enough to listen to the recordings and be able to identify some specific things. Secondly, how many people do actually sit and listen to music? Spend some time with that. It doesn’t work like that if you are baking an egg and listen to «Pink Floyd» with the TV working in the background. And that has opened up the doors to an absolutely new world for me, how to listen to the music overall. You begin listening to what it consists of. I was just going to the Latvian Music Academy to attend the unknown people’s concert exams and listened to how the instruments really sound.

Evilena Protektore

You are usually seen working with the sound at live concerts, not in the studio. Is it a choice?

Most of the engineers have done everything to some extent. But my homework is live. I have always liked some sound things. I liked to learn more. I have always eagerly listened to everything that came in my direction. I got acquainted with Edmunds Zazerskis, the father of «Universal Baltic Sound,» began working there, these guys helped me with a base for many things. Then I began working at the «Feelings» club which doesn’t exist anymore, then I have worked at «Egle,» «Nekādu problēmu,» met my previous wife and found out some folk music events, and met Krišjānis Putniņš and Edgars Kārklis at one of them. We got acquainted, began talking about «Ala» (folk club), and at one point I began working there. Years have passed, Krišjānis opened «Trompete,» we were working.

My base is live sound, and I think this is why I differ from my colleagues — I have toured with the bands for many years, worked at some venues where the situation with the technical equipment was terrible. During these years, there have been many situations where an experienced sound engineer would say, «No, this event cannot happen here; we’re going home.» I had a situation with Dons in Ventspils at the «Kiss» club — I don’t know if that venue exists anymore, and I hope not. The best thing that evening was when Dons sat by the piano, played a composition, and a line died at Multicore that goes from the stage to the mixer. And the mixer is on the other side of the venue at an utterly unacceptable place. And you can guess which line is that. So there’s silence, no voice, such a colorful experience. I had to react quickly, it’s like a gunshot in the dark — I pulled the channel out, plugged in some other channel, risked, and the vocal was back. Then in the middle of the event, something else died of the technical equipment.

If you’re on the spot at that event, you have to think about how to solve that situation and find a compromise. You have what you have, and it will be just as it will be. And that’s a great school of life — you come and work with what you have, and you have to get the best out of it. And there have been many different events of this kind, and at some point, it stops to bother you that much. You have four microphones — excellent, it works, you have the drums — perfect. When you feel such nihilism, you end up believing it isn’t important anymore what sound equipment they have — you don’t rely on the equipment anymore, but you rely on how you solve the problem.

I have many colleagues who think that everything that’s not «Shure» microphones is a mistake of nature. «I work only with «Sennheiser» microphones for the drums,» such people. And I cannot understand if it is a particular limitation of sorts, why not just listen with your ears and solve the problem. It’s just like these people who go to a shop and buy their wine according to an app, how many stars does the wine have. It doesn’t matter if it has sixteen stars or minus four — it matters if I like the wine if I get joy from it. But buying wine, depending on its coolness… if you have a budget of 2000 euros, you can buy just two cool microphones, but if the Otaņķi ethnographical ensemble with fifteen grannies comes, what do you do then — put two microphones? What bullshit! You have to put ten mics, and they don’t care if these mics are taken out of a pond or freshly unpacked.

(In the middle of our talk Evilena Protektore, who is taking photos of Miks, chimes in): Well, that’s just some survival mode.

But that’s what our industry is about — endless survival mode. How many events were there when you don’t have time to go pee, not talking about eating something.

EP: Was there any time when you had to quit an event because you thought it was impossible to continue?

I didn’t have such a situation, but my colleague did. Bach was once told me that he was doing the sound for «Audience Killers» — it makes sense that there are some sound cards, synths, more direct boxes than instruments. So he calls the organizers, and they say: «Yes, everything will be on the spot, all is cool.» He comes to Valmiera, two rows of speakers in front of the culture house, two monitors, done! The guys ask: «Well, where are the DI boxes?» and they just don’t have any. It isn’t like we need six microphones, but three will also do — here, you just cannot plug in your sound card literally anywhere. They think about what to do, then the local sound guy takes a wire, cuts it, cleans it up, and begins plugging it into some holes in the mixer with the help of a match. Then Bahs comes to the organizers and says, «Well, it ain’t gonna happen.» He packs his things up and goes away.

Were there any musicians who were more comfortable to work with? Or less.

You know, the question of how well the concert goes or what the technical part will be like depends only on your attitude. Of course, there are some technical nuances — if you are accustomed to playing with your leg behind your ear, if you take your leg out and straighten your spine, you will have problems with playing. But see, this is the industry when you cannot be static, you have to be flexible, nothing simply happens without it, and if you can’t adjust to the room, place, technical equipment, people you work with, it’s quite set that every second gig won’t work out. That’s a philosophical aspect — if something doesn’t work out at an event and you are powerless — either you take it or freak out. But freaking out won’t solve the situation.

The most pleasant is working with flexible musicians. I understand that at «Trompete» it is what it is — they should have had the backstage, better technical solutions, people shouldn’t talk and should have listened to the music… Even though that’s a technical story as well because people who come and eat that steak are the ones who pay you, after all. And many musicians in Latvia don’t understand that at most of the venues where they are invited to play at, they don’t play a solo concert, they are there to help the venue make money.

Musicians are really into an artistic stage, but they can’t do business and don’t understand that this art is just for the sake of art. If you take a guitar and go busking, then the criteria of you being a good or a bad musician are how much cash you yearn. But they don’t understand that a pub doesn’t differ that much from the street. If you help a venue make money, it makes sense that they’ll invite you more often, and you will be able to ask more for that eventually. And that is that symbiosis that musicians here don’t quite understand. There’s a second version as well — you do something by day and play music at night. Then you can also play without asking for any money and do what you like. Many people do that as well, and that’s a statement hard to swallow, but I’d like to say that these people are often closer to real playing music than those who do music for a living. This is why many people play a gig they don’t like just because they will get paid in the end.

It’s actually a hard choice, and I adore people who can just make a living out of music and play what they make money from. That is, in my opinion, huge happiness, especially in Latvia. Even though Latvia’s situation is way better than anywhere in the world — there’s a reason why all the jokes about jazz musicians are about differences between a jazz musician and a pizza.

Evilena Protektore

Speaking of these jazz musicians — do those you got to work with differ from musicians of different genres?

Yes. I’ll be honest — they differ because of their snobbism. That’s just my observation — of course, there are some exceptions, but the bigger the artist you are, the more tolerance to the other kinds of music and genre you have. Jazz is just the same music as schlager, pop music, darkwave, anything else. We had a talk with Una Stade on this topic once, and I told her that most young students are dense — they think, «oh, I play awesome,» and everything that’s not jazz is shit. And they don’t play quite as great.

For example, if you think of New Orleans, some musicians have grown up listening to that kind of music; meanwhile, we only study jazz, so they can play it and we can’t. This gives a very selective view both among the teachers and among the peers and among that environment when you play that music not because you like it but because it’s prestigious. Jazz is a very intellectual music. Most people don’t listen to jazz because they can’t understand it — and you have to understand that music on a theoretical or any other level to understand what’s going on. It’s not just about the feeling jazz evokes in you, but how you understand it on a mental level. It’s just a different approach to the music — jazz is not so understandable without prior knowledge.

Then you go listen to jazz avant-garde and, if nobody tells you about the concept and background, just like it often happens with modern art, it isn’t entirely clear what has been told. Jazz has been dance music in the last century, as well. You were paid because the people had to have some fun and be happy. Of course, that music develops, but I like the music that brings you joy the most. The music that seems dear. In my opinion, art cannot address you only if you know the backstory — a person does not always speak your language or can understand the concepts you’re talking about. And I think there are no good or bad music, no good or bad microphones, no good or bad people — that’s a subjective perception. You put that «good» or «bad» label the moment that thing doesn’t do you good. And that’s subjective.

What are the guidelines a musician has to stick to when working with a sound engineer?

Number one — he has to be there on time. He has to be sure of what you’ve brought with you — your instrument, your mood, and all the rest. Of course, different things can happen, but if you come to a gig and find out that your guitar is short on strings — sorry, I cannot find any strings for you in the middle of the stage. You have to be sure about where you are going to, you have to be prepared. You have to have technical and communication skills. All of us are human, why should I treat you bad, or why should you treat me wrong. Of course, if musicians are on tour, the stress level is high, they haven’t been home for a long time, it isn’t easy, I understand that it can happen so that you are on stage at your last concert of the tour and that’s the last chance to conclude you have two sockets instead of three. It’s important to remember that nobody is acting against you — they will always do all they can so that the event goes as smoothly as it can. And the best you can do is be kind and understand the situation.

What the younger jazz musician generation often blames us for — we are playing as cool as we can, but nothing sounds right. And usually, it’s not our technical problem — the microphone hears what it hears. It will sound right if you play cool, and if you have a friendly attitude. The most important is how your music is built, how the arrangements are done. One not really beautiful secret that almost every sound engineer does — if anything bothers you on stage, you just turn it off. You can still hear them on stage, but the audience doesn’t hear them anymore. You see, if someone comes to me and tells it sounds like shit, everyone blames an engineer, not a band. And if it sounds awesome, then they praise the band. So, if nobody comes and blames you, you just cut out what doesn’t sound well.

When you’re a sound engineer, you need to know theory, music, psychology, business. Being a musician on the stage, you just have to understand that a sound engineer and a manager are just the same as you. And only through a mutual compromise, you can get a nice result. Something I mention as an example to everyone — I had to work at a wedding at a huge castle, with many guests, high ceilings, and the band «Keksi» playing there. «Keksi» are cool, but they don’t fit into that acoustic venue. They begin playing, and you don’t understand anything. If these wedding organizers had taken a string quartet, it would be way better. Just the same story about the Riga acoustic concert hall — okay, they build it, what will they fill it with? Nothing against academic music, but what will ensure the existence of the concert hall?

There are lots of cases when someone invites a jazz musician to play at a private party, nobody listens to musicians, musicians get offended, it doesn’t do anyone any good. I don’t understand why you should approach your music so seriously in such a case. Someone pays you for it — cool, think of it as a rehearsal. If you fail, nobody hears it. One more piece of advice — at an event you intend to play at, always make sure that the person whom you’re dealing with knows what you need when you arrive, who you are. You also have to question yourself, do you know where you’re going and who you are. And there happen to be situations when you’re the one who has failed, forgotten something, and maybe also wrong, then you have to consider that it can be your mistake as well.

What, in your opinion, does Latvian jazz lack?

There’s no community of sorts between musicians. There’s a movie I watch once in a couple of years to remind myself what music itself means — «Playing For Change.» I advise you to watch it. The musicians there confess that it was a thing they have forgotten — that they actually, trying to busk on the streets and earn something, have forgotten about the fact that this music isn’t about the amount of money or chords, but about here and now, and about the fact that we like to be together. It doesn’t matter what’s the music, the only thing that matters is that you’re here and now and doing what makes you happy and gives love to the others.

I think it’s a key problem with jazz in Latvia — people don’t come together because they like jazz. They come together to earn some money, make a project happen, and there are not too many projects where you can see that people come together just to play with one another. And you can instantly spot such projects. And just as you cannot see your own ears from a distance, you cannot see how you play, so that is one more important aspect — to record and film your own concerts. And after that evaluate not how you’ve played, but how it all sounds together, what do the musicians and the audience do. Does the audience actually care what you’re doing? And then you see if you can adequately address the audience. One can see the bands who really do that because they love doing that from a distance.

I think that jazz in Latvia becomes cool that very moment when the whole community becomes alive, and people will love to do that. Then all the others will also join because they’ll see people doing extraordinary things. Some older musicians — how many concerts of their colleagues did they attend? Some younger guys, our age — well, maybe a bit more. Of course, I understand it’s complicated — you have to earn money, have a family, a dog, a loan, a car, a house, and it’s difficult also to go to listen to music. But there’s a problem then — you treat music as a job. I think people have to change their priorities.