Another Cup of Coffee with Will Odom


Full disclosure: this month’s Another Cup features one of my closest friends, Will Odom.  He’s also one of the best sound guys in Memphis.  Straight out of school, he started working at Ardent Studios.  He’s run sound at nearly every venue in town.  He’s worked events everywhere from Hawaii to New York, Orlando to San Francisco.  He’s been a sound guy for Lucero, John McCain, and seemingly everyone in between.

Because the last few months focused on folks in the music business, I wanted to spotlight someone working on the ground level, night after night, room to room, show to show.  These folks–the sound guys, bartenders, working musicians, scenesters populating the shows, etc–are the lifeblood of any music community.  They’re at the sparsely-attended Monday open mics, and they’re at the packed-house weekend shows.  They’re present for all of it, every night–the tedium and the magic–partly because it’s their job, and mostly because they just love music.

Usually, this is Another Cup of Coffee.  This time, I met Will at the Blue Monkey midtown, before he started setting up for the night’s show.  So, we had a few cups of “not-coffee.”  When in Rome…

Enjoy Another Pint of Beer with Will Odom!

William Odom.

Christopher Milam.

Does anyone call you William?

Does anyone call you Christopher?

Three people.  One’s my mom.  I’m going to ask some questions as if I don’t know the answers.  Pretend I’m James Lipton.  Where did you grow up, sir?

I grew up in the wonderful suburbs of Memphis in Germantown, Tennessee.

Where did you go to high school?

I went to Germantown High School.

(Booing because I went to its rival high school.)

Your recorder won’t pick it up, but that’s a middle finger for you.

Where did you go for school after that?

That was a long career.  There were two and a half years after high school that I had an on-again, off-again relationship with the University of Memphis.

A lot of people have that relationship!  Very love-hate, Sam-and-Diane.

Yes, it’s true.  Then I went to Full Sail in Orlando to study sound engineering.

Is Full Sail akin to SAE (School of Audio Engineering)?

It is.  It’s a two-year technical school they condense into one year.  A lot of people at Ardent went there.  A lot more people from the studio world went there than from the live world.  I know a lot of guys who went to U of M’s recording program, too–they’ve got a good one.

How long were you in Orlando?  What was the music scene like?

About a year, and I was too poor to really find out!

What year was it?

2000-2001.

That was when Orlando was the boy-band capital of the world.

Oh yeah, that was huge there.  I saw a bunch of shows at the House of Blues.  I saw some really amazing shows there.

Local bands or touring bands?

Touring bands.  To this day, some of the best shows I’ve ever seen were there.  The Mos Def Lyricist Lounge tour.  DeAngelo.  Susan Tedeschi.

What brought you back to Memphis?

Ardent Studios brought me back.  It was the only place I ever wanted to work at when I finished school.  I didn’t want to go to New York or Nashville.  I thought Ardent was it.

What was it about Ardent?

Just the history.  I was a huge Big Star fan, still am.  I called Jody Stephens [Big Star’s drummer and Ardent studio manager] when I still lived in Orlando, saying “hey, I want to come work for you when I finish school.”  He said, “okay, call in a few months.”  Every time I came back in town, I’d check in.  Finally, by the time I graduated, I think I’d worn him down!  I graduated on a Saturday in Orlando, and started work at Ardent that Tuesday.

Funny enough, that Tuesday was September 11, 2001.  I remember there were bands in there recording that day, but nobody did anything.  Just burning studio time.

What were you doing when you started at Ardent?

I was the night guy.  Answering phones, cleaning up, anything really.

Sound guys really go through an apprenticeship when they first start.  Lots of “paying of the dues” with the older generation that’s (hopefully) teaching them something while they do grunt work.

Right, right.  Ardent’s roof is flat and leaves pile up in the gutters.  One day it rained a ton, and busted a hole through the ceiling into some of the equipment and tapes.  Me and the studio manager went out in it and had to clean out the gutters.  Finally went home late, changed into some dry clothes, and got the call: “we need someone to stay here overnight and keep an eye out.”  “All night?”  “Yeah.”  Well, okay.  That was my job then.

Who were a few folks recording at Ardent while you were there?

Saliva sticks out for some reason.  Lucero was mixing Tennessee there when I started.

That was really the beginning of a great 3-4 year run for Memphis music.  Lucero was starting up, Cory Branan, Pawtuckets–the whole Madjack label.

Oh yeah, I remember hearing pre-mixed stuff of Lucero’s Tennessee, hearing stuff that didn’t make the album.  There’s a duet of “Tennessee Waltz.”  It’s Ben Nichols and Cory Branan singing–not on the album, but it’s great.  There’s one song that Jim Dickinson added a keys to in the early pre-mixed cuts.  I probably wasn’t supposed to have any of that.

Those are the perks, right?

Those are the perks.  Then I moved from Ardent to Elvis Presley’s downtown.  A guy I knew offered me the gig and I said, “I don’t know, I’ve never done live sound before.”  He said, “you’ll be fine.”  Well, the pay was much better and it had health insurance.  It was more money than I’d ever made, which in retrospect wasn’t much.  But it was good money, and it got me started in live sound.

How does live sound compare to studio work?  Do you miss studio work?

I don’t miss working in the studio.  I don’t have the patience for it.  They’ll take eight hours just to find the right drum sounds.  You need that patience, and I’ve never wanted to do that.  I’d rather work live, to a crowd of 200-1000 people, and just go in that moment with the band.  That’s more fun to me.  I still get nervous doing it.

That’s a good sign.

I think so.  I did a show last week that was a corporate gig with a lot of different cues, a lot of stuff going on, and I got nervous right before it!  I thought, “oh, that’s a cool feeling–I’ve missed this.”

That’s a great thing.  I can’t tell you how many shows I’ve seen or played where it was clear the sound guy was on autopilot.  He didn’t care anymore.

Most times, the sound guy doesn’t care!  I’ll blame myself: for a while, Tuesdays here [at the Blue Monkey] got stale.  It would’ve been really easy to coast.  But then, Jeremy [Stanfill] started playing every Tuesday–now it’s like a break from “work.”  I love Tuesdays now.  It’s a vacation from my corporate gig, which I like, and which makes me technically better, but this is really fun.

What’s your weekly schedule?  When are you working during the day and when are you working shows at night?

It’s never the same.  The company I work for is Production Solutions Group.  Usually I’ll do shop work during the week.  But we just got really busy recently with more events.  For example, we’ll do an awards show at the Peabody.  Load-in at 8AM, set up and rehearse all day, run the show, load-out at midnight.  We travel a lot, too, for events out of town.  Then I fit this [working at the Blue Monkey in midtown] in when I can.

If I’m in town, I’m usually here Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday.

And Jeremy Stanfill plays every Tuesday?  And the weekend is…?

Jeremy’s every Tuesday, and the weekend’s always different.

(Looking through my Lipton-style index cards…) So many of my questions you’ve already answered.

Okay.  I can answer them again if you want.

Where all have you traveled for work?  What’s your favorite of the group?

In about four years, I’ve been to LA, San Francisco, San Diego, Phoenix, Hawaii, West Palm Beach, Orlando, Columbus, Atlanta, all around the South.  San Francisco’s probably my favorite.

Who all have you run sound for?

Well, first I’ve run sound at probably every venue in Memphis, including the Forum, the Liberty Bowl.  I’ve worked a little on the road with Lucero.  Just little weekend warrior things here and there.  I did sound for John McCain in 2008, rehearsing for a Presidential Debate at Belmont.

So you heard all of his talking points and strategy before everyone else in America?

Funny enough, I was on my way home listening to NPR that day, and they were saying, “John McCain’s going to do X in the debate tonight,” and I was thinking, “actually, no, he’s going to do something totally different.”  That was weird.  I’m a heathen liberal and I was sure McCain’s camp was going to find me out somehow.

Here’s a big question: sound guys are maybe the toughest crowd to win over.  You hear music constantly.  So, what does it take for an artist to stand out to you?

First, be cool.  If an artist is playing a venue I’m working, the first way to stand out is just to be cool.  Don’t be an asshole.

Okay, tell me: what do musicians do wrong that drives sound guys crazy?

I thought you might ask this question!  One: show up on time.  Two: I know you’re tired, I know you might be going through the motions, and I might feel the same way, but act like you care.  Be a pro.  Three: you are not as important as you think you are.  This goes for bands playing festivals, or shows where there are a lot of artists playing.  Be courteous, remember other people have schedules too.  Don’t come in with a bag of tangled cables and gear all over the place.  Don’t ask me for ten extra cables and ten extra batteries.  I know people forget stuff–I do it all the time, too.  But try a little.

Have your gear.

Have your gear.  Be on time, have a decent attitude, and be a professional.  It really doesn’t take much.

Oh, and I’ve got one more: know what you want in terms of sound.  Know how to communicate it.  Two really big mistakes: 1) musicians call out frequencies for the sound board without knowing the board and 2) they try to get really abstract in terms of describing what sound they want, but I don’t know what they’re talking about.

I’ll admit it: I was that guy.  For the Tin Angel EP, I had a really hard time at first describing what sound I wanted.  God bless the producer for doing this–it seemed harsh at the time, but I’m so glad he did it.  He just stopped me mid-sentence and said, “I don’t know what you mean.  Those words don’t mean anything to me.  Find albums and specific songs as reference points, and use these words.  I learned the whole “sound guy lexicon” then: bright, boxy, warm, there’s a million of them.  That helped a ton.

Right, if you say it sounds “boxy,” I know what you mean.  I got you.  And in fairness to artists, a lot of folks don’t know this stuff.  When you’re just starting out, how would you?  Someone’s gotta teach you.  As long as the artist has the right attitude and I can tell they’re handling themselves as pros, I can work with it.

Any other rules?

Most specific rule: if you sound check and get your monitors set, and THEN put earplugs in, do not ask for more in your monitors.  There’s a sign at the [Young Avenue] Deli that says, “If you put in earplugs, do not ask for more monitor.”  If you do that, you can kiss my ass.

Oh, that’s crazy.  That’s like tuning your guitar and then putting on the capo.

It’s stupid.  And it happens all the time.

So, flip side of the question: what do sound guys do wrong when they’re working with artists?

I’ll tell you what I’ve done wrong: attitude.  On a bad day, I’ve given people attitude that didn’t deserve it.  Wrong person, wrong day–gotta be better than that.

Going back, what does it take for an artist to impress you?  Is there a type of music you respond to more?  Is it seeing a musician who’s technically better than everyone else?

It’s not even about being better.  Act like you care.  I know it’s tough for musicians sometimes who are playing every day to get up for every show and give it 100%.  But Dave Cousar, local guy here in Memphis, blows me away every time.  Jeremy Stanfill, just really talented and good.  I don’t feel like these people are ever going through the motions–they’re all-in.  That impresses me more than anything.

I love hearing that.  Cameron and I talked a little bit about this, too.  He said there was a period where it wasn’t cool to look like you cared.  But now, I don’t see that around town.  People are really going for it.

People are really into it.  When I saw the Glossary a while back at the Hi-Tone, there were maybe 40 people in the audience, but all of them were going crazy.  There’s a lot more excitement at shows.

Reminds me of that line in Almost Famous: I find the one guy in the crowd who’s not getting off, and I make him get off.

I actually thought about that movie today!  I was worried I’d come across like Jason Lee in Almost Famous.  Read the interview later and go, “Man, I sound like a dick.”

I’ll quote you warmly and accurately.  What other local shows have really stood out recently?

I saw Kirk Smithhart and Josh Roberts here a few weeks back, and they were on fire.  Every time I see the City Champs play, they’re on some whole other level of awesome.  There was a night that the City Champs, Steve Selvidge [the Hold Steady, Amy LaVere], and Mark Stuart [Pawtuckets, et al] played.  It was ungodly.  Amazing.

That’s like a dream band to me.  That’s an all-star lineup.  It’s unfair!  This raises a bigger point, though.  Take the Pirates.  And that’s just a bunch of badass musicians with other bands and projects getting together, mostly unrehearsed, and just going.  And they’re unbelievable.  But when I saw them, I just happened to follow you to the Hi-Tone one random Thursday, and that’s who was playing, for $5.  Or going to Swanky’s and the background music while sorority girls eat tacos is Kirk Smithhart and Chris Chew [North Mississippi All-Stars].  It’s surreal, coming from NYC.  There are great musicians in New York, but I know I’m going to see them in advance, and I’m paying $20-50.  You don’t just walk into a dive every day and see something like that.

Kirk and Chris were the matinee show every Sunday at the Hi-Tone for a while.  The City Champs were, too.  You’d go in between football games and catch that for $5.  Or take the Buccaneer!  Dave Cousar plays there every Tuesday.

All these people we’re talking about, it’s not even about the technical ability.  It’s all about feel, and chemistry.  They know space, they know when to hang back and pick their spots.  Kirk Smithhart can light anybody on fire anytime he wants, but I’ve seen him just sit back and play rhythm.  All the best guys want to do that–they want to help make the other ones look good.  They listen more to the band than themselves.

I talked with Pat Fusco [keyboard player with Jeremy Stanfill, et al] about this, because he plays in a lot of bands where there are lead guitarists.  And keys and guitars can step on each others’ toes a lot.  They both fill up the middle range, they both take solos and little fills here and there.  But the really great musicians know how to sit back and listen.  It’s not “look at me,” it’s “how am I helping the band?”

Okay, rapid-fire questions.  Favorite bar/most frequented bar?

Blue Monkey midtown, where we’re sitting right now.

Last meal in Memphis, what is it?

Lunch buffet at Pho Hoa Binh.  I would punch a small child to eat there.  Feel free to put that in the interview: “would punch small child to eat Vietnamese buffet.”

Done.  How do you take your coffee?

Black.

Drink of choice?

Whatever fits in a glass!  No–Wild Turkey and water.

What was the last song you heard before you came here?

Hurricane Season,” by Trombone Shorty.

Someone is making a mix of Memphis music.  You get to add one song to the playlist.  What is it?

Cindy stole my Snowglobe thunder.  I was going to pick “Rock Song” by Snowglobe.  But whatever, Cindy!

I don’t actually know her.  Man, reading those interview with Cindy and Cameron made me want to do something.  They made me want to get involved.  It was inspiring.

[Note: To read all the past Another Cups of Coffee, click here.]

And you haven’t even met Cindy yet.  Once you meet her, multiply it by 100.  She’s a dynamo.

Yeah, I really liked reading those interview.  Okay, I gotta pick a song.  I’m going with Reigning Sound, “As Long.”

The Another Cup playlist so far:

1) “Loose Diamond,” Jack-O & the Tennesssee Tearjerkers (Jeremy Stanfill’s pick)

2) “Happy” by Snowglobe (Cindy Cogbill’s pick)

3) My Shadow,” by Jay Reatard (Cameron Mann’s pick)

4)  As Long,” by Reigning Sound (Will Odom’s pick)]

Where do you see Memphis music in five years?  Are things on an upswing or downswing right now?

As far as talent goes, things are on a huge upswing.  There’s always been great talent, but now there’s talent with ambition.  It’s great.  Like Lucero–guys who always had that thing of, “we’re trying to make a real living at this.  We’re going for it.”  I see more of that now.

What makes the Memphis music scene unique?

Diversity.  There are so many people doing so many different things.  And the venues here are more varied–Minglewood’s new, Otherlands is a really great thing for midtown.  It’s a hard place to pigeon-hole.  I think that’s a good thing.

Single craziest thing you’ve ever seen at a show?

I’ve seen a singer punch his head through a wicker chair and sing through it.  I’ve seen a lot of crazy stuff onstage.  In the crowd, typical rowdy stuff.  Fights happen.  There have been a lot of those.  Those all blend together after a while.

And finally: Memphis is…?

Home.

Thanks a bunch for doing this, man.  I’ll remember to quote you warmly and accurately.

Ah, you can quote me any which way.  Whether I remember it or not, I’m sure I said it.  I trust you.

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