ALL THE WORLDS A STAGE in conversation with Sound & Light engineer Colin Smoult

What is your background in music ? ‘In 1991 I bought Jump, a second-hand record shop in Station Road, South Shields. Another shop called Excalibur moved in upstairs a few years later. This was a ‘Head’ shop where the owner Roy was selling hippy style stuff, clothing, candles, ornaments, that sort of thing. It was going well until the council started plans to demolish the buildings on Station Road, and as word got around the trade dropped off. So in 1998 I moved to Fowler Street with it’s higher rates and rent. But I also realised the entire record industry was changing with internet downloading, and soon vinyl albums and cd’s were slowly fizzled out. Excalibur had closed down by now, and I had realised there was definitely a trade there. People coming into the shop asking can you get this, can you get that…basically what Excalibur used to sell. So I changed to half records and cd’s, and half of what was a ‘Head’ shop. Then slowly phased out the records side of it to sell 100% head stuff’.

Where you playing in a band then ? ‘Yeah I formed Shovelmouth in the mid 90’s and then a few years later I started booking bands at The Office pub in South Shields. Just as a favour really because I had so many contacts for various bands on the circuit. I used to go and see a lot of bands around Tyneside and if I liked them then I wanted to get them on in Shields too. I was a big fan of live music, and still am. The vast majority of pub bands are hobbiests. You cannot make enough money playing pubs twice a week to make a living. It’s just pocket money for a lot of these bands, although often the gear they have on stage is worth thousands of pounds. They are very proud and want to play through good quality equipment so if they get it stolen then it’s heartbreaking. Guitars are different as they are pretty unique with serial numbers on, so they can turn up, whereas amps and other bits and pieces usually disappear into the ether’.

How did you progress to engineer live sound for bands ?  ‘I used to do Shovelmouth’s sound, and watching other bands you would pick up little tricks on how to get a better and bigger sound. Are the drums miked up? what’s the p.a. output? that sort of thing you know. At first I was sort of playing at it really, nobody teaching me, all self-taught. But there was one moment when it clicked. In the early 2000’s Powerage the AC/DC tribute band had a gig booked for some bikers near Chopwell. They couldn’t get a p.a hired but they could bring a sound engineer. The guy was called Tony Smith from Crook who regularly did sound on the main stage at Stormin the Castle Bike Rally. So I provided the p.a. mic’s and leads, he borrowed a mixing desk and done the sound on the night. I tell ya my little p.a. sounded a million dollars that night. There was my ramshackle gear and he has made it sound unbelievable! And that inspired me. Just spending one gig looking over his shoulder I learnt so much in that one night. About 6 years back I hooked up with a friend Glenn Minnikin, who is an incredible tech head, a very bright lad. We eventually ditched the analogue gear and went digital, plus keep on adding to and improving the kind of light show that we can do. It’s just snowballed from there, to doing sound and lights on a regular basis for numerous bands around the North East’.

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Colin with Glenn Minnikin.

What type of venues do you work in ? ‘Well we can tailor it down to pubs if needed, like Trimmers in South Shields, or up to a full-on spectacle if that’s what’s required. We’ve done many social clubs and some theatres as well. To be honest the bigger venues have way more appeal to us. We can do more impressive lighting and the big rooms let the sound breathe’.

With pubs and clubs closing everyday in the UK, have you seen a change in the venues and audiences ? The pub-band scene isn’t as vibrant as it was perhaps 10 years ago for people my age, and the younger audiences aren’t really coming through at a pub level. They’ll go to festivals to see major bands, but the support for original local live music at a grass-roots level is virtually non-existent unless they are family or friends of the band. University towns or cities tend to be different. The important thing is the limited amount of places they can play these days. But it’s the chicken or the egg isn’t it. Pubs don’t want to take the chance of paying money for a band and not enough people turning up. Back when we were younger we wanted to see why our mates were talking about this or that band, what the buzz was all about. We’d turn up and support them, but by the 2000’s it became affordable to have a home-studio computer software, and you didn’t need to be in a band to perform music. Not needing to work with other musicians, just programing your own drum tracks, bass lines, the lot, …all by themselves’

Earlier this year I went to The Sage in Newcastle and saw Judie Tzuke who complained during the gig of a bad throat. I got to thinking how serious an illness has to be before cancellation ? ’Maybe she was feeling fragile. She’d still have wages to pay and other costs to cover, so she’d still want to do the gig. If you’re talking main players like lead guitarist or singer are so ill they can’t do the tour, they’d have to be bedridden to cancel. Back in the 80’s bands were lucky to break even on ticket sales, so they made it up on the merchandise and record sales. Nowadays due to declining record and download sales, the ticket prices have escalated. Bands do not want to cry off on a tour, that is their bread and butter now’.

Have you come across musicians who want to pull the gig ? ‘I know of singers who with the slightest cold are looking to pull the gig, ha-ha. It’s like hang on, this gig’s been booked months in advance, the rest of the band are fit and ready, just that the singer is not at full strength. You not only let the band down, and the audience, but the pub might struggle to get another act on at short notice’. 

Do you think many backing tracks are used in live performances ? ’There are some name rock bands out there who will use backing tracks on the lead vocals. When the high notes come in the sound guy pushes the backing track up, likely recorded from a previous live show, but it helps him hit that high note. Many years ago it was rumoured that Journey had done that because the singer had trouble with his throat and they didn’t want to cancel any dates. When recording an album in the studio, they know they have to get it right because that album is going to be listened to over and over again, and any bum notes are going to stick out like a sore thumb. But when it comes to live performance it’s experienced in the moment. If something is played a bit faster really who cares, it’s a live vibe, it’s a buzz. Yet for live albums ? I’m not sure about them, it’s “that doesn’t sound so good let’s go in the studio and overdub it” ha-ha’. 

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Colin at Stormin’ the Castle Bike Rally.

You also compere at the Stormin’ the Castle Bike Rally….’Yeah, I just realised it’s been 15 years now. I’d previously played there in 2000 and 2002 with Shovelmouth. I was asked to come onboard and help with compering in 2004 because their guy couldn’t do it one night, and I’ve done the job ever since’. 

Any stand-out moments from there ? ’I’ve loved every year. There’s always great moments, great bands. Local bands who play always bring their A-game. Name bands play great shows as well. Maybe a stand-out moment was watching Pete Way performing with UFO absolutely plastered. As the gig went on his legs were getting more and more buckled. At the end of the show the band were laughing as he went off stage as they were so used to it. The Quireboys just played a great show this year, and there was Spike (vocals) another man who likes a good sup, a very affable drunk, loveable, likeable guy but you’re thinking, will he last through the gig? As he staggers up the steps with uncertainty to get on stage, you’re thinking this is looking dodgy. Then he gets on stage and click he’s into show mode! Throwing the mic stand up in the air, catching it, singing to the audience, brilliant vocals, so much charisma’.

In the last 10 years there has been a number of successful entertainers and comedians that have come from this area. Can you pinpoint the reason why ?Certain places have had that, Liverpool in the 80’s with Echo & the Bunnymen, Lightning Seeds, Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Coventry with the Two Tone, Ska scene. They seem to have musical vibes about them. Obviously South Shields is not on the same level, but undoubtedly there is some talent here. There has always been incidents like when many punk bands started because they saw The Sex Pistols, or a number of rock bands formed because they saw Jimi Hendrix. Live entertainment has always been big in this town, even with the theatre, if people go to see it then perhaps they are inspired to then go and do it themselves. Maybe it’s a snowball effect of the more there is, the more people get inspired by it. But back to your question of why South Shields ? Really I couldn’t pinpoint one thing. Maybe there’s something in the water ha-ha’.

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Shovelmouth at the Ampitheatre, South Shields June 2012.

What does music mean to you ? ‘It’s a passion, it always has been. I started off being a music fan, watching bands and buying the albums. Then playing in bands and started booking bands. I enjoyed being part of setting-up live music up to entertain others and now it’s evolved to the point where I’d rather be behind the scenes doing sound and lighting, enhancing the bands’ performance. I get a buzz out of knowing I can make a good band shine a bit brighter. My satisfaction is knowing I played my part in that. When you see the audience loving the show that’s great. Yeah it’s my passion’. 

Interview by Gary Alikivi September 2018.

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