Tucson sounds: Tongs will funk up your notion of synth rock
Plus: Karima Walker takes us behind the sound board
In the dying days of beloved local Tucson venue the Flycatcher, a lot of bands paid their respects from its somewhat legendary stage. One of these bands was a humble little jazz-funk trio with a great big sound: Tongs.
Tongs is made up of what is, essentially, a synth-heavy rhythm section. If you see a lot of live shows Downtown, you may recognize band member Christopher Pierce as the bassist with bright red beard in what seems like a million different Tucson bands. Pierce and his Steff and the Articles bandmate, drummer Tom Beech, have been jamming together for years, so when their old Phoenix acquaintance keyboardist Chris Peña moved to town, it was pretty inevitable that the three would play together. The first time being that show at "the Fly."
Christopher Pierce (bass): “It was about a month before the Fly closed that we played [local band] Mesquite's first show. That's kind of how we got together, actually. We got offered to do a show and learned those compositions within about a week.”
TucsonSentinel.com: How did each of you find your instruments and decide to pursue music seriously?
Tom Beech (drums/percussion): "I started playing drums when I was 8. I've been playing drums for like 15 years. I actually started out playing trumpet, but my band teacher came up to me one day and said 'this isn't working' and handed me some sticks and a mallet and sent me to the back to play drums and bells. That was actually kind of a blessing in a way."
TS: "Do you think good drummers are born that way? Is is it an inborn talent or something you learn?
TB: "I disagree with the notion that it's an inborn talent. I think any idiot can practice 8 hours a day and become really proficient at something. I get so bugged personally when someone says 'I'm just not musical' because neither was I when I started. I just sat in a practice room for 3 hours a day."
C. Pierce: "I've been playing bass seriously since high school. My mom dated a lot of musicians! There was always music around. I always gravitated toward the groove, the rhythm, the bass, the drums, you know?"
"I moved here in late high school and started playing bass when a couple of buddies started a band and needed a bass player and I told them 'I'm you guy.' We were called Ignorami. We were a really righteous teenage old school punk band that played originals and a lot of Black Flag and Misfits covers too. "I've been playing bass in Tucson for over a decade, a lot of them with Tom. Tom is my guy!"
TS: Is kind of being a "session man" for other bands helpful in creating your own sound?
C. Pierce: "Yes, definitely. One hundred percent. Just learning to interact with other people, not to mention playing with them. Everything informs everything else in the musical world. There's obviously also the technical side of it. The ability to "cop those feels" if I'm asked to play more of, say, a Latin vibe or hip hop thing, or a straight rock vibe. Whatever it may be. So, yeah. Everything informs everything else. Even the wedding gigs we do.Tom and I have done a bunch of wedding gigs."
TB: "With that said, I wish I had the luxury to make enough money that I never had to play another Top 40 cover gig. But there's something ot be learned from all these experiences. Now we kind of have a repertiore for these gigs and can send a list of like 100 songs and that's kind of righteous and fun for me. They're not always fun gigs, but they can be!"
C. Pierce: "And you get a paycheck, usually a good dinner and sometimes an open bar."
Chris Peña (keyboards): "I think playing in those situations actually makes you more versatile. A lot of people who focus on some uncomrpomised vision of their music don't learn new things."
TS: Good point! So what about you? What's your musical origin story?
C. Peña: "I was about 11 when I started taking piano lessons, but I quit in middle school. I didn't like practiving that much. I joined the band program and played baritone sax and then took up keyboard again to get into jaz band. No one wants a baritone sax in their jazz band! I was mostly playing by ear. I wasn't really good at reading music. I got through about four years of playing by ear before someone called me out on it. I've found jazz music in particular brings me a lot of catharsis and being in the moment. Listening and being in the moment. Learning by listening and learning to play what I can hear within the bounds of my ability."
Tongs is a rarity in our indie rock heavy local music scene in that they are an all-instrumental live band. Peña's keyboards build the base of the band's melodies with a novel sound that's equal parts synth rock and piano jazz while the Pierce and Beech pile on the soul, funk as they finally breaking free from the lonely shadows of backing band rhythm section anonymity.
In a landscape where anything with a synth gets automatically labeled "electronic music," Tongs' keys laced but low end heavy fusion based sound stands out. Which is why the band kind of defies labeling. That being said, at the heart of it all is the groove.
C. Pierce: "I think we're a groove band. You got to get people in a trance, you know? If people aren't moving, then why the fuck are we doing this?"
TB: "What did Miles [Davis] say? Just call it music!"
Tongs record release takes place on Thursday, April 11, at Tap & Bottle in Downtown Tucson.
Behind the board with local sound tech Karima Walker
TucsonSentinel.com: Those of us who run events or play live gigs consider a good sound engineer to be kind of a superhero. So, as a “superhero,” what’s your origin story aka how’d you get into this racket?
Karima Walker (Tucson sound engineer and musician): “Aw thanks! It started in 2017, when some folks at MOCA asked if I would be interested in running sound for an event they had coming up. I'd never run sound for a show before, but I had started performing with a mixer a few years earlier. I think they must have seen me with the mixer and assumed that I knew how to run one for a show. It seemed like a great opportunity I hadn't considered before, so I said yes without knowing what I was doing and quickly asked my friend Ryan Alfred (head of sound at Hotel Congress) if he would let me shadow him for a few shows. That soon became a job offer from Ryan, so I started picking up shows at Congress.”
“I do think being a musician helps! A lot of what I did with my own music was already about mixing and arranging. I realized that I had the skills to mix, from listening to music critically and also trusting my ear.“
TS: That rocks! And I’m seriously not kidding about the superhero thing. There are a lot of moving parts involved in running a board! How do you handle juggling all of the elements of live sound?
KW: "I'm still learning the multitasking part. I'm a real empath and people-pleaser, so it's easy for me to get pulled in multiple directions. It has taken a real intentional shift to focus and prioritize, and to be clear and communicative. It can be so absolutely stressful. Things are always going wrong, getting lost, malfunctioning, people are often late and I am always making mistakes. So I have this role of keeping things moving while balancing what's most important as all these variables are changing. But when a band is a few songs in, I get to shift a little, into actually enjoying what I'm hearing on a different level.”
TS: What’s it like when you’re in the zone and everything does go just right?
KW: “I love the feeling of being a facilitator, of learning more about tone and arrangement from good players, and I like the hospitality of it. Sometimes I'm the first person a band meets when they come to town, or it's an artist's first time playing on a stage or at that venue and I love being able to treat people and their work well and respectfully. It feels really amazing when a band finishes and they say that their monitors felt just right. Also rad, getting to work with really talented artists who are teaching me new things about mixing by how they arrange their songs and make sonic space for each other.”
TS: What’s the best piece of advice you could give to someone new to the live mixing game?
KW: “Oh gosh, to be clear, I'm definitely still a newbie. For one, get ready to make some really stupid mistakes. Is it not working because it's not turned on? And don't always assume that louder is better. Trust your ear and use your methodical system for order and troubleshooting. Some advice I'm still taking to heart is not to be afraid of experimenting a little. I think the more active I am at engaging all the parameters available to me, the more I learn about tone, texture and what all these moving parts of a projects are capable of.”
TS: How can musicians, event hosts and venues be more helpful to the sound person? And how can bands communicate better to get the best sound possible at a gig?
KW: “I can't speak for other engineers, but I love when a band gives me mixing notes about where they want vocals to rest in relation to guitar, for example, or if the sample tracks are leads or background. These things help me get an overall feel for someone's sound so I'm representing them as they want to be represented. That self care is contagious and makes me more invested. Also, I think one of the most important things to know is how to ask for what you need from your monitor. Get your highs, mids, and lows figured out. And if it isn't sounding right, don't give up!”
TS: Some local bands, especially younger and/or femme-identified musicians, have talked about issues when touring or at less familiar venues where they don’t know the sound person and their input or feedback isn’t listened to very much. Any personal experience with this? Any advice for dealing with a condescending or “hostile” sound tech?
KW: “Yup! That is the absolute worst, because you end up being totally vulnerable to someone else's issues, and those issues could really negatively impact your set. It helps to know your stuff and be communicative. Make sure you know how to ask for what you're going to need and be ready to ask again. And if all that emotional labor is not worth it, then be as self-contained as you need, so maybe they're just putting a mic on your amp. Maybe not the best scenario mix-wise, but I think that folks need to be able to make those boundaries if they want them. I've done it this way before!”
TS: What are some of the best and worst moments you’ve ever run into running live sound?
KW: “I ran sound for a band a couple weeks ago. They were so happy with their mixes they said it was the best of the tour and they all hugged me at the end of the night. Or there are nights when my musical peers are at the show and go out of their way to tell me how much they liked the mix! That always feels good.”
“The worst was this 9-piece band on the verge of mutiny that arrived 1 1/2 hours late to their sound check. They were bullies and insisted that the other bands cut their sets short to accommodate, they had the most complicated and elaborate rider and after all the negotiating with time, they came down from their rooms late for their set. The worst part was just how miserable they were together.”
“Male artists have hit on me a few times, touched me inappropriately. Men walking into the club will double take, seeing me in the sound booth and try to talk to me while I'm working. I long for the day that it's normal and I don't feel like I'm being hyper-praised because I'm a woman doing a normal thing, or hyper criticized.”
TS: Yuck.The soundboard should be a no “mansplaining” zone! When bands and musicians have to run their own sound, as often happens at house venues, small coffee shop gigs and the like, what are some simple guidelines they should keep in mind for a not-too-awful sound experience?
KW: “In a lot of those situations, you aren't going to get a monitor so, travel with your own or don't take it too hard when you start disassociating because you can't hear yourself. Find an honest person or a bandmate to speak up if something is too loud or quiet. This is kind of how I got into sound. I never knew what a venue had, and didn't trust the sound engineers! So I started traveling with a mixer and half a PA so I could mostly control my sound. If you can afford the gear, be as self contained as you can. But when you find yourself in good hands, don't be afraid to relinquish some control. Good engineers are the absolute best and help me develop as an artist and performer, so be ready for them too.”
TS: Do you have an overall philosophy about running sound? Is it more of a science, an art or a combination of the two?
KW: “I'm not much of a gear head, I think it's more of an art for me. In a lot of ways, my philosophy for sound is really similar to my philosophy as a musician. It's all about hospitality and facilitation. And that's about service, reading a space, and an exchange.”
TS: Favorite venues to run sound at? Favorite fellow sound engineers?
KW: “I really love the engineers I've gotten to know! Ryan Alfred has been the most encouraging engineer mentor, and I think Frank (of Flycatcher and CANS) is probably the kindest, most hospitable engineer to have run sound for me before.”
Also happening this week...
Local legend Joe Peña's band Greyhound Sould celebrates 25 years of rocking local stages this Saturday at Che's Lounge. Meanwhile, throughout Downtown Tucson this weekend, the Tucson Folk Festival shows off some of the best and brightest of Arizona's folk and acoustic artists as a well as a few far-flung fellow-travelers.
On the new releases front, Black Medicine's newest album "Dos(e)" has hit the streets, and Tongs will follow with a release show this Thursday. Meanwhile, a cadre of local bands prepare to hatch their latest recordings, including Golden Boots, Little Cloud and Stripes. Later down the line, expect new stuff on the horizon from the Rifle, Just Najima, Exbats and more.
In teenage band fanclub news, the biggest not-so-secret gossip is that trio Hang The Bassist will retire their name after next week's Exbats/Calivn Johnson show. The band will henceforth be known as Mudpuppy, a name which sounds both kind of adorable and absolutely hardcore.
Till next week, folks, when the swarm of spring touring bands once more hits town.
Check your local listings...
Friday, April 5
- Mad Caddies - 5 p.m. 191 Toole
- GLDN Party ft. Marley B, Kaizer - 8 p.m. Club Congress
- Kyklo - 8 p.m. Exo
- Shitbag, Dayak, Lasiodora, Ijustsawyoudie - 7 p.m. House/Popup Show (Contact bands for details)
- Just Najima - 8 p.m. Saint Charles Tavern
- Nick and Luke - 6 p.m. Sand-Reckoner Vineyards
- Lana Rebel and Kevin Mayfield - 8 p.m. Westbound
- Susan Artemis Jazz Trio - 6 p.m. Dusty Monk Pub
- Little Cloud - 6 p.m. Saguaro Corners
- Tucson Folk Festival Night One - 6 p.m. La Cocina
Saturday, April 6
- Tucson Folk Festival Day Two - 12 p.m. Jacome Plaza, La Cocina, Presidio Museum
- Poison Lips, Disco-Tech, Blog House, Indie Electro - 10 p.m. R Bar
- Shine Bright: An LED Experience - 6 p.m. Xerocraft Hackerspace
- Jay Faircloth - 6 p.m. Saguaro Corners
- Juliana Warkentin and Matt Wineingar - 6 p.m. Sand-Reckoner Vineyards
- Folk Festival After Party - 8 p.m. Saint Charles Tavern
- Cafe Jaleo - 8 p.m. Rialto Theatre
- Basic Biology - 5 p.m. MSA Annex
- Arizona Wind Quintet 7:30 p.m. Exo
- Valerie Galloway art opening w/ Roman Barten-Sherman - 6 p.m. Crooked Tooth
- Hotline TNT, Hikikomori, the Trees - 7 p.m. Club Congress
- B-Side Players - 7 p.m. 191 Toole
- Greyhound Soul 25th Anniversary - 10 p.m. Che's Lounge
Sunday, April 7
- Al Foul and the French Tourist (aka Naim Amor) - 6 p.m. Che's Lounge
- Moontrax, Panic Baby, Taco Sauce - 8 p.m. Club
- Mostafa w/Dj Will, Street Blues Family, Jae Tilt - 9:30 p.m. Sky Bar
- EarthPicks of Cochise County - 4:30 p.m. Dusty Monk Pub
- Tucson Folk Festival Day Three - 11 a.m. Jacome Plaza, La Cocina, Presidio Museum
Monday, Apr 8
- Pleasures w/ Gardie - 9 p.m. Surly Wench
- Ron Campbell Yellow Submarine Cartoon Pop Art Show Opening - 2 p.m. Arizona Picture Frame Gallery
Tuesday, Apr 9
- The Real Sarahs - 4 p.m. Cafe Passé
- Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band - 8 p.m. Rialto Theatre
- band- 7 p.m. MSA Annex
Wednesday, Apr 10
- Modern Color,the Trees, No Sun, Carnival - 7 p.m. Club Congress
- Mo Urban's Comedy Open Mic - 7 p.m. Passe
- Little Cloud - 7 p.m.Public Brewhouse
- Mindy Ronstadt & The One-Bill Band - 6 p.m. Saguaro Corners
Thursday, Apr 11
- Caiden Brewer - 6 p.m. Saguaro Corners
- Sales - 7:30 p.m. Club Congress
- SOB X RBE- 7 p.m. 191 Toole
- Tongs (Album Release) - 8:30 p.m. Tap & Bottle
Each week this column compiles a choice selection of live gigs in and around Tucson with the help of good venue and band event announcements and other resources. If you've got a gig coming up and you'd like your event listed in this space (or if your local band has a major announcement or a new release) drop me a line at email@example.com.