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Parnelli Audio Innovator Karrie Keyes

Kevin M. Mitchell • December 2019Features • December 14, 2019

Karrie Keyes

Next month, world-class monitor engineer and educator Karrie Keyes will receive the coveted Audio Innovator Award at the Parnelli Awards. The ceremony will take place Jan. 17, 2020, during Winter NAMM in Anaheim.

Karrie Keyes behind the console, 2016

At a Black Flag concert, a teenaged Karrie Keyes told the sound guy: “I want to do what you do.” That sound guy — Dave Rat of Rat Sound — gave her a shot. She started at the bottom and rose through the ranks until she became a monitor engineer, working acts including Sonic Youth, Social Distortion, Soundgarden and many other bands. She then landed with Red Hot Chili Peppers and, since 1991, has been with Pearl Jam and Eddie Vedder tours. Along the way, she also toured with Neil Young and Fugazi.

At a recent solo show in Florida, Vedder stopped playing to give props to Keyes: “There’s no such thing as a solo tour — there are about 22 other people out here,” he told the audience, adding “there’s one person I want to mention because she is the one who makes the sound on stage happen. I want to thank her again for making the tours they best they could ever be.” Then much to Keyes’ mortification, he called her up on stage acknowledging, “I know she hates this, but I want you all to see a badass woman who’s worked for rock bands for 20 years… my friend Karrie Keyes.”

Since 2013, Keyes has selflessly given back with her dedication to the organization she co-founded, SoundGirls.org. The nonprofit group showcases and promotes women, non-binary people and other marginalized folk working in professional audio, as well as inspiring young women and girls to consider careers in music production and pro audio. Today, Keyes is executive director of the organization, which also maintains a website with a wealth of information, and stages workshops nurturing future female audio pros.

Sound Image’s Dave Shadoan, a Parnelli Audio Innovator in 2012, has known Keyes for decades and says she is “a dedicated audio engineer who never lets a client down. But I think [SoundGirls] is brilliant, because our industry has a big hole in it due to the lack of women in our business. Now, I’ve seen more women technicians in the last three-four years than in my 40 years prior, and I’m sure she’s had something to do with that.”

“Karrie is one of the hardest working people I have ever met in my life — she doesn’t stop,” says Tiffany Hendren, an audio engineer and a director on the SoundGirls board. “I think she and [SoundGirls co-founder] Michelle [Sabolchick Pettinato] impacted more women in this industry than anyone else.” Hendren asked if this award had gone to a woman before, and on hearing that Keyes is the first woman to get a Parnelli lifetime honor, she stated: “If you’re going to start with a woman, this is the one I’d start with.”

Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard marveled if being a monitor engineer with a band for nearly three decades was even possible. “A single artist is one thing, but a band where everybody wants different things at different times puts the monitor engineer in a precarious position — talk about a thankless job!” he laughs.

Even at an early age, Keyes (center, seated) was destined for the stage, but not necessarily in the spotlight.

‡‡         Punk Roots

Keyes was born and raised in L.A. and grew up in the suburb of La Cañada. Her Mom took care of her and her younger siblings while her Dad taught history/government at the local high school. She played flute and clarinet in school band and orchestra, and her interests leaned toward the arts. She was a typical music fan attending concerts and shows but, “never connected the dots that there was a huge sound system. Most people don’t even notice sound systems or think about it all — unless it’s bad,” Keyes notes.

She completed school early, moved out and took some community college courses. Her epiphany came in 1986 at Black Flag concert. “I remember that show exactly,” says Rat. “They were recording their Who’s Got the 10-1/2? live album. It was the punk rock days, so [everything was looser]. I noticed this girl sitting on the side fills watching the show.” After the band was long gone, she was still there, and so Rat went over and said hello. That’s when Keyes blurted “I want to do what you do.” To Rat’s credit, he said okay and put her to work winding mic cables and pushing boxes. “That night, she went from audience member to crew member — just like that,” he says. “Next thing you know, she’s riding the truck with me and [Rat Sound tech] Joe Cole to a show in San Francisco.”

“I had no idea what I was doing, and I just started showing up and helping out,” Keyes says. “But I was a quick study.” Rat’s attitude toward who worked with him depended solely on whether the person could do the job. “He’s super supportive of all people,” Keyes acknowledges. “It’s about who has the drive and determination. I had to pay my dues like anybody else.” Paying dues included illegally living in the Sun Valley warehouse. “Other than feeding ourselves, every dime we made went back into equipment,” she says. But she was never discouraged. “For one, I knew I didn’t want a job that felt like a job; two, I wanted to be around music. I was 17 at that point and didn’t have a lot to lose.”

“I’m blind to gender,” Rat explains. However, concerning women, “there was — and is — a lot of backlash. You’d think that people making music would be open minded about something like this, but they are not.” He emphasized that she would learn it all, from the grunt work to building speakers to the financials. Most of all, she learned everything about P.A.s. “People would come up, try to give her sh*t, and she’d kill them with her depth of knowledge.”

Karrie in her teen years

‡‡         Moving Up to Engineer

Keyes can’t remember the exact moment she first touched a console. “At that point in time, it was more common to do shows with monitors running off the house board,” and Rat’s hands on the knobs. “On bigger shows with an onstage monitor mix, we’d hire someone to do that while Dave did FOH. I would wire everything, do set changes… and then at some point, he said, ‘you’re ready’.” Keyes was told that on the way to a show with Swedish metal rockers Kind Diamond. Was she stressed out? “I don’t remember,” Keyes laughs.

She must have done okay, because after that show the band asked her to go on tour (she turned them down). They especially liked that she didn’t sit at the board and change things all night long. “A lot people [on monitors] think they are mixing and they aren’t paying attention to the musicians.” From the beginning, she was drawn to monitor world. “I just kind of fell into it. I love monitoring, because every day I go to work it’s different. I love my band members, and I love the variety of mixing I’m called on to do.” Her “schooling” on monitors came working for L.A. ska band The Untouchables. “Sometimes [Rat Sound] had nothing on our calendars for six weeks at a time except The Untouchables, and they’d keep us busy.” The 10-piece band with two singers, horns, and percussion certainly gave her an education, and she loved working for that group.

Karrie in her 20’s on the road

While the company and her reputation both grew exponentially, they were still mostly doing one-offs, and getting a lot of work from GoldenVoice clients. “Back then, L.A. had a vibrant punk rock scene, and everyone knew everyone,” she says. The Rat Sound team then included Mark Smith (now Pearl Jam tour manager). “We had a good system of being able to manage sound check and get the band what they needed without a lot of chaos,” she says.

Interestingly, punk bands never had an issue with her gender. “Most [metal bands] did not appreciate working with a woman, plus the bigger ones had been touring with extremely loud monitors onstage and our monitor system was not always capable of keeping up, so it was a losing battle to begin with. They weren’t fun.” Many in this business have a Guns N’ Roses story, and here’s hers: She was just supposed to work a one-off at the Pasadena Perkins Palace, but then it turned into two shows, and then five. “It was the most stressful, miserable five days of my life,” she says, now able to laugh about it. “Yeah, Axl Rose was not the nicest person, and rode my ass the whole time. I didn’t get fired — though I would have preferred that.” The drummer at the time, Steven Adler, did come up to her and let her know he appreciated her work adding, “you’re going to be a great monitor engineer.”

‡‡         The PJ Family

Keyes first major tour had co-headliners Danzig and Soundgarden, with Corrosion of Conformity as support. However, Danzig’s management declared, “we don’t want a woman on tour because she’ll cause drama.” Rat insisted she wouldn’t cause any drama. “We went out on that tour for two months and at the end of it, I was the only one who didn’t cause any drama,” Keyes says with a laugh. But clearly, she has no patience for the “women on crew/drama” fallacy. “Pearl Jam has 10 women on the crew and not one of them has ever caused any ‘drama’ — it’s always some guy who has a stupid issue with catering.” But in general, she’s never worried about the “gender thing.” “I suppose there are gigs I wasn’t considered for because I’m a woman, but since they didn’t call, I don’t know about them; nor do I think about it.”

After Soundgarden, Rat picked up Social Distortion. “I did a lot of gigs for them, mostly local, as they didn’t tour that much” in the mid-80s. She worked for Sonic Youth and X for a while, and then the Red Hot Chili Peppers just as they were taking off. “Chili Peppers are great guys to work for. [Singer] Anthony [Kiedis] has always been challenging to work with, but always treated me with respect. We were honest with each other, and that made everything easier.”

One of the more stressful gigs a band can do is a televised awards show. On one, the bands gave Keyes a long list of what they “need” on stage, but “they had no clue of the situation, which was playing on a five-foot stage where maybe they don’t need all that [monitor] shit.” Once, doing Pearl Jam on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, she shows up and the house engineer asked her to load the file, which she didn’t have for that particular desk. Keyes simply looked the guy in the eye and explained it’s going to be real simple: Start with kick drum and vocal and build it up from there. The engineer told her he didn’t believe it could be done like that. “The band came on and it went great.”

She’s had her tough days. One in 1994 was particularly bad — until it wasn’t. “[RHCP] had played the second Woodstock, going on before Peter Gabriel, who headlined,” she says. “It was a complete disaster. We did not have a line check earlier in the day, did not have any monitor equipment, and were stretched thin with a bare bones crew. I let the sound guys push me around and the mix position was about 80 feet from the band.” The next time they played Woodstock, which RHCP headlined, she insisted on bringing their own sound system — not common at the time — which made production people unhappy. “We only had one promo warm-up gig before going in, so the mixes were not dialed, and the system was not set up to go into a festival. I worked all day during other band’s set changes, doing whatever I could so I would be ready. When the band hit the first notes, I knew I had nailed it. It sounded great, and the band was happy. At the end of the gig, I discovered Pearl Jam’s site coordinator and stage manager was head production on Woodstock and had told everyone to listen to me as I knew my shit. The sound crew came up after the gig and said it was so nice to see an engineer that knew what they were doing. Three weeks later at a band rehearsal, Anthony told me that the sound was perfect.”

Pearl Jam would open for RHCP on the Blood Sugar Sex Magik tour, and Pearl Jam’s road manager, Eric Johnson asked Keyes to handle sound for them as well, mixing both bands from the first day of the tour. “From day one, they were always super-nice human beings, genuine and cared about things other than themselves.” Gossard remembers that initial period as well: “Right when our record was selling, we got to open for the Chili Peppers, and every night we got to listen to the sound of them from the side of the stage and were just in awe of it all.” The band noted that the onstage sound was unlike anything they’d experienced before and “had no idea that the stage could sound that good. Having Karrie mix us made perfect sense.”

Meanwhile, other general Rat Sound duties — including warehouse chores and taking care of the books, kept her especially busy for years. Then things got even more complicated when Sonic Youth also wanted her. “Once, I spent two months mixing both RHCP and PJ, went home to do laundry and two days later flew to Texas to start a Sonic Youth tour.”

Just another day at the office — Keyes takes a rare, unhurried pre-show moment to check emails.

‡‡         “Any Clear Alcohol” 

She and Dave Rat had twins Maddie and Sammy in 1996, and for a while she stayed in L.A. taking care of all the office needs of still-growing company. “When I had my girls, I thought I’d have to go back to school and stay off the road,” she says. Besides the occasional one-off in town, she tried to adjust to her new lifestyle — without much success. “It was starting to get to the point where I really had to do the only thing I loved to do,” she says. So she reached out to the only other woman she knew who’d been in her situation — tour manager for MxPx, Gloria Connors. She told Keyes, “you got to love what you do, or you’ll be a shitty Mom” and advised her that when she was at home, to be really present for them.

In an NPR story on Keyes from 2016, PJ’s equipment manager and bass guitar tech, George Webb, expressed admiration for all of it. “That’s some serious bravery: doing this job, touring all the time and having two kids,” he said in the radio interview. “I remember when she was pregnant on tour. Having babies, raising them and trying to tour at the same time wasn’t an easy thing.” Keyes more than pulled it off, but not alone as Dad stepped up a lot, with help from aunts and the occasional nanny. Sammy recently graduated from UC Berkeley with an English lit degree and is pursuing another in linguistics, headed for grad school. Maddie is a freelance artist/photographer headed to school.

In 2005 Keyes transitioned from being an employee of Rat to a full-time member of the Pearl Jam family. She’s long earned her place at that band’s table, and like family, there are the occasional fights. ”I did quit once,” she admits. The band was to do two shows at Seattle Memorial Stadium. “We sound-checked the day before, when it was a beautiful Seattle day.” Show day not so much. A brutal heat wave blew in and ruined the onstage sound. Vedder, already in a bad mood due to unrelated legal hijinks, walked on stage to terrible sound. “There was nothing I could do because of the heat, and after every song he bitched at me about it. I was done with it,” she said. At the time, the monitor tech was Mark “Smitty” Smith (now the band’s tour manager) and he said, “you’re not f**king leaving me with this nightmare, are you?” She got through it and when a rigger came up and asked her if she needed something, she said: “Yes, any clear alcohol.” She proceeded to find Vedder in his dressing room. “I said, ‘I’m f**king done, I quit.” Management was sent after her and said the band is not playing a show without her… yada yada yada… she got a nice raise out of it all.

The SoundGirls camps have proved a popular way of getting girls and young women involved in the technical side of audio

‡‡         Enter SoundGirls

At an AES Seminar in 2012, Keyes sat on a panel titled “Women of Professional Concert Sound.” It was a small group of six who represented a mere five percent of women in pro audio. She connected with Pettinato, another live audio engineer panelist and conversations ensued about how isolating the world of pro live audio was in general, particularly for women. As Pettinato said in the October 2013 issue of FRONT of HOUSE: “It wasn’t a male-bashing session or even about ‘girl power.’ It focused on how we got our start, life on the road — everything any engineer goes through,” yet from a woman’s perspective. The two bonded. “We were struck by how similar our experiences, work ethic and passion were,” Keyes says.

The two founded SoundGirls that year with a mission “to inspire and empower the next generation of women in audio” and make the few who are currently doing it available to the legion of young women who share that passion for audio. In 2015, Pettinato focused on other things and became an active supporter, with Keyes assuming executive director duties. The website is now an in-depth source of jobs, news and inspirational stories. The section on sexual harassment includes articles and resources. An extremely active social media presence allows much-needed two-way communications. Today, there are over 20 SoundGirls chapters in North America and more in Mexico, Australia and Europe. All total, there are more than 6,000 members.

Soundgirls camp

SoundGirls workshops also offer a crash course in live audio. They cover everything from the mundane (“Don’t leave bottles of water on the stage”) to line testing and fader riding. It ends with a live show with local bands. “We were approached three summers ago about obtaining certification for audio, as the California Women’s Music Festival wanted a program that their volunteers could go through and be able to run sound for the shows,” explains Keyes. “So we launched a pilot program, and it has since evolved into a week-long program for teens.” More than 70 percent of the girls attending receive scholarships, thanks to a collection of sponsors including Jerry Harvey Audio, Sennheiser, Rational Acoustics, Ultimate Ears, Custom In-Ears, Ableton, Audix, Avid and Allen & Heath — among others.

Hendren was working her way into pro audio when she first got wind of SoundGirls back in 2015. “I wish something like this had been around when I was a teenager,” she says. “I knew this was what I wanted to do at 15 but didn’t really see a path to it. The few people in the industry I’d met weren’t encouraging.” Today she is head sound engineer at Delmar Hall, a concert venue in St. Louis. “I was shocked to find a whole fledging community that was trying to network.” She reached out to Keyes, met her the next time Pearl Jam came through town, and then volunteered at the first SoundGirls camp. “It was amazing,” she says. “I don’t know what our expectations were going in, but at the end of the week, we just sat back and watched these young women work a show and it was incredible. It was probably the proudest moment of my professional career.”

A SoundGirls camper hones her skills.

‡‡         World-Class Engineer

“She’s always stood on her feet, and I’ve had little to do with her success,” Rat says of Keyes. “She is still continuing to go above and beyond anything I ever taught her. She is tough as nails, too. She’s 5’2” but she’d do these shows just me and her and she’d lift speakers as well as anyone — take care of a 150-pound case without batting an eye. There’d be some guy trying to figure out how to wind a snake, and she’d grab it and wind it in a minute. At a bigger show, there’d be four guys on one side of the stage raising 250-pound boxes, and just she and I on the other, and we’d always beat them.

“I’m proud that she’s established herself as a world-class engineer as well as helping the audio community through SoundGirls,” Rat continues. “She’s phenomenal, and certainly worthy of this Parnelli honor.”

“Our Pearl Jam world has always been about family, and through the upside and the downside you love each other and go through it all together,” Gossard adds. “She’s gone through it all with us; the success, the evolutions, and we’re so thankful she can see the forest through the trees and keeps working with us. It’s such a blessing that I get to celebrate this [Parnelli Award] success with her.”

For more information on the Parnelli Awards, go to www.parnelliawards.com.

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