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My Worst Gig: volcano!

Photo credit: Stephanie Bassos

Every band has one: the story of a completely disastrous train wreck of a show. Sometimes it’s the venue, sometimes it’s the audience (or lack thereof), and sometimes, it’s just the mysterious and fickle gods of electricity.

This week, bassist/electronics wizard Mark Cartwright of Chicago noise-pop trio volcano! shares a story of severe technical difficulties—the kind that, when you’re the resident electronics wizard, can totally throw you off your game.

Our worst show? There have been plenty one-audience-member shows. Discluding members of other bands, there was even a show with zero audience members… to top it off, it was in the basement of a pizza joint in Wisconsin with a 15-watt guitar amp for a P.A., and the opening act consisted of a guy writhing on the floor to the playback of noise-filled cassette tape.

Sadly, low attendance shows are pretty common for many bands. Though perhaps more sadly, our worst show ever was actually our biggest. On June 24, 2006, in Paris, we played a festival in front of thousands called Villette Sonique. It was the last show of our first European tour. The night before we were shown around the streets of Paris by filmmaker Vincent Moon, filming “A Take Away Show.” Others in the festival lineup included Matmos, Afrirampo, Andrew Bird. We were feeling great.

We soundchecked with no apparent problems. However, once our set started playing it seemed like there were only problems. Or rather one big problem: The power to my synths seemed to be flickering on/off about every 20 seconds. On a guitar amp, such millisecond flickers may be imperceptible, but for my synths this meant stuck notes, wrong patches, incorrect MIDI configurations… i.e. complete tech chaos. None of my digital equipment was usable.

What was the cause? Was it the excess of travel adapters vibrating from too much bass and therefore losing connection? That was my first instinct, so I asked the sound guy for some duct tape. He complied. It didn’t help. I’m not sure what the true cause was, but the result of this unknown was that I spent most of the show underneath my electronics table fiddling with things, taping up power adapters… but mostly confused and embarrassed. The rest of the band played on, but two thirds of a three-piece is rather empty sounding. Audience members were booing us. One of them screamed, “This is shit.” I just wanted this show that we had been looking forward to all tour to be over.

In retrospect, it was likely due to a combination of factors: the stage power was being run off of far away generators; that I wasn’t using a power conditioner; and that much of my equipment was running through a voltage converter. Maybe all of this led to the voltage fluctuating briefly outside the limits of my equipment. I don’t know. However, what I learned from it was not that I should use a power conditioner (I have yet to include one in my setup), but rather that I should adapt to the situation. Instead of spending most of the set trying to fix the problem, I should have just played what instruments did work: my bass and melodica. Next time.

volcano!’s third album, Piñata, comes out June 12th on the Leaf Label. Any tech chaos captured in its nine frenetic tracks is purely intentional. Watch the video for the title track here.