Curt Wells is the reason why live music at the Earl sounds so delicious
An interview with man behind the sound board
Q: What's the difference between a sound guy and God?
A: God doesn't think he's a sound guy.
If there's a universal rule of the road agreed upon by all musicians no matter where they go to play, it's that the sound guy is probably going to be a jerk.
The job title alone conjures images of a frustrated ex-musician hunched over a myriad of lights and knobs at the back of the room, scowling at the band on stage. But Atlanta music veteran Curt Wells defies the age-old stereotype of the grumpy guy at the controls. As the resident sound man at the Earl in East Atlanta, Wells' reputation is that of a public servant of sorts.
He's a man of the people who takes pleasure in making bands sound as good as possible, and for his 40th birthday he's hosting a bash at the Earl to celebrate a career spent doing a job he actually enjoys.
"When I first got into doing sound, I remember there were a few of the other sound guys out there who were trying to bring me into this fraternity of exclusivity," Wells recalls. "The attitude was very much 'We are the sound guys, we know what's really up. We hold a special place here.' And from day one, that made me feel icky!"
The promise of punk rock's inclusive nature drew him in as a younger man. "I had a decent life and I didn't really feel that rebellious, but the sound of punk rock was very exciting," he says. "It was made by ordinary guys and I have always thought of myself as just an ordinary guy. I grew up getting into bands like Black Flag, Hüsker Dü and especially the Minutemen. Punk had no preconceived notions and it was an easy way to have fun and make art on a gut level. You didn't have to be the handsome, super-stud rock star, so I started playing in bands. But I was always better at the sound part of it."
He moved to Atlanta in 1992 in search of a job, which led him to a moonlighting gig in the sound booth at the Star Bar a few years later. After getting fired from his job with a forklift dealer in '95, he answered a want ad for a live sound guy/tour manager placed in Creative Loafing by the band Man ... or Astroman?
Shortly thereafter, he hopped in the van with them and embarked on a seven-year journey, working with dozens of other bands along the way. His resumé boasts time spent programming sound for the Mooney Suzuki, the Dismemberment Plan, Southern Culture on the Skids, the Polyphonic Spree and other bands who hired him for gigs down the road. He's also worked with comedians Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn and Zach Galifianakis.
Wells tried to branch out from live sound, but nothing else gave him the same sense of fulfillment. For a brief stint in the '90s, he wrote record reviews for CL.
He also ran a studio behind El Myr in Little Five Points, dubbed Big Ed's Used Farms, where he recorded projects for Delta Moon and Tenement Halls, as well as demos for the Magnapop album Mouthfeel (2005), which he eventually recorded at the now defunct Zero Return Studios in Reynoldstown.
But he never felt comfortable enough in the recording studio to pursue it as a natural extension of his live engineer work.
"I just didn't have the patience for it," he adds. "Those aspects of sound are as different from each other as sports photography is from portrait photography. They seem like the same thing, but if you are a really talented portrait photographer and you brought a really awesome camera set-up to a football game, you're not going to get any good action shots."
Wells' most recent jobs include doing sound on the road for Vampire Weekend and Rilo Kiley. Most notably, he manned the helm at a SXSW stint with the 19-piece Polyphonic Spree, doing sound for five shows in 36 hours.
Through it all, Wells has been an integral part in making the Earl one of the most esteemed rock venues in Atlanta. The new installation of a 16-track digital recording rig, which the club debuts on his birthday, will give bands the opportunity to take home an instant recording of Wells' mix of their show.
Despite his immaculate ear for sound, he has somehow avoided slipping into the disgruntled God complex from which many of his peers suffer.
"Curt is an awesome guy," says Howlies drummer/vocalist Aaron Wood, who will perform at Wells' birthday party on Friday night. "We have been touring constantly for the last year and he is one of the most enthusiastic and proactive sound guys I have ever met, and I have met a lot of them. His knowledge of microphones and placement is impressive, and he never comes off as condescending or intimidating. Curt is more like a kid playing with Legos. We're totally excited to play that show."