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Built for Sound

Tracing the contours of the cerebellum like some evil throb, the ringing can make your hair hurt. Later, you keep hearing a far-off siren, like some ambulance, distant and shrill. That weird, high hum lingers for days, weeks, always. But that's all part of the fun, right? At least the bass drum caused heart fibrillations. And the guitars left your best friend's head in the desert somewhere south of Sierra Vista.Welcome to sound man Nino Notaro's live mix.

A sound man's job is to organize noise for the benefit of club or concert rabble. That means, of course, that your hearing is at his mercy. With a provoked flip of an EQ (equalization) setting, a sound man can make a tuneless dirge of a band sound somewhat listenable. And he can just as easily ruin a great band.

I once knew a guy who did Aerosmith's live sound for years. He resented Steven Tyler. He would sabotage the singer's voice by simply trimming its high end in the main EQ. For weeks on end, Tyler sounded like murky ca-ca in front of tens of thousands of people.

When I first met Nino Notaro, my old band called Gentlemen Afterdark needed a sound man. But Notaro could barely distinguish a microphone cable from an electric-toothbrush cord. He did, however, have an old Ford van, a big bong and a healthy television habit. He was hired.

Notaro had just come out of some military optometry duty in Texas. Something about large containers of eyeballs had sent him AWOL and back to his hometown of Tucson. He says his officers asked him if he "wanted to learn how to drive a truck, 'And I told them to blow me.'"

At one point, we Gentlemen all shared one giant concrete room in an old Pabst Brewery in downtown L.A. There were 11 of us, including a three-man "crew" and three girlfriends -- two of whom had the cars. You don't know the kind of hell -- room dividers made from old sheets, chests of drawers and boxes of unsold Gentlemen Afterdark records. It was a shantytown in its transient, hopeless misery. Notaro at least had some color, and that's probably what kept us all from getting killed while walking outside. We were broke, of course, and our "crew" (Notaro and two guys called Crease and Rlo) would on occasion rent out our sound system. Other times Notaro would arm-wrestle Latinos at a place called Mi Cabana that sat directly across from the concrete cell. He would win money or food or both. Those kinds of things go lengths when you are stranded, broke and humming with undying futility.

Notaro was also a hard-ass drunk, a problem that got him fired from our band. But Notaro had, by this point, garnered a reputation as loudest sound man on the planet. "I lucked out, because I can't do anything else. That's why I have a three-legged truck out in the front yard. I have to call people and say, "How do I change my tire?'" he says.

Cut to 2000. Notaro is a vet of countless world tours. He's worked with the multiplatinum band Sepultura for 10 years. He's done front-house sound in some of the world's biggest halls, Brazilian soccer stadiums, Russian arenas, Japanese amphitheaters. Sometimes he's away from home for stretches as long as two years.

Surly-voiced, with the road-obligatory arm- and torso-load of tats and chest-length hair, Notaro still looks like the cinderblock kid who's into Nuge and Joe Walsh who would beat you up if he saw a Ramones tape in your hand. Intelligent but TV-weaned, his conversation is strewn with '70s pop nods and road war stories. He'll describe an episode in Indonesia that saw him hallucinate after downing cobra blood; he imagined he was Mother Abigail in The Stand. Then he'll bring up recent jail time in London after a Heathrow arrest for "air rage."

Yet he listens to nothing but classical music and Dead Can Dance at home. His Portuguese isn't half-bad. He can tell you to fuck off in a dozen or so languages.

"Sound men like Jeff Hawk, Robin Plumber and John Suskin were huge influences on me," he says of the other Phoenix-bred sound men. "I think those guys are great engineers. Those guys taught me the one basic thing that I consider my rule of thumb, which is to respect the sound system, the front of house audio. I might not respect people, but I respect the sound system." Thanks to Suskin, Notaro found post-Gentlemen work with the Busboys and Concrete Blonde. The Untouchables hired Notaro in the late '80s. Between lucrative road gigs, Notaro did what other off-the-road sound men do: mix bands in local venues. That was a way to meet other touring bands that were streaming through.

The best experience of his life came on a Sacred Reich tour in 1990. It was Notaro's first tour in a real coach. Life had turned some kind of a corner. Yet throughout the better part of the 1980s, Notaro had developed a heady thirst for heroin. Ample free time is one upside to a rock career that's neatly canceled out by the opportunity to develop debilitating addictions.

"You know, I've been fighting dope for the last 18 years, but [lately] I've been doing good," he says ruefully. "I notice when I am good, I can be really good. But when I am bad, I am fucking hated. And I hope the best for all the friends that I got in all that trouble with. I can't say anything bad about anybody, otherwise I would be saying something about myself. I'll tell you one thing: I never got jobs when I was strung out."

On his first European tour in 1990, he did front-house sound for speed-metal hucksters Forbidden. Run-ins with foreign cops, Austrian drug-sniffing dogs and starch-suited customs agents gave him a quick lesson in etiquette overseas.

"'Hey,'" he says, mocking the voice of a first-time overseas Yank traveler. "'I got the blue passport, I'm an American.' Yeah, I found out really quick that you are just a target."

While on tour in Germany with Sacred Reich, somebody handed him a Sepultura tape.

"I look at the tape and go, 'Se-pul-tra -- what the hell is that, a cooking utensil?' I fucking popped it in and the 5,000 German metal kids in the venue started singing to this kitchen utensil band that I was playing through the system."

Sacred Reich played a Halloween show in Manhattan on a bill with King Diamond and Sepultura. Sacred Reich's manager wound up managing Sepultura and brought Notaro aboard as the sound tech.

To describe the sound of platinum-selling Sepultura as ferocious testosterone metal would be but a ginger understatement.

"I met the band in South Palm Beach, and they thought that I was a full-on homo. They didn't speak any English and I didn't speak Portuguese. And I'm looking for a blow dryer. At that point they didn't know that I was there to work for them. It was like, 'Who, the fag? The guy with the hair dryer?'" That was 10 years ago, and Notaro is still aboard.

"I don't have a girlfriend. I have nothin' because I sacrificed it all. Everybody thinks, 'Wow, rock 'n' roll, you got the best gig in the world.' I go, 'Yeah, I got the best gig in the world but can I have your girlfriend?' At one point you have decide if this is what you are gonna do . . . Are you gonna be able to deal with jerkin' off every night and having a good imagination or do you sit at home and ask, 'Would you like fries with that?'"

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Brian Smith
Contact: Brian Smith