Being able to listen to yourself as a musician is such a critical part of improving your skills and creating something new. We sat down with James Mead, our House of Worship Rep and guitarist and vocalist for Kutless, to get his take on what role hearing played in his career as a musician.
Why don’t you start by telling us a bit about yourself.
I am a founding member of the rock band, Kutless, and have toured professionally for over 17 years. I have been all over the world, almost to every continent, and met people from many different walks of life.
I am passionate about evangelism and discipleship, and I feel strongly that those two practices must go hand-in-hand. In the spirit of that passion, I also co-founded a non-profit organization called EOTA Ministries, through which I, and the members of Kutless, have gotten to do large-scale outreach events, primarily in Ukraine.
Where did your passion for music start?
My passion for music came about at a very young age. In fact, I have always felt like music is my native language; I have always felt as if music was the best way I could relate to the world around me or express my own feelings.
Who were some of your favorite artists?
I was raised by my mother, who was a full-fledged Beatlemania teen in the 60s. I grew up listening to the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, singers like Paul Simon, whose album, ‘Graceland’ is one of my all-time favorite records, Billy Joel—‘Piano Man’ is another one of my all-time favorite records, jazz, and classical music. I was, perhaps, one of the rare youths that actually loved classical music, in particular, Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi, Schubert, and Stravinsky.
What drew you to guitar and singing in particular?
I started singing at a very young age, then became interested in violin and viola around age 7 or 8, then I started learning trumpet at age 11 when my grandfather gave me his 1949 Conn trumpet and taught me to play.
When I was 12 years old I decided I wanted to learn guitar, but I didn’t want to learn on an acoustic first, I wanted to play electric guitar. So I worked all summer doing yard work for people so I could buy my first electric guitar and a small practice amp: a Hohner strat-style guitar and a Peavey Rage 158! I had no interest in taking lessons or any kind of formal training with guitar…I just wanted to play rock and roll.
It was 1994, and bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and the Smashing Pumpkins were blowing up. I would sit in my room and just play along with those albums, learning to play guitar by ear.
When did you decide to pursue music professionally?
Probably those moments right there actually. A decade prior to the grunge music of the 90s, rockstars seemed so grandiose and flamboyant and guitarists were virtuosos that seemed to play 100 notes per second. But Nirvana seemed like normal dudes that just played loud rock and roll, and that made me feel like I could do it too.
More bands started to emerge into the rock scene, pushing the rock genre into new territories. My two favorite bands both released their debut albums in 1995. Silverchair, an Australian trio of 16-year-olds, barely older than myself, and Deftones from Sacramento California. I felt something click when I heard those two albums. I knew that I was going to play in a rock band and put out records and go on tour.
As you know, May is Better Hearing and Speech Month, an especially important topic for professional musicians. Was hearing protection something you thought about early on in your music career?
Not really, although I was conscious of the fact that I was sustaining hearing damage. At the time, I feel like I just took it in stride as being part of live rock music. When I would leave practice with my friends, my ears would be ringing…but I guess I felt like it was all worth it. If that’s what rock and roll required of me, it was worth it.
Did you experience any hearing damage from those days?
Yes, I have definitely sustained hearing damage from live music. During my teens I was in a band that practiced in a storage unit. All of our gear, drums, amps, everything was all in a 10’ x 15’ storage unit with cement walls on 3 sides. It was very loud in there! We would also perform in small rock venues, clubs and places like that.
Then, in the early years of Kutless’ touring, especially when we started to get larger and larger crowds, we were loud onstage and the crowd was sometimes louder than we were when their cheers and screams would erupt in between songs. I can remember one show in particular that my sound guy told me that the crowd was registering 125dB onstage! That’s a lot of volume coming right at us.
Nowadays, the hearing damage I have sustained is a bit difficult to deal with from time to time. I have a hard time hearing others clearly if there is background noise: a running faucet, the crinkling of a bag, a chair being moved… stuff like that. Sometimes it’s hard for me to hear people clearly if they are turned away from me.
When did you start using in-ear monitors?
Good hearing protection and good monitoring seemed mutually exclusive for us in the late 90s early 00s. You couldn’t have both, at least not without money.
It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I was on a tour where we had to purchase our own IEMS because the production manager for the tour was not going to bring floor monitors on the tour at all. He told us, “you can either buy IEMs or do the tour without monitors.”
It was our first tour opening for a big artist, in arenas all around the country, and we knew it was a big opportunity for us. So we bought custom IEMs and learned to perform with them. It was interesting to have a stereo mix for the first time, but the IEMs we were using were not very comfortable, and they were only single-driver IEMs. Personally, I hated it.
Going from hating IEMs to working for an IEM manufacturer is pretty big leap. What changed your mind?
Honestly, what changed my mind about hating IEMs was when I experienced 64 Audio for the first time. Before that, I had simply grown used to using them.
The first IEMs I got from 64 Audio were the A-10s. They sounded very organic and natural, everything was expansive and nothing felt like it was fighting for space. I also noticed how comfortable it was to listen to IEMs that could vent the pneumatic pressure, and I took note of the fact that I didn’t feel the need to reach up and pop one of my IEMs out.
Before using 64 Audio, I would consistently feel like I just couldn’t hear such and such—honestly, it would vary from night to night. But, now I could literally hear everything, and it all felt like it was supposed to. There’s a feeling that kind of courses through your body when you’re performing live music and everything feels and sounds right…everything is interconnected.
Does wearing in-ears change the way you perform?
Years ago, I had a friend on tour (a guitarist in the opening band) tell me that my guitar tone sounded horrible. He wasn’t trying to be mean…he was telling me because he wanted to help me do something about it. At that time I was using a guitar rig that basically looked like the cockpit of an airplane; flashing lights and knobs everywhere. I had so much stuff. I even had two flanger pedals on my pedalboard, one to flange the other flanger!
My friend challenged me to stop using my rig and simply plug his guitar directly into his amp. The next night, I used his guitar and I plugged the cable into his amp. I didn’t even have a tuner pedal…he said he would hand me the guitars I needed for any of the changes during the set (due to different tunings) and he would ensure that they were in tune when he handed them to me.
For the rest of the tour I also took lessons from him every day. He was training me to listen to myself again. To listen for mistakes, and to stop hiding behind all these different effects and layers. All these years later, this is still an important part of my practicing and a standard I hold myself to during performances. My A6ts really help me feel connected to my instrument and the other people on stage musically. My IEMs help me listen to myself, allowing me to hear every nuance of the music.
That’s a really powerful idea, learning to listen to yourself again. And good hearing health is a big part of being able to do that. How do you protect your hearing today?
I currently use my 64 Audio A6ts for all rehearsing or soundchecks or performances. That is pretty much standard for us at this point. I set my receiver pack at nominal volume when the monitor engineer is building my mix, and then I turn it down slightly once I feel like everything is mixed correctly. I set my receiver pack at the same volume later, when it’s showtime.
Offstage, I really am not around many loud environments, relatively speaking…I suppose someone could consider a noisy coffee shop a loud environment! For those rare instances where I need to reduce the “soundfloor” of my surroundings, I use my 64 Audio custom earplugs with our m20 apex modules. They reduce the external volume by 20dB, but I can still hear my environment around me.
What advice would you give to your fellow musicians about protecting their hearing?
I would advise people to take hearing preservation seriously from the earliest stage possible. You’re never too old to start, and it’s not something that should be put off until later. I realize that many young musicians and bands might be trying to make the best of their situation just like I was, and there’s probably still plenty of bands out there that rehearse in a noisy garage or storage unit.
Please remember that your hearing and your creativity are probably your two most valuable resources when it comes to songwriting, producing, or touring, and for many, these can become a means of providing for one’s family. There are all sorts of jobs out there that allow you to use your creativity and your passion for music that don’t require you to be onstage, performing. In fact, many of these jobs even pay much better on average! Whether working as a mix engineer for a live band or in a studio, or being a session player, everyone needs to be able to hear themselves and the other players.