For the sake of all that's right in world, Kenna Zemedkun should be huge. But as author Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his best-selling book, Blink, he's just too new and different for his own good. It's a sad excuse, but fortunately, people are coming around.
While Make Sure They See My Face (Star Trak/Interscope, 2007), co-produced with Kenna's Virginia Beach neighbors, The Neptunes, is ahead of the curve in its sound and influences, it also brings you back to the pop-perfect days of '80s Tears for Fears and U2 (as well as older bands, The Beatles, and newer, Radiohead). As you get to know the album, it stings a bit as you pine for the days of enormous, emotional pop — the kind of music these days pushed aside for heavily compressed, cookie-cutter R&B/pop and, on the flip side, music so forward-thinking and “cool” that you don't care to listen to it over and over. Music that stands the test of time is the kind that you can't stop listening to 40 times in a row.
As soon as the building synth strings of “Daylight” break into slamming drums, pulsing piano and Kenna's powerful voice, you should be sold. It's the same when you hear Kenna live. While he still opens for massively (sometimes undeservingly) successful bands, he's blowing them out of the water.
But it's not easy. “It's a tricky process for this music, to be honest,” Kenna says. “You want all the dynamics of the album but still need to be mobile and effective like a crack team. A lot of it will end up sampled and re-created in what I call ‘one key moments.’”
And that's not a simple process. On the contrary, says Kenna's sound engineer, Mike Bangs: “It was actually a lengthy and painstaking process to make the transition to live. Almost all of the sounds were custom designed in the studio for the record, but we were able to get all of the sounds reprogrammed and consolidated in a live-friendly package. Kenna doesn't compromise when it comes to his live show, so we now have all of the actual sounds from the record in Brian's keyboards.”
Bangs also had his work cut out for himself effects-wise. “Every venue is different, and you don't want to tie your sound guy's hands behind his/her back with prerecorded effects,” Kenna says.
“I do mix a show that has the feeling of the record,” Bangs adds. “However, it's very important to us to preserve and accentuate the dynamics that make a live show fun and interesting. As far as effects, it is very much day to day. There are some things that I always have to create out front, such as tap delays for repeats, but reverbs are very dependent on what the room gives us. I generally end up with varying plates for the drums. The vocal effects are all over the place but usually center around an emulated room sound. I think for live, natural is better and less is more.”
A key element of monitoring for the band is that everyone has his own mix. For now, the wireless receiver is a Shure PSM 600. “It is, however, an older system with limited transmitter frequency flexibility,” Bangs says. “This is becoming more of a problem everyday as the FCC sells our bandwidth to digital television. It will probably force us to change soon. I'm hoping to be able to hold out until the new Audio-Technica system comes out.”
The intro to “Daylight” — which builds up the anticipation and allows the band time to tune and set up — starts out with a click “made up of two drum samples fed into the monitor console along with all the instruments,” Bangs says. “It is sent from there to the band's in-ears. At the top of the show, [tour manager] Ramey [Shippen] starts the intro music. The click comes in near the end of the intro and counts off a few bars to cue the band.”
Preparation is the best policy to ensure a good show. “We have backups of everything known to man,” Kenna says. “But Murphy's Law says that it will be the one thing you don't have backed up that will go down!”
Yet for all Kenna's dependence on the technical side of things, once he has the crowd, nothing matters. “The best nights are the nights when the fans are there in full effect,” Kenna says. “There is no feeling and vibe like that in the world. No problems onstage can affect that energy — not possible.”
MAKE SURE THEY SEE MY GEAR
Audio-Technica 4000 series wireless mic with 6100 capsule
DeArmond Jetstar guitar
4-piece Gretsch drum kit with a Pork Pie snare, Zildjian cymbals and Factory Metal Percussion toys
1964 Guild Thunderbird guitar
(2) M-Audio MIDI controller keyboards
Muse Research Receptor hardware plug-in host
Shure PSM 600 wireless receiver (for Kenna), hardwired Shure PSM 600HW packs (for the band)
Swart Atomic Space Tone guitar amp
Yamaha Motif keyboard
Ultimate Ears UE7 in-ears