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Some days Sean Gotkin can’t believe how much music history he’s witnessed in his three years as the sound department manager at Black Cat—like when he got to see the Foo Fighters, Billie Joe Armstrong, Johnny Rotten, and Public Image Ltd.
“It’s incredible, and I love every different facet of it and how every different performer is completely individualistic in their approach,” Gotkin says.
Since early June, Gotkin has been sharing his love of music on the biweekly podcast Sounds Like DC. The six episodes to date feature conversations with local musicians Gordon Sterling, Erin Frisby, Kenny Pirog, Beth Cannon, Patrick Cheng, and Candice Mills. The group recently joined Gotkin on stage at Black Cat for a live episode to wrap up Sounds Like DC’s first season.
Gotkin spoke with City Paper about what it’s like running the board at Black Cat, the podcast, and the D.C. music landscape. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
WCP:How did you end up sound department manager at Black Cat?
Sean Gotkin: I’ve been doing sound engineering professionally for six years, and I was working for the last three years at this little independent club in Arlington called Iota. I had made a bunch of friends and somebody had recommended me to Black Cat because they were looking for a part-time engineer. Over the course of three and a half years, I’ve kind of gone from being a couple days a week to the full-time sound department manager. And about two years ago, the owner came to me and he basically handed me the keys and he said, “It’s yours. Do with it what you want.”
WCP:What’s a typical day like for you at Black Cat?
SG: I’ll show up generally about 1 to 2 p.m., about an hour or two before the band loads in. The bands will get here and then we’ll start loading in their equipment … We will get them set up on stage, get all their instruments out. Usually by about 5 or 5:30, we’re already neck deep into sound checking. So if we have a three-band build, I have to start with the headliner, sound check them, and then work my way in reverse order to the opener and check all three, two, or four bands, and then get all of that done by about 7:30, so we still have about a half an hour before we opened doors.
WCP:What do you like about the music scene and dealing with musicians?
SG: That gives me energy—but also the music itself and the work itself. Trying to control something that’s completely uncontrollable, like live sound, and making it sound good is so incredibly hard to do. When you get good at it, when you even get manageable at it, it’s a huge feat.
WCP: How did you come up with the Sounds Like DC podcast?
SG: Ever since I’ve been doing this professionally, I’ve looked for side projects that I can throw myself into that would propel the community forward and help the community as a whole. A podcast just kind of came to me. I have mics. I know how to use Pro Tools really well. I can edit. I’ve never really done one by myself, but I’m sure I could figure out everything later. So I’m going to invite one guest on for every show and do it every other week and try to really get to the bottom of who these people are, who these artists are, what motivates them, and how they create the art that they create.
WCP: How did the first episode come about?
SG: Gordon Sterling was my very first episode, and he’s a really good friend of mine. Gordon plays everything from Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughan to ’70s-style funk. He has a band called Gordon Sterling and the People. His interview kind of led off the whole thing, because him and I sit down and have these kinds of conversations all the time. It came off very natural and it came off very honest. And, I was hugely appreciative for him to do something without even knowing what he was getting himself into. It was a lot of fun and I felt inspired after we were done, and he felt really great about it even though he couldn’t remember what he said after the fact.
WCP: What do you like about podcasting?
SG: I think my greatest joy of doing this podcast is seeing the reactions of the guests after the show is cut and edited. I give it to them a couple days before it airs. They always come back to me and they’re like, “Oh my god, I don’t sound stupid at all. I sound great. This is fantastic.” And I’m just as like, “Yes, that’s what I want.”
WCP:What do you want people to take away from the podcast?
SG: I want people, the average non-musician, to be aware of the scene that’s happening right next to them. A lot of people that live and work in this town don’t get out and see live music, even though they’re music fans. They don’t realize that there’s this incredibly vibrant scene. Artists aren’t always the greatest at talking about themselves and if I can pull them out of themselves a little bit, hey can come off like everybody else. This is why I’m inspired to make what I make and to live the life that I live.
WCP: How would you describe the D.C. music scene to someone who is not familiar with it?
SG: Vibrant and on fire and as diverse as any city that you’ll ever go to—D.C. is like a big family. You have metal bands and punk bands hanging out with go-go bands and R&B bands. In other cities, it’s very cliquish. Here, it’s not really like that. It’s a small town. It’s also the center of power of the entire country, and I think that there’s plenty to be really upset about right now. And artists are very good at translating why they’re upset into their art.