I’ve known Mike Creager for 5 years and although I don't see him much, when I do see him, he is usually doing something related to sound technology. If you don't know who Mike Creager is, that's OK. Maybe you're not supposed to. He is the wizard behind the curtains for all things music production, so to speak. I decided to do this piece on Mike because he is a perfectionist that loves what he does and also an important part of the new venue, Iron City Bar & Grill. You may view Mike as a typical sound guy, but after digging into his background, it's obvious there is more to the man behind the board.
Back in 2008, Mike used to record my friends’ band. I was always in attendance for no other reason than to burn time and maybe learn a thing or two. He worked out of a freshly remodeled studio on 55th Place in Woodlawn, always the no-nonsense type when at work, sometimes creating an awkward atmosphere for me. I sometimes felt I got in the way. He had some really interesting, vintage recording gear at the time which allowed him to use a technique of recording involving a conversion of analog taped tracks to a digital interface, thus sweetening up the final cut. It proved to be a great method of recording. I noticed that he took much pride in his collections and in his own method and theory of recording. That was then.
March 20th 2013: I walk into the beautiful entrance of Iron City Bar & Grill, it's about 7:25PM. I’m instantly greeted with a “Hi! How are you?” from the hostess. “Fine, thanks.” I reply and make my way to the music hall where I expect to find Mike either fiddling with cables or the sound board. To my surprise he is nowhere to be found. So I walk up to the bar inside the hall to find two bartenders chatting away with a man. I ask for a water, then ask for Mike’s whereabouts. “He should be on his way back by now.” Replied the bartender. “Shit.” I utter under my breath. So at this point I decide to take a closer look at the place and study the freshly erected venue.
Walking into the hall, I felt a great sense of professionalism. You would have thought the place was just finished that day. You could almost smell the lacquer, probably still drying on the earthy red brick covering the entire front entrance floor. And the fresh carpet just screaming for a pint of beer to crash onto its surface. As perfect as the place looked, I felt it would take no time before the rallying of patrons for bands would do considerable damage to the place. Like a virgin going the distance- the night that Slayer comes to town to rock Iron City, and no one can stop the pure and utter consummation.
I see Mike walking across the stage as I’m entering information into my journal. “Mike!” I blurt out. “Yo!” He quickly replies. We see each other and meet halfway, landing near the bar. We have some small talk while I’m following him around as he prepares for the night. I later realize that there is no live music and the events taking place were no more than a music mixer for local bands. Mike says, “Tonight is just kinda of a gathering of musicians, local musicians who want to share their work.” It kind of reminds me of Bottletree’s vinyl night in some regard. The night will be chill.
As we sit down exclusively behind the sound booth, some musicians peek over the wall and start probing Mike with questions about when they will get their chance to play their song for everyone. He takes care of them and we jump back into Mike’s background and history with sound.
We start off talking about the past and his recollection with the studio in Woodlawn, in particular the recording of Vera, that I held outstanding attendance to. The topic was short lived, but I feel that Mike holds his long forgotten studio in Woodlawn close to his heart. On the subject of why Mike's job at Iron City is a blessing to him, he explains it has exponential potential, and the indefinite capacity to being the greatest venue in Birmingham. “It’s this big baby beast.” He says.
Iron City is so fresh into the game of being one of the greatest venues in Birmingham. Key players, like Mike, who work at Iron City will get press just as the venue will itself, because what’s important to a venue’s success is the people behind the scenes. “There is always more work to be done, and more hours to put in to get Iron City to top notch status” Mike mentions.
He talks about their collaborative efforts with Workplay and describes it as a neighborhood. Say Iron City needed to borrow a stick of butter for cookies. Workplay would oblige to help them out and vice versa. The relationship with Workplay is as content as it can be. I don’t sense much competitiveness as Mike talks about the other venue.
“Put the band in their element...” Mike starts off. “My job as production manager and chief sound engineer is to come in and ensure number one- that the group is able to do exactly what they need to do on stage and that means my first job is to make everybody in the performance that is creating signal, comfortable. Create a perfect platform for what is generating the signal. It's true right down to the tone that you use on an amp and how a player's “touch” on the instrument becomes... where it starts and where it generates.”
“Do you match what the band brings to the stage-to the sound system?” I ask.
“Sure. Say I’m trying to manufacture a band's sound that has a very well known signature about them. There is a significantly different art in that, than like me stepping up to the console and just working with the situation to make it the best I can. You use different tools, especially with the modern settings now. Things have gotten so closely related as far as the way we can produce a sound. It's why bands now travel with their own consoles more often and a lot of what I do as production manager for Iron City is accommodate their resource here.”
"How do you work with bands whose setup is closely related to your setup here at Iron City?”
“I let their devices power through my system. Most of these bands have show files so most times I am able to multi-sound check the band before they are ever even in our state. I’ll cue all the tracks on the console. So any sort of fine tuning of the sonic signature of the band we need to do, we can do quite quickly. The system Iron city has is very high end. It’s an audio network rigged with Cat5 wire and it works through a digital domain that is wired through the whole venue.”
Mike is 90% self taught in technical sound application. He was loosely involved in tech classes during college and made college a second priority to owning a studio. He did intern in music tech programs at SVSU in San Diego, and during his time there he knew his goal was to be well rounded and a professional on and off the stage. He wanted to be the person that knows exactly what their role is and know how to execute if given a task. Whether he is singing or playing, running the light board, console, every aspect of his technical career is to strive to be the best.
We finish up our interview and go outside to take a couple of photos. After the photo shoot, Mike does a tour for the patrons and I go back to my seat to collect my thoughts. I become content and go into a daze and start staring at the lukewarm Miller High Life that beams right back at me.
Mike returns. The music begins, and I record what I hear. Mike is a professional. People like him make it easier for bands and musicians get the best out of their performances. He's worked very hard to get where he is and deserves recognition. He understands music and the signature sounds that make bands unique, which is why I would trust him with my music.
Richard Harris: What is your title/your duties?
Mike Creager: Production Manager. Everything production from like events like tonight to advances on show to coordinating with the bands and venue. I cover all the technical systems in the building as well as all the lighting systems.
RH: What are your hopes for Iron City?
MC: To create a new standard within the live music industry. Not only in Birmingham but nationally. I think a venue this size can make its mark on the national scene. If we hold that standard I think we can succeed.
RH: Which bands do you like mixing for the most?
MC: Big bands with horns and lots of things going on to keep me on my toes. Local groups such as Fisher Green, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Grenadines. There are several other local groups U really enjoy mixing for.
RH: What do you listen to?
MC:I listen to old school soul like Johnny Taylor and stuff like that, ya' know. That's really what I find myself falling back to the most. I love new music. I love hearing new things, but everybody has their warm bed they like to lay in. Old dirty soul like Malaco and Stacks is really where I find myself laying down the most.
RH: In your opinion, how is the state of Birmingham’s music scene
MC: Growing, and I thinks its growing in a good way. I think there's is definitely scenes within the big scene itself. Everybody kind of has their cliques and niches which, ya' know, is cool. You get a lot of diversity with that. Birmingham is just one of those towns where I felt there was more talent than industry and its really hard to see the full potential of it in our city because we haven’t had the industry to support it. So, I think our local platform here at Iron City is huge and it gives us an opportunity to sell the locals on the separate stage to the nationals. Its gonna be a neat setup.
RH: What is the best thing about working for Iron City?
MC: My bosses. My general manager John Polini and Steven Medicis. They have faith in me. Before we brought John into the picture it was just Steven and I, and you could tell there was a connection between us. There was a confidence there and that gave me the confidence to do my job at a high professional level. For me, being given the tools and the opportunity to set the standard that I’m talking about, is a blessing.