Craig Welsch Talks About Traveling, Working Front Of House, His Positive Experiences With Streaming, And The Unusual History Of 10 Ft. Ganja Plant
Craig Welsch is the house engineer at Boston’s Rear Window Studio—that's where I met him—and it’s a job he’s had for a decade. Before that, he cut his teeth with John Brown’s Body, an indie reggae band, and toured with them as their front of house engineer. His focus was incorporating vintage effects—like delay, reverb, and dub effects—into the band’s live show, and it’s a skill he used on his next gig, as front of house for Slightly Stoopid, as well.
Welsch is also the drummer for 10 Ft. Ganja Plant, a roots reggae and dub band, which despite their lack of touring, promotion, or social media presence, has a sizable following—their music garners millions of streams on the major streaming platforms and their albums continue to sell—and that success is despite their best efforts at keeping a low profile.
“We didn’t want to play gigs,” Welsch says. “We wanted to strictly be a recording band—record music and have fun—we never thought about doing gigs. Although early on, our label, ROIR Records, booked us a slot on the [now defunct] CMJ Festival. We played a Friday night at the Lion’s Den. The Dub Trio was before us, and after us was Bad Brains’ bassist, Darryl Jenifer. We were a little out classed. We decided that if we played music no one ever heard before, they couldn’t say we didn’t execute it well. So we wrote 10 new songs, rehearsed them all night, and that was our set. It was so much fun and everyone had a good time. But the first gig we played as 10 Ft.—that we wanted to play—was in 2013. We went 13 years without playing a show really.”
I spoke with Welsch about his years on the road as a sound engineer, the responsibilities and challenges of working front of house, the unlikely success of 10 Ft. Ganja Plant, and how his experiences with streaming are a lot better than you’d expect.
What was your start in music? Did you play an instrument?
My brother started taking bass lessons when he was about 15—he’s five years older—and I would play the bass my dad bought him. Two years later, I asked my dad for a guitar. I met a few of my brother’s friends who were really good players, and that kept me into it. I took lessons and played with people through high school. Then I went to Berklee for two-and-a-half years. Berklee’s whole thing is you go for two years, and then you start the MPE Program [Music Production and Engineering]. That’s what I wanted to do, but I didn’t get to that point, because I left after two-and-a-half years to go on the road and work with a band. The band was called Tribulations, which later became John Brown’s Body.
Did you know them from Berklee?
Kevin Kinsella, the original lead singer—he started Tribulations in high school—is my cousin. He asked me to go on the road with them. They were having a hard time keeping engineers that could tour with them. I’d never really done that, but I thought I knew a little bit about sound, and I enjoyed sound—I enjoy sonics and electronics—so I moved back to Ithaca, which is where a lot of my mom’s family lives, and learned from the house sound engineer at a local club in Ithaca called the Haunt. He got me going. I went down and watched him mix bands every night. There were actually a couple of guys, one of the guys I learned from was Rob “Wacko” Hunter, the drummer for Raven, the guy who wore the hockey mask.
He also does sound?
He did. I don’t know what he does now, but at one point he was Branford Marsalis’ head engineer. He’s a very accomplished audio engineer as well being the drummer in Raven.
At that point, you were based in Ithaca, but were you on the road most of the time?
We were touring. We were doing about 250 shows a year. It was pretty intense. But we were all young. We didn’t have many obligations outside of that. That must have gone on for four or five years. After that, the band wanted to take a break. Some members were leaving, and a bunch of us moved back to Boston. About a year later, Kevin wanted to form John Brown’s Body, but he wanted to do it a little differently. He grabbed the core people from that old band, Tribulations, and he started the new band, but we were a little more selective in the beginning. For example, we would go down to New York and play the CBGB’s showcase room for a weekend, things like that. But as the band got popular, the horns came back, the backup singer came back, and it eventually ended up being the same thing again in many ways, which is funny, just under a different name.
What was your job in the band?
Strictly sound. I was bringing all of the old vintage effects on the road and mixing the band in a pretty rub-a-dub style, which nowadays is more common than it was then. Back then, bands didn’t really have sound engineers traveling with them. There weren’t a lot of reggae bands, and no one was really going for that sound, where the engineer was playing the whole band in a live environment like that. The only people I saw do that live were people like Burning Spear and Israel Vibration, they had their own engineers who dabbled with delay, reverb, and dub effects inside of their show. But with a lower level touring band, you really didn’t see it at all.
Did you learn a lot of those techniques on the road?
You go through a certain amount of bootcamp when you go into that organization, because they were familiar with a lot of the sounds of those acts. I had listened to reggae before then and knew it, but I didn’t really dive into it until then. But then I heard Lee Perry and stuff like that, and that’s what inspired me to start doing that stuff.
How did you hook up with Slightly Stoopid?
John Brown’s Body opened up for Slightly Stoopid. I wasn’t in the band at that time, I had left already, but Slightly Stoopid asked the John Brown’s Body’s horn section to go on tour with them. The guys from John Brown’s Body got out of the John Brown’s Body 15-seater van, and moved over to the Slightly Stoopid tour bus [laughs]. Everyone said it was an eye-opening experience watching them walk out of a van and onto a tour bus. So Da La (Daniel Delacruz, sax) and C-Money (Chris Welter, trumpet) joined Slightly Stoopid, and they did that for several years. At one point Slightly Stoopid was looking for someone to do sound. C-Money said, “Craig’s around, he would be great and he can give you the thing you want.” He called me and asked me. I was doing studio full time—that’s why I left the band, I wanted to concentrate on studio work—but I decided to give it a whirl. It was much different, at their level of touring. They were popular when I did it, and they had just gotten to a high level plateau. The last thing I did was the tour with Slightly Stoopid, Snoop Dogg, and Stephen Marley. We did the Comcast Center in Boston and that was for about 19,000 people. That was probably the biggest show I did with them.
What was your typical day like working front of house?
Touring works like this: the bus drives over night. You usually leave the venue about one in the morning. You drive to wherever you’re going and roll up between 6 and 8 AM. You would then get oriented, and at around 11 or so go to the venue. Usually the sound company had unloaded the equipment and they were setting everything up. You would basically oversee the set up, and ask any questions about the front of house system that was installed in the venue. It was usually local speakers, they didn’t travel with speakers. Local speakers would get spec-ed out and they would get them for each venue. You would have to make sure they were tuned, but usually there were techs that do all that for you. It was pretty hands-off for me until the actual soundcheck, but up until sound check it is the sound company’s and the local crew’s job to get it ready for you. Then you would show up, and depending on where you were in the tour—with the digital consoles, you just had to put a USB stick in and it recalled wherever you left it last night—and that’s where you would start. Usually you’ve tweaked it a few nights in a row, and a lot of times you end up tweaking the house more than you end up tweaking your thing.
It’s not like three hours of stress before showtime.
There’s a little bit of that that happens. I’ve done festivals where it’s time for the show to start and you’re sitting there thinking, “I still don’t have two of these keyboard lines coming up on my console and they’re going to start playing in 30 seconds.” It gets stressful. You get them eventually, but it’s not always right at the beginning.
What’s the history of 10 Ft. Ganja Plant?
At one point, when John Brown’s Body was touring, most of the people who lived in Ithaca moved to Boston to live near the others who were living there. We were based out of Boston: leaving for tour from Boston, and coming back to Boston. I wanted to do studio work, and I always tried to get the guys in John Brown’s Body, when they were off the road, to come record in my living room. But when they got off the road, they were burnt, and the last thing they wanted to do was get in a room with the same people and do music without a real reason. But Chris (C-Money), the trumpet player who later joined Slightly Stoopid, he’s a talented musician and he also plays a lot of guitar and keyboards. Kevin Kinsella is a great songwriter, although he had never really played bass before, but being a musician and being around bands a lot, had dabbled. I used to play Tommy Benedetti’s drums—he’s John Brown’s Body’s drummer—at soundcheck, and that’s how I learned, by watching him every night. I can’t play “drums,” I just understand the feel of reggae and how to play those feels. Nate Richardson was playing keyboards in John Brown’s Body, but he’s really a guitar player. He didn’t have an outlet for guitar and he wanted to play.
We would get together in my living room. I had a cassette deck, a little mixer, a couple of microphones, and a bunch of crappy gear that was sitting around. We started jamming and writing songs, and we had a lot of songs that Kevin wrote, but that he didn’t have a way to demo before he brought them to the John Brown’s Body people. We would do the demos for him. It started out like that, organic, and we recorded it all. We gave a cassette to our friend who at the time was booking SOB’s in New York City—he brings a lot of world music to New York City and he is also a giant reggae fan—he didn’t know what it was, but he really liked it. He ended up giving it to ROIR Records, and they contacted us and said, “We’d love to release this.”
ROIR released your demos?
That’s all we had, but they weren’t demos, that was our album, man. The owner of ROIR asked, “Do you have the master tapes?” I said, “I sure do, Maxell 90-minutes, right here [laughs].” We just had those cassettes. We recorded everyone live in the room, not wearing headphones or anything. We did the basics—at that time we were probably doing 15 takes to make it through anything worthwhile—and then we took that cassette, and overdubbed vocals, or horns, or a guitar, or a melody to another cassette deck. We played it off one cassette deck, through the board, and recorded the new thing we were doing onto the other cassette deck. There was no multitrack or anything, it was just these two-track cassette tapes
It sounded ok?
Yeah, it’s cool, it’s got a sound. It was fun. That’s how the band started. It turned into a thing that we were doing whenever we weren’t on the road with John Brown’s Body. We called in a lot of friends and guests, it was a little bit of a revolving door in the beginning, as to who was going to be at what session. It was always the same core of people, but it revolved. Sometimes Paul Wolstencroft, who plays keyboards for Slightly Stoopid now, played on really old 10 Ft. stuff.
The band has a very loyal following, yet you never did any of the things bands normally do to build an audience, how did you do it?
Part of it was that the band happened to start at a time when there was a lot of transition in the music industry. The clout of a label at that time was still important. ROIR was an established label with a cult following themselves. They had Bad Brains—they had bands like that—and they were a cassette-only label in the beginning. They had a giant mailing list from years of doing it, since the ‘70s, and I think it spread through that. That combined with us going out on the road with John Brown’s Body, and telling people about it. But that isn’t that many people. It’s become very international. People all over the world know about the band, and I assume that’s through the internet.
I am sure the funny name helps as well.
It’s a hilarious name. It was the most off the wall name we could think of at the time. We were sitting around thinking about what to call it when we gave the tape to our friend in New York, and then when ROIR asked us to put it out. It was a joke.
Are you still with ROIR?
Yes. I think that’s really what it is—I’ve been saying this for a long time now—I think catalog has a lot to do with it. We were pretty prolific and good about getting albums out. We’ve done about 10 or 11 albums. We slowed down recently, but in the beginning it was one a year, and sometimes two a year. We were always good about having music stockpiled. We have, right now, almost two albums done, in the can, and waiting. We’ve always been good about having catalog. Another thing is longevity. The band’s been around for a long time. A big part of 10 Ft. is that the band is very real. We aren’t meticulous when we make the records. We don’t fix every mistake, we even leave a lot of mistakes. We leave them because it’s all done live at the start, and if the take is really good, and has the energy, it doesn’t matter if they guy, for example, played an F instead of an E. That doesn’t ruin the song. We leave a lot of those things. I think people relate to that realism, because it doesn’t sound quantized or that we’re trying so hard. There is a different emotion in it, which comes through, and that sets the band apart.
ROIR is happy with the band?
Yes. We did 7.3 million streams last year, which is a lot.
That must work out to be about $30.
No, there’s money in streams. I won’t say how much, but it’s a nice side income. We have to split it between the label and five people, but whatever, we have a great time. For the amount of time it takes—in the past three years we haven’t released a record, we haven’t even gotten together besides gigs or talking on the phone—so it’s free.