Photos: Karl’s Basement III | 04.11.14

Once and a while, during a full moon (note: I don't think there was actually a full moon) the river trash gather in Karl's Basement for rude tunes and bonfire-based drinking. Local grudge lords Dad Jr., Shitstorm, The Brainstems and Armadillo as well as Springfield's GIGANTIC brought the thunder. (Bryan J. Sutter)

On April 11th, at an undisclosed location in the metropolitan St. Louis area, five mighty bands (Shitstorm, The Brainstems, Dad Jr., Armadillo and Gigantic) brought the glory of music to the river trash at evening known as Karl’s Basement III. There was a bonfire and a van covered in empties.

I’ve been photographing live music for over 5 years. In fact, the first show I shot (Themselves at The Firebird) occurred on March 25th, 2009. Since then I’ve had some pretty well known names in front of my lens and while the sense of accomplishment when you’re done at a festival or sold-out venue is pretty awesome, for me there are few things as fun as a good basement or DIY show. Recently, when I did an interview with The Riverfront Times I was asked to submit 5 photos along with my answers. Out of the 10 local music photographers in the series with interviews that have gone live, so far I’m really the only one to select photos that weren’t entirely from “big” shows or festivals. Sometimes being escorted in and out of the pit by a guy with a clipboard or being at a venue where the security guards or a pacing tour manager are just waiting to bring down the hammer on some poor photographer isn’t what most music photographers had in mind when they started shooting live music.

For example, I’m stoked to say I photographed Nine Inch Nails’ first show in the United States in over 4 years but to do such I had to sign a release that greatly limited how I use or display those photos so good luck finding those in the wild (besides the shot of Trent in my portfolio).

Releases have kind of become the new evil for music photographers. The first ones I ever heard of seemed to exist, innocently enough, as a way to prevent photos being used for “unofficial” pieces of merchandise and similar things. Fair enough. However, most of the releases I’ve had under my nose or heard bemoaned by fellow photographers have included strict guidelines about usage, public display and some even go as far to negate your ownership of the photos that you take. Some releases demand that you submit your photos for approval before being published or sent an editor. I have an aunt who is a pretty big fan of Nine Inch Nails. She has a whole basement full of old LPs and rock ‘n roll memorabilia. She’s the one that took me to my first concerts and the one partially to blame for why I chose to do something “weird” like photography rather than selling insurance or sitting in a cubicle. I would have loved to have given her a print of NIN’s performance at last year’s Lollapalooza, but the release I signed forbid such a thing. Now, I could’ve given her a print and no one would’ve been the wiser but I’d always have the nagging thought of “What if she puts a photo on instagram or Facebook and it got back around to me?” in the back of my head. I don’t think it’s ever been detailed what happens if you befoul the sovereignty of a release. I don’t know if you get sent to a Thai prison where two dudes whip you in the neck with old leather straps or if you get chained to the floor and have to photograph very bad burlesque performances with the strong suggestion that if you refuse a suit with a Black Flag tattoo will methodically hunt down and murder the members of your family. I don’t know what happens because, oddly enough, there’s a sense of submission in the world of professional music photography.

I’m not saying that I hate photographing big show or that I am above them, but the peaks and valleys of trying to make a mark through those kinds of shows can be exhausting. You typically only have 3 songs, the lighting can be brutal for photography and sometimes you don’t have the “right” photo pass and you have to sit on the sidelines while a “pro” photog from LA walks away with these photos of a band you’ve loved since you were in middle school. Why did I, as well as a handful of other talented music photographers, have to sit it out? Because we didn’t have permission. How do you get permission? Typically, you’re shooting for a publication that has some sort of bankable online or print presence, otherwise you have to slowly build relationships with press agents and venues. The latter sometimes feels like you’re slapping a stapler against your bare thigh. I get it. I do. But sometimes the system seems a little too arbitrary.

By the way, that guy was shooting with a Canon 5D MK II or III and had nothing but L glass. High end equipment, for those who don’t speak the language. Perfect proof that gear doesn’t make the photographer. At least Todd Owyoung came correct.

It sounds like I’ve been really hounding on the valleys, I know. The upside is that big shows and festivals can be incredibly rewarding. The can be great opportunities to network, particularly if you’re shooting out of town. Sometimes you shoot a band or artist on a tour where their lighting engineer is just killing it and you find yourself in a situation where the lights are fantastic for both the photographers and the crowd. They’re also not a bad way to update you portfolio. I just photographed Burgerama III in SoCal for a local publication and it was great. I got to see bands like FIDLAR and The Growlers perform in front of massive crowds. Here in St. Louis they’re lucky to have a draw that breaks 100 paid. I could feel the difference in their performances and the energy was definitely reflected in my photos. That’s awesome, and I find it rewarding on a personal level to see a band achieve that sort of glory when I’ve seen them put in their dues on a tough show or tour. Fuckin’ hero’s journey, man.

But surely the bands at these DIY and basement shows are regional at best, right? That can be the case, however, in the last year I’ve shot White Mystery in an art space, Perfect Pussy at a place that serves waffles and Ex-Cult in a basement so gnarly I felt sick for a week. None of those bands are selling out arenas but all 3, Perfect Pussy and White Mystery in particular, are currently riding on some rather respectable buzz.

At Karl’s Basement I can show up with my Fujifilm X100S, a flash, and some radio triggers and have a blast. If you run out of beer an old co-worker probably has a PBR or two with your name on it or you can take a swig from the bottle of whiskey that’s being passed around by the bonfire out back. The PA is pretty bare bones but everything sounds well enough. There’s minimal drama or pretension, if any.

I can bounce my flash off the floor or the walls as a way to soften the light a bit and not blind any of the folks standing around me. A few people might roll their eyes at first but when I start showing photos between sets they end up peering over someone’s shoulder and they get it. I never set my flash at anything stronger than 1/8th power and I can usually get a good exposure with a little blur or background burn to imply movement at 1600 ISO and a shutter speed bouncing between 1/4 and 1/30.

So what am trying to say?

Man, Karl’s Basement was a blast. You should’ve been there.

See the full set of photos from Karl’s Basement III featuring Dad Jr., Shitstorm, Gigantic, The Brainstem and Armadillo by clicking here or by checking out the gallery below.

Get This Fool Some Books
When I’m not getting ready for the next show I like to sit down with a good book. Help support and my reading habit through my Amazon wishlist. You can always order a print from my large archive of awesome rock shots if you need something rad on your wall.


Questions, Comments?
Do you have any questions, comments, or feedback? Leave a comment below and let me know.

Leave a Reply