New York, NY (August 31, 2016)—Veteran live sound engineer Monty Lee Wilkes died of cancer this past Friday at his parents house in Kettle River, MN; he was 54. His passing brought to a close a storied career that stretched back three decades—one that saw him mix concerts for acts as varied as Nirvana, Julio Iglesias, The Replacements, Britney Spears, Prince, Siouxsie Sioux, The Go-Gos, the Beastie Boys, The Commodores, Alice In Chains and Engelbert Humperdinck, to name only a few.
That Wilkes mixed top acts across so many genres was unusual, but that he mixed them all equally well was not. As Jim Ragus, the system engineer on Britney Spears’ 2001 Dream Within A Dream tour, told Pro Sound News in 2004, “He is able to put more ‘stuff’ into a mix than anyone else I've heard and yet still have every detail clearly there. Very impressive.”
Wilkes began his audio career in high school, mixing his father’s band in rural Minnesota. He only saw it as a hobby, however, until a fated encounter with the late M.L. Procise, FOH engineer for the likes of ZZ Top, Boston and Guns N’ Roses, and eventually a senior executive for Showco and Clair.
As Wilkes recounted in an unpublished 2004 interview with Pro Sound News, “Whilst still a mere fledgling of a budding, young, teenaged sound engineer, I attended a ‘big rock show’ at the Duluth Arena in Duluth, Minnesota. At the end of the evening, I stood watching the FOH Mixer as he packed up his world and tried to think of something cool to ask him, finally settling upon, 'Uh, how did you get here?' The guy replied with a wisecracking, ‘Well, on a bus, of course’ or something to that effect.
“But then he looked me in the eye, and seeing that I was seriously interested, dropped everything he was doing and took a few minutes—quite a few, actually—out of his load-out to chat with me. He filled me with valuable insights and good advice. Cut to several years later, and this guy is now handling sales for one of the biggest sound companies in the world and I am the one being approached by him. So every time some ‘dumb kid’ asks me if I've got a minute at the ‘big rock show,’ what I am doing that makes me think I'm so damned important? I always remember that guy who took a few moments of his precious time to take care of my interests.”
Mixing a variety of regional acts, Wilkes eventually made his way to Minneapolis in the early 1980s and went to work for local audio provider Southern Thunder, which had him work at the then-fledgling First Ave. Club, which would soon become renowned as a pivotal location in Prince’s 1984 film, Purple Rain. There, Wilkes built a reputation as a dependable engineer with good ears, and in 1985, he was asked to take on mixing famously boozy Americana punkers The Replacements, who had just released their first major label album, Tim.
What followed was a string of years spent holding the combustible band’s sound together and occasionally partying as hard as the group itself. Last year’s lauded biography of the act, Trouble Boys, found Wilkes recounting incidents like a show in Houston, TX, where the band and audience heckled each other to the point of near-riot, until the police came and ordered Wilkes to turn off the PA. It didn't matter: “They were the kind of band that was so loud, you could turn the PA off and not notice any difference,” he recalled. Another tour found bassist Tommy Stinson arrested for drunkenness in a dry county; the desperate band pressed Wilkes into service against his will to play bass, but after a few basic covers, the group went into its own material. “I don’t think we made it to the chorus before it fell apart and people started pelting us with all kinds of s---,” Wilkes recalled in the book.
Right as The Replacements broke up in the early 1990s, Nirvana broke out on the back of its album Nevermind and Wilkes was soon tour manager on the band’s journey supporting the record. It’s well documented that the group was unprepared for the abrupt change from playing for empty bars to appearing on magazine covers and MTV all day, and those growing pains played out on tour in the form of numerous trashed hotel rooms. As legend has it, Wilkes, sick of having to literally pick up the pieces after the band’s behavior, finally told off the group one day, pointing at the remains of a TV that had been destroyed. Leader Kurt Cobain angrily retorted that they had to trash it in the hotel room because they couldn’t open the window to enact the rock n' roll cliche of throwing a TV out a window—an attitude that Wilkes squelched with a calm, “Yeah? Well, a real punk band would’ve thrown it through the window.”
The Nineties saw Wilkes spend roughly a year mixing FOH for Prince—a good, long run as it went for engineers working with the mercurial star in that era. That stint, however, helped Wilkes move beyond being known as solely a rock engineer, and at the turn of the millennium, he took on mixing duties for Britney Spears as the teen pop star became an arena act. It was a decided change of pace from the raucous acts he had started out with. “I’ve never been on a tour in my life where the departments get along so well and look out for one another,” he marveled in a Pro Sound News story from 2000. “There’s better unity on this tour than any I’ve ever been on.”
While the genre had changed, he was still the rock guy who liked it loud and mixed his shows at what he felt was a conservative 105 dB, noting “One, my audiologist tells me if I mix 90 minutes a day at 105, I’m going to be just fine; I’m going to hear my grandchildren’s laughter. Two, it just happens to be the average speed limit in most North American amphitheaters. Third, that’s loud enough, goddammit.”
Wilkes was always one to share his enthusiasms—this writer can recall after a 2001 interview, Wilkes using Spears’s in-the-round PA in Madison Square Garden to blast his favorite obscure, sugary power-pop bands for an hour until the locals eventually begged him to stop. On another occasion, Pro Sound News asked him to appear on an AES panel it sponsored; while the timing with his schedule ultimately didn't work out, he was nonetheless enthusiastic, sharing in an email, “I can see it now: Joe Engineer over here, speaking of highly complex miking procedures, phase anomalies and the like...and then there will be me, saying 'Look, kid; since tonight's house PA isn't large enough, if you position your setlist just so on the console, it eliminates those pesky clipping output meters! Hey, works for inputs as well!'” He even wrote an article for Pro Sound News once, simply to recount his excitement at mixing punk pioneer Siouxsie Sioux at the birthplace of British Punk Rock, the 100 Club in London.
Wilkes discovered he had terminal cancer last fall, and mixed his last show, a John Lennon tribute, in December, back in the same venue where he first built his reputation: Minneapolis’ First Ave. club. Wilkes is survived by his parents, Howard and Sandra Wilkes; brother Ray Wilkes; and daughter. A public memorial celebration and jam will be held Saturday, September 3, at 1 PM at the Elmwood Inn in Carlton, MN.