A day in the life of 'Austin City Limits,' season 30
Austin City Limits is a survivor. No other televised music program has lived to celebrate 30 years on the air. Moreover, within the entertainment industry, the real respect stems from the show's efficiency: in just under 12 hours, ACL acts load in, rehearse, tape a show, and leave. Most series take at least two to three days to commit that same hour to tape.
While we've all seen the finished product, first-hand for some of the lucky few, what goes on behind the scenes has mostly been a well-guarded secret. So, with an assist from the Pixies, we're peeking behind the curtain. Here, then, is a day in the life of Austin City Limits' 30th anniversary season.
10am: Tonight, 320 people will witness the Pixies tape an episode of Austin City Limits. Three hundred twenty and not one more. So says the fire marshal. Scott Melcer badly wants one of those spots. Since 7am, the 44-year-old graphic artist has been camped outside the University of Texas' Communications building in a collapsible lawn chair. It's Heavy Metal Parking Lot, party of one: He's betting a vacation day that being first in line might turn a "space available" ticket into the real thing. If he does, he'll see his favorite band tape a show he's never been able to score tickets for. "Double bliss," he says.
10:30am: Three floors up, the soundstage is Letterman-cold and mostly empty. For 30 years, this artificial greenery and plywood skyline has fooled PBS viewers into thinking the show is shot outdoors. In fact, later in the afternoon, a slightly disillusioned Pixies bassist, Kim Deal, will ask producers, "Is this where you usually do the show? It seems smaller, doesn't it?"
10:45am: The crew is looking over its call sheets. Page one is an equipment checklist: Next to "piano" it simply says "no." All season, ACL has pushed the show's aesthetic envelope. Bookings like Bright Eyes, the Shins, and Damien Rice are a far cry from what casual viewers might expect. "After 30 years, you can't stick with the same stuff," admits co-producer Jeff Peterson. "Your audience is going to die off eventually. Literally."
A few weeks earlier, the Flaming Lips' confetti and faux-blood routine had made for arguably the most theatrical show in ACL history. On paper, the Pixies will go down as the hardest rocking act ever to play ACL. Producer Terry Lickona points to previous tapings with Beck and Phish as proof this season is less sharp of a left turn, but concedes, "This is as furthest out on the limb that we've gone."
12:45pm: The Pixies are in the building. Getting them here was easier than anybody had any right to believe. Lickona reached out to the newly reunited band's management in April. Four hours later, the band was confirmed. "Charles [Thompson, aka Frank Black] said it was a no-brainer," reveals Lickona. "We were told that to them it's as important as doing Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show, and Letterman together. Nobody had ever said that before. Ever."
1:15pm: Frank Black's mom loves ACL, specifically 1988's Leonard Cohen episode. At their prerehearsal huddle, Black tells Lickona she's made her son watch the program dozens of times over the years. That's most likely why Black agrees to two things the band doesn't normally do: a soundcheck of their complete performance and to stick to a set list. That allows the ACL crew to familiarize itself with the songs and to draw up ideas for camera blocking. Even so, Black leaves the meeting with a word of warning. "You know we don't really have a lot of stage moves, don't you?"
1:45pm: "Cactus" and "Gouge Away" kick off a 90-minute, 25-song run through the band's set. If anybody's holding back, saving their voice or energy, it's impossible to tell. Sure, there's no small talk between Pixies, just a few blank stares and a little set-list discussion, but damned if they're not as tight now as they were in 1989. This is a well-oiled, and thoroughly dangerous, machine. Black's Tinkerbell T-shirt and huge leather clogs are a nice touch.
2pm: At best, there are 20 people in the room for the bulk of the Pixies' soundcheck. Then there's Scott Melcer. He snuck in a rarely used entrance, walked into the studio, and sat down confidently. At least one KLRU staffer recognized him and considered throwing him out. How do you throw out a guy that's been there since 7am for what could be the musical experience of a lifetime? At ACL, you don't.
3pm: Peterson: "You finished rehearsing?" Black: "We finished rehearsing years ago."
3:10pm: Melcer, ear-to-ear smile, has rejoined his friends in line. We're talking, my tape recorder at the ready. "Got a light? Shit, am I interrupting an interview?" We're more than happy to stop for Kim Deal. The former Breeder sticks around long enough to confirm this is the Pixies' most intimate show on the tour and to again express her surprise about the way the soundstage looks and sounds.
She asks for a spare cigarette to take back to the hotel. "I quit this morning," she says. Shameless enabler that I am, I give her two. Melcer's almost speechless. "I see 'em play for 25 people and then get to shoot the shit with Kim Deal. Wow."
4pm: Between soundcheck and showtime lies four hours of hurry up and wait. And yet, this is prime time for the show's director, Gary Menotti. He's in a small office near the control room charting out camera shots for all 25 songs the band rehearsed. That the Pixies will likely play fast and loose with the set list doesn't faze him. In fact, not much seems to.
He's been directing ACL for 29 years and couldn't be happier about the show's edgier direction. "Visually, there was only so much you could do with a lot of the country acts," says Menotti. "They stand in front of the mic and sing. So it's easy to fall into an everyday situation and be redundant. Being thrown something new is like waking out of a small coma or something."
5:30pm: If you work for ACL or their new partner, Capital Sports & Entertainment, this is when your cell rings with pleas for passes. Traditionally, ACL is the city's toughest ticket, and this year's even worse: The fire marshal mandated there be 100 fewer seats than last year. Sponsors, the soul of public television, get the bulk of the tickets to offer their employees and clients. The handful of leftovers is given away to the public a few days before tapings as "space available," meaning they don't guarantee admission. In order to assure a full house for the taping, KLRU distributes tickets in excess of their capacity limit to account for no-shows.
The Friday before taping, Melcer's friends crisscrossed downtown waiting on a ticket-drop announcement, heading from Waterloo Records to Jo's Coffee and back to Waterloo to grab the last three sets of tickets. In return, Melcer agreed to anchor the line day-of-show. So how tough were Pixies tickets overall? When a staffer needed to free up a pair of last-minute tickets, she found another staffer that happened to have the names of two last-minute cancellations. "Lemme get a pen," said the first staffer. "You won't need a pen," said the second. "Lance Armstrong. Sheryl Crow."
8pm: Every seat is filled, and another 50 or so people stand in front of the stage, Melcer & Co. among them. As is tradition, at exactly 8pm, Lickona appears onstage with a list of sponsor shout-outs. After 29 years, he can do the rap in his sleep, although he once stepped offstage and took a microphone stand tumbling with him. A word about cell phone etiquette is typically part of his wrap-up, but Lickona glances at guitarist Joey Santiago's wall of Marshall amps and thinks better. "I don't think we'll have to worry about hearing ringing cell phones tonight," he announces.
8:30pm: The Pixies have been playing 30 minutes and already longtime ticket holders are whispering it's among the best tapings they've ever experienced. Just as exhilarating is watching it from the control room. Menotti is watching 11 monitors: six color, five black and white. To watch him shout camera directions into his headset and direct his editor at the same time is like watching Bobby Knight lead the London Philharmonic. He's all hand sweeps, snaps, and air-punches, and without a doubt, what's on the monitor marked "Program" looks sweet. Plus, he's working without a net.
Not surprisingly, Black's jumping all over the set list, and then there's this last-minute quip from a Pixies roadie sitting control- room shotgun: "Joey's got a big solo he didn't do in rehearsal." Yep, the night's biggest moment wasn't part of rehearsal. During "Vamos," Santiago puts his feeding back guitar on a stand, catches one of drummer David Lovering's sticks, bows the guitar, then throws the drumstick back toward the kit from which it came. Menotti's crew captures every angle imaginable and then some. Who says the Pixies have no stage moves?
8:45pm: The man with a 35mm camera, dressed in black and dodging huge television cameras at every taping, is Scott Newton. He's been the show's exclusive still photographer for 27 years and like Menotti, he couldn't be happier with the show's 30th anniversary booking face lift. "I know Lyle's [Lovett] angles, and he knows I know his angles," says Newton. "So the new stuff is great for me, epiphany after epiphany." What's he know about the Pixies? Everything his step-daughter told him. Her only ticket request this season was for this taping, and as luck would have it, she's sitting close to another VIP, one that flew in for the show: Frank Black's mother.
9:20pm: "Gigantic," a full-band bow, then "Caribou," and finally the evening-ending rush to the freight elevator, where Lickona joins the band for a one-floor ride to the dressing rooms. It's an ACL tradition, one that Lickona says helps him gauge what a band thought of their performance. So? "It's impossible to tell," admits Lickona. "They didn't say a word or express any emotion. But it's been like that all day. They're very cool about everything."
9:45pm: Scott Melcer is one of the last to leave the studio. So? "One of the finest hours of rock I've ever seen, hands down." It was worth the wait then? "Absolutely. I'd wait a week if I had to."
10pm: After the taping ends, the show's crew retreats for a ceremonial dinner of soup and beer. (ACL's chief engineer is a homemade soup guru. Tonight's highlights: a Wild Mushroom and Butternut Squash.) Lickona is typically the last through the line. Post-show, the night's artists join him in the dressing room for a quick on-camera Q&A.
The band confirms that a good time was had by all, but they dance around a question about whether there will be a new studio album. There is, however, at least one answer that surprises everyone in the room: This is the Pixies' second-ever television appearance, their first being Letterman in 1991. The ACL archives, already an embarrassment of riches, just got richer, and it did so with the loudest, most in-your-face hour in the show's history.
In fact, more than any other taping, this one proves season 30 isn't necessarily your mother's Austin City Limits. This episode ought to scare the living daylights out of most mothers. "Not if your mom is Charles' mom," laughs Lickona.
The Pixies' Austin City Limits episode, one hour, airs Jan. 29, 2005.