Paul Quigg never saw himself working at a concert venue. He'd spent 40 years in the music business, playing in bands and doing sound engineering for recording studios, theaters and television productions. So when his old friend and bandmate Jeffrey Liles approached him about joining him at The Kessler Theater, Quigg was skeptical. Seven years later, having built The Kessler into what is widely regarded as Dallas' best-sounding room, he's finally ready to move on.
"I never did engineering in a venue or anything remotely like it, nor did it seem like anything I would want to get within 100 miles of, actually," Quigg says with a gravelly cackle. Having spent stints in legendary bands like the Nervebreakers and Decadent Dub Team, he was all too familiar with the sound quality of most live music venues. "I had a pretty negative perception of what it would be like to do something like that, but it was also based on being a person playing around in shitty dives. It was like, 'God, who would want to do that?'"
"But," Quigg adds, "this was really something sort of different."
When The Kessler reopened in 2009, Quigg and Liles were two parts of a three-part team, along with owner Edwin Cabaniss, who led the historic venue's return after more than 30 years of sitting empty. The goal was simple: Make it the best listening room in North Texas. "There had been something sort of like it once before a long time ago called Caravan of Dreams," Quigg says, referring to a long-since closed venue in Fort Worth. "It seemed like a big challenge."
The original plan was just for Quigg to help get the place off the ground. "A couple years in I was enjoying it more than I might've thought, so two years turned into six," he says.
In that time, the 400-cap room has hosted shows from the likes of St. Vincent, Lucinda Williams, the Zombies and Mavis Staples, and the artists themselves are often so impressed they've come back for return visits — even though they could sell out larger rooms. "We're known for the quality of production and the quality of sound, and for that you look no further than Paul Quigg," says Cabaniss.
For Quigg, who turns 62 in January, the timing of his exit makes sense. Back in the summer, Cabaniss announced plans to expand the Kessler brand with the purchase of another old theater, The Heights, down in Houston, which he plans to reopen sometime in 2016. With the prospect of becoming technical director of venues in two different cities, it seemed like a good time to arrange a plan of succession.
"It's way more demanding to make those shows happen than they would appear at a casual glance," Quigg says. "I haven't had a vacation in about seven years. I'm thinking now would be a good time to do very little and spend some time in the woods."
The man they landed on was a Fort Worth engineer named Cal Quinn.
"We've been working on it now going on the past three months," Cabniss says. "He and I collectively have spoken about what we want [the transition] to look like and who might be able to take the reins and take it to another level in other locations, and Cal Quinn's name kept coming up."
Quinn is no stranger to The Kessler. He first worked with them when he was running sound on tour with Denton band Seryn, who were regulars at the Oak Cliff theater before they moved to Nashville. (They return to play there next Wednesday, December 30.) He's long been the go-to stand-in when Quigg wasn't available to run sound, and when The Kessler team has produced shows at the larger Majestic Theatre, Quinn has stepped in as audio engineer while Quigg has taken on production manager duties.
Just as important, however, is the team of engineers he's built up with Rhetoric Media, through which he runs shows at Fort Worth venues like Shipping & Receiving. "If you've heard someone mix sound for any festival or room over in Fort Worth, it's probably been him or his crew," Cabaniss says. "Cal's a little bit new school, as well. He's taken it upon himself to train multiple engineers on running it a certain way, training them a certain way, and he's proven he can run multiple venues at the same time."
Quinn's background is also in studio recording, which is another big plus for The Kessler, and one of the reasons he's attracted to the room. "The Kessler's a listening room, versus being a honky tonk or a big stadium, so people are looking for a different experience," Quinn says. "Whenever I'm mixing, I'm aiming for the studio-quality experience people have of when they put on their record player. I want to get as close as possible to that kind of perfection so when they come to the room they don't see the difference."
That's easier said than done, of course. As Quigg puts it, the studio is "a cakewalk." He says that much of what prepared him for his role at The Kessler was his time working in television and running corporate events, which were far more disciplined — and high pressure — than the average concert venue. "It's the same thing as a multi-million-dollar broadcast. They're spending that much money and they do expect it to be perfect," he says. "The smallest mistake and heads roll. It gets you into an intense way of looking at things."
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The prospect of trying to repeat the model set up by The Kessler presents its own unique pressure. "When you have a thing you're doing very, very well, it's a whole different set of circumstances to see if you can replicate it without a drop-off in quality. Houston will be the test," says Cabaniss. Once again, his goal is clear: "I would like to see The Heights theater eventually come into the conversation as one of the best small rooms in the state."
It may be true that Quinn doesn't have the same type of experience, but he's not too worried about it. "I got to learn a lot from him," he says of the time he spent working alongside Quigg. Plus, he adds, "That door's never going to be closed. Paul's always a phone call away."
For Quigg, though, it's time to decompress before he decides what comes next. He'd like to get back to performing music, and possibly set up a record label that would focus on cutting one-off singles similar to the ones he grew up listening to in the '50s and '60s.
"It was really educational. There's a way of listening to music that I developed [at The Kessler] that thousands of hours of studio and stage stuff never revealed to me," Quigg says. "Nothing's ever quite what you think it's going to be like. I never expected it to be as fun as it turned out to be."