Welcome to Last Call, where we visit watering holes around the world to collect life advice from their trusty barkeepers, learning everything from how to get over a broken heart to what drink orders will get you laughed out of their bar.
As you sway in the spotlight—mic in one hand, third drink in the other—the person you need most in your corner is the karaoke DJ (also known as the KJ), and at LA’s rowdy karaoke bar Cafe Brass Monkey, that person is Kevin Race. You may think the applause you receive as you hand the mic back is for your golden pipes and smooth bravado; little do you know that behind the boards in that dark KJ booth, Race is modulating your pitch and manipulating mids in real time to make you sound as though you just stepped off stage at the Orpheum. Most weeknights, you’ll find him managing the endless onslaught of song request slips and filling the time in between rousing renditions of “Santa Monica” and “Anything, Anything” with a carefully selected montage of music video clips.
Race has become something of a local legend for his enthusiasm, attention to detail, and on-point air guitar. The brain damage from a 2016 car accident, one that left Race temporarily speechless and scattered, has also seemed to finesse the part of his brain that makes for a brilliant back-up singer and sound engineer savant. We asked about what makes a good karaoke singer, how he makes even the screechiest among us sound amazing, and how to gently end the sweet innocence of a karaoke virgin.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Kevin. How did you first get interested in karaoke?
Kevin Race: I was working at the radio station back home in a very little town [Jamestown, NY], so it was a teeny little station. I was doing my own thing in between recording weather and news, [and] there was a lot of free time. So, I just started singing and listening back to myself, and that’s where I started to mimic [different voices].
The first time I went to karaoke, a friend of mine invited me. My first song was Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind.” And I was so scared, I had sunglasses, hands in my pockets, and I just closed my eyes and sang. But as soon as I got to [singing] “Goodbye, Norma Jean,” someone out in the audience went “GASP!” and that made me go [snapping his fingers], “Hey, I guess I’m doing OK already!” And so I was addicted, immediately. I was going to karaoke like it was a job before it was a job.
How many times a week were you going?
Wow, sounds like you really took to the spotlight.
Which is weird cuz I was the fat kid in the back of the class who didn’t want to talk to anybody, and everyone picked on me.
Was this karaoke residency in your hometown?
No, when I moved to Florida, Daytona Beach—that’s where I heard about Super Star Productions, and the owners, Carol and Terry, who’d hire DJs to do karaoke shows. I had to bug the heck outta them.
At the time, I was driving a cab, and it was really dangerous in that town. We had one week where they were throwing baby carriages out in the street to get drivers to stop, and they’d mug ‘em. That’s the week that I quit.
And I was doing karaoke every night anyways. So, I really started pushing. I’m like, “I kinda need a job.” So, [Carol and Terry] finally started training me and I learned quite a bit from them.
What did they impart to you?
Basic mixing. And every mix is different. You want it to sound as full and give the singer as much room as you can give ‘em, and it’s hard because I’m mixing from there [gestures to DJ booth], and I’ve got that subwoofer right there.
Aside from the mixing and the technical stuff, I also noticed you sing along, do background vocals, you even did the splash effects in “Kiss the Girl” from The Little Mermaid the other night! Where did you learn to do that? And how do you remember all of those different songs?
It surprises me most of the time! Because a lot of these songs I haven’t heard since before my accident. It’s like, I don’t know, Rain Man. One part of my brain died, and another part got switched on—a part that’s completely useless unless I’m working here.
How long ago was the accident?
August 2016. It broke part of my brain, I suffocated in my car. It was nothing but chemicals in me. A couple days after is when I realized I couldn’t talk, so it’s very hard for me to put sentences together, and I’ve gotten a lot better.
"People come up to me like, 'Hey, help me pick a song.' I stay out of these matters professionally. It’s what’s in your heart. The fact that they’re asking me tells me they’re not coming up here for the right reasons."
Am I imagining things, or do you pitch regulate to make people sound better?
I will sometimes, if I’m certain that what I do is not going to be so obnoxiously obvious to the singer. I want the singer to not realize that there’s anything going wrong. The funny thing is that you get that person that’s consistently flat—
I have a name!
[Laughs] It ain’t you! And the thing I’ve noticed with those people, they usually sing the Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly.”
I know the type. So if not “Killing Me Softly,” what makes a good song choice, versus a bad song choice? A good karaoke singer versus a bad singer?
There’s never a bad song, there’s never a bad singer. We’re not selling tickets here. Nobody coming in here is meant to be a superstar. It’s supposed to be fun. We’re coming out, we’re gonna get our ya-ya’s on and that’s it.
When someone puts a song in, can you tell if it’s something the crowd is really going to respond to or not?
I never even look at it that way. I’m so far removed. People come up to me like, “Hey, help me pick a song.” I stay out of these matters professionally. It’s what’s in your heart. The fact that they’re asking me tells me they’re not coming up here for the right reasons.
So, I gotta try to kick ‘em back into the pool a little bit. Some of it is New York, ya know, it’s tough love and all that. It’s a lot of my personality coming through, too.
This place can get pretty rowdy, how do you deal with hecklers?
Oh, I heckle ‘em back as best I can. I don’t really have a plan. A lot of times I’m like a mirror reflection. What you’re sending off, is what I’m gonna send right back at you. If they’re being a real superjerk—buddy, you’re in a bar. We’re gonna treat you like a real superjerk. You might not be here in five minutes.
I’ve seen you shout someone off the stage.
It happens. Number one, don’t push me. I’ll do my best but we’re not Disney, we’re not Walmart, we’re not McDonalds. We’re a bar. And if you act like a jerk, you’re gonna get treated like a jerk.
What should people keep in mind to avoid acting like an asshole?
First, there’s a wait, and that’s how it works. Be prepared to wait like an hour, hour and a half when you walk in the door. The new 21[-year-old]s—they’re not used to the bar scenes yet. I don’t know what it is, but the younger they are, the harder it is for them to grasp that it’s not like a Disney Channel show, like Miley Cyrus walks in with her friends and says, “Hey, let’s sing a song.” That’s not how it works.
Second, avoid being selfish. If someone doesn’t go up within an hour, no matter what the circumstances are, they feel it’s a personal attack on them. Enjoy it as a group experience and you’re part of this group. There should be that camaraderie in the bar, everyone claps for everybody, and everybody’s having a good time, and every song is everyone’s favorite song. Because if it’s not like that, then it makes it even worse when you’re sitting there, waiting.
Sounds like it’s on the audience as much as the singer.
Clapping is always good. There’s nights that every single group in here, they’re only concerned about their little group. It’s not a communal thing to them. If it’s not their buddy up there, they don’t give a fuck. “Give it up for: ribbit.” [Editor’s note: We believe he’s referencing the sounds of crickets.]
I know that they’re feeling a little bad there, they just got done singing, sometimes they’re pouring their heart out and they actually did a great job and—ribbit. [Editor’s note: Nevermind, frogs?]
People love this bar. What do you think is so special about this place?
The name is catchy. What drew me in was the fact that I was a big Family Guy fan and Seth McFarlane called this place out as the place he goes to.
When I first walked in [to Brass Monkey], the “You’re my boy, Blue” [from the movie Old School] guy was dancing. And he actually sang [Bon Jovi’s] “Wanted Dead or Alive”… I was like, “Are you kidding me, motherfucker?!” And it was fun and it was the kind of karaoke that Carol and Terry described from back in the golden age, the early 90s.
"The word got out: TMZ will find you here and they will make fun of you the very next day."
What would your advice be to someone who’s never sang karaoke in their life and is just terrified of the idea of it?
You gotta do it. It’s like Fight Club. This is Sing Club. If this is your very first night at the karaoke bar, you have to sing. And bring your friends up, that’s kind of a way out. I think we all start off that way because no one jumps up on that microphone, as far as I’ve ever seen, for their very real first time singing publicly in front of people and just nails it and they’re like, “This is so easy, I was born to do this.”
What are your personal top 3 favorite karaoke songs?
Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling,” “Be Prepared” from The Lion King, and Audioslave’s “Like a Stone.”
This place has something of a celebrity hangout reputation; I saw a drunk Chelsea Handler singing in here one time.
They’re few and far between, and they’re appreciated when they come in. But it’s not like it used to be, the word got out: TMZ will find you here and they will make fun of you the very next day.
And do you still sing karaoke personally?
Yes. I still have my fun singing. For years I was a ham, [KJ’s] all are. It was once a rotation; we’d throw ourselves in. And over time, some of us still do it, but some of us have learned that the more you do that, the less responsive everyone is. No matter how awesome a job you might do, it’s not about you.