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Monday, January 12, 2015

Music Heroes: Kyle Lesley

Posted By on Mon, Jan 12, 2015 at 8:33 AM

click to enlarge Kyle Lesley
  • Kyle Lesley
I met Kyle Lesley at Occupy San Francisco, in October of 2011. The local musician had abandoned his sublet, quit his job, and sold all his stuff to live on the streets downtown.

"Everyone would create, share food, and do everything together for free," he tells me. We're perched at a sunny cafe table in early 2015, and he still sounds excited about Occupy. He went, he says, out of frustration with the same injustices that concerned most of the U.S. that winter — corporate personhood, staggering economic inequalities, bad bank behavior.

"I was never a political person," he says. "I just couldn't believe this was happening in America." His stay at the camp also led him to a new understanding of his job as sound engineer. "It was all based on volunteerism, outside of the basic structures of like, alright, this is my value, so you're going to pay me X amount for my time. That led to me doing work-exchange things for bands, recording records for free, throwing these music festivals." One of those festivals was 2012's reinvented version of the iconic 1968 Human Be-In. "Everybody was on acid, it was awesome," Lesley enthuses.

"He had fully invested himself in it," fellow musician Joe Lewis says of the involvement with Occupy, "as he fully invests himself in everything he truly believes in. Call me jaded, but at first I just assumed he was a young naive idealist of sorts. Nothing could be further from the truth."

Naturally, no one knew that two years later, Lesley would be diagnosed with stage four metastatic melanoma.

Last week, I used the phrase "for the love and for the love only" to describe the way small music venues operate, so it strikes me right away that with Kyle Lesley, everyone wants to talk about love. He talks about love. His friends talk about love. Even people who don't know him especially well are quick to talk about kindness and emotion. "He's so sweet," says Seaweed Sway producer Jessie Woletz. "I find him really inspiring."

Lesley currently lives in Boulder Creek, in the Santa Cruz mountains, and commutes to Los Angeles for a monthly treatment. He's been on three so far: Two clinical trials and now, the "game-changer," recently approved immunotherapy drug Keytruda. "It's chemo, but I don't get nearly as sick, I don't lose my hair." The treatment cost is $14,000 per intravenous infusion, but Lesley's co-pay is far less thanks to Medicaid. Still, "It's about 10 grand a year, just to kinda keep me alive, at this point."

I ask how long he expects to be on Keytruda. "In theory, if this stuff works, I'll probably be taking it the rest of my life." Fortunately, part of the love thing means appreciating what he has. "Cancer was a big, beautiful wake-up call," he says, a call to self-care, and self-love, and self-compassion. And it seems to be working: Here he is, sitting in the Mission sunshine, signature red beanie over coppery mop-top, talking about music, and how he wound up as a "sound guy."

"I got started because I play guitar, I played in bands, I toured, played the open mics at Hotel Utah and Cafe International, that kind of stuff. I got involved because I really wanted to cultivate and be a part of the music scene that is San Francisco. But I think it's like any other place — you have to scratch beneath the surface to find the good culture. I know L.A.'s that way. [Becoming a sound engineer] really was a kind of punk rock DIY approach for me."

He lived in an old Thrasher magazine-owned warehouse, and put on shows with "a cheap shitty PA I got from Craigslist. We'd charge like five bucks." He went on from there to get hired at small clubs like Amnesia, Viracocha, and 111 Minna. "That's where I got my chops as far as being a dependable, reliable, technically skilled sound person."

Describing the nuts and bolts of sitting behind a board full of knobs, Lesley tilts unsurprisingly toward the positive. "It means saying yes. Most of the time. Within reason. If a certain song needs reverb on the second verse, I'll go ahead and do that." Still, "Occasionally I have to say no. Like to people that maybe view a small venue like it's an arena rock show. I can't give you reverb in your monitor!" As for the big question — why do so many people do so much shit work to make live music happen — he goes back to his roots as a guitar-player's son growing up in Stockton.

"I wanted to help cultivate this community that I really grew up obsessing over, reading books and magazines and watching documentaries, dreaming about it. And I realized that it wasn't just going to happen to me. I had to work. I had to get in there and meet people. I had to say 'Hey, I want to record you,' or I'll come and run sound for free, or let's organize this festival, I have access to this gear, a couple microphones, let's make it happen. I really wanted to be a part of the music culture of San Francisco. I realized it wasn't going to be given to me, just because I played guitar, or smiled, or wore the right clothes. I actually wanted to be this reliable, dependable, talented person. People knew that my heart was in the right place, and I wanted to work. I wasn't just going to ask for things. I wanted to prove that I could contribute."

It seems he's succeeded, Woletz tells me. As part of a major push to organize an upcoming benefit for Lesley, she says she's been surprised. "I didn't realize how interwoven he is in the music community, how many people he's touched. People are ready to rally." Lewis agrees, praising his friend effusively. "Kyle is an angel on earth in my opinion. Completely driven and motivated by his love of life and people, not afraid to completely back it up with his full mind, body and soul. Kyle Lesley is a true hero."

As we stand up to part ways, I ask if Lesley has any local music heroes of his own. He names a lot of names, and then pauses. "Don't forget the people coming and cleaning up at the end of the night. The people throwing out the trash, the broken beer bottles. Do you know ..." I can see why people love this guy.

Seaweed Sway presents a fundraiser for Kyle Lesley at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 30, at Amnesia featuring Mariee Sioux, Future Twin, T.V. Mike and the Scarecrowes, & Michael Musika. To contribute to the fundraiser for his treatment, click here


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Hiya Swanhuyser

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