Sumo wrestling: The 1,200-year-old Japanese sport where refrigerator-size men hurl themselves at each other in a display of power and quickness. With all the ritualistic belly-on-belly action, one might not notice there's a referee in the dohyo, or sumo ring. He wears a kimono and is called gyoji. The gyoji holds a wooden war fan and regulates the bout with sharp perception and strong will. The highest-ranking referee is called a tate-gyoji. His robes are purple and his standing is achieved through many, many years of steady service. He is a wise and revered individual.
Seattle's Crocodile Cafe is home to its own tate-gyoji, but sound engineer Jim Anderson wears a blue blazer instead of a purple kimono.
Anderson has been running sound around the city for 25 years and at the Crocodile for 16. Instead of a wooden war fan, he holds a wireless Yamaha LS9 digital console. During shows, Anderson roams the room, dialing in consistently high-quality sound. Like the gyoji, you might not know he's there.
"I've joked with bands for years about having their mix stored in my head," he says. "Now it's reality. Running the control program on a Tablet PC, wirelessly, lets me get out and hear what everyone else does. Like I don't know already! I know what it sounds like everywhere in that room."
More than 14,000 acts have come through the Crocodile; Anderson has mixed them all, from Nirvana to Meat Puppets to Jucifer. Behind various soundboards since the early 1980s, he's seen the musical movements of this city evolve—hotshots and unknowns, quiet acoustic and thrash. Anderson's mastery comes through in the care and attention he puts into every set of music, regardless of talent, regardless of pedigree. He judges not. Over the years, Anderson's calming demeanor and respectful technique have gained the trust of the musicians and the venue's management, who've encouraged him to evolve the sound equipment as technology and finances allow.
"I consider myself a craftsman," he says. "I don't half-ass anything. For me, this is a career. And a good mix is a good mix, no matter who's playing. I try to be meticulous and find the right levels for everyone. It doesn't matter to me if it's your first time playing or you're on a major label with an airbrushed tour bus parked outside."
A default Seattle music historian, Anderson has stories to tell. He remembers one sound check from Pioneer Square's Central Tavern—once a grunge incubator, now a refuge for cover bands. "The guys from Mother Love Bone and Alice in Chains got up and did a jam," he says. "Andrew Wood sang. We were treated to about 10 or 15 minutes of some pretty awesome metal improv—Mother Loves Alice's Bone in Chains."
There are more, but Anderson prefers not to talk about dead musicians. He would rather talk about sumo. He can tell you about the great masters: Asanobaka, Butayama, and Kusonoumi. Anderson is, for personal reasons, an avid and knowledgeable sumo fan.
Growing up, he was always the fat kid. "It was emotionally hard," he says. "But in sumo, these big guys are respected rather than ridiculed. They have dignity, respect, and grace. They are the rock stars." He learned how to appreciate the form at a young age. He's been to Japan three times to see grand tournaments, called honbasho. He also puts together low-bandwidth podcasts at www.SumoRecap.com, full of sumo news and match results. His listenership includes a U.S. soldier in Iraq.
Fusing tradition and technology, Anderson oversees each gig the way a gyoji oversees the ritual and honor of a sumo bout. From the silken loincloth—the mawashi—to the Lexicon MPX-500 Multi FX, Jim knows the lingo and the accoutrements of both trades.
Or from another perspective, to be a good sumo, one must have patience and balance, be flexible, and adapt quickly. To be a good soundman, the same can be said. The difference, perhaps, is only several hundred pounds.
"It's never the same two nights in a row," Anderson says. "I listen to the band and then make things as much louder as they need to be. Sometimes that means doing a lot, sometimes not much at all. It's all about balance. If it hurts my ears, that's a bad thing."
Anderson's expertise, intelligence, and humor ("For 25 years, I've been looking for two specific knobs on the board: the 'Play Good' knob and the 'Play in Tune' knob") have helped the Croc become a sanctuary for listeners and musicians alike. He relates a time when Yoko Ono stopped in the middle of her set, looked around, and said, "This place is magic."
Like a true grand master, Anderson adheres to a select few truisms. One is the sumo affirmation ganbarimasu!, Japanese for "I'll do my best." Another is part of the Hippocratic oath, relevant to one with the quality of a band's sound and the health of an audience's ears in his hands: "Above all, do no harm." The last is Anderson's own: "It is very difficult to polish a turd."