Sleep Diaries: Michael Simon Schwartz, Sound Engineer and Musician

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Michael is a sound engineer and musician based in Northern California. When most people are getting ready for bed, he’s getting ready for work. And when most people have been sleeping for a few hours, he’s just getting home. He prefers his lazy mornings and late nights. In a musician’s world, the early birds don’t get the worm, they get cranky.

A Chill Morning Routine

Everybody calls me Tofu — I used to work at the tofu shop in Arcata, California and there are a million Mikes in the world.

I’m on the Humboldt coast in the Redwoods in Northern California. It’s a nice remote area. I really love it here. 

I’m a sound engineer and musician. I have a sound system that I bring around to different events. Some places have sound systems built in and I just run their system. I do everything from the farmers market, to the League of Women Voters’ annual luncheon, to indoor concerts, to outdoor concerts. 

Because it’s *so* far from any big city (we’re six hours south of Eugene and five hours from San Francisco), there’s a lot of stuff that happens here and it’s a university town, so there are a lot of musicians and other artists. There’s a pretty vibrant cultural scene. We get a lot of pass-through artists who have their big gig in the city on the weekend and come here on the following Monday or Wednesday.

This summer, because of the world finally waking up from COVID-19, there were a lot of really great outdoor gigs. I ended up doing sound for a lot of those, which is nice for the sleep schedule — daytime gigs that end at eight or nine in the evening. 

What’s nice about my job is I’m not a get-out-of-the-house first thing in the morning person, except for every once in a while, right? On most days, I tend to wake up between eight and nine, naturally. I rarely feel the need to set an alarm. An excellent lifestyle choice if you ask me. I’ll wake up, read the internet in bed for a little bit and then after an hour, I’ll get up and make some coffee and then read some more on the internet for a while. 

On Saturday mornings, I have to set up sound for the farmers market and I have to be on site at 9 a.m., which is not too early, but that’s my early gig. And if I’m smart, I usually load up the gear in my van the night before and then I get there around nine, hike it all in, set it all up, and the music’s going by 10:30 a.m. 

A Flexible Afternoon

There are a couple of days a week when I give drum lessons in the middle of the day or afternoon. I’ve also got a little side hustle gig doing maintenance for a vacation rental company two days a week, which is done between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Usually, I push that to noon or 1 p.m. because I like having my long, slow morning.

Every once in a while, I’ll have a big all-day gig and sometimes it’s an hour or two away, so I have to wake up at 6 a.m. Those mornings are rough because I usually still can’t get to sleep till one or two in the morning. So, I’m sweating that I have to wake up and my mind will not let me sleep. It’s cruel and inhuman.

There was a whole lot of nothing during COVID because there were no gigs, which was depressing. As a performer, you get used to the sound of applause, and not having that for two years was hard. The first big show I ran sound for, the artists came on the stage and the whole audience blew up in applause. That is a sound I missed. I had not heard that in a while.

The Evening is for Working

I mostly work alone, so I get there early, I set up the entire system, run the soundcheck, do the show, and then fold it all up when it’s done. For most of my gigs, I bring my own gear. There’s this one venue here called Humboldt Brews and they have probably a 300-person room. They have a nice big complex system I just learned how to run. That’s the type of venue where I’ll stay up and work until one or two in the morning, if not later. Sometimes when you’re just setting up for a DJ, your breakdown is super easy, maybe four or five cables. Yesterday, I did this ska band that had nine people in it. So that was a lot of work pulling that off.

Sometimes I have a farmers market in the morning and then I have a big gig that night. If I can just go home and be in bed for an hour or so before getting up, taking a shower, and getting ready to go again, that’ll usually set me straight.

On the nights when I’m not working, I usually try to stay up a little late watching stuff just so I keep that schedule. Around 1 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. is when I’m behind the board, folding up all the cables. And then sometimes I work the casinos around here, and I have to load everything on the dollies and take them all out. I have to be active and move all around and not be grumpy if at all possible. 

My band is a weird combination of fusion, Gypsy jazz, and bluegrass. It’s all mixed up. And we really try to make music that is interesting and exciting to play. I like to say it’s as if Django Reinhardt, Bela Fleck, Frank Zappa, and Phish got together.  

We used to be a quintet, but now we’re a quartet. We used to have a fifth who was the mandolin player. He was a really good player and a really good songwriter. But he was a super early bird, a wake up at four, five in the morning-type person. Sometimes we’d do a little power weekend tour and on the first night, he’d be okay, but then we’d go to bed at 2 or 3 a.m. and he’d wake up at 4 to 5 a.m. when we’re all sleeping in. And then that second day, he would just get super grumpy. He couldn’t do it. He could not sleep in. He wanted to play yoga festivals at 10 a.m. It was so funny because I’m a total late-night person; this is where I live.

Late-Night Routine

After the late nights, you have to come home and unwind a little bit, so I usually watch something and sometimes I’ll eat after work. I’ll make some food and futz around for an hour or two before I finally hit the sack. Every once in a while, I’ll have a day where I did a gig Friday night till late and then I stayed up for an hour or two, then I’ll do the farmers market in the morning, then a gig that night and stay up late again. Usually after that, I’ll just come home and crash — especially more lately, because I’m getting older. It’s been a lot of work lately, because it’s summertime and I’ll crash around 9 or 10 p.m. And then I’ll end up waking up around midnight again.

My nights off, I’ll usually try to hang out with a friend or my girlfriend, especially if it’s a weekend night because it’s like, “Hey, I got a weekend night free!” My girlfriend has an early bird job — she has to be at work at 8 a.m.  She’s one of those “sleepless elite.” They can only exist on two to four hours of sleep per night. It’s a small percentage of the population that can get away with that. So, she can stay up late and hang out till midnight or later. 

I have a pretty small bedroom. It has a queen-size bed. I just bought a Saatva mattress at the beginning of the pandemic. It’s pretty good. I had a futon before. I had a futon for years and then I finally put a little cushiony mattress topper on it. It was messing up my hip. Every once in a while my hips hurt from sleeping on this thing. It’s probably a medium-firm mattress. I wish the edge was a little firmer. I’m 6’3” and I have it pretty high off the ground, so getting off it is like whoosh

My girlfriend has a really soft mattress and I always feel like I sink in too much, and then when I roll over, I have to get out of the divot. I’m a light sleeper when someone else is in the bed. I’ve been mostly single my whole life, so sometimes sleeping next to another person is pretty tough — unless it’s a king-size bed and there’s plenty of room to separate or the other person is willing to not cuddle up all night. I only do it on days when I don’t have to do anything.

I have vivid dreams. I had this really great dream the other night where I was going to play a gig in Minnesota with my band for some reason, and I was walking around the hotel beforehand, and then I saw two of my friends from high school who were at the hotel. I was like, “GUYS!! WHAT’S UP!” 

I texted them the next day, “Thanks for coming to the gig!”

Tricia Romano

Tricia Romano

Tricia Romano is an award-winning journalist who has written for The Daily Beast, The New York Times, The Village Voice, Spin, and Radar magazine. She is the former editor-in-chief of The Stranger and was a staff writer at the Seattle Times. She won Best Feature at the Newswomen’s Club of New York Front Page Award for her Village Voice cover story about sober DJs and promoters in the nightlife industry, “The Sober Bunch.” She is currently working on her first book about the Village Voice.

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