Heart of the City: Josh Siebert

by Morgan Davis

Photo Portrait by Carlos J. Matos

Josh Siebert Mohawk

Ovrld and the SIMS Foundation recently partned for a Cultural Arts Division-funded portait project titled Heart of the City (which you can donate to here and can view in person at SIMS’ December 3rd Heart of the City event). Spearheaded by our own Carlos J. Matos, the project aims to put faces to the struggle of music industry professionals in Austin with beautiful portaits of 12 of those professionals, ranging from performers to sound technicians to radio personalities. We also interviewed each of the subjects and will be releasing the full interviews throughout the year. We previously shared our conversation with veteran singer-songwriter Gina Chavez, KUTX personality KUTX DJ Laurie Gallardo, veteran hip hop duo Riders Against the Storm, beloved Austin producer and musician Jim Eno, and now we’re excited to present our profile of “Jesus” Josh Siebert, the iconic stage manager of cherished Austin venue Mohawk.

Morgan Davis for Ovrld: Are you an Austin native or did you move here from somewhere else?

“Jesus” Josh Siebert: I came from Houston, Texas in 2011. On a whim I moved here with my best friend and, at the time, business partner for a recording studio called The Womb. We built the studio in a house super south, off Manchaca and West Gate. Shit man, I came here with nothing, after a real bad breakup and a broken heart.

The stage management thing…my dad was the CEO of the largest prison administration system from like 2000 to I think 2003 and I helped out and volunteered with stage stuff because they would have bands come and play in the prisons. That’s kind of how I got into this stage management shit.

Ovrld: So when you came out here in 2011, how soon was it before you were working at Mohawk?

JJ: I did Psych Fest as a favor for Rob Fitzpatrick. I did the B Stage at Psych Fest that year and the stage manager [from Mohawk] came up here and Rob shot him my resume. Right before SXSW I came here and did a really rad interview. Literally SXSW Interactive Day 1 was my first day here.

Ovrld: Basically you were thrown right into the fire…

JJ: [laughs] Yeah! No stage hand, no motherfucking radio [laughs], know what I’m talking about? I was just getting it. And back then I was doing security and doing changeovers, so if some fan walked back I had to be like “Yo! What the fuck are you doing back here?” I had to like ogre shit, you know? So I did that. I did it that way for a couple years, man. I was just like chief boss, all alone.

Ovrld: How has it changed in the past five years? Especially since Mohawk has…

JJ: Grown? Yeah, we added two tiers…I think that took us from, like, 400 capacity or 600 to 900. Each tier was probably 250 people or something like that. I got a stagehand. For bigger shows we have a monitor world. We’ve had like Daniel Johnston do an original [art] piece backstage on the wall…I’m just thinking of upgrades in my mind, those are the upgrades in my mind. We had Public Enemy spray paint the wall. We had Thurston Moore spray paint the wall. What else upgrade-wise?

Shit, our staff. We went from like padawans to masters. Know what I’m talking about? Everyone here has seen some pretty horrible shit and seen some pretty amazing shit. It’s equal.

Ovrld: That’s something I hear from a lot of people who have worked at Mohawk, that it’s almost a college course all unto itself about the world of sound and management. 

JJ: And people! [laughs]

Ovrld: Yeah, a lot of personalities [laughs].

JJ: A lot of personalities! Mostly I’d say 95% of them are acting right.

Ovrld: You had a rough year this year with personnel. You’ve lost some staff and some of that has come down to issues of mental health in this scene. How would you say that has affected the atmosphere at Mohawk?

JJ: Everybody appreciates everybody more. But this shit’s been happening…we’ve had our ups and downs since we’ve all come together. I mean, this spot’s been open, what, eight years? Nine years?

Ovrld: It turned ten this year.

JJ: Ten years. I’ve been here since ’11, people have come and gone but everyone here is family, like the core staff, like Cody Cowan [Mohawk General Manager], he’s like my big brother. We’re all family, so everything means more. Even like the little things mean a lot more. That’s how it has affected us personally, as a family.

Man, I hate saying that. Because we are family but at the end of the day it’s work. You know what I’m talking about? But we are. We’re a tribe. I’ve always said that we’re more of a tribe than a family. Cody and Rene [Stokes, former Mohawk manager]. I mean, Rene has gone on to other things but Rene hired on like brothers and sisters almost.

Ovrld: Every time you go to Mohawk you can definitely pick up on how passionate everyone is about working here. I think that’s reflected in how the community reacts to Mohawk because you guys consistently win awards from places like the Austin Chronicle for Best Venue and Best Sound and things like that. Do you think that passion everyone has is why it has become such a prominent and beloved venue in Austin?

JJ: Absolutely. The pride and passion and loving what you do and who comes from there, they’re family too. The artists that play here, they’re home. I don’t say welcome. When I load a band in I let them know “This is gonna be the best show of your tour, it’s all down hill from here, so just enjoy today. You’re home. This is your house within reason.” And it’s no matter who. If you’re Wu-Tang, or a member of Wu-Tang, you get the same love. I’m sorry, did I answer the question? [laughs]

Ovrld: Absolutely, yeah. The past couple years have also been a transition time for the entire Red River area, and Mohawk has been seen as the rock of Red River in a sense because it has consistently been one of the most prominent venues to stay standing despite all the changes to the area. 

JJ: Well, Cheer Up’s hasn’t been here that long but damn it if they aren’t standing here with us.

Ovrld: Definitely. But we’ve also seen a lot of great, cherished venues go away, like Holy Mountain and Red 7, though some of them have come back as different entities. How has all the change impacted what you do here? And do you feel much pressure with everything that is happening on Red River? Or do you think Mohawk is able to be clear of that?

JJ: We feel it. I think we stand out from it because we’re the “CBGB’s of the South,” but we definitely feel it. You can’t help but physically feel these buildings blocking out the motherfucking sun, you know what I’m talking about? [laughs] You really feel that shit! I used to be able to look up from backstage and see the sky, now I see “Motel Indigo” [laughs]. “Home of the ‘Red River Tavern’” [laughs]. Yeah, I feel it! But it can’t phase us. What we’re doing here, what we’re doing right here, you could make a movie about.

Ovrld: Even though the area is changing, it does seem like the audiences that come to Mohawk are consistently passionate audiences, and not just because this is an area people love to come out to. But have you noticed any changes in the crowd? Does it feel different from how it was when you first came out here in 2011?

JJ: Man, life is always changing. I try to just enjoy everyone’s release. In a way I’m kind of an “ambience ninja,” we all are. We build the show, we run around trying to make everything right for these 900 motherfuckers who come in here and let loose, responsibly and safely, whether they like it or not.

The faces have changed, but I think everything changes, you know what I’m saying. Man, that’s a hard question. I don’t know, man.

Ovrld: It’s hard to tell, right?

JJ: Yeah, it’s hard to tell. There are just so many faces. But they’re all happy, you know?

Ovrld: Right, that’s the most important part.

JJ: Yeah!

Ovrld: I also feel like Mohawk has become the center of the SXSW experience for a lot of people. For better or for worse.

JJ: Yeah, for better or for worse.

Ovrld: I think you guys tend to have some of the biggest, craziest shows going on here, and then you were also obviously the center of the SXSW massacre that happened. 

JJ: What a tragedy, yeah.

Ovrld: With the changes that have happened— not just with Austin but also SXSW— how would you say your relationship with that event has evolved over the past five years?

JJ: Man, I’m trying to think of a PC way to put this [laughs]. Mohawk is a brick and mortar. Mohawk is not a pop up venue. We do things our way and I think everyone at SXSW would agree with and support that statement. Everyone here really knows what they’re doing on this level. Everyone here really cares. I’d give anything to make sure everyone’s safe, no matter what. And I’d give anything to make sure everything’s on time. I’d sacrifice anything. That’s my job. I feel like this is one of the things I was born to do. It’s definitely not about pay.

Man, I know everyone has their off shows, but I would die to keep shit on time. This is one of those things that’s like bullriding, or whatever the fuck you want to call it. This is one of those things where you just are it [laughs]. You just are some things and I am just a fucking stage manager when it comes down to it.

Ovrld: Do you think the adrenaline from that and the challenge of trying to keep everything stable is both what keeps you coming back to it but also a big obstacle for it?

JJ: It changed me, dude [laughs]. It doesn’t keep me coming back, I just don’t know what else I could do. It’s like the best thing that’s ever happened to me and I think it might kill me one day [laughs]. You know?

Ovrld: Like being an EMT…

JJ: I guess, yeah, but I don’t want to compare myself to those amazing people. Shout outs to the EMTs for real, dude [laughs]. I know a couple folks who work the hot box out in Houston and that’s some gangster ass shit, that is some superhero shit. But it’s kind of like that, yeah [laughs].

Ovrld: Right, I meant in terms of the hours and the rush and the similar ways people respond to it. 

JJ: You’d be surprised how many motherfuckers need a hug, too. And just say “Hey man, I’m proud of what you’re doing, what you’re doing now matters. Love yourself, and I’ll see you in a couple months.” Or in a couple years. It will go by like that [snaps]. Do what you can to make the next couple shows as good as this one.

Ovrld: What are some of the unique challenges you think people in your position face? Not just in the industry at large but in Austin specifically. What makes your job more unique and challenging in this city?

JJ: Oh man, for sure seasons. Pay. I mean, I feel like a good number of us who have earned our stripes get paid fairly but fuck, man, it is expensive to live here.

Ovrld: And it keeps getting more expensive…

JJ: [laughs] Yeah man! I’ve got a pretty good deal where I live, because I hadn’t a drink in going on nine years, going on ten, I’m chill and I’m quiet and I try to take care of my own shit within me. I clean my dishes and shit, I live with four other folks. I got a pretty good deal. I live south central. But it’s really expensive though.

And it’s seasonal too. My work is seasonal.

Ovrld: Right, feast or famine.

JJ: Fuck yeah man! And it’s not like it’s this or nothing, but damn, it’s hard. It’s a hard hustle. And I get a lot of respect and thanks, this is usually a thankless job.

Ovrld: Yeah, people aren’t even aware that you’re there…

JJ: If you’re doing it right [laughs]. The only reason I stick out so much here is because Mohawk is out in the open. It’s so weird and authentic and I’m super handsome so motherfuckers notice me, you know? And I love what I do so you see me and you notice that. I don’t just stand backstage checking out my phone, on Instagram or whatever. That’s not a shot at anybody that stage manages or stagehands but I’m in it, I’m in the show. If something happens, I’m on stage. This is like one of those venues.

But if you’re doing it right, and you’re anywhere else, no one’s gonna see you. Like at Bass Concert Hall, I’ll be looking for the stage manager, I’ll be like “Where is that motherfucker?” And I’ll see his pant leg once. [laughs] And I’m looking!

Those venues have big boy budgets. I went and saw Sufjan Stevens…you heard that record?

Ovrld: Carrie and Lowell?

JJ: Holy shit, I saw that production.

Ovrld: I missed that but I heard it was great.

JJ: It was so good! But I was like looking so hard for their stage manager and all I saw was his pant leg.

Ovrld: I guess with those venues there’s also a pit, and more room to maneuver around, but with Mohawk, like you said, you guys are more open so I can see how it would be harder to disappear. 

JJ: It is very hard. I’d have to not do my job to disappear.

Ovrld: Right, and inside your sound booth is like dead center in the middle of the room, on a platform. That’s hard to miss.

JJ: Yeah, and monitor world, where they mix the sound for the bands to hear, it’s right there for everyone to see. Anyone doing monitor world is photobombing all the photos. So that’s that weird shit. That’s one of the things about Mohawk that makes it so good, or that makes it so unforgettable. The staff is hired meticulously and the sound staff has seen so much more than any fucking venue across the US. I don’t know any other venue where you see the sound staff that much. Or the stage manager that much.

Ovrld: Yeah, and you guys are present the entire time, which might seem like a strange thing to say but as someone who books and plays music, you definitely notice when sound people are there and when they’re not there or coasting. And I’ve never had that experience at Mohawk. 

What are some of the most memorable experiences you’ve had at Mohawk? What are the shows that stand out to you? What are the things that make this job most worth it for you?

JJ: Being friends with Killer Mike [laughs]. That motherfucker texts me every once in a while. Their old tour manager Ian McCarthy, his wife or girlfriend, and Trackstar, the DJ— basically the whole Run the Jewels family— back in 2012 or 2013 when they were playing here. Twin Shadow, fuck man. Phantogram. I still talk to those motherfuckers, man.

Ovrld: A lot of them, some of there first prominent shows were here.

JJ: Yeah! Years later, in 2014 or whatever, [Phantogram] shouted us out in an interview about what they missed the most about being on this level and they said Mohawk. Who else? Damn, man, I worked this one show, it was my favorite hip hop show, it was Rakim.

Ovrld: When was that?

JJ: It was a couple years ago, it was ill! I’m not a New York fan either, it was just special. And that was before Bushwick Bill was always on stage, trying to jack the show from everybody. This was right when Bushwick Bill first started coming around. Now it’s just like “No! No bro! You can’t get on! This is a folk band! They are not a fan of the Geto Boys!” [laughs] “They don’t want you to freestyle, homie!” This was back in the gap, back when he was first coming around, and he just jumped on stage and I was literally rocking a Little Big Man cassette tape on a chain, just randomly. That was the coolest hip hop show.

Like I said, I’m a huge rap fan. Sleep was ill. Those motherfuckers are so ill! Shout out to Sleep.

There’s a lot of big stuff but the big stuff is never as dope as like the organic pops, when you see these motherfuckers about to explode. And you get to hug on them and tell them “hey man, you’re doing it right.” Catch you around the bend and whatnot.

Ovrld: Right, and I think for a lot of local bands, Mohawk is like a badge of honor. You get to play at Mohawk, it’s a big deal, it means you’re moving up in your career. 

For the last question, I’m just curious, what’s something you would tell yourself in 2011 when you first moved here?

JJ: [pause] I’ve done pretty good, man. I’ve fucked up some. But everyone I fuck with that’s gone on? I’ve told them I’ve loved them every time I’ve seen them. That’s that shit, though. I walk around with that sense of death, that mortality all over me, all over me. All the time. Since before I moved here. I would have said it more, even. I’ve always been pretty good about saying “Hey man, get home safe, I love you.” I want to say it more. I wish I would have said it more. That’s it.

And maybe I would have been more real. And more hugs.

Carlos J. Matos’ portrait of “Jesus” Josh Siebert will be on display alongside eleven other portraits SIMS’ Heart of the City gala event at Emo’s on Saturday, December 3rd. You can also donate to the project here. Heart of the City is funded in part by the Cultural Arts Division of the City of Austin Economic Development Department. Thank you to our sponsors Rojo Hospitality and Distinctive Life.

Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City, the multimedia collective he co-runs. When he isn’t doing that, he gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes here at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.