Westword: Tell us a little about your history in karaoke.
Keith Houston:My most prominent introduction to karaoke was getting hooked on drinking and singing at some chain restaurant attached to the mall I was working at in Colorado Springs. We would go after work and booze it up. It was there I learned there are some good songs made for karaoke, so we would always sing the stuff no one knew. I was hooked. After a crappy day working for The Man, nothing felt better than belting out my favorite song to a crowd of welcoming strangers.
WW: Why did you decide to start working as a host, and when did you know it was what you wanted to do?
KH: I became a total karaoke junkie when I moved to Denver, hopping from karaoke night to karaoke night. There was a full week if you wanted to do it. I was either starved for attention or well on my way to becoming an alcoholic -- or both. After witnessing my all-out stage shenanigans and ability to work the crowd into a frenzy, some of the people running the shows asked me to start working for them. Things really took off when Quicksand Karaoke set me up for my very first karaoke playground at Bender's Tavern. They would set up, I would run the show, and we would split the profits. That show took off in its first month. I was getting paid to sing, act like an idiot and drink. Way more fulfilling than the theater program I just dropped out of. I've hosted shows at the 404, Charlie Brown's, Sobo 151, Lucky 13s and even a VFW bar down on South Broadway. After doing one-off gigs for various people for a couple of years, I moved to the Bay Area. I came into some money after my mother passed away, and used that to buy my own karaoke rig. Thus Roger Niner's Karaoke Extravaganza was born.
WW: How would you recommend someone get him or herself started in the field?
KH: Having a background in public speaking helps. A lot of great KJs I know were radio people, some with a theater background. Having some working knowledge of how to properly run a sound board is a must. A welcoming personality and sense of humor is key as well.
Running these shows is like inviting people into my house for a party. I want to make sure everyone is having a great time and people are feeling included. I also enjoy trying to get the wallflowers to come out of their shell a bit. Also, you need lots of patience -- you are going to be constantly bombarded with drunken renditions of very horrible songs. You'll also be treated by grown ups behaving like spoiled five year olds in some cases. Be firm but fair and remember they're drunk. You are there to ensure people leave the bar feeling good with stories to tell. Hopefully they come back to your shows week after week and hire you for a private event. Be prepared to spend some cash. You don't need top of the line gear, but a good sound makes all the difference. Karaoke songs are also a bit pricey, so have a set song budget in mind.
WW: Can you describe an average day?
I normally don't get home from a gig and in bed until three in the morning, so I try to sleep in until about noon. I spend some time on various karaoke websites, seeing what new songs are available. Maybe I'll learn a couple of songs for the week. This is key; it keeps your shows from feeling stale. I also like to research songs, trying to think of themes that I can ask my crowd to participate in. I disinfect the microphones and wipe down the karaoke songbooks so they don't smell like beer. Every six months or so, I print out new songbooks. Around 8:00 I pack up the car with my rig and head out to the bar. At last call, I start to wrap everything up, sit down for a bit to ease my aching bones (I jump around a lot during my shows), pack up the car and head home. I have about four regular shows a week, with an occasional wedding or party thrown in.
WW: What's the best part about your job?
KH: Getting paid to run around and sing is pretty awesome, but the best part for me is knowing I am providing a space for people to get lost in, to give them an opportunity to relax or spaz out or sit back and laugh at all of it. A good friend of mine lost his home in the housing market meltdown and he told me karaoke was the one thing keeping him sane because he could just let it all out, meet some new people and make some new friends. Karaoke can be very therapeutic. I like giving people the ability to feel like a hero, if just for one day.
WW: How about the biggest misconception?
KH: To me, karaoke, proper karaoke is not a talent show. You are not there to audition, so don't act like a diva and don't be shy. Make people laugh. Sing that song no one knows. You are there to sing in front of friends and strangers, and in some cases, strangers who have become good friends. You are not there to sound good; you are there to rock out. Even if you feel like you can't sing a note, don't be afraid to make a show of how bad you are. You will awe people just for that. And the people in the back, heckling you? Cowards. I don't see them brave enough to stand up and sing to a room full of strangers, do you? Go epic or go home.
WW: Anything you're particularly proud or embarrassed of?
KH: It's hard to be embarrassed at my job, especially when I do things like flop around like a dying fish on the bar while someone finishes singing "Epic" by Faith No More. I love the people who are terrified their first time singing, then sign up for three songs the next time the come by.
Opening for Slim Cessna's Auto Club with our karaoke performance group, The Hot Licks, was amazing. Getting invited to SXSW this year to host a panel on karaoke and social media was an honor, plus winning an iPad in a karaoke contest while there wasn't too shabby. But I am most proud of the long and lasting friendships I have made while doing what I do. Your patrons make your show. You are the host, but they are the talent.