On Tuesday, Governor Gavin Newsom unveiled his plans to slowly ease the social-distancing and stay-at-home restrictions that have defined the lives of California residents since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
Newsom laid out a cautious set of markers that will determine when businesses, schools, workplaces, parks and other institutions may begin to reopen. But he specifically mentioned that large public gatherings, such as concerts, would likely be banned until a vaccine was developed. As people continue to re-define what it means to exist in a connected, vibrant society, no dynamic is more precarious than live music performances.
While we all yearn to return to the days of cathartic, emotive shows at the Rickshaw Stop or the Independent, the tight, heavily-populated environs of music clubs run counter to social distancing standards. A recent report released by an expert panel of health specialists warned that large scale music gatherings would not be safe until fall 2021— at the earliest.
It was a stark reminder of how far we still have to go before things return to the way they were before the global pandemic turned the world upside down.
SF Weekly reached out to several local musicians to gauge how they were coping with the outbreak of COVID-19, which not only erased their tours and live performances, but also impacted their secondary jobs — the “steady paycheck gigs” that many of these artists rely on to pay rent and put food on the table. The responses were mixed.
Some expressed despair or malaise. Others were hopeful and even excited. No one was certain of what the future may bring.
Prior to the March 16 stay-at-home order issued by six Bay Area counties, Oakland indie rock group Club Night was working on a follow-up to their eclectic 2019 album — the Pitchfork-approved What Life. Those productive demo sessions, which had yielded a series of potential songs for the successor album, were immediately halted. The group has yet to restart in the wake of the lockdown, for both health and creative reasons.
“I don’t know about the others, but for me, it’s been pretty hard to feel creative and inspired,” says Joshua Bertram, founding member and chef songwriter for the four-piece group. “And even though we have all this downtime, we can’t take advantage of it, because we can’t see each other. We all write music together in a room, and that isn’t happening right now.”
The pandemic has only added to the general unease Club Night has been feeling recently; the band’s record label, Tiny Engines, imploded in the wake of accusations of financial mismanagement late last year.
The economic fallout from the pandemic has only made matters worse for the band and its members. Although Club Night has earned critical acclaim, they have yet to see their plaudits translate into any kind of sustained financial success. The band’s members rely on second jobs for steady income, and those jobs are now in peril.
Bertram, for example, works as a graphic artist. He recently designed the flyer for a now-cancelled Built to Spill show in the Bay Area. Unfortunately, that gig is now up in the air after his company scaled back operations (much of their work is based upon promoting live shows.) Guitarist Ian Tatum is down to working two days a week at his book manufacturing job in Oakland. And drummer Nicholas Cowman lost all his shifts as a bartender (although he has increased work on his screen printing startup, VHS Press.) The only member with a reliable income is bassist Devin Trainer, who works for the podcast company Stitcher.
Cowman and Tatum are getting along with some help from unemployment insurance, and no one in the group is in danger of being evicted. But the future is admittedly scary.
“I feel like people are still just coping with the psychology of the situation,” Tatum says. “I’m not sure many musicians or other people in our situation are strategizing about how to move forward, since we still know so little about the future.”
That indefinite atmosphere can have a crippling effect, although some Bay Area artists are looking into this boundless new era with a strange sense of optimism. Oakland soul and funk musician Xavier Dphrepaulezz, better known by the moniker Fantastic Negrito, says he’s feeling “extremely creative” at the moment — a declaration that should come as no surprise from an artist whose career has been defined by overcoming obstacles.
Despite living on a small farm in Oakland (and saying he has “no money at the moment”), Dphrepaulezz has managed to continue working on his upcoming album, Have You Lost Your Mind Yet, which was originally scheduled for release in July. Dphrepaulezz says he’s not sure when the album will come out now, and he doesn’t know when, or if, he’ll reschedule a series of American and European tour dates that have been postponed — “I just make music and do what they tell me,” he says.
Still, he’s managed to stay remarkably upbeat, and when he’s not recording music in his studio on San Pablo Avenue, Dphrepaulezz has kept himself busy in numerous other ways. He recently went viral (a term we can probably retire now) with his music video for “Chocolate Samurai.” The song was written well before the pandemic, but it’s energy seemed to speak directly to our strange and uncertain moment with a chorus that implores the listener, “Have you lost your mind yet?”
Seizing on a unique opportunity, Dphrepaulezz asked his fans to send videos of what they were doing during the quarantine. After getting an amazingly strong — and international — response, he patched the clips together into a particularly moving video.
Additionally, Dphrepaulezz recently recorded a performance that will appear on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and says he’s planning to put together another DIY music video. Staying busy is He’s been playing and recording music every day and practicing his familiar refrain of “turning bullshit into good shit.”
“Let’s face it, when I feel bad, I throw on some music to make me feel better,” Dphrepaulezz says. “And I look at these times as a huge opportunity—to forgive someone, to collaborate with someone, to start a project with someone that you were procrastinating about. We need to put our petty bickering aside and come together, and I think music helps us achieve that.”
Dphrepaulezz insists that the increased isolation has opened up new creative avenues, a sentiment that is echoed in part by Chris Adams, an Oakland musician who creates shoegaze, dreampop and slowcore tunes as Pendant.
“This has definitely opened up some time for musical ideas, that, for different reasons, I never really felt I had the overwhelming freedom to try,” Adams says. “It’s kind of kicked me in the ass to sit down and spend long hours trying to figure out new music software, or gears or pedals or whatever it might be.”
Despite playing all the instruments on Pendant’s debut album, Through a Coil, (also released, unfortunately, on Tiny Engines), Adams says the quarantine has allowed him to expand his oeuvre even more, offering the opportunity to explore producing and mixing his songs on his own. As a full-time student at California College of the Arts, he hasn’t had to deal with the tenuous terms of employment, although that is not to say the lockdown has not been stressful for him.
“I do think there is this capitalist, demonist impulse that if you’re not being super productive and efficient with your time, you are wasting it,” Adams says. “I try to be realistic. I don’t need to be creating a masterpiece every day, and if I don’t have the most productive day, I can forgive myself.”
Adams intends to use the songs he’s making during the lockdown for a new album, although he doesn’t know on what label or when those tunes might be released to the public. In the interim, he’s trying his best to get outdoors and exercise while not jeopardizing his health. He has a history of asthma, but he’s been vigilant about social distancing and he says he’s extremely fortunate to have health care coverage through his school.
The unclear future of social distancing guidelines and the economic hardship brought on by the pandemic has raised obvious questions about what the future of live music will look like, and what impacts the new reality will look like in the Bay Area, where artists were already hustling to make ends meet before the pandemic.
As a creative magnet, the Bay Area has long attracted artists from across the country, and with jobs drying up and live music opportunities bleak, the prospect of a creative exodus from the region — a theory often discussed, but long debunked — now takes on greater urgency.
“I can’t imagine a more difficult scenario than living in the Bay Area as an artist,” says Rose Droll, a singer-songwriter who lives in Oakland. “It’s almost impossible to think about how things could get worse, but if they do, it could be total hell and mayhem and everyone might have to dip. I mean, I don’t know how you can pull weeds from an already dead field.”
Droll, who released her debut album, Your Dog, in 2018 on the San Francisco-based label Father/Daughter records, has been able to support herself through her work as a music teacher during the quarantine. But those classes have all moved online and her enrollment has dropped by half, a situation she admits is unsustainable.
Droll continues to write and records songs on a daily basis, although she’s unsure if those tracks will be used for a new album.
“I haven’t thought about my new album in months, but I’m not really stressing too much about it,” Droll says. “These things usually have a natural progression that kind of works itself out.”
While Droll only had one upcoming show scheduled under her own name, she was set to embark on a June tour with Boy Scouts, another local band fronted by Taylor Vick. Those shows are now in limbo, for obvious reasons.
Despite the numerous factors working against her, Droll holds out some semblance of hope that this crisis will force a dramatic rethinking of how musicians are financially supported.
“I think there are always good things to come out of really shitty situations like this,” Droll says. “People are realizing that art is such a necessity and that here has to be a way to keep musicians from just falling away. I hope this spurs on people to get really creative about how they can support and fund people who make art for a living.”
In the interim, Droll says she is considering live streaming personal shows and setting up a Patreon account — alternatives to club shows that may not return any time in the near future.
For these musicians, those live shows were not just about making money or showing off their new songs. They were asylums—places of communion where like-minded people could congregate and support one another. Now their existence is in jeopardy.
“I just can’t wait to have a beer at the Bottom of the Hill or Thee Parkside — you know, listen to some music at a loud club,” Adams says. “When we can do that, I know we are back to normal. But I don’t know when, or even if, that will happen, and that’s pretty crazy.”