In the Before times, We Are the West whittled a niche for themselves in L.A.’s kaleidoscopic music scene with their Underground Series of eclectic monthly concerts, launched in October 2011 in an underground garage in Santa Monica. Guitarist Brett Hool and bassist John Kibler led a revolving tribe of musicians and a community of kindred spirits drawn to the ambient acoustics and candlelit atmosphere of the space, where music could range from fingerpicked folk or jazz to rocking, reggae-infused jams and strangers in the multigenerational audience could become fast friends — nights that reminded one why L.A. is a music mecca. But then coronavirus struck, followed by Safer at Home orders, and that bohemian underground world was shut down along with all the more traditional venues where musicians practiced their craft.
Here in our surreally distanced, mask-wearing limbo, standing shoulder to shoulder in large gatherings poses an unholy health risk. The internet buzzes with lo-fi concerts live-streamed from artists’ homes though performing for audiences through computer screens marks a profound shift for those who consider music a form of communion with others. As violinist Lucia Micarelli puts it, “connection is the essence of the performing arts. Any kind of performative art, that’s really what we’re doing: we’re connecting.”
Hustling for opportunities to connect was part of the gig even Before. Forced to disconnect physically, artists across genres are now scrambling to adapt as the nature of musical collaboration changes. “Like all things, when the external world goes into madness,” notes singer-songwriter Amilia Spicer, “you have to find the solution internally.”
“A lot of us are just using the same old formula that we’ve been using our entire careers and trying to apply those methodologies to reinventing ourselves,” observes Michael Jerome, drummer for Better Than Ezra, Richard Thompson, and The Third Mind. “That’s proving to be challenging for a lot of people. Because what I do is I play drums [laughs]. I tour. My business model is people gathering in small to large spaces, and that business model’s been removed. So we’re running on muscle memory doing the things that we know how to do: go to the studio, record, create, collaborate …. We’ve all got to try to think outside of the box a little more, because I think it’s going to take something completely different to make things work.”
“When it first happened, I thought, ‘Wow, this might be it for me, I may not play again,’” recalls Haile Blackman, who launched his reggae-soca band Upstream in Trinidad and Tobago in 1989 before bringing it to California in ’91. Upstream’s full itinerary of concerts from spring through fall “went away” in March. “I’ve been playing since I was 12 so I came to it like, Hmm, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, you know? Then we got some shows, and I was back in it. [Laughs] People have been reaching out … a longtime fan actually tipped the band just to get through this. That was really generous.”
“I broke my leg at the end of January when we were on tour [and] had to get surgery; we were in the midst of recording our album and then the lockdown hit, so that was a big break in all senses of the word,” Hool recalls. “The whole collaboration and the community were put on hold. We’re transitioning with a weekly radio show, “The Golden Hour Radio Show.” We’re playing songs by a lot of the artists who’ve played in the garage series and friends and heroes and recordings we really love. Our plan is to start opening it up to guests and live performance — kind of like a garage show on the air.”
R&B/soul vocalist Angela Muñoz had already started practicing with some Midnight Hour members for a scheduled 2020 tour promoting her debut album, “Introspection,” when Safer at Home orders scotched those concert plans. “Introspection” was released in June by producer Adrian Younge’s Linear Labs label, but the 18-year-old artist has remained sequestered at home in Eagle Rock. Her last live show occurred in November with the Midnight Hour. “It is difficult getting together with producers and trying to make your songs come to life, but what’s really difficult is not performing live,” she says. “[Working] with my older brother, Brandon, keeps me together as an artist. If I was just working alone I would probably go a little crazy.” She says they’ve taken to grabbing their laptop and heading into the mountains to record and write, “just to get away from the house. It’s something we had done before the quarantine, but now we do it more.” Those “really calming” natural surroundings are inspiring new textures in their songs, she says, as isolation heightens her sensitivity to environments.
Spicer, who’d anticipated a “really magical” 2020 after high-profile solo festival appearances and tours with folk veteran John Gorka throughout 2019, recalibrated by making videos and returning to an unfinished novel and screenplay, which inspired her to write more songs. She plans to share a live performance video of new tune “Remedy” from her Valley Village living room.
Homemade videos have become more artful. For We Are the West’s “Summer (In Isolation),” Hool sings and plays in the garage while Kibler plays standup bass in his Malibu garden. Jerome and his a.k.a. Butch Jerome bandmate, Butch Norton, recently released “How Lucky Are We?,” which teases music from wind chimes, a thumping washer and a quarantined cat. Micarelli, best known for portraying street busker Annie in David Simon’s New Orleans-set HBO series “Treme,” plays sonatas and traditional ballads during solo videos from her Highland Park home and split-screen “quarantine edition” performances with guitarist Leo Amuedo.
“Summer (In Isolation)" by For We Are the West.
“It has been a way to still be collaborating and making music with friends,” says Micarelli, whose concerts were mostly postponed to 2021. “On the practical side, it’s been an amazing opportunity to crash-learn a lot more about technology and recording and to explore different creative processes through collaboration, because I’m so used to doing everything in person.”
Ted Russell Kamp, a prolific solo artist as well as longtime bassist for Shooter Jennings, has made three videos promoting his country-soul album “Down in the Den,” completed pre-shutdown. Kamp released it July 24 despite not touring because, he says, “I can’t just press pause on life and wait another year. Part of what we have to do is create momentum and keep inspiration happening.” He calls a second album, the mostly acoustic “Solitaire,” due later this year, “another thing I’m doing to stay happy and sane and productive.”
He was on the road with Jennings when California’s shutdown was announced; almost immediately, Jennings’ remaining dates were canceled; a Kamp solo tour was wiped off the books soon after. Kamp pivoted to albums he’d started producing for three other artists. Mixing and overdubbing already recorded basic tracks was straightforward, but complicated workarounds needed to be improvised with ProTools and Zoom to compensate for synching and resolution problems while recording one rock band. Quarantined at home in Highland Park, Kamp resurrected pre-existing drum tracks from some of his own past recordings to complete another artist’s EP, editing them to fit the songs.
“I’m very thankful that I have this home studio,” he says, “because there are many musicians, club owners and booking agents whose livelihood is totally linked to playing live.”
By Kamp’s estimate he’s also live-streamed around 20 Facebook Live concerts from his studio, under the banner “We’re Gonna Make It.” “We all need a sense of optimism that’s hard to manufacture sometimes,” he explains. “I’ll definitely sing some sad songs, but they’re about us hanging in there and pulling through.”
Autumn Harrison and husband Rodrigo Gonzalez answered the question of whether they could play music again with their bilingual “surfdance tropical” ensemble Salt Petal by transforming their Santa Monica bungalow into a socially distanced stage. While keeping an eye on their two toddlers, they live-streamed 11 Saturday afternoon shows, “Sábados With Salt Petal,” from their kitchen to Instagram and Facebook, accompanied by friends stationed outside the window on the porch. “We let it be whatever it’s going to be; there’s no way to make things perfect right now. We only played four songs each time because that was the attention span of the kids,” Harrison says, laughing. “We invited friends that live nearby, like [drummer] Adam Topol, who would usually be on tour with Jack Johnson — guest appearances like that made it like a little series for us."
“We were trying to figure out, What are we making music for? [The shows] gave us something to look forward to, and people who follow us something to watch. We felt like we were doing something; we weren’t just waiting for things to change. We took a break in August, but that provided an outlet and also a sense of normalcy …. Friends in Martinique and France were able to watch and say hi to each other while we were playing. It was almost like we had more access to them than if it was a show in a venue.”
Spicer was slow to “jump online” but has since live-streamed several performances. “March feels like the ’90s,” she quips. “There were so many different stages and waves of mental adjustments …. The new normal is being your own tech.”
She was familiar with recording’s technical side from making her 2017 album “Wow and Flutter,” but that years-long process prompted her to seek respite in photography — which rejuvenated her musical creativity. During the shutdown, photography and filmmaking again reignited her creative spark. “When I got that medicine in my system, I turned to music again. Now I’m doing all of those things, and they’re intertwining.” She’s selling her photos through her website, and one reimagined piece was recently selected as cover art for another artist’s recording. “We’re in the second act, where all the action is happening,” she says, referencing three-act storytelling structure. “It’s a time where the protagonist finds out they don’t have the skills required to succeed in their quest, so it’s time to develop new skills.” Striving to do that, she’s recording new tracks at home that sound “more raw,” textually and sonically, than her previous work.
Blackman, who has been digitizing Upstream’s nine albums for streaming online, is exploring new virtual possibilities. “We actually just played a virtual concert [in Placentia]. It was in a venue but no one was there but the crew, and people streamed it live. We did one in Claremont also. And we have a couple more coming. A friend of mine who is a musician also is working for a company right now that is pursuing that really hard with shows in San Juan Capistrano. I think they put up a virtual tip jar where people can tip the bands. What I like about virtual concerts for now is that it’s content that you have out there — a lot of live performance [footage] of yourself playing. So I look at it as a positive.”
“I’m staying in the studio,” says Jerome, who’s seen three tours canceled and his revenue stream “flipped upside-down.” “I’m trying to keep myself inspired.” He and a studio mate have been ramping up a safe space to produce other artists, a career realignment accelerated by the shutdown. Jerome also shifted his website blog from self-promotion to soul-searching with a newsletter, “The Great Reveal,” that explores his love of writing, history and how recent events have altered his perception of music’s meaning. “It’s caused us all to look inward, and value and figure out who we are, to answer what am I doing this for, and why is that important? Knowing that is the very expression of our art. I reflect on the late 1960s and early ’70s, which was this extraordinarily profound and really deep, prolific period of amazing art and music … some of the best songs of all time were written then.”
Muñoz, who notes she has “learned not to take anything for granted, to enjoy the moment and try to make the best out of everything,” is tapping into the chaos of our time via songs composed with Brandon Muñoz for a future album (under their group name, Safe Place) that talks about growing up. “Music is important to me, but making sure that people are being treated correctly is way more important to me. Regardless, I will still make music. And I will definitely make music about the things that we’re going through. Look at Marvin Gaye and ‘What’s Going On’ and ‘Save the Children’ — written over 40 years ago and they still apply. We need that. We need that music to help us get through what’s going on right now.”
“It’s a good time to be making art, because a lot of times it’s a very solitary endeavor,” Hool says. He and Kibler are composing songs for the forthcoming film “2 Hearts,” and recently re-entered the studio to complete We Are the West’s album, tentatively titled “Only One Us.” The absence of “small intimacies” that normally bond people — shaking hands, hugging, sharing food — gently reminded them “what’s important, or not.”
“There’s a lot of crisis, but people have been expressing thanks to us for continuing to play and being creative in the middle of it. That has felt really refreshing — another reminder of why we do music,” Harrison says. “People need release. They need to have some way to feel good together.”
“Maybe I could do a collaboration with a graphic artist, or [laughs] something with Bach and LED lights,” says Micarelli, who’s been doing remote session work. “I’m a lot more open-minded than I was before. I’m more hungry for something that feels like a stretch.”
Silver linings down the road
Musicians are gingerly easing (masked) back into studio work, but they’re not immune to fears gripping society. “Part of being a musician is you’re constantly thinking on your feet and readjusting and finding new ways to make a living,” Kamp says. “I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to continue to do it. I don’t know what it’s going to look like.”
“The record you’ve put out before, the shows you’ve just had — hopefully that work still means something out there,” Spicer says. “That’s the thing that remains. I’m still trying to create beautiful things.”
“Now there’s hope we can get through this,” Blackman says. “We will get through this, but I don’t know how long it’s gonna last. We’re gonna have to get creative.”
Micarelli’s been monitoring how neighbors are getting acquainted and local small businesses are helping each other survive. “People are finding other ways to connect and create, whether they’re creating art or things to help humanity,” she says. That’s inspired her to contemplate how that model might be transposed to musical situations.
“This is a real thing that’s happening in every aspect of life. When we do come back, how do we create concert experiences that are even more connective? My own awareness of human connection and how much people are craving it makes me excited about the possibilities. I think people will be showing up more open, more present and more ready to engage with other audience members and artists to create something even more special. It’s going to be a different world.”
Top Image: Angela Muñoz | Courtesy of Angela Muñoz