Isolation Drills: Kilamanzego

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

Kilamanzego: “My debut EP is dropping in a few weeks, and now I feel it’s all for nothing,” I texted one of my friends in late March. “I’m not even sure I should be putting it out.”

In February, I’d announced my debut EP, These Roots Are On Fire, to be released in mid-April. I did this to give myself time to promote, which was probably twice the amount of time most people with a label would have needed. As an independent artist with no publisher, management or team behind me, I improvised as much promo as I could on my own. Then the bomb dropped mid-March: an unprecedented disease known as COVID-19 swept the country at a rapid rate and continues to do so without a cure or any end in sight.

On release day, April 17, my record dropped, and I nervously watched the activity around it while hustling to push it even harder. “This album is a rollercoaster of anxiety, drawing influences from Flying Lotus and Machinedrum to Hudson Mohawke and Geotheory,” I described in a press release I’d written up. The reactions I received from everyone were indescribable, praising its creativity and buying hundreds of copies on Bandcamp within the following month.

Before the pandemic, my father was my biggest cheerleader, and I’d never seen him so proud of me successfully pursuing my dream. COVID-19 turned it into a different story. He’s 76, and likewise even more concerned about my wellbeing in the long run. Now he brings up how I should get a “practical job” that will be stable, go back to school and earn my master’s degree. And while I don’t live my life for him, I don’t want him to worry about me when he’s not around.

Up to this point in my career, it’s felt like such an exhilarating ride that I’m not even sure I know what I’d go back to school to excel in anymore. I’ve been getting more and more great opportunities by the day, which would’ve had a bigger impact on my music career if we all weren’t quarantined and possibly could’ve changed my life entirely. It’s disappointing, but I try to think of the positives.

We artists have had to completely re-adapt, limited to the whims of video broadcasting and getting extra creative with our branding so that when the issue settles down, we’ll be prepared. The plus side is that I’ve been understanding better how to configure video streams, edit and design, while having new revelations about myself and my career. It takes an incredible amount of isolation to self-reflect and realize the worth of being true to yourself with your art and interaction with others.

As a multi-instrumentalist/DJ, not having the chance to be as social with others has taken its toll on me in a couple of ways especially in comparison to peers. On the one hand, I’m used to being glued to my equipment 24/7, chipping away at every little detail and shaping sounds til they sound interesting to my ear. On the other, I’m immunocompromised, so I’ve been struggling with not being able to care-freely walk outside as much as I did before, perform live shows and be a talker amongst big crowds for fear that I’d easily catch COVID-19.

But even though I’ve witnessed quite a few deaths this year that were painful to reckon with, 2020 will always be one of the most unique years of our time because it’s pushing everyone to make sacrifices that will either make or break us all.

Isolation Drills: Marty Gottlieb-Hollis (Hardwork Movement, Martronimous, Interminable) And Sterling Duns (Hardwork Movement, City Love)

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

Sterling Duns: Martronmious, great to be here with you, typing across the room from you. How are you? 
Marty “MartronimousGottlieb-Hollis: Hi, Duns. I’m good. It’s been a few minutes since I’ve seen you. Grateful for this opportunity to chat. 
Duns: Me too, for sure. Was thinking maybe we could just ask each other a few questions. Go back and forth or something. How’s that sound to you? 
Martronimous: Love it. Shoot. 
Duns: Awesome. As you know, we’ve been in community together for years, through sharing a home to playing in bands. I’m curious to hear if your sense of community has changed during your life in quarantine? And if so, how? 
Martronimous: It’s definitely changed. I don’t go to the bar(n) by myself nearly as much as I used to. But really, I think this time has just deepened my relationship with the people I lean on the most. I’m learning how to lean on them more and ask for support when I need it—still a work in progress. As an artist, I’m feeling the importance of collaboration as a form of community building more than ever. There was a moment when I needed to step out on my own as Martronimous in order to see myself more fully and have more of myself, but throughout quarantine, and especially during this time of uprising around racial justice, collaboration has felt really important, energizing and rich. 
Duns: So much of that resonates with me, Martronimous.
Martronimous: I’m curious, Duns. What are some sources of joy that’ve gotten you through life in quarantine?

Duns: Cooking and eating meals and watching TV with my podmates, dreaming up and engaging in different creative projects with my best friend and partner, Sophie, deep belly-laugh convos with the homies on the phone or on Zoom, listening to podcasts and reading books. These are just a few. I’ve found that the moments of joy are that much more resonant because of the ways that confusion, pain, sadness, and despair have been present for me during this time. It definitely makes me even more grateful for the joyful moments, which allows me to tend to the hope I have deep in my heart that we will make it through.
Martronimous: I love that, and you’ve definitely cooked up some top five- meals in the ‘Rona. 
Duns: Thanks, Martronimous. Another one for you: In this time where our country is asked to face its racial past with more honesty and bravery than ever before, what are the conversations/questions you’ve been grappling with? 
Martronimous: Deep question. An important one for me has been looking at my position as a white artist in a Black art form (jazz, hip hop, Black American music generally). Can my work be healing and liberatory (my goals as an artist), or am I just taking up space? Where I’m at right now, I think the best thing I can do is to show up to that very complex space, rife as it is with contradiction, with my best, fullest self. As long as white supremacy exists, it will be a murky, sometimes problematic place to be, but I think there’s more possibility for community building, healing and supporting Black lives from a space of collaboration than of exiting the conversation. Jazz and hip hop are the most meaningful art forms that I know of. They are rooted in the liberation of Black people. They are America’s music. Though I’m white, half-Jewish/half-Christian, of European ancestry, this is the music I grew up listening to and loving. A continual question for me will be how to participate in a way that creates space for and supports Black people. Believing that I can participate and add value goes hand in hand with my hopes and dreams of ending white supremacy and building a liberatory, abundant future where we can all show up fully, safely, healed. 
Duns: [Takes a breath] Just going to breathe that one in, Martronimous. Appreciate you sharing.
Martronimous: I’m honored to be in it with you, as a friend and a creative partner. You’re my hero and a source of great inspiration, so I’m curious what you think your role is as a creative in this moment on earth?

Duns: I think one of my big roles is to center my own healing and support others in their healing journeys. Though I’ve not produced a ton of music during my time in quarantine, I’ve felt very artful and creative over the last four months in dreaming up and designing different workshops and community-building series centered on healing, interdependence and taking action, all in the hopes of creating a more healed world for the next generations. I am currently in the midst of co-facilitating two different five-part series, one called Interwoven: A Black And Asian Community Building Series, and the other called Reclaiming Closeness. Both have been incredibly healing spaces for me and, I hope, for others. In Interwoven, 26 folks of African and Asian heritage get to share stories and art, explore the ways we’ve been hurt across our racial identities, explore the set up by this country to pit our two communities against one another and dream toward a world where Black folks and Asian folks are healed and whole and in deep relationship with one another. In Reclaiming Closeness, a group of 25-plus folks across the gender spectrum have been looking at how toxic masculinity has impacted the ways boys and men are encouraged or discouraged to show and feel the range of human emotions (anger, sadness, tenderness, kindness, empathy, etc.), the impact this socialization has on the women and femmes in our communities, and envisioning a world without gender-based violence. I feel so blessed for these two creative healing spaces, the co-facilitators and all of the participants.
Martronimous: Yes. That’s powerful work. Any spots open in the Black and Asian series? 
Duns: Not for you.
Martronimous: Right. 
Duns: [Shakes head, with a grin on his face] You obviously haven’t learned everything, but knowing what you know now in the pandemic, what would you tell yourself from week one of quarantine?
Martronimous: I would tell them to have faith, and that you’re at least going to make it to week 17 to record a hot video with Duns. Honestly though I’m not sure what I could’ve said to prepare myself for this moment in time. It’s a paradigm shift. Maybe that newness will still exist, can exist, and so will sameness; that there will be opportunities to explore other creative mediums (photography, making videos) and to really figure out what matters to you as a person and as an artist. Another way of saying that is, your stuff will get kicked up, and your wounds will be uncovered, but you’ll have real choices around this. And the chance to heal and grow as a result. 

Duns: Truth, Martronimous. You’re a real inspiration for me around healing and growing. 
Martronimous: Thanks, Duns. We do a lot of healing and growing together. Speaking of which, I’ve got one more for you. How are you so cool, calm and collected during our fights?
Duns: Am I cool?! Ha. I appreciate that, Martronimous. I know I sometimes get heated in our arguments, and I appreciate the way you hold space for it, and please know, I’m always trying to bring more love and understanding to our conflicts. And also, do the dang dishes! I’m really interested in how we, as a culture, learn more tools, skills and techniques to support us in conflict. I don’t think we are very good at conflict as a society, and as a product of society and my environments, I learned some different strategies and techniques that helped me early and often in my life. I am grateful those things have supported me to get here today. And, I don’t think the same strategies and techniques I learned early will be of much help in this next chapter of my life in supporting me to live out my vision of a more healed, whole, just world that has more space for healing, wholeness and justice in my own and all of our relationships. I know I need to be practicing a different way of being and showing up in my relationships if I am to expect there to be a society that responds differently to conflict, disagreement, harm and violence. I have learned a lot through my relationships, teachers, workshops and readings about how much healing there is for me to claim by learning to navigate conflict more skillfully. Thank you for letting our relationship be a place for learning and growth, failures and successes, all on the road to collective liberation. I’m forever grateful. Love you, Martronimous.
Martronimous: Love you, Duns! The feeling is mutual. I’ll get on those dishes.

Isolation Drills: Crossed Keys

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

Josh Alvarez (vocals): I’ll be honest. Life during a global pandemic as a hospital worker on a mental-health unit is not my favorite thing, but it’s just where I find myself these days. As a clinician, I try to maintain hope in science and medicine; that eventually we’ll be able to have a vaccine that makes the world a safer place for us to continue our lives once again. As a musician, I feel that it is our duty to continue to sing our songs and write out the things we feel in our hearts, even if only to ourselves. To effectively not allow the fires of creation and euphony to burn out and smolder because these are the medicines and salves for our poor, dejected souls—souls that need nourishment in dark times such as these. When darkness and sorrow control the global conversation, it is the artist‘s job to remind the stars in the sky how to twinkle and shine. To remind the single candle’s light that it can not be vanquished by the darkness of a thousand nights.

When the illness abates, when it’s safe to inhabit the communal world again, I promise that our work, both clinical and musical, will continue with the same passion and fervor as it has always maintained. I just can’t wait to sing for you again, and I know in my heart that I will sing with everything that I am. 

Andrew Wellbrock (bass): The hardest part of being in a global pandemic has been being cut off from creating, playing and watching live music. I’ve realized that my entire social life revolves around going to shows and playing shows. However, if that’s the worst thing that’s happened throughout all of this, we’re some of the lucky ones. All five of us were fortunate enough to be in positions where our jobs continued—some from home and some under fairly stressful new conditions. We all have jobs that involve helping people, and the world needs a lot of that right now. So it’s been a stressful few months, but we’re all just doing our part.

Since we’re working, we decided early on that we were going to participate in as many fundraising activities as we could. When Bandcamp waived their fees, we’ve used that as an opportunity to sell merch and donate the entire cost to the PHL COVID-19 Fund and the Equal Justice Initiative. Our friends over at Black Shirt Music did a line of T-shirts for Doctors Without Borders and included one of our designs. Most recently, we contributed a song to 19 Notes On A Broken System, a benefit comp featuring a bunch of our friends like Open City, Gray CELL, the Ramoms and more.

Overall, we’re all healthy and getting to spend great quality time with our families and pets. My dog is real pumped I’ve been home, but I think the cats have been plotting my demise for weeks.

We’ve had some fun on our Instagram account and done some acoustic covers, but our main goal while home is to try and write some new music remotely. We all feed off each other creatively when we’re in person, so it’s been a challenge to work through ideas together, but we’re finally at a point where we’re making some progress on new material. Hopefully, when the world heals a bit more, we’ll be able get together and finish these songs off, get them down on tape and cross our fingers that small shows are safe sometime later this year.

Isolation Drills: Taiwan Housing Project

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

Kilynn Lunsford: Until recently, I was working as the national organizer with Labor For Bernie, uniting union members in support of Bernie Sanders. Now, I’m just working on a PA Medicare For All campaign plan and participating in labor actions with USPS, BMWE and Philly’s sanitation workers, to name a few. I’ve managed to do a decent amount of reading during quarantine and even more so now that I’m unemployed; some of my most-enjoyed have been Capital: Volume OneRacecraftToward Freedom: The Case Against Race Reductionism and a collection of Brecht short stories. My fiancé, Thomas, and I have watched so many films it’s hard to keep track of them all, but my absolute favorite was Elio Petri’s Trilogy Of Neurosis, which includes the masterpiece The Working Class Goes To Heaven. Not only does its cast include the best of Lina Wertmüller’s regulars, but it cleverly explores an array of Marxian ideas; among the many scenes worth extoling, Lulu inventorying his spoils of compensatory consumerism, and the comical pathos it invokes, is possibly my favorite. Musically, I’ve been playing around with a Roland drum machine, recording beats and vocals on my phone. I have a solo album I’ve been working on, but I still need to finish the artwork. I haven’t had a lot of inspiration to work on visual art while stuck inside; but that’s my goal for the next few months. I also need to work on the art for a live Taiwan Housing Project tape we put together with Belltower Records. 

Marky Feehan: Since I lost my job in March and hunkered down, I’ve just been watching a lot of Netflix. I’m hoping this is all going to end soon so I can go back to bar hopping. No Kenzinger is worth dying for, though, so looks like I’m stuck for now. In the meantime, I’ve been doing a lot of recording in my living room. Kilynn and I started out recording on my couch, and now I’m back to square one again. I can’t wait to get back on the road again with the band and back into the studio to make our next album. 

Shawn Kilroy: I’ve been playing the drums a bunch.

Cameron Healy: Mostly, I stare at a screen. I spent two weeks ill with COVID-19, trying to get myself back into science, and I’m generally outraged at the fascist police murder of George Floyd. May the old world die and a new one be born.

Isolation Drills: Ruby The Hatchet

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

Sean Hur (keyboards): It’s been a curious year. It feels suddenly, as of this writing in June, that we’ve had a year without spring, and halfway through, the only seeming benefit is in how it’s made the beginning of the summer especially beautiful. The relief of less smog is subtle in the city but real in our clearer, quieter skies, and I’ve been grateful to be spared the allergies I’ve endured in previous springs. The effects are cumulative and slow, but I do feel now it is the best time to get out into nature and our neighborhoods and enjoy the best air and skies we’ve had in decades as we switch to the next phase. We all have sacrificed, but we gain things if we can find them.

I’m a audio tech in Philly, so the work has been somewhat steady as musicians have been wanting to get their gear in shape to record and maintain rigs while the schedules are open, so there’s been more pro audio gear coming in as well for those who are trying to record and make music how they can. I bet it’s still been difficult though to be creative for many in isolation. For the artists, it’s the social moments, dialogues and movements that fuel creation, not the view or like counts. For performance artists in all fields, this is a most frustrating time; everyone is getting rusty, and those who love the stage like I do are missing the “hurry up to wait” for gigs and the cancelled tours. The streams aren’t good enough.

Personally, I’ve been revisiting and relearning but also trying new things while I dare with the time. I’ve been teaching myself Tarot, especially since last summer, and I’ve continued through all of this time; it’s been amazing for my relative mood. It’s meditative, more about finding words and images to attach to the subconscious feelings and currents of daily life. When you learn, you’ll see your draw has patterns, and then you can realize how so much in your intellect follows those patterns in personal events, interactions and emotions.

I’ve been getting into ’90s Hong Kong and ’60s French new-wave cinema and revisiting some classic films. My favorite by far is Chunking Express by Wong Kar-Wai. Faye Wong and Tommy Leung are magic in their chemistry. Bande À Part by Godard was my first of his. It’s the dance scene and the hard edits with the music. Shinkai’s anime classic Your Name is the most beautiful animation I’ve ever seen. My favorite film to revisit was Miller’s Crossing by the Coen brothers. There’s nothing like the “Danny Boy” scene; the tommy guns are almost musical how they sound and are used, especially. Albert Finney is brilliant. 

I’ve not seen a single episode of Tiger King just to wear it almost like a badge. (This is a soft badge.)

I’ve been getting back to basics and writing music when I can, but also getting back into good habits of practicing. I’ve relearned the guitar solo to “Waiting In Vain,” which has been a revelation because of its timing and properly learning what I had not gotten quite right the first time. I’ve gotten close on “Send In The Clowns” on piano, my favorite Sondheim tune. 

I’ve been also been getting back into cooking as many are—especially old Korean dishes from my childhood. Partially this is due to my avoiding big-box grocery stores when possible, as I’ve been favoring local Korean ones. They were the first to be proactive with the pandemic and were also never sold out/looted of necessities.

In this time, I’ve also been acutely aware of the uptick of racist attacks against Asian people (particularly women, children and elderly) through this pandemic, which has set a unique backdrop for me in how I’ve viewed the protests in America. While I’ve noticed subtle behaviors and words in how some have reacted to me, no one has been overt toward me as I’m tall and my look might show that I’m not an easy target. But I do maintain that with most people, these are aberrations because of fear and racism, amplified onscreen as most people we come into contact with are all just trying to deal with the now. It is a blessing and curse where we are now because there are so many things we can’t control; but of the things we can, the people are moving. Luck favors those in motion.

From even just a couple weeks ago, especially in the digital spheres with the neo-civil-rights movement, the lack of any common social direction or purpose over getting out of quarantine has radically changed the feeling of the year as we’ve gotten to the summer.

At least there’s a distinct digital dividing line between people in the mainstream and this “minor schism” of unfollowing on social-media platforms. Yet the protests are a huge historical marker that was meant to happen. Indeed if this year might not be economically better than last, and frustrate us collectively, we will be to be able to leave this year with real changes that mean something physical. To get our collective house just a little more in order would be a blessing to walk away with in 2020.

Things will and cannot simply not stay as before. If there are more crises that occur that don’t help our current situation, it’ll bottom out further before it improves. Quite simply, if there’s not enough work and social progress stalls in the minimum, people in desperate situations will be get angrier with the heat and this fall as we veer closer to election season.

Where I work in Kensington, there were National Guard stationed on Kensington and Allegheny avenues during the day. After a week, they and the curfews were gone and much of the streets looked as they had before despite the damage, which was slowly being repaired. The people who live here represent probably one of the most integrated neighborhoods in Philadelphia; as there are homeless, citizens and users just trying to survive, there’s no grand cultural war to fight here. It is just people trying to get by. There was looting and property damage, but the overtone of racialized anger was not there. It was about desperate people trying to take advantage while there was one. Those overtones exist in wealthier Fishtown, Port Richmond and South Philly.

But since it’s warmer and we’re starting to enter the next phase, we’re finally getting back to playing music out of isolation together again, which can’t be soon enough. People are seeing their friends for the first time in months. I can predict as we transition back to a new normal tempo, socially whilst the masks become a part of our collective wardrobes for the foreseeable future, people will be washing and disinfecting their hands more frequently after going out and contact tracing (in their social circles and nets) when we’re all out of this. Which, funny enough, is also actually good social manners and maybe something that people should’ve been engaged in more anyway.

I do believe that most people are for the future—doing things better and getting better as individuals to do their bit. It may not be as pretty or sound as good as we’d like, but even those who are vehemently fighting against change or what they don’t like will have to catch up to the rest of society or be left behind.