Isolation Drills: Edward Rogers And Stephen Butler (Rogers & Butler)

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.

Edward Rogers: Oh, what a year! Woke up on New Year’s Day with a complete sense of hope and ambitions for a full year ahead. Steve Butler (who lives right outside of Philly) and I, Edward Rogers (living in the East Village of NYC), had done the impossible: We wrote, recorded, mixed and mastered our first album as a duo. Distance was always a challenge as we live two hours apart, creating a tough barrier for the type of creative process we were working in. We both have extensive backgrounds, me as a singer/songwriter, Steve as singer/songwriter and the leader of his band Smash Palace, but together we had taken the best of our backgrounds and created what we both thought was a beautiful album, one we had always aspired to make: Poets & Sinners.

Management and the record company had laid out ambitious plans for 2020. The album was to be released on April 17 with a series of record-release shows beforehand, a record plugger to get the album airplay and a tour starting in June in England opening for the Zombies, followed by dates in and around Amsterdam and Europe! The world was filled with sunshine in our minds.

We started hearing on the news about the coronavirus in February, but it seemed a million miles away from our world. Mid-February, I started to see people wearing masks, mostly of Asian descent, and seeing that made me angry. I felt they were being alarmists. I couldn’t figure out whether the masks were to prevent them from getting sick or they had a flu or virus they didn’t want to share. Now looking back, ignorance was bliss. A lack of knowledge is a major problem especially when living in today’s world! Suddenly, the virus hit one person up in New Rochelle, N.Y., and the world went crazy. We were thrown into lockdown while constantly getting mixed messages of what was correct and incorrect protocols of how to protect ourselves. Total mismanagement and irresponsible suggestions from a president who still doesn’t understand the problem. He was and is sinking in stupidly!

Overnight, our tour was cancelled; the record-release date was postponed, and all work ceased. Everyday brought more terror into our lives, and then friends of mine started contracting the disease. A friend of mine, Alan Merrill—an amazing musician who was responsible for writing “I Love Rock ‘N Roll”—died. Now, the reality was at my doorstep.

Meanwhile I had been talking to Steve via phone now almost daily. Steve lives on a beautiful tree-lined suburban street with almost no corona threat in his world. At the time, it had a calming effect on me compared to stories from most of my city’s musicians. His daily life was a million miles away from mine. He would call and say, “I just came back from my walk in the park. What a beautiful day.” My response being I haven’t been outside the house in a month.

We decided we would try to write some new songs for, at first, “who knows what purpose”! At first my concentration was at an impasse. Words wouldn’t form, ideas kept flowing back to the events of the day as more and more people caught the disease. My escape: a bottle of red wine at night—and a hangover the next morning—to avoid the reality of a new day. Slowly but surely words, ideas and music started to flow, and in our new unique way, I would email the latest set of lyrics, which Steve would put to music, and we would go back forth via email, text or phone as songs seemed to form and the process got easier. The songs seem to develop a million miles away from both our worlds.

Our record label, Zip Records, asked us to release the album even though we couldn’t tour and they couldn’t offer any promo support. We went ahead and with blind hope and a great manager, started reaching out to press and radio—doing all the work that the record-company in-house staff normally does. It was and is a major learning curve. Radio is really hard to get unless you know someone, but the record slowly took off and, thanks to indie-radio airplay and specialty shows, has done well all around the world. Steve and I have developed a much better bond and actually finished demos for a new album. We are still surprised daily at the support we receive from fellow musicians, radio and press and have learned so much over the past several months.

The path forward isn’t easy. We are still living in semi-shutdown, but like all the new self-taught work we accomplished on our record, we have also learned about the coronavirus. Hopefully, there’s a cure in the months ahead—and a tomorrow with a new president, who will lead us with heart and compassion as opposed to spite.

Steve Butler: The year 2020—one I’ll never forget, nor will most people alive at this time. With all of the suffering going on the world, I feel lucky because I’m OK and able to do my work without too much turmoil. Living just outside of Philadelphia, my small town was barely hit by the pandemic. I would talk to Edward daily, and I could hear the stress and worry in his voice. I could read it in the lyrics he sent me. I was so concerned for him living in NYC at the time. It was the worst place to be. Somehow, out of all the sorrow and worry, we managed to write the songs for a new record, even before our current new record, which just came out in June, appeared. I believe that life-changing events, in the world at large or your own personal life, can be a great source of inspiration. Whether it be positive or negative change, artists react to their surrounding environment. 

At first Edward and I were very disappointed about the tour in Europe being canceled. Rogers & Butler had done some opening gigs with the Zombies in the States, and when they invited us to go abroad, we were overjoyed. Once the virus hit, we had to think of new ways to keep making music and present our new album to an audience that was on lockdown. So far, we’ve been having some luck in doing videos—and getting press and radio to pay attention, thanks to efforts of our wonderful, hardworking manager! 

The way Edward and I write didn’t change. He sends me lyrics, and I send back songs. Living 100 miles apart, we had a working method that didn’t require us to be in the same room together. It’s an interesting way for me to compose. I’ve always written with the person being in the same room with me, and I’ve always participated in the lyrics and the music. Somehow, having the words in front of me lets me concentrate more on the music. It’s a bit tricky, fitting things together but I’ve got the hang of it, and we’ve been very prolific with this process. 

We have a couple opportunities coming up for live shows. One is a gig in a large theater, but only 25 people will be allowed to attend. Should be interesting. Edward and I are always interested in exploring new ways to reach our audience, but we are also very careful not to expose our audience or ourselves to any threat of catching COVID. 

It’s a brand new world out there. I have no idea when things will return to normal. It’s all a guessing game. Hopefully, new leadership that presents a plan forward and cares about its citizens is on the way in our next election. Right now, it’s like there are no adults in the room. 

Music can play a big part in bringing about change. I’ve always felt that all the arts play a huge role in looking at what we’re experiencing and offering insights into our lives. Who knows if the new art that comes forth will be serious or light hearted? Will we see a roaring 2020s as they saw a roaring 1920s after a war and a pandemic back 1918? I have no answers to big questions like that. Edward and I are making music that will hopefully make you feel more aware of our human condition or music that will give you an escape from our troubles.