Isolation Drills: RFA

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.

Daniel Cousart (vocals, guitar): Quarantine has changed my life quite a bit. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster to say the least, like it has been for everyone. Dealing with the sheer amount of time and the craziness of what’s been going on has taken quite an emotional toll on us all and forced us as a nation to re-evaluate what’s really important.

That being said, it’s been a time of a lot of positive changes for me. I’ve been working hard on a solo EP I’m going to be releasing in January that I’m very excited about. This new direction has really inspired me to make something more unique. Because of this, things seem to be shaping up. It’s been really great to get more into recording and to work with people who help me see my vision through, like my roommate Brett Long, who’s a killer photographer, and Kyle Pulley of Headroom Studios, who’s producing the EP.

Through all this craziness, this time has given me the insight that I need to take my music and my role as an artist more seriously. I’m very hopeful for what lies ahead and can’t wait to start playing some shows.

Thanks for reading. 

Alec Powell (drums): If I get one more email that talks about, “These unprecedented times,” I might throw my phone in the Schuylkill. Things have no doubt been crazy over the last seven months, but honestly, I’ve kind of enjoyed the pause that COVID-19 brought to my life. In this time, I have taken a great step back. As weird as this might sound, I’ve never felt more centered. I’ve been able to focus on myself in a way that I haven’t been able to do in a really long time.

Basically all I’ve done since March is sleep well, work from home, go to school from home, eat well, exercise regularly, spend a lot of time outside, spend time with my closest friends, play music and pick up golfing. I haven’t been pushed to do anything I didn’t personally want to do, and I’ve been given space to focus on the things that keep me grounded. 

I’ve been hiking, camping, golfing, playing music and hanging out with the people I love. I’ve had more time than ever to devote to these things, and it’s been really good for me, personally speaking. I’ve had the space to step back and re-evaluate what I need to do in order to live a happy life. 

I have gained a great deal of perspective throughout this crisis, and two of the biggest lessons I’ve learned are that adaptability is vital to survival and you can’t become adaptable if you don’t have a sense of personal stability. I’ve been able to develop a great sense of personal stability through all of this simply because I had to. I couldn’t let the virus and all the chaos of the last seven months control me. I had to get back to basics and make sure I did everything I could to make sure that I felt stable and secure by filling my time with things I love to do and staying healthy.

From that baseline, I’ve been able to develop a sense of adaptability that I did not possess before. New challenge? No problem. Fit it into the schedule, move things around, blow off the steam by smacking the drums or taking a nice long hike. When you’re able to figure out how to center yourself, you can tackle any challenge. 

As a creative, COVID has been illuminating. I’ve been able to take a step back from the craziness of constant rehearsals, studio days and gigs and just focus on playing the stuff that makes me happy, when it makes me happy. I’ve been able to work on developing my skills further on a few new instruments and play what I want, when I want. I’ve been able to explore other areas of my creativity and develop proficiency in new domains. 

Most of all, it’s allowed me to get a little bit of space from music, because honestly, I was feeling smothered. I felt tied down and unable to explore my other interests. COVID has given me the space to explore those interests, and I couldn’t be happier about it. I’m back in school, working two great jobs, learning new things every day and playing new music with new friends in new places with new ideas of what’s possible. The world has changed, and I’m excited about it.

I feel like the world needed a good shuffle of the deck. Where some see chaos, I always see opportunity. Change is constant, and there’s nothing you can do but learn to tango with it. Be adaptable. Move like water. Things will get better, but only if you make the choices today that get us there. Find your center, and keep hope alive. Things will get better, not always in the short term, but we must always stay positive and rest easy that no matter how awful things seem, there’s always a new day just around the corner.

Brendan McHale (bass): This year has really tested my patience, hope and overall motivation. I’m sure I’m not the only one. In general, though, I’d rate it a seven out of 10. I don’t know. I feel like I’ve been dealing with all this pandemic stuff pretty well. I’ve been thankful not to have anyone close to me get badly affected by the virus.

The worst thing about social distancing is the lack of touring. I miss that. Like most folks in March, I kept inside. I work for the Philly POPS Orchestra during the day, so we’ve had to switch to a mindset of producing virtual shows instead of the usual concerts at the Kimmel Center. It’s definitely weird and not the same as going to see the 65-piece orchestra, but we’re making it work.

On the creative side of things, (guitarist) Christian (Turzo) and I started recording a ton. We’ve always recorded music together, but being inside with more time, we have an opportunity to make a lot of content. Some of it is OK, some of it is fabulous. We just want to have fun—that’s really the gist of it.

RFA is taking a break for a while, and I think the main reason—the most important reason—is that we just all want different things out of music at the moment. Christian and I have always been a good writing team living together, so we formed our new project, Echo Kid. I like that we keep it loose. Sometimes, one of us will have a fully fleshed-out idea and the other will add one instrument. Sometimes, one of us will have a melody and not know what to do with it. I guess the point is that however the music is made, it’s being made, and if it sounds great, even better! We hope to put out a plethora of content before the end of this year and beyond.

Of course, there are the other hobbies that I’ve taken up. I love woodworking now. One of my favorite projects was building an outdoor bar with my brothers for our dad. I’ve also got a set of carving knives, so we’re gonna see what utensils come out of the fire wood in my parents backyard. Turns out a nasty cut to the thumb only takes a few weeks to heal—who knew! When I’m really bored, I shave Christian’s head. It’s only happened twice. 

I wish all my fellow musicians, Philadelphians, Americans and citizens of the world good luck out there. Keep going, We got this, and never turn down the music!

Christian Turzo (guitar): What can I say, really? 2020 has been a goddamn year—it feels like life before coronavirus was eons ago, some distant, long-gone mysterious age when people could gather in crowded bars and music clubs and share drinks and cigarettes with their friends without a second thought.

In a lot of ways, I feel like a completely different person now than I did in February. Like a lot of Philly musicians, RFA had started off the year planning our next slew of shows and trying to put the finishing touches on a new collection of songs. Pretty run-of-the-mill stuff. Like a lot of musicians, we were excited for the year ahead, we had just played some of our biggest shows yet, and we all had a sense that 2020 was going to be some mystical year. “A new decade!”

And I suppose the funny thing is, in a lot of ways, it still has been. But our expectations were completely flung out the window. We went from mixing together almost every day to not being able to see our bandmates for months, which was definitely strange at first but has ended up being a blessing in disguise.

Obviously, there’s a whole bunch of bullshit going on in the world right now, and it’s very easy to be overwhelmed by all the negativity floating in the air. It’s exhausting to remain engaged with what’s going on around you when so much of what’s going on around you is absolutely off-the-wall insane. But it occurred to me somewhere along the line that the only way to make sure that this year isn’t a waste is to make something out of it. It’s heart wrenching to think about how deeply so many people have been impacted by this situation, losing loved ones and friends and livelihoods, and I think it’s up to all of us to make up for that by being better to one another.

While I could have done without all of the needless death and destruction, I think its a good thing that COVID sort of forced people to slow down and to really take stock of their lives and what’s important to them. This virus didn’t give us an excuse to slow down so much as it presented all of us with the social imperative to do so. And in that way, I think it has definitely reminded all of us just how many basic human things we take for granted—the simple pleasures of meeting friends in a crowded bar after a long day of work, or the supreme joy of being able to leave the house without a face mask and a gallon of hand sanitizer.

As a musician, it’s certainly changed my perspective a lot. It’s made me sort of rediscover the magic of live performance, since we haven’t been able to do it for months. This has been the longest I’ve gone without playing a show since I was about 14, which is pretty weird. But it has been sort of a blessing in disguise, too. It disrupted the routine that we all had settled in, and it forced me and Brendan, particularly, to think about what we do in a completely different way. It’s been a period filled with a lot of rediscovery.

My relationship with music was always been more focused on the spectacle of a live performance than on the recording process or even the writing process, really. For most of my life, I’ve been the “just plug in the guitar and play a couple chords and keep it simple, stupid” sort of guy. I always sort of prided myself on my laziness. So it was incredibly weird to not have that part of the job anymore, especially at first. But it’s ended up being really wonderful to learn about this whole other aspect of creating music.

I’ve had a whole lot of fun building and now just messing around in our home studio, trying to at least make something every day, whether it’s a song or a loop or even just a bunch of sounds. I’ve been trying to maintain some semblance of self-discipline throughout the quarantine, and I’m still very focused on not wasting the time that’s been given to me. In a bizarre sort of way, the pandemic put me in a position every musician dreams to be in—I suddenly had enormous amounts of time on my hands and, on top of that, a duty to everyone around me to stay the hell at home. So rediscovering this whole side of my love affair with music was definitely a ray of light in an otherwise bleak moment in the world. 

This new project, which we’re calling Echo Kid, is a lot more nebulous than RFA. It’s a more fluid sort of thing. We think of it more as a collective recording project than as a band; the nucleus is Brendan and me writing and recording the songs together, and then whoever else happens to be around contributes whatever they can bring to the table. Sometimes, one of us will bring the other a nearly finished song; other times, it’ll just be a chord progression or a melody; and occasionally, we’ll just knock one off from scratch spontaneously.

But I think that fluidity is something that both of us really enjoy, and it’s something that we didn’t really have working with RFA. That’s a band with clear-cut, specific roles that we all play, and that we all need to play in order to make that particular machine work. So again, it’s definitely been fun to get out of our collective comfort zone and to try something completely new. I’m very excited to see what the future holds for us, because at the moment, I have no real idea.

Outside of music, I’ve just been doing what a lot of people have probably been doing: trying to stay active and maintain some sort of routine, trying to spend time with friends and family (as much as is responsibly possible). I’ve been reading a whole lot more than usual, which has been nice. Also I’ve gotten way back into collecting vinyl records again, which is something I haven’t really consciously done since high school, so it’s been a whole lot of fun rediscovering that.

Like most people, I have no real idea what the next week, the next month or the next year is going to look like, for me or for Philadelphia or for the whole world. I guess all I have to say is to keep on spreading love to those around you, and be there for each other. If there’s one thing that this whole situation has taught humanity, I think it’s got to be that we’re all we’ve got, so we have to be kind to one another.

And, of course, don’t forget to vote, vote, vote.