Isolation Drills: Dan Drago (“25 O’Clock”)

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.

Drago: It’s like I knew I had to get it all in. Why else would I have spent nearly all of the first 10 weeks of 2020 travelling? It seemed absurd at the time. My friend Ash (frontman of Lovecartel, whom I played bass for back when people had a need for such things) used to make fun of me during those two months: “Man, are you ever home?” To his credit, he was trying to schedule rehearsals, and I was certainly no help at all. I was in New Orleans. I was in Manhattan. I was in Seattle. I was up in Western New York. I would not stop moving. 

By late March, everything had ground to a halt. I’d been furloughed from my job, casting around for part-time work and feeling the most unsure I’d ever felt since my 20s. I stopped having musicians come over to the house for 25 O’Clock (the last ones in were Stella Ruze on March 9). Upcoming dates for shows were being postponed, then postponed again, then canceled left and right (I was supposed to go tour with King Pine as part of his backing band for a short bit in the spring), and none of us knew what was happening, what had happened or what was going to happen. All we knew was to stay put. It was the ultimate irony: Here was all the time we ever said we’d wanted, but we couldn’t use it in the way we wanted to.

Thankfully, I got my head on straight somewhere in early April. I started making myself a little series of regiments. I’d get up in the morning and actually practice guitar. Like, for real. I learned scale modes, chord theory, all the things I never had a good understanding of, all the things I said I wish I had time to learn. “Well,” I said to myself. “You’ve got time now. What’s stopping you?” 

And, of course, I ramped up the podcast output. 25 O’Clock has been an outlet for a lot of Philly-area musicians and artists over the last several years to be heard, to tell their stories. At first, it was mostly an excuse to talk to someone not in the house. The early pandemic conversations were as much about the guest’s day-to-day as it was about their music. We’d stay on the call long after I turned off the tape, just talking and processing what was going on. I started a new podcast with my best friend, James Hearne (Mr. King Pine himself), called Double Lives. It’s a deep dive into live albums, and it’s been a blast working with someone on a project, even if we’re never in the same room.

I developed a few technical work arounds and procedures to be able to talk to people virtually and still have it come out listenable. Those who know me know that I’m pretty picky about what the show sounds like, and I tend to dwell on things that I’m certain no one else can hear, but I can. In all of this, I learned to let go of some of my nit-picky tendencies and let the conversation be the focus. You know the saying: “Perfect is the enemy of finished.” I’m quite happy with how everything has come out show-wise, and that I’ve been able to keep doing it. The musicians I’ve “met” over the last half a year have been incredible people who I can’t wait to meet in real life one day soon.

One of the questions I ask guests since this all started is “What are you doing to stay even?” It’s not a question meant to focus so much on tangible output or what someone is “accomplishing,” because what does that even mean now? Instead, it focuses on what people are doing to keep themselves occupied and in a good mental state. I’ve had many conversations about people’s favorite hiking spots, their favorite things to make in the kitchen, books they’ve read, films they’ve watched, records they’ve listened to. Staying even, to me, is trying to maintain a calm(ish), measured response to what’s happening to me, to the people around me and to the world as a whole. So here’s how I’ve been staying even:

I’ve spent more time outdoors than I have since I was probably 12. Getting outside by myself has been huge for my brain to just relax and shut the hell up. It’s easy to spiral into the dark, to feel like nothing matters and that everything is royally effed. I’ve watched a family of geese build nests, have their babies, raise them and send them off into the world, all in the last six months. Life keeps moving, and it’s good to relearn that regularly.

I’ve read more books since March than I think I’ve read in the past few years. Big thanks to the Free Library of Philadelphia for their excellent e-books selection. I was an e-reader holdout until now, and the convenience has been a game changer. The books I’ve read run the gamut, from musician bios to food and culture to detective and spy novels. I spent a lot of nights with trouble sleeping, and good books help.

In my working life, I’ve been a culinary professional for 20-plus years. It’s been enjoyable to approach the kitchen with a “what do I want to make” mentality, instead of the usual “what do they want me to make.” I’ve gone full into canning and jarring, especially amidst the harvest season. I’ve been batch-cooking, and giving a lot of it away to neighbors, so I’m pretty much a star here on my block. It’s the start of soup season, and I’ve definitely already gone overboard.

The Philly music community has always been a hard-working crew, and during this pandemic, they’ve outshined themselves many times over. I can’t even list all of the great releases that have come out over the last half a year, there are so many. Highlights include Riveryby’s Smart Mouth, Ross Bellenoit’s Where Does The Light Go and Savan DePaul’s Gray’s Ferry Hollowed. And about a hundred others. I’ve tended to lean pretty hard on my “comfort food” when it comes to music, so that means a lot of Phish, Dylan and the Dead, as well as ’90s Canadian power-pop staples like Sloan and the Odds. I’ve gone deep into Aretha’s catalog, and I found more there than I ever could have imagined. I’ve had whole days where I listened to nothing but Bill Evans, and he’s helped calm me down more than once.

I hope everyone is staying even, however that works for you. People have gotten pets, they’ve dove into past hobbies and pursuits, they’ve gotten more active politically and socially—and all sorts of other things. It’s all quite heartening, and if there’s anything positive I’m taking out of all of this, it’s that people have the ability to create amazing things during times of uncertainty and strife. I’m as susceptible to going down the dark mental paths as I read the news as anyone else. I struggle to find hope and light a lot of the time, especially as I see what goes on in our country and beyond. 

I’ve been asked a few times what I’m doing to “make things better,” and I struggled with the answer for a while because I didn’t feel like I was doing much at all. I realized, slowly, that continuing to provide an outlet and amplify voices throughout this time was what I could do, and I was already doing it. It seems to be helping others, too. I’ve gotten more emails and messages over the last six months than I’ve gotten in years, and they all mean the world to me. Doing this podcast, and talking to artists about how we’re all getting by and making things happen, has sustained me greatly through all of this. I don’t know where I’d be without it.

Be well, take care of each other, and we’ll all see each other as soon as we can.