Isolation Drills: Gary Dann (Worldtown Soundsystem, The Boom Room Studio)

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.

Dann: I tried to make it fun. I really did. I did all of the typical pandemic musician stuff. I Zoom jammed off tempo with the homies. I looped. I livestreamed. I played a bunch of online “gigs” with my band. All of the members of Worldtown Soundsystem filmed/recorded ourselves separately at home and pieced the videos together so we were in different squares on a screen playing with each other. Ha ha—we called this Brady Bunch-style videos.

It was cool and fun for a few weeks. Then it got real when we realized we needed to cancel our whole summer of show bookings including what would have been a big milestone for us:performing at our first 20-thousand-plus-person festival, Camp Bisco.

Also in March, at the very beginning of the lockdown, I got my solo looping pedal set up going with a handpan, drumset, keyboard and samples. I used The Boom Room’s livestream camera gear to broadcast a one-hour solo set of improvised live music almost every day for, like, the first 30 days of lockdown. I’d play an instrument called a handpan, which is an Indonesian-sounding ethereal percussion instrument. Loop that and layer it with some deep and slow hip-hop beats, trippy sound effects, lots of shakers and percussion, and a collection of found sound samples.

I sampled Dr. Fauci and Cuomo and Killer Mike. I even sampled Usher from the 2001 song “You Got It Bad” when he says, “You know you got it bad when you’re stuck in the house,” which was my favorite and the absolute most appropriate vocal sample to drop in a jam during a pandemic lockdown. Bro, I was kinda killing it. I was having a lot of fun in the early days of the lockdowns, but sadly that good vibe lasted about two months and then it just got boring as fuck and uninspiring. Damn. Sucks, but it’s true.

Side note/rant: It became really lame relying on Facebook (a greedy company that doesn’t care about me, my art or my fans) and its algorithms to do all of my “shows.” Fuck Facebook. End rant. 

It was really difficult for me to sit down and write this. I started typing this, like, 10 times and still couldn’t do it. Chris, the photographer of this piece, has been extremely patient with me. Don’t get me wrong. I am a born writer. I usually can easily express myself without hindrance using the written word. However, this particular assignment was deeply difficult for me because my general positive mindset has me programmed to answer with something that is a lie.

I wanted to write something cliché and feel-good like, “I overcame the challenges of being an artist during COVID by adapting and deepening my connection to my art form and using the lockdown time to slow down and focus on being an artist.” I desperately want this to be true but sadly it is not.

As an artist, there is no way to “adapt” to not being able to perform onstage to a live audience. It’s what I do and have been doing for 25-plus years. COVID woefully has prevented me from deepening my connection to my art form because the deepest realization of making music is felt through musical connections with other people. It’s the whole reason I ever started playing music in the first place: human connection. Whether it’s the other musicians onstage with me or the audience members vibing, I truly need other people for me to “get there,” and sadly music started to not be interesting once it was just me alone and I didn’t have my peeps to connect with.

Sounds negative and sad, but I’m not complaining. I have used this time to grow in many healthy and positive ways as an man, new dad and entrepreneur/business owner. Gratefully, I’ve had the privilege to spend a large share of my life focusing on developing myself as an artist. I’m thankful for all of the countries, cities and stages in which I have performed over the years.

I’m also grateful for the artists with whom I’ve collaborated and delighted by the fans who’ve shaken their booties to my beats. My heart is incredibly full from the thousands of human connections I’ve felt around the world using music and art as the guiding light. 

I’ll be back. [Read in Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator voice.]