Isolation Drills: Jay Carlis (Barrel Fires)

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.

Carlis: I have to think I have a different perspective on quarantine at this point that I did in the early days. I remember at first thinking, “What are we going to do with the three kids at home for two weeks?” That was 10 months ago.

There was a novelty to it in the early days, like a two-week snow day. No school. Work from home. No rushing around to kids’ activities. It was so quiet. We live next to a busy street, and we’d sit outside in March and April and enjoy the quietest nights we’d ever heard.

We went out and got six chickens, partially because we weren’t sure if the eggs might become our main source of food. My wife and I spent the weekends building a coop together, which was an experiment in patience and communication.

In February, I wrote a song called “Backwards.” Mercury was in retrograde and it seemed like things were getting crazy. COVID wasn’t even on the radar screen at that point, but the lines now seem prescient. “I’m going backwards/Everything’s falling apart/I’m taking you with me back to the start.”

As we ran into summer, we spent a lot of time outside. We all felt lucky to have the outdoor space. The kids could play with the neighbors and feel some semblance of normalcy. The Barrel Fires were able to practice every couple of weeks. We had some friends over, one family at a time.

I released my solo record Here We Are in August and played the Tailgate Takeout at 118 North Wayne with Mike Caroto of the Dead Friends. We had a blast. Mike Kay of the Barrel Fires and I did a late night under the tent in Wayne. I was feeling hopeful that live music was on a comeback.

Early in the pandemic, I wrote a song that was a dialogue with internet pioneer and Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. He was such a sharp thinker, and his Electronic Frontier Foundation was an early proponent of free speech on the internet in the ’90s. I was wondering what Barlow would say about the Zoom open mics and Facebook live shows, while these same tools keeping us connected during the pandemic were also tearing our country apart with the free flow of misinformation and hate speech. “Where would you draw the line in these complicated times between liberty and what it takes to save our asses?”

For those in the know, I threw in some song titles from his Dead tunes. I posted a video on Instagram and tagged him and the EFF. Some of Barlow’s friends found it and invited me to perform it for them on a Zoom version of their monthly get-together to celebrate the man. What an awesome experience!

And now we are here in the winter. We’ve stayed pretty isolated and tried to stay sane. We decided to withdraw our kids from the virtual public school and try our hand at homeschooling. We had to give up our strict screen-time limits. There’s just too much damn time on our hands. I remind myself how much TV I watched as a kid and that I ended up all right, I guess.

Overall, it is an emotional roller coaster. We’ve had five people quarantined in the house for nine months now. We know we are lucky to have our health, that I have a steady job and that we all get along so well.

And still, at times, it is painful. We get angry. We wish things could be different. We get bored. But we go on. And we’re starting to wonder how we are going to handle going back to the normal life again. And if that’s even possible.