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.
Machiz: On March 11, 2020, I played a gig for 500 middle schoolers in Camden and ate a cheesesteak in a packed bar. The next day, the 60 or so gigs I had booked were wiped from my calendar. As a performer, this was devastating because, as of the first week in March 2020, it looked like I was going to have my most professionally rewarding year to date.
Ten years ago, I considered spending winters in New Orleans because their busy season for gigs lines up with what is traditionally Philadelphia’s slow season (and also, because it’s New Orleans), but in recent years, my calendar had finally filled out with bookings year-round, a lot of it with my dream-come-true gigs. In the six months prior to lockdown, I had made debuts at Lincoln Center, the Guggenheim Museum and TLA. Dirty Dollhouse had packed Johnny Brenda’s for an EP release party. I completed my third collaboration with BalletX. I did my first national comedy tour, and the comedy show I co-produce, Grin & Beer It, was regularly attracting national headliners.
Over the past few years, I’ve done about 200 shows per year, but including Zoom shows, I have done about 15 in the last 12 months. I don’t know why I’m including Zoom shows; they’re terrible, and I never want to use Zoom again. So I guess I have done five shows in the last 12 months.
But the quarantine has been transformative for me. Once the initial quarantine hit, I knew this pandemic was going to last longer than the few weeks that many others were predicting. All of us had to find a way to cope with a world-altering event and more free time than we could have ever imagined. Some spent more time with their families, some took a much needed break from their grind.
For me, as a bass and tuba player, when the world is normal, most of my time is spent collaborating with or working for others, so my coping mechanism was to try to make up for 20 years of never putting my own creativity first. I dusted off my list of ideas for projects that I hadn’t gotten around to; it was a long list. This was a revelation.
In the before time, I would often have an idea, write it down and tell myself I will get to it between gigs or projects. In isolation, I realized I had put nearly all of my own ideas on the back burner for my entire adult life. I love helping creative people I admire bring their ideas to life, and I think I am good at it. But for the better part of two decades, the cost of my commitment to others has been an ever-expanding backlog of my own ideas. So, with all of my obligations on indefinite hiatus, I was determined to accomplish everything I’d always meant to do but didn’t have time for. (Spoiler alert: I didn’t get everything done, but I got a lot done.)
I started by building a small home studio and Marie Kondo-ing my possessions. As I settled into seclusion, the isolation started to do weird things to my brain, and I wrote more than I ever had in my life. Along with writing a bunch of music, I solidified what my first stand-up comedy special would be (if anyone actually wanted to produce my special) and even wrote a good chunk of stuff that could go in a second special, as well as a ton of material that won’t make any sense as soon as the world returns to normal. Here’s a good one I’ll never be able to use again: I’m really starting to regret wishing for more free time on that cursed monkey’s paw.
With time, things got complicated, and my bedroom got crowded. Last summer, I realized I was missing an opportunity by working on things that would either only work after the pandemic or on shows during the pandemic. I knew that I wanted to do some sort of video project, that I had a talkative cat (who was constantly interrupting Zoom performances/meetings) and that I’ve always been drawn to forced perspective (as evidenced by the many pictures of me online drinking waterfalls and holding mountains in my palms). Within an hour, I had ideas for two different web series: Josh Matchstick: Tiny Cruiseship Comedian and Josh Machiz Destroys Cat Heckler. I quickly gathered some of my favorite comics in the world to help write them, and I essentially turned my bedroom into a TV studio.
Josh Matchstick, about a divorced cruiseship comedian who was recently shrunk in an accident and is continuing his career as the world’s smallest comic, is weirdly production-heavy and a little dangerous to make because I need to stand on my radiator to create the forced-perspective illusion.
In September, I was hired to do an outdoor solo-music gig, and playing solo gigs is not something I’m accustomed to. So, in order to rehearse, I brought my PA system into my bedroom to simulate a concert venue. By that point, my bedroom was a recording studio, TV studio and now a concert venue. I couldn’t really walk around my bedroom anymore; it was more of a delicate dance among a cornucopia of fragile gear. (I broke a few things.) So much for the Marie Kondo philosophy. I truly became as busy as I was before the pandemic, but I was focusing on my own endeavors for the first time in my life.
Although I’ve actually felt pretty good in seclusion, I’m immensely grateful to those who were able to make collaborative projects and live performances happen during the pandemic. Because the opportunity to collaborate with others and perform for a live audience was so rare, the shows I was lucky enough to do were truly some of the most magical and memorable experiences in my life.
Molly Murphy and Greg Rigdon hosted a socially distant concert series in their backyard where I played with Heath Allen and a rotating cast of friends a number of times, including a performance for NPR and PBS’s Jazz Night In America. I got to be in the house band for a wonderful online international cabaret festival hosted by the Bearded Ladies and produced by FringeArts and the Public Theater. I was also fortunate to do a handful of livestreams and public outdoor shows with longtime collaborators Hot Club Of Philadelphia.
Those experiences gave me the extra energy and inspiration that it took to complete so many of the projects that I started in isolation. Without those reminders of what it feels like to be in front of an audience and playing with others, I would’ve had no motivation to make art in the first place.
Things are slowly easing into the new normal now. I got the vaccine. I’m deep into the development of an augmented-reality, alternate history of Philadelphia with Pig Iron Theater Company and Rosie Langabeer that will go live in early summer. I’ve be performing shows with the Bearded Ladies Cabaret, taking their box truck (which they converted into a stage) on a traveling medicine show-style tour around Philly. I’m planning a summer tour for a remounting of my second collaboration with BalletX. I did an online Groupmuse with Hannah Nicholas and Gregg Mervine. My average number of days per week wearing pants has increased by one. So, one. It’s one day now.
Quarantine allowed an opportunity for the pendulum of our lives to swing in the other direction and for us to pay attention to the parts of our human experience we were neglecting. As the pendulum swings back, I’m excited to reconnect with my friends, family and collaborators, and I’m grateful to have my calendar fill up again.
But I learned so much from taking time to work on my own projects that I know that postponing my own ideas indefinitely is not sustainable anymore. So, my new goal is balance.
But I also want to play at Lincoln Center again.