Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area had been staying at home over the past year, learning to adapt to a “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’d been doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.
McTear: There’s no doubt in my mind that I’ve led a privileged life. Anyone who gets to sit with the love of his life at a recording console, surrounded by mics and guitars and amps and pedals—who gets paid even a little bit to do so—is no doubt lucky. None of that has ever escaped me, but the COVID pandemic gave my partner Amy Morrissey and me several existential wake-up calls that will shape our outlook for years to come.
It was March 20, 2020, the final mix session for the full-length Mt. Vengeance record called Machines. That happened to be the very day the city of Philadelphia shut everything down. I was by myself, because all our clients by this point weren’t coming to the studio in person anymore. At about 4 p.m., Amy called to let me know about the city’s announcement and a curfew that would go into effect at 7 p.m. As the final mix, a song called “I’m Defff,” was printing, irrational thoughts began to set in.
I started to wonder if I’d ever be back in this—my favorite place in the world—ever again. I imagined someone breaking in and stealing everything, or vandalizing the space. Soon I found myself hiding things. I stuffed our most valuable mics, pedals and guitars behind our pianos. And when the room eventually filled up, I closed the blue felt curtains over the sliding glass door to the room and barricaded it behind a wall of guitar amps—as if I could hide the fact that a room there even existed.
Countless additional anxieties played out in my head for weeks. And unlike any of the studios in our peer group, we observed the strictest of quarantines because I have cystic fibrosis, a major lung disease. So from March 14 through all of 2020, and well into 2021, Amy and I ordered all our groceries. We washed them and let them sit for three days before we would even touch them. And we wouldn’t see a single human in person besides delivery people, at home, in public or in the studio.
But we kept our heads down, and soon the silver linings did begin to emerge. There were pet projects I had been keeping in my head for years. I became obsessed with studio speaker placement, ultimately tearing the control room down completely and rebuilding it in what I think is as close to perfection as we have ever had at Miner Street. That was cool.
I brought several boxes of broken guitar pedals and a handful of guitar amps to my longtime friend and mentor Paul Hammond (Get The Led Out, Sinclair). He fixed and improved them all, setting the stage nicely for maybe my 11th or 12th “My Bloody Valentine phase” and several months of guitar experiments.
And not far from that tree, the faceless ambient/noise/drone music of my childhood found a way back. I took a very deep dive into my two-inch analog tape machine, discovering a myriad of new ways to use tape speed for time-based effects. Many of them ended up in film-score projects with my younger brother, Ryan McTear (an incredible orchestral composer); others, by late 2020, became the base of crypto-art experiments that I’m reluctant to even mention, as I know people have strong feelings about the subject.
Regardless, I’m 100-percent certain that all of these techniques are completely original, some of them unprecedented. It gets me very excited. I know that Miner Street is the only studio in our area that actually uses its analog tape machines. No one else is doing this. I want to do more things like that. (Soon I’ll have the courage to ask friends like Jeff Ziegler to collaborate with me. Ha.)
And the music somehow didn’t stop, either. My friend John, who fronts a project called Wake up And Smell The Sun, asked if we could work remotely. I was deeply skeptical that it would work, but about two hours into our first session, I was pleasantly convinced. We did a set of three summer songs called Bloodless Comfort and, later, a Christmas record called Electric Snow. It is one of the best holiday records I have ever heard, as John—a husband and father of three with a professional career that is not related to music—truly writes some of the best lyrics I have ever recorded.
And another project called Bedolina made the same request. With no real direction, I was soon replacing all electric guitars on everything we had recorded together, utilizing those self-indulgent tape techniques and MBV sounds with reckless abandon. God. It was fun, and the record is so incredibly different than he and I ever imagined it would be.
Perhaps the greatest silver lining came in the form of something I had missed for years. In recent years, Amy and I were only working together at Miner Street on rare occasions. During the pandemic, she and I began to sing backup vocals and harmonies in all Wake Up And Smell The Sun and Bedolina songs. We reopened songs by her band the Novenas and my Bitter Bitter Weeks project as well, initially from our home office and, later, back at the studio.
With the 10-year anniversary of Sharon Van Etten’s Epic (which Amy and I recorded together at Miner Street), we started to hear from folks interested in working with us because of that record. We worked remotely with one great artist from Miami named Rachel Angel, planning to work here in Philadelphia the whole time. Rachel eventually contracted a long-haul case of COVID, but thankfully, she’s finally getting better. She recently arrived in Philadelphia, and Amy and I were finally back at it, like the old days.
And none of this covers a similar bevy of ideas and projects for our nonprofit Weathervane Music, including the development of a follow-up series to our long running Shaking Through series. That’s for another time. The COVID pandemic created an explosion of creative ideas, nearly all of which I dove into head first—and yet, I slept a lot more, too. Go figure.
But I really want to thank the people who gave us work. You kept me, Amy and Miner Street alive. In my life, people have always been rooting for me. Again, I take it as a real point of privilege. (I even feel guilty sometimes.) The community has cheered me on in the face of so many struggles and has come out of the woodwork to support Amy’s and my long-running DIY studio. We are grateful.