Isolation Drills: Keith Marlowe (The Miners)

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area had been staying at home because of the pandemic, 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.

Marlowe: The pandemic has certainly impacted people in many different ways. Fortunately, at this point, my family did not lose anyone to COVID, nor did anyone in my family have a case that caused them to be hospitalized. But like most, COVID disrupted the way we had previously conducted our lives and, for me, impacted both my band, the Miners, and my home/work life.

I am not a full-time musician. And while I don’t consider the Miners just a hobby, as it is much more than that, my main source of income is as an attorney running my own business-law practice. So the pandemic did not have the economic effect I know others in the music industry suffered, including friends who are full-time musicians, venue owners, and bookers. However, it greatly impacted the Miners release of Megunticook (our album that was issued on October 22 of this year), our live performances and my own focus on music.

For the Miners, the pandemic’s biggest impact, was delaying the completion and release of Megunticook. In early 2020, we were in the midst of working on the album and had completed basic tracks for all but two of the songs at MilkBoy Studio in Philly. Overdubs were being recorded at my home studio, which I call Match-Up Zone Studio, and then we went back to Milkboy to mix. While working on mixing the first batch of songs, the pandemic struck, resulting in MilkBoy being shut down due to Philly’s stay-at-home order. I was attending mixing sessions at MilkBoy, and even when not attending, refinements were being done in the studio by engineer Cody Cichowski.

When the studio shutdown, all the work on the album being done at MilkBoy came to a hault, resulting in a five-month delay in the mixing process. Fortunately, because most of the basic tracks were completed pre-pandemic, I pivoted and started focusing on overdubs at my home studio. Initially, this was not a problem, because a large portion of the overdubs were being done by me including lead vocals and nearly all the guitar parts. But once I had completed a good portion of those, I needed my pedal-steel player and others to come in and cut their parts. Initially, those players and I were apprehensive about getting together in my basement to record parts. But we eventually, in the summer of 2020, got to a point where we were comfortable enough doing sessions wearing masks, which allowed the project to move forward again. And once MilkBoy opened back up in late summer, we were able to resume mixing.

Along with delaying the recording process, which was completed in early-July 2021 when the album was mastered, the pandemic continues to impact the vinyl release of Megunticook. I made a decision early on the album would be released on vinyl, and when, in early 2021, I could finally sense the album would finally be completed, I began contacting vinyl-production plants about producing our album. At that time, plants were busy but were still quoting anywhere from a six-to-12 week turnaround time, though a few were telling me they were looking at 2022 if I committed in early 2021. When I was finally ready to commit around June 2021, a lot more of them were out to 2022 including the one I was ready to use.

I had to circle back with several plants and expand my search further, but I finally got one to commit to delivery prior to our release date of October 22 or at least prior to our record release show on October 29. Unfortunately, supply-chain delays outside of the control of the plant caused them to miss those dates (we did a record-release show with no records), but we finally have records.

Like every other live performer, we had several gigs cancelled due to the pandemic—the first, and biggest, being our annual Breast Cancer benefit held upstairs at World Cafe Live. The scheduled date was April 2020, and we were already selling advance tickets to the show, which has sold out nearly every year. World Cafe Live’s booking agent contacted me in mid-March about re-scheduling, and at that time, were hoping to re-schedule before year end. (Who knew?) That obviously did not occur, and the show is now our next scheduled show on January 8.

The next domino to fall was a May 2020 show at Jamey’s House Of Music, which their booking agent was hoping to reschedule in fall 2020. We were finally able to re-schedule that show for October 2021, and it ended up as our record-release show. Lastly, my late-’80s/early-’90s band Tornado 5 was scheduled to reunite for our first show since 1995 as part of a performance put together in honor of J.C. Dobbs and bands that played there during its heyday. That was supposed to occur in September 2020 at the now-closed Connie’s Ric Rac and never happened, though there is talk about trying to put it on next year at the soon-to-be opened Dobbs location.

We did, however, manage to play one live show during the summer of 2020, which was an outdoor show for the Cheltenham Township Summer Concert Series, which is held in a large arboretum/park. The township, subject to our comfort, decided to go on with the show since it was outdoors and there was ample space for people to spread out. (You could literally stay hundreds of feet from people if you wished to.) We rehearsed in masks at my house beginning in July 2020, and the show went on without incident in August.

Our first indoor show since the pandemic broke was this August at MilkBoy Center City supporting a touring act. Since the band was fully vaccinated, we were all comfortable playing the show and welcomed the return to playing live. The show went on as scheduled, though it wasn’t quite a return to normal. There was still some apprehension by fans to attend a show as the Delta variant was beginning to surge and the city re-imposed its mask mandate the day before our show. (Most venues at that time were not yet imposing vaccine requirements.) Our recent Jamey’s show definitely felt closer to normal, with a near full house and less apprehension by people seeing shows at venues requiring vaccines and, in some cases, mask requirements on top of that.

There was a positive for me that came from the pandemic, which was giving me time to focus on learning pedal-steel guitar. I had been playing for about two years on and off. With the band’s live schedule essentially being non-existent and recording moving at snail’s pace, I was able to focus my free time on learning the instrument. Although, I had a local teacher who was not giving in-person lessons due to the pandemic, I was able to find a teacher who did remote lessons (from Washington state) and enroll in some online classes. While I don’t profess to be any good at the instrument, it did accelerate my learning and probably took me from a solid beginner to low-intermediate player.

Shifting from music, the pandemic had a greater impact on my work/homelife. As noted, I am a business lawyer with my own practice, which I have conducted from my home since 2009. In that sense, the whole “work from home” shift didn’t impact me as much as others; although I did all of the sudden find myself on video calls multiple times a day instead of communicating through emails, cell-phone calls and the occasional in-person meeting. But because my wife is a sixth-grade teacher and in 2020, I had two children who were seniors (one in college and one in high school), instead of me working from an empty house during the day, it was all of the sudden filled with my wife teaching classes from home, and two kids attending classes from home when their respective schools shut down in-person learning and shifted to remote learning. (And forcing my kid in college to come home from school.) While eventually everyone adapted to remote teaching/learning, both my kids only experienced what I call COVID graduations and missed the full graduation experiences and everything that went with that like proms, senior days, graduation parties, etc.