Ben Gibbard and Other Pacific Northwest Artists on Weathering the COVID-19 Quarantine - Sound Guiding the Way | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Monday, July 13th, 2020  

Ben Gibbard and Other Pacific Northwest Artists on Weathering the COVID-19 Quarantine

Sound Guiding the Way

Mar 27, 2020 Web Exclusive
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The city of Seattle is many things. It’s a hub for tech companies, food and drink establishments, and, perhaps most importantly, music. The lineage of Emerald City greats pushes well into the past and continues with standout after standout today from Pearl Jam to Death Cab For Cutie to Thunderpussy, The Decemberists, Car Seat Headrest, and The Black Tones. But, more recently, Seattle and the Pacific Northwest at large have been Ground Zero for the dangerous and deadly COVID-19 coronavirus. In Washington alone, there are nearly 3,000 confirmed cases of the virus with well over 100 deaths. Those are scary numbers. Yet, what the region is maybe most known for - music - continues to persist.

Emerald City rapper, Sol Alexander Rosenberg (aka Sol), is one of the myriad musicians affected by the coronavirus. Sol, whose 2012 record, Yours Truly, hit number one on the iTunes U.S. Hip-Hop Albums Chart, was forced this month to cancel a U.S. tour that he’d spent months putting together. Overnight, dates in cities like Denver, Vancouver B.C. and Seattle vanished.

“Moments ago I had to announce that the spring tour I’ve been promoting has to be cancelled and rescheduled,” Sol says. “This pandemic is already affecting so many of us, but for me so far it looks like six months of preparation and a spring of projected income completely wiped away.”

But, for Sol, who says he will work on finding DIY ways to release music and connect with fans from here on out, the affects of the virus go beyond music and his own income. He recently had to cancel a trip to visit his parents in California. He’d wanted to see his mother and help her recover after major hip surgery. But because Sol lives at one of the centers of the crisis, he had to cancel the flight.

“I was supposed to be by my mom’s side with her and my dad helping with her recovery,” Sol says. “But because I am in Seattle and there was risk of transmitting the virus to them via my exposure to others while in transit, and then came the California lockdown, we decided it was best for me not to go at all. So, I won’t be seeing my parents until after this is all over.”

Some might think that there is an echelon of artist who could avoid the affects and the scare of the virus—but, no one is exempt. Even for platinum-selling musicians like Seattle’s Ben Gibbard, frontman for Death Cab For Cutie (and The Postal Service), this is a time of crisis and quarantine. For Gibbard, who has been keeping himself sane by connecting with fans through popular live streamed video acoustic sessions from his home studio, the crisis becomes more real every day. 

“I think we as Americans have become so immune to a lot of the horrors of the world outside our borders,” says Gibbard, who has raised funds for local charities through his recent string of home shows. “Very rarely in my lifetime have any true crises landed on American soil. I think [mid-March] was really when it all had gotten very real.”

Death Cab For Cutie’s most recent release, Thank You for Today, came out in 2018, so the band is “fortunate,” Gibbard says, in that, unlike many others, it isn’t missing out on dozens of dates in support of a new record. The Hall of Fame band, Pearl Jam, for example, had to recently postpone a massive tour for its new album, Gigaton, which included dates Toronto, Nashville, Seattle, and many other major cities. But Gibbard still had various solo dates and some full-band gigs on the books that are either cancelled or are likely to be. Nevertheless, like much of North America, Gibbard remains on lockdown.

“I have a routine that I’ve maintained even before all of this,” Gibbard explains. “The first thing I do in the morning is read a book, whatever book I’m chipping away at. Then I’ll do a cursory scan across the news sites that I read and then put that away. But yeah, this is a long haul.” 

Gibbard has connected with hundreds of thousands of fans through his digital show and he even wrote a new song called, “Life Under Quarantine,” which he played during a live stream and has released as a single. For many other skilled musicians, productivity is the name of the game while in self-isolation. But for others, like Luz Elena Mendoza, frontwoman for the popular Portland band, Y La Bamba, now is a time for personal reflection, not necessarily productivity.

Mendoza, who had plans this summer to retreat from the Northwest to Mexico to write, record, reflect, and engage with people in her community there, must stay home. This imposed isolation, however, has its silver linings for her. Y La Bamba, which recently played many dates in support of their 2019 record, Mujeres, which included a stop at NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts series, can now push pause and might be better for it in the long run.

“It’s like a current of energy is binding us together in complex harmony,” says Mendoza. “So, I’ve been investigating within and listening to my spirit. I just can’t stress enough how important it is for us to sit and listen to the sound of our current collective situation. We deserve to take our time.”

Like Sol, there are plenty of bands in the region that have lost thousands of dollars and had to cancel gigs and tours. To compensate, many have been following in Gibbard’s footsteps by creating digital live-streaming shows. Locals like rocker duo Acid Tongue, broadcast its record release show online; jazz pianist Marina Albero has helped organize online jam sessions called The Quarantine Sessions; show promoter Kevin Sur,and his company Artist Home have organized services to benefit musicians; and bands like Warren Dunes have raised hundreds of dollars for local food banks. 

For large swaths of people, the current climate is wild, uncharted territory. But, if you ask guitarist, Whitney Petty, the shredding co-founder of Seattle’s power-glam rock band Thunderpussy, artists and musicians have been preparing for dire moments of confusion and social upheaval their whole lives. 

“We are experiencing this at a time of maximum divisiveness as a race,” says Petty. “I only hope this will help us forget that division, at least for a spell. But I also feel like bands are uniquely prepared for this hardship. Feeling complete uncertainty about the future? No health coverage? No idea where your next paycheck is coming from? Welcome to the rest of the world to being an artist! We’ve been here for several years.”

While Petty infuses a bit of levity into the idea, she’s not wrong. Artists and musicians have been living around, or below, the poverty line for long stretches of human history. And while this virus is new, survival in crisis isn’t novel to many artists and people in the music world in the Northwest and beyond.

“The birth of streaming decimated album sales,” says Petty. “Corona will destroy the touring and festival industry. But music will prevail and be monetized again in some new form. Here’s to hoping that artists will be the ones to profit in the new model moving forward. We are not going anywhere. In the mean time, we will do what we have always done: turn these observations into songs.”

www.solsays.com

www.deathcabforcutie.com

www.ylabamba.com

www.thunderpussyusa.com

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