Our Way Forward: Eight deathrock musicians on COVID-19 and the future of music

Not much is known right now, except that the new normal may last for quite a long time. While society as a whole is making sacrifices, what does it mean for musicians and music fans, and this fragmented landscape we call a “scene,” to not have events to gather at, to not experience live music, to not be able to see each other in person for potentially over a year? What will change about how music is created and how it’s experienced? Here, members of Ötzi, Over, Mystic Priestess, Esses, Adrenochrome, Kurraka, and Altar de Fey speak on what “shelter in place” means to them, and their worries and hopes for the future. • Interview facilitated by Akiko Sampson.

Image above, clockwise from top left: Winter Zora, Akiko Sampson, Brianne Hanshaw, Jake Hout, Lilian Void, Gina Marie, Sierra Rose, Miss Kel

Describe yourself and what you do:

GINA MARIE: I’m a drummer and a singer in 2 bands: Ötzi and Adrenochrome. I’m a show promoter and run Near Dark Booking, I am a small business owner, I run a record label called Near Dark, I am a vinyl DJ, and also a mama to a radical 8 year old. 

LILIAN: I’m a musician, music journalist, prison abolitionist, and healthcare worker. [*Lilian is in Over]

AKIKO: I’m the singer and bassist of Ötzi and I perform solo as Yama Uba. I also run Psychic Eye Records and this little webzine Cryptic Species, and I’m a voice coach.

SIERRA ROSE: I sing in Mystic Priestess. Outside of our band, me and Winter Zora are artists that design vegan leather bondage punk gear and chain-mail jewelry under the name Whipped & Chained. I’m also a hairdresser at Madusalon.

BRIANNE: I’m an introverted extrovert. A weirdo who prefers solitude and creativity over crowds. Hairstylist since 2003 and I love it and miss it very much. Extreme dog lady. [*Brianne is in Adrenochrome and Kurraka]

WINTER: I play in the bands Mystic Priestess and Ötzi. I’m also a full time artist designing punk gear and jewelry with Sierra Rose at Whipped & Chained.

JAKE: I’m the singer of Altar De Fey and Dead Boys.

MISS KEL: I front the band Esses, and I am an artist, a potion maker, and a mum. 

How has COVID-19 affected your life so far? How has it been adjusting to lockdown?

BRIANNE: Aside from feeling like the world is falling apart, leaving my family and friends in financial ruin and fear of getting sick (I have had chronic respiratory issues for many years that makes this especially scary for me) and fear of losing people I love to this virus, I’m actually dealing with this better than I thought. I lost a friend from complications with COVID-19 last week which has left me more sad/scared, but I just kept trying to take things a day at a time. As far as “adjusting to lockdown”, I absolutely do not mind the alone time for now. This has been a good month of self reflection and self care. I’m recognizing that isolating is a privilege and many essential workers would gladly trade places with me, so I’m trying to appreciate the down time I’ve been given. I think by the end of the next few weeks I might start really missing the social aspects of what was my usual life, and missing having a daily routine, but for now I’m okay. 

SIERRA: COVID-19 has affected me financially. I haven’t worked in over a month at the salon. But I’m grateful for all the support from my clients and sales on Whipped and Chained. The lockdown has been hard. I haven’t felt safe walking in my neighborhood to get fresh air. I’ve had Asian friends visit me and they experienced racism due to the fact our president keeps calling it Chinese Virus. So people who are white or white passing should really stand up for marginalized people.

LILIAN: I’m lucky enough to still have a job, although it’s considered high-risk. I’ve mostly adjusted to the new normal at work and in my personal life like everyone else. It was only a couple weeks before I was no longer incapacitated by the sadness of the news.

GINA MARIE: It’s been really tough. A lot of high and lows. Some days I feel ok and positive, just patiently waiting for good news while staying safe with my daughter. Other days I just can’t bear the loss and damage from all this, the hard work that has been flushed down the toilet, the exhausting and stressful news reports. I’ve already lost 2 tours I booked and likely will have to postpone my annual fest Near Dark in September. 

AKIKO: It’s been mostly good for me, actually. I’m disabled with fibromyalgia, but I wouldn’t be able to survive on disability income. So not having to push myself every day to go to work or to decide if I should call in sick and worrying about getting fired is nice. I’m enjoying the time with my partner. Some changes have been welcome, and I try to focus on those.

MISS KEL: I’m working from home, and Kevin – the drummer of Esses – is my partner and he’s also unable to work. We’re homeschooling our kids, so our life has flipped upside down in a way. At home we’re trying to make the best of it because when I think about it, when will we ever get this time together again? I think the adjustment for my kids makes it the hardest for me. They want to be with their friends and in school – it’s hard to see them so down and confused. I am extremely lucky that I do not have anyone in my life that has passed away from COVID-19, and for that I am eternally grateful. 

WINTER: It’s affected the enjoyment of going out to live music and getting together with friends, so it’s been a little depressing at times. Overall, I’m learning to adjust and taking the time to learn new things and to focus on different ways to stay afloat.

How big of a part of your life has music been up till now, and what is it now?

LILIAN: I’ve been playing music since I was three years old. It has always been front-and-center in my life. I listen to music, play music, or plan around music with most of my spare time. Music is still central to my life – I’m still writing, practicing, giving feedback and doing reviews for other bands, and expanding my arsenal for future music endeavors.

BRIANNE: Music has been a huge deal to me since I was a kid. I would get hand-me-down mixed tapes from my very cool older brother that had a huge influence on me growing up. I think life without music for me would be insanely boring. It has been and continues to be my life force.

JAKE: It has been a huge part. I was touring almost half the year for a while there. It was much of my livelihood. But Dead Boys broke up last year, so things slowed for me. This would have been much more disruptive for me in any of the last 3+ years, honestly.

GINA MARIE: I have been into punk since the early 90’s and I have been going to shows ever since. It’s what keeps me going. Music in general is the biggest thing in my life aside from my daughter. Practicing with my bands, playing shows, organizing shows and an annual fest, DJing the music I love… my soul craves it.

SIERRA: I grew up going to a few shows a week to support my local deathrock/punk scene. I miss going to shows and getting inspired by other artists. Music will always be therapy for me. Writing down life experiences in my music helps to release my emotions in a healthy way and connect with our fans. I feel like our music helps to improve our queer community and helps others not feel alone during these dark times.

WINTER: Music has always been a big part of my life, and performing shows has always helped me find a way to express myself artistically that I haven’t felt or found anywhere else.

How big of a dent did COVID-19 make in your band’s plans for the year?

JAKE: Dented them all clean into next year it looks like. Altar De Fey were going to play Mexico City and tour the east coast. Me and Cheetah Chrome (of the Dead Boys) were gonna do Spain up to Holland. There was talk of UK, New York, I was booked to record in Nashville last weekend, all the local gigs. Everything cancelled or looking grim. 

GINA: Both my bands have lost many plans and hard work. My band Ötzi had been non-stop working on our new album last year (2019) and we are finally upon our release date except we can’t tour or play it. 2 tours have been cancelled for us: SXSW tour and Spain and Greece in June. Things are also not looking good for our upcoming UK tour this fall. Adrenochrome was booked to play K-Town hardcore fest in Copenhagen in June as well as dates in Germany and Sweden, which is also cancelled. We were scheduled to record our new EP in mid-April, which is now pushed back. 

LILIAN: The virus has seriously thwarted our band’s plans for the year. It hit right as we were to go on an East Coast tour and play Verboden fest in Vancouver, Canada. We’re not sure what to do at the moment but to keep writing.

SIERRA: We had to postpone our Part Time Punks EP release at the Elbo Room. I’m very grateful for the amount of support we have gotten since we released it on all streaming platforms, Spotify, bandcamp, YouTube, etc. We were supposed to record again in May, but we haven’t had a chance to practice since March. So it will have to wait till the lockdown is over.

WINTER: It’s been very surreal and upsetting not being able to rehearse let alone see our bandmates. We haven’t had a chance to celebrate our release together yet. And we planned to record a full length album in May but it’s hard to tell if that will be possible due to the climate of everything.

MISS KEL: Oh wow, well we had a tour planned that was cancelled, which was very disappointing since we were going to be playing with Christian Death. We are also right in the middle of recording our new album – which has also been put on hold.

BRIANNE: COVID really threw a wrench in the works for the plans I had with both of my bands. Kurraka was in the beginning stages of writing a new record. We’re a long distance project now that I moved back to the Bay from Texas, and writing is slow for that reason, but myself and our new amazing bass player Jasmine had plans to go to Texas throughout the summer to write. There were plans to tour in 2021 but I think the plans will probably be pushed back a year or so. Adrenochrome had plans to play K-Town in Denmark and some shows surrounding it to support our new EP that we were about to record. That’s gonna probably be pushed back about a year as well. Maybe we will find time to write more for something longer once we see how social distancing regulations go in the next few months. 

AKIKO: Otzi was preparing a new album release, so I worked on music and all the supporting stuff as more than a full time job, prioritizing it over everything even while working a day job full time. So much work and so many expenses, all with the hope that it would pay off at this exact time. But now as it’s being released, we can’t tour the album. And most music writers have been laid off, so it’s harder to get reviewed. And most of the music loving public are too depressed or in shock right now to care about a new record anyway. The time right around a record release is crucial, and you never get that time back. So it’s been like a bomb to me. Very crushing.

What have you been doing as a musician to stay active or keep creating? 

BRIANNE: I live with my husband who plays bass in Adrenochrome, so we’ve been messing with gear we had here in the house. I’ve been learning how to play synth and we’ve been programming a drum machine while he plays bass, which has started a hobby recording project we’re calling Epicrisis. We’re doing dual vocals for which I’ve written the lyrics, and I’ve realized how much more I hate my voice than I previously thought. All I’ll say is I’m grateful for vocal pedals, haha.

GINA MARIE: Not as much as I would like to. I dream about practicing again but I haven’t been that motivated to play. I am lucky because we’re borrowing an electric drum set and I want to be playing it more than I have been. A lot of gray days over here. I’m just trying to keep my chin up and not push myself too hard. 

WINTER: I’ve been coming up with different ways to entertain our fans and friends and engage with them more during this time. It’s important for me to stay connected with fans and friends because it’s very easy to feel isolated. I’ve taken the time to write a lot more music as well as learn and study more with guitar, sax, and keys. I’ve felt inspired listening to other musicians I admire, and I’ve been studying their techniques.

AKIKO: I’m still trying to support Otzi’s new album. I’ve been handling a lot of the interviews and press requests, so it’s hard to focus on something new. Healthwise, our band is not going to take the chance of doing live streams. So I have to think of new, creative ways to market it. I’d like to be working more on actually creating music, but the life changes have been so drastic that lately I’ve had writer’s block. But I’m overdue for a Yama Uba LP for Ratskin Records anyway, so I’m hoping to be able to get to work soon on that.

SIERRA: We’re working on new songs for our new album. I’ve been doing a lot of self care. My father passed last August, and not working has forced me to process all of my feelings of loss. He was a musician and an inspiration to me artistically. 

JAKE: Altar de Fey recorded an EP, I gotta do the art for that. I thought I’d be working up songs on my loop petal and banging out acoustic little numbers, but somehow I have not. Kerith’s here all the time and we live in a loft, so it’s annoying to her when I’m writing. Repeating the same little thing over and over mumbling half words looking for the melody, it really IS annoying! Haha! I’m usually alone when I write, which I hadn’t realized before. Of course we still strum out an old tune and sing from time to time.

MISS KEL: As a band we’ve been talking about how we can evolve with this situation and still keep our creative momentum. We’re writing music remotely and Kevin and I are starting to work on some photo and video projects for Esses. I’m trying to be philosophical about the whole thing and not dwell on the disappointment, fear, and sadness of it all. Instead, I hope to use this moment to find other creative ways to reach people and help our friends in other bands so we can all stay connected and can build something new in this time period where we can’t be performing live. 

LILIAN: I’m still writing at home and exchanging demos with band mates and musician friends.

How has lockdown affected your mental health?

MISS KEL: As a person who has mental health issues on a good day… I can say this has been very challenging for me and I have been struggling a lot. Performing is a type of therapy for me. But I take solace in the fact that I am not alone in this and I have someone here to support me. One of the ways I deal with my health issues is by keeping my mind occupied either through projects or mediation. 

JAKE: Badly. Very depressed, often frightened. Manic depression at moments. Claustrophobic. Grieving. Furious Rage. I have anger issues. Guilt for not working. And I miss my friends and band and community so much! So a lot of Heartache too. I’m becoming a much better cook. Been cooking a lot and enjoying that. And trying to make the best of it, we do have fun sometimes.

LILIAN: At first I was seriously bummed out. I had really been looking forward to touring to pull me out of the winter doldrums. I never got that big ‘spring has sprung’ event and instead I adjusted to my baseline summer mood gradually without much excitement. However, now I’ve gotten into a rhythm and when you work with severely mentally ill people, you realize you’re high-functioning and fairly ‘fine’ in the grand scheme of things so you have less reason to feel sorry for yourself.

SIERRA: My mental health hasn’t been at its best. At least once a week there is someone screaming bloody murder outside my apartment in Oakland. I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights. I struggle with generational trauma and PTSD from being abused. There is a lot of fear and anger in my neighborhood, and I can feel that energy when I leave the house to gather supplies to survive.

GINA MARIE: Absolutely. I am single parenting and homeschooling a child, and it’s the most difficult time I’ve ever experienced. I have had no personal space to allow myself to feel. I can’t stop for one second to catch up with myself because I have a child to keep safe, healthy and happy. Very overwhelming. 

WINTER:  Some days are better than others, but overall it’s been tough. Learning to appreciate the simple things and connecting with plants and trees more often, and focusing on simple self care tasks has helped. 

Has lockdown changed your personal relationship to art and music, in either absorbing or creating it?

LILIAN: Lockdown has made me miss my music community but I think it’s healthy to take breaks. I’m always inundated with sonic stimuli from being so active in music my whole life that it’s often overwhelming to find my musical path in the chaos. If anything, now I can finally delve deep into my peers’ work, focus, and not be concerned with keeping up in appearances.

KELLY: It has been a time for reflection for sure, which I desperately needed.  I have been going at 100% for the past 6 ½ years in Esses and though I didn’t realize I needed time to slow down, I guess I did. Because I have this time to think, and stop, and feel everything, I have been creating a lot of artwork. I have also been listening to a lot of music. My son has been playing music with us for fun as well. 

WINTER: Lockdown has definitely made me look at live music differently. I find myself listening to music more and absorbing every aspect of it. It has given me more ideas to be creative and look at things from an audience perspective, not only an artist’s point of view. I’ve always appreciated art and live music but the scarcity of artists over the years has become so severe compared to what it was. As musicians and artists, we need community support in any and all forms more than ever right now.

SIERRA: It’s been hard because we haven’t played as a whole band in over a month. But I’m so grateful I live with Winter Zora. We can work on new concepts for songs and practice at home. To be honest, it’s been hard to focus with all the distractions of social media and news updates on COVID-19.

JAKE: I’m painting again! I’ve gotten a few commissions. I am grateful for that. Also our friend and the amazing DJ Athena called on FaceTime last weekend and gave us a private dance party! Haha! That was fun and really would not have happened normally!

GINA MARIE: I just keep thinking that even if shows can’t happen for a while that my bands will create new work and be able to record it while we’re waiting for shows to start again. That’s the only positive thought I can get from all this. 

If you’ve had time or resources to work on mutual aid, what have you been doing?

LILIAN: I’ve been volunteering at a local autonomous community center that receives and distributes food donations and personal protective equipment. I’d like to do even more mutual aid stuff and I’m very inspired at my community jumping into action, but I still have a full time job so creating that time is as challenging as it’s ever been.

AKIKO: The first few weeks I was urging people to apply for food stamps and unemployment, and dropping off medicine to sick people, and supplies for cleaning or exercise or whatever I could gather. Then I also started this webzine, because I knew artists and activists will have more obstacles in getting their work seen at the exact time that people will need it. Since then, I’ve also been able to interview activists and doctors in Italy about COVID-19, and have helped translate Italian public health reports into English. I’ve been using social media to show people how to grow food from kitchen scraps, as I’m afraid of fresh food getting more scarce. I’d like to grow enough food to distribute to the houseless community. I also teach a few weekly voice and piano lessons for free over video chat. I send out care packages. I do whatever small thing I can think of, and that keeps me going. When I focus only on myself, it gets depressing quick. 

BRIANNE: I’ve isolated for fear of getting sick so I haven’t done much in my community, aside from today when I flyered the neighborhood with contact info for those who need help with rent strikes and legal help with landlords, etc.

SIERRA: I have been reaching out to friends and family as much as I can. One simple phone call to check up on someone can help someone not feel alone in the world.

MISS KEL: I have been sewing masks for first responders and friends in need. 

WINTER: I’ve been checking in on friends and family and offering my support where I can give it. 

What have you turned to for simple entertainment?

SIERRA: I’ve really been entertained by listening to my friend Jang Peace Punk. He has been conducting live stream interviews with the founders of anarcho-punk. He interviewed Stig from Amebix and Pete from Anti-sect, Roy from Nausea, the list goes on. Jang sings in a really cool band called Resist and Exist. Listening to all the cool stories of political activism and the shows that took place is really inspiring. And I’ve watched a lot of music videos and movies on VHS/DVD. It took a pandemic for me to get a nice computer and wireless internet.

WINTER: It’s been inspiring to listen to musicians I grew up listening to talk about what’s going on as well as talk about their band [in Jang’s live interviews]. I’m thankful we can still find ways to stay connected and interact with each other and enjoy something together collectively. I’ve been watching a lot of vhs tapes of music videos as well as finding funny movies to watch.

BRIANNE: I’ve been asleep 30%, deep cleaning 15%, jamming in my house 25% and the rest has been spent watching tv and wishing I had a yard.

JAKE: Nature shows. Classic movies. Listening to records.

KELLY: I have been reading a lot at night. I have a stack of books that I’m working my way through. I love reading! I’ve also been playing Rocksmith and learning how to play Pokemon the card game with my kids. Many of my friends have been doing live DJ sets online which is really fun for me to tune into. 

What do you think this means for music in general? What is our way forward?

GINA: As a promoter, it was already becoming harder with visas being declined for foreign bands. So I think we’re gonna have a lot of difficulty maintaining what we had before. Venues may not survive this estimated year-plus shutdown and our communities could start to fade. I know they could never fully take away our passion, but I’ve already seen so much of Oakland’s music scene fade, I am certainly worried. We’ll have to come together as a community to help save our spaces. When this is all said and done, they will need our support more than ever. 

LILIAN: If the lockdown lasts much longer, it will completely change the face of how music is approached. Of course the cancellation, postponement, and readjustment of live music and tours will be approached with this added stipulation because now mass cancellations are very real. Our way forward is to keep expressing ourselves no matter what, maybe get the gear to have band practice over video chat, and be relentless in interpreting our feelings to give meaning to what we feel.

WINTER: This means we need to come together as musicians and artists collectively in solidarity and support each other in any way we can. Our way forward is through social media interaction and staying engaged with our fans through whatever platforms we have.

SIERRA: I’m hoping through all of this social distancing we can come together on another level as artists. To find unity and be inspired by one another. I’m curious what kind of precautions we will have to take for everything to be normal again. Will we have to be limited on social drinking so we are more composed to be cautious of COVID-19?  Will someone be at the door of clubs making sure we wipe down our hands with sanitizer before we step into a show? Will people who cough be turned away due to fear of COVID-19? These are all questions I’ve asked myself. I have faith things will be normal again.

JAKE: Web presence for now. Releasing stuff on the internet. Live music will come back. A lot of clubs and some bands are gonna be sunk and people will likely be frightened of crowds for awhile. But it’ll come back eventually. There will be a lot of new solo acts I presume haha!

BRIANNE: I think we’re going to see a lot of solo projects come out of this, but I also think that this may incite some enthusiasm for people to go out to more gigs when we can. Hopefully we won’t take gigs for granted in the future. 

MISS KEL: Musicians are artists and artists solve problems. So what is our problem right now? It is that we have to find a new way to operate in this new reality. Imagine living in a world without music. It is a simple pleasure whether you “know how” to make it or not. I have not met a person alive that doesn’t have at least one favorite song or composition. We keep moving forward and accept that we may not get to put ourselves on a stage for a while because that is totally out of our control at the moment. People still need what we have to offer them, and in a way that makes it more meaningful. In my opinion, the way forward is to channel your despair, your passions and love, and your rage to make something. Someone out there will see themselves in it and that is why music exists and why we need it.

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