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The day the music died? Pandemic disrupts careers of local bands

Return of live music tours remains out of reach for now

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
The instrumental rock trio Cinematica will be featured in an episode of "The HeArt Space Live" online series this weekend on the HeArt Space Live Facebook page.
  • Cinematica released a new disc on Aug. 1 and will be featured in a livestream show this weekend.
  • Signal 99 has finished seven tracks for a new recording.
  • DDAT recorded a new disc in August in Santa Fe.

FARMINGTON — Back in the middle of May, moments before Cinematica was scheduled to perform a live virtual concert at the empty Lauter Haus Brewing Co., the members of the group huddled before drummer Eddie Jacquez's trap set for their traditional pre-gig pep talk.

Those gatherings have been a ritual for the Farmington-based instrumental rock trio for as long as the band has been around, Jacquez says. They serve as a chance for him and his bandmates — guitarist Brandon Mike and bassist OJ Kaminky — to look each other in the eye, express their love for each other and focus on the task at hand for the next couple of hours.

"But this conversation was a little bit different," Jacquez recalled earlier this week. "I think we all realized, 'This could be our last show of the year, this could be our last show we ever play. So let's have fun.'"

The members of Cinematica had no intention of breaking up, but they — like almost every other band in existence — found themselves largely bewildered by the challenge of trying to maintain a career at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic had made it virtually impossible to go out and perform in front of a real audience.

Their livestreamed performance on May 15 — part of the brewery's COVID Couch Tour, a series dreamed up by Lauter Haus owner Brandon Beard to help keep the local music scene alive during the pandemic — wasn't the same as performing before a live, energetic, cheering crowd, Jacquez said. But he said it did provide him and his bandmates a bit of solace and comfort as they continued to navigate the uncharted waters of their new reality, especially when they saw later that 1,200 people had logged on to catch the show.

As the pandemic stretches into its seventh month with no end in sight, those waters remain as murky as ever, especially for those who perform music at a level that makes it much more than just a personal indulgence or a weekend distraction. Farmington is home to at least three local bands with a strong national or regional presence who perform and record original material — Cinematica, Signal 99 and DDAT.

The last six months have been a trying time for all three of those groups, as their opportunities to perform shows before a live audience have been all but eliminated. They have responded to the challenges presented by the pandemic in different ways, but all three continue to look forward to a day when they can return to the stage, fire up their amplifiers and feed off the energy of a cheering throng.

The Farmington metal group Signal 99 has completed seven tracks for a new disc it hopes to release when the pandemic is over.

"Connecting with somebody — that's the big payoff for some of us musicians," said Chuck Haven, the frontman for Signal 99, a veteran metal group that records for the independent Dead Sea Records label and has performed for tens of thousands of fans at festivals in California and Mexico. "Not being able to do that is really frustrating."

Delbert Anderson, the leader of the jazz/hip hop group DDAT, watched as the momentum his group has been building for the past few years stall when its dozens of tour dates at venues across the country were cancelled because of the pandemic, taking a significant bite out of his income. He said COVID-19 has been a reality check for the music business, but he continues to have faith that the pandemic, however prolonged it might be, is only a temporary setback, not a permanent adjustment.

The Farmington jazz-hip hop quartet DDAT recently recorded a new disc, "Born in an Odd Time," in Santa Fe.

"I'm hoping people are going to begin to miss live performances," he said. "I think the majority of the world knows that being at a live music concert is better than watching it (in a livestream setting). That's what I've been hearing."

The best-laid plans …

The traditional business model for touring bands hasn't changed much over the decades. It consists of going into the studio to record new material every one to three years, then touring extensively to market that music to a wide audience. Most bands make little, if any, money off CD sales or downloads, and they rely heavily on concert ticket sales or performance guarantees to generate most of their income.

Those touring opportunities are on hold until the pandemic ends. Even so, Cinematica, Signal 99 and DDAT all have recorded new material recently, though they understand they aren't likely to see much benefit from those recordings until COVID-19 has run its course.

Drummer Eddie Jacquez of Cinematica says the group is disappointed it has not been able to tour in support of its new recording "The Jaguar Priestess," but its long-term plan has not changed.

Cinematica released its second album, "The Jaguar Priestess," on Aug. 1 and will be showcasing a handful of those tunes for an episode of the San Juan Jazz Society's livestream concert series "HeArt Space Live" that debuts at 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 26 on the HeArt Space Live Facebook page. Signal 99 spent much of the first part of the year recording material for a new album and has finished work on seven songs, although Haven said the group has put off completion of the disc for the time being. And DDAT spent several days in late August recording its new album, the appropriately tited "Born in an Odd Time," at Frogville Studios in Santa Fe.

Cinematica's Jacquez said the pandemic has disrupted his group's plans for promoting "The Jaguar Priestess." Before COVID-19 hit, Cinematica had plans to conduct a six-date tour of the West Coast, including making a return appearance at the legendary Hollywood rock club the Whisky a Go Go, and play extensively throughout New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado.

"In a normal year, we would probably play 30 to 50 shows," Jacquez said.

That number has been dramatically reduced now. Jacquez said Cinematica is likely to perform only one more show in 2020 — a livestream performance of "The Jaguar Priestess" in its entirety on Halloween or New Year's Eve at a venue to be determined.

"It has been a tumultuous year for us," Jacquez said, noting the substantial investment the group made to work with well-known producer Kenny Riley at Rio Grande Studios in Albuquerque, as well as the money it spent on Cinematica-themed merchandise such as pint glasses and T-shirts. The album and merchandise are still available for purchase online, but Jacquez said the band likely will capture only a small portion of the revenue it otherwise would have seen.

"It's been a bummer," he said. "I know me and the guys looked forward to bigger year."

But Jacquez said he is anything but ready to dial back his plans for the group.

"Absolutely not, because there had been so much support from people," he said.

Approximately 1,200 fans watched the group's livestream Lauter Haus show in May, Jacquez said, and he was teeming with anticipation about how this weekend's "HeArt Space Live" episode is going to be received.

Cinematica plans on performing all the songs from its new disc "The Jaguar Priestess" in a virtual concert on Halloween or New Year's Eve.

In the long run, Cinematica's plan remains the same — team up with Riley again in the future to record the follow-up to "The Jaguar Priestess" to complete a trilogy that includes the group's debut disc, "Ultraviolet Waterfall."

"It's kind of a grandiose idea we have," Jacquez said, explaining that Cinematica aspires to put out concept albums that mirror the ambitious approach of iconic 1960s and 1970s progressive rock bands. "Although we're frustrated and although this year has been a bummer, there's still a goal we have set for ourselves. And where ever the road takes us, this has been a growing experience."

From go, go, go to the garden

Even though Haven misses the camaraderie that comes with playing music — he insists his favorite part of any show was heading up into the stands after his band's set, grabbing something to eat from a vendor and visiting with fans — the COVID-19 shutdown has provided him with a welcome break.

"This is the first time in a long time I haven't been really focused on music," he said, adding that he now spends much of his time with his children and maintaining a garden. "Before, it was go, go, go all the time."

Signal 99 frontman Chuck Haven says he has been able to step away from music and focus on other things during the pandemic, but he looks forward to returning to the stage.

For the time being, the pandemic has demolished the old paradigm for having a music business career, he said. If you were part of a group that was climbing the ladder, it was all about timing — you were told how to dress and how to talk, and encouraged to maximize your opportunities within a certain period of time before tastes changed, Haven said.

"They always used to stress, 'Don't miss your window,'" he said, laughing ruefully and noting the COVID era has been one big window — and it's slammed shut.

While he remains committed to his band and its future, Haven has taken a decidedly low-key approach to the music business over the last six months. Much of that decision has to do with the fact that he works a day job in the health care industry and, even though he's been working from home since March, he is well aware of the human toll from the pandemic.

For that reason, he refuses to let his guard down and expose his family to undue risk. He and the other members of Signal 99 have kept their distance from each other, although they do exchange ideas and self-recorded instrumental snippets online as they continue to shape new material for their album.

Haven said Signal 99 has had offers to perform livestream shows since March but has declined all those opportunities. He finds them a poor substitute for the real thing, especially in a genre like metal, in which the spectacle and the theatrics are such a big part of the experience.

"With social media, there's always that distance there," he said.

Still, Haven hasn't let the pandemic close off his creative side completely. Over the summer, he channeled his frustration into creating a novelty song and accompanying video called "I Hate Biscuits" that can be found on the Signal 99 Facebook page.

While many musicians have been caught off guard by how long the shutdown of live music venues has lasted, Haven said his background in health care helped him understand early on that the pandemic was going to change things for a prolonged period. He can foresee a scenario in which there is still little to no live music a year from now.

Chuck Haven of Signal 99 says his band will not perform before a live audience again until he is sure it will be a safe experience for fans and band members alike.

Haven acknowledged the longer the current situation drags on, the more tempted he is to try some virtual performances. But he is adamant about not performing for a live audience until he is convinced it's safe to do so — for him, his bandmates and the audience.

"I knew (the virus) was not going to go away anytime soon," he said. "I, for one, am not going to push for a live show any time soon, especially when there's no cure for it. I don't want to be responsible for a show where's somebody's exposed to it and dies from it."

Taking a cautious approach may not be the best thing for his music career, but Haven believes it's the responsible thing to do.

"We've got to think about their safety," he said, describing the close-knit nature of the metal music community. "In a mosh pit, when people fall, you have to pick each other up. That's the mentality."

Coming up with a new plan

It's likely no local group has been hit harder by the pandemic than DDAT. The jazz-hip hop quartet had raised its national profile considerably over the previous several months and was primed for a breakout year with dozens of shows booked in major markets across the country.

Anderson said those booking commitments remain in place, even if no one knows when they'll be fulfilled. His group has used the down time since March to reorganize under a corporate structure called DDAT Management Inc., a move it long had identified as a goal. Band members are now employees and corporate officers, and the company includes a booking agency. Anderson also said the firm is designed to offer music consulting and management services to other groups.

Delbert Anderson, the leader of DDAT, says his group has used its down time during the pandemic to complete a new organizational structure.

"We've taken full advantage of this COVID time to, sit down and create our business plan, and develop more projects and more tours," Anderson said. "Everyone is looking forward to the future. We're technically still booking, but we're booking in the future. It keeps us excited and motivated. When this is all over, and we can start playing again, we're going to be far better off than we were before. We've had time to dig into our flaws as a group."

The group has performed a handful of virtual shows as part of online festivals, Anderson said, and he anticipates doing more in the future. But DDAT's focus of late has been recording and mastering its new disc, "Born in an Odd Time."

The group prepared for the experience by essentially creating its own bubble. DDAT members quarantined together for three weeks before they went into the studio for rehearsals and even shared living quarters during the recording process itself.

The album itself reflects the group's sense of ambition. South African John Lindamann, a two-time Grammy winner, serves as the producer. And it features such guest artists as Phil Manzanera, the longtime lead guitarist for Roxy Music who has collaborated with the likes of David Byrne from the Talking Heads, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd and Steve Winwood.

Anderson acknowledged DDAT likely won't be able to tour in support of the disc for quite some time. But he said having new music ready for release when the pandemic is over will position his band to be successful at a new level, citing the interest the group is receiving all over the U.S. and even in Africa.

"We're going to be some busy folks," he said, explaining that, oddly, DDAT seems to have advanced its agenda more during the pandemic than it did when it was touring regularly.

While Delbert Anderson sees the digital world playing a much greater world in the music business in the future, he says that doesn't mean live performances are dead.

"The right doors have been opening at the right time for us," he said. "Things have been moving very quickly for us. It's strange, it really is."

DDAT Management Inc. has gone so far as to assemble a film crew that followed the band into the studio and documented the recording process. That video element will become an integral part of the group's presentation package in the future, Anderson said, explaining that that is one of his takeaways from the pandemic.

"One of the reasons we hired a film team is we knew they were going to have a role in this," he said, describing how live performances are likely to change after the virus has run its course.

Even before the pandemic, the nature of live shows was changing, Anderson said, explaining that a hybrid of live and virtual performances is likely to become the norm.

"That's why most musicians were already headed that way," he said. "It's greater outreach, another way of building more fans. … COVID just forced it. You have to do it that way."

That's not to say Anderson believes the digital realm will come to dominate the music scene. There's still no substitute for the energy of witnessing a show in person, he said, but it's up to the artists themselves to remind folks of that.

"I think every artist right now has a responsibility of keeping that intact," he said. "Arts is important. And if we get rid of it, we all become robots."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.