By Riley Currie
Phase three of the Washington COVID-19 response plan may seem far away, but Bellingham’s DIY music community is already gearing up for what may be a slow return to normal.
According to the state’s current plan, phase three will allow gatherings of no more than 50 people. That’s near capacity for many of Bellingham’s smaller house show venues, making those small shows possible.
Promoters, musicians and attendees are all eager to start having house shows again, but remain concerned about the community’s safety.
28 year old Darby Carroll has been involved with DIY music for 14 years. They’re the singer and primary songwriter for Whatcom County “poser violence” band Opioid Crisis, as well as a member of hip hop collective Death Squad Elite.
Carroll currently runs Nuclear Family Booking and promotes all ages shows on Instagram, on top of being a booking intern at Bellingham venue The Shakedown.
“Before I am a queer, before I am an American, before I am a Puerto Rican, I'm a punk,” Carroll said. “It's my lifestyle, it means the most to me, and having that on pause really hurts.”
Prior to social distancing, Carroll was a strong advocate for all ages and pay-what-you-can concerts. A longtime member of the DIY scene, they know many people rely on live music for a sense of community.
“I’m very eager to start booking shows again, because I know that there's young kids in Whatcom County who need DIY music,” Carroll said. “But I also don't want to be seen as the person who rushes into it and risks everyone’s safety.”
Carroll created a poll in the Bellingham House Shows Facebook group, asking when members will feel comfortable returning to DIY shows.
The majority of voters chose the option “not for another few months/weeks/I will feel uneasy for a while.” Others voted “no shows period/until there’s a vaccine.”
Alex Wrede is one of the majority who feels uncomfortable returning to house shows right away. Wrede plays drums in the Bellingham-based band Moonraker, and performed at and attended house shows often prior to social distancing.
“I miss that part of what used to be my life,” Wrede said. “But I just don’t see it being a wise decision to open up house shows again.”
House shows take place in, well, houses. Most house show venues put the band and audience in one or two connected rooms, making social distancing virtually impossible, according to Wrede.
“Even if you’re social distancing at a show, your odds of transmission aren’t zero,” Wrede said. “You’re all in the same room for one or two hours, you’re all breathing the same air.”
Bella Cole-Preciado plays drums in Bellingham band Bobby Petite, and previously hosted at the house show venue The Busyard. She’s written album reviews for local music newspaper What’s Up! Magazine, and promoted BAMF 2020 (Bellingham Arts & Music Festival).
Cole-Preciado is also the founder of DISTASTEFUL Music Festival, a DIY venue arts and music crawl. DISTASTEFUL was going to be a 30-hour event that included eight DIY venues, as well as vendors and live art. The event was postponed due to COVID-19.
She does not think concerts should happen until a vaccine is being distributed.
“It’s a sad reality to face, but the health and well-being of our community should be put far ahead of live music happening in Bellingham again,” Cole-Preciado said. “When our house show music scene returns, I hope it returns accessible for all.”
House shows don’t always prioritize the health and safety of those playing or attending, according to Cole-Preciado. Many people felt uncomfortable at shows even prior to COVID-19, due to sexual assault, marginalization and limited accessibility.
While she misses live music, she encourages members of Bellingham’s DIY music community to use this time away to focus on ways house shows can be more comfortable and inclusive when they start to happen again.
“We have the chance to rebuild and restructure a scene that’s accessible, safe and made for all,” she said.
Maxwell Lemke plays sousaphone in Analog Brass, a Bellingham-based brass house band. He lived in the house show venue Luigi’s Mansion during his first year at Western, and has been a part of the house show community since.
Before COVID-19, the Bellingham scene was going into a new phase of growth and reestablishment, according to Lemke. After a few quiet years, house show venues were popping up all over Bellingham.
“A lot of my career is built around live performance,” Lemke said. For months, he was playing one to two shows with Analog Brass every weekend. “We’re still establishing ourselves, and this is a really big curveball for us.”
Some musicians are turning to pre-recorded concerts and live streaming. But there’s a significant cost associated with producing music from home.
“Recording with a phone really separates the viewing experience for an audience,” Lemke said. Analog Brass is still producing music and working to keep the production value as high as possible, but the technology and equipment needed to do so is expensive.
The band is currently working to organize a socially distant concert in their drummer’s backyard, following the release of their first original single on May 29.
“We want to participate in this whole live stream thing, but we want to do it responsibly,” Lemke said. “We want to test the water and see how safe we can make something like that.” The band is planning on using tape measures to mark ten-foot distances between one another so they can perform their full set simultaneously while ten feet apart.
Austin Colwell has lived in Bellingham house show venue Moth Manor since January. He has played a number of house show venues solo as Harbor Day. He is also a member of Bellingham band Hockey Teeth, the most recent winner of Western’s Sounds of the Underground battle of the bands competition.
Music has been Colwell’s transitional form of income during COVID-19. When his electric guitar broke last week, he put together a fundraiser show on Instagram Live.
“I don’t know if it’s the stimulus check, or what,” Colwell said. “But people really came together to help out. The replacement guitar is coming on Friday.”
Colwell is hopeful that house show venues attempting remote shows and live streams will be able to receive similar support from the community. Musicians and venues are already using social media to organize and promote online events as best they can, but it’s going to take some adjustment.
“People are just going to have to be comfortable with a different type of intimacy,” Colwell said.
The traditional in-person closeness of a house show might be impossible during social distancing, but connection isn’t.
“It’s more like Skyping your mom,” Colwell added. “The connection might be wonky and everything, but you’re still there.”