We (Safely) Go Into The Studio With Jesse Malin During Covid-19

It’s not immediately obvious how to find Flux Studios in New York City’s East Village neighborhood. The entrance is camouflaged in a huge swirl of colorful graffiti, with only a tiny label on the door intercom to tell visitors they’ve come to the right place. After being buzzed inside, the gritty ambiance continues during a slow ride in an industrial-style elevator. Once inside the studio itself, however, the atmosphere instantly becomes welcoming thanks to the friendly staff and the cozy, vibrantly-colored rooms full of state-of-the-art equipment.

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On a Saturday night in late November, this is where singer-songwriter Jesse Malin and his bandmates Derek Cruz (guitar) and Rob Clores (keyboards) are working with engineer Geoff Sanoff for an overdub session for a beautiful new song, the evocative and wistful “Keep On Burning.” It is one of many tracks they’ve recently laid down that may end up on Malin’s next album (for Wicked Cool Records), which he and Cruz are co-producing.

Derek Cruz \ Photo by Katherine Yeske Taylor

As Clores experiments with various shimmering keyboard parts in the next room, Cruz offers frequent feedback. Malin also chimes in with suggestions, though he’s mainly focused on rewriting the lyrics, alternatively scribbling in a notebook or pecking away on his laptop. “I’m writing them as that’s going on because I’m getting inspired by hearing the track go around and around and getting hypnotized by it,” he says.

This upcoming album will be Malin’s ninth solo studio release (and he’s made albums with various bands since he was a teenager), so being in a recording studio is certainly nothing new for him. However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, musicians are having to adapt their working style as never before, and this session is no exception.

The strict safety measures start before anyone even enters Flux, with everyone required to fill out documentation (verifying no known contact with anyone with the virus and a contact tracing information sheet) before even being allowed out of the elevator. Once inside, mask-wearing and social distancing are strictly enforced, and surfaces are frequently disinfected.

Sanoff (who has also worked with Little Steven, Bruce Springsteen, and Fountains of Wayne, among many others) says he likes engineering at Flux because of these precautions, adding that “They’ve also installed filtration in the A/C system. They take everyone’s temperature. They’ve done as much as one can do to make a close, confined space where people talk and sing all day long as safe as possible.” He says has only encountered one artist, at a session earlier this year, who initially resisted following these rules.

Malin, who usually spends ten hours or more in the studio at a stretch, says he and his bandmates appreciate the safety measures, but other consequences of this pandemic aren’t so easily navigated, such as budget restraints: “In the past, I had more money from touring and saving up for sessions, so we have more limited time to go in [now].” When they are able to schedule sessions, he says, “We go in for these bursts and I try to get a lot done.”

Cruz says the band members have felt safe working together, even in closer quarters such as the recording studio, “because we’ve been isolating with each other. Our [pandemic] pod is the band.” Malin agrees: “We’ve had to work more privately and more selectively,” he says, though he adds that this isn’t how they prefer to do things. “We’ve liked to have friends come in and give us some perspective, or maybe someone filming or taking photos or journalists – people coming in that add to the vibe.”

Certainly, at the start of 2020, it would’ve seemed inconceivable to say that Malin and his band would wind up insulating themselves like this. Malin’s latest album, Sunset Kids, was released last year to much critical and commercial success, so he had extensive tour dates set through this year to continue that momentum (including a slot at the prestigious Glastonbury Festival in the summer).

In fact, before the pandemic hit, Malin was wondering how they were going to fit recording sessions for a new album into their busy schedule. “We were going to come back [to New York] in between tours and record like maniacs to get the record done for a fall release, which would have been this October,” he says. They did manage to get a few songs recorded in February before setting off for what should’ve been a lengthy European tour.

Instead, the band were in London in March when they got the news that everything was shutting down. They played their last gig on Friday the 13th, then returned to New York City mere hours before a strict city-wide lockdown was enforced.

As if fear of the virus itself and the jarring experience of being yanked off the road wasn’t worrisome enough, Malin had an additional serious concern: what would happen with all of the venues he co-owns in New York City? (He co-owns the clubs Bowery Electric, Niagara, Lola NYC, and also oversees the club Berlin Under A.) “I was worried about everything I’d worked for crumbling,” he says.

Malin didn’t allow himself to wallow for long, though. “I just said, ‘You know what? I’m going to figure this out.’” This is in keeping with his long history of refusing to allow things to bring him down, starting when he formed his first band, Heart Attack, when he was twelve years old growing up in Queens. Ignoring naysayers who said Heart Attack were too young to join the downtown hardcore punk scene, they eventually played gigs at legendary New York venues like CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City (Malin was still only in his mid-teens by that time).

“I’ve always found solutions for situations,” Malin says, calling from his apartment a few days after the recording session. “As a kid, I think that I was attracted to hardcore punk because you could make things happen. If someone said, ‘No, you can’t play here, you’re too young,’ we said, ‘All right, can we come in the daytime and do a matinee with no drinks?’ If we couldn’t get our stuff in record companies that were out there, we formed our own label. If we couldn’t get in magazines, we created fanzines. And so on and so forth.”

Malin went on to find success throughout the ‘90s with the glam-punk band D Generation. He used the money he earned from that band to open his first venue so that he and other musicians would have a good place to perform and rehearse (and be given “day jobs” between tours). This is still his mission with his venues to this day: “For me, the idea of owning clubs is to treat people the way we get treated when it’s good when we tour.”

Rob Clores \ Katherine Yeske Taylor

After D Generation called it quits in the late ‘90s, Malin again showed his survival skills, buying a van and running a moving company, which eventually turned into working as a roadie for other artists. He did that until his solo career took off, starting with his 2002 debut album, The Fine Art of Self Destruction, and he has remained successful ever since.

Almost twenty years later, Malin hasn’t lost his instinct for doing whatever it takes to make things work out. By the end of March, he had learned how to livestream solo shows (named The Fine Art of Self-Distancing, in a spoof on his debut album title), broadcasting from his living room via his iPhone duct-taped in a makeshift “tripod.” Featuring his emotive playing and often hilarious quick-witted between-song banter (mixed with unflinching descriptions of what New York was like as the pandemic ravaged the city), the shows soon earned rave reviews.

Encouraged by this response, Malin had Clores begin joining him for the shows – though Clores recalls the trepidation they felt in those early days: “We were super, super careful. I remember wearing gloves to open the door of his apartment and stuff like that. I put the mask on and I was as far away from him in the living room as I could get.”

Throughout the ensuing months, Malin has made The Fine Art of Self-Distancing a more and more ambitious undertaking. In June, he moved the show to the stage at the Bowery Electric, where he and his full band play to an empty room (save for the small crew needed to run the multi-camera livestream). Observing COVID-19 precautions guidelines, they perform full sets, often running up to two hours long. The shows also include guest appearances from other artists, either performing or being interviewed by Malin. Shows are available to stream for a few days after the original Thursday night performance.

Once he got over the shock of playing to an unseen audience, Malin says he came to realize there are a couple of unexpected benefits to playing this type of show. “I learned that we can reach people that can’t go to gigs due to health conditions, or who live in parts of the world that I never toured. So that’s been the upside,” he says.

Cruz points out other positive outcomes from these shows: “At the end of rehearsal, after working on all the music for the livestream, we’ll start working on new songs and new ideas. We’re really one of the only bands that I know of in New York City that has been playing together consistently every week since the summer, so the band has gotten better than they’ve ever been.” Clores agrees: “It’s definitely been great to be doing it every week for months. It keeps the band tight, and that actually is a big thing, especially as we go in to do recording sessions.”

For the next two Fine Art of Self-Distancing shows, the band will play Malin’s 2015 album New York Before the War in its entirely on December 10. Then, for their holiday show on December 17, they plan to play the 1973 Rolling Stones album Goats Head Soup in full. Special guests for the holiday show will include Sam Rockwell, Brian Fallon, Joseph Arthur, Willie Nile, and Don DiLego, with additional artists to be announced soon.

Part of the proceeds from the holiday show will go toward sustaining Bowery Electric and Malin’s other venues until the pandemic restrictions are lifted. As an artist and a business owner, he is immensely frustrated by the stringent restrictions still in place in New York compared to other states, which are preventing him from re-opening his venues at all. For example, in New York, musicians cannot play paid gigs – no tickets can be sold to shows. Artists are working around that by performing as “incidental music” in settings such as restaurants, but clubs like Malin’s, which are solely meant for music performances, must remain closed (but their rent and other bills are still due). The upshot, Malin says, is that “musicians are not allowed to work. It’s a very upsetting thing.”

However, Malin adds, “I don’t feel this is just a New York-centric thing – it’s everywhere. Los Angeles, Nashville, Iowa South Dakota – musicians everywhere are going through this with the venues with live music.” There is a relief bill that the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) is fighting to get passed (similar to measures that the U.K. implemented earlier this year), but there is no indication of when or if that will ever come to fruition.

“No disrespect, because I have so many people I know that have been sick, and I’ve lost dear friends and it’s heartbreaking,” Malin says, “so I understand distancing and capacity guidelines – but a lot of the rules don’t make sense. It’s really hurt artists. As a musician, one gig is like ten rehearsals. You really get a lot. You say something in front of people, and you find out if it’s real. It reverberates off the back of the room.”

Until the day when venues can all reopen and gigs can resume, Malin is trying to bring in as many other artists as he can to do their own shows and rehearsals at Bowery Electric. He wishes he could expand this to his other venues, but “I just don’t have enough funds to set up cameras at all these places – it’s expensive to get that running and have people run it and be able to book it and also watch with the guidelines – you can’t just let people run amok,” he says.

Still, if anyone can figure out a way around all these setbacks, it is probably Malin, whose dogged determination has helped reaffirm his reputation as a leader in New York City’s rock scene. “He’s the hardest-working musician in the East Village,” Clores says of Malin. “He might be the hardest-working musician in all of New York City, actually.”

Despite all the difficulties, Malin says he feels like he’s in a fortunate position, particularly when it comes to making a new album during this time. “It feels like a real gift to be able to do this,” he says. “I tell my friends: ‘This is the time to create.’ This is a good time to get these things ready that you’ll take to the world later.” For now, though, he says goodbye so he can work on filling out forms to get grants to help keep his venues open. He is optimistic: “You take what you have and you accept it – and from here, we’ll go forward.”

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