By Martin Boncia
The Duskwhales spent much of 2019 recording and promoting their latest EP, the glam-rock-inspired “Take It Back.” In addition to the Northern Virginia brewery circuit, they were regular fixtures at venues like Jammin’ Java in Fairfax, Gypsy Sally’s in DC, and Quincy’s in Gaithersburg. Their last show in Loudoun County was alongside My Kid Brother at the Tally Ho Theatre that June.
Today, in early spring of 2021, the Duskwhales are taking stock of what they accomplished in 2020, despite their concert calendar being emptied in the aftermath of the COVID-19 lockdown. The band has pivoted to the studio, focusing on writing and releasing new songs at a steady pace to stay engaged with their audience as social distancing guidelines continue to curtail large gatherings.
The trio, composed of guitarist Seth Flynn, drummer Chris Baker, and keyboardist Brian Majewski, entered 2020 with a string of brewery shows and some time tracking at 38 North Studios in Falls Church. The sessions were a departure from the “Take It Back” sounds, most of whose songs were written with live performance in mind.
“We were taking a much more pop style with the new songs,” Majewski said. “Since we’re not thinking about how to play it live, we can get a lot more experimental.”
The result was songs like their recent single “Running Joke,” which has a danceable four-on-the-floor drum sound, arpeggiator runs, and a vocoder.
Flynn credits much of the sound to their producer Jim Ebert, who also worked with them on “Take it Back.”
“He can pull these ideas out that we’d never think of, and he can take the songs in interesting directions,” Majewski said. “With this one he kind of took charge a little bit more and he was very set on the kind of poppy sound he wanted, and we were just more the vessel he was working through. It was cool, because we’d never done something like that before.”
Virginia entered lockdown just as the sessions, which yielded five songs, were completed. In the meantime, Duskwhales’ once-busy gigging calendar was wiped clean.
“The biggest shock was to our wallets,” Baker said.
“You notice it pretty quickly,” Majewski said. “Wow, that extra few hundred dollars really did go a long way. It has been difficult, since we’d been doing it for so long, and we’d gotten used to that constant stream of revenue, that it had been worked into our individual budgets. We were able to live off of that and the other things that we were doing, so when that stopped happening, it definitely…”
“We had to up our side-hustle game,” Baker added.
The Duskwhales would not reconvene physically for months. Instead, the individual band members worked through the summer of 2020 doing livestreams on Facebook and Instagram, while continuing to write and remotely collaborate with Ebert on mixing the songs from the 38 North sessions back in March. Meanwhile, Majewski began work on a home studio, which eventually moved into his basement when the two decided to merge their social “pods” after remaining socially distant for the summer.
The band first physically reconvened in September, performing a livestream produced outdoors by Optimum Audio and Cancer Can Rock for the Broken Circle Concert Series. As winter came and the few opportunities for outdoor shows disappeared, the Duskwhales began using their new studio to try to get a handle on a massive backlog of songs.
“The longer we spend not working on stuff together, the longer our individual collection of things gets,” Baker said. “It was almost inevitable that we’d have to start chipping away at these.” Indeed, the band has often floated the concept of a triple-album, with each third written entirely by one band member. “We have far too many songs,” Majewski said.
The band now meets in their basement studio twice a week to write, rehearse, and record. This marks the band’s first time self-producing since their 2018 “Hospital Dreams” EP, written by Baker while he was undergoing chemotherapy.
The process has been a learning curve.
“We don’t have anyone to tell us that it’s done,” Majewski said, as he touches on learning how to manage now-limitless studio time to avoid obsessing over individual parts. “We are still at the beginning of this endeavor, I do think we are figuring out how the workflow goes, and our process. But it’s coming together pretty quickly, I think, and we’re having a great time. We’re having a lot of fun. This is definitely my favorite era.”
As the band continued to work on their next recordings, they began to release tracks from the 38 North sessions, starting with “Dressed In Lilac” in September, “On Top of a Mountain” in November, “Running Joke” in February, and most recently, “Put Me Down”, a re-recording of a song dating back to 2012.
In the meantime, they picked up their performing schedule, in January recording a live set at a new Leesburg venue called The Barn, founded by Alex Salser and Andy Valeni. The performance was filmed and made available online.
“We jumped at the opportunity to get some really nice audio and video content of us playing again,” Flynn said.
“It was great to get the chance to play at The Barn, since it sort of scratched that itch of live performing in a safe environment and the ability to reach new audiences online,” Baker added. “We’re really stoked with how the videos turned out and are looking forward to seeing more artists showcased at that amazing new venue.”
The band also began to play breweries again—socially distant shows, where the band wore masks while they played. “Not too many places are scheduling,” Majewski said. “There’s a couple venues that we used to frequent all the time that are slowly but surely starting to book bands now that spring and summer are nearing. It was a little bit weird getting back into the performance mindset, since we hadn’t done that since last March.”
The band tries to balance the opportunity of playing shows with the risk of public gatherings during the pandemic.
“You want to support these places, but you don’t necessarily want to go back there and hang out and expose yourself to the risk of the virus,” Flynn said. “It’s difficult striking that balance. We used to play almost every weekend—having lost that was a weird shock to deal with, and we’ve kind of gotten used to it by now.”
The band continues to perform through the spring, but can’t picture a return to normal gigging anytime soon.
“We were recently reminiscing how fun it was to go on tour and have a different place to play every night. I don’t know how realistic that’s going to be in the near future—the idea of playing in people’s basements, where you have no idea who you’re standing next to,” Baker said. “A DIY tour is kind of like a super-spreader event in the making. I think we’ll know once we get there.”
“If we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that we have no idea,” Baker said. “Is there going to be a return to mosh pits, and people not minding if they’re stacked like sardines, or are we going to integrate social distancing into our daily lives, so you don’t have to stand next to someone while they cough on you? Maybe you should wear a mask when you’re sick all the time?”
The Duskwhales’ music and tour dates can be found at www.theduskwhales.com. Their performance at The Barn in Leesburg can be found at www.getinthebarn.com/episodes and gatherthedistrict.com/the-duskwhales. Their latest single, “Put Me Down,” can be found on streaming sites and Bandcamp.