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Coronavirus Kent: how bands are looking to go viral, in a good way, as lockdown hits music

Keep on rockin' in the free world? Probably not such a good idea with Covid-19 going around like a Taylor Swift Instagram post.

Three weeks ago time bells rang in pubs around the country for the last time, and for musicians and fans it was the last note they'd hear played live until... well, we still don't know when.

The Libertines' Carl Barât - second from left - is among artists heading to a virtual stage near you
The Libertines' Carl Barât - second from left - is among artists heading to a virtual stage near you

For some the ringing of those bells would soon fade as they poured themselves a tumbler of home-brew, stuck their headphones in and kicked back in their armchair to listen to their favourite lockdown anthems. You might choose the immortal apocalypse soundtrack Gimme Shelter from Dartford's finest - that's the Rolling Stones, not Pete Tong, although anything by the latter would be apt - or perhaps if you're sick of the sight of your family you could blast out Can't Stand Me Now by the Margate-based Libertines.

There's a lot out there to choose from, but nothing live, and for some bands that's a painful fact that no amount of ironically humorous song titles will alleviate, especially if you depend on gigs for your living.

Some will get by - Mick and Keith will probably have just about enough spare change to tide them over until lockdown's over and they can fire up the old tour jet again - but others have had to start getting inventive, playing gigs over live feeds on social media, forging new online communities, or retreating into their home studios to conjure artistic reflections on the coronavirus pandemic.

Take Cliffe-based musician Dan Turnbull, better known as Funke and The Two Tone Baby, the 'one-man mechanical alt-blues band'. As that introduction suggests, loop pedal specialist Dan was an inventive soul to begin with, but he's had to crank the creative dial on his amplifier up to 11 in the face of lockdown.

Funke and the Two Tone Baby
Funke and the Two Tone Baby

"I was four days into a 20 date support tour with Dutty Moonshine Big Band when the tour was pulled due to safety concerns about our audiences at the start of the coronavirus outbreak," recalls Dan. "We were in Clitheroe at the time and had to unceremoniously drive home."

Turnbull had taken December, January and February off - traditionally the quietest time for musicians - to write new material, knowing he had the 20 date tour for March and April, rolling into festival season, but with the tour and almost every festival now cancelled he's facing seven months without earning.

"Luckily I've had a few royalty payments which have levelled me out," he added, "but I am still slowly drowning, unlike some of my colleagues who are quickly drowning.

"The live streaming phenomenon has really taken off to help subsidise musicians' income for the short term. I ran one during the first week of lockdown to a fantastic response. Unfortunately my internet is so poor out in Cliffe that my stream was nothing but glitch and stutter for an hour, which means streaming for me, currently, is completely un-viable. To say I'm disappointed is an understatement as I'm missing out on the innovation and creativity that these live streams provide a platform for."

Undeterred, Dan came up with his own scheme, 'Quarantine Covers', asking fans to suggest songs to cover and posting them a week later - which has so far led to unique takes on The B-52's 'Rock Lobster', and a mash-up of Led Zeppelin and Beastie Boys, with 'Clint Eastwood' by Gorillaz still to come.

"It's keeping my eye in musically, maintaining a strong social media presence and attempting to create something fun and light-hearted in otherwise dark time," he added. "We're all doing what we can and the sense of community and family amongst my friends, family and fans has strengthened greatly. That part has been very lovely. Watching all my shows and festivals for the year cancel or double book themselves is not. I imagine it'll get worse before it gets better but I'm staying positive. You have to really."

While Funke and the Two Tone Baby can head to band practice in his own living room, it's been a near impossible situation for actual bands such as folk outfit The Flowing, with members strewn about Kent in Margate Sittingbourne, Chatham and Gillingham.

Not only that, but April had been set to be a big month for the band. "Fans of The Flowing will be bubbling over with excitement at news the folk band is to launch a new album at The Hot Tin," reported the Medway Messenger excitedly and naively at the beginning of March. "The Medway band will release their hotly-anticipated new EP For the Homeless and the Lonesome, next month with a launch party at the Faversham venue on Saturday, April 4."

Medway folk band The Flowing. Left to right: Dave Pickett, Vicky Price, Hannah Ellerby, and Theo Dudhill. Photo: Aaron Negus
Medway folk band The Flowing. Left to right: Dave Pickett, Vicky Price, Hannah Ellerby, and Theo Dudhill. Photo: Aaron Negus

How quickly things changed... Speaking from her home this week, The Flowing's French horn player, accordionist and backing vocalist Vicky Price was trying to sound upbeat, but she admits they've taken a knock.

"As a band everything has been put on hold," she says. "I put a lot of time and effort into it, and we invested in it. Normally we do a gig and we just turn up and get paid a small amount of money, which is fine, but this was a special occasion. We had hired a venue and we invested in it.

"Initially we thought we would go ahead before lockdown, but as it got closer to it we started feeling it wouldn't be very responsible. Just before we were going to make the decision, everyone went into lockdown and we had to cancel."

With venues left in a difficult position The Flowing know it will be a while until they can confirm a launch party date, but in the meantime they've been left with hundreds of copies of finished EPs sitting somewhere in a storeroom, and they won't be finding their way to fans any time soon unless the band decide on a soft launch.

For now they're trying to find sparks of light in the gloom.

"I see this as a time for us to work individually - to practice and write," adds Vicky. "Or we can perhaps send snippets of songs to each other and work that way.

"It's a double-sided coin - there's time to be creative but you're on lockdown terms. I enjoy playing with other people but that's not going to happen, so I've had to find ways to play on my own. It's trying to find the positives. I really hope we will have new songs to play by the end of it."

If they do, The Flowing can probably count on fans to be there on the other side of lockdown, but ultimately all bands need people to turn up to live gigs in the long run.

"We don't have a huge excitable fan base, but we've been going a long time," says Vicky. "We've a small group of loyal followers who are quite dedicated, so I know they will support us when lockdown finishes and we do some gigs. For bands who are riding a wave and are becoming popular this will be heartbreaking, but for bands with a long-term fan base it feels like you're in this together."

One band who had been riding such a wave over the past year was Maidstone indie rock power trio Tres Kings, whose punchy riffs and catchy choruses had festival audiences bouncing around last summer but will be lying dormant this year - until Covid 19 realises no one wants to join it on the festival circuit and crawls off down the nearest chemical toilet.

Maidstone indie-rock trio Tres Kings
Maidstone indie-rock trio Tres Kings

Nevertheless drummer Rhu Fful is putting a brave face on the situation.

"It was weird for us," he explained. "We hadn't actually booked anything during March or April really. No idea the reason behind this. It was accidental.

"We did however have to cancel the tour which we had planned with the Ovines and Crybaby Special. This was obviously a huge bummer. We had to refund a lot of people but as we hadn't spent the money it was fairly straight forward. Lost a few deposits though as far as I'm aware but I'm sure we could probably chase them back now it's getting this serious. Or at least move the tour date."

The band have been keeping sane amidst uncertainty by focussing on the upcoming release of their fourth single Sucking on Lemons on April 25, preparing their video and bombarding potential reviewers with emails.

But Rhu added: "We are missing playing of course and rehearsing too. Luckily for us we all work hard in our jobs so we've been financially sound, but I know a lot of full time musicians are suffering."

It's not just about bands though. Elsewhere in Maidstone, The Flower Pot has been hit as hard as any pub and music venue, but organisers of the regular Tuesday Jam Night have taken the bold step or taking the event into the virtual realm. This impressive Facebook video shows it's possible, as long as you've got the right technical gear at home, but jam nights and open mic nights, the same as any band, will ultimately need live venues to survive.

Perhaps it's the technical wizards who will flourish as the traditional music platforms struggle - people like producer Graham Waller, who was doing business online and producing bands virtually long before Covid 19 hit.

"The way I see it, we are the lucky ones," he said from his 'mix cave' in Gillingham. "My experience with it has been fairly mild, business as usual with mixing and mastering as most of it is done online. Where I've taken a hit is with production work in the studio having to cancel my sessions because of social distancing rules. That said, if musicians have set-ups to record at home, I can still produce their performances via Skype or zoom and have them send files over."

Graham Waller in his Gillingham studio
Graham Waller in his Gillingham studio

It's also given him the chance to work on his own project, and fans can look out for his new retro-synth Strike Eagle EP from April 17.

For others though, these are uncharted waters, and even the grittiest inhabitants of the spit and sawdust circuit are having to venture online to ply their trade.

Who would have thought Margate's adopted sons the Libertines would be forced to venture into the smokeless, pixelated world of the virtual stage - but that was exactly what happened on Friday night when Carl Barât performed an exclusive Zoom event hosted by brewers and pub chain BrewDog in its virtual pub, the ‘BrewDog Open Arms’.

Then again, to quote an old Libertines song, "the stale chips are up and the hope stakes are down", so maybe this is a Time for Heroes to step up to the plate.

If there's something to be drawn from all this it's that most bands are recognising there's as much opportunity to be found in lockdown as restrictions, and so are listeners.

Or to put it another way, to quote an old Dartford band - you can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need.

To find out what’s going on in the county and for all the latest entertainment news click here.

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