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Zack Willis

Though many states and communities are slowly reopening in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been a particularly tough few months for musicians who made their livelihood playing music in a live setting. Because of as much, we’ve been checking in with various artists throughout the area to see how they’ve been coping during lockdown.

This week, we caught up with Zack Willis, leader of local rockers Middle Kid. Among the things we discussed was his obsession with Vampire Weekend (and their bootlegged merchandise that I, myself, am now obsessing over), why he put Middle Kid on hiatus some months back, if he’s now reignited his passion for playing music and why Silent Old Mtns., The Fun Boys and Mr. Husband have helped him get through the pandemic. If you’d like to learn more about Middle Kid, check out their BandCamp at middlekid.bandcamp.com or hop on over to their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/middlekidmusic.

1. What were you listening to while self-quarantining and what about it made you want to listen to it during a pandemic?

Willis: I feel like anyone who follows me in any capacity can already guess what I’m going to say, but right before the pandemic happened, I had a really sudden desire to check out Vampire Weekend despite being completely uninterested for pretty much the entirety of their career. So I checked out their latest record, ‘Father of the Bride,’ and I have been on a kick that has been so powerful that I’ve been completely unable to escape its grasp. I’ve gotten into their bootleg merch scene, I’ve gotten into Ezra Koenig’s internet radio show, ‘Time Crisis,’ and the bootleg merch scene for that, and to be honest, it’s been an incredible escape during the pandemic. The entire vibe and community is super positive and kind and even before the pandemic, that’s definitely something I had been looking for. Outside of that, lots of The Weeknd and My Morning Jacket. There’s a Vampire Weeknd joke in there somewhere, I guess.

2. Have you come across any livestreams/internet-based performances throughout the pandemic that have stuck out? If so, which ones and why?

Willis: Admittedly I haven’t spent as much time with the livestreams as I wish I had. There are so many incredible musicians that are finding super cool ways to circumvent our inability to leave the house and I respect that creativity so much! If I had to pick, though, I’d say that Ratboys are doing an exemplary job at just sheer output of online shows. How do you play so many online shows and manage to keep them so diverse?!

3. From afar, you’ve seemingly had a love/hate relationship with making music — where do you stand currently? I know Middle Kid was on hiatus for a bit, but are there any plans to start it back up, if the world would ever allow? That in mind, have you been writing at all throughout the last four months, considering the uncertainty of the world and all that’s going on?

Willis: Ever since we took the hiatus, I’ve been jokingly saying ‘music is dead’ anytime anyone brings up anything Middle Kid related, but I recently re-discovered some photos from a weekend we played in Baltimore and Animal House in Richmond, which was just this big college house’s living room. The energy was wild, and it was unlike anything Middle Kid ever played. I just want to do that again, but I figure it’ll be a long time. Outside of that, it’s just about whether or not Andrew and Austin are available! Andrew’s got Silent Old Mtns. stuff and cool married life things, and Austin has his clothing brand, Frederick Bound, which is doing really well for him and makes me super happy. But they both seem enthusiastic, so if the opportunity presents itself, I think we’d be happy to get back together. With that said, I haven’t really been writing. Mostly just learning covers and things to practice playing guitar and maybe trying to channel some other creative expressions (see also: Vampire Weekend bootleg shirts).

4. What’s the most positive takeaway you’ve been able to experience from all the self-quarantining and the art world being on pause for the time being?

Willis: I think, especially in my case, I spent a lot of time worrying about marketing and booking shows and it was stressing me out to a significant degree. On top of that, the culture of thinking of people in terms of social capital when it comes to social media networking is a really toxic mindset, and I found myself ensnared in that mindset fairly frequently. All of that was on my mind before the pandemic and is what ultimately drove me to put a pause on the band to reconsider why I actually wanted to be a musician in the first place. Quarantine has allowed me the time to take a massive step back and think about what is genuinely important to me so I can hopefully rejoin the music world with a better outlook on the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ with less worry on the ‘how.’

5. If there’s one song that you think could help everybody get through these uncertain times, what would it be and why?

Willis: My partner, Emily, introduced me to this wild Italian Disco music last year when we were hanging out by the pool, specifically a song called ‘Me Quale Idea’ by Pino D’Angiò and I genuinely think it’s the type of music that will put anyone in a good mood. That has nothing to do with the pandemic, but really, just check out that song and dance in your kitchen or something.

BONUS QUESTION: What artists, local or not, do you think have done a great job staying engaged musically online and what about what they’re doing and have done sets them apart?

Willis: I have to give a shout out to Andrew Bromhal for all the Silent Old Mtns. sets he’s done on Facebook — that’s been super cool. Outside of that, The Fun Boys’ new record, ‘I’m Wide Awake, It’s Fun’ is really, really great. It makes me happy that we have such a wild and eclectic band in town. At the beginning of quarantine, the Mr. Husband record, ‘Songs of Friendship, Songs of Wonderment’ really got me through it. Real positive vibes.

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