The title of Jesse Malin’s first album, The Fine Art of Self Destruction, might have been a reference to the rock-n-roll lifestyle he leads as a musician and a partner in popular East Village bar/venues Niagara, Bowery Electric, Berlin, and Dream Baby. But with those bars “completely dead” thanks to the coronavirus shutdown, he’s self-isolating in his apartment on Avenue A, drinking herbal teas, doing “Taxi Driver-style” pushups for exercise, and hosting a new live YouTube show that goes by a slightly different name: “The Fine Art of Self Distancing.”
The show, which next airs on Saturday, April 11th at 4pm, virtually invites people into Malin’s own living room, where he entertains them with songs, stories and anecdotes from his life and career. “I thought we’d all be scheming for how we could play Madison Square Garden, not my living room,” he says, referring to his bandmates. “But I got over the awkwardness of it and I liked the idea that I could give money [via donations] to my band and crew.”
I spoke with Malin — who comes out with a new song produced by Lucinda Williams and Tom Overby, “Backstabber,” at the end of the month — about what it’s like being an artist quarantining in New York City right now, how the music scene will react to the pandemic, and how he manages to stay sane during this time.
In your latest livestream you described New York City as “abysmal” but you also talked about rebirth, because you’re really positive about the city getting back up on its own feet. As both a New Yorker and as a musician, how do you manage to stay positive?
Well, staying in touch with people is really important. And getting in touch — calling, texting, zooming, facetiming to let people know, maybe people you haven’t talked to in a long time, that you love them, that you’re thinking of them, that you’re there. It makes a big difference to reconnecting and staying connected, because it can get very lonely, and scary, and play on anxiety.
You seem to care a lot about your people and your community. In your live streams you do a lot of shoutouts through personal stories, and tragedies. Your quarantine show isn’t just mere entertainment. What’s its real purpose to you?
Well, it is to entertain, definitely. I want people to forget about their problems as much as possible. Here’s some songs and here’s some stories, and if I can do that, then I’m doing my job. And it’s a free service; we take donations to go to the band and the crew, but anybody could tune in.
Working from home is very different now, especially for someone like you, who’s a musician.
Yeah. We’re not playing for an audience. It’s weird not being with my band and being rehearsing or playing live and being around people. And I love my private time, I love my space. But so much about music and hard rock and roll is about unity, and nightlife, and connecting.
Your livestreams are very personal, and to draw a connection to your music, in Sunset Kids you got extremely more personal as well, abandoning the “mosh-pit culture” — you talk about loss, and you’re extremely aware of what’s happening around you. In light of this coronavirus situation, do you think you could’ve done these live streams also during your punk rock phase?
No. It’s weird but for me the hardcore scene was about getting together with people and seeing people, getting away from your neighborhood, your parents, your school, finding a way to express yourself and being alive out there in the world. This is a new experience to figure it out, but I wouldn’t have wanted to do this.
While talking to Rolling Stone about Sunset Kids you said that you have to find a way to wake up the next morning. I wonder what makes you wake up now, in this time.
Well, only having the hope that this will pass, really just the heartbeat of my body jumping out of bed. I can pull up the shade, see the sun, hear from people I love, make sure they’re still going and know that things are going to be good and crazy again and we’re gonna have fun.
You think about people and their stories a lot. What do you think about the people now?
I’m worried. I want to make sure they’re healthy and happy, and if they’re surviving and really not getting sick.
And yet, times of crisis usually are the most inspiring. Do you feel more inspired to write in a time like this? Or is cabin fever taking over?
When you’re a little stressed and worried sometimes it’s hard to focus. You’re worried about how you’re going to pay your bills or what’s going to happen. It took a little and it’s a little hard to break into that final focus, but when you can get into the zone and forget about what’s going on out there even for a couple hours, it is a reward.
You’re an owner and co-owner of many bars and venues in the East Village. How do you think the music scene will be affected by this situation?
I don’t know what’s gonna happen, I hope it’s gonna be like the Roaring 20s — jailbreak, and everyone wants to get out. I can’t wait to dance on the bars, have some tequilas, hear some music and see people again, and it might take a little bit of time, but I think it’s something that will be there.
How are you so sure?
People need music, people need to dance, people need to connect, and sometimes they need to get fucked up — not too fucked up, and not too often, but everybody needs to get out of their box, you know?
True. And it would benefit local bars and businesses as well. From a business perspective, how has the pandemic affected the East Village bars and venues you own or co-own?
Completely dead. Everybody’s out of work. They can collect unemployment if they can get through the website, which is brutal, jammed up and crashes all the time. But that doesn’t include their tips and what they would normally make, so it’s based off of just the minimum wage, and it’s a tip business.
Are you going to do something to help them out?
I’m going to create a week where we do fundraisers just for the bartenders, DJs, and people in the clubs. We started a GoFundMe for Niagara, Berlin, Dream Baby, Bowery Electric. Each bar did that. Some of my partners donated, other people have donated, patrons have donated, and we’re just going to put a week where we try to give a little more attention just to that.
What about the landlords — are they doing anything for you, like waiving rent or decreasing it?
Some have been cool. But you’re going to owe it anyway, you don’t want to snowball it. My partners have been trying to get loans from the government, and it’s been a very difficult and very slow, tedious process. Everyone’s still really freaked out because the rent will still be there and it’s still high.
Obviously this is a difficult time for everybody, especially for those who are trying to make it right now. Since you’ve been in the business basically all your life, what would your advice to up-and-coming artists be right now?
Use this time to create fun moments to be able to write and even co-write with people. Just wake up in the morning and spill out whatever’s in your head — first thought, best thought. Write a whole bunch of things down everyday and then review it later to see what you have from this time period. From a business perspective, my advice is having stuff built, created and ready, so when we’re ready to go back out and be part of the world, you’ll have stuff to unveil.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.