Traffic Nightmare

A photo of the band Traffic Nightmare, outside of Philadelphia's Kung Fu Necktie venue in 2019. From l-r, bassist Johnny Fundyga, guitarist (and writer of this column) Kevin Stairiker, drummer Colin Tevis and keyboardist Stephen Schlegel.

Along with “Wash your hands” and “Stay back 6 feet,” one of the more persistent notions of this extended quarantine has been to indulge in your own creativity.

On paper, it makes sense. For those of us lucky enough to work from home, there is almost no choice but to look on longingly past your laptop toward what you really want to be doing with your time.

Since I was 16, that escape has been writing and playing original music. Something about having a guitar in my hands, or a pen and paper around to jot down lyrics brings a comfort that is hard to explain. As any musician, famous or unknown, can relate, the primary joy isn’t to be found in applause or “likes,” it’s in creating something that you feel good enough about to bring into the world in the first place.

At the beginning of the quarantine, I fiddled around with doing solo livestream performances on a Facebook page called “Berks County Quarantine Open Mic.” Musicians from my home county managed to strike while the iron was hot way back in March and create a group that now has nearly 14,000 members, certainly a larger audience than any musician that performs on the page has ever encountered.

I enjoyed playing in my living room for friends, family and any strangers who happened by the stream as it was occurring. I played covers I’d never performed and half-remembered original songs, mostly to make myself chuckle. But even after six performances, I felt like the connection between performer and audience just wasn’t there in any tangible way.

In the middle of April, resigned to a month indoors while still half-heartedly pining for a summer that would never come, I threw myself into writing new songs to play when the quarantine subsided. In interviewing other musicians throughout my writing career, I’m always interested to learn the intricacies of each songwriter’s process, at least partially to compare to my own.

From experience, I can tell you that most songwriters don’t have pristine notebooks free from eraser marks. Voice memos, scribbled out chord progressions and notepads both physical and digital helped me knock out a half-dozen songs that had been floating around my brain for the better part of four months.

The inherent problems with creativity stem from how you as an individual interact with it, and how you prevent yourself from comparing your own creative process to someone else’s. Creativity is not a spigot that you can kick on and off at will, with a big bucket underneath to catch all the great ideas gushing out.

For me, it’s a well that you must return to, constantly, to lower your bucket into the darkness below and hope that it returns with something nourishing on the other end. Some days, the bucket comes back dry and you’re forced to ponder why you liked drinking water so much in the first place. But understanding that process means that when I do finish a song, I appreciate it that much more.

Armed with fresh material, I rang up three of my best friends who respectively make up Traffic Nightmare, the band I’ve “led” since we attended Exeter Senior High School together roughly a decade ago. The band brings to mind the phrase “Doing it for the love of the game.” In our time together, we’ve created two original albums and played lots of shows, but due to the distance of me living in Lancaster, one guy living in Philadelphia and the other two in our native Berks County, it’s become increasingly difficult — even pre-pandemic — to get together to practice, much less write new songs.

On a whim, I sent demos of some of the new songs to the guys, and to my surprise, within a few days, we got set to work on making a true socially distant album, all recorded at our respective homes. It’s been several painstaking months and counting, but I can honestly say that we haven’t been as collectively creative in years. While, yes, music will always be better created together in one room, being forced to create under strict conditions has led to a musical fine-tuning that we’ve frankly never been capable of before.

I’ll record guitars and vocals on my laptop while our drummer, Colin, screen shares onto my laptop to guide the session along and make sure audio levels are alright from 45 miles away. Once we’re confident in the quality of the tracks, we’ll send them to our bassist, Johnny, who mixes the tracks himself in his Philadelphia apartment. The four of us will then gather on Discord, a communication app, to listen to the day’s work and discuss the tracks, beat by beat.

Is it what I imagined the recording process would look like, circa any time before March 2020? Absolutely not. But these times call for preserving creativity at any cost, because once you lose that, the days indoors start to seem a lot longer.

Kevin Stairiker an LNP | LancasterOnline staff writer. “Unscripted” is a weekly entertainment column produced by a rotating team of writers.