William Tyler Discusses Bell House Gig, COVID Case, Safe Touring

Dave Scholten
– William Tyler
Guitarist William Tyler tested positive the day after a show at Brooklyn’s Bell House for a fully vaccinated audience.

On July 22, William Tyler co-headlined The Bell House, a 500-capacity Brooklyn club, with Steve Gunn. The serene evening, which featured a vaccination requirement for all attendees, staff and performers and was guided by Tyler’s virtuosic, folk-inflected guitar playing, gave way to decidedly less calm news: The following morning, the fully vaccinated Tyler shared on Twitter that he had tested positive for coronavirus.

The musician’s revelation provided more frustrating evidence of the pandemic’s unpredictability and came amid concerning new reports about the contagiousness and severity of COVID’s Delta variant

Five days after the show, Pollstar connected with Tyler, in good spirits but still symptomatic in quarantine.

“We do choose to believe what we want to believe sometimes,” he said. “Of course there’s a calculated risk right now to anything, especially attending a live event inside with other people. But, you know, the C.D.C. did say, ‘If you’re vaccinated, you’re safe. You don’t need to wear masks anymore.’ This was all in the last two months. I think a lot of us just wanted to believe that.”

In this conversation – which took place hours after the C.D.C. advised the vaccinated to begin masking indoors again, and two days before further C.D.C. guidance about the Delta variant emerged – Tyler, a road vet who toured with the likes of Lambchop and Silver Jews before embarking on his acclaimed solo career, detailed how his positive diagnosis unfolded, urged industry personnel to get vaccinated and explained the challenges involved with implementing more stringent COVID protocols for live events.

POLLSTAR: How are you feeling?
I’m sick. I have COVID. It’s definitely not getting worse. My main symptoms have been fatigue and dry cough, can’t smell. But I had the Moderna vaccine – that shit keeps you from getting really sick, so I feel really fortunate. But emotionally, it’s been a wild ride the last few days. It’s been a very, very interesting week.

The test that returned back the positive result, was that one that you had pursued because you didn’t feel well or was it part of your testing protocol for the tour?
I was in a situation with a group of musicians in California where there was basically an outbreak. People were testing positive, and I was finding that out after I had already gotten [to] New York [on Monday]. That was all very rapidly developing information, and I I was freaked out about the Delta stuff, because it’s going around L.A. right now. When I landed, I got a negative rapid test and then got another one. Then the show was Thursday and on the way to soundcheck, I kind of insisted on going back [to get tested]. I definitely was like, “I’m fighting off something. So I really need to make sure that this is not what this is.” And I got a negative rapid test that day. That’s on the way to the show. That was when I requested a PCR test. The nurse who administered it was like, “Well, the rapid test is 90% accurate.” So I was like, “Well, OK, that’s a big 10% to get wrong.”

Looking back on it, I could have been more careful, but I was being advised by multiple people that, you know, “Hey man, you just tested negative. Let’s play the show tonight.” You know what I mean? Like just exercise some caution backstage, which I tried to do. … The Bell House show required proof of vaccination to attend or play, so everyone in that building was vaccinated.

I was exposed to this, I think, by someone who was not vaccinated. We, as an industry – which sucks, because like [the live industry] was already struggling to like resuscitate itself – we have to have some pretty stringent testing and vaccination proof rules to get into shows now, especially if they’re inside. That’s how they do film shoots and frankly that’s how we have to do live music moving forward, for the next year or couple of years, I think. I think it’s that simple. You should not be able to go into a small, crowded indoor space with anybody without knowing what is going on with everybody in that room. People will cheat, just like they do at everything else, but it’s gonna make it a lot less attractive, I think.

Everybody was vaccinated at the Bell House. Can you share more details about the Bell House’s COVID protocols for performers and staff when when you were there?
I mean, their protocol was everybody had to be vaccinated. That’s a pretty good protocol. A lot of clubs aren’t doing that. Steve and I were supposed to play Newport together today [July 27] actually. Steve’s playing by himself. Newport was another one, where, at least for performers and crew, you had to upload your vaccination card to a database so that they could prove that everybody who was going to be working the festival, talent-wise, had been vaxxed. I don’t think any of the other shows we were doing were requiring that, but they were also really small shows. A lot of venues just don’t have the infrastructure to [implement vaccination verification systems], which is I think why it’s so incumbent for those that can to put it in place as a precedent. 

There’s a discussion among L.A. venues right now that are open and reopening about how to handle this. I just think that it should be pretty simple: You don’t let people in the building unless you know they’re vaccinated or they just tested negative. But at this point, both probably are going to need to be important because of how contagious the variant is right now. Because I just don’t foresee things shutting down again.

Did your touring team have rapid testing protocol?
There wasn’t a rapid testing protocol. I insisted on getting rapid tests; I had been around people who were testing positive. But this is uncharted territory. This didn’t exist a week ago as an issue that people were talking about in my community. The conversation is totally different now. I almost feel like I’m a guinea pig, in a way. Dina [Dusko], my agent at High Road, she’s just like, “Look, these are firsts right now, you know, people playing indoors again and what protocols are.”

The tour that I was gonna do with Steve Gunn was a small party. It was me and Steve and our tour manager, and we’ve all been vaccinated. We didn’t discuss getting regularly tested before the tour. If I hadn’t been in close proximity [to someone who tested positive] and obviously then contracted it, I don’t think there would have been a protocol to get rapid tests, because that’s not something anyone was really talking about a week, week and a half, two weeks ago.

It makes sense that a fully vaccinated touring party wouldn’t have had a testing protocol, given what we understood about the effectiveness of vaccines, because we’ve been hearing for months about how expensive and labor intensive testing protocols are for tours.
And, honestly, time sensitive. If I had been able to get a PCR test on Thursday and that had come back an hour later positive, obviously, I wouldn’t have played the show. I was operating under the assumption that I had literally just received a rapid negative on the way to soundcheck.

That’s just an example of like – I really feel strongly that this shouldn’t be on musicians and touring crews of the size that we’re talking about. The Bell House thankfully had protocol for vaccination status, but the level of music that a lot of people like Steve and I [play], we operate in a world where there is such a low threshold for any infrastructure. The kind of venues we’re playing and the kind of places we’re around, they barely stayed open throughout the shutdown. They can’t be expected now to shoulder the cost of having clinics onsite to make sure people are getting tested. That’s not realistic without government or private intervention. … It’s so unfair to expect the artists and the agents to have to come up with the solutions for this when we were already the ones who were operating with no margin of error when things were going well. [laughs]

Clubs just went through more than a year without concerts, and the math doesn’t work if you now ask them to do reduced capacity or implement costly testing procedures.
People take these places, we all take them for granted to an extent. I used to run a venue [The Stone Fox] in Nashville [from 2012 to 2016]. So I’m a little more aware of what the metrics are like. It’s not magic; it’s math, like you said. There’s only so many drinks you can serve to somebody.

The elephant in the room throughout this that you haven’t asked about, but I definitely have strong feelings about, is that a lot of people in our industry are not getting vaccinated. I was talking with a booking agent friend of mine the other night who is a pretty powerful guy in the business and he just straight up was like, “If we started implementing a vaccine mandate for touring parties, a lot of people wouldn’t do it.” And I was like, “Well, OK, good.” Like, I’m sorry. We have to have some pretty baseline rules for interacting right now I think. … I think behind the scenes it’s becoming a bigger conversation among bands and crews.

There was, I think, a hope among some unvaccinated people that enough people would get vaccinated to make vaccinations a non-issue. Now we see that that’s not what happened.
I am living proof that you can contract COVID if you’ve been fully vaccinated. And I’m very healthy. I’m trying to take some comfort in the fact that everyone else I’ve been around since I’ve been here was vaccinated, and no one’s tested positive, so far. And it’s been almost a week. But it’s very sobering and scary, because it’s your whole frame of reality. … To wake up one day and be like, “I can’t do this tour. I have COVID, I have to isolate. I’m not at home. I’m in like a huge city, I have to quarantine at a hotel or something,” compounded by how many other factors are at play and having to answer questions and also wanting to be accountable to people that you may have been around, it’s just a lot to pivot around. And I think we need to we need to acknowledge this is going to happen more if we’re not more careful. Whatever protocol we had two weeks ago should be out the window.

Once you’re in the clear with your COVID diagnosis, will you be back on the road, if the proper measures are taken? Is it possible to have tours and concerts safely right now?
I’ll be back on the road. I mean, honestly, like I will feel even more protected, because I will have been vaccinated and had this virus. … Steve and I were only going to be doing New York and New England, a very vaccinated part of the country. I don’t think anyone should be planning a cross-country indoor tour right now. I’ve talked to Dina about that. She was like, “I just think we focus on regional stuff right now, because if something gets shut down, you’re in one part of the country.” … People are trying to restart the model we had two years ago, and that is not a reality that we live in anymore. We probably will have it again in a few years, but we are in a reality that is not applicable to the model we had a couple of years ago. But I think there’s a relatively safe way to do this, if there’s some pretty strict protocols. 

Based on what I know now, through my experience and talking to doctors and any of the minimal amount of science I’m able to comprehend about this that if you have any policy for shows that requires all attendees and all talent and crew to be vaccinated or have to test negative that day, there’s a pretty good chance we can do this about as safely as possible.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.