At Home With: David Bernabo | At Home With ... | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

At Home With: David Bernabo

click to enlarge Morning coffee with David Bernabo at home - PHOTO: DAVID BERNABO
Photo: David Bernabo
Morning coffee with David Bernabo at home
Everybody is dealing with COVID-19 quarantines and restrictions in different ways. While there's no single right way to cope — social distancing and staying TF home aside — connecting with friends, family, and neighbors is a good place to start. You can contact your loved ones on your own, but you might also be curious how your favorite strangers in Pittsburgh are coping, so Pittsburgh City Paper is reaching out once a day to artists, activists, workers, and makers to see how they're doing.

Today, it's filmmaker/videographer David Bernabo.

Let's start simple. What's your day-to-day routine like now? What did you do this morning? What will you do tonight?
I used to have a pretty routinized day when I worked for Highmark, but the freelance lifestyle definitely made every day an adventure. Oddly, with COVID-19 limiting work options and social interactions, I'm back to a daily routine. I wake at 9 a.m. I make coffee every other day (and drink the leftover 1/2 cup the following day). I try to read something to get the mind going. This morning was Anne Carson's fantastic essay "Kinds of Water." Then I work on something.

As paid work has sort of dried up, I've thrown myself into creative projects. This morning, I worked on my feature-length documentary about New York composer "Blue" Gene Tyranny. "Blue" was instrumental in crafting music for many of Robert Ashley's operas; he played with The Stooges and Carla Bley and Laurie Anderson for a bit, and he composed some of my favorite music. I'm nearing the end of the film — touching up the last 25-minute section. Then I made lunch — bacon, fava beans with berbere and curry powder, and green beans cooked in the bacon fat. 

I try to take a walk at least once a day. Bloomfield, where my wife and I live, has great, unpopulated alleys — each one showing layers of building history. I'll jump rope with a refashioned ethernet cable. And I’ve become an amateur birdwatcher, in that I look at birds outside of my window and wonder which birds they are. Sometimes I’ll search the internet for “red bird head, black body,” and then say, “Hmm, maybe.” Later on, I'll aim to finish and export "Blue" Gene's film and start work on adding names and the credit sequence. I always save that part for last. I'll make dinner tonight, probably for 7:30. Then work on some music — my label Ongoing Box is prepping a new release from Rob Collier for May 8. I'll go to bed anywhere from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. I often work well in the late, late evening.

Your new band Watererer was sort of just getting its bearings in early 2020 and finally starting to release music. How is the band handling quarantine?
I believe that about half the band can work from home in various capacities, so everyone seems to be doing OK enough. But yeah, we recorded our first album last fall and planned the release show for March 20 at The Government Center. We pressed really lovely sounding vinyl and were getting some extremely positive, thoughtful reviews from non-Pittsburgh blogs (and a few Pittsburgh blogs). Obviously, we canceled the show and that kind of halted momentum for getting the word out about the band. But a number of folks have picked up the digital record from Bandcamp or ordered a vinyl copy. So, that has been really helpful especially since I planned to take a loss on the vinyl edition.

In December 2019, we began recording the second record, and I just finished the mix on that two days ago. And not to be nauseating, but we began work on a third album in early March and are nine songs into that one, now working remotely, sending tracks back and forth. I've been very lucky to be a part of a long line of great music projects, but I think this is my favorite one. The lineup rotates a bit with each record, but all the musicians playing on these records are incredibly talented and, also, some of the nicest people I know. And I think the music reflects both the easiness of the social relations in the group and also everyone's drive to create interesting, progressive music, whether it is in the context of Watererer or their own many and wonderful projects.

You posted a video of "dry ice improv" last week. Can you explain what that was about?
Our friends started Millie's Homemade Ice Cream some years ago and we bought an ice cream share to help them out — I mean, it's a win-win for us. Four pints arrived with a cluster of dry ice rectangles. I remembered back to 2007 when Raymond Morin (of Pairdown) and I released a CD by Chicago trio The Friction Brothers. The trio consisted of cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, percussionist Michael Zerang, and dry ice-ist Michael Colligan. We set up a Pittsburgh show for them where I got to see Colligan applying a number of metal implements to the dry ice. He would heat the metal objects up on a hot plate or something and once the metal touched the dry ice, there would be a squeal — all different pitches and intensities, unearthly sounds. It was one of the best shows I've seen.

So, not to waste an opportunity, I held a fork to a flame and then approached the dry ice. I set up some microphones, too, and now there is dry ice on the third Watererer record. The song is called "Muggy Swollen Food."

What is a food you've come to love recently?
Lately, my favorite foods are economical foods. Grits have been good to us. A $4 pack from Bob's Red Mills provides us with 16 servings or 8 meals. Add in Parmesan and pair it with whatever vegetables Gina at Linea Verde has, and we have a meal for $3 or 4. Some friends started Harvie Farms Pittsburgh, which brings farm items to your door. It's like a CSA mixed with an ethical, localized Amazon. I don't usually cook meat, but I've gotten some great pork from them. That's been going into a goat cheese pasta dish.

What piece of art/book/TV/music is bringing you comfort/inspiration at this time?
This year or, I suppose last year, I got really burnt out on filmmaking. When I finish "Blue" Gene's movie, that'll be my 15th film of substantial length since 2013. #humblebrag. So, it's kind of an art form that I wanted to stop making. But then I watched Bi Gan's Long Day's Journey into Night, and the film gave me a refreshed perspective on what cinema can do. I think from here out, my documentaries will be different from what I've done before. I'm excited without any concrete ideas. That's my favorite place to be.

Also, I've revisited Pier Paolo Pasolini's Trilogy of Life films. These are film versions of Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and The Thousand and One Nights. These are films full of stories of class inequality, distress, jealousy, anger, murder, and death, but there is a wonderful lack of tension that makes them so easy to watch while still absorbing lessons. It's a great contrast to the glut of anxiety-ridden shows about murders and murderers on all the streaming platforms.

Row House Cinema is screening your film Eating & Working & Eating & Working digitally this week. You wrote on Facebook, "If you think that the state of the restaurant industry was 'normal' before COVID-19, watch this." Can you elaborate on that idea?
Definitely. First, I should say that I haven't worked in the restaurant industry since 2005 and that my stay was relatively brief. For a restaurant owner's perspective, Gabrielle Hamilton's recent essay for the New York Times Magazine is a wonderful elucidation of many of the challenges of bringing a restaurant back to life after COVID-19. The film, which I made in 2018, follows a few restaurant owners and food-related workers throughout their day. Thematically, the film deals with the long hours, the physical and mental strains, the rewards that come from committing so much of yourself to a form of labor, and the sexual and racial discrimination in the restaurant industry. These are all labor conditions that should not be classified as "normal." Underpaid and overworked is no way to run an industry, let alone a society. Unfortunately, that is basically what America is for segments of the population, and as we can see from many of the conservative maneuvers during this time of pandemic, the extreme right-wing factions in the White House and federal government are doubling down on their drive for mass inequity and wealth consolidation for the wealthy.

So, if you look at the state of the restaurants now — restaurants are a volume business. The margins per dish and per drink are low when you balance that against staff and overhead expenses. If the economy opens slowly in certain areas, restaurants will not be able to open and make a profit. Social distancing will be a part of our lives well into the summer, and a 40-seat restaurant reduced to 15 seats will not balance the books. I'm happy to get takeout now, but you probably won't see me sit down for a nice meal in a restaurant until there is a vaccine. I assume enough of the population may feel the same way to make the restaurant industry impracticable. It's just what it is. 

Without a massive federal influx of cash to restaurants and other small businesses, we are going to see a lot of places close and a lot of jobs lost. So, my point with that post was that even if restaurants can make it through the loss of business indirectly caused by the pandemic and remain open, they will be coming back to a form of labor that still poses a lot of problems. It's a great time to rethink what certain things can be. Is there a better way to run a restaurant? After we have seen how precarious positions in society are, will people (many of whom have much less money now than they did a few months ago) be willing to pay more for a meal to better support the restaurant workers, the suppliers, the farmers, and those that dispose of the food waste?

What's an object in your home that means a lot to you these days?
I have a lot of objects. It's partly why we never moved away from Pittsburgh. Some recent favorites: Beverly Glenn-Copeland's Keyboard Fantasies LP, a reissue of the cassette tape from 1986.  It's the most uplifting music! There's the practical things, too. The shower, wonky as it is, the oven, my audio preamps.

What is an organization or charity you'd recommend supporting?
As not to be hypocritical, I should say that I haven't donated to any charities since COVID-19 arose. I've been spending money at Thai Gourmet, Butterjoint, and Harvie Farms Pittsburgh. I've ordered records from Unseen Worlds, Séance Centre, and Lovely Music. One side effect that we see related to food is that distribution networks are incentivized by profit schemes often result in less food making its way into mouths. Right now, we see (literal) tons of food waste and the beginnings of massive food shortages. It's a heavily exaggerated "normal." 412 Food Rescue is always a good bet for your donations. They take surplus food from retailers and redistribute it to those who need it.

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