SEPTA Sounds highlights local artists with stunning station performances - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
Great Time | by Austin Kruczek | @austinkruczek | courtesy of SEPTA Sounds

Next time you take the train, you might be surprised to stumble across live music at your local station. The unconventional mini-concerts are part of SEPTA Sounds, a digital performance series that highlights regional artists.

Dan Rouse, a Philly-based musician, launched the project in collaboration with SEPTA after many traditional venues in the city shut down due to COVID. I talked to Rouse about how SEPTA Sounds started, what goes on behind the scenes, and the Philly it-factor.

The Key: How did SEPTA Sounds get started?

Dan Rouse: Back in 2019, we did a live series in Suburban Station. It went really well and we had this whole huge plan to do music in the subways live. Due to COVID, all those plans were pretty much put on the shelf. I was thinking, how can we continue to spread music and spread Philly music around and still continue this relationship with SEPTA, who seemed to be open to embracing our music scene. So that was where the idea of saying, okay, let’s try a digital series, it aligns. We get to feature music and do it at different stations. It just made sense.

TK: Live music really took a hit due to COVID. How do you think these SEPTA Sound sessions are helping musicians and the Philly music scene continue to thrive?

DR: If anything, it gives people one awareness of our scene. As we’re coming back, one of the best ways to get hired and to really start kicking back is if people know that we’re here and people know what kind of talent we have. We’re able to offer this opportunity to artists and musicians and give them great quality content that they can also use for themselves and that the city can see. I think that helps in that way to say, ‘hey here’s another platform to help yourself.’ That’s definitely where I think it helped.

TK: By the way, I love the videos. I think it’s such a cool idea. I’ve never seen a similar series.

DR: I agree! I tell people, ‘yo there’s not many music series, as far as content that’s consistent, there’s not many better than this.’ It’s really up there, the quality, the talent. I’m just like, man, it makes me love the city even more because every artist we get is just phenomenal.

TK: How do you pick the artists you want to feature?

DR: We have a network of musicians who are kind of like our database. Then just going from people that I know, people that stick out to me. Right now, it’s a little selective because we like to keep the size of the band pretty small. I also get inquires people send to iSEPTAPHILLY, they’ll email or reach out to me and say ‘hey I’d like to be a part,’ and we consider them. It’s a huge list of people right now that really have caught on and would love to do it. We do four artists a month and with the amount of inquiries we have, if we were to put on every artist, we’d be here for years. Which is a good thing! I hope we are here for years.

TK: What do you love the most about being part of the Philly music scene?

DR: I love that we are super unique. We bring something. There’s an it factor about Philly musicians. I’ve been blessed to travel around the world, and I’ve seen it. I’ve sat down and played places, and I’ve gone with friends and just sat at other music places, and instantly when you ask other music cities or any other place about Philly musicians, they’ll attest to this, Philly musicians have that grit. They have that it factor, that x-factor about their playing, about their musicianship, that really sets them apart.

We could play the same song, and you could tell which one is a Philly musician. It really speaks to our history, to our culture here, and it’s almost like our sports teams. Our sports team have a certain culture about it, that you’re like ‘yeah you sound like a Philly fan.’ It’s the same thing with our music. We have our own identity, we’re unique, we’re trendsetters as far as musicians go and music goes. We set the blueprint for how many cities and many musicians across the world want to play. That’s what I love about that to say, wow we’re not just trying to emulate, Philly is the blueprint. Philly is the model that tons of cities look after. I think that’s because of the culture here. We grind, we’re gritty.

TK: It’s funny, I don’t know if it’s a certain sound or mentality, but there is something so unique about the artists that come out of Philly.

DR: I think in a word, I’ve heard people say it a lot and I agree, Philly music is just raw. When you strip down all the glitz and glam of what music can be and the stardom, it’s really just what hits you. That rawness is just like this music affects me, it moves me, it’s dynamic. It’s really like, hey let’s get rid of all the other frills and all that extra stuff is this really good deep down at the core of it? And I think Philly always hits that arc.

TK: Can you take me through the process of what it’s like to record one of these sessions?

DR: Surprisingly, it’s really quick. We’ll pick a station, and we’ll have the artists come staggered. It’s really efficient. We’re there at each station for maybe an hour. Each artist will come, we’ll bring all the audio and video equipment, and my team pretty much handles all of the recording aspects. All we do is have the artist bring their instrument. If it’s their voice, they just bring their voice, and they do two one-minute performances.

We like to keep it pretty authentic, so we just take what we get. There’s not much editing or post stuff. We capture the sound because what we really want is to get the true sound of what the station sounds like and what the artist sounds like. It gives somewhat of an uncut-type vibe. I do want to mention this: it’s so funny because you don’t see it, but we may be in like a 10-foot radius of where we shoot, and we’ll just turn our cameras. All of the stations are super beautiful. You can make anywhere a great backdrop. I think it speaks to the eye of our video team and then just the beauty of the stations.

TK: How do you go about picking the stations you want to go to? Do you pair certain artists with certain stations?

DR: That’s definitely intentional. We have a list of places of interest that we’ve either scouted out personally, our editor Austin Kruczek he goes and checks out a couple of stations having the eye of where we want the vision to go. On my end, I pick artists who may be appropriate for certain stations. If you watch Suburban Station, the vibe we got there is really just an intimate soul Philly vibe. It’s really nice. The artists that we selected were specifically chosen for that line-up and that array of artists but also that station.

Even our most recent one, we did Mt. Airy station, that’s an outdoor regional rail, so we could do different things there, we can get live instruments, acoustic drums, or whatever or a three-piece band as we did with Great Time. So yeah, it’s definitely intentional of who we pick and where we pair them with. That’s maybe the longest part of this process, finding who’s going to go where. Cause we want to keep it diverse we want every station we go to to have its unique identity. I think it really is studying the station, what you get from it, and which artists you think could really do well there and capture the energy there.

TK: What was it like to record the first one? Was everyone in the station trying to figure out what was going on?

DR: Honestly, we did it in a closed-off section, but people did see us. They were like, ‘oh, what’s going on?’ Even when we to the far end of the station, people could still hear, and you could see people peeking down wondering what’s happening, and saying, ‘oh that sounds great!’ At some stations, after a performance is done, you just hear a crowd, and you’re like, ‘oh I didn’t know there were people here.’ It just speaks to a love of music and how music, whether you’re traveling, just walking by, really gets people’s attention.

The first day was really fun. I think everybody was surprised by how quick it was, but again that was one of the first times that some of the artists have been seeing their other music colleagues and friends, and it was just like a reunion. I was like, ‘yeah we’re doing this.’ That was back in March, and we were like it feels like music is coming back. So it was really surreal in that sense and also just nostalgic cause you’re like, wow, we’re getting back to music, the thing that we love. So it was a great first day, and after that first day, I knew we had something special. I said, man, we have to protect this, we have to find a way to keep this going. Again, it’s like there isn’t much out there that’s going to be able to offer what this series offers, you know? In the station, the quality, it’s just a super unique setup.

You can check out the latest SEPTA Sounds below and find the rest of the sessions here.

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