Until now, COVID-19 has refused to grant interviews. “We think it’s good to maintain a sense of mystery,” explains the collective’s self-proclaimed “messenger of information,” RNA — “The three letters are meant to be sounded out, not like [the names of] RZA and GZA from Wu-Tang Clan” — who recently agreed to an exclusive chat at a crowded pub in Johannesburg, South Africa, during a tour stop. (The following has been edited for clarity and, most importantly, length, because time is precious.)
How has life changed for you over the past year?
A year ago no one had heard of COVID-19. We were just starting out, trying to make a name for ourselves in our hometown, but all of a sudden opportunity knocked and we were on a plane to Italy. Next thing you know, we’re gearing up for a world tour.
Did you feel ill-equipped to handle the pressures of sudden fame?
At first COVID-19 was like Maroon 5, if that makes sense: you’d definitely heard of us, but we were considered harmless. Catchy but harmless. It was like, Okay, they’ve been at number one for three weeks, I’m sick of it, please go away.
Then — boom — everybody was talking about us, kind of like Kiss back in the day. You didn’t have to spell their name in all caps, but if you thought they were a threat for some reason, you were more likely to believe “KISS” stood for “Knights in Satan’s Service.” (imitating a hysterical person’s voice) ‘It’s the end of the world!’ Except it wasn’t.
But pretty soon we were the biggest thing in the world. It’s like we were unstoppable. Remember how big U2 used to be? That’s COVID-19, just with more letters and a bigger number.
What are your thoughts on the WHO?
Weird — I didn’t know they were styling their name that way now. Honestly, I was surprised when they put out a new album last year. I didn’t think those guys were still alive, but not because of us.
Sorry, not the Who — the WHO.
I’m referring to the World Health Organization, not Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey’s band.
Oh. Okay, right. Yeah, people sometimes lump COVID and the WHO together, but we’re working different sides of the street, you know? If you’re a fan of the WHO, you’re definitely not a fan of COVID.
Have you been surprised by your popularity in America?
Absolutely. I mean, the way that country has taken us to heart has been breathtaking. We killed in New York, and California can’t get enough of us, either, obviously. Coast to coast, the response to COVID-19 has been infectious.
And it’s been so amazing to have crossover success with Black and Latinx audiences, for them to embrace us the way they have. We never thought we’d see those kinds of numbers. Seriously, if we could pack all our fans into a stadium and show them our gratitude, then have them go home and spread the word to new fans, we would.
We know Donald Trump hates that we get more attention than him, but we loved his rallies this year. (singing) ‘Y-M-C-A!’ We’re gonna miss that guy, no question. But just like COVID, it’ll take more than a miracle to make him go away.
Were you offended when certain media outlets labeled you an overnight success?
No, it comes with the territory. I’d say we’re more like a bat out of hell, but whatever. We know there are haters out there who love to point out that most people are only mildly affected by COVID-19, not rocked to their core, but guess what — we’re still dominating the conversation. We’re kind of like Hamilton a few years back: you’ve gotta catch it or you’ll feel left out.
Actually, I think it’s become clear that a lot of people aren’t interested in catching “it.” For example, the parents who worry about your effect on their children.
Nobody talks about the positive things we’ve accomplished. Remember when Marilyn Manson got blamed for the Columbine school shooting? Well, you can’t blame COVID for anything like that, because (singing) ‘Schoooool’s out for-ev-ah!’ (laughs) No mass shootings dominating the headlines, either. But, sure, our superspreader events — the parties, the weddings, the funerals, the White House ceremonies — they kind of accomplish the same thing.
Are you at all worried about oversaturating the market?
Not really. COVID-19’s not like MC Hammer or Vanilla Ice or all those hair bands 30 years ago, riding the coattails of the previous decade into the new one. They were totally surface level — they weren’t built to last. But we’re on the third leg of this tour, with no end in sight, and we still want to reach every demographic we can.
How do you respond to accusations that COVID-19’s gotten greedy?
Oh, please. If all those critics were in our situation, they’d be doing the exact same thing. We could be gone without a trace tomorrow, so why not make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? When we started the second leg of the tour, people were shocked. But don’t call it a comeback — COVID’s been here for a year. (laughs, coughs)
Look, SARS and H1N1 were ahead of their time. Definitely a lot of respect goes out to them for laying the groundwork. Was COVID just in the right place at the right time, like the Beatles in ’64? Maybe. But those dudes had nothing to apologize for, except maybe that Jesus comment, and neither do we.
Some would say that’s a very punk-rock attitude.
Sure, why not. The media’s going to say whatever the media’s going to say, and the government’s going to do whatever it can to censor us. It’s like Tipper Gore and the PMRC never really went away, you know? It’s cancel culture at its most extreme.
Sometimes I think we’re a victim of our own success. Nobody cares that we’ve brought all the nations of the world together with a common cause: destroying COVID-19. And since that’s the case, we don’t care that we’ve ruined your holidays, your vacations, your social life, your job, your health, and whatever else you want to blame on us. Fire away. COVID-19 doesn’t have a conscience. COVID-19 just is.
Do you feel that Pfizer and Moderna are trying to destroy you as well?
We see that as more of a ’90s, east coast-west coast rap beef. They say they’re going to wipe us out, but that just makes us work harder at our game. Have you heard the conspiracy theory that the new vaccines contain a microchip with the number “666” on it? Pure metal, baby. We love it.
What about the rumors that you’re secretly collaborating with Pfizer and Moderna?
Nothing more than that — rumors. If they say there’s an RNA on their payroll, then they must be talking about some other messenger of information with that name.
Accept no substitutes, and the same goes for these new tribute acts popping up in England and even here in South Africa. The Mutations, the Variants, the Viral VIDeos, Corona Life, Rona Barrett — it’s hard to keep track of all of them, and I’m a little alarmed how fast they got the word out. Good promoters, I guess.
One last question: is Houston the next hot spot?
I’m not familiar with that club. COVID’s a little too big for that kind of venue now, but all the clubs are shut down anyway. But if the mood’s right, we’d be happy to play a college party or two.