We have a guest writer today looking to share his thoughts. Francis Itch covers the middle America music scene for Indie Band Guru. Enjoy!—-
It’s July 27, 2012 in the heat of an Iowa summer. At 7:30pm I meet up with some friends at the Stomping Grounds Café on Welch St. in Campus Town, Ames, Iowa (adjacent to Iowa State University) expecting to hear a blues set from Bob Saar. Unfortunately, the gig has been cancelled. In some ways, that’s ok. I still get to spend time with friends. These are people I consider family. We end up closing the place down while talking about music, art, past and future events. Some discussion is serious, but much is not so serious.
We make self-deprecating jokes around here about Iowa by saying to outsiders “when you fly over, be sure to wave.” However, if you ever do land, check out the music/art scene – but know that this is our family – people we trust. If you’re going to land, be trustworthy. My own “ground” is primarily south central Iowa, meaning mostly Des Moines and Ames. I love Des Moines, but my main heartbeat is Ames. In Des Moines, Wooly’s and the Vaudeville Mews can host some nice indie band shows. The House of Bricks is ok, also, but at times their more high-profile “outsider” acts are bands I don’t trust. I barely go to People’s Court anymore for that reason. I love Ames because the campus town scene has both an edge and family “courtesy.” Shows can get rowdy, but as people often notice about Iowa young people, it’s a “polite rowdiness.” These are friends.
Do Iowa alternative bands have a distinctive sound? I prefer to say they have, for the most part, a distinctive attitude. It’s the attitude of friends. For example, a show featuring History on Repeat (formerly known by other names, and made up of incoming and outgoing friends) and a group like Kick Like a Lion (out of Ames High School) will consist of the band members complimenting one another about the previous and upcoming sets. This is because they’re friends – or even “family.” As a side-note, I’ll admit this is a long way from the late ‘90s when, at the time, the Des Moines area music scene was considered by some to have the potential of being the next “Seattle” –like movement. Unfortunately, their most well-known band Slipknot intentionally worked at stifling other bands from getting popular (for example, Indianola’s Index Case) by pushing themselves into the pre-scheduled gigs and making the other bands the perennial “brides-maids.” Yes, I’m being bold in saying this, and there are people I will tick off, but you can decide for yourself by checking out the documentary “A Clown Short of Destiny” http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1525090/clown-documentary-unmasks-slipknots-wrath.jhtml” This is an aberration of the band attitudes in Iowa, and one reason why I can’t listen to Slipknot anymore. I don’t trust them, and I now remain somewhat cautious of indie bands that move into the national limelight.
In my opinion, some of the best shows in Iowa can be found at some unassuming places – like Ames’ Zeke’s, or my own favorite romp, the Space For Ames (formerly “Ames Progressive”). The “Space” on Welsh St. in ISU’s campus town is literally “underground” (at basement level) and used to be an extremely tight “room” experience before it expanded several years ago. It is run by Nathan of the band Christopher the Conquered, and is still a special venue even though I actually preferred the pre-expansion version (and a pre-shaven Nathan – who used to dawn a tremendous set of whiskers!). A show at the Space, along with elbow room only and polite rowdiness, is an example of what I see as the strength of the Iowa music scene. I caught an Atombender show there once that blew my socks (and eardrums) off. The larger festivals are nice, but this is where I’d prefer to see a band. Paradoxically, it’s the close-knit Ames “family” that gave birth to one of Iowa’s most recent internationally successful alternative bands The Envy Corps. I’ll always love the Corps, but after touring with The Killers, I’m going to keep watching them. I hope I can keep trusting them. Rumor has it they’d consider doing a post-concert gig at the “Space” sometime for a word of mouth group invite, but until it happens I’ll just watch. Hopefully they’ll continue to remember the days of being merely some of our friends at Ames High School. Bands like Poison Control Center and Christopher the Conquered will always be “family” for me, but I’ll admit I have a sort of pensive longing for the time when Chris recorded demos with members of Atombender at his parents’ house in Des Moines. Thinking of this and the band Bombardier recording demos in the “Ark” studio Ames prompts me to recall a season of very obvious trust.
I’m sometimes accused of being a “purist” but I prefer to refer to myself as a “person” – if the reader knows what I mean by that. I’m of the view that for the music to continue to have a “bite” – the artists have to remain “people.” Still, whatever the future holds I wish them all the best (except for Slipknot).
In retrospect, a couple of venues in Des Moines that come to mind which might have been almost “too indie” for the “indies” were The Haunted Basement and one that used to be named simply by a street address (the numerals of the address I can’t recall – 459?). The “Haunted” was a place I only attended once, riding along with some friends. I’m certain I couldn’t locate it now if I tried, and good luck trying to find a webpage or advert about it. If I’m remembering correctly, it was the local punk band North of Grand I saw there, but the venue was definitely not (literally) north of Grand Ave, and it was figuratively south of everything else. I thought that night, per chance, I could get knifed right there in that basement venue so I never went back. Rumor has it that 459? (945?) was either shut down by the police or burned up from a meth-lab fire – or maybe both(?)
Currently, the local indie bands I like the most (I could even say trust the most) are long-time Ames staples Atombender and newbies the Seedlings. These two are very different musically, but very similar in their distinctive Iowa indie-attitude. The Benders are the same guys they’ve always been since high school, and Seedlings – aside from being a guileless recording/performing act – proved their spirit to me when I watched them applaud and even dance to the other bands that performed at the 80/35 festival. Also, the Iowa City funk/jazz/experimental group The Uniphonics are not only extremely accomplished musicians (including even the former bass player from Bella Fleck’s Fleck-tones) but they, too, display an indie attitude that I’m confident will keep them interesting.
Make no mistake that outsiders are always welcome here, and I’m personally glad to have connection with bands all the way from Seattle through the indie label Worst Kitchen Records. Anyone with that kind of dripping irony/parody/self-deprecation will be welcomed by me in our state. I’m confident nobody from the likes of Substance W, Aluminum Tadpole, or Peeno is entertaining an executive committee decisions on what approach is required to push units to the masses.
An ideal concert for me would be at the “Space” in Ames (Nathan still having his beard) with the bill featuring Seedlings, Atombender (who unfortunately, have broken up for the time-being), outside guests Substance W, the new young Ames high garage punk band The Seed of Something – and perhaps even a song or two from the very obscure Iowa band Skiprope Cello (if anyone ever hears about a gig by this band let me know – rumor has it Richard Blaine has too many allergy problems to do a whole gig – but maybe he and Holly could at least perform the song “High Point” that’s on a demo someone sent me). This “dream” local concert would conclude with a late night appearance down the street at the “Stomping Grounds” by the acoustic duo James and James, followed by several of the musicians sitting in with a particular saxophone street performer.
Aside from the aforementioned, I’m also having strong hopes for the band Island of Misfit Toys who will be an opening act at “the Space” next month (August 2012). There are certainly many other local indie worthies I could also call to mind, including the rising Love Stories for Lonely Monsters, but I’ll try to be be courteous to the reader and wrap up this article.
In conclusion, land in Iowa sometime for a taste of polite rowdiness. We might even hold the door open for you.
But be trustworthy.
-Francis Itch for Indie Band Guru
-to see what true love for music does check out BadITCH fan films HERE!