Whenever I travel, I find music ends up being a very large part of my trip because I am frequently thinking about the connection between music and geography. Wherever I am, I am on the lookout for different ways the flow, pulse and vibe of that place comes out in its music.
Take Washington, D.C., my hometown. It is a town built on artifice; nothing distinct can be attributed to it. When I look at the buildings downtown, I find myself saying that it looks exactly like a building in Philadelphia. Once one gets out of downtown, the blocks upon blocks of row houses look exactly like those in Baltimore. The nondescript nature of the place, the varieties of awful political types that one could run into and the frustration of learning the city’s street grid all made the ability to escape and feel something of utmost importance. This is why I and many others within the city and its environs gravitated towards noisier sounds like hardcore (Minor Threat, Fugazi, Dismemberment Plan) and shoegaze (Screen Vinyl Image, Alcian Blue, Velocity Girl) along with funkier music like Southern hip hop (Geto Boys, Three 6 Mafia) and Go-Go, which is the official sound of the nation’s capitol.
The idea can be seen in the development of music scenes in other parts of the country as well. With its grit, hyperspeed pace, and demands on all who want to be heard to speak up, New York City is a logical birthplace for confrontational, aggressive forms of music like no wave (Teenage Jesus & The Jerks, DNA, James Chance) and hip hop (Big L, Boogie Down Productions, Big Daddy Kane). Seattle’s combination of stunning natural beauty and perpetually dour weather make the development of grunge music (Mudhoney, Soundgarden) completely natural as well as its cheery pop scene (Tullycraft, Seapony). Portland’s geography reads like a pioneer town’s should: a place where anyone can come and put their own seal on it. It is a place where musicians are not confined by any history other than the one they create for themselves. This freedom creates bands like The Helio Sequence, The Decemberists and Blitzen Trapper, acts that have musical touchstones in recognizable places but assemble them in such a way that they are distinctly theirs.
I thought about the relationship between music and geography in Iowa City when I moved here from the mountains of West Virginia. I saw many similarities between the two spaces such as the pastoral beauty and simpler, more family-oriented lifestyle. This led me to quickly realize that I was moving into a space similar to West Virginia, one where folk and bluegrass dominated the landscape. Although I’m still adjusting to this reality–talking about meadows doesn’t do very much for a city kid who really likes concrete and songs about skyscrapers–I can plainly see why those two genres are connected to this part of the world. Their slower pace emphasise two important parts of the Midwestern experience, bringing people together and storytelling.
To me, the most obvious example of a band that embodies its members’ histories is Mansions on the Moon, who will be playing at The Mill on September 11. Lead singer and guitarist Ted Wendler brings the spirit of Iowa to this up-and-coming electronic band out of Los Angeles, which features the flavor of Memphis and Virginia Beach’s respective hip-hop scenes as well. I caught these guys back in March before Mission Creek, and they put on a hell of a show. People were sweating and dancing the entire time as the band turned out dance music with an acoustic soul and lovely vocal harmonies. I thoroughly enjoyed what I saw and would see it again.
Coming from the southern lineage of rockabilly and country artists like Wanda Jackson and Ernest Tubb, The Reverend Horton Heat comes to Gabe’s on September 17. Through decades of continual playing and touring, Heat has established his legacy as an exciting live act on stage, one that filters his musical lineage through the intensity and ferocity of punk. Heat is, certainly, a legend of the rockabilly revival and the psychobilly movement, which was started by artists like Hasil Adkins and The Cramps.
Pulling from the hippie history and sublime scenery of San Francisco, Birds and Batteries make pop music that merges the synthetic and the natural. Led by Mike Sempert, Birds and Batteries make music that pleases critics by being daring and creative in its use of electronic instrumentation like drum machines and synthesizers while creating accessibility to their music through Sempert’s personal lyrics. Coming in support of their solid new album Stray Light, they will be playing at The Mill on September 7.
Music is never created in isolation. The geography a person inhabits will always play a role in what they create. As you go around to shows, think about how the space of Iowa City influences how you relate to music. If you come up with any revelations, tell them to me if you see me on the beat. I’ll be the one drinking quietly at the bar.
Bio: A.C. Hawley encourages everyone to listen to go-go. His favorite go-go tracks are “Overnight Scenario” and “Lock It” by Rare Essence, “John Wayne” by Junkyard Band, “’93 Dope Jam” by Backyard Band, and, of course, “Bustin’ Loose” by Chuck Brown.