Along with its wild abundance of musical talent, Iowa is also a treasure trove of top-notch record labels. As someone with a passion for lifting up local artists, I’ve been obsessed in recent years with discovering just what confluence of events has put all of these talented and discerning folk in positions to do just that, to amplify the work being done here. Great music, after all, does no one any good languishing on self-pressed discs in a damp basement. It takes people with vision, persistence and the ear of the community to funnel it where it needs to be.
“The intent of [Sump Pump Records] … has been to use our knowledge and experience to help out bands that we believe in,” said Des Moines label Sump Pump’s Dan Hutchison in a recent email. “We hope to be a stepping stone of sorts. We want them to be able to move on to bigger and better things.”
Hutchison has vision and persistence in spades. Sump Pump first came to life in 1998 as a kind of vanity project for Hutchison and his Why Make Clocks bandmate Brian Wiksell. They wanted their band to release an album, so they did it themselves. That record, The Transient Swivel, and Chad O’Neall’s Evolution No. 9 in 1999 (their only CD) were all the label released before going on a 15-year hiatus.
Gone but not forgotten, Sump Pump came back to life out of necessity again in 2014, when Hutchison revived it to release a project he was working on, The Des Moines 4 Track Compilation Vol.1. Although Why Make Clocks had disbanded, he turned to former bandmates Chuck Hoffman and Will Tarbox to join him and Wiksell at the label (the team now also includes Tom Reelitz and Kim Hutchison, Dan’s wife).
In the five years since that compilation (also recorded and primarily mixed by Hutchison), Sump Pump has released 14 more albums, including the hot-off-the-presses House of Bellow, from Marshalltown’s Land of Blood and Sunshine. They’ve worked with 14 total bands, although they don’t have a roster, per se. (“We work with bands on an album-to-album basis,” Hutchison said; “none of them are tied to us.”)
He’s certainly got my ear. Hutchison has impeccable taste. Sump Pump’s releases over the past years have been a string of top-notch albums. In addition to utter thrashers from the likes of Telekinetic Yeti, Skin of Earth and Traffic Death, their catalog includes albums from Karen Meat, Matthew James and the Rust Belt Union, Annalibera and more.
“I think sometimes people have this idea that an independent record label has to be genre specific,” Hutchison said. “None of us involved listen to music that way, so why would we want our label to impose those kinds of restrictions on what we put out?”
“Historically speaking,” Hutchison told me, “this is how [acquisition] goes: I bring an unreleased album that has been brought to my attention, in some way, to the rest of the team and if we all agree that we should put it out, we do. All the members of our team have very broad, yet similar, tastes in music, and if we agree on it, it’s a go.”
Seems straightforward, but Hutchison holds himself to a high standard: He is determined to “never put out an album that I don’t love, no matter how much I love the people making it.”
“My own personal taste and that of my partners is all the guidance we need,” he said. “If we don’t love it, why should we expect others to?”
That love is evident in the label’s curation, and it’s one of the key elements that engenders a loyal following. Also important is Sump Pump’s physical aesthetic, endearing itself to vinyl nerds by releasing every album (with the exception of the 1999 Chad O’Neall CD) in that format, with digital download codes included. The arrival of a Sump Pump record is an event: a large, tidy package that makes you fight for access followed by several moments just luxuriating in the visual appeal of the contents before even spinning the disc. There have even been albums that came out as multiple pressings of the same disc in different colors of vinyl.
Sump Pump shines, too, as a versatile label. “I think that Iowa has a very talented and diverse music scene,” Hutchison said, “and I feel like, to an outsider, we represent that better than anyone.” And he sees that versatility as an asset to Iowa generally. “There’s no specific ‘Iowa sound’ pigeonholing you to a potential new listeners,” he said.
But the bottom line is if you want great heavy music, there’s nowhere better to turn first.
“I think it’s always been there,” Hutchison said of the metal scene in Iowa that Sump Pump mines so effectively. “But the shows [in years past], through necessity, had to be a lot more DIY, being put on by kids or bands at Union Halls or at someone’s house.”
He attributes the growth of the scene recently to a variety of factors: “More music venues are open to booking metal shows. The DIY ethos is still going strong among these bands who now have wider-reaching tools at their disposal to get the word out. And let’s face it, most importantly, there are some really great bands that are making some really great and original music, so people are paying more attention to it now. I’ve always found there to be a real sense of community within the metal scene too, it’s like you go to a show and you’re automatically welcomed.”
Releasing only Iowa bands hasn’t been a matter of intent for Sump Pump, but it seems natural that it would fall out that way. Hutchison, who was born and raised in small-town Iowa and moved to Des Moines in 1992, and many of his team are still deeply imbedded in the scene here themselves. He and Hoffman are two-thirds of the prog-punk power trio Fetal Pig, while Reelitz and Tarbox bend more genres as two-thirds of surf punk trio Tough Ghost. Tarbox also plays in the genres-be-damned outfit Nostromo. They all engage regularly with the countless fantastic unknown acts that can be found on the rise at any given time in the area.
“In Iowa, we have great bands and artists making art and music as great as anything you’d hear or see anywhere else, we just need more people to realize it,” Hutchison said.
That’s easier said than done, of course. “People (generally speaking) are predisposed to not seek out new music,” Hutchison said. “There’s very little going on to encourage it aside from [Iowa Public Radio] and going online to find it. I’d say 90 percent of radio stations in Iowa are playing the same playlist as two other stations on the dial, and those playlists have barely changed in 30 years or more. So the ‘casual’ music fan doesn’t really stumble across new music and some may even assume that ‘if it was good, it’d be on the radio.’”
A hands-on label like Sump Pump can be a huge factor in cutting through the noise to reach potential audiences. Hutchison carries the label’s own early DIY approach through to everything from assembling and hand-numbering the LPs to running merch tables at shows for the bands. And his personal definition of success is “being able to take what I know and help another artist whose work I believe in reach a wider audience.”
It all ties in together, for the success of the label and of the bands.
“Every Sump Pump album or T-shirt sale goes into the next record,” Hutchison said. “That’s our model, so it’s important to get them into the hands of the people who will love them.”
And on the statewide scene, something seems to be shaking loose.
“There are people taking notice — for example, Aseethe and Dryad have both been signed to fairly respectable labels and are out there gaining momentum,” Hutchison said. Ultimately, he wants artists to know that “it’s not impossible. It really doesn’t matter so much where you make it, it’s where you take it, right?”
Genevieve Trainor is arts editor at Little Village magazine. She believes in the Iowa arts ecosystem. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 267.