Digging up the ‘underground,’ DIY music scene in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids

MCF: I.C.E. C.R.E.A.M. Comics + Zine Fair

Public Space One — Saturday, April 6 from 11 a.m.-6 p.m.

I.C.E. C.R.E.A.M. S.A.N.D.W.I.C.H.

Public Space One — Saturday, April 6 at 7 p.m.

Decisions performs at Public Space One in January 2019. — Jason Smith/Little Village

From singer-songwriters to heavy metal bands, Iowa City and Cedar Rapids breed a wide variety of musical acts. Dozens of artists make up the local music scene, but not many receive the recognition of concert-goers in the area. Naturally, the local DIY scene — united by the “do it yourself” idea that art shouldn’t have barriers to entry, and that anyone, regardless of skill or status, should be free to make art and share it as they please — tends to operate underground while the artists are often shrouded from curious music fans. Some local venue owners are working to change that.

Gabe Sperry runs a local DIY house venue. He’s also a member of a couple of hardcore punk bands. Recently, Sperry created, a website which aims to familiarize show bookers and music lovers with local artists in the area. His goal is to make the local DIY scene less “underground” and more accessible for those wanting to get involved.

“There’s this whole ‘underground’ mentality, and I think some of the musicians hold up with it too, but I’m not about that at all,” Sperry said. “I want people to participate in my music and be able to take part in the things that I’m really passionate about. It’s fun to give people the option to participate in your art.”

Locals who are interested in catching a glimpse of the DIY scene, but who may be put off by conventional DIY concerts, have found a comfortable introduction through the listening series Feed Me Weird Things. The project, now in its fifth season, is spearheaded in part by Vero Rose Smith, curator of the University of Iowa’s Stanley Museum of Art, a visual artist and a musician.

Smith and fellow artist Chris Wiersema manage Feed Me Weird Things, which showcases local and touring experimental musical artists. Concerts are held at Trumpet Blossom Café, and the music is played alongside “visual playlists” — pieces of art that Smith hand-picks from the University’s collection.

“I value the intimacy of the space,” Smith said. “It’s not quite like a house show, but closer to a house show experience in terms of proximity to performers, in terms of the casualness and the informality of the space.”

Smith said the Feed Me Weird Things team works hard to increase accessibility and inclusiveness through a controlled environment that still offers the framework and emotional contexts of the DIY community.

Iowa City’s own In the Mouth of Radness at Public Space One. Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Joining the initiative of making both DIY music and local art more inclusive is Public Space One, a nonprofit, volunteer-run art center which encourages the community to use its space for any and all kinds of art shows, including music and theater. PS1 holds a low bar for accessibility, allowing everyone from high school bands to touring acts to host concerts in their space. John Engelbrecht, director of PS1, said offering a public and inclusive art commons is key to encouraging local art.

“I think any space that makes it more accessible for people to get their creativity or ideas out into the world is important for local communities,” Engelbrecht said. “I think it’s important, especially, to have a space that isn’t driven by the sale of alcohol, especially in music, because that’s so much of what music shows are about and I think it’s good to have something that juxtaposes that idea.”
Englebrecht said PS1 embodies DIY philosophy, quite literally.

“I’m really interested in having people learn how to do this themselves,” Engelbrecht said. “You don’t have to be accepted by some curator somewhere or some music booker somewhere; you can just say, ‘Hey, my stuff is alright and I’m doing it for myself.’”

PS1 is hosting the annual I.C.E. C.R.E.A.M. fest, in conjunction with the Mission Creek Festival, on Saturday, April 6. In keeping with PS1’s mission, the Iowa City Expo for Comics and Real Eclectic Alternative Media is one of Mission Creek’s free events. Also in keeping with those DIY goals, PS1 is hosting I.C.E. C.R.E.A.M. S.A.N.D.W.I.C.H., a concert following the expo that’s not strictly associated with Mission Creek itself.

Also free — donations will be accepted to support PS1 — this event features bands more familiar to this scene than to the world of Mission Creek attendees (although, of course, there is overlap). Tying the two events together (the S.A.N.D.W.I.C.H. stands for Stellar Audio and Natural Dance With Interjections Coinciding Henceforth — or, Someone Awesome Needs to Dance Where Ice Cream Happened) goes a long way toward increasing both visibility and access.

Another proponent of easy plug-and-play access for local performers is Anthony Manning, music director at PS1. Manning is also a part-time musician. He suggests that having a tight-knit music scene is good for the community.

In his first experience playing at a DIY show, Manning said, he had never played an instrument before. When he arrived at the gig, the band simply gave him a bass guitar and told him to do his best.

“I think a lot of people in town have a pretty similar story of getting involved in the music scene,” Manning said. “I really like how tight-knit the community is here, it’s really easy to just jump in like that.”

An exhibit of “neon axes” created by artist Keith Lemley helped make PS1’s Jefferson Building space an intriguing venue for the April 2011 Mission Creek Festival. Here, The Skull Defekts perform. — courtesy of Public Space One

Because of the nature of most nonprofit venues, places like PS1 aren’t exactly money-makers. The DIY scene simply attracts a smaller audience and, in turn, produces smaller door cuts. Jason Zbornik is the director of The Hive, a Cedar Rapids-based venue which has changed locations a few times since its initial conception two years ago. Zbornik admits that art venues don’t always make financial sense, but he says his job is worth it, if only to bring art to the community.

“It’s so much work,” Zbornik said. “Nowhere else wants to mess with these types of things because they don’t bring in the large dollars, but they’re so vital and so important and they’re also really cool. DIY spaces give people the opportunity to do things they just can’t do anywhere else.”

Zbornik says the venue operates on an essential “let’s make it happen” attitude and is always open to new ideas and to working with artists to reduce door costs. The Hive also works to make their audience as inclusive as possible by establishing themselves as an all-ages venue. Similar to PS1, The Hive bans the sale of alcohol, in order to allow younger audiences the opportunity to engage in local music.

“Not only does it give them something really cool and positive to do, but it’s also super important for new artists trying to grow their careers,” Zbornik said. “It’s the younger high school and college-aged audiences who tend to support those things, as opposed to older audiences. It fills a niche in the community that nothing else does.”

It’s this niche that local venue owners are striving to fill by providing inclusive access for performers and audience members alike. The goal has always been to shed light on the lesser-known talents of the area, and Zbornik says The Hive is making those voices heard.

ZUUL during their set at Public Space One. Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Derek Tate is studying journalism and geography at the University of Iowa. He likes to play the baritone. He thinks he’s getting good, but he can handle criticism. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 260.

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