Iowa City to SXSW and back again: A chat with everyone’s favorite hatman, Curt Oren

Curt Oren & Nora Petran, w/ They Say the Wind Made Them Crazy and the Oren & Hurlin Duo

Trumpet Blossom Cafe — Friday, Aug. 5 at 8 p.m.

Musician Curt Oren has made headlines with his hat and recently recorded in a cave. You can find a review of that album in issue 203, which hits stands Aug. 3 — on Aug. 5, catch Oren and friends at the Trumpet Blossom for an album release party ($5 cover). Oren also made waves repping Iowa City at SXSW 2016 in Austin. Little Village caught up with him there.

Nora Petran and Curt Oren recording in Maquoketa Caves State Park -- photo by Chelsea Darter
Nora Petran and Curt Oren recording in Maquoketa Caves State Park — photo by Chelsea Darter

This year’s SXSW music festival held its usual high quality, as organizers continued to manage growth by limiting “unofficial” event permits and keeping the number of big-name acts to a minimum. Some people had a problem with all the logos, but they were far easier to avoid than the blinding lasers they perched atop buildings that one SXSW.

It’s still possible to attend intimate shows and discover exciting new (or new-to-you) music at SXSW. The new North Congress Avenue venue, the Townsend, was one example, with a plush black-box listening room managed by former Go-Go’s member Kathy Valentine. There I witnessed New York’s Shilpa Ray and her band, basically a film noir version of early Blondie. A little further down Congress at the Hideout, Lavender Country, who gave us country’s first openly gay release in 1973, crooned “Cryin’ These C*cksucking Tears,” our ears still ringing from the preceding assault by Spanish black metal band Crudo Pimento.

And that’s not even touching on the Sixth Street/Red River district where most of the SXSW venues are located.

This year’s SXSW saw fewer Iowa musicians helming “official” showcases. Cedar Rapids country artist Hailey Whitters played the new Antones with headliner Leon Russell, while other Iowa artists like Max Jury, Holy White Hounds, MAIDS and Gloom Balloon made waves at the “pop-up” Des Moines Embassy, located for the second year at the corner of Sixth and Red River streets. As the venue name suggests, most of these groups hail from Des Moines or central Iowa.

So who was representing Iowa City at SXSW 2016? Curt Oren and Dana T, that’s who.

Curt took a break from his busy schedule to answer some of my questions about his SXSW experience this year.

What were your expectations about SXSW and how did they compare with your actual experience there?

This wasn’t the first time I had been to Austin for SXSW, so I had some expectations going in. I played a showcase with Juan Wauters last year, but it was the day before the actual festival had started, so, in a way, that experience was essentially, “You ain’t seen nothin yet.” I also have a lot of friends who have made the journey to SXSW, and I asked them what their experiences were and how it compared to the conceptions of the fest, stuff like that.

Basically what I was expecting going in was that there were gonna be a million shows and a million people trying to hold on to this false idea that somehow they were gonna make it big by playing that “one perfect show” where some A&R rep was just waiting with a record contract, which obviously couldn’t be further from the truth. The “buzz bands” are the only ones that people like that even pay attention to, and sure, maybe, some chance encounter will occur or whatever, but because of the sheer amount of stuff going on, the likelihood of that happening isn’t any higher than that of an average show in a bigger market. Basically everyone I talked to with a lot of SXSW experience said, “If you’re going into it with any mindset other than treating it as a big band family reunion and you get to see a million cool shows, you will have a bad time.” That was pretty much my expectation and I think all in all that’s what I got out of it.

Where did you play, and with whom?

Because I played in multiple bands, I ended up playing four shows: one solo at Shangri-la, one with Dana T at Shangri-la, one with Dubb Nubb at Coldtowne Theater and one that was a Dana T/solo combo set at the Whip-Inn. All of the showcases that I played were very “DIY,” unofficial showcases, so I didn’t really play with any notable bands, but some of the highlights, at least for me, were Bad Luck, Amanda Glasser and Dirty Dishes.

Iowa City's Curt Oren will play a record release show at the Trumpet Blossom Café on Aug. 5 -- archive photo
Iowa City’s Curt Oren will play a record release show at the Trumpet Blossom Café on Aug. 5 — archive photo
How did the shows go? Were you happy with it, the crowd, the vibe, etc?

Honestly, because I didn’t really have any expectations, I feel like the shows were great. I’m always happy to just play music for people regardless of the context or who’s there or if anybody gives a shit, especially because of the kind of music I do. The fact I’ve been able to find an audience is pretty mindblowing to me. The solo show at Shangri-la was at a small bar (size of the Mill backroom) and it was almost entirely middle-aged white men playing borrrrrrring acoustic alternative rock. So needless to say, when I played, I had to do something to get people’s attention, and so the first thing I did was play completely unmic-ed and basically yell at everyone in the bar, saying “HEY I’M PLAYING A SHOW NOW, IT’S GONNA BE PRETTY FREAKY AND LOUD SO YOU MIGHT AS WELL PAY ATTENTION TO IT.” And needless to say, it worked very well. By the end of it most of the 50 people in the bar were listening to me, taking pictures, Snapchats, getting their friends to listen, etc, etc. The reception was very positive, and some people came up to me after and bought merch. The other shows were basically the same as playing any other damn show anywhere in the world — a dozen or so people show up and listen, they like it, then it’s over. Nothing wholly remarkable about any of the other ones. As I said before, in my experience, getting approached by “industry” people is essentially a myth; sure it happens to some, but the idea that there’s someone from Domino Records at every show just waiting to sign somebody is frankly absurd.

How do you approach an “opportunity” like this, ranging from just doing your show to handing out CDs on Austin street corners?

I completely abhor the idea of promoting myself in a way that is essentially just shoving it down people’s throat. The streets of Austin are literally lined with flyers, CDs, business cards and all the other crap that people hand out hoping someone “important” will see it but, big surprise, just gets thrown on the ground 50 feet later. I approached every show just as I approach every other: I put every single thing I had into making the best music and giving the best performance I could, and I feel as long as I continue to do that, things will fall into place. I plan on avoiding marketing myself in any way that feels desperate or dirty or boring for as long as humanly possible and I like to think I’m doing a pretty damn good job so far.

Did you see any other good music while you were there? What?

Probably my favorite bands were Yonatan Gat, Your Friend, Bad Luck, Amanda Glasser, Dubb Nubb and Guerilla Toss (the gtoss show was at a spillover show in Dallas a couple days after; still counts if you ask me).

Please share any interesting experiences you had at SXSW — good, bad or ugly.

The main bar/club area of Austin, oft referred to as “Dirty 6th,” was completely overrun with people, literally shoulder to shoulder for about 10 city blocks. In order to curb the amount of people there, a phalanx of police on horseback trotted through the crowd to get them to disperse. Very militaristic and pretty terrifying, if you ask me. At a sporting goods store I saw a person with a (probably loaded) handgun tucked loosely in their jeans, unsecured and concealed only partly by their t-shirt. At a quiet acoustic show at a fancy hotel bar in downtown Austin, an official SXSW show, a Hispanic woman from Uruguay was singing very beautifully in Spanish and an affluent middle aged white woman said very loudly to her white husband, “Too bad you can’t understand a damn word she’s saying.” I spent most of my time just hanging out and talking with people I never get to see from around the country, so nothing too interesting except between friends.

Do you think the Iowa City music scene/establishment has anything to learn from Austin or vice versa? If so, what?

I think any kind of “establishment” or anything is inherently something that isn’t going to learn from the culture around it, because, by design, establishments close themselves off to the people around them so they can continue to hold on to the power. I really feel like I couldn’t possibly answer that question with regards to Austin ‘cuz I know nothing about what the actual music scene is like. I don’t really think this is much of a problem in Iowa City, but I really feel like people need to pay more attention to the DIY community.

There are all kinds of shows happening all over the city that most people don’t know about, and there is always something for everyone going on. People just have these connotations for what a “house show” will be like, that it’s just gonna be a gaggle of 19-year-olds wasted and smashing shit while listening to punk music. Those shows exist, but those shows also exist at the venues that people more regularly go to. I rarely if ever see members of the “establishment” (whatever the hell that means) at DIY shows, and this could be for a million reasons — hell I don’t even go to half the shows happening in this city ‘cuz usually I don’t feel like it — but the more scenes and groups and organizations can talk to each other, the better we’ll all be.

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