Middle of Nowhere festival brings electronic music home to Iowa City

Middle of Nowhere Festival

Various venues — Friday and Saturday, Sept. 1-2

SassyBlack and Daedelus headline the first ever Middle of Nowhere festival. — photos courtesy of Middle of Nowhere

The inaugural Middle of Nowhere festival will be held in downtown Iowa City on Sept. 1-2 at various venues. Acts include SassyBlack, headlining Friday night at The Mill; Iowa City’s Brendan Lee Spengler, live-scoring animated films on Saturday evening at RADinc.; and Daedelus, closing things down Saturday night at the Blue Moose. Festival passes are $35; tickets for individual shows are also available, ranging in price from $8-15.

Middle of Nowhere organizers/producers Phillip Rix and Simeon Talley shared some thoughts with Little Village on why electronic music deserves its own deep dive festival in eastern Iowa.

Why does this festival need to happen?

Simeon Talley: Iowa City used to have a vibrant and active electronic and warehouse party scene. That’s dissipated. We wanted to bring it back and to tie Iowa City’s history into the current popularity of electronic music. It has a deep tie — one of the first digital synthesizers was created here, as well as the Moog III. It makes sense to celebrate the connection and to have an adult festival that a wide range of people can enjoy.

Phillip Rix: First, let me just say that this festival is, for me, a love letter to Iowa City. Although Simeon describes me as a “head,” I feel I should point out I knew very little about electronic music before moving here. I was mostly into Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Brian Eno, etc. But once I was here it was really easy to get into the scene, and everyone was so welcoming and friendly and willing to share knowledge that I immediately wanted to learn more and connect more. For me that is a huge part of what DJ culture is all about: sharing knowledge and expertise, showing people the things you love and connecting with people … So in a way what I want for this festival is to show Iowa City to itself, to thank Iowa City for what it has shown me, while sharing the love for this kind of music that I’ve been fortunate enough to be exposed to here … By paying it forward I hope to expose another incoming group of people to the things I’ve been shown here, and invite them to see what is possible here.

ST: If you look at today’s popular artists — what people think of as electronic is more pop. Things like EDM — that’s what people associate with electronic music. But EDM is just one small poppy manifestation of it.

What would you consider popular electronic music and how will your offering be different?

PR: Popular EDM things? Skrillex and things like that. Dubstep. Trap. We’re featuring experimental stuff, especially at the Trumpet Blossom. Some will be introspective. A bit might be discomfiting. Some will be undanceable. Looking to Chicago house into the early ’90s and Detroit — stuff like Mister Fingers. The appeal of this style hasn’t gone away; Chicago has a group of old school house heads who have potlucks and listen to it. There’s an oldies of electronic music and those coming back are in that genre. People who are into new stuff would benefit from hearing … its genesis. We want to show how deep that origin is in Iowa City. Especially with the experimental stuff, when a Ph.D. thesis would be to build a moog and play Bach.

How did you get together?

PR: KRUI was running promos for Simeon’s fashion fest, and he mentioned that he liked house music and we started discussing it. As a joke the idea [for an electronic music festival] was mentioned, and two weeks later we got down to brass tacks.

ST: I see the existing community of people here interested in electronic music. It isn’t the scene that once existed. I have experience producing events and doing a festival, and I saw it as a community building event. We’re bringing people back and seeing it as a way to build community in the scene. It’s a way to make something I’d want to go to and not the elements that are oversaturated.

You’re talking a lot about the scene. How open will the festival be for people who are not part of and have never heard of this scene?

PR: Pretty accessible. The specialization will be techno and house. We’re proud of the techno DJs, who have a good range. There’s deep house (more vocals, closer to uptempo R and B) for those who want to dance, and if you’re a Twin Peaks fan and want the weird stuff you should go to Trumpet Blossom for ambient introspective music.

ST: Also, each night is a progression from more heady to more danceable sounds and performances. We want everyone to end the night dancing and having a great time. We want to create more energy and embodiment.

PR: Daedelus is another intentional choice. When he performed here with Kneebody, he proved he could make everyone dance — even in the context of pretty out there jazz stuff.

How will you help expose the historical connections?

PR: We’re going to feature a Saturday afternoon conversation with Jonathon Wilson, who is doing a dissertation on electronic music in Iowa City. It goes back to James van Allen. We hope people will check it out — nobody really knows that and we want people to be aware of it.

How will you help people connect to electronic music who aren’t used to listening to it?

ST: We’re going for a full sensory experience, with all sorts of feeling — part of what we’re excited about is the compelling visuals and lighting that will join the music.

PR: In some ways, like Witching Hour or Mission Creek, we’re hoping people come with an open mind and are ready to have it be filled. If you come in ready to be immersed and washed into a great experience you’ll have a great time. Everyone has different tastes. But we hope people who like to dance will listen to the experimental music and people into the headier stuff will just let their bodies move with the bloops and bleeps.

From your perspective, what will make this festival this a success?

PR: Connecting people. The mid-tier artists come from different parts of the Midwest, Denver to Chicago, and they’ve not all heard of each other. It’s giving them a deeper network of artists and building the community for them. And for Iowa City, we’re going to introduce the depth of electronic music to itself.

ST: It’s successful if people attend and come out wanting it to occur again next year.

What makes it different from what Mission Creek or Witching Hour offer?

ST: Electronic music may be a part of other festivals but it is the whole thing here. It’ll be two nights of electronic music and discussion of ideas. That’s the biggest difference. There’s a sizable appetite for electronic stuff here, and one or two shows doesn’t feed it enough. Not to disparage anything else — they do great things with electronic music. But a devoted festival here is a necessary thing and there’s room for it alongside other offerings.

Is there anything else you want people to know about the festival?

PR: When it comes to the dance music often available in Iowa City, there are various choices, but bigger cities have more than just dance clubs with top 40 hits. There are cool underground clubs like Smart Bar in Chicago and places off Logan in Denver. These places have danceable stuff but not the stuff that you’ll hear around in popular clubs. We want to make the festival more like a pop-up club. It’s more about the groove and the club and connections and not trying to stuff a place full to build money. We also want to put Iowa City on the map as a place that offers the experience. It also highlights places younger students may not know. It’ll enrich their experience. It’s a huge hope — but if you’re gonna hope, hope big.

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