Under the nose of most Iowa City residents, an underground music label has been flourishing. Housed on a sleepy section of North Dodge St., a few blocks up from the havoc of undergraduate binges, but still close enough to walk downtown, sits the headquarters for Night-People Records.
The label was originally birthed in 2005 to unleash the whirling, wheezing art-rock strains of the band Raccoo-oo-oon (pronounced Raccoon). At its inception, the label was run, in part, by all four of the group’s members: Shawn Reed, Ryan Garbes, Andy Spore, and Daren Ho. When Spore and Ho set out for opposing coasts in 2008, the label had already built an impressive roster, releasing over 20 cassettes in 2007 and on its way to 23 releases that year. With Raccoo-oo-oon dissolved, Reed took up the gauntlet.
Night-People became a focused label under the curatorial gaze of its single employee. “It actually became easier because all the cost and everything came back to me,” Reed said of handling the label’s logistics, “which would have been a little harder to figure out with a more collective kind of thing.”
The 29-year-old label head also refined the label’s aesthetic. Musically, the label has its fingers in just about every underground sound imaginable, yet, regardless of the content of the music, nearly every Night-People offering comes adorned with cover art by Reed, who holds a B.F.A. in printmaking. “I like the idea of doing it all myself,” he said, emphasising the unique look of his label’s catalog, “if you see a record in a record store, you know it’s a Night-People record.” And there really isn’t a way to miss one, once you know what to look for. The vast majority of the album covers are split into two categories. The first: a curious juxtaposition of often old photographs arranged in a seemingly arbitrary but somehow pleasing way, framed or augmented by Reed’s own drawings. The second: original compositions by Reed which often sit at a crossroads of Native American mysticism, Eastern deity designs, and childlike wisps of color.
Reed’s focus also highlights new talent. He rarely taps the same well twice, yielding mostly to local artists including his own band, Wet Hair (with former Raccoo-oo-oon bandmate Ryan Garbes).
“I want to take the risk to put out new artists,” said Reed.
The Night-People catalog is full of artists like Washington’s Broken Water who just recently put out their full-length debut, Whet, and a self-titled cassette on the Iowa City label. This recent spate has tripled the discography of the Olympia shoegaze troupe. Risks like these and recent cassette releases from acts on the verge like Pageants, Dirty Beaches, Wild Safari, and The Twerps are why Night-People is looked at, nationally, as a vanguard for underground and experimental music.
Pete Swanson, who has done the mastering for Night-People Records since the beginning and was also one half of legendary noise duo Yellow Swans, has a national perspective on the label. According to Swanson, Reed has a reputation as a taste-maker. Talk Normal and Peaking Lights have both made considerable rumblings on the blogosphere and moved on to bigger rosters, and both had early offerings on Night-People.
Photo by Adrianne Behning
“I think a lot of labels look to [Night-People] for new artists to potentially work with,” he said, going on to cite a cadre of the biggest underground and experimental labels (Not Not Fun, Woodsist, Captured Tracks, and Release The Bats) which have all put out records by artists who originally graced the Iowa City label.
For attaining national visibility and the respect of more prominent labels, Shawn Reed has potentially sacrificed a larger local presence. Part of that, Reed concedes, is his fault: “I just push the work aspect of it way more then the publicity end of it.” Night-People Records has never taken out ads and only sends out scant copies for review. Reed is a firm believer in word of mouth, stating that “[T]he quality should stand for itself and create the audience for it.”
Reed acknowledges that this may be the predominant reason why he hasn’t found a large audience in Iowa City and finds Night-People is dependant upon a niche market, “a general kind of record nerd culture thing.”
Granted, Night-People has unleashed its fair share of material from Iowa City musicians (including: Evan Miller, The Savage Young Taterbug, and Twelve Canons) and that hasn’t gone unnoticed. Night-People’s home town has garnered a fairly positive opinion in the underground. Swanson credits the label for helping to establish Iowa City as “an underground creative hub.” According to Swanson, Reed’s risks have been beneficial to the Hawkeye’s home town: “if Shawn was more focused on financial success, he would not have been able to take as many risks, bring attention to as many bands, or highlight the remarkable local music scene in Iowa City.”
Chris Weirsema also extols the virtues of Night-People’s expansiveness. “I see [Night-People] as a locally owned label rather than a local label,” said the former talent booker for The Picador, and current Independent promoter and on-site producer for UptoEleven Productions (former Picador owners). Weirsema sees Iowa City reaping bigger benefits from Night-People’s reach: “a local label puts its friends’ work out for one another, which is great, but is fairly insular,” he says, concluding that “if the local label acts as a totem; then Night People acts as a beacon.” That beacon nurtures home-grown talent and attracts national and regional acts to Iowa City. Some, like renowned noisenick Jeff Witscher, even take up intermittent residence here.
Photo by Adrianne Behning
Weirsema also echos what many in the scene see as Reed’s primary contribution: show production. Reed’s almost relentless touring has netted him many friends who call upon the label head when they pass through the Midwest looking for a showcase. In helping his road-weary mates with a place to sleep, eat, and bathe, Reed also helps to further cultivate the warm vibes many artists have for Iowa City. “I think that what is distinct about Shawn’s influence is that he encourages those around him to do the same. He helps in fostering that. Going to shows is great, and that’s what goes into making a scene, but it’s all those other things that makes what we have a community.”
Reed bristles slightly at the idea of show production: “I’ve always thought about it as more of a curatorial thing.” It’s about helping friends in an extension of the original mission behind Raccoo-oo-oon and Night-People: making the scene you want, not settling for what is there. “You just have to create that situation,” he stated flatly. As a native Iowan, raised just outside of Muscatine, Reed has never cared for people who write off Iowa, and has never suffered those who bemoaned the lack of a scene in the state.
In fact, Reed is a vocal advocate of the different opportunities afforded those who shirk the artistic hubs for more inexpensive confines. “It’s cheap and not very competitive,” Reed said of the low rents which free him from the necessity of a steady paycheck. But for Reed, the notions of community embraced in Iowa City, where “everyone can support one another,” are far more valuable.
However, the head Night-Person doesn’t have his mind in Iowa City right now, or the United States for that matter. “Lately it’s been about bands from Australia for me–so much good music coming out of Sydney, Melbourne and even Hobart, Tasmania right now,” Reed said of the cache of tunes he recently brought back from the land down under. The first bumper crop from Australia consists of cassettes from two lo-fi, pop outfits, The Twerps and Pageants, plus a split 12” between Reed’s dubby duo Wet Hair and similarly minded act, Naked on the Vague.
Reed seems to suggest a kinship, not just of a shared language and European ancestry, but being an occasionally marginalized culture like his. Working with these Aussies certainly makes it harder to argue for Night-People being a local label; however, to hear him wax romantic over the outback, it’s easy to be reminded of Iowa. Often seen as just another wind-swept prairie state separating tarmacs in New York and Los Angeles, there are echoes of Iowa when he speaks of Australia: “I think there is something about things being kind of geographically isolated there, but still having a rich history of underground music.”