Aaron Hefel is a musician based in Dubuque who, over the course of the past two decades, has contributed to helping shape the city’s live music scene, largely through his role as booking agent for the Lift. In this Q&A, Hefel offers an overview of trends he’s noticed in the live music space following the the Lift’s shutdown during the pandemic, a few local musical recommendations, and a recap of what first initially inspired him to get involved in the scene.
villin: When we began chatting you mentioned you’ve been doing shows in the Dubuque area since around 1999. When did you get started with Counterproductions, and what sort of hopes for it did you have when you began?
Aaron Hefel: Dubuque had two nice runs of indie punk bands, one in 1994-95, and another in 1996-97. Really good bands. Like, foundations of late-’80s & ’90s underground punk rock (Shellac, Jesus Lizard, God Bullies, Cows). Seeing bands like that in my hometown spoke to me. “Why don’t you do that?” the voice said.
[I] started August 1999 at our lone alternative lifestyles bar, One Flite Up (now defunct). They had Sundays open and I suggested trying to fill the room with kids and music. Shows had stopped happening; couldn’t keep a venue for more than one show. So when I approached One Flite Up, I was looking for something to occupy small town boredom. I knew consistency was the only way. It had to be once a month or more; give people a thing to look forward to and be part of. Grateful for any venue that said yes [and] had to move the operation a few times before landing at the Lift in 2004.
villin: Be it through acts like the Old Panther collective or Melting Human Trash, have you been playing in bands that entire time, as well?
villin: I couldn’t find a cached version of the article to read it, but in 2015 Around Iowa published an article about you titled “The Guy Who Brought Music Back to Dubuque.” What was going on around that time that triggered the article, and gauging the temperature of the music scene in town today, how have things changed around town in the near-decade since it was published?
Aaron Hefel: I think I was having a good run of shows at the bar and someone from the paper reached out. I’d say things are similar? A small handful of folks, young and old, making original music in many different genres. A few venues have come and gone.
villin: In January of 2021 you discussed the issues the Lift was experiencing in re-emerging from the pandemic with KCRG. How has the bar/venue rebounded since that time, and have you found that show patronage has returned to pre-pandemic levels?
Aaron Hefel: It’s been a slow rebound. People are more particular about the events they attend. I curate the booking of small independent acts, often weekdays, in a small market. It’s a lot to ask folks to trust what I book. But when they do show up and it does work, it’s a very beautiful thing.
villin: One of the things I try to do with this website is regularly share playlists with Iowan artists, but having been a part of the scene for so long I was hoping you could help me out by shining a light on some of the music from years gone by that might not have hit my radar yet? While it’s tricky to answer this question without excluding anyone, who are some of your favorite Dubuque artists that have stuck with you over the years?
Dredge is the best band in Dubuque. We’ve got EDM, folk, noise, hip-hop, metal, and alt -ock scenes currently growing as we speak. A few former Dubuquers out there making some killer sounds would be Telekinetic Yeti, Horse Lords, and Chinese Telephones. Ten Grand, from Iowa City, are one of the best bands from Iowa and one of the first bands I’ve ever booked. Incredible stuff.