Based in Des Moines, Dave Murphy has shared his thoughts on music (and life) across several notable online outlets this past decade, including Des Moines is Not Boring and his own Iowaves blog. His essay titled “80/35 2019: Creativity is Alive in DSM” wasn’t specifically mentioned in the following Q&A, but it articulates the practical realities and difficulties of maintaining a music scene in a part of the country which is largely viewed as being barren of one. Picking up on that thread was a key reason for connecting with Dave now, to gauge a sense of how a scene’s post-pandemic development might be observed by someone who so heavily invested themselves in it prior to the bottom falling out. Another reason was to vicariously reminisce. Writing about music is a unique way to capture a moment, which tends to encourage one to look both outward and inward, and Dave was kind enough to engage regarding the unexpected benefits that came from doing so in a public forum. Digging in further, he also championed several Iowa artists that he’s kept up with over the years, in addition to various others that are just now building steam.
villin: Was Iowaves your first foray into writing about music? You ended up writing for several different outlets, in addition to publishing on Medium — was there something in particular that influenced you to start taking your writing more seriously?
Dave Murphy: I’ve been writing in some form or another pretty much since I learned my ABCs. I had some poetry published when I was in fifth grade and was an editor for my high school newspaper. It was always my intent to make a career out of it, so I went to Iowa State as an English major, but shit happens and I left after a year.
The writing bug never really left, though. I wrote for some sports websites and about professional wrestling and just some fiction and essays that never really saw the light of day (and probably never really will). In my twenties, I started to go to more and more shows and as the internet — I dunno — blossomed, it became easier to hear all sorts of cool new music, so I started to broaden my tastes and realized all of the sounds that were coming out of central Iowa and really Iowa in general. I started meeting more people at shows, and everyone was so nice and so talented and I just kind of knew I wanted to do what meager things I could to help what I saw was a scene really on the cusp.
I got involved with the first 80/35 helping book a sort of sideshow stage, then I started booking shows at the original location of the now defunct Des Moines Social Club. Promoting and booking wasn’t really my forte, so I stopped when DMSC had to move in 2010 but I still wanted to do what I could to help the scene because I saw so much promise.
There was a popular culture blog at the time called DesMoinesIsNotBoring.com. It was targeted towards a lot of young professionals and had the attention of places I thought could monetarily help the arts scene. Once a week, I tried to write a long form review of an album or a show on one band and then highlight upcoming shows. I say review, but the truth was I considered myself more of a PR guy than a critic; I didn’t want to dissuade anyone from checking out an artist or going to a venue.
Iowaves spun off from DMINB because originally I wanted to talk more about national stuff, I wanted more than just a once a week outlet that I tried to keep tailored to what I thought the young urban professionals wanted to hear, I wanted an immediate outlet for when an idea popped into my head and selfishly because I was still holding out hope I could make a career of the whole thing, so I figured the more my name and work was out there, the closer I’d get.
villin: Iowaves published album and show reviews, and commentary on music and life. How would you describe the website now, looking back on it? Has what Iowaves means, or meant, changed to you since you’ve stepped away from it?
Dave Murphy: Originally, I wanted to post every day, about something, even if was just a blurb about a show in the area or something else interesting I happened to see. After about a year, I just couldn’t keep my attention focused. With a day job that was increasingly sucking my energy, a toddler and other projects I attached myself to, it just didn’t happen. Plus, it was clear no one gave a shit about my thoughts on the national albums (or, well, The National albums) I was covering, so I scrapped that and just focused on the local stuff I loved.
Eventually, it became home to a lot more personal views on the artists and the scene itself, which wasn’t something I felt I could just churn out so more and more time lapsed between posts.
Honestly, what it meant changed throughout its existence. I wanted it to be a hub for music, then a hub for Iowa music, then a hub for, well, me. Then, DMINB shuttered, the Register no longer had a need for my freelance work, I had two kids and was pushing 40 and the reality for me was the late 2010s just didn’t catch my attention, or rather, I couldn’t keep paying attention. It felt like I was talking about different iterations of the same people over and over and felt too much like actual work that I dreaded, so I stopped.
Looking back on it, I’m proud of the work and intent. I’m proud of the music I highlighted, too. I think the bulk of it really holds up. Annalibera, Tires, Trouble Lights, The River Monks, Maxilla Blue, Love Songs For Lonely Monsters, Mumford’s (these are just off the top of my head, don’t mean to slight anyone) were (and in some cases, still are) really, really special and if anything, I’m proud that Iowaves serves as a time capsule to a burgeoning art scene and a love letter to the talent and art of the time.
In a personal sense, I heard a lot from the bands and artists at the time that it was great that at least someone took the time to listen and think about the art they put out. Later on, as I started to write more personal stuff, that’s sorta how I felt, too. It was just nice to have someone appreciate your art, even if it was just one person.
villin: The final post on Iowaves takes on a defeatist tone, focused around the closing of the Vaudeville Mews. What did the club’s closing represent to you at the time, and how do you feel about it now? Have you noticed much of a change in the city’s music scene since then?
Dave Murphy: I guess, let’s get positive first. xBk and Lefty’s are doing a hell of a job making sure local music still has a home, and I’m proud of them that they’re still going even though I know it can’t be easy. I’m glad there seem to be more DIY places popping up. The scene will never ever truly die as long someone, somewhere, still cares. Because of their cultivation and the artists’ dedication, it seems like things are moving forward since 2020, certainly.
Now the negativity…
That article took a defeatist tone, because quite frankly, I was and still am defeated. The whole idea of me being involved in the scene was I saw talented people creating brilliance and I knew if the right eyes saw it, eventually Des Moines could be a true hotbed, an incubator and maybe even a destination for artists. I had hoped that if I shouted loud enough, maybe the right ears would hear. I also bought the lies of the groups I thought were on my side. Not the art groups, per se, but the ones that were speaking for businesses and corporations while pretending to have Des Moines best interests at heart. You’d hear things like “we need to have a vibrant arts scene to attract the best people and the best way to do that is develop our homegrown artists” so I did my best to show off who I thought were not only the best and, if I’m being truly honest, for DMINB it was also the most marketable with hopes it would come with the financial backing these artists needed.
Truth was it was all a ploy and I bit. Corporations don’t care about a local art scene. They don’t care about the city they’re in. They care about filling people with ennui and having people be just happy enough to do their jobs while living in fear that their next paycheck might be their last. They also seem to have no qualms packing up and skipping town if the talent dries up, no matter how many corporation-approved events we throw around the Papajohn family’s sculptures. We had groups running cover for this idea that we were going to stop the brain drain by cultivating talent, but if the people that were advocating so hard for the arts scene are pumped about Live Nation sticking their noses in and an art festival filled mostly with artists from outside of Iowa, then they aren’t actually our advocates.
It also felt like any progress was completely lost right around the time Iowa became synonymous with the likes of Steve King and Chuck Grassley and there simply was no level of marketing that was going to defeat the stigma of red state politics for the dark blue generation we needed to stay and continue to build the scene. This isn’t me getting political, it’s just basic demographics. Iowa is a laughingstock to artists who, as a group, overwhelmingly care about the opposite of how our state is currently being governed. Austin and Nashville had decades of time to be weird outliers in reddening states (and lord knows they have their own problems and maybe shouldn’t be used as a positive example); Des Moines absolutely does not have that luxury.
The death of Vaudeville Mews, which to me was the epicenter of this climbing scene, signaled that we had to completely rebuild and I just didn’t and don’t have the energy for that level of rebuild. And I don’t know that even if I did, that a 43-year-old white dude should even be a prominent voice if I can’t back it up with deep pockets or a chunk of time. That’s probably a really defeatist and honestly ageist statement but it’s a hard sentiment to kick.
villin: Back in 2012 you wrote about the lush bed of online outlets celebrating and supporting Iowa music in an article for the Ames Tribune. Looking at that list now, what do make of how the online scene has changed since that time, and do you think there’s a way to develop a stronger online community around local music, given how the way people use the internet has changed over the past decade?
Dave Murphy: Heh, re-reading that was a trip. Funny thing, other than Marc Hogan, not a single one of those places are actively involved in the scene in any way, I don’t think. (Loved to be proven wrong.) Cityview might be, I guess, but I’m not reading that garbage fire. Also shout out to Band Bombshell’s Erika and Lindsay. Erika moved to NYC and wrote a couple of really awesome books and Lindsay is a freelancer and covers a lot of fun stuff about crafting. Both are excellent writers and we were lucky to have them involved. Oh, and a writer named Ezgi Ustundag, who was still in high school writing for the Ames paper, was the one who worked with me on that piece in 2012 and she’s also written several great things since, too.
Anywho, I remember being in my teens and early twenties and the local bands [were] mainly trying to sound like the nu metal acts of the era, buoyed by a local making it big in Slipknot, so it just seemed like there were a bunch of bands trying to be Slipknot and a bunch trying to be — I dunno — Limp Bizkit, so I didn’t really frequent smaller shows.
Turned out there was a lot going on beyond my perceptions, it was just harder to find. Sam Summers was running shows in a multi-purpose room in the botanical center with a lot of the marketing being done on message boards. There was also a radio DJ named Tony Tarbox who was playing a lot of the bands at midnight on Sunday nights, or whatever, on a now defunct terrestrial radio station. That’s just to spotlight a couple, but there were people putting in the work for sure. The talent was there if you knew where to look.
By the time I got involved, streaming was in its infancy but social media was honestly at its apex. Facebook was a lot more powerful then and not yet reduced to a den of nosy aunts and bigoted uncles, so it was easy to look at a venue’s website, then look up a band on Facebook and listen to the song or two they’d posted or follow their Bandcamp link and hear full albums. It was pretty centralized and took little effort.
I actually think it’s harder now because social media is so scattered, algorithms and ad dollars dominate what is shown to you rather than a more organic approach which in turn discourages smaller independent bands from keeping up to date socials, and honestly just the overwhelming amount of entertainment options at hand for everyone at all times is a detriment to smaller artists. Like, why would I go out of my way to listen to a local band who takes inspiration from Sparks when I can just hit play on Kimono My House for the 2000th time, you know?
As far as a better online community? We just need more voices and we need those voices amplified. We need people with the enthusiasm and willingness to put themselves out there talking about the things they like. I commend you for taking that step, we just need three or four more of you. Maybe even thirty or forty more. But I think it’s going to take work again. Similar to what it was like in 2004, maybe. More than it took in 2010, anyway. The people who want to stay informed need to congregate and set something up and then not shut up about it. Share playlists, start groups, yell at family and friends, put up flyers, learn to skywrite, whatever it takes. Be noisy.
villin: I haven’t gone too far back (yet) into the Iowaves archive, but particularly connected with your article about Andrew WK (which actually turns five years old this month!). You wrote, “I was at the Andrew WK show because I loved him and his music, but I was also there to feel things again.” In the last year and a half or two years I’ve re-engaged with music in ways I haven’t in a very long time. For me, this renewed sense of connection to it has helped connect me to other important areas of my life, as well. I was trying to put myself into your position while reading this article and was thinking about the idea of using music as an experience marker, how it can represent certain periods of life, certain phases, certain thoughts, and what value there might be to documenting life through the lens of music on blogs or other online outlets. On my own side, maybe because I’m so prone to forgetting so much of my life, writing like this has helped me feel like my experience counted for something, and at times helped the experiences themselves feel more real once I was able to sit with them and put words to the screen. Thinking back about how your writing about music might have helped you learn about your own life, what comes to mind with the Andrew WK piece, and are there any other articles of yours that stand out as having had a particularly strong impact on you?
Dave Murphy: The Andrew WK piece was a unique one because I had basically quit by that point, but I was still on a lot of publicists email lists and his wanted me to interview him in advance of his Wooly’s show, but I don’t think they knew I wasn’t active. Hell, I didn’t even do interviews when I was active, but I love Andrew WK so it was a once in a lifetime thing and I basically fibbed to them and said I was going to try and sell it to an an actual outlet, but had zero intention of doing so, to land the phone interview. I was also going through a lot of personal stuff at the time, so I used it as a chance to talk to an idol and pour my guts out. Also, I went with a buddy to a baseball game and got a little drunk right before he called, and I didn’t write anything down or record it. Proud how much of that conversation I remembered.
Honestly, though, I have battled mental health issues my entire life, so I incorporate a lot of that struggle in my writing because it helps me get stuff out of my head and I’ve been told it helps other people, too. Beyond the mental health stuff, though, it’s way more fun for me to mix in thoughts about a concert or album in a more memoir-ish way than to just be “they played this song,” or “this is perfect for fans of The Strokes,” or whatever. The beauty of writing criticism is that it is simply your thoughts and feelings. You’re not beholden to a structure or design. Just write what you’re feeling and thinking about and why the album or whatever made you think and feel that way. Or what you were thinking and feeling at the concert and why you felt that way, even if it’s “I don’t know why I felt that way, that’s weird. Now I feel weird.” Or if your feelings were “man, I could go for a burrito.” It’s all valid!
Also once you commit yourself to writing about something, you pay way more attention to those feelings because you know you have to put pen to paper. I think that’s the phenomenon you’re experiencing. You’re forcing yourself, right then and there, to analyze why you feel or think the way you do. That shit will stick to you. It’s not always a fun process; but it always matters. You cannot just vibe and drift blissfully through a performance if you force yourself to feel and feel often because writing “I dunno, I wasn’t paying attention” doesn’t cut it. Forcing yourself into feeling that feeling and then documenting it is what makes an artist. It can be torture, sometimes, but you miss it when it goes away.
As far as standout pieces of my own, I’m stupid critical of my own work and don’t really like to re-read my own stuff. I guess, if I were to point out some highlights, I like this one about Mitski. The fact that I saw her before she blew up makes me look super cool in the eyes of my 13-year-old daughter. I liked several of my 80/35 reviews. This one because I think I could see the writing on the wall but was maintaining my optimism. And this one was one of the most read pieces on the site and got me yelled at by a bunch of weirdos for some reason. This one about Courtney Krause I like. This one is tough, but I always remember that I wrote it. There’s probably some non-Iowaves things I could suggest, but I feel weird already, so let’s stick with this.
villin: In 2015 you wrote an article titled “7 Music Things I Love About Des Moines.” If you were to try to revisit that concept now, what are some of the things you love most about the music, or scene, in Des Moines (or across Iowa, for that matter)? Are there a couple songs that you’d be open to sharing in line with this thought?
Dave Murphy: Currently, I feel a little more out of the loop than I should be. Like I said, it’s a lot easier sometimes to stay with stuff you know than to venture too far, but I’ll do my best and try not to leave anyone out.
There’s a lot of cool stuff still being done by bands I covered forever ago. I try to keep up with whatever Courtney Krause is up to because she’s brilliant and maybe the nicest human on the planet. I also try to keep up with Phil Young who is also brilliant and is Courtney’s only true rival in the niceness rankings. Honestly, whatever any of the dudes from Tires are up to, is gonna go hard. Greg Wheeler and the Poly Mall Cops‘ new album slaps. I’m also digging the new Extravision album. Druids are amazing and I’m super pumped to hear about Luke Rauch’s clean bill of health. Jordan Sellergren had a stunning album under the name Milk & Eggs back in like 2011 so I’m excited to see she’s still making art. Twins was an amazing band and Joel Sires has transitioned well into a solo. Oh, and I know she’s Chicago based now, but, Elizabeth Moen is spectacular.
As far as acts I didn’t cover, I think I have to start with Basketball Divorce Court. Again, not sure if they count as local, but I’ll still claim them if I can. Annie Kemble is doing a lot of really cool and unique things. I like Anthony Worden; a really great performer. Pictoria Vark is going to explode real soon, so get on her bandwagon. Glass Ox rules. I really like Haploid. Allegra Hernandez is really special.
As far as anything else goes, I talked about xBk and Lefty’s so let me also plug Octopus in Cedar Falls. Also, I love Mission Creek festival in Iowa City. It’s curated so well, so yeah, love them, too.
I know after this goes live I’m going to remember 900 other people I should’ve talked about, but I suppose I was only supposed to go to seven anyway, so I won’t torture myself too much. Oh and villin.net. Keep doing what you’re doing!
As for specific songs, I’d encourage everyone reading this to pick a playlist; villin.net has done an amazing job curating, or simply look at a venue’s website and just pick a band you don’t know playing with one you like and give them a whirl.
If I could recommend one thing though, listen to the self-titled album from Love Songs For Lonely Monsters from 2014. Amy Badger was a brilliant lyricist and vocalist and it sucks that we lost her so young.