This week’s edition of the Iowa Basement Tapes radio show covers the bases of the underground, featuring noisy punk, hardcore, sound collage, electronic psych, thrash, and indie rock. The show is a passion project of filmmaker, writer, and composer Kristian Day, and began broadcasting on KFMG in Des Moines in 2018. It’s since expanded its reach to two other stations, and its archive can be listened to via Apple or Spotify. Checking in from Nova Scotia for this edition of Making a Scene, Kristian shared some background on how the show developed and where he hopes to see it go in the future, as well as the passion he has for recognizing and celebrating some of the lesser known aspects of Iowan culture.
villin: On the current iteration of your website there is an introduction to your work, noting you are a film maker, writer, and radio host. But my own introduction to your work came through your musical compositions. Your releases now span three decades, and as I was combing through old interviews I came across an old blog of yours where (in 2011, I believe) you wrote that you’d hoped you might view the Ambient Martyr release as something of your own masterpiece album. How do you feel about that collection now?
Kristian Day: So, when I was a teenager and in my early twenties, music was 100% my focus. I didn’t care about making movies, writing or anything else. I had built up years of recordings since I was 15 years old. I had gotten into experimental music via Skinny Puppy and Throbbing Gristle. Making music was a cheap way to spend a Friday night when you are broke and underage. A lot of the recordings that ended up on Ambient Martyr were from this time. Though it wasn’t all new recordings like I had planned, it is my most accessible collection of music. I still remember the day I recorded the two Buddha Machine and Radio pieces. It was a rainy October day in 2009 and I had two of those Buddha Machine sound generators that were released by the band FM3. I would play them simultaneously and change loops while I was rolling. I also had a tape deck with a recording I made off the radio on 9/11/01 (my 16th birthday) of President Bush giving a speech after the attacks. My 4th input was a radio that I was tuning, and the recording rolled on. That piece “Protozoa Drops” got some radio play on Hearts of Space back in 2004. I am really proud of this.
villin: Having done sound design on projects like Saw 4, which isn’t to mention your own personal ties to the likes of Fangoria, there’s a thread I appreciated learning about that runs through your professional life that speaks to your own appreciation of horror. Last month you released a piece that you’d arranged for American Guinea Pig: Bouquet Of Guts And Gore, which I believe was following in the footsteps of the original exploitation series. Is there something about working on projects with darker themes that you’re drawn to?
Kristian Day: One hundred percent. The American Guinea Pig series was a continuation of the original Japanese series. I was sort of a fan when I was a teenager. I say sort of because they were gross and kind of pointless pieces of cinema. But they were a lot of fun to play when you had friends over. I was and still am a huge horror fan. My friend Marcus Koch was the special fx supervisor and editor of the first three American Guinea Pig films. He was the first person to hire me as a composer back in 2006 for his movie 100 Tears. As much I as dabble to in the dark worlds, I am very much a daylight person. I am up by 6am every day, I enjoy being outside in my yard when the sun is out. Not to mention I am usually in bed by 11pm. Horror and darkness isn’t something that consumes my life, but these types of films do excite because they are super creative, and they push me to be equally creative. When someone says they need something to sound ugly, I start carving things out that are disjointed or out of tune.
villin: Similar themes came through in the music videos you directed and produced for Druids. I appreciate them in part because they tap into my own appreciation for dark or esoteric themes, casting that against a backdrop of the American heartland. Whether that was even what you were going for, that contrast really worked for me. Looking back on them, do you remember much from those shoots and are music videos something you’d ever like to get back into again?
Kristian Day: I don’t care for music videos. At this point I only work with friends. In their heyday they were basically commercials for singles and albums. They were also budgeted like commercials. But there is no money in it and unless the band or artist has a public relations person helping market the video to the largest audience, it dies on YouTube in the first 12 hours. Druids are one of my favorites and they check all the boxes: friends, great music, record label, and PR firm. I directed the “Shivast” video and then I produced “Path to R.” “Shivast” was fun as I got to cast four cool friends of mine. Gary Monte, who is the station manager at KFMG, is the ghoul with the sunglasses. Dick Klemensen, who published Little Shoppe of Horrors magazine (British horror magazine), is the butler guide. My friend Oz is the girl lost in the labyrinth. She was a couch surfer friend who crashed at my place with some friends back in 2017. Then Miranda Oldenburger, [who] I had previously cast in some commercials, was the witch demon.
villin: From the standpoint of being music fan, yourself, what’s aired on Iowa Basement Tapes seems to run the gamut. But on a more personal note, you’re a fan of ambient and have professed roots in the Cedar Rapids punk and hardcore scene. When connecting with Greg Wheeler, he also spoke fondly of the scene then, adding how influential bands like the Horrors were to him. Do any bands or specific memories stand out to you from those years that helped guide you toward the path you’re on now?
Kristian Day: The Horrors (Cedar Rapids punk rock, not the lame UK band) were a huge influence on me, too. The Cedar Rapids scene in the late ’90s and early 2000s was the best scene you could grow up with. We didn’t have real venues. It was all community center and basement shows. If were you better than average you could play Gabe’s in Iowa City. Cannibal Horse has a personal connection for me as I got to perform one show with them at the Candle Shop in Cedar Rapids. I met Ben Smasher when I was 17 and we shared a love for black metal and noise. He gave me a copy of the The Horrors/Pee Pees split 7”. Ben had an important role in the music scene back then because he had a CD burner. Think about that for a moment. Mp3.com was the only online distribution platform. So, if bands wanted to share physical copies of their music, they had to make tapes or CD-Rs, and burners were not cheap yet. Ben was duplicating everyone’s tunes and burning CD-Rs for them. All the bands were just being super creative back then and no one cared about breaking out. We were just excited to share our music with our friends. Another big one for me was Deerslayer, a bedroom electronic project by Adam Groves of Brazil, The PeePees, and Wheel and the Fence. I can talk about this project for hours. Speaking of that, Brazil was a band whose sound I personally think defines the Cedar Rapids hardcore scene. My favorite memories seeing Sadistic Kids play the Fairfax Community Center back in 2002 or 2003. They hung in there for a really long time. I was also at the Halloween show at the Hiawatha Community Center that Cannibal Horse and Honky Tonk Overlords played. Andy Koettle of Captain Three Leg/Honky Tonk Overlords filmed this. This was a great scene and great time to be creative.
villin: A few times over I’d heard mention that Once Upon a Time in the West is your favorite film. I don’t remember when I first started listening to Ennio Morricone more seriously but, good lord, something like “The Ecstasy of Gold,” is truly a thing of legends. A long time ago I remember seeing the Raconteurs when I was living in Minneapolis and they came out to “Navajo Joe”–the shrieking wales in that setting, poured upon an unsuspecting crowd, were something I’ll never forget. What comes to mind when thinking of his music and do you think it’s influenced your own composition style?
Kristian Day: Ennio Morricone is amazing guitar player. I don’t know if you immediately recognize it in his music. The main theme, “As a Judgment,” and “Man with a Harmonica” are amazing compositions. Tension building and also serious thrashers. I have loved his music in films by Tarantino, Argento, and Carpenter. But the chef’s kiss is Once Upon a Time in the West. His influence pushed me to do “slow drags” and loud climaxes. Even in my own films I tend to not want to cut. Just drag it out until someone wants to scream.
villin: KFMG bills Iowa Basement Tapes as something of “a wider look at the Iowa music scene’s history and future,” but it’s also been mentioned as a project attempting to “preserve Iowa’s punk rock and counterculture history.” How did you begin the show and did you think it would become as sprawling of a series as it has?
Kristian Day: I love radio. It’s a classic media and when I was younger I would listen to Coast to Coast AM late at night. In fact, late night radio is interesting when it’s an original broadcast. Like, who is listening to this? So, there is that. I also had collected so much music from Iowa bands over the last 20 years and I was trying to figure out how I could share it with people. Ben Smasher had created the 319 Dude Bandcamp Archive in 2012 and then said that he wasn’t going to maintain it anymore. It really just focused on Cedar Rapids and Iowa City bands. [In the] Spring of 2018 I pitched this idea to KFMG and very quickly they came back with my first airdate being July 5, 2018. I knew no commercial station would play this and the Iowa NPR affiliates had music shows already nor would they probably care to talk to me. No one played this type of material and I wanted this show to be loud and have an attitude. One of the big selling points was the playlist and listing where the band was from. Bands were from Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Sioux City, Mason City, etc, etc. It made our desert island seem a little bigger. Sioux City has a huge fanbase now. I have gotten care packages of tapes, records, and flyers.
villin: When thinking about what the show has become, what do you think is your current mission with it and is this something you’d like to do indefinitely, or have you ever considered an end point with it?
Kristian Day: So, right now the show is on three stations. KFMG in Des Moines is the home station and then it gets syndicated on KWIT in Sioux City and KOJI in Okoboji, which are both part of Siouxland Public Media and cover western Iowa, eastern Nebraska and that small tip of South Dakota. I really would love to see the show move in line with Iowa Public Radio someday. We have a huge fanbase with the archived podcast episodes but I would love for it to be on late night IPR to make sure the show will live beyond my own lifespan. But did I think it would get this big? No. I figured it would last six months to a year and then I would be asked to move along.
villin: There was a recent Twitter post showing off a collection that had been passed on to you for the show. In a few past interviews the value of minimalism has come up and I’m wondering if you ever become conflicted about personally taking on so many of these artifacts? Do you have any idea what you’d eventually like to have happen with this collection?
Kristian Day: One hundred percent. I have boxes of music in my living room right now that is giving me major anxiety from this very collection intake. I am still picking through it. Some I am going to hold on to, some I will be taking down to a record store in town to sell as a lot. I literally can’t have all this stuff. I actually get the shakes when I have stuff on every surface in my house. But I have a rule: Anything new that comes my way means I need to get rid of something in order to keep it. I have talked to the Iowa Historical Museum and they currently don’t have a great way to store the physical artifacts. So, I have been digitizing them to the Iowa Basement Tapes Bandcamp Archive in case my house ever goes up in flames.
villin: One addition that would seem proper to add to your byline is that of “historian.” I randomly dove in on one of the interviews on your YouTube page and learned that Cedar Rapids has the oldest mosque in America, for example. Elsewhere, you’ve made it your business to write about things like the Iowa Jam, which isn’t to mention the documentarian aspect of your film work. In some ways being a historian has become something of a counter-culture role. What do you make of the label and do you know what first influenced or instilled this sort of value within you?
Kristian Day: I hate the historian label. There are some things I just don’t care about. What I hate more than the historian label is the love for nostalgia. Which might shock people to read. I don’t like living in the past but I don’t want to forget it. My business has basically become everything that I love and enjoy I indulge in: film, music, writing, etc. If I don’t like something I don’t want to mess with it because I will never care enough. I am also very protective of Iowa. Even when things are not great in our state government I will still go to bat. If you want to see me lose it, have a Californian say something demeaning but this state. Counter-culture is what leads to progress but there is a still a game to how the world works. Documenting everything means there is less of chance of forgetting all the efforts people have put in. But what’s funny about time is we will nevertheless forget until the next person comes along says, “Oh hey, I am into that.”
villin: In a Globe Gazette interview a few years ago, you commented, “I’m constantly looking for things because I don’t want things to dissolve into ether.” As an outsider looking in, that seems to be built into your personal ethos at its core. And there’s a photo of you wearing an Einstürzende Neubauten shirt on your Twitter feed – perhaps a fashion statement, but I also take that something of an act of advocacy. Do you remember when it started feeling important to you to carry the torch for the cultural fringes? And what do you fear the damage would be if these sort of histories, be it specific pieces of music or the awareness of bands completely, would become lost to time?
Kristian Day: My day job is filmmaking. I am very lucky to be in the position I am in. I have produced documentary series for HBO, Discovery, and even Hulu. I have written screenplays for a kids series with Peacock Kids and Dreamworks. My producing partner and I just closed on a deal with Amazon for our next movie. I also just finished shooting a movie in Iowa that only a few people know about. Most people would walk off and live their life in that Hollywood world but I don’t need to. I can literally be wherever I want and I choose to be here. I love Des Moines, I love my neighborhood and I love being surrounded by real people. In 2020 I produced Queen of Meth for Discovery, and the director asked me about Iowa music from the late ’80s. I lit up. We ended up licensing music from the Iowa hair metal band Roze as well as two songs from my favorite Iowa band, Captain Three Leg. Roze had played at a bar in Ottumwa, Iowa around the time the story took place. Captain Three Leg was from the area even though they were almost a decade later. That’s when it all hit me. There is a line we can walk with success and never forget who we really are.
For more of Iowa Basement Tapes, dig into the archives on Bandcamp or subscribe and listen to the show via Apple or Spotify. Elsewhere, keep up with Kristian via Instagram or Twitter, or listen to his music via Bandcamp, Apple, or Spotify.