Based out of Des Moines, Roman Gamble carries the torch for independent music and underground scenes through his photo and video work with Thrash Panda Media. Recently opening a studio north of the city, Gamble is dialing in on his mission to grow and support the local artistic communities by expanding his work into areas such as documentary, web series, and more. In this discussion he expands on what form those ideas might take, but also the heartbreaking circumstances that first led him into photography to begin with.
villin: What first led you into covering shows and is there any sort of driving mission you have surrounding the types of bands you cover?
Roman Gamble: I have always been a part of the local music scene; I’ve been in several bands and frequented shows, and had many friends who are artists and musicians involved in the scene. I had taken some photography classes, but never really dived in until my wife and I found out that our son Atticus had a terminal genetic disease, Tay-Sachs.
At that point I really dove into photography as way to preserve as much of the remaining time with him as I could. I spent as much time as possible with Atticus, and caring for him was was very involved, so I really didn’t have any time to go to shows or play music for quite a while. Even before his diagnosis, we were in and out of hospitals and doctors appointments, so I was just completely out of the music scene for a few years.
After he passed away, I really didn’t know what to do with myself. Everything just felt completely meaningless. I would call it more despair than depression. Previously I had used music and art as a way to channel and release that kind of emotion, but I was just so broken that I couldn’t find a creative spark to get started with. There were a lot of people and communities that had helped our family through it all, and I wanted to do something, anything, really, to try and give back and help other families in positions like we had been in. I started volunteering photography to special needs families and the hospice organization that had helped us. Forcing myself out there to photograph other families helped reignite that creative spark and started to pull me out of that void. Eventually I was functioning enough to want to be involved in the music scene again, and since photography had been so cathartic for me, I starting taking photos at shows.
I enjoy almost all punk and metal sub-genres, but as I kept shooting shows, I started to realize that hardcore shows had more photographers than people In the pit, and every other genre had next to no one documenting them. I also never saw anyone at any genre putting out any kind of video other than a short cellphone reel from the middle of the crowd. I really wanted to have representation and documentation of the entirety of the scene, and not just a small demographic, so I really committed to being at a variety of shows and also to learning video and finding ways to shoot and produce videos as a single cameraman in small and inconvenient spaces.
villin: Several months ago I saw a Facebook post where you were floating out the idea of working on a documentary around Iowa’s independent music scene. What did you have in mind when you first raised the topic, and is that something you’re continuing to pursue?
Roman Gamble: What I really want to do is elevate my current work to the next level. I want to document all the amazing musicians and artists, and a documentary has so much more weight and permanence to it. A YouTube video is reminiscent, but a documentary is illuminating and archival. It would also allow me to go back in time and try to tell the story of those that have faded into obscurity and preserve not just their work, but the stories and culture surrounding it.
There are just so many bands, venues, etc. that there’s almost no record of. DIY venues come and go so fast, and after COVID, many of the traditional venues have gone under. I think of how much these musicians pouring their passion out into these spaces that I’ve frequented means to me, and I realize that there are generations of musicians and venues that came and went before my time; they all need their stories told.
I think a big thing that gets overlooked when talking about Iowa music is that there’s music outside of Des Moines. 1108 House in Cedar Falls was a major hub for a long time, Modern Life Is War came out of Marshalltown, and I’ve heard legends of the Wolf Hanger in Pella—I want to create a platform for stories like those to be told.
I am still pursuing it, slowly but surely. I’ve been working on some foundational research and also building up a catalog of footage to have a good foundation. With the new studio space, I’m hoping to do more interviews that can build off of and help guide where the documentary goes in the future. It’s definitely going to be a marathon and not a sprint, but I think it will be all worth it in the end.
villin: In opening up that studio space in Ankeny, it sounds like you’ve got a lot of ideas for projects you’re cooking up, ranging from interviews to studio recordings. Since announcing the studio, what sort of direction are these ideas taking?
Roman Gamble: I do! Probably too many ideas, but I suppose that beats the alternative. I finally got everything mostly settled, so I should be running soon! I’ve already had several bands reach out, so after I do a test run and am comfortable I want to start doing videos that feature both an interview and live performance. I have a drum kit and mics all set up, so I’m hoping that bands can more or less just show up and play.
I’ve also been toying with the idea of doing some features that are less serious in nature; maybe an interview combined with a drinking game; a contest/game between band member or vs. another band; a livestream with viewer interaction, etc. That’s all on the drawing board, but I think it could be fun. I’m open to ideas, too!
villin: What are some of your favorite places to see live music or shoot?
Roman Gamble: My current favorite place to see live music is probably Helter Shelter. For those who don’t know it, it’s a DIY skate park inside a small old warehouse in the Des Moines area. It’s one of those “ask a punk for the address” kind of places, and inside you feel like you’re in the opening level of Tony Hawk Pro Skater. Bands usually play in a halfpipe, and there’s skaters going at it behind them while they play. The lighting is shit, the acoustics don’t exist, and a dust cloud fills the rooms as soon as the crowd starts moving, but it’s one of those atmospheres that just feels right; like it encompasses the spirit of punk.
In general, a house show or DIY space will always be my favorite though. The atmosphere is always so intimate and personal, and something about it creates this tangible energy that surges through the crowd and onto the state. I think being outside of the public eye really allows both the bands and the crowd to let go of preconceptions and inhibitions and embrace the music and the moment. A lack of stage removes the distinction between the band and the crowd, and it become less of a performance and more of a shared experience.
From a purely technical standpoint, these are the absolute worst conditions to shoot in, but I think capturing emotion and the energy trumps technicalities.
As for traditional venues, I have to hand it to Lefty’s [as an] overall favorite. They really embrace a wide variety of genres and artists—not only musicians, but also drag and burlesque—their sound and light is great for video, and their staff are some of the best people in town. Overall, all the venues in town have something they’re the best at though. The Hull is amazing for providing a space for punk bands, local bands, and smaller touring acts; Teehee’s is really starting to step up and get some great shows and I think will be a new hotspot for hardcore, xBk just looks and sounds amazing—they just don’t book acts in my preferred genres often.
villin: What do you see as some of the strongest aspects of the scene in Des Moines? How would you like to see it evolve in the coming years?
Roman Gamble: One of the strongest aspects of the Des Moines scene that I’ve noticed is that there is a lot of involvement and interaction from both older and younger generations. There was a good five to ten year stretch where it didn’t seem like anyone from younger generations were getting involved in music and picking up the torch. Currently there is an amazing amount of youth present, and they are all incredibly involved and impassioned. There isn’t a divide between generations either—it wouldn’t be abnormal to see a bill with a band like Traffic Death, with members who were in the generation of the scene prior to me; Cursed Existence, fronted by Justin Runge, who I grew up with; and Animals on LSD, a gang of talented youth carrying the torch forward. It gives me hope and optimism that the scene will be strong and thriving for another generation.
As for evolution, I would love to see more DIY spaces pop up—we really haven’t had a consistent one in a while. As for a goal that we can actually affect, I would love to see more coordination and collaboration across the scene—mixed genre shows, collaborations with the LGBTQ+ scene, such as variety music and drag shows. However the future shakes out though, I’m excited to be along for the ride and filming as much of the journey as I can.