THE UNDERGROUND: IOWA CITY
Iowa City, IA --- Years ago, the LA times said, “It's long been known that the art house scene in Los Angeles lags behind that of New York, but must we be outdone by Iowa City…?”
The Iowa City art scene doesn’t just revolve around art galleries, Film Scene, or the writer’s workshop. Local house venues are at the heart of this creative atmosphere. Yet, the details of what goes on in these spaces is unknown to many. This is where artists awkwardly shuffle their feet into dirty basements to be present.
Whether it’s a band playing basement shows, local artists showcasing their work on the walls, or poets doing readings, house venues are where people come to preform and take in whatever’s offered. DIY house shows are also known as house venues and formal names such as Dad City, Governor’s Mansion, The Sauna, The Flex Residency, Battle Ship, and Dollhouse, to name a few.
These houses are scattered all around the United States and self-proclaim themselves as venues. The first thing UI Sophomore Jake Leveey says when I say the words house show is “Oh, so it’s a party?”
To answer his question, J, a resident of a local house venue, says “It’s never a party. If you show up there for anything but the music, you’re gunna have a bad time.”
What are House Venues?
Known houses form a following due to consistency in shows, great atmosphere, or immersive art. J emphasized that house venues are a network of people, a network that is the core reason for their existence.
This network has been around for decades. The underground music scene has always been happening. House venues started all because of punk bands and thrash music in the 80’s, exclaims J. This type of music, often deemed too difficult to listen to in traditional venues, thrived and existed in basement punk shows, warehouses, or wherever bands could play.
Places like Governors Mansion in Iowa City existed because of that original connection. J iterated that what’s come out of that old scene is great, but it’s different.
Tyler, a local show goer says “Finding inspiration drives me to come here.”
Many show goers echo Tyler’s drive for coming to the shows adding that it’s a great place to find new music and bounce ideas off other people in the creative world. When it comes to the bands that play, Stephen, part of Texas Holdum Lava Dome, says that the space makes it easier to make connections and practice getting used to setting up.
PJ, a member of Lesbian Poetry side project, as well as a resident of Governors Mansion says, “It’s a great place to start out because it’s not people judging you on what you present. It’s people supporting you on what you present, and that gives you the confidence to go out and do more.” Performers at house venues seem to be there to share, not to profit off of their work.
Lead singer Thomas Henry of Weird Vibers, a Missouri thrash band, stated “We do it for fun ya know? We don’t do it for the money.”
And in fact, you don’t make money on these tours. Bands that toured around the US through this house venue network say that you make enough to get to the next place. Most house venues request a five dollar donation, others make it mandatory.
Dick’s is a consistent house venue in Iowa City that has been specifically passed down for seven years to people dedicated to the venue that will continue to treat it as such. Payment is required in order to see a show because touring bands need it in order to survive.
You might be wondering, "Arn't college students poor? How can they afford all these shows?" these bands need an audience. With a low key advertising method that house venues use, you wonder how these places reach people. Alex, the previous producer of Governor’s Mansion and the late Dog Mansion says “We can’t be exclusive, that’s lame,” but there’s always a new group of people that come through every show and he hopes they get inspired to share it with friends. Not only that, but if someone really wants to get into the scene, people that seek out others who are interested in the things that Governor’s Mansion offers will find themselves there.
“You just let them do their thing, you know, and if you believe in their vision you just give them a space for it, and their friends will come check it out and they’ll meet other people who will group together and create more for the space and the city, ” says Alex.
There's a different ideology. Unlike bars, there is no age limit to these creative places to listen and explore new bands. Show goers say that it’s more affordable, intimate, and easier to collaborate with others or get to know the band.
Katie, an avid show goer and preform since her teens agrees saying, “That’s the biggest difference between house venues and regular venues: age; because anyone can come. But shows at a venue, you have to be 19 and over.” This type of inclusivity is important, especially because the younger you are exposed to this scene the more time you have to cultivate it yourself and become a part of the movement.
Every house is different. Some are renowned as houses that host certain types of music such as punk, thrash, folk etc. Dick’s is known for their strictly punk scene. Thomas Henry says that “Punk rock isn’t easy to listen to. That’s the point. It’s there to unsettle shit.” He looks me in the eye as he drops a mysterious liquid into his whiskey and says that it takes a special kind of person who wants to experience good and bad and this lack of wanting to challenge oneself often keeps people away from house shows.
Governor’s Mansion: Alex started Dog Mansion in 2014. He started his first show having a few of his friends playing in his living room. His move created a house called Governor’s Mansion. They featured art on the walls, an array of bands such as thrash, folk, experimental, techno, pop punk, punk etc. Many shows have a guest cook who comes and makes food, a band, art, and sometimes poetry readings resonate throughout the house and zines litter the table. A zine is a mini magazine that is self-made and distributed. This house venue has also hosted local show premiers & craft shows as well as shows to encourage show goers to caucus.
The Flex Residency: A short lived venue in Iowa City. It was previously The Sauna. They merit themselves on the versatility of their spaces. Every room had a different theme/ exhibit that was meant to promote a sense of adventure. Seth, a resident of the house venue said, “We provide a space where you blend every day experience with art. Bars are so different, and they’re alienated from real life.”
The Secret Attic: A venue that was created by the local comedians in Iowa City. People come for laugh’s, friends, and to try out new material on anyone who will listen. It’s gotten such a following that a non-fiction student film has been made about it and the underground comedy scene in Iowa City.
What Happens At A DIY House Show?
Some house venues host shows two times a week, others, every few months. The vibe changes based on the show you are at, but one thing is relatively constant: “It creates a place where it’s not so centered around drinking and alcohol – it creates a platform that creates industry and discussion; it’s more intimate,” says Seth. People come to see their friends or experience a new band. You’ll come find a new favorite band, chat with creative people, and maybe scan the walls for a local artists’ work.
Why It’s Hard To Find
Unsurprisingly, these DIY shows are often loud, have people of many ages drinking alcohol, and aren’t legally allowed to be having large shows like this. Because of the dangers of getting shut down, ticketed, and the capacity issues of house, advertising is usually in the form of a social media invite or word of mouth. When asked, show goers didn’t see this as problematic.
Jake, drummer of Taxas Holdum Lava Dom and Graduate Physicist at the University of Iowa, says it took him two years to find the DIY house show scene in Iowa City. He recalls going to DIY shows in his local Massachusetts town at houses like Dad City and Babe Town, but couldn’t find anything online when looking for a similar safe haven in Iowa City.
Thomas of Weird Vibers says, “I think there’s obviously a limited amount of space & aspect of keeping your house safe.”
Some people have been doing this for years, others are still novice. In any case, the safety and experience of their show goers is the most important thing for these people that open up their home to a few dozen, or few hundred people.
The Bern Gave a Boost
The 2016 caucus created a frenzy at local house venue Governor’s Mansion after rumors began that Ezra Koenig was scheduled to make an appearance at the Caucus for Bernie Show following his performance at the historic Bernie Sanders rally where 3,000+ people congregated at.
400 some people showed up that night at Governor’s Mansion, including members of award winning bands Vampire Weekend and Foster the People, as well as Hunger Games celebrity Josh Hutchinson and the Lucas twins. This created a place that was potentially dangerous for show goers and the host. Due to lack of space, Ezra and the Dirty Projectors possible set was canceled.
For this reason, Curt, the coordinator of the Caucus for Bernie house show says that house venues are “Kinda like fight club.”
What’s the first rule of fight club? You don’t talk about fight club.
Some names have been change or omitted to keep the anonymity of those that contributed to this article.