Iowa City Music Scene Profile: Part One - Daniel English, Dana T., and Cooper Whittlesey

By Graham Johnson   

    In 2013 on a cross-country trip, I remember driving from town to town throughout the Midwest with a friend, the closest thing to a record store for three states and several hundred miles being the CD section of Walmart. Finally though, we stumbled upon a little oasis of culture: Iowa City, where I picked up a little handmade cassette by a local experimental saxophonist named Curt Oren.

    Our friendship developed from there, exchanging emails online and him coming out to New York on one of his tours to play an in-studio for WBAR radio. Along the way, I continued delving into the Iowa City scene, discovering a lot of the amazing music his friends and collaborators were working on.

    Recently, their “pseudo collective,” as Curt refers to it, has started to splinter, friends moving across the country for jobs, bands, and personal reasons. Many now live in Minneapolis, getting involved with groups like Frankie Teardrop in a new city. Others have moved West to California and a few still remain in Iowa, though most with plans to travel elsewhere in the near future.

    Nevertheless, while the scene continues to geographically dissipate, the quality of their artistic output is only improving release after release, and for that reason, we at Rare Candy thought it important to shed some light on all the amazing music they’ve made so far, as well as all the ambitious projects which they continue to dream up.

Huge Lewis - Ascending Into Heaven

    Ascending Into Heaven is Huge Lewis’ only full-length and their only record with their original line-up; their second release, the “I Like My Guitar” single with B-Side “The Willies” would come after the addition of bassist Dana Telsrow to the band. A mix of classic garage sounds and surprisingly beautiful melodic work, the record opens strong with the bizarre but gorgeous “a Young Montana,” transitions into the killer “Jean Grey,” and finishes strong with “Curse Words,” showcasing along the way the prodigious songwriting abilities of lead singer Daniel English and his bandmate, including guitarist Jacob Sluka who would later move to California. It’s all recorded live but still manages to defy lazy lo-fi, the songs well-mixed and striving for clarity.

“Jean Grey is kind of a tragedy. Everyone loves that song, I love that song so much. It came around to me in the way most of my songs do which I like to think of as incubation. I find a musical idea and marry a concept to it. In this case it was some of the guitar part and the line ‘red headed girls will bring about my death.’” - Daniel English

Cool Boobs - Meat vs. Shirt

    A collaboration between Daniel English, Cooper Whittlesey, and Ben Crouse (whose illustration work will be featured later in the Iowa City profile). Sometimes abrasive, sometimes bizarre, its one of the most original and experimental releases of the scene. “White Rice” and “Tongue Slips,” though both moderately challenging tracks, are perhaps the most accessible starting points into what is an incredibly eccentric and brilliant collection of songs, completely defying the somewhat low expectations set by a group that portrays and names itself as something of a novelty act.

    “Cool Boobs happened the way it did because Cooper and I are control freaks. Ben and I always wanted to work with his big genius but could never pin him down. When he finally saw the kind of outlet he could have things came quickly and nakedly. We practiced in our underwear. Unfortunately it seems like Meat vs. Shirt is how Cool Boobs will live forever. Not sure how we could easily make another record when I'm living in another city.” - Daniel English

“Cooper's personality and poetry is so beloved to me and Dan - we like to think of the band as me and Dan holding up Cooper to the world (us being the tight musical base and Cooper being the wild sun that unleashes raw creative energy).” - Ben Crouse

 

Interview with Daniel English of Cool Boobs and Frankie Teardrop, January 2014

Rare Candy: Just want to clear a few things up for myself and for readers, since it can be hard to find a lot of information on Huge Lewis and your solo projects. My impression if you guys have been part of the Iowa City scene with Curt Oren and Nora Petran but you recently moved to Minnesota. Is that all accurate? What's the future of Huge Lewis and your involvement with the Iowa City scene looking like?

Daniel English: Iowa City is my place. That's where I made my mind. The future of Huge Lewis is bright. I want to be a big brother to those down in Iowa City. I want to be an outside hand, helping where I can and lending advice with an objective perspective: something I had a hard time finding while I lived there.

Rare Candy: That's some killer riff in "Jean Grey." I absolutely love this performance of it. It seems to be a pretty big crowd favorite. How'd that song come into existence? How long have you been playing it?

DE: Jean Grey is kind of a tragedy. Everyone loves that song, I love that song so much. It came around to me in the way most of my songs do which I like to think of as incubation. I find a musical idea and marry a concept to it. In this case it was some of the guitar part and the line "red headed girls will bring about my death.” I check in on my ideas constantly to see how they have evolved to me or in me. Sometimes they become songs, sometimes they sit and stagnate. It's not very economical seeing as it took me maybe a year to birth “Jean Grey” but I think in this process my songs are really mine. I don't like to settle on anything I'm not 100% sure is me.

Oh yeah the tragedy. We stopped playing it after my best bud, second guitar player/singing guy Jacob Sluka, moved to California. His are the other songs on Ascending Into Heaven. He makes cartoons and you can look them up under the name Grossbus (highly recommend). Anyway, we just couldn't find a way to make it work as a three-piece. I hope it can live again someday.

 

d. English - Big

    Daniel English’s third solo release. His solo work tends to cut out the more garage and rock band aesthetics of the Huge Lewis project in favor of a more singer-songwriter sound and lower-fidelity post-pop production. The alternate acoustic arrangement of “Jean Grey” is gorgeous, and album closer “Kid Mountain” is a mini-masterpiece of the Iowa scene, with a self-aware folkie riff set over city sirens and street noise.

“Authenticity is v [sic] important to me. As I said before I don't let a lyric or riff or chord change get off the ground if It doesn't feel like me. This is funny to me because it's an indescribable quality, "me,” but when I find it, I'm sure of it. Does that make any sense?” - Daniel English

“I find what Dan does under his own name… to be the most exciting prospect of his creative outputs. There's a lot more exploratory sounds going on in Early and Big that might lead to a ‘deeper artistic center’.” - Dana Telsrow

 

Frankie Teardrop - Raiders

    The newest record by longtime Minneapolis band Frankie Teardrop, recorded with help from Dan English after moving from Iowa City. Though perhaps the group least involved with the rest of the Iowa City/Minneapolis scene featured here, one picking up momentum in the national garage scene and continuously putting out great releases.

Rare Candy: I’m very curious in talking to artists what their ideas are about authenticity, and what a weird concept that whole thing is. Do you think authenticity is important to you? Do you try and be as 'authentic' as possible when writing music, whatever that means to you?

Daniel English: Authenticity is v [sic] important to me. As I said before I don't let a lyric or riff or chord change get off the ground if It doesn't feel like me. This is funny to me because it's an indescribable quality, "me,” but when I find it, I'm sure of it. Does that make any sense?

RC: You're stuck on a desert island for the rest of your life with any one person, record, and book. What do you choose to take with you?

DE: My best friend Jane probably. We are really good at goofing around. Also, she is a babe. Book - something pretty big. Record - yunk I hate this question. Arthur Russell's World of Echo.

RC: Lastly, any upcoming plans for new records, touring, etc?

DE: Slowly realizing the next d. English record, Huge Lewis is on a break because my drummer quit, and I just joined this killer band called Frankie Teardrop that's blowing up right now. We're going on tour in May. Maybe East Coast, maybe you can come!

Dana T. - {Your Name}

    Though a ramshackle sketch of what would come with abbr. relation, Dana Telsrow’s follow-up EP, this debut record is a snapshot of an Iowa City scene intact, with “He’s Got The Whole World” featuring shout-outs to the various musicians which are featured on the track: Oren on the baritone sax, Nora Petran on acoustic guitar and vox, English on electric.

“One thing I liked about working with electronic music was that you could get pretty great quality sounds and arrangements on your own. Although, I think it takes just as much effort as mastering any instrument to get really good at it. I guess in a weird way I used those electronic sounds as a security blanket. But something somewhere clicked about the fact that "You gotta start somewhere" and so I put {Your Name} out as best I could.” - Dana T.

Dana T. - abbr. relation

    Recorded and produced primarily during a residency at Public Space One, a quarterly art residency program which once hosted Oren as well, abbr. relation is a dramatic step up from {Your Name} in terms of both songwriting and production. Beautifully layered in production by Telsrow himself, the record is occasionally manic, often high-spirited and impressively dynamic, vaguely reminiscent of the energy of fun.’s early releases but without ever sounding derivative. It pulls from so many influences - fusion, pop, classic rock, jazz, psychedelia - that it never fails to be an engaging listen, and each of its tracks offers something new and unexpected. “Sylviane,” a laid-back pop piece, is certainly a strong point on the record, but “Goin Down,” which erupts a minute and a half in, is the enthusiastic and highly singular climax of the EP, perhaps Dana T’s strongest track yet.

“When you're a musician you do it however you can, and at this point for me and Curt and most of the people we know, its in a DIY fashion. I'm in no way opposed to being less DIY. I'd LOVE for someone else to take care of my booking and PR and stuff. It takes so much time and I have too many ideas to spend all my time on the business part of things. I don't feel dedicated to it as a permanent lifestyle.” - Dana T.

 

INTERVIEW WITH DANA TELSROW OF DANA T AND HUGE LEWIS. DECEMBER 2014

Rare Candy: First I wanna talk about Public Space One and their residency program. I stumbled onto the whole Iowa City scene via Curt, who did a residency, as did you? How did that whole system work? Do you think it was an important catalyst to helping you, as well as others in the scene, get creative and make some final products? abbr. relations, which is an excellent record by the way (nothing but great things to say about Goin' Down on this end), seems like a big step up in writing and sound from {Your Name}. Do you think PS1 played a big role in helping facilitate that?

Dana Telsrow: Public Space One does a "Free Studio Residency" that provides an artist/team of artists in the Iowa City area a studio space for three months at no charge. This also comes with 24 hour access to the auditorium, kitchen, print shop and other community areas available at Public Space One. There is an application process which is reviewed by John Engelbrecht, Kalmia Strong, and a small panel of PS1 volunteers. I was chosen to be the first resident in July-September of 2013. This was just after I had graduated from the University of Iowa, feeling somewhat unsure about my degree in music. Late in the game I started taking art classes which felt more "me" and I almost considered staying an extra semester to add an art major. However, I thought it would be best to just get out and start making my own art on my own terms. Without a doubt, the residency at PS1 gave me the time and space to explore what my identity as an artist could be. For most of the three months I was retired from art but then made a miraculous comeback in the end to release "abbr. relation". The process of making abbr. relation started a month before the residency, but I did a lot of the recording in the PS1 auditorium (which was at the time doubling as a home for the Free Lunch Program). It was mixed pretty much entirely in my studio there, and I did an edition of 50 CD's which were linocut and letterpress printed. PS1 gave me the time, space, and resources to take that EP to it's fullest potential, while also helping figure out what my idea of art really was.

As far as the difference between {Your Name} and abbr. relation goes... I'd say it mostly comes down to confidence and experience. As it goes for many artists, I used to be extremely self-conscious and insecure about some of my abilities. Especially my singing voice. I wrote many songs/sketches over the years before I ever released anything because I didn't think I could sing well enough, or the recording quality wasn't good enough... the list goes on. One thing I liked about working with electronic music was that you could get pretty great quality sounds and arrangements on your own. Although, I think it takes just as much effort as mastering any instrument to get really good at it. I guess in a weird way I used those electronic sounds as a security blanket. But something somewhere clicked about the fact that "You gotta start somewhere" and so I put {Your Name} out as best I could. After that I think I started performing more and getting more confident and felt like I deserved to have a real band playing my music. (that sounds sorta sad but it's how I felt) I also started listening more to singers that I thought were great but maybe not the most technically talented; David Byrne, Tom Waits... That made me realize as long as I sing sincerely, and with conviction, most people in the world won't think I'm terrible and at least some will think I'm pretty good. And anyway, if you keep doing something with the intent of getting better, you'll probably get better at it.

RC: Watched through some of your residency videos and read, for example, the really funny mom & dad review quotes for abbr relations. It seems like a big part of the scene is based around humor and not taking itself too seriously - being flippant or irreverent sometimes, making good music but not being overly solemn and dour about the whole thing. I see this in your music a lot as well - how it just plays with all kinds of different genres, influences, etc in a very playful way.

DT: Yes, we like to be funny. Curt is into taking jokes that don't really seem like jokes in the first place and just stretching them out for so long, that they somehow become funny. Like when he decided to wear the same pair of silk pajamas for the entirety of our last tour. Dan likes to make internet presence jokes and anti-jokes. We all have different ways of using humor. There's just something in my brain that forces me to always be looking for the worst puns; the ones that are so bad that you can't even call them a long stretch anymore. But that's an art in itself, to find a connection that's unique to your brain chemistry and that will make someone else laugh only if it's put under the right light. Maybe it's a kind of poetry. I also like to do improvisational talking about the tiny mind MASSIVE Soul and metaphysics. tiny mind MASSIVE Soul is an approach to living and spiritual understanding that came to me during our tour in June. Curt and Ben were both there. I also hosted the comedy shows Iowa Desk & Couch and Show Preview Show. IDC was produced by an incredibly talented group of Iowa City people as well. But anyway... I like comedy for a million reasons. During my live music sets, I'd say the comedic aspect is at least 50% of the show. Its a way of getting distance from the same old "This song's about this. Tip your bartender. Here are the people in the band. We have stuff for sale" routine. To me, that routine is not effective and its boring and I want to do something more entertaining. So I make jokes and act weird and improvise stupid songs. Some people really like it, others find it kind of alienating because it's not what a typical band does at a show. I'm actually way too serious about my music and art and that can be a handicap. Comedy can be a way to remind people, and myself, the art doesn't have to be idolized and elevated to an unreachable status to be enjoyed. And now that I say that, I think that's a big part of what makes our group in Iowa City the way it is. We are all supportive of each other's art because we love seeing what our friends like to make. As Curt and Ben say, "It's Simple".

RC: Quick Q - looks like you do visual art, though on your website nothing's coming up for me. Any good links to find your art? I know Ben Crouse has done a lot of illustration stuff among you guys, have you as well worked on album covers/promo art etc for releases outside your own music?

DT: My website is a little bit broken because I tried to update something in the HTML and I shouldn't be doing that. I'm working on directing traffic to my tumblr which is easier to keep updated. Pretty much any art that I've put online will be on there. Right now I'm obsessed with photography, especially film photography. Which is it's own story that I won't get into.

I've done pretty much anything Dana T music related, the design for the College Hill Music Festival in Cedar Falls, IA, and the back cover for Ryan Smith's album. He plays alto sax with me and is an absolutely incredible jazz player and composer. And a bunch of other junk out there.

RC: Also, any favorite records/tracks from the scene? Any must-hear Iowa City releases?

DT: I really consider myself more a part of the Iowa scene in general at this point, although patriotism weirds me out, so I don't like to boast about regional significance. But I will say that there is a lot of awesome ass shit in Iowa that the world may not know about, but that's also 100% true about the rest of the world. Here is a list of Iowa stuff that is cool:

Brooks Strause

Nora Petran

Dylan Sires & Neighbors

Jack Lion

River Monks

Annalibera

Gloom Balloon

Little Ruckus

Dagmar (a new band I play in)

MR NASTI

RC: A lot of debate recently in the blogosphere about whether punk is dead, alive, still relevant, bullshit, not bullshit, worth clinging to, whether its lost meaning as an umbrella term for anything DIY, and whether it's purely reactionary or actually has a real strong societal value. Would you call what you and friends are doing as punk in a way, or are you comfortable embracing other more pop-related terms?

DT: The most punk thing I've ever done, which might actually be the least punk thing you could do, is go to the Vans Warped Tour with my dad when I was in high school. Until I got to college, the only thing I knew was mainstream music. I listened to Nirvana and System of a Down and played in classic rock cover bands with a bunch of middle aged men. Oh yeah, I guess I had a Metallica wallet with a chain in junior high that would get stuck in my desk whenever I tried to stand up. I grew up in Lowden (pop. 789) and Wilton (pop. 2,839) Iowa, so as far as I knew, punk was not a thing that existed in either of those towns. I think my high school band was probably the only one in town. I would say that I'm punk illiterate. I'm not really into that style of music, and to me, DIY is its own thing. When you're a musician you do it however you can, and at this point for me and Curt and most of the people we know, its in a DIY fashion. I'm in no way opposed to being less DIY. I'd LOVE for someone else to take care of my booking and PR and stuff. It takes so much time and I have too many ideas to spend all my time on the business part of things. I don't feel dedicated to it as a permanent lifestyle. It does seems like there's plenty of punk things happening out there though. Curt is kind of punk. But like punk Philip Glass which doesn't sound that punk.

Side note: I was in Dan English's band, Huge Lewis and I suppose that band might qualify as some form of punk[...] I actually didn't join Huge Lewis until after they put out Ascending Into Heaven, so I can't speak to the creation of that record. But it does have some great tracks on it, some of which I believe Jacob Sluka wrote. Maybe they all collaborated, I don't really know. "Jean Grey" is something of a historical Dan English song. People are going to like the song no matter what just because of the title and comic book connotations. Luckily for those people, it's also a kick ass song. Overall I think it's just a really well written pop song and exemplifies Dan's melodic strengths.  

I think I joined the band initially on a temporary basis before becoming the full time bassist. We recorded the “I Like My Guitar”/”Willies” single together at Flat Black Studios here in Iowa City. Those tracks really sum up what Huge Lewis was like when I was in the band, which had become heavier and more hard rocking. I prefer the overall production of those tracks over the live sound on Ascending Into Heaven.

To be honest, I find what Dan does under his own name (I guess d. english officially) to be the most exciting prospect of his creative outputs. I'm pretty sure Huge Lewis was meant to be a largely collaborative project even though I always assumed it was just the name of the band that played Dan's songs. There's a lot more exploratory sounds going on in Early and Big that might lead to a "deeper artistic center". I don't know what he'd have to say about that.

RC: Can you tell me a bit about the Curt Oren’s music and the recording of his most recent record?

DT: When it comes to Curt's music, there is no substitute for the REAL DEAL, FOLKS! I took composition lessons for a while in college, and my instructor wanted me to listen to all of these contemporary composers. When we talked about how they were hard for me to listen to, he said that part of it was because most of that music was made for a live performance. Because, you know like, vinyl wasn't cool in the 1700's and stuff. The recording was very much the secondary product. I've kind of learned what he meant overtime and Curt is a great example. The record is like an hors d'oeuvre. It tastes really good, doesn't fill you up, and leaves you hungry for the main course... and that's the live performance: Witnessing Curt's face get redder and redder as he continues to seemingly not breathe at all... The way he sways back and forth while you wonder if he might die... He talks about his ass shirts and you're thinking to yourself what the fuck is up with this guy?... Finally, he tells you how much he loves his dog, plays his last song, and you eat a cookie that he just baked even though you wish you weren't wondering where it's been or what Curt touched before he made it. And you buy his record and leave happy. They say live music is a dance and the record is a sculpture. I wonder what a Curt Oren record would sound like if he made it more of a marble bust of himself (but let's be real, it'd be a marble bust of his ass) and less a videotape of him in concert.

I heard some new stuff he did with Luke Tweedy, our guy at Flat Black Studios, and its dope, ultra hi-def footage, baby.

RC: Finally, I heard from Curt and co that you're pretty much the only one left holding down the fort in Iowa nowadays. What's that been like seeing the scene break apart and splinter over the last year or two? Any plans to move to Minneapolis, where it seems like things have migrated a bit?

DT: Iowa City is a college town and people come and people go. Somehow I got hooked up with a group of people who actually grew up here and seemed like the coolest people in town. I was late getting into the group, along with a few other non-Iowa City natives, and so maybe that's why I'm one of the last ones here. When I came to Iowa City it was big! There was so much culture and stuff going on that I was never exposed to growing up. But all of my friends that grew up here have experienced it their whole life, and most people want to leave their hometown at least for a while. So it's that time for a lot of folks and I understand that totally. When Dan and Jake moved to Minneapolis, I was supposed to go too so that we could keep Huge Lewis going. It didn't work out and in a way I'm happy about it. I've gotten to experience a lot of amazing things in Iowa City the last couple of years and I have a flexible and supportive job at the university. There's still a "scene" in Iowa City, it's just always morphing. I'm sad to see so many friends of the old group leave, but I'm happy here for now. I'm working on my first full length album at Flat Black Studios in town, and that's my number one goal. Maybe after that's done I'll think about going somewhere else. The time just hasn't been right yet.