Disorderly House: Notes, literally, from Underground

photo+by+Jordan+Gale%2FThe+Daily+Iowan

photo by Jordan Gale/The Daily Iowan

This project, “Disorderly House,” takes a look into the underground punk-music scene hidden in Iowa City basements. To view all the photos, click here.

By Jordan Gale | [email protected] | @gordanjale

Hissing amplifiers fill a dark, damp, and dirty basement of an Iowa City home on a Saturday night. A man’s voice yells out, “Next band is starting,” and bundles of people funnel down fragile stairs, beers in hand, leaving behind cigarette breaks in the backyard.

Men and women, some not yet 20, some pushing 40, but most lingering in the age that always swear “I’ll return to school next year” stand fixed and anxious while drunken chatter floats from the back of the room. The crowd is a mess of jean jackets with strategically arranged obscure buttons, Doc Martens, and unknown band T-shirts with designs that seem straight off the Xerox printer. Some look as if they belong in a 1970s biker bar with my mother on a Sunday night.

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Everyone is packed into this basement room, tucked away under an 1880s-era house on the North Side; it could have been a cute family home if it weren’t for the toll of weekend debauchery and haphazard care.

The smell of stale body odor and Marlboro Reds clogs senses and pores. A petite woman with a buzz cut in the front of the room sits behind a minimal drum kit — three drums and a black mike — that seems to engulf her, illuminated by a single unshaded lamp. A shaggy man in a camo-green jacket passes back and forth in front of the crowd, clenching a microphone, saying nothing. Abruptly, a wall of sound bounces off bodies; vocals are lost in the less-than-great acoustics of the basement. Guitar tones clash against bass as the sound of the snare drum is forced through ears.

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This project, “Disorderly House,” is a body of work exploring the small but vibrant underground punk and house-show scene that takes place in Iowa City homes on any given night of the week. From a quick outside perspective, these basement shows seem like a typical house party in a college town on a weekend night. The University of Iowa, once named the No. 1 party school in the nation by the Princeton Review, is no stranger to young adults indulging in excessive drug and alcohol use in greasy basements. This is something else, though; the reality is much different.

The root of these basement shows is a pure act of artistic expression. Some bands that perform in Iowa City come from as far away as the state of Washington. Some touring bands perform just for gas money or a tattered couch to sleep on while they make a stop on their Midwest tour. Many of these house owners and musicians, for the most part, don’t even want to be seen by the greater outside public. If discovered by authorities, the house owners face charges, eviction, and one fewer home venue to showcase local and visiting talent.

No, the performers aren’t major-label artists who are being booked at summer music festivals. These are artists setting up makeshift merchandise tables on cheap linoleum kitchen counters. Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 10.34.13 PMThey can be found on crowd-funded sites such as Bandcamp and Soundcloud. They record demo cassettes, sometimes in the same basement they perform in. Most refuse to produce CDs for reasons maybe only known to them. Their demo tapes are up for grabs next to the same Xerox-looking shirts worn in the crowd. Pins and patches are common. A cardboard sign is propped up, scrawled handwriting reading, “ALL MERCH IS EITHER FREE OR CHEAP.”

These basement shows are an attempt at getting music and entertainment back to the people. One homeowner said, “In Iowa City, some people don’t even have to walk down the block to see a band perform. We just want our community involved and in control.”

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To many, music is their passion. It’s their way of expressing themselves, and they would like to share that with other like-minded people around them. Many creative minds work hard at making these events happen; promoting through social media, pinning up homemade fliers around town, and spreading news by word of mouth. If you want to go, you better have a friend who knows where the show’s going down. Homeowners often give their houses clever names to promote the space without giving out actual addresses.

Thought goes into making sure they stay unseen to those who might tarnish what, in their mind, is a perfect moment in time. It’s a congregation that feeds off fast drums, throat-shattering vocal performances, and Pabst Blue Ribbon.

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Click here to check out the full “Disorderly House” photo slideshow.

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