Changing the tune: Iowa City bands transition to virtual music production

While unable to physically play for crowds during the COVID-19 pandemic, local Iowa City bands depict the realities of creating music during a pandemic.

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Megan Conroy, Arts Reporter


On a bitter chill night in February, the warm air of Gabe’s invited attendees to take refuge inside its walls. Concertgoers meandered upstairs as a local band, the Megababes, played its set. Soon after — with drinks in hand and kind smiles on the faces of people reuniting with friends — the crowd watched Anthony Worden and the Illiterati take the colorfully illuminated stage.

Projections of retro background visuals danced over the faces of the band, painting them with vintage themes from its recently released album, Voila. Fans and friends of Anthony Worden and the Illiterati can feel their worries slide away beneath the door like a draft as they’re engulfed in the music.

This memory feels immensely distant from October’s current reality. As summer breezes shift to crisp autumn air, COVID-19 carries on. And among its casualties is downtown Iowa City’s once-thriving concert scene.

Citrus Sunday’s band members remember their last concert in February fondly, said rhythm guitarist Ethan Adato.

“The energy that comes from a crowd is unreal. When we’re in sync, all of us playing together, that human connection between all of us and the audience is just — you can’t get close [to that feeling],” Adato said. “Aside from that, the opportunity for our friends and fans to come to listen to something we created from the ground up is a feeling you just can’t replicate without doing it.”

Anthony Worden and the Illiterati perform during a concert at Gabe’s on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. The band used the show to celebrate the release of their new album, ‘Voila.’ (Jenna Galligan)

The rock band is composed of Adato, bassist Mitch Wisniewski, lead singer Travis Siegel, drummer Ben Yusen, and guitarist and background vocalist Kameron Morrie Peck-Valdivia. The group is currently spread out across Iowa City, Des Moines, and the Chicago suburbs.

Citrus Sunday’s members shifted their equipment from their usual, but now closed, Iowa Hillel recording space to the basement of Wisniewski’s apartment at the beginning of the summer. Their first EP, Terry’s Revenge, was recorded at Flat Black Studios in Iowa City. The four band members, minus Adato who was at home in Des Moines, were able to rehearse and work on their next album in Iowa City.

Knowing the pandemic will be the reality for the foreseeable future, the group has now decided to try digital collaboration. The collaboration resembles that of a conversation, with recorded parts sent from one band member to another. The four members who were meeting in Iowa City would record their ideas and send them to Adato to practice, who would then send back his notes.

“The [other four] guys have been writing incredible music and sending it to me. Then I’d write parts and send it back. I visited Iowa City a few times and we had the chance to put those parts together,” Adato said. “We were just using our phones, which worked very well for us. But now we’re taking advantage of the resources we have with different kinds of software to combine into one master, to increase the quality and professionalism.”

As a whole, the band agreed that it’s members are struggling with not being together to create right now.

“Up until the end of the summer, it didn’t feel any different creatively. If anything, it felt better to have this time where we can’t perform, so we have to write,” Yusen said.

Inspiration doesn’t come as easy to guitarist and background vocalist Peck-Valdivia, however, who currently lives at his parent’s home in the Chicago suburbs. With neighbors so close to his family home, he doesn’t have the ability to “feel everything work,” with the speakers moving and the volume cranked up, he said.

RELATED: How Iowa based musicians are coping with the loss of their normal lives during times of social distancing

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Citrus Sunday’s members intend to work just as hard on their music as they would have pre-pandemic, while they continue to transition into a more virtual format.

“There will definitely be an album that rises from the ashes,” Siegel said. “That, we can [say] with 100 percent certainty and competency.”

Also navigating the music scene amid COVID-19 is musician Anthony Worden, vocalist of Anthony Worden and the Illiterati.

The band has been lucky enough to safely create its next album in-person, Worden said. Nine songs deep into their fourth album, vocalists Elly Hofmaier and Worden, bassist Capel Howorth, piano player Avery Mossman, and the group’s new drummer, Aaron Knight, have been hard at work both virtually and in-person.

Despite producing music in a time of uncertainty, Worden said he’s trying to create the best songs he can with Mossman’s help. The album’s creation began in April with three studio sessions at Flat Black Studios in Iowa City.

“It is a return to normalcy in a way. When you’re working on creative projects, you’re not thinking about all the other things that are happening in the world,” Worden said. “It’s really therapeutic — maybe more therapeutic than it usually is. You realize how important making art can be.”

Anthony Worden and the Illiterati will play a socially distanced show at Wilson’s Orchard on Oct. 15, to see more of the feeling of normalcy that comes with making music in a time of chaos.

On the flip side, Iowa City-based post punk band Basketball Divorce Court is crawling out from a pandemic-motivated hiatus. Vocalist Katy Kelly is the only member of Basketball Divorce Court left in Iowa City. Her bandmates Evan Bittner, Adrian Amjadi, Derek Bloser, and Jess Roy are now over 300 miles away — in Minneapolis.

During the pandemic, members of Basketball Divorce Court have found more time to sit down and write. Kelly said she carries around her lyric book, despite working 40 hours a week as an office manager at Iowa City Dermatology. Her bandmate, Evan, in the few weeks they weren’t working, also had ample time to put pen to paper.

“It’s easier for us to write songs in person,” Kelly said. “I think it’ll be a little bit more time consuming to figure out how we all record together. It’s just putting the puzzle pieces together.”

All of the bands reminisced on the connections they created with others when they could share their music live, only to have strain placed on them by the pandemic.

“We miss hearing their music. What a great thing it is to hear these other bands regularly — hear them progress and grow,” Adato said. “In a lot of ways, we take for granted being able to work with these people who make their own amazing music. It’s nice to see there are people who are still able to keep pushing forward and make music during all of this,” Yusen said.

While these connections haven’t been severed entirely by virtual communication, the groups do find themselves longing for a time when they could go see their friends play a show.

“[When we have a show], a lot of our friends come and have an excuse to get together,” Worden said “I’ve been missing the community aspect of seeing people interacting, having fun together. You can Zoom and see people on Instagram. But it’s definitely not the same.”

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