Des Moines' Retro Pop Scene Will Put You in a Musical Time Machine
Ten bands you need to know from the Midwestern city known for putting bacon on anything.
Des Moines, Iowa—a seemingly sleepy Midwest city known for putting bacon on almost anything—is home to a community that wants nothing more than its music scene to prosper both locally and nationally.
The city has created a backbone of resources to help propel its artists into longevity of success. There are things like Station 1 Records, a non-profit record label supported by the city’s social club and university, and the Des Moines Music Coalition, which has a primary goal of working to build the scene. There are festivals like 80/35 and Hinterland that showcase local talent alongside huge, international acts. There’s even a conference held annually, called Music University, that aims to educate local musicians on how to succeed at their craft. And if all of that coming out of a small city in the Midwest doesn’t have you impressed, David Byrne has publicly written about his love for Des Moines.
The scene is young and growing fast—many lifetime locals say what’s going on in the city now wasn’t taking place at this magnitude a decade ago. Artists like The Maytags or Field Division are moving to Des Moines from Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Nashville because the cost of living is a fraction of the larger communities and they’re still finding the creative resources they need to thrive. It’s simple, really: Mix a city willing to build the infrastructure that helps a music scene grow with a cheap cost of living for musicians and vibrant scene is born.
As for the music, well, it’s interesting. Like any city, there’s a little bit of everything. But Des Moines flourishes most under the umbrella of retro pop. That’s retro pop more along the lines of Chicago or Billy Joel or Wings and less along the lines of, say, New Kids On The Block. Des Moines is a mixture of artists delivering both huge and stripped-down sounds—all while harnessing a nostalgic influence. Best places to find these retro jams? Try venues like Vaudeville Mews, Wooly’s, or Gaslamp to hear local talent nightly.
There’s more to Iowa than picking the next Presidential candidates or being the place where Fields of Dreams was based. No, Des Moines has a music scene, and it’s a pretty damn good one. Here are a few of many acts nailing the retro pop sound to put on your radar immediately.
Christopher The Conquered
This act channels everything right with retro pop rock. Every song contains a light-hearted and compelling narrative (don’t sleep on “I’m not Famous Yet”, it’s brilliant); every song has a melancholy punch; every song is just plain catchy. The stripped-down use of auxiliary instrumentation, like on songs “Life Is Not Always Easy,” and “Free To Try (But Not Always To Do),” delivers good vibes without being too aurally overbearing. “In Des Moines, I’ll do whatever I feel like,” Christopher The Conquered mastermind Christopher Ford said regarding the city’s influence. “The result is that I end up making music that is sincerely me.” Sincerity works for Chris, let’s hope he doesn’t stop using it any time soon.
Max Jury’s music reaches a level of proficiency and propensity beyond any other in Des Moines. He’s not just the best songwriter coming out of Iowa; he’s probably one of the best songwriters coming out North America. His unique style of blending a modern piano-based pop style backed with a rooted rock method creates something memorable and downright moving with every song. “There's a real sense of giving and helping and respect for others in the community and that's important for any burgeoning art scene,” he said regarding the Des Moines’ scene. A Max Jury track like “Home” can make you cry with its subtle delivery, while a song like “Black Metal” will have you laughing and singing along by the last chorus. And then there’s Jury’s latest single, “Great American Novel,” which—unlike many songs containing grandiose titles—lives up to the song’s name.
Let’s stretch the idea of “retro pop” and take it to the 80s, okay? It’s not that big of a stretch—the 80s ended 25 years ago. It’s okay for 80s pop to be classified as retro. That’s exactly what MAIDS harnesses: good vibe synth-driven 80s pop vibes. It’s quite dashing, and totally fun. “The scene is a really tight-knit group, and I think MAIDS expands on what, sonically, [is] being produced and performed in Des Moines,” said MAIDS frontman Danny Heggen. A track like “Do This Better” contains the bottom-end groove associated with that generation of music, while still mixing synthesized percussions to give it a good modern upsurge. It’s the perfect juxtaposition you want from electronic music—not so sugary-sweet you get cavities, but also not so watered-down and lo-fi that you’re waiting a whole decade for the hook. MAIDS hits just right.
Dylan Sires & Neighbors
When diving into an inaugural listen of Dylan Sires & Neighbors, it’s clear this band is driven by rock ‘n’ roll of decades past. It doesn’t land in one specific sub-genre of rock ‘n’ roll—it’s not like it sounds exactly like a surf rock project or totally in the same lines of a reverb-induced all-out rock band—it fits nicely somewhere in the middle. While technically from Waterloo, Iowa (an hour and some change north of Des Moines), the band is rooted in the city’s scene. It’s along the lines of other bands in the scene in the sense that it’s capturing the retro essence, but it’s strongly guitar-driven. Start with the track “Roses” and get lost from there.
One of the freshest bands to break into the central Iowa scene, Canby’s music is like the soundtrack to the after party. It jams, it grooves, it sits in the pocket and just fills your ears with its huge sound. One of the band’s finest tracks, “Hallelujah,” embodies everything about the surge of retro pop in Des Moines—it’s a big band cut that wouldn’t be out of place in either a jazz club or rock hall. This group doesn’t just capture the energy of the retro pop revival happening in Des Moines, they very well could be the cornerstone act to bring back horn-infused pop music into the limelight of alternative music.
MINT takes noisy pop music and put a nice progressive twist on it. The music still contains the elements of a nostalgic sound—maybe a bit more in the late 80s and early 90s, but it’s nostalgic nonetheless. They don’t do it with flash or gleam, but instead with commendable musicianship and flat-out unforgettable hooks. A song like “Murder” is so simple, yet the chorus is so bombastic that you’re not going to shake it from your brain any time soon. While MINT is probably on the outside of the retro pop movement in Des Moines, being both rock and slightly electronic-influenced, they’re still a pivotal part of the city’s sound.
The Maytags’ music swings. It differs from all of Des Moines’ other retro offerings by its sheer vibrancy—there’s just warmth lining every note. The melody from one of the band’s latest singles, “Cassius,” captures this thoroughly. It explodes in the subtlest ways. It’s not in-your-face or over-the-top, but it still grabs you and takes you for an adventure. Frontman Dustin Smith sees Des Moines as a place to belong with his band’s sound. “In Des Moines the rappers know the metal guys and the country guys know the folk guys and the soul guys know the indie guys,” he said. “And everyone is working together even if they don't stylistically mash up.” Check out the band’s 2014 release, Nova, for a full dose of Des Moines swing.
Another Waterloo band immersed in Des Moines’ retro culture, Twins provides a bit of a garage rock spice to the scene. Self-described as “USA’s premier power pop brats,” there’s certainly an element of sass to this group. The song “Babe City” optimizes everything the band is about: equal parts brash and catchy. It’s like, if Twins were a person, it’d be the long-lost friend from college you’d want to hug and give a friendly punch on the arm at the same time.
Field Division check in at the psychedelic side of the spectrum—their music is far more intergalactic than the likes of Max Jury of Canby. It’s lo-fi and contains a heavy dose of spine-tingling melodies. A song like “Modest Mountains” creates a free-flowing, loving atmosphere, while a song like “Hollow Body Water” contains more of a pop vibe and really entrances the listener with playful melodies and harmonies. Field Division’s one of those bands that started in a bigger city—Nashville, to be exact—but landed in Des Moines because the financial burden is less cumbersome. “What keeps it all possible is low cost of living,” said Field Division’s Nick Frampton. “People who seek out creative endeavors can because their rent’s cheaper.”
No coast, throwback surf rock hits its pinnacle with The Vahnevants. This dirty, often strange act delivers music through an invisible time machine, straight from three decades’ past into your ears. A track like “I Saw A Ghost” sends you on a weird trip—kind of like the shoot-up scene from Pulp Fiction—while a track like “Motorcycle” relies heavily on the wavy instrumentals to take the listener from the cornfields of Iowa and on to a California beach.
Matthew Leimkuehler is an Iowa-based writer. Follow him on Twitter.