Chris DeLine

Cedar Rapids, IA

Kelly Plumber Interview

Published in Blog, villin. Tags: , , .

Iowa Musicians Project Drednex Kelly Plumber

Of the many hats Kelly Plumber has donned over the years, it’s his role with the Iowa Musicians Project that introduced us. Somewhere along the way in preparing for an interview with Ames scene mainstay Bryon Dudley, a comment jumped out at me from another interview mentioning how Dudley donated a copy of each of his Nova Labs label’s discography to an archival project. After we’d wrapped our main discussion, I asked him for more information on what that archive is, which turned out to be the Iowa Musicians Project, run through the State Historical Society of Iowa. Normally, this sort of detail would remain an unspoken backstory, but its in the spirit of preserving backstories of the scene’s past that the Iowa Musicians Project exists, so it seemed to make sense to lead this installment of the Making a Scene series with a little context.

The organization’s website bears a diverse collection of artifacts, ranging from oral history interviews to digitized show flyers, supplementing a physical archive housed by the historical society. In this conversation, Kelly Plumber discusses how he first became wrapped up in the project, and how it serves as another mile marker on his lifelong musical journey. Before digging into his own work, we began by exploring the mission behind the Iowa Musicians Project, and how he first became involved in it.

villin: The Iowa Musicians Project was started through the State Historical Society, working with Justin Baumgartner and Mary Bennett. What led to you connecting with them and what was it that interested you enough to get involved?

Kelly Plumber: I was introduced to the “project” when I was having a lunch with a friend of mine down in Iowa City (Devin Hill, from The Dangtrippers/current Twin Cities guitar instructor) and he mentioned having heard there was a collection of Iowa music at the State Historical Society. We walked over, asked Mary Bennett to see the “collection” and she sat us at a table, gave us the white gloves, and… brought out a half box of 45s. At that point, I’m sure there was a double take or two… and then I may have said, “This is the collection of Iowa music? I have more than this in my car.” Just a box of miscellany, anything from versions of the Iowa Fight song, to Leo Greco polka singles, to, yes, an actual Dangtrippers 45.

So we looked that stuff over and I started asking Mary some questions about where they wanted this to go. And this kind of suddenly dovetailed with some things I had been thinking about at that moment. I had just retired early, had a lot of music related stuff that I—as all retirees do—wondered if my family would care about if something happened to me.  I think anybody that’s presided over the doings of an estate knows what happens to stuff that the family might not have a specific interest in. Mary interviewed Devin fairly soon after, and that was the first oral interview they did for the project. [Then] I started talking to Mary about donating some of my Iowa related music stuff. I had music of many formats, posters, newspaper ads going back to 1924 (grandfather’s band in Ft. Madison). I copied stuff that was valuable to me, made mp3s of anything Iowa music so I could donate physical copies. I think mine was the second interview they did, and that’s when i met Justin, Hang Nguyen (current head of the project, their intern Kate Heffner, and that’s when we started discussing this project in earnest.

Now, to be fair to the actual mission and project, the State Historical Society had a tremendous amount of collected Iowa sheet music and ephemera, thanks to Prof. Fred Crane, who specialized in Iowa choral music and composers.  But that’s material for a very specific audience, not looked at very often.

villin:The goal of the Project is to gather an archive of records, photos, ephemera, and oral histories of Iowans in one place for future generations.” From your perspective, how do you feel about the progress that’s been made toward that goal and what do you think is needed to continue growing and expanding in service of its mission?

Kelly Plumber: Which brings us to the present, some four to five years later, with the COVID hiccup in between that kept us from contact, interviews, even donations, since the State Historical Society was basically shut down during that time. Without looking at the last inventory, I think we’ve collected more than a thousand pieces of audio? A tremendous amount of posters, flyers, and other physical media, another seven to eight interviews, started a Facebook and Instagram page, [and] launched the state Omeka page. The Instagram page was up pretty early on to spotlight things we were collecting as the project started and then stalled out due to COVID and Justin moving to Duluth to start a new job. I had started an Iowa Musicians Project Facebook page because I was bored, and frustrated by the lack of progress due to all those factors (and because it’s a platform I can actually negotiate), then finally got the keys to the Instagram site. And because I’m retired and am endlessly fascinated by the mission, I’ve put up a lot of content, tripled the followers on Instagram. Gotten some great help and content from folks on the Facebook page.

So, pretty amazing progress. It isn’t without some frustration. The folks at the State Historical Society are short staffed and—as I have remind myself when things don’t happen as fast as I’d like (and i’m 68, staring down the short end of the stick, so nothing does)—they are collecting and archiving all of the state’s history. Music is a very tiny (but sexy and culturally relevant) part of their huge mission.

I’d love to see more donations. I understand folks hanging onto that kind of stuff. It’s their personal history, probably wrapped up in the best moments of their lives. But, as I mentioned in my case, there comes a time for all of us, for whatever reasons, when we have to divest ourselves of stuff. My pitch to donors is better to have a say while you can, to have it go to somewhere where it will be archived for posterity and hopefully seen. We need to get more interviews on the Omeka site. That is a platform where longer media can be indulged [in], and I kinda love that folks can talk at length. We have deliberately tried to choose lesser known figures, because the bigger musical names have had plenty of interviews done. We need to seek out more women, trans folks, people of various ethnic backgrounds for those interviews. Our mode at first was to have people come to the State Historical Society building to do interviews, but in the future I think taking the recorders out to the field will be easier and more prolific. We ask a lot of people if they’d like to talk to us, but for some reason many don’t follow up… not sure why that is.

So, this project will outlive me, but interest begets interest. People just send me amazing info now, and I just hope it keeps growing.

villin: In listening to your 2018 oral history interview on the website, I’m curious how the project has changed since that time. There’s an extensive online catalog documenting the pieces of work that the Project is archiving – are those available in person to browse?

Kelly Plumber: Outside of the three online vehicles, I’m not sure the State Historical Society is staffed well enough to actually present the collection in full (at least without an appointment?), but the plan going forward is to have a show, hopefully about twice a year in some venue, where we can actually bring most of the collection out to see and hear, present our mission to attendees. We did one at the Trumpet Blossom in Iowa City a year+ back, had various Iowa bands play live, [and] had a DJ spinning stuff from the inventory. That’s probably the best way to celebrate this collection, without adding stress to the State Historical Society staff, and convince people to add their personal stuff to the mission: let them see it doesn’t disappear into a dusty corner somewhere. We have one planned for this Fall, probably at The James Theater in Iowa City, which we will give a heads up on ASAP. I am super happy that we now have two interns at the State Historical Society for this project. Justin still contributes and I have roped my friend/bandmate Brian Thompson, a record hound extraordinaire, to help keep this thing rolling. We have a blueprint for the digital party of our mission from a Cedar Valley Underground site that our friend Matt Wilson did a couple decades back, and help with flyers from Matthew Hundley, Mark Mueller, Ed Flack, Heath Hanlin just to name a few so far.

villin: One of the aspects of the project I’m drawn to is simply the exploration process inherent to it. My own process with the villin playlists is something of digital crate digging, and without that I would have never been exposed to the music of someone like Arthur Russell. Are there any bands and artists that stand out from the Project’s archive that you can’t believe more people don’t know about?

Kelly Plumber: “Digital crate digging” is a great way to put it! I got rid of most of my vinyl some years back, and donated the Iowa portion of it (and cassettes, CDs) to the Iowa Musicians Project, so most of the work I do on the daily is exactly that phrase above. I track any sites having much to do with Iowa music from any decade/century (and this is probably super important to note: We are collecting and archiving any genre of Iowa music, from any time period, except the present). It’s been awkward having to explain the difference to folks between archiving and promoting. We are history driven, not promoting every gig or release from Iowa artists (that’s your job, Chris). But the chase and discovery every day is something I could have never guessed would be so fruitful. We have a much more amazing musical footprint here than anyone would guess. Justin, Brian and I will grab vinyl here and there where we can find it affordably (thanks, Discogs!) but we have no budget or stipend. We try to encourage every new band or band with new product to donate a copy to the Iowa Musicians Project, so we don’t have to buy it, but not sure that message/request has traveled well. Most of what I find to put on the Facebook site is YouTube videos of stuff that would be way too expensive to add to our collection, so kudos to the record freaks out there that find that rare stuff and put it up for anybody to hear.

There are so many bands/players we’ve found, it would be hard to pick anything resembling a favorite. A friend of mine mentioned how unlikely a story [like] Arthur Russell’s was… and then one would have to consider, from the same part of the state, the story of one Simon EstesBix Beiderbecke is an obvious Iowa jazz touchstone, but he had an ugly side most folks don’t know about. From my particular era, I always found it cool that there were punk bands forming in the late ’70s here in Iowa, just at the same time they were popping up all across the country (and world). Pink Gravy from Iowa City, Steve Turner’s various bands in Cedar Falls, The Law in Des Moines, and weirdly, a trio from Decorah called The Dogs (earliest of the bunch/early ’70s). The three of those from the bigger cities all kickstarted a lot of bands in those towns in their wake, an explosion of indie bands that has not stopped yet, and also the advent of forms of recording that made it possible to release art without having to deal with record labels. I think Bryon and Rachel Dudley launching a label in Ames and putting out 100+ records in a decade is pretty amazing, but the IGL label in Spirit Lake and Fredlo out of Davenport did the same things in the ’50s and ’60s!

I guess, just to name a recent one with a local slant, would be a guy named Ellery Temple. Most folks in the ’70s and ’80s around Waterloo/Cedar Falls knew him as a small, unassuming, good keyboard player in local blues and cover bands. Then I found out he had been in a band called The Night Flight that released a 45 on Chicago’s Quill Records, played bass, keys, sang, arranged and wrote, and apparently well enough for the biggest band on that label (the New Colony Six) to poach him for their band for a couple years. The 45 is really good. Then a friend of mine, Cathy Rohlf, finds a record by the Columbus Boys Choir (fairly prestigious) in 1959, featuring… a 13 year old Ellery Temple actually singing a solo on the record. That’s the kind of stuff that really thrills me to find, almost daily.

villin: In that same interview, one of the concluding comments spoke to the idea of creating a digital archive where music could be shared online. The Iowa City Public Library hosts a modest version of this called “The Local Music Project,” but I’m curious if the idea to build out the Musician Project’s digital catalog ever got anywhere (or was just stonewalled by copyright issues)?

Kelly Plumber: Short answer is: not sure. The State Historical Society is well aware and extremely wary about copyright stuff where publishing that stuff online is concerned. I don’t worry about it on FB because if the owner wants it yanked, I will. Nobody has asked yet, because face it, it’s already on YouTube, so? I think the Omeka site will eventually feature short clips of the music we’ve collected. The interviews we already have permission for.

villin: Your own musical history runs decades back, or generations back if taking into consideration that you’re a third generation musician. When thinking about your own work, be it Drednex, the Beveragemen, or even something like the Clown Prison collaboration with your son, is there something you think of as your most fulfilling music project?

Kelly Plumber: I’d love to think that my best musical work may yet be ahead of me. I mean, I just played guitar and sang on stage a few weeks back for the first time in about 40 years, and it went pretty well. I play with an experienced band full of guys with good musical history of their own, and they’re great musicians that leave me at ease about playing or presenting songs. I have come to love the stuff I’ve done in the past, which took me some years to come around to; a combination of comparing it to our peer group at the time and listening to kids doing something pretty original in front of somewhat less than interested (at least to begin with) audiences has brought me to a greater appreciation. And certainly reading bios of like-aged people all the way across the country who were attempting the same ideas did, too. But my son Cole (and really, everybody else in my musical family but me) is just an effortless good musician, and it’s somewhat of a dream to figure out a way to play music with him that engages him and doesn’t embarrass me. My grandfather and dad were both jazz musicians and I never had the skill set to play music with them while they were alive. My bigger regret is that neither lived to see my son play, who they would have absolutely loved. My musical resume feels pretty good to me now. A few things yet undone, which are good targets to have.

villin: My family is from Minnesota and I lived in the Twin Cities for a few years, so coming across the Minneapolis threads from your story were interesting to me on a personal level. You played a couple of shows with a still-young Soul Asylum, and in the oral history interview talked about a failed bid to get noticed by the legendary Twin Tone Records. My hunch is the answer is of a practical nature, in that work was the thing that kept you in Iowa, but did you ever daydream of taking your music up to a market like Minneapolis? Do you feel like there were any missed opportunities along the way or did it all work out the way it needed to?

Kelly Plumber: I’m sure if you asked me this question when I was around 30—when the Drednex hit a wall (where I was concerned) and I tried and failed to get some of the first things I wrote and recorded as a singer/guitarist any further, and then through some bad recording sessions with others that I thought might lead to some doors opening—I probably would have sounded a little bitter. But I’ve come to realize (should have then, considering the experienced folks I knew and was raised by) that not everything in those situations was something i had control over. It may not have mattered if I did. I have never cared about making money playing music, but I deplore inequity in it as well. I don’t like greed, whether it be about money, or attention. It demeans art. I bemoaned some opportunities we missed, but not because I sought some sort of fame, but because most of the time we put in the hard work and then for varying reasons didn’t get to play to a wider (not bigger) audience. The usual things happened to us, in every band I was in, that happened to everybody else that came up wanting: guys had jobs; guys got married; guys moved away; gals broke up with guys and left the band; lost interest; whatever. The Drednex, in particular, had a great run, played with cool people, navigated between two very different singers successfully, and just had hiccups that blocked that step to go farther. But so much of it was just having some luck and working hard, and that’s something to be thankful for, all said.

villin: Another project you’ve worked on is the Old Thrashers Reunion. That kicked off in 2008 as “a reunion of people from the 80’s punk rock scene” benefiting United Action for Youth (UAY), and I believe the 2017 iteration included a performance from you and a reunited Drednex. What was it that drew you to the Old Thrashers series, how long were you involved for, and I didn’t see anything about a 2023 event: Was last year’s edition its last dance?

Kelly Plumber: My friend Kylie Buddin started the Old Thrashers thing as a combo birthday bash/UAY benefit. I went to a couple over the years, but there was a 2015(?) one that happened in the Summer that year that more folks could attend from farther away (they were usually held in March), and it was the last one held at 10 S. Gilbert, a Unitarian church that hosted some amazing punk shows during the early ’80s (all ages, good behavior), and was that perfect reunion/memory space for a particular set of Iowa City bands to reconvene. And I had been in touch with some folks about going to that show, some of whom I hadn’t seen in decades. I went down, hung out all day and most of the night with a lot of people I hadn’t seen in a very long time and it was kind of earthshaking for me on quite a few levels. 

I had lost four friends of mine during the previous year to various ailments; three of them younger than me. I reacquainted with a lot of folks from the old scene that day, and it was like stepping back into a briefly interrupted conversation. I found myself wondering why in the hell I lost track of these people, some of whom lived barely three hours away. I had been contemplating retiring from my small business in light of missing playing music, seeing that nothing is guaranteed to anyone of any age via those lost friends, just a general malaise in my life top to bottom. That day changed everything for me. As I sat talking with somebody later that night, we saw Kylie saunter by, drained by the whole thing physically and emotionally. We had him sit down, told him how amazing it was and he confided he was thinking about hanging it up because it was a lot of work and his kid was getting bigger. And I thought right then that I would step up, step in.

I made a wish list of bands that had yet to reunite to play the Thrashers, including the Drednex, which was awkward because I had flat out resisted previous attempts to get us back together. We wrangled a new place to have the event because 10 S. had been shuttered by the city. I spent six months trying to get musicians from Austria to California to get back together and play for 30 minutes apiece, including a couple members of the Tape Beatles, who played the intermissions with their appropriated found sound mastery. It came together about three weeks before the event was to go off, and I ended up playing drums in two bands, because the drummer for Horny Genius had feet issues due to diabetes, and nearly ended up playing bass for The Burlap Elevated, because one of their members was playing hard to get (they ended up practicing by Zoom across three states). I rented a house in Iowa City, practiced like crazy for months, and it was a great show.

I did two more years, COVID derailed another, my friend Hart Epstein picked up the baton last year, and this year it just didn’t happen, for no particular reason. It’s really hard to keep that event fresh strictly relying on “old” Thrashers, so we had started asking young bands from Iowa City to be on the bills in the recent past. But it’s still a hard ask to get people to come home from all over the country, or even locally, for no money, even considering the cause. I think it will go on. It’s so much a “family” reunion, and I hope everybody, even younger folks, understand that it’s not promised that we’ll be here. We’ve lost even more of those Thrashers just in the past couple years. It’s also more work than anybody who hasn’t done one could ever understand.

For more from the Iowa Musicians Project, browse their website or follow along via Instagram and Facebook for regular updates. The article image features the cover from the Drednex’ Leftovers Tonight release, featuring Kelly on drums.

[This article was first published on villin.]