Grey Area, a joint venture by Flat Black Studios and White Rabbit clothing store, is an unusual new festival taking place just outside of Iowa City on Aug. 18 and 19. Featuring live music and a diverse range of multimedia programming, it’s a celebration of our local musical community. The festival will span Friday afternoon to late Saturday night, and is set outdoors (on-site camping is encouraged; bring plenty of water, bug spray and other necessities, as well as blankets or chairs to sit on).
“It is essentially in the woods, and definitely in the country,” said Grey Area organizer Luke Tweedy, who also owns and operates one of the region’s premier recording studios. “There will also be all types of people here. It will not just be the same types of folks seen at a lot of Iowa City shows. There will be doctors and lawyers here, and there will be blue-collar, dirt-farming hillbillies here, too, and everything in between.”
“Despite everybody’s differences, it will be a positive, community-building experience where people are going to get a taste of a lot of different slices of society while supporting the arts and hopefully becoming fans of some bands they might have heard of but not heard.”
Tying it all together are the bands and solo acts that have recently recorded at Flat Black, including local favorites Elizabeth Moen, Dana T, Karen Meat, Brian Johannesen and many more.
Interspersed between live acts will be several DJ sets by Coolzey, Brendan Lee Spengler, DJ Feed Me Weird Things and DJ WEW — better known around these parts as the banjo-shredding musician William Elliott Whitmore.
“Of course I’m not really a DJ,” Whitmore acknowledges, “I just like playing records. It will be fun to do it through such a large sound system — and a chance to do something different than I normally do. I’ll be spinning hip hop and country music.”
“Luke is my cousin,” Whitmore added. “I’ve known him my whole life. We’ve been working together on music for 18 years. Flat Black Studios is the culmination of a very large learning curve, and we hope to just keep pushing it forward. We work together well because we leave ego out of it and just try to make the music as good as we can. At Flat Black you can make any kind of record you want.”
Tweedy and Whitmore’s lives have long been entwined, but they grew even closer as friends and creative partners about 20 years ago, when the seeds of Flat Black Studios were planted. Whitmore had been playing in punk bands at the time when he lost his mother just three years after his father died, then moved back home to be with his brother and sister.
“About six months passed, and he came to Iowa City for a visit with a super cheap four-track in tow,” Tweedy recalled. “He had recorded five songs and asked me if I’d give them a listen.”
“By the end of listening to those tracks, I was shocked, amazed and extremely proud of where he’d put his heartache. The songwriting wasn’t just better, but truly world class. Soon after that we had a conversation where we agreed to partner up. You see, the songs were amazing, but the recordings, not so much. If he’d focus all his energy on songwriting, touring and playing shows, and generally honing his craft, I’d do the same –with a focus on the music-capture end of things.”
The two young men started small. Tweedy had a Roland digital eight-track recorder and a used Shure 58 microphone, and Whitmore was playing an entry-level Fender acoustic guitar.
What a difference two decades make. Today, Whitmore is a nationally recognized artist and Tweedy runs a full-service hybrid analog and digital studio. He has recorded some of his favorite Iowa musicians, as well as artists from around the country — such as Cool Kids, a hip-hop act that recorded part of their upcoming album at Flat Black.
“It’s like taking a trip to an island with a studio where you can create your own environment,” said Cool Kids’ Chuck Inglish, “but still have access to all the instruments and technology you need.”
Grey Area’s 704-square-foot stage has been built off the back of Flat Black Studios — large, but not too large, and nestled among the trees.
“I am extremely proud of it,” Tweedy said. “It is one of my dreams come true. With luck, there will be bands on this stage for years and years to come.”
The festival will offer a bouncy house for the young ’uns (children under 16 get in free), and a motley assortment of other entertainment for kids and adults of all ages.
“I put all my experience into this celebration,” said Tweedy. “You will also see some types of stuff I am into besides music, like a rural setting –on a double dead end with almost 10 wooded acres — camping, grilling, circus freaks, people of all races, religions (or lack of), genders, sexual orientations, etc. I want to celebrate the arts, especially music, out here in a positive open-minded environment, because it really means everything to me.”
Iowa Public Radio’s Lindsey Moon has assembled a crew of circus performers to do sets in between bands; as DJs spin, they will do aerial acrobatics, a fire show, stilts, juggling and so on. Sarah Driscoll from Breathing Room Yoga in Cedar Rapids is running a Saturday morning yoga class with ambient analog synthesis by Brendan Lee Spengler. And when the sun goes down, Ian MacMillan will project a light show from the stage onto the trees while the bands play.
“I would be a fool if I did not mention that Miss Millie Guns was coming out of retirement for a set,” Tweedy added. “Her deal cannot be properly put into words, so I will simply say: Don’t miss it.”
After the artists are paid and other costs are covered, the organizers plan to donate any excess profits to two charities: the Rape Victim Advocacy Program and American Civil Liberties Union.
“This festival will showcase a ton of local music as well as old friends and family coming from out of state,” Whitmore said. “It’s about building a musical community here, where there are so many talented folks. It’s all people Luke has worked with in the studio. Also it will be fun as hell!”