Ask an average group of twenty-somethings about the Ames music scene, and you’ll get a profusion of blank stares, followed by a long silence. Given a little more prompting, they might talk about our dearth of musical venues, the scarcity of all-ages shows, or the well-documented reluctance of promoters to book local bands. But if they’ve lived here within the past six years, they might also remember a place that defied all these easy generalizations. To the uninitiated, it was just a loft apartment on Main Street, but it was known to regulars as the Practice Space. Through word of mouth and sheer persistence, the supporters of this unlicensed, unzoned venue were able to attract hundreds of bands – from local favorites “7 Wave to nationally-known acts such as Xiu Xiu and the Microphones.
Ames resident James Finch was the first to bring shows to the Practice Space. Now thirty, Finch has a playful, almost boyish manner, which is somehow underscored by his quasi-piratical mustache and pierced ears. When speaking, he has a tendency to interrupt himself whenever a new train of thought emerges, as though he’s too excited to stick to one topic.
Finch and his then-wife Evelyn Davis moved into the apartment in 2002. Davis was then the lead singer and pianist for the band Frankenixon. Finch was also a musician (he would later found the Stoplights). With its unpartitioned space and relative isolation from other tenants, the loft’s potential was obvious to the couple. Shortly after Finch and Davis moved in, they threw a “housewarming party” – actually a show featuring Joe Terry, Jeff Shannon and Andy Mitchell. Though Finch proclaimed the show “a success,” neither he nor Davis explicitly planned on hosting another. “We weren’t really planning on turning it into a venue at all,” Finch claims.
The newlyweds’ first show could have easily been their last, if not for the intercession of a Des Moines-area high-schooler named Ladd Askland. By the fall of 2002, the eighteen-year-old Askland had already booked shows at several venues, including Frank’s House of Rock, the Fallout Shelter and the Des Moines Botanical Center. One night (neither Askland nor Finch can recall the exact date), the young promoter arranged for four bands to play at a local club called the Voltaire. Remarkably, the Voltaire’s two owners were evicted the night before the show was to take place – a development they failed to share with Askland. He arrived at the venue to find the doors locked and a crowd gathering in the parking lot.
Enter James Finch. “When I pulled up,” Finch says, “there [were] probably about 80 people standing in the parking lot, along with three or four bands… So I parked, and started weaving through the crowd, and I found Ladd.” After hearing that the Voltaire’s management had abandoned Askland, Finch offered to hold the show in his apartment and drove off to find a PA. He returned to the loft to find the Voltaire crowd out front and four vans full of equipment piled next to his front door.
Askland says he “didn’t make any money” that night, but remembers enjoying the show nonetheless. “Under the conditions, it worked out really well,” he said. The headliner, the Gloria Record, ended up playing…. They were actually good sports about it, and I was pretty young, so I was just kind of taking it by ear. But they were really nice, and fairly cordial about the whole thing. The overall feel, with the people and the gathering just ended up being ‘try to do this this again.’”
Finch has similarly fond memories. “Ladd … was just really happy with the way things had gone. He asked me if it would be okay if he just did some shows down there. I think we talked about it and it just seemed like a really good idea.”
From that night forward, Finch, Davis and Askland started booking shows regularly at the apartment. As Finch tells it, “I would give Ladd a list of bands that I liked, and he would call up their booking agents and just see how much it cost for them to come. If it was under four hundred [dollars], we’d usually say ‘please.’”
Whatever sum it was, Finch says the three never kept any of it for themselves. “We did it for the shows, you know? The only profits we ever made – which didn’t really count because of the labor involved – were just [from] recycling all the cans and bottles that people left.”
Askland estimates he booked or assisted in booking at least 20 shows for Finch and Davis. Finch believes that the August 2003 Microphones show was the most memorable one of this period, not only for the quality of the performance, but also because of a chance encounter that would determine the future of the Practice Space.
“That was my dream show,” Finch remembers, “because I was such a huge Microphones fan. That was the biggest show that that place ever experienced. I think, all told, six or seven acts played. We started at like 6 PM and got done at about 3:30 [AM].”
The Microphones show attracted fans from as far away as Texas. It also brought a Sioux City-native named Nic Seivert to the Practice Space for the first time. He would have his first encouter with Finch that night. “The exact moment I met him,” says Seivert, “I was up front, walking to the Practice Space, and he was sitting on the curb.” Finch flagged him down, and the two found they had an almost instant rapport.
“I think Nic and I meeting was almost like magic,” Finch reminisces. “It was like, ‘that’s my new best friend.’” Finch says he was constantly on edge when he was hosting shows – until he met Seivert.
“When I was living there it was pretty overwhelming. I had to be extremely aloof in order to just keep my wits about me,and keep track of everything that was going on, because it’s my shit, you know? It was all my stuff and there’s all these strangers everywhere. I had tons of acquaintances, but Nic was the only person that [made me feel] like we were going to be buddies.” As one looks at Seivert, it’s easy to see why Finch was drawn to him. The thirty-year-old’s thick horn-rims and full beard have the effect of muting the intensity of his facial expressions. Whether he’s laughing or frowning, Seivert retains an air of imperturbable calm.
Seivert moved to Ames in the month following the Microphones show. During the same period, Evelyn’s band Frankenixon was experiencing unprecedented success. According to Finch, they were “touring all the time, almost every other month.” As Frankenixion’s schedule became busier, its members were finding it increasingly difficult to pay their rent and keep their day jobs. Faced with these mounting pressures, Davis and Finch decided it was time to move out of the loft. “Frankennixon was really regimented,” Finch says. “They were really trying … to become a nationally known act. So, to save money, we all just decided to move into a house together in Des Moines.”
Finch says he and Davis saw Seivert as the natural choice to succeed them at the Practice Space. “We were just like, ‘Hey, you wanna live here, and keep doing shows?’” Seivert accepted their offer and moved into the loft in January 2003 – a mere six months after their first meeting.
According to Seivert, it was during his tenancy that the name “the Practice Space” became firmly associated with the loft. “When James and Evelyn were having shows, it was ‘James and Evelyn’s practice space,’ or ‘James and Evelyn’s’ – it was one of those two usually, so when they moved out, I’ve since tried to keep somewhat of a recognition [of the name]. I just kept calling it the Practice Space.”
Seivert dove into his new role with enthusiasm. “Part of the experience for me was hanging with [the band] before the show: making dinner, hearingÂ their stories, staying up late with them, playing and listening to music with them and making breakfast in the morning,” he says. For him, hosting these artists was a way of experiencing “the joys of touring … vicariously.”
By the time Seivert had moved in, Ladd Askland was no longer booking shows for the Practice Space (he now books at Vaudeville Mews in Des Moines). But the contacts he, Finch and Davis had built proved invaluable to him. “Lots of folks in Ames helped book a number of shows – friends of friends of friends. After a year or two, it just kind of promoted itself, from word of mouth,” he says.
Seivert believes that nationally known bands bands were attracted to the Practice Space because they knew they’d be compensated at the end of the night. “A big attraction for the bands is the amount of money they actually do get paid. Since we don’t take a cut [of the cover charge], they get paid pretty well, relative to, say, if they go to Des Moines and play at a club that has to pay the bar, the sound guy, the door guy … all the door money goes to the band.”
Local bands were paid slightly less often, but they flocked to the Practice Space nonetheless. Nathan Sacks, the former guitarist for Espada Rosada, first played there in 2005. He was surprised by how well his band was received. “It’s a much better venue to play than you would expect, it being just someone’s apartment,” Sacks says. “People’ll get into it too. When we first started playing, I wondered if people would really like us, because…we were really loud. But…people were loud as fuck at Nic’s. And you could be. You were on Main Street, everything was closed. It wasn’t that big of a deal …. And people would dance. I mean, it was sort of like, lame hipster dancing, so it’s not like anything I enjoyed watching, but when people dance to your music, even when [the dancing's] not that good, it’s cool.”
Sacks says he also felt freer to experiment in the Practice Space than he did in other venues. “I mean, when we were playing at Ames High or whatever…it’s hard to really feel like a live band in that situation. But when I was playing [at the Practice Space] I had this idea that we had to end our last song sort of like this… ah. I don’t know. I was thinking of [the Velvet Underground's] White Light/White Heat at the time. It was just you know, where you’re like, going crazy and hitting shit. And it went on for a pretty long time, and it was actually pretty good.”
Though he lavishly enjoyed his shows at the Practice Space, Sacks speaks warily about some of the people the venue had begun to attract. As the Practice Space’s fans grew more numerous, their collective focus seemed to shift away from the music. “They’d have parties, and they’d have sort of the same people attending them. I didn’t really get to know any of them…. I think it was just because I was so apprehensive around college students, I didn’t know what to think of them. I was sort of apprehensive around that whole scene, I thought it was full of a lot of shit.”
James Finch (who remained a frequent Practice Space attendee) describes the trend in equally blunt terms. “Kids today suck. Towards the end of the Practice Space’s run, you’d get a good turnout, but the kitchen and the back stairwell [of the loft] would just be packed with people, and there’d be like seven people watching the band play, and they’re just ruling, just playing one of the best shows of their tour. It’s just like ‘Where is everybody?’ ‘Why are they smoking?’”
The occasional ambivalence of the audience did little to diminish the quality of the shows. Under Seivert’s stewardship, the venue hosted many rising acts, such as The Apes, Kimya Dawson, Cerebus Shoul and These Are Powers. No matter what the band or artist, Seivert thought the potential for an amazing show was ever-present. “Most of the bands that have played here are bands that I wouldn’t listen to on a daily basis, but live [they] just blew me away.”
The Practice Space hosted its last show in July, a few weeks before Seivert and his girlfriend Marcy left for Boulder, Colorado. The bill featured Iowa City’s Wet Hair, Minneapolis’ Vampire Hands and San Francisco garage revivalists the Sic Alps. Many called it subdued – almost anticlimactic. There seemed to be little acknowledgment of the finality of the event.
Though he wasn’t there that night, its significance wouldn’t have been lost on James Finch. “I felt like…what we were doing was really important for the the middle of this country,” Finch says. “For like, Ames. Previous to the Practice Space, if you were into hardcore music you’d go see some shows in Des Moines, very occasionally. There was no place for independent music, except for Gabe’s in Iowa City, and that was a two-hour drive. Or you could go to First Avenue or Second Street in Minneapolis. Nothing was really going on back then. [The Practice Space] was kind of beautiful. It’s like a place of reverence for me. It has, like, a temple vibe. It’s like a temple of music. And I think the spirit that started it was [one] of reverence over music.”
Larrison Seidle moved in shortly after Sievert left. Despite being what Finch describes as “a fervent Practice Space supporter” who “came to every show we did,” the new tenant has no plans to keep hosting shows. “I think he just wanted a more low-key existence,” Finch speculates.
After six years at the center of the local music scene, the Main Street loft is once again just an apartment. But the hundreds who experienced the Practice Space first-hand will remember it as something more. “Almost everything that happened there was just so meaningful to me, and I can’t just narrow [its significance] down to any moment,” Finch says. “It’s a pretty big chunk of my memories, even as I grow older…. I mean, the Boheme was cool, but I don’t miss it as much as the Practice Space.”