Wedged between two loud rock bands, and crammed into a small room overflowing with people, Patrick Tape Fleming played a solo Poison Control Center show at the Ames Progressive Office on March 27. Without any amplification or microphone, Patrick took his acoustic guitar on a stroll around the room as he played a set of new songs, most of them inspired by his wife, Ashley Tape Fleming. It was a short performance emphasizing gentle melodies sung with his raspy vocals. But, though the melodies were gentle, his performance was an explosion of energy and it captured the crowd. Patrick rewarded the attention of the audience with improvisation, backward somersaults (while still playing the guitar) and the splits (while wearing tight jeans). It was a one-man show with more power than most full bands can muster. But the Poison Control Center is not like most bands.
Poison Control Center shows are notorious for high-energy theatrics, showmanship and a sense of fun that starts on the stage and pours out into the audience. At their greatest shows, the sense of fun also contains a sense of danger, as though someone could get hurt at any moment – but no one does. Patrick is the only one of the five members of the Poison Control Center who still lives in Ames, but the band is still very active and in May they will return to the studio to record a new full-length record, their second. In their eight years of playing together, the band has become one of Ames’ most successful and widely respected acts and its history is intimately linked to the history of Ames music in the last decade. And Patrick, in particular, has engaged in many musical endeavors that have made him one of Ames music’s pivotal figures.
In March, I met with him at the Ames Progressive Office to talk about his musical history. At twenty-eight, Patrick has the muscular build and self-assured posture of a personal trainer. He keeps his blonde hair cropped short above a heavy forehead that at times shades his eyes. Patrick grew up in Sibley, Iowa, a town with a population of 3000 in the northwest corner of the state. Sibley is near to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and members of Sibley’s underground music scene tapped into the venues of Sioux Falls. “There were always four or five bands going and maybe you’d play once every two months or something like that,” Patrick said. “But it was always a big deal because there wasn’t much else to do in the town.” His small-town music scene created a sense for the musical event. “I learned a lot of good valuable lessons in trying to make every show a big deal.”
Patrick played in a few high school bands, including one called The Canadian Wheatlords. As they played shows around the state, they met more and more of Iowa’s underground bands. In 1999, three members of The Canadian Wheatlords moved to Ames and Patrick began playing with the Ames band Pookey Bleum. He arrived in Ames with a background in making each show an event, an experience, a sight to behold. And, too, he brought an epic amount energy and good will that soon spread throughout the Ames music scene.
When Patrick arrived in town, there were a number of popular ska and punk bands at the center of the larger rock scene. The stand-out ska band Grubby Ernie was big at the time and they made an impact on the eighteen-year old. “I could see, oh, people go to their shows and they seem like cool guys and they play all the time and they kind of had a punk attitude. And coming from small northwest Iowa you didn’t really see that kind of people, so that was kind of intriguing to me.” Patrick was immediately involved in the activity, playing with Pookey Bleum and working hard to promote his shows.
Soon, the members of Pookey Bleum began to spread their musical activities into the field of recording. In 1999, Patrick’s great-grandmother passed away and left $5000 to each of her great-grandchildren. “All my brothers and sisters and cousins saved it or put it toward college and I bought a bunch of recording equipment,” he said. “Which was hopefully an investment, instead of wasting like some people thought it was.” Patrick’s Pookey Bleum bandmate, and close friend, Aaron Hefley also had some equipment, as well as experience making recordings. They began working on recording projects together, first laying down tracks of themselves and their friends, and in July of 1999 they turned the project into a label, BiFi Records.
In the midst of a burgeoning rock scene, BiFi Records proved to be a major asset for Ames musicians. Soon, BiFi was recording some of Ames’ best acts, from Kathryn Musilek to Keepers of the Carpet, from Frankenixon to The Envy Corps. Patrick attributes the constant proliferation of new bands to the demographic rhythm of a college town. “That’s kind of the great thing about it. Every year a whole crop of new people come in and you meet a lot of talented people and that’s kind of where we started recording other people and trying to put out their music.”
BiFi also became a site for live musical performances in 2000, when Patrick began hosting shows in the kitchen of his house, which was known as the BiFi House. The first band to play at the BiFi House was The Music Tapes, who were on a house show tour. Once again, it was time to turn a show into an event and on the night of the show, thirty-six people paid to come watch the band play in his kitchen. Patrick was thrilled with the result of the first night and the house started a series called “BiFi Fridays” with live music once a week. Patrick was particularly impressed by the way the dynamics of an intimate space, like a kitchen, affected the attention of the audience. “They’re there to be a part of the show and the experience,” he said. “And that’s what makes the interactiveness of a small room – and a group of people that actually want to be there – that’s what makes it magical.” Hosting live music became an important feature of BiFi’s activities and when the label began renting a studio space in Campustown for recording, they used the space as a venue for live music, which also helped pay the rent.
By the end of his first year in Ames, Patrick was playing, promoting, hosting and booking shows, as well as recording and distributing demos and albums. And he was meeting new people all the time. In this hurricane of musical activity, he started yet another side project. He had a rapidly expanding group of musician friends and, he says, “I always had the idea of ‘Oh, I want to start a band with all my friends and just have lots of different instruments’.” Patrick had written a crop of new songs and he began inviting his friends over to his house to add parts to recordings of the songs. One by one, his friends showed up to contribute their own parts and the Poison Control Center was born.
In its early incarnation, a central aesthetic feature of the band arose from Patrick’s attitude of openness to whatever parts his friends happened to add to the songs. The band members were encouraged to do what they felt like and add what they wanted. “I think people liked that, that they got to be creative on it, it wasn’t like ‘play this, play that’,” he said. “And I was kind of like, ‘Oh, that’s great!’ Whatever they came up with, I was just cool with.”
Some of the members of the early Poison Control Center, including Patrick himself, had little or no formal musical training, but some of them did. One of these people was Joe Terry, a bass, guitar and trumpet player from Des Moines. Joe Terry was a songwriter, too, and he and Patrick discovered a unique and lasting musical chemistry that is still developing today.
The Poison Control Center grew larger and larger between 1999 and 2001, incorporating a comically wide variety of instruments: musical saw, violin, bassoon, clarinet, oboe and trumpet in addition to an assortment of more traditional rock instruments. By 2001, the band had a core group of twelve to fourteen members, including lead guitarist Devin Frank and the drummer Don Ephraim who, with Patrick and Joe Terry, are still members of the band.
In 2001, the Poison Control Center turned their recording project into a live act and began playing shows in and around Ames. They quickly developed a reputation for extremely high-energy and unpredictable performances and began taking trips outside of central Iowa, to places like Iowa City, Minneapolis and Omaha. “Being in Ames is kind of great,” Patrick said, “because you’re in the perfect spot to play three day weekends. Omaha’s close, Minneapolis, Chicago, Peoria, Des Moines, Kansas City, everything’s in like five hours. So if you want to build up a regional following, this is the perfect place to be.”
At the height of their big band phase, the Poison Control Center played a live show with an astonishing twenty-one band members on the stage. But as the band played more gigs, the sheer size of their act became stressful. Taking a three car caravan to, say, Minneapolis in the middle of the week started wearing people out. And since the band of friends operated under the assumption of a no-pressure arrangement, members of the super-group slowly began dropping out.
As the band became smaller it also became tighter and more focused. They continued playing shows around central Iowa and making records. In 2004, the band won a contest hosted by the record label Happy Happy Birthday To Me and, as a reward, were invited to play at the Athens Pop Festival in Athens, Georgia at the legendary venue 40 Watt. The band decided to book themselves a tour around the festival. Though they had been doing two-to-three day weekend tours around the Midwest for years, this was their first experience with national touring. They had managed to save some money over the years and used it to buy a van.
The first tour was a success and the band actually made money. “Which blew my mind,” Patrick said, “because everyone told me, ‘Oh, if you go on a tour you’re gonna lose money.” They were able to come out ahead by establishing a routine of frugality. Each member of the band was allowed only $5 a day from the band fund, an agreement that has been built into their touring regimen ever since.
The success of their first tour empowered the band and since 2004, the Poison Control Center has toured every year. In 2005, Patrick embarked on a 30 day solo tour, playing primarily in small or private venues, like the BiFi House he had started in Ames. At one such house, Patrick’s performance inspired a witness to write in his blog: “It was just delightful. He played his half-hour set with just a guitar, and to say that he performed ‘standing up’ would be a drastic understatement. He played running, stomping, howling, stretching, shredding, reaching, jutting, FUCKING SOMERSAULTING. And he finished half the songs in a flat-out split on the wooden living room floor.”
The beginning of the Poison Control Center’s phase as a touring band in 2004 corresponded with the end of BiFi as a local label. After renting a cheap space for a few years at $500 a month, the studio outgrew its location and moved to a larger and more expensive space. Their second studio was more appropriate for their recording needs, but the $1200 of monthly rent was a major challenge to their operation. “That was very frustrating because we were recording anything and everything we could, whether we liked it or not … just to pay rent,” he said. “Some months are better than others on getting rent. Some months you’re over, some months you’re not, and you’re throwing your own money in and it gets tough.”
Though the BiFi label stopped releasing records in 2005, Patrick has maintained his interest in recording. In the past year, he has recorded three albums with an analog tape machine that the Poison Control Center purchased with money from their general band fund. Patrick was interested in learning to use the tape machine better and he happened to know that the Ames band Wolves in the Attic was interested in recording analog. So he approached the band and offered to record their album for them at the Vaudeville Mews in Des Moines, where he periodically runs sound for shows.
The Wolves in the Attic record turned out well and Patrick was encouraged by the results. So, when he was contacted by his friend Ryan Anderson, who lives in Austin, Texas, about recording an album, Patrick invited him to come to Ames for a week and they recorded the record together in the basement. “Which was a great idea, except my wife does massage out of our house, so it’s kind of tough to do it at the same time,” he said. “But when she was done in the evenings, that’s when we would start.”
When Ryan Anderson’s record was completed, Patrick was presented with another opportunity to record, this time with Chris Ford, who plays as Christopher the Conquered. Chris and Patrick had become close during a Poison Control Center tour with The Apples in 2006. It was the band’s second tour of that year and the drummer Don, a grad student, was not able to travel twice in the same year. So Chris joined the Poison Control Center as the drummer for the tour and has since continued to play as the band’s horn player.
Chris wanted to record analog and asked Patrick to help make the record, the second Christopher the Conquered album. “He recorded his first album and it’s great, he doesn’t need any help by any means. For him asking me, I was kind of honored to do it,” Patrick said.
In the ten years that Patrick has lived in Ames, his enthusiasm for music and his passion for creating participatory musical events have created an overlapping web of projects that has encompassed the breadth of Ames musical culture. And those projects are continuing to evolve. He still plays and books and promotes shows. His new music is still being recorded and he is still recording the music of other artists.
The Ames scene, too, is continuing to evolve. Patrick sees his role in Ames music as part of a continuum. “I’ve lived here since 1999 and I’ve seen ten years now of different transitions. But there’s always someone who’ll pick up the torch, it’s awesome. So, if you ever get burned out,” he said, now addressing me as we sat in the Ames Progressive Office, conducting this interview, “somebody will pick up the torch, which is awesome and that’s what makes it cool.”