ten grand oral history part I. by brian peterson, author of “burning fight”
Ten Grand Oral History: Part One of Three
By Brian Peterson
Dreams are as inextricably linked to us as our breath. They inspire us, fill us with passion, and bring focus to our lives. Sure, they don’t always transpire the way we originally anticipated. After all, we can’t all be the next Bo Jackson, the next Bruce Springsteen. But dreams help shape the path we aspire to travel, often bringing dozens of wonderful surprises along the way.
When we stop dreaming, we stop living. At least in the truest sense of the word “live.” To live is to keep moving, to continue hoping, to never stop believing in all that’s possible.
There have been times in my life where I’ve lost sight of my dreams. When my dreams slip away I, literally, struggle to breathe, to live. But my dreams are resurrected when I’m inspired by the passion of others. I’ve been fortunate enough to have numerous friends, family members, students, co-workers, and artistic and professional inspirations who fill me with awe and, like human tornados, whirl my dreams back into focus.
Over the years one of my biggest inspirations is the path set forth by the members of Ten Grand. For me and for anyone who knew/know them, their music, their energy, their dreams, to this very day, shine brightly like a glimmering full moon in the darkest night sky. Whether it was wrecking shop in a hometown basement for a handful of friends or cranking out jams in venues across the U.S., they always played like their lives depended on it. And as seriously as they played, they also weren’t afraid to have fun, to make each other laugh, and to truly enjoy this epic time in their lives.
Over the course of roughly five years, hundreds of shows, and countless miles on the odometer in between, Bob Adams (drums), Joel Anderson (guitar/vocals), Matt Davis (guitar/vocals), and Zach Westerdahl (bass) lived and breathed their dreams on a daily basis. They were always practicing, on the road, or simply hanging out with one another—all in the pursuit of their dreams, for themselves and for one another: to write songs, to travel and see the world, to live, move, and experience life in ways that only their dreams could anticipate.
Briefly, their dreams turned into a nightmare when Matt suddenly passed away in the summer of 2003. One of kindest, most sincere people I’ve been blessed to meet, Matt’s death brought about true heartbreak for anyone who knew him. In the process, the band also came to a halt.
Despite this loss, the surviving members never lost sight of their dreams. They have continued to play music, forge careers, create art, get married, and carry that same passion into their day-to-day lives. This is perhaps the best lesson that music provides: Life should be lived with the passion of a song. Ten Grand exemplifies this way of living as well as anyone. Their past providing the framework for their present. Their dreams forever steering them forward.
I am forever thankful for their countless lessons.
**Note: The following oral history interview took place with Bob (B), Joel (J), Zack (Z), and William Elliott Whitmore (WW: close friend and proverbial “fifth member”) about year and a half ago. I was also privileged enough to interview Matt (M) a few times over the years, so I dug through my files and added his quotes to the story. Part Two and Three coming soon…
Part One: Beginnings…
How did you all meet? Any memorable stories of meeting each other? Can you describe what you guys were like when you first met?
M: In 1998, Joel and I were in a band together that broke apart bitterly. I knew Bob from having met him on the street wearing a Seaweed shirt. Zach was in a great band called Fidget Noise. I proposed we all play together. No one knew everyone but me when we first practiced. It was fun and it just kind of took off from there. We became fast friends and really loved making music together.
J—With Matt, I moved to Iowa City from Cedar Falls, IA, and I started playing in a band with a couple guys from Cedar Rapids, IA. At the same time Matt was playing in a band with two other guys from Iowa City and another guy from Cedar Rapids. The two bands collapsed around the same time and Matt joined the band I was in. The first time I ever saw him play I couldn’t get adjusted to his singing style at all. [laughs] It was a lot more “yippy” than it ever was with Ten Grand. I was just like, “I don’t know if I can be in a band with this guy…”
Z—Yippier than Ten Grand?
J—Yes! So Matt and I and these two other guys were in a band called Things Fall Apart, which probably isn’t the best thing to name your band if you want it to survive. [laughs] Eventually, the bass player and drummer moved to Kalamazoo and it ended. I was just hanging around Iowa City and didn’t think I wanted to be in bands anymore. Then Matt said, “I’ve talked to these two other guys about a new band and I want you on board.” I knew Zack from Fidget Noise and remember them having a really good bass player, so it was cool to walk in and be like, “Oh, here’s that really good bass player from Fidget Noise.” Then I was like, “I wonder what this drummer’s all about. He doesn’t look familiar from being in any other good bands from around here.” I remember we used to practice at this spot called the Ice House, which was an old converted ice house that we shared with like eight other bands. You just put your shit in a corner and pulled it out when it was your time to play and you paid like $60 a month for rent. I think we started playing in September of 1997 and I remember having a really great fall. We were all coming from different places and it all kind of worked. We were four guys trying to play four different styles of music that somehow all overlapped into one thing.
B—Four guys trying to play four different styles of music: “The Ten Grand story!” [laughs]
Z—Didn’t we crap out like five songs the first time we ever practiced?
B—Yes, we busted out five songs.
Z—That was really cool! I’d been in a couple other bands and things never happened that quickly before. It only took that first practice and then I decided to stay with you guys. [laughs]
J—By the time I met Matt he hadn’t finished school. He was close to being done but it just wasn’t on his radar at the time. He wanted to drink soda, watch The Simpsons, and eat Nerds and be in as many bands as possible. We were extremely fortunate to wear the right garments at the right time, and have the right bands dissolve at the right time. Matt was definitely the nexus of bringing the three of us together.
Z: [Matt] just walked up to me at some random show and asked if I wanted to be in a band with him and these two other guys. I kind of knew who Matt was, but I didn’t really “know him.” So, I said yes. Now I can’t remember which happened first. I helped Joel move in the snow one time, and he invited me over to watch UHF in his apartment. I’m a little bit older than everyone else and I’m also kind of a dip shit, so the dudes I ran around with just tried to fuck girls and drink beer until they threw up, basically. [laughs] I remember sitting in Joel’s living room being like, “So, we’re really watching UHF?” [laughs] We watched the whole thing and it was awesome. Another thing I remember was meeting Bob. He and Matt took me to see this band Ida. We drove to Normal, IL, about four hours away to see them play. Everyone sat on the floor and I thought was going to die – I thought it was the worst thing ever! [laughs] Looking back, it was pretty cool and showed how diverse the underground scene was, but at the time I didn’t get it. We ended up drinking tea and watching this band in a bookstore. I didn’t even know that things like that happened. [laughs]
Z—[laughs] Three of us have known each other for so long… it’s no wonder we haven’t had a serious conversation in 10 years. Bob just makes it into a goddamn joke. I’ve been crying on the inside all these years and afraid to say anything. [laughs] But not anymore! [laughs]
What are some of your fondest memories of getting involved in underground music in the Midwest? Any shows that “changed your life”? People or bands that moved you? Records that changed your outlook? Experiences in your music scene that drew you further into wanting to play music yourselves?
Z—I remember being into music, but being from Cedar Rapids I wasn’t into punk rock or hardcore. The weirdest record I had was probably Tool’s Undertow. I was into music, but I wasn’t into underground stuff at all. But I was in a couple of grungy bands. Then I met Matt and he asked us to be in a band together – I had no idea what these genres of music were. All I knew was that he was in a band that he called emo, which I’m sure he’d have mixed feelings about using that term now. [laughs] He was also in this hardcore band called Only Ten Between Us and he mixed all these genres. I always thought that was pretty cool because you didn’t just have to say, “Hey, I’m a punk rocker, or I’m a hippie.” You could play different music and go to shows with bands that weren’t all the same. That was really positive.
J—In the Iowa City scene where we came up, it seemed like everyone was really together and we’d all come to each others’ shows. Whether it was the guys from The Committee coming to see us play or the four of us going to see Ed Gray play in the living room of the Muscatine House on a Sunday, everyone knew each other because there were only two or three bars we could go to where we weren’t not the guys in the white hats, so you found out where you fit in quick. We mostly met people at Gabe’s, and then we’d find out later they were also in bands and you’d go see them play because you were already friends with them. Seeing Burmese or Bottledog for the first time was amazing because they were comprised of awesome people we knew, and it only made us want to work harder and be able to play shows with these guys and not feel like we were the flat tire on the car. [laughs]
B—The thing for me that gave me a really good appreciation for the Midwest was when we first came to Chicago. We had played a bunch in Iowa City and we had friends there, and we had played in a couple of other places and we had sort of made some friends. But we made quick friends with quite a few people in Chicago like Neil and Tim from Baxter and those guys from Quattro. For the first time I realized we could go somewhere else and be embraced for what we were doing, because we were doing something that had some of the same values and ideas other people had. In Iowa City, we were like the only hardcore or emo group at the time, but in Chicago, that was the first time we fit on a bill with bands that sound like us and do the same stuff and have the same values, and we became fast friends with those guys and felt really good about it and thought that this was something that could only exist right here. In hindsight, these things were happening all over, but it gave me that feeling that, “I can’t believe this is happening! How could this ever happen anywhere else?”
WW—As a 20-year-old fresh off the farm, Vida Blue was my first introduction to D.I.Y. culture. They booked their own shows and sought out independent labels to release 7-inch records. They were a huge inspiration to me as I was starting my own journey into music. I went to all their shows and slowly we became friends. They let me open up some shows for them and before too long I was joining them on tour. This is what started it all for me. I would help them carry equipment and in exchange they would let me play a song or two before their set every night. We played literally hundreds of shows, everywhere from Rome Georgia to Rome Italy.
What made you guys want to play music together? How did it come about?
J—Going back to the big city thing, since I’ve moved to Chicago, trying to be in a band is extremely difficult compared to trying to be in a band in Iowa City. In Iowa City you hop on your bike or in a car, you go to the place that’s less than two miles from where you live to practice; you load into the club that’s also less than two miles from where you live. But here everything is so much more spread out. In Iowa City, there was a certain spontaneity and innocence when you don’t have to spend an hour and a half just getting to the place you need to be to practice. You show up and your juices are flowing and you plug in and go. I think that’s how we wrote so many songs so quickly. We were giddy as hell and get all caffeinated up and just go. Two hours later we’d have four songs on a tape. The stuff from the What I Should Have Said Vol. 1 record. We recorded at Gabe’s—something like 20 songs. We had only been together four or five months and we’d demoed nearly 20 songs!
B—Remember that time we made a list of every song we ever wrote and there were about a hundred? [laughs] Some of them we’d just forget, but we sure wrote a lot of songs. Some of them we’d just forget, but there were a ton!
M—I think playing music with each other was just a very unique and new experience. It was more frantic and intense and different than any of our previous bands. We just kind of lost it when we played. I know we all took little pieces of the bands we’d been in before with us when we started, but the more we played together, the more we formed our own sound and older bands and sounds just kind of faded into the past.
What were some of your biggest influences when you guys started playing together? Did you have any intentions or aspirations of having a certain sound?
Z—Anything emotive or pulsating. [laughs]
J—We didn’t really have any aspirations to have a certain sound. It was just kind of like whatever came out of us when we plugged in and started playing, that was how we sounded.
WW—The band’s sound was based in indie-rock, punk, and influences as diverse as The Smiths, Guns N’ Roses, Arab on Radar, and E.P.M.D. Their sound was based in these things, but was its own creature, to be sure. Their originality was apparent from the beginning and grew more so over time. They worked harder than anyone, ocked harder than any band on the circuit, and still managed to not take themselves too seriously (this was important at that time in music, when we played with so many bands whose lead singer would writhe around on the floor in what seemed to be a fake display). Their sense of humor pervaded everything. They were the first band I ever heard that made up goofy titles to their songs, some of them almost like little poems unto themselves. One of my favorites was, “Don’t Let Your Girlfriend Go Camping With That Guy She Met in Pottery Class….Seriously.”
M—None of us grew up listening to the same kind of music or even within the punk/hardcore community, and I think that’s given us a large measure of diversity and a lot of freedom as opposed to a lot of groups that all grew up loving the same kind of music and having a similar idea of what they wanted a band to sound like or what they think a band should be. The music we grew up loving and the music we love now is all very different, although there is a lot of common ground. We end up pushing and pulling each other in different directions. Our musical and personal lives are vastly expanded and have been greatly changed due to being in a band with each other. I don’t think one of us hasn’t said at some point in our time together, “I always hated this band/genre/idea/what have you, but I have to say I really like this now.” We’re an odd group of people to be playing together, but remarkably similar ethically and philosophically, and that’s allowed us to be and do a lot of different unexpected things.
What was your first show as a band like? Any memories? Funny stories?
B—At our first show, wasn’t Will Whitmore in the front row with a full pitcher of beer?
Z—Well, now you’ve narrowed it down to about 200 shows when that happened. [laughs]
B—I remember a few of our friends there and this one totally crazy dude who was drinking beer out of a pitcher. He ended up becoming one of our best friends in the world! Another thing I wanted to mention was that at the time Joel was dating this girl and I was dating a girl and Zach was dating a girl…
Z—Oh, man! And weren’t they all crazy? [laughs]
B—Yes, they were! After that show they were all talking and my girlfriend at the time told me they all talked about how they were making fun of us for having this “stupid idea” of putting this band together.
Z—Those fucking bitches! [laughs]
B—That was my first memory of a show.
Z—I remember the first batch of shows. I was in a couple local bands before and no one ever really cared about the bands I did before. But then to play and have people come up and be like, “That was good…” It was such an awesome new feeling. I also remember being way out of breath because every band I’d ever been in before just stood there. [laughs] But with Joel and Matt moving around so much, I guess I felt I also had to, and it was like running upstairs. [laughs]
J—It was at Gabe’s for sure and I think we played with 2,000 AD. Gabe’s was the greatest place in Iowa to play a show. I’d been going to shows there since I was 15 and I’d played one show with Matt in Things Fall Apart on a Sunday afternoon at some point. So to set up there and look out and see 30 or so people and go into the first song was a great moment.
Can you describe some of the first songs you wrote together? Any particularly memorable songs that got you guys excited to play? Any particularly memorable lyrics?
B—I never knew the lyrics of any of our songs. Even when Matt would write the lyrics in the lyric books, I was like, “What the fuck was that all about?” [laughs] When Matt would sing, to me that always felt like another instrument because I could hear it but could never understand it. So it was like we were using drums, two guitars, bass, and a voice and it sort of fit and sort of fit in wherever.
Z—I remember some super early interviews. One was with Bradley Adita. And I remember Matt saying something about always changing the lyrics and him never having them memorize. I remember us talking to him about the lyrics, and I remember him saying that he changed them every time. That first batch of songs the cadence would be the same, but he was always changing things around. It wasn’t until the first seven inches that he actually set things down.
B—I remember that every single time we put lyrics in the record, Matt would write them out and the three of us would sit there and read them and be like, “What the fuck is this?” [laughs] I know what you sing there and it’s not that. [laughs]
Z—Toward the end he stayed with the lyrics he wrote down—like on the last few records. But those early songs were definitely a bit free form. [laughs] But that was just kind of the deal.
So, why did you choose “Vida Blue” for the band’s original name? Were you guys baseball fans?
B—If I remember correctly, Zack wanted to name the band Vida Blue because it’s a name he’d always wanted to use for a band, right?
Z—Yes. I thought it was cool for our band that it was a sports themed deal, but for our immediate circle in Iowa City, if you liked sports you were square. [laughs] I remember people telling people we were called Vida Blue and they thought it was just two words squished together, so it kind of made for a story later on when people figured out that it was a baseball player.
J—It was a good template for other bands to name their band Vida Blue. [laughs]
B—I couldn’t believe that you guys didn’t want to name the band Rich Little. [laughs] Because that was my idea. [laughs]
Any stories about the writing/recording of Our Miracle Point of Contact? Where did the title come from?
B—There was a house that Joel lived in and they had this preacher poster on the wall above the toilet and you had to put your hand on his hand and pray. And it was right above the toilet, so while you were peeing you couldn’t help but put your hand on his hand.
J—I had a roommate, Josh, who worked at Gabe’s and he would work ‘til 2 A.M and stay there until about 4 A.M. He’d come home, make a pizza and watch Bob Tilton until the sun came up. So a lot of nights he’d drunkenly put money in the jar for him and they sent him a package, and the poster was part of it. On Bob Tilton’s hand on this poster was the “miracle point of contact.” Bob was in the bathroom one time and came out of the bathroom and said, “Hey, we should call the record Our Miracle Point of Contact.” We did a session with Bronson at Gabe’s and then recorded with Jason and Pat. A lot of that stuff never saw the light of day because it wasn’t that good. But then we came out and recorded Miracle and the stuff for a split record in one 30 hour period. It was our first time recording with Mike Lust. Mike was just getting to know the room and his gear, and we weren’t that sharp with our stuff. It’s no Appetite for Destruction…
B—But it’s definitely a Spaghetti Incident! [laughs]