Gabe’s — Thursday, Jan. 16 at 9:30 p.m.
The constant thump of bass-y kick drums pummels the walls through the ceiling of Gabe’s in downtown Iowa City. It grows louder as you walk up the stairs. The high-end of the tunes come through; you can see traces of the lights. Once upstairs, you head toward the sounds. Hazy synthesizer pads, acid squelches, rolling bass-lines and a cornucopia of sci-fi sounds all intermingle as you approach the dance floor. Wallflowers line the room; a few dancers sway to the swinging rhythms. Abstract psychedelic visuals wash over Angelia Mahaney and Nina Kintsurashvili as they stand behind their laptops, mixing together a soulful, futuristic soundtrack for the latest night of their Femme Decks electronic music series.
The Midwestern United States is well-known worldwide for its regional music scenes and their influence on popular music at large. Detroit captivated the nation through Motown soul; Chicago’s unique soul and blues traditions impacted the sound of many British rock and roll acts, including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones; Minneapolis acts — Bob Dylan, musical chameleon Prince, hardcore punksters Hüsker Dü — brought a homespun uniqueness to their respective musical areas.
Equally as interesting — but somewhat lesser-known — is the Midwest’s integral role in the genesis of electronic dance music, better known now as EDM. Chicago is widely considered to be the birthplace of house music, which emerged from the ashes of disco, and Detroit pioneered techno in the mid-1980s. House and techno initially enjoyed only underground and club popularity in the U.S., but caused a sensation in the UK and continental Europe throughout the 1990s, with electronic singles regularly entering the mainstream pop music charts. It would take some 20 years before the same level of popularity would make it back to the U.S. through EDM in the 2010s, taking more queues from mainstream pop trends than from its underground forebears.
Iowa City reflects a diverse array of musical acts across its some dozen music venues, as well as throughout its vibrant DIY scene. While you’re more likely to hear mainstream top-40 pop and big-room EDM music coming out of the popular bars downtown, you’re guaranteed to hear jazz, folk, hip-hop, hardcore punk, soul and experimental indie rock acts performing live on any given night.
Gabe’s has been a particular haven for musical variety around town, primarily serving as a venue for indie rock and punk shows, but also hosting its weekly Soulshake shindigs on Friday nights, reggae events and hip-hop nights peppered throughout each month. Strangely missing from Gabe’s usual calendar, however, had been a regular night showcasing underground club music in the spirit of Chicago, Detroit and even New York’s close-knit electronic music scenes. Iowa City’s electronic scene is of course much smaller than in those cities — but in the past few months, a new event series has sprouted in the hopes of growing it.
Femme Decks, a new series showcasing electronic music curated by women, began in June of 2019, and has evolved steadily since its beginnings featuring a single DJ playing deep house. It now regularly invites multiple guest performers working in a wide variety of electronic music styles, including trance, UK garage and hard techno. Having performed at the series myself once, and as a regular attendee, I can say with confidence that each event is an exciting, original affair where you’re bound to hear something new. Some sounds are familiar; others test boundaries.
Mahaney, the local DJ who started Femme Decks, moved to town in 2016 from Fairfield, Iowa to complete her dance degree at the University of Iowa. A long-time lover of house and techno music, Mahaney wanted to help cultivate a stronger electronic music community out of frustration with its relatively small presence within the larger Iowa City music scene.
“I should just try to make this happen,” she remembers thinking.
Femme Decks grew out of Mahaney’s individual DJ sets at Gabe’s, but soon developed into a stronger concept as she brought on like-minded musical partners to join in her mission to build community.
“It’s all been an evolution,” Mahaney said. “The first time I DJed at Gabe’s was in June, and I didn’t DJ again until August. In August, I said, ‘okay, this is an event that I’m bringing together,’ and we called it ‘The Electronic Music Series.’”
When Mahaney brought Nina Kintsurashvili, a graduate student from Tbilisi, Georgia, on for the following event at Gabe’s in September, the branding of the series began to take shape.
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“I had been asking a bunch of people, ‘do you want to do this with me?’” Mahaney said, “and [Nina] was one of the people who said ‘yes,’ and she was the most excited about it out of anybody that I talked to.”
Kintsurashvili brought her own influences to her involvement with Femme Decks. Inspired by the recent techno-boom in her hometown of Tbilisi, as well as the iconic Berlin club Berghain, she has added an international perspective to the the series since joining Mahaney.
“That first month [Nina] was doing [Femme Decks] with me, I was like ‘wait, we’re both women DJs! That’s so weird!’ because at the time I didn’t know any other female DJs,” Mahaney said. But she added that the fact that they are both women DJs was coincidental in their choice for a name, and being women is not the main focus of the series.
“The initial idea for everything isn’t about us being women … The main mission is bringing a community together,” Mahaney said, adding, however, that she “would love to encourage more women to DJ in general, or come DJ at [Femme Decks] too.”
Kinstsurashvili said outright, “We are relentlessly searching for more women DJs.”
Mahaney does see potential in Femme Decks to inspire more women to pick up DJing, even if that’s only a side benefit of the series for her. “In general, people see [DJing] as a male-dominated industry,” Mahaney said. “If women were to say, ‘yeah, I can do this too; it’s not just for men,’ then that is an amazing thing to come out of [Femme Decks].” And those apprehensive about the technical skills of DJing need not worry: “I feel like it’s about taste, that’s what matters the most,” Mahaney said. “Anyone who has a passion for this, you can do it.”
Kintsurashvili agreed. “You don’t have to be too familiar with electronic music to realize that there are not enough women DJs and producers out there,” she said. “The good news is that globally there are more and more women who are starting to kick ass.”
Kintsurashvili cited Discwoman, a New York-based collective showcasing female-identified talent, as one of many recent platforms that supports women in the electronic music community and affords them increased visibility.
“Femme Decks is a good example of this happening in Iowa City as well, despite its small size,” she added.
But for Mahaney, the primary issue facing the series is building a crowd each night. “How can we get people to come out?” she asks herself. “It’s very specific here: the crowd, the way that people are drawn out for music and how people would be drawn out for something new.”
“Femme Decks is inspired by UK garage music, Chicago House, Detroit Techno, [the] Berghain sound and Georgian techno,” Kintsurashvili said. “Right now there is no such scene in Iowa City that plays this kind of music, apart from very few independent producers — who are doing an amazing job. But there is no constant stream of listeners for this kind of music. This is what Femme Decks is trying to bring to the music scene in Iowa City.”
Mahaney is hopeful: “I know that there are people who are interested because I’ve found them! I just haven’t found enough,” she said, adding, “but I feel like there’s so much potential.”
Although attendance remains an issue, Mahaney believes that Femme Decks has already found success.
“When I had this idea, I knew two people [in Iowa City] who liked electronic music, and in the last eight months, I’ve met so many more people,” Mahaney said.
Since their last event in December, Femme Decks has also brought charity into the equation, donating the proceeds of their events to the Emma Goldman Clinic of Iowa City, helping more than those belonging to Iowa City’s electronic music community.
Mahaney said that this is just the “tip of the iceberg” of what she wishes to accomplish with Femme Decks.
Some recent DIY events around Iowa City have made definitive progress toward helping to grow the town’s underground electronic music community, but with regards to the popular music venue circuit, progress has been considerably slower. Fortunately, Mahaney and Kintsurashvili are taking an important step forward with their Femme Decks series toward make this a reality, bringing a regular monthly event to a popular music venue in Iowa City, while still keeping the music and mood underground.
Femme Decks returns to Gabe’s on Thursday, Jan. 16 at 9:30 p.m. with guests Limit Infrared & Miss Conduct. Cover is $5, with all proceeds going to the Emma Goldman Clinic.