One of Iowa’s favorite bands is celebrating 25 years (and doesn't plan to stop making music any time soon)
Co-founders Jason Walsmith and Mike Butterworth discuss the band celebrating 25 years in 2018. Wochit
It’s a Friday afternoon on Welch Avenue in 1993 and Tom Zmolek’s in a pinch.
He needs a group to play his weekly “Friday After Class” series at People’s Bar and Grill, the now-defunct Ames music club he owned and operated. Students would soon be flocking from campus to kick the weekend off with live music ... and he had none to offer.
Zmolek remembered in his moment of need that one of his barbacks, Mike Butterworth, had been pleading for a slot on stage with his songwriting partner, Jason Walsmith.
So, he decided to take a chance on the kid.
“Mike happened to be there,” Zmolek recalled. “I said, ‘OK, this is your break. Go get your guitar and get your buddy. You’re on.’”
And The Nadas was born.
“They slayed it,” Zmolek said. “That following summer, Jason and Mike played every Wednesday night.”
One of Iowa’s most recognized groups, the “Walk Away” folk rock band celebrates 25 years of heartland songwriting in 2018, a year that welcomes band co-founders Butterworth and Walsmith into the Iowa Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame.
An Iowa music staple, The Nadas took what they learned at People’s and brought it to famed clubs like CBGB in New York City and the Viper Lounge in Los Angeles, crediting the Iowans living in each city they played for growing what would be a fan base that’s stuck with the band for nearly a quarter-century.
“Iowa has really given us our career,” Walsmith said. “Whether you talk about playing in Los Angeles or Phoenix or New York City … it’s Iowa that has made that possible.”
From People’s to CBGB
The Nadas started as two Iowans looking for a creative outlet. Butterworth, raised on Tom Petty and the airwaves of KUOO in his native Spirit Lake, wanted to sound like Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, the top acts of the time. Walsmith, a photographer and Des Moines native, wanted to tell stories in his songs, a la Indigo Girls and America.
They “eventually” found the middle, Walsmith jokes.
“We’re dialing it in,” he said.
The college duo played coffee shops and fraternity parties in Ames, inevitably driving down Iowa’s highways to debut the show on other campuses: University of Iowa, University of Northern Iowa, Drake University, Simpson College … and the list goes on.
“We had a tape with five songs and people would mail that tape to friends at their schools and that’s how viral worked in those days,” Butterworth said, laughing. “By snail mail.”
This led to shows in Chicago, Omaha, Denver and along both coasts. The Nadas’ touring schedule would snowball, in 1998 and 1999, into 275 gigs in a calendar year. They'd cold-call venues and trade shows with other touring acts in hopes of breaking into a new city.
“(One promoter) only took booking calls at 2 a.m. on Tuesdays for an hour,” Walsmith said.
Through the road, record sales and spins on college radio, the group earned enough money to afford a tour bus — a monumental accomplishment for any independent act.
Walsmith said they bought it off eBay for about $60,000. The van’s previous owner? Meat Loaf (the “Bat out of Hell” guy, not the blue plate special).
“It had three million miles (on it),” he recalled.
A do-it-yourself ethos fuels The Nadas’ long-running success. The band started its own record label, Authentic Records, and independently moved about 200,000 of its own records in the 1990s and 2000s.
That label expanded in the 2000s to release a few dozen records from The Nadas and groups close to the band.
“We had all of the things in place,” Walsmith said, “the people, distribution … we just decided to start helping friends put out records.”
Authentic still exists as a channel to release Nadas material, which it did earlier this year: “One Louder,” the band’s 11th studio album.
It’s a different record, the duo explained, because it didn’t come with a self-induced pressure they’d faced on past albums. It wouldn’t be uncommon in the early- and mid-2000s for The Nadas to spend months recording. They’d capture each instrument individually in hopes of producing a clean, crisp single that’d attract radio play.
“There was way more expectation of perfection,” Walsmith said. “We felt that pressure and it just didn’t feel right,” Walsmith said.
Butterworth added: “The technology is available to do all that. Just 'cause you can doesn’t mean you should.”
“One Louder,” on the contrary, was tracked live on the studio floor in a week. It’s cliche, Walsmith admits, but he calls it the best Nadas album to-date.
“That’s what part of why this record felt so good,” Walsmith said. “The authenticity is there.”
And it’s still fun.
The band now plays 60 to 75 shows a year, including upcoming appearances at Hinterland Music Festival and the Iowa State Fair. Fans shouldn’t expect that to change any time soon.
“You see all these bands that break up and get back together … we’ve had several conversations where we’re like, ‘we're not gonna do that,’” Walsmith said. “As long as it’s fun, we're always gonna do it.”
See The Nadas in Iowa
Aug. 4 at Hinterland Music Festival in St. Charles
Aug. 10 at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines
Aug. 23 at Big Grove Brewing in Iowa City
Sept. 21 at Wooly's in Des Moines
Oct. 6 at Jasper Winery in Des Moines
Nov. 3 at Prairie Meadows Casino in Altoona
Find more information on Nadas music and tour dates at thenadas.com.