By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Mostly, people here live the good life. Shops close on Sundays. Pedestrians proudly wear their guts and smiles. The skyline implies an operational lack of irony: The local convenience-store chain goes by the name Kum & Go; the tallest building downtown is a beige-gray box built for the Woodmen Insurance Company, and though that name screams out from the top of it in a clunky sans-serif font, locals do not bat an eyelash.
Guilelessness can be a plus for cultivating an indie-rock scene. Indie rock is certainly not known for its financial rewards, so ideals and starry-eyed optimism are helpful. But these ideals have taken root previously in Omaha, and given birth to aesthetic horrors. It is, for instance, birthplace to 311, bland early adapters of the rap-metal sound. And then there is Mannheim Steamroller. The city’s most notable indie-label export, Mannheim is a neoclassical electronic group fronted by Chip Davis, a former junior high music teacher. Davis calls it “18th-century classical rock” — sonatas arranged for synthesizers and intended for soft-rock radio. Mannheim’s early albums on his American Gramaphone label revolutionized the world of hi-fi test records, and today Davis is infamous for a series of million-selling New Age Christmas albums.
To understand the hows and whys of Saddle Creek, I traveled to the city’s Benson neighborhood, where the label’s five regular employees work out of a former stereo shop. Benson has a reputation as a hive of quasi-bohemian bars and shops, yet on this pleasant late-summer Saturday evening, the neighborhood was desolate. Turned out it was the start of the college-football season. Everyone was inside, watching the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers’ first game against Oklahoma State. As I was buzzed into the storefront, a small pack of drunken 30-somethings passed by, dressed in red, the school color. One of them screamed, “Go Huskers!”
Inside, a skeleton crew — Jeff Tafolla, 26, and Cursive bassist Matt Maginn, 29 — were using their weekend to catch up on some office work. The room looked like the headquarters of a faded dot-com. The desks held old iMacs, and the walls were covered in tour posters for the label’s previous dozen releases. Maginn wore khakis, Doc Martens and a pair of oval glasses flattened at the ends. He was genial yet reserved. At breaks in conversation, the bottom of his face would draw into a smile, and he would utter a series of short laughs. I asked Maginn what accounted for Saddle Creek’s unique setup and everyone’s loyalty to the cause.
“Let me put it this way,” Maginn said. “I recently found a picture of me and Robb at my first communion. Me and Tim [Kasher] have known each other since we were 4 years old, and most of us are between the ages of 25 and 29. If you think about it for a second, you’ll be able to figure out that was the split between seniors and freshmen.” Indeed, Saddle Creek’s core participants are a tiny group of friends who attended Creighton Prep School together.
Tafolla, a bit younger, slimmer and dreamier, interjected, “I’m a soph.”
“Heh, heh, heh,” said Maginn.
“Frankly, there wasn’t much else for creative people to do other than stick together,” said Tafolla. “The next closest city is two hours away, in Des Moines. We’re eight from Chicago, six to Minneapolis and four to Kansas City. The only big industries are telemarketing, meatpacking and the cattle trade. The big employers are Union Pacific railroad, Mutual of Omaha Insurance and ConAgra.”
“And then there’s Mannheim Steamroller,” added Maginn. “You ever hear of the Steamroller? They actually own their own mastering complex, called Studio B. We do a lot of work there.”
I gave him a disbelieving look but was quickly silenced.
“Chip Davis is a friend of ours,” he said.
There are other factors, beyond the presence of Chip Davis, that have made Omaha a hospitable home for an indie-rock collective. Its location in the center of the Midwest makes it equally convenient for the cattle trade and the touring musician. And accommodations are cheap — $100,000 for a three-bedroom ranch house.
“Most of us are still just scraping by,” said Tafolla. “The only real full-timers are Conor and the Faint, and then there are a lot of people that don’t have jobs but should.”
In many ways, the scene still exists as much in the imagination of its teenage fans and the media as it does in the real world. Case in point is how the Saddle Creek story has made its way out.
“The Omaha press kind of jumped the bandwagon,” said Maginn. “Cursive was in The New York Times before we were in the neighborhood papers — the Omaha Weekly Reader, the Omaha World-Herald. I’ll give you an example of how it usually works. At one point, I sent an odd Cursive photo to Rolling Stone. It was a bit embarrassing. I was grabbing my crotch and whatnot. But I was like, whatever, Rolling Stone is running it, my grandmother won’t see. But then the World-Herald just scanned in the picture and ran it on Easter Sunday, and I’m like, shit.”