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A Musical Life

A Musical Life: Daniel Davis

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Kerry Burrow
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Daniel Davis is the founder of ICT Fest, This Ain’t Heaven Recording Concern and has performed in a variety of music projects, including Yamoto, Ricky Fitts, and Living Ghost. He lives in Wichita with his wife and daughters. 

By his early twenties Daniel Davis had become one of the most influential Wichita musicians of his generation: He was a member of the band Ricky Fitts, an indefatigable quartet that played anywhere at any time for seemingly any reason at all, he booked a seemingly endless series of all-ages shows at venues such as the now defunct Eagles Lodge on North Broadway. He also founded ICT Fest—a multi-day event that brings in bands from all over the country and which is now over a decade old.

But a few years ago Davis faced a major life change. “I had a baby,” he says, “and didn’t have the outlet I had when I was young.” Gone, at least for the time being, were the days when he could juggle multiple musical projects, tours, and weekly live performances. But one thing didn’t change: “I have an unending need to be productive with something [related] to music.”

In a classic case of right place/right time, Davis discovered that the non-profit organization he works for was ridding itself of what it deemed “dead media.”

“To me,” he says, “that was a pile of gold—thousands of blank tapes, cassette labels, blank CDs, all the things that you would need to start a label.”

That was in 2013, since then Davis has issued more than 80 releases via his This Ain’t Heaven Recording Concern (TAHRC). His own projects, including the now-defunct $Badger (pronounced Money Badger) with his former Ricky Fitts bandmate Matthew Wiseman and Living Ghost, are represented as are a wide array of local, regional, and international acts. He also oversees the recorded legacy of his older brother, Matt, who passed away unexpectedly in 2003.

It was during that era that Wichita’s all ages music scene was in one of its vital hours. Encouraged by fellow musicians such as Kevin Ware and Steve Turner of the band Nowhere Fast as well as Adam Phillips and Les Easterby of And Academy, Davis learned the ropes of booking and promoting live shows.

“They all set an excellent example of what kids who are bored and have absolutely no infrastructure and nothing fun—that’s legal—to do can [make happen]. They showed me that you can be part of something really excellent,” Davis says. “We were obsessed with playing music.”

Many of the shows that Davis and others booked took place at venues that were not intended as live music performance spaces. Venues such as Lee Shiney Gallery, Parrot-fa-Nalia, and, later, Eternal Speed and Iron, the Funky Foot, and Headway Skate Park sprang up across the city.

“It was simple. You had to find a sound system, make a flier, those are things that are exciting for someone who’s young and full of energy,” he recalls. “Even if it was the same 30-40 kids at all the shows, we continued to make it happen.”

He adds, “This was all happening outside the view of the city. There was no process to vet these venues or pass them by city inspectors. Because we weren’t that visible, we could do what we wanted. I think that maybe because of what we did there are a lot more obstacles now in finding a space that’s not just habitable but easy.”

Davis’ brother came to town from Iowa with his band The Vida Blue (later named Ten Grand) and paved the way for other acts. The adage, “If you’re not playin’ you’re payin’,” meant that a number of touring acts would pick up so-called “gas money” gigs in the Air Capital, playing venues that were often smaller—and decidedly more unique—than normal as a way to avoid unnecessary expenses. Indiana’s Murder By Death—today, indie rock royalty—and Iowa’s William Elliott Whitmore forged strong ties with the city and left music lovers with a story or two to tell.

“We got ambitious,” Davis says. “I remember one Murder By Death show where the guy who ran the venue came running to me and said, ‘Help me lock these doors! If the Fire Marshal comes here, there’s too many people in this building! No one else can come in!’ When you’re 18 or 19 and can do something like that, it feels really awesome.”

That era also helped plant the seed for TAHRC. Numerous bands had released limited run CDs, LPs or singles in the past, but copies of those recordings frequently vanished as quickly as they came. Before Chris Trenary opened what was known as the Dead Canary record store, there was little to nothing in the way of places outside of shows where one could purchase local music.

Moreover, there’s been little recorded material that’s been properly preserved. Davis points to the 2009 release from the Chicago label Numero Group which spotlighted Smart’s Palace—a venue in the late 1960s that was owned by one African-American family and gave rise to a music store and record label. Had the Chicago imprint not stepped in, that music might have slipped through the cracks of time.

“I started thinking about the bands that really inspired me,” Davis says. “And Academy, Nowhere Fast, there were tons of excellent bands. They recorded stuff. But my copies of those albums are scratched, or I have a CD-R that’s been bleached by the sun. That music is gone. With cassettes becoming popular again, I was able to make sure that people could hear some of that music again. In other cities, you can find out what was important in the early 1990s by going to the local record store and buying the records people were listening to back then. We should also have that.”

He likens releasing new recordings to the experience of playing shows with bands he likes—if he is no longer as able to put together a show or offer a place to sleep for weary travelers he can offer to release their work and bring it to an appreciative audience.

“The beautiful thing about art is that people who love it are ravenous,” he says, “they want to find something new. I’m impressed with the people who have come to the website and know nothing about Wichita, nothing about me, and are just there based on the merit of the stuff we’re offering.”

No matter how many people come to his site or buy the music available there, he says, the art endures. “People play music and do excellent stuff around here in spite of attention. So much excellent art has been made in this town just for its own sake. Just because people were satisfied to make it and satisfied that people in their community got to see it.”