Daytrotter founder, Sean Moeller heps Possessed by Paul James (aka Konrad Wert) carry his equipment after a studio session in Rock Island, Illinois.

How An Indie Idea Is Sparking A Renaissance In A Midwestern Town

There’s no sign. Just an anonymous doorway on a glum street in downtown Rock Island, Illinois, wedged between Huckleberry’s Italian Restaurant and the boxy home of the local CBS affiliate.

Behind that door lies Daytrotter studios, a musical mecca of sorts.

Walk up the dingy carpeted steps, past the Pabst Blue Ribbon mini fridge and the pile of funky 1970s albums. Move through the hallway plastered with signed posters from bands well-known (Death Cab For Cutie), to the not-so-well-known (Eustace the Dragon) and the super enthusiastic (To: Daytrotter: Thank you for allowing us to trot into your world!!! Party Hard!!! Love, Andrew WK”).

Daytrotter founder, Sean Moeller, left, and illustrator, Johnnie Cluney, in their office.

This is where the magic happens, where bands from across the world drop in to an Iowa town and record stripped-down, honest versions of themselves. There are no overdubs. What they put on tape is what you get.

Nearly 17 sessions a week go up on the Daytrotter site, each with meticulous nerd notes describing the harmonic effect of the band, and accompanied by signature illustrations. And each week, nearly 200,000 fans visit the site hungry for its latest uploads.

Daytrotter recordings are a modern-day version of the British Peel Sessions, a coming together of off-the-cuff charm and raw musical talent. Started in 2006 by Sean Moeller and a few friends in the fittingly unassuming Quad Cities area, the studio is set to record its 5000th session in the next few weeks.

Members of the band, Kopecky, record a session at Daytrotter’s Horseshack studio in Rock Island, Illinois on Friday, April 17, 2015.

The phenomenon exists simply because Moeller had an idea: He wanted to let the world know about bands that he thought “were better than most of the ones (he read about) in magazines.” From there it naturally followed that the bands should be invited to sing into vintage recording equipment at a no-frills studio in a town most had never heard of.

I’m here to understand Daytrotter’s unique allure — what is it that attracts musical geniuses, small and big, to this tiny studio? And relatedly, has the studio helped revitalize the fading star of a once brawny American Midwestern town?

Davenport and Bettendorf in Southeastern Iowa and Rock Island and Moline in northwest Illinois make up the Quad Cities, a marriage of geographical convenience that coalesced more than 150 years ago around their common identities as Mississippi River towns. In their early 20th century heyday, they lured such major employers as John Deere and Alcoa. But, like so many Midwestern towns, in the late 70s and early 1980s, things got rough in the Quad, as International Harvester pulled out, Deere made huge cutbacks and Caterpillar closed its Bettendorf factory.

Buildings in Davenport, Iowa, seen from the Government Bridge which spans the Mississippi River.
Men fish on the banks of the Mississippi River in Davenport, Iowa.

However, the cities have recently began picking themselves up. There’s now an acclaimed art museum, the Figge, a new arena, the iWirelessCenter, which is luring tech companies by the dozens, and of course, Daytrotter.

To me, the story of the Quad Cities hits close to home: I live in an area much like this one (Cincinnati, Ohio). It, too, is in the midst of a resurgence — replacing abandoned downtown storefronts with beautiful condos, elegant eateries, hipster boutiques and art studios.

Together, these two narratives — of a quirky studio’s ascendant acclaim despite its location, and a formerly industrial city’s attempt to reclaim some lost sheen — feel uniquely millennial and specific to a changing economic landscape. It’s a story that’s being repeated in cities across the nation, and I wanted to capture this butterfly moment mid-transformation.

When I walk in, Moeller is sitting at his laptop in a windowless office. It looks like a freshman dorm room that never got fully unpacked.

Sean Moeller, founder of Daytrotter.

“Some of the things I get most excited about are the things I find myself,” says the low-key co-founder of Daytrotter, of the science behind curating acts from the pile of press releases, calls from managers and word-of-mouth recommendations.

Yet, for Moeller, the studio’s success is about more than just personal recognition. It’s about the fact that Daytrotter is contributing to his hometown getting off its heels and back into the game. It’s the knowledge that he convinced bands like Wilco and The National to take a detour from their schedules, pop into his studio, and discover what his town has to offer.

(Left to right) Scott Heiner and Scott Leahy of El May, record a session at Daytrotter’s Horseshack studio in Rock Island.

“It’s brought so many people to Rock Island who would have never, ever come here,” says the former journalist. “You’ll find people willing to book a weekend jaunt where they’ll drive from New York City, maybe play a show along the way but this is the destination.”

Once they arrive in Davenport, he sends them to different venues around town, leading to an emergent music scene in the Quad Cities.

“He’s been bringing bands here for years and filling a void that no other venue does,” says Benjamin Fawks, 32-year-old co-owner of Rozz Tox, a narrow lounge with red velvet curtains that plays host to the well-known Moeller Mondays.

Members of the band, Kopecky, hang out in the lounge area of Daytrotter’s Horseshack studio.

Occasionally, he also offers free memberships to Daytrotter to all Quad Citizens.

Moeller caters to a hip, young and discerning crowd; and, by finding little-known bands and setting them up in unique, intimate settings, he’s bringing his neighborhood to the edge of cool.

“Sean was one of the first people to come say ‘hi’ to us,” explains Mitch Dettman, 39, who, along with his wife, Kayla, owns a brand-new skater-themed shoe and apparel shop in downtown Davenport. “I think what he’s doing is really drawing the creative class down here.”

Writer Gil Kaufman interviews Kayla and Mitch Dettman, owners of The Full Kit in Davenport, Iowa, on Saturday, April 18, 2015.

The couple excitedly point to vacant spaces all around that they say will soon be filled with bars, apartments and other retail shops. “Everyone down here has the same goal… to work together to revitalize downtown,” says Dettman.

Over the course of an afternoon I saw, firsthand, the lengths bands will go to get their ‘Trotter sessions. As El May, a relatively undiscovered L.A. band, sweated through the end of a set they squeezed in between shows in bigger Midwestern towns, a tired-looking Kopecky hauled their gear up three flights to plug in before schlepping back for a show across the river.

El May, a band from Los Angeles, California, records a session at Daytrotter’s Horseshack studio in Rock Island.

“During middle school, Daytrotter was just the thing, it was the cool thing,” says Nashville-based Kopecky’s lead guitarist Steven Holmes, 26, sitting in the hallway under some water-damaged ceiling tiles as he waits for the session to start. “All my favorite bands had Daytrotter sessions! It was like a bucket list thing.”

At another Daytrotter studio across town, one-man San Antonio band Possessed by Paul James (aka Konrad Wert) is stomping on a wooden plank and sawing away on a viola as his Appalachian punk folk hollers get recorded to old-school 1/4 reel-to-reel tape.

Possessed by Paul James (aka Konrad Wert) records a Daytrotter session in Rock Island, Illinois.

“Thanks for coming,” Moeller says to Wert as the session winds down. “No, thank you for having me,” the part-time musician/special-ed teacher slings back in his earthy Texas twang.

Of course, there are other establishments contributing to QC’s renaissance. Hotel Blackhawk is a bright spot in the otherwise mostly industrial horizon near the edge of downtown Davenport. The 100-year old hotel received a $46-million facelift back in 2010, and has since jumpstarted downtown Davenport’s nightlife.

Hotel Blackhawk in Davenport, Iowa.

“Before (the renovation and reopening), it was vacant around there at night and now it’s the center point of downtown… people are flocking to (the area),” says voluble four-term Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba. (Disclosure: Blackhawk is an Autograph Collection hotel.)

The hotel has hosted everyone from Hillary Clinton to President Obama and President Nixon (there’s even a “Nixon Suite”) over the years. Given that every presidential candidate will be barnstorming Iowa relentlessly, it’s likely to get a lot of attention in the next 16 months.

The lobby of the historic Hotel Blackhawk in Davenport, Iowa.

Just blocks up from the hotel is another Davenport success story: Screen printer David Balluff and partner milliner Lopeti Etu run a charmingly quirky boutique/studio called L&D15.

Etu was finishing up a “cocktail fascinator” hat for a Kentucky Derby client, adding a giant lace grasshopper to a Panama brim hat lined with silk and topped by puffy blue cotton balls. “My mom used to joke that she and her friends had to go to Chicago to find interesting and unique stuff,” says Balluff, proudly showing off one of his screen-printed Pro-Jedi shirts over blue camo-patterned jeans. “We want to change that.”

(Left to right) Lopeti Etu holds a “cotcktail facinator” hat he is making for a client attending the Kentucky Derby as co-owner David Balluff looks on at their sotre, L&D15 in Davenport, Iowa, on Saturday, April 18, 2015.

Closing out the night a few blocks away from the hotel, I drive by the city’s gleaming minor league baseball field, the River Bandits’ Modern Woodmen Park. It affords a spectacular view from its spot under the Centennial Bridge on the banks of the Mississippi River.

Stopping on the bridge on a warm spring night, watching the Ferris Wheel next to the ballpark, I think about the changes coming to Davenport: a cruise port to replace the aging riverfront casino, and maybe artisans and gelato stores and young couples riding City Bikes.

A runner crosses the Rock Island Centennial Bridge which spans the Mississippi River. In the distance is Modern Woodmen Park, home of the Quad-City River Bandits baseball team and the city of Davenport, Iowa on Friday, April 17, 2015.

The next morning, I walk two blocks to one of the city’s other gems: Ragged Records, which has been in its current location for 5 years, or long enough to see the neighborhood completely change over. Old school in every way, the store was swamped when we visited on Record Store Day.

“[Daytrotter] has been great for business because bands like records. They come through town, hang around the store and look around and shop,” says owner Bob Harrington, who has a permanent grin on his face as lines wind through and around the aisles.

People line up to get into Ragged Records for their Record Store Day event on Saturday, April 18, 2015 in Davenport, Iowa.
Micah Gentry, 16, left, and Alexis Bohm, 18, look at records during Record Store Day at Ragged Records in Davenport, Iowa, on Saturday, April 18, 2015.

Ultimately, Daytrotter works because it is breathtaking — and perhaps rare — in its simplicity; in its unpretentiousness and in its uncomplicated love for good music, new or old, on-trend or not.

Its success has caused a chain-reaction in this town: one good idea has invited another, and another, and another. Everyone wants to turn their town into a cool place to live, and visit, and in the Quad Cities it feels like they’re doing it.

“I’m so proud of this thing we built, I know it can be more than that,” Moeller says, thinking about how his seed of an idea has grown into other Daytrotter studios around the country and the world and might spread further to a live performance space in his hometown.

(Left to right) Daytrotter founder Sean Moeller and audio engineer, Ian Harris work on a session in Rock Island, Illinois on Friday, April 17, 2015.

“It’s nice to be the little quiet thing that keeps rolling along and doing cool things,” he says. “You want to just keep building on it.”

Note: The Daytrotter studios are not open to public.
Words: Gil Kaufman | Photography: John Richard

The Autograph Collection is part of the Marriott International portfolio.