I moved to Cedar Falls, Iowa in the fall of 1986 to attend the University of Northern Iowa. It’s a college of about 12,000 students, nestled in the Northeast section of the state. During my first semester there, I befriended a fellow music lover with a very influential record collection. He was also involved with several musical outlets featuring some of the area’s most distinctive weirdos and, as a friend, I was obligated to attend at least a few of his shows.
At one Tuesday night gig with a low cover charge and a line-up of a half-dozen newly formed local bands, I obediently watched my friend’s band perform a lackluster set. While socializing with him afterwards, I was startled by the sounds of some righteous power chords and skewed arrangements coming from the stage. The music was both oddly familiar and strangely obtuse. It was the first time I ever saw House of Large Sizes and it wouldn’t be the last.
In fact, I’ve probably seen HOLS live more times than any other band in my life. It would be inaccurate to suggest that the reason why I’ve logged so many gigs with them is solely the result of hometown pride. While it is true that our mutual zip code did create ease of access, it was what they created musically that made me a repeat customer.
House of Large Sizes featured Dave Deibler on vocals and guitar, his (then) girlfriend Barb Schilf on bass and backing vocals, and drummer Dave Berg who also sang back up. I could have sworn I’d seen Berg in a much shittier band called Baboon Ranch before that first House gig, but I must have not held that factoid against his new partners. After all, a good drummer’s hard to find, and Cedar Falls is a small town.
They were probably three of the most homely-looking individuals (a fact that Deibler addressed in the lyrics of the title track of House’s second album, Heat Miser: “Lonely / I know where you’re coming from / Homely / Only a Mother could…love”) and their early shows were filled with that charming 80s post-punk angst fueled more from boredom than oppression. Indeed, their most notable refrains during this time had nothing to do with Reaganomics, but walking to school, math problems, and random quotes from overheard conversations.
As House practiced, they got better. In fact, they were better than what one would expect from a band from Iowa. Before long, this plain-clothed power trio started to sound like James Gang’s Thirds channeled through Minutemen’s What Makes A Man Start Fires?
I worked with Deibler at the public radio stations on campus; he spun records on the big-ass K.U.N.I. side while I did station breaks on the nearly automated, low-watt jazz side.
Occasionally, I’d walk over during his airshift and bug him because I didn’t have anything to do except switch program reels every hour or so. Dave was cordial and he played some pretty good stuff. Over the backdrop of some anonymous SST soundtrack, I confessed that I liked his band.
Dave Deibler in person is nothing like you’d expect a rock dude to be. He’s somewhat quiet and cautious with a sense of intentional reserve. But on stage while holding a Gibson SG, Deibler transforms into a figure that clearly has some pent up shit that he needs to work out.
Luckily for us, rock music is his therapy.
Eventually, more people started to notice House of Large Sizes until the shows got crowded, enabling the band to actually start to make a modest living playing rock and roll. Through low Iowa rents and extensive regional touring, HOLS found the means to enable them to quit classes at the University and the part-time gigs at Godfathers Pizza and focus on the band.
Dave and Barb got married (their own band played at the reception; it was one of the most memorable House shows ever) and around the same time a small independent label offered to release the band’s records.
Their debut One Big Cake contained a lifetime’s work of quirky classic rock riffs over ridiculously meticulous time signatures. The follow-up, Heat Miser, refined that sound to the point where the lines of influence were blurred; House of Large Sizes had begun to sound like no other band in America.
I once saw them headline a gig with Uncle Tupelo opening (this was pre-No Depression and the band’s first excursion into Iowa territory) where U.T. put on a tremendous show and the stakes were high for my hometown headliners. When House came on, Deibler graciously thanked the boys from Belleville and then proceeded to play an incendiary set unlike anything I’d ever seen from them. The audience began to bounce in unison, to the point where you could actually feel the floor bow and, from the downstairs bar directly below the stage, the ceiling began to sag with each movement that the crowd made from above. Uncle Tupelo rocked the standing-room-only crowd that night, but House Of Large Sizes put them in danger.
The band’s reputation was enough to get the attention of SST Records founding father Joe Carducci to mention them in his “state-of-the-rock-music union” essay, Rock & The Pop Narcotic. After calling their music “succinct dada approach to contemporary power trio dynamics,” Carducci presided over a track on HOLS’ next e.p., a near-perfect stopgap that featured the band’s best song, “Two Liter Man.”
All of this was enough for House to finally grab the attention of a major label. Album number three, the wonderfully titled My Ass-Kicking Life, was released on Columbia and I could see the pride in Deibler’s eyes when he showed me an advance copy of a 7″ single, sporting that mid-70s orange Columbia label.
As far as I could tell, the biggest benefit the label provided was to get their music on as bumpers for the show Entertainment Tonight. It was one of the most surreal experiences I ever had: sitting in my parent’s house, watching Mary Hart talk about a charity golf event and then hearing the familiar guitar chords of a band that lived down the street from me just a few years prior.
At that moment, I gave them away. I stopped going to House shows (the crowds continued to get more rambunctious while I continued to get older) and I prepared to become one of those fogies that reminds everyone that they saw them before the inevitable popularity explosion.
They never reached the heights that I thought they would, so I never got a chance to use my “I knew them when…” jive. House became a regular staple of the Midwestern indie network gaining enough notoriety that even my Father, a fairly dismal example of underground rock knowledge, had heard about them.
The band went through a revolving door of drummers after Dave Berg left in ’94, but they eventually found a reliably powerful trap player in Brent Hanson who propelled House into the twenty-first century.
But then in December of 2003, House of Large Sizes parked the van for good. After 17 years, Cedar Falls, Iowa’s second largest export called it quits, leaving a surprisingly consistent catalog in their wake. Deibler and Schilf now operate Mohair Pear, a vintage clothing store in Cedar Falls and they recently became parents.
So it was completely unexpected when it was announced that House Of Large Sizes were planning four performances at the end of this year in Des Moines, Iowa City, Cedar Falls, and Minneapolis.
I recently tracked Deibler down and asked him a few things about the upcoming shows:
GLONO: What prompted the reunion shows?
Deibler: I’m not sure. I was looking for a number in my cell, went past Brent’s (Hanson) name and pushed send. He answered and that was that.
In between working at the store and raising a little one, how do you find time to rehearse for the shows?
Barb and I usually practice around 11 at night, so there’s lots of yawning. Brent comes down from Minneapolis every so often and we practice at Mohair Pear after the store closes.
What skills did you learn from being in HOLS that you’ve applied to Mohair Pear?
People skills… Getting along with different personalities… When you really look at it, they’re both retail.
I just listened to One Big Cake a few days ago and was surprised at how well it stood up. What’s the album you’d like people to start with when examining the HOLS catalog for the first time and why?
To me it’s always the latest one because it’s the most accurate in regard to what the band sounds like. If you saw HOLS live, I’d start with the (2002) self-titled and work your way backward.
There seems to be a pattern of one-liners, common phrases, and random quotes that creep into your song lyrics. Was there a specific person or source that provided you with continual lyrical inspiration throughout the years?
There’s no single person…It’s the usual suspects, Bob Dylan and the Beatles early on, the Minutemen and the Pixies later. It’s mainly stuff going on around you…those overheard conversations. I love it when that happens. We were in NYC and a guy walked past us and said “If I had a pair of shoes like that I’d wear ’em everyday.” A light bulb went off and I just thought, “Hey, thanks man!”
Today’s musical landscape seems like a positive environment for a band that wants to subscribe to the D.I.Y. ethos. Is it easier for today’s young upstarts or harder?
Both. I don’t think a band that’s starting out could make a living the way we did for fifteen years. HOLS was our job. When I was a kid, you had to really work to find out anything about a band. Now there’s just so much stuff, it’s like a blizzard. Too much information! It all blends together. A young friend of ours is in a band that’s talking to some labels and the A & R guy told them to “get their Myspace numbers up”. I thought to myself: “Same old bullshit!” The fact that most people really don’t buy music anymore is probably the biggest difference between the mid-eighties and now.
There are many examples of bands with major label horror stories, yet House seemed to escape from their major label experience relatively unscathed.
Yeah, we had a good time with Columbia. They never suggested that we should change what we were doing. And some of the advice they gave I probably would have done well to follow. It was difficult for them because we never had a manager, which is essential at that level.
What’s the worst show you ever played?
Probably some horrible in-store piece of crap. There’s one in Portland, Oregon that stands out as terrifically bad. I’ll stand by the liner notes on Little HOLS On The Prairie and say again that the 1994 Halloween show in Davenport, Iowa at Palmer Chiropractic College was amazingly terrible. There was a guy dressed like the Grim Reaper who seriously wanted to kick my ass. The promoter told me after the show she booked us to piss every one off. Hey, it worked!
What was the biggest misconception about Iowa that you encountered on the road?
That Iowa is a southern state. Someone remarked that we didn’t have accents! That was a long time ago. People seem to have a much better idea of where and what Iowa is these days.
Is anything new going on the setlist or is this a trip down memory lane?
It’s the set from when we stopped….You know heavy on “Self-titled” material. We are working on a couple of new ones but if I went to these shows and didn’t get the “greatest hits”, I’d be pissed!
“Two Liter Man” may be the best HOLS song ever. Just remember that when you’re putting together the set list.
I think “Two-Liter Man” is one of the best HOLS songs too. John Svec did a great job of capturing us and how we sounded then. The song was like a week old at that point. Most of the lyrics were improvised in the studio.
So who’s watching the kid while Mom and Dad rock?
Grandma and Grandpa.
And what’s planned after the shows?
• December 28-The Picador, Iowa City, Iowa
• December 29-People’s, Des Moines, Iowa
• December 30-The Triple Rock Social Club, Minneapolis, Minnesota
• December 31-The Reverb, Cedar Falls, Iowa
MP3s (courtesy of What Are Records?):
• House Of Large Sizes – “Lightning Rod Salesman” from HOUSE OF LARGE SIZES (2002)
• House Of Large Sizes – “Lazy” from GLASS COCKPIT (1997)
• House Of Large Sizes – “Heat Miser” from HEAT MISER (1990)
• House of Large Sizes – “Hard to Get Along With” from NOT FOR SALE (1998)
• House of Large Sizes – “I’m My Own Grandpa” from LITTLE HOLS (1997)
• House of Large Sizes – “Pincher (Pincher) Martin” from I.O.W.A. (2000)
• House of Large Sizes – “What if There’s a Fire” from ONE BIG CAKE (1989)