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Crystal City's New Record 'Three Dimensionality' Tests New Sound, Strategy For Song Writing

Shadow Fox Photography
Sam Drella and Dave Helmer of the band Crystal City met 10 years ago in Marshalltown and are now releasing their third record.

Serious Music People: there’s another Sam and Dave that you should know about.

Cue Iowa City-based Sam Drella and Dave Helmer. The pair make up the band Crystal City, and their new record is called “Three Dimensionality.” (When we say album, we mean that literally; you can order it on vinyl from their website.)

After being introduced by a mutual friend at an American Legion hall where Helmer was the opening act, Drella and he have spent the last 10 years making music together. Their partnership has been a natural fit since their first date when they recorded vocals for Helmer’s song “Fancyin’ You.”

They took the name Crystal City from Gram Parson’s “Las Vegas” upon moving from Marshalltown to Iowa City in 2013.

“Why have one vocal when you can have two?” he says about the band's Parsons and Emmylou Harris inspired vocals.

Helmer describes “Three Dimensionality” as a “right turn” from previous releases, with rock, acoustic, country and jazz influences. Crystal City remains a duo at heart, but they did expand to a full band for this record.

“I tried to let things develop naturally and didn't control much regarding the ‘sound’ of the record,” Helmer says. “In the past I had been more controlling about the sound of things; that wasn't the case for this record. It gets tiring always trying to be in control, and we put our trust in our friends who are such capable musicians and could interpret the songs and take them to the next level.”

Helmer also says that during the making of this record, he made it a point to be a listener as well as the band's lead man. 

"My friends would tell me about what they'd been dealing with in everyday life, or even personally just keeping up with the news," he explains. "It all just seeps in, and I'm writing about it without even realizing it really."

Seven of the album’s 12 songs were recorded at Flat Black Studios by Luke Tweedy, with the rest of the record recorded as a DIY experiment at Helmer’s home.

For the first time on a Crystal City record, Helmer and Drella recruited Iowa City musicians for the purpose of recording, including guitarist Dan Padley and bassist Blake Shaw, both staples of the Iowa City jazz scene, who have played with Elizabeth Moen and Dana Telsrow, among others.

Max Lipnick, of the band Flash In a Pan, plays mandolin on “You In The Morning,” which is a bouncy rock song with a bluegrass influence.

Iowa songwriter Dave Zollo, who contributes his unmistakable piano sound to three songs on the record, also plays on “You In The Morning” with his longtime collaborator and drummer, Brian Cooper.

Iowa City musicians Andy Parrott and Sean Seaton round out the lineup for “Three-Dimensionality,” along with Crystal City’s resident drummer Dan Peterson and resident guitarist Randall Davis.

The styles and instincts of the musicians that contributed to the record definitely make it a unique listen.

Helmer says that Davis was noodling around on baritone after listening to an early recording of the track “Cigarettes for Breakfast” and is now responsible for the baritone guitar part in that song.

“It was really great to play live and capture the sound and feel that we get playing with our friends,” says Helmer. “It was as easy as asking all of our friends to hang out together, and lucky for me they all said yes. Because everyone is very busy with life and other musical projects, Crystal City at the heart is Sam and me, but we will never limit the sound to the two of us. We understand the value of getting people together and seeing what happens.”

Crystal City is playing a record release party at The Mill in Iowa City on May 18th with Cedar County Cobras, and they will also play this year’s 80/35.

“We couldn't be more honored to be at 80/35 representing Iowa and Marshalltown as well. We can't forget our roots and where we came from! We are really excited to play songs from ‘Three-Dimensionality’ on a big stage through a massive PA,” Helmer says about playing the 80/35 stage. He and Drella make it a point to go every year. “Should be a magical weekend!”

Tony Dehner is a Studio One Host