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Uniphonics keep movin’ at their own pace

The Uniphonics, IPR's Artists of the Month for April, perform in IPR's studios.
IPR/Tony Dehner
The Uniphonics, IPR's Artists of the Month for April, perform in IPR's studios.

Earlier this month, the long-running Iowa City band The Uniphonics made their first ever appearance at the Mission Creek Festival, playing Saturday afternoon at Big Grove Brewery, a lucky alignment of scheduling stars for Mission Creek fans.

In the words of IPR's Samantha McIntosh, "[They] got the Big Grove crowd grooving with original tunes like 'Iowa City' (fitting) and soul covers like 'Be Thankful for What You Got.'"

Nowadays, the seven members of The Uniphonics are spread across four different cities in Iowa, and each have several other musical projects, in addition to families and day jobs. As a result, the band only plays about 4-5 shows a year.

“We’ve got members living in Des Moines, Quad Cities, Cedar Rapids, and Iowa City,” said Forrest Heusinkveld, drummer for The Uniphonics who also raps on many of the band’s songs. “Having people spread out everywhere, and everybody’s got their own lives and families and other bands, it’s kind of nice to play five big shows or festival slots per year.”

The Uniphonics did have a tour planned following the release of their self-titled album, which was in February of 2020. “It unfortunately came out at the worst possible time,” said Heusinkveld. “Our entire tour got canceled, and nobody can do anything for two years all of a sudden.”

The newish album: The Uniphonics

The newish album, called simply The Uniphonics, was the band’s first album in 10 years and third release overall. It’s also the first Uniphonics album to feature vocalists Nassor Cooper and Bethann Heidgerken, both of whom have been with the band for several years now. Original saxophone player Ben Pierce also performs on this record, but he’s since moved to Portland and has been replaced by Eddie McKinley, one of Heusinkveld’s bandmates in another Iowa band, the Diplomats of Solid Sound.

If you're into soulful vocals, guitar solos, and expert musicianship with a bit of attitude, all of that and more can be found here. The album also includes a couple of my personal favorite Uniphonics songs, "One Way To Know" and "Passing Me By," along with a few others that I'd first heard when the band performed live on Studio One in 2013. Ten years later, it's great to finally have these songs on an album.

The Uniphonics is a tour de force, with plenty of moments to shine for all three of the band’s vocalists, as well as Pierce and guitarist Craig Heidgerken. It’s an effortless-sounding blend of soul, funk, jazz, and hip-hop, all styles of music the band has been performing together and individually since they first started in 2007.

Heusinkveld, Heidgerken and Pierce were all playing together in a band while they were students in the jazz department at Kirkwood Community College. One Wednesday night, they managed to catch Derek Thorn, a.k.a. MC Animosity, performing at a jam session at the Yacht Club in Iowa City.

“We sort of had a live rap/hip-hop/jazz/funk group, but I’m not the MC that Derek is,” said Heusinkveld. “So we saw him go up and freestyle, and we were like ‘Whoa!’ Nobody in Iowa’s doing what he’s doing.”

Thorn already knew his future bandmates by reputation as well. He’d already become friends with bassist Ryan Casteel, whom Heusinkveld claims “knows every song that was ever recorded.”

“(Ryan said to me) ‘There’s a drummer who can rap! We should form a band with a drummer who can rap!’ And I was like ‘Sounds dope!’” said Thorn. “I wasn’t thinking of being in a band like that, but with The Roots being renowned, and the idea of a drummer who can rap, it was so enticing.”

This led to Thorn and Casteel joining the band for a rehearsal. “When we came together, the energy was right!” said Thorn. “It was really incredible.”

That rehearsal was on May 1, 2007, and less than a month later, The Uniphonics were playing their first show. They’d made connections with the Iowa City band Euforquestra (now based in Colorado), who invited them to enter a “battle of the bands” they were hosting. The Uniphonics won the competition, earning them the honor of playing at the Camp Euforia festival that summer. The Uniphonics released their debut EP two years later, and the full-length Crawl in 2010.

Rehearsing across cities

“When we came into it, it was never like ‘this is a professional band.’ This was just a band that was doing the music we loved to do,” said Thorn. “But now when we come together, individual preparation matters the most. We’ll have a couple of rehearsals to iron things out, but you’re doing a lot of that work individually, practicing your rhymes or guitar at home, and having to do a lot of mental work to be prepared to show up to be able to deliver the quality product that we all love and stand on.”

“You have to be in constant communication,” said Heusinkveld. “Fortunately, everyone in this band is super talented at their craft, and is a super pro at what they bring to the table sonically. It’s just an obstacle because we’re not living in the same neighborhood, and there’s all kinds of roadblocks, but we’ve managed to make it work and pull together for big shows.”

If you missed The Uniphonics' Mission Creek performance, you've still got a few chances to catch one of those big shows. They'll be playing as part of Iowa City's North Side Concert Series on May 27, where people in Iowa City “are allowed to behave like adults and walk around with alcoholic beverages,” in Heusinkveld's words. They'll also be at Wilton Founder's Day on August 19, and will be a part of the Music In The Junction series in West Des Moines on September 21.

Despite no longer living in the same city, everyone in The Uniphonics agrees that Iowa City is, and always will be, the band’s home. It’s easy to hear when the band performs one of their signature songs, simply called “Iowa City.” Don’t be too surprised, though, if you don’t hear the song outside of Iowa City.

“It doesn’t go over so well in Ames,” said Heusinkveld with a laugh. “We sort of figured out through trial and error that if we want to make fans in the rest of Iowa, we need to include, not exclude.”

The Uniphonics are IPR’s Artists of the Month for April. All of their music is available on major streaming services, and a schedule of their upcoming shows can be found on the band’s website. Click here to learn more about the Artist of the Month series.

Tony Dehner is a Studio One Host