Tag Archives: The Encounter

With A Beard and a Smile

October 23, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Walking into Lookout Lounge is a different experience than entering other music venues around Omaha. Admittedly, it feels a little strange driving into a business plaza just south of 72nd and Dodge streets for a punk show. But what distinguishes Lookout (formerly The Hideout) is more than just location. It is the bearded man sitting at the entryway, checking IDs and working on his laptop, that sets this venue apart.

Raised in Copperas Cove, Texas, Kyle Fertwagner knew from a young age that his destiny lay in music. At 6 years old, he was mesmerized by blues concerts in nearby Austin. “Those experiences are ingrained in my memory. There were thousands of people out there enjoying music, sharing that common bond of whatever that music meant to them.”

By the time he moved to Omaha at age 15, he and his younger brother, Keith, were playing together in punk bands. They got their start at The Cog Factory. Like many area music fans, Kyle is eager to share fond memories of that nonprofit venue, which closed in 2002. “That was our stomping grounds,” he says. “That’s where I basically grew up as a musician, as a punk rocker, as a person.” Before their first show at The Cog Factory, Fertwagner recalls that the owners greeted the band and “it just immediately felt like home.”

Recreating that welcoming DIY vibe is what drove him to quit his job as general manager of a local restaurant and take over The Hideout in 2015. Keith had already learned how to work sound systems, and Kyle had learned how to run a business from years in the restaurant industry.

With “a little TLC” and a lot of elbow grease, the brothers made the place their own. Kyle proudly showcases a sign from the original Cog Factory over the pool table. Next to it is the hand-painted mural featuring the venue’s name and the radio tower logo that has become an Omaha icon. Endless layers of screen-printed posters paper Lookout’s walls, and concert-goers have enthusiastically decorated the bathrooms with a vibrant collection of friendly graffiti.

Kyle describes himself as “owner/operator,” but upon attending a show at his venue it is immediately apparent that he does much more than the typical owner. Besides personally welcoming patrons into shows and tending bar, he works the lights and often shadows his brother on sound. But before any of that can happen, “it starts with the band.”

When asked about his work with local promoters and artists, Kyle can’t quite hold back a grin. Lookout is known around Omaha as a starting point for bands that have never played in public before. Its owner is the main reason for this reputation. His voice softens when asked about his role in helping young local artists get their music off the ground: “I think it’s important when you’re first starting out to have a venue you can call home.” This determination to give back to the music community makes Lookout special.

Kyle’s unique philosophy on booking shows is “to not try to take everything on ourselves.” This means more cooperation between venue staff, bands, and promoters. “It’s a team effort.” The additional networking and communication is more work, but well worth it.

From his days in small punk bands growing up, he knows the obstacles and struggles of getting a band onstage. This knowledge helps him guide others through the process.“We try to use our experience to help younger bands grow,” Kyle says. “That’s good for everybody.” He is always happy to reach out to local promoters and say “we’d love to work with you.”

When Kyle works to foster those relationships to put a show together, that’s when the energy of the DIY venue is created. “It’s ‘Alright, cool, we did it, we sold the place out!’ Instead of ‘I sold the place out.’ It’s more of an ‘us’ thing.” Shows that are assembled with teamwork are more rewarding for the band, everyone behind the scenes, and the audience. Those packed concerts are a staple of Lookout’s imprint on the musical community.

After taking care of the band, Kyle’s next focus is his role as head of security. At any show, he can be seen roaming around the audience, keeping out a watchful eye for any sign of trouble. He accepts personal responsibility in creating a positive energy at Lookout, and takes the security of the audience very seriously: “People shouldn’t feel unwelcome here for any reason.”

In order to ensure that everyone feels welcome, anyone exhibiting abusive behavior of any kind will be personally warned and, if need be, escorted out by Kyle himself. He is quick to explain, “Anything that happens here I take to be a personal reflection on me.”

Visit lookoutomaha.com for more information.

This article was printed in the September/October 2017 edition of Encounter Magazine.

Kyle Fertwagner

Pigeon Bros

October 19, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Pigeon Bros.

It’s like watching two parts of the same brain. When Jack Blanket and Ryan Showers are together, it’s just the two of them, taking turns finishing each other’s sentences and stories. Their words flow back and forth, forming a single curse-word-laden stream of consciousness. But that’s not to say these brothers are free from a little sibling rivalry.

“Stop. Stop. STOP. Don’t draw on my drawing,” Blanket says as his pencil glides over paper, doodling out shaded shapes, while Showers makes a move to add his own creative contribution.

“I wouldn’t…” Showers begins.

“Wouldn’t be an ass? Yes, yes, you would,” Blanket continues.

Believe it or not, this exchange, like most of their conversations, is all said with deadpan, sarcastically saccharine love. To them, calling one another an ass is a compliment. While the duo play brothers, friends, and roomies in life, they’re yin and yang in the world of local Omaha art—Blanket an accomplished stop motion animator and Showers an eccentric and eclectic illustrator.

“As far as I know, we’ve always been drawing and creating,” says Blanket, the younger sibling by approximately one year. “There’s always been paper and pencil around.”

Born and raised across the river in Council Bluffs, Blanket and Showers are just two of eight siblings, each one living in different parts of the country, all of them dabbling in art either full-time or for fun. However, given their upbringing, it’s no surprise the family is now made up of everything from illustrators and animators to video game creators and programmers. They were homeschooled by their mother, who based her curriculum largely on creative expression. Their father illustrated.

Even though their childhood was awash in arts, crafts, doodles, and drawings, the two brothers didn’t graduate high school as mini Monets. It was through years of self-learning and discovery that their artistic talents began to bloom.

Blanket taught himself to animate through online tutorials. After all, who needs a fancy-shmancy liberal arts degree when you’ve got Google and YouTube as professors? Years of plugging and playing and numerous “crashed crappy computers” later, Blanket acquired the skills to land freelance animation work.

He’s made several animated games and music videos for local musicians and labels, One of his favorites was for a Chicago-based hip-hop and soul group, Sidewalk Chalk. Though simple, his flashing red, white, and black drawings in the video for their song “Dig” helps bring to life the message behind the lyrics, which details the effect media has on the public’s perception of police violence.

“To create it, you just go step-by-step, line-by-line, translating lyrics to images,” Blanket says. “Three minutes might really be three months of work.”

As for his artistic name, a high school girlfriend’s mother created it in an instant years ago. She said she knew too many Nathans, his real name, and chose to call him Jack Blanket instead. More than a decade later and the moniker has survived, further separating his work and artistic identity from his brother.

“We’re cut from the same cloth but we really are very different, both personally and with our art,” Blanket says.

One glance at their work and any viewer would agree. Showers steers clear of animation, instead creating detailed drawings, often sparse in color but big in imagination. Haunting images of monsters, animals in human clothes, and cartoonish people, he’s done it all.

“My process is much slower than my brother’s. I’ll start by making a rough skeleton and then sit on it for a really long time,” Showers says. “Music, my medicine, is always a huge catalyst to get me going.”

Beyond the musical styling of bands like King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Showers is inspired by anime and fashion magazines, which he spent hours copying and drawing to perfect his craft.

“Life is f***ed sometimes, so I strive to create work that takes people somewhere else,” Showers says. “The potency of expanding imagination is so valuable. Maybe my pieces help with that.”

While he avoids collaborations, including with his brother, Showers aspires to create pop-up shops around town that feature work from a variety of local creators. For now, he shows pieces for sale in Caffeine Dreams and uses his Instagram as an online portfolio to market himself and gain more work. By displaying animations on YouTube, Blanket harnesses the power of social media.

“Artists need to have an online presence now,” Blanket says. “As a low-level artist, you do a lot better putting yourself out there and responding to your audience through these mediums.”

When they’re not turning news feeds into galleries, the two brothers share an apartment but hardly see one another. Showers admittedly disappears for days, often to look high and low for inspiration, even sifting through dumpsters and exploring vacant buildings. Since art isn’t always a field filled with money, especially for up-and-coming creators, the two spend even more time apart working odd jobs to pay rent.

“We’ve grown accustomed to a humble lifestyle,” Showers says. “I’m willing to wash dishes for a living if it means I can have an imagination.”

So when they get together, it’s a nostalgic celebration. On a particularly warm June day, the siblings got the chance to share an afternoon on the back patio of Caffeine Dreams. Showers veiled his eyes from the gleaming sun with oversized sunglasses while Blanket embraced the warmth, sitting outside the shade with his painted fingernails gleaming in the light. Just as with art, the two take different paths, each enjoying the summer day in their own way.

While you may not see pom-poms at their sides as they sip coffee and share memories, these two really are one another’s biggest cheerleaders, bonded by blood and a love for all things creative.

“Our fields are so highly different,” Showers says. “In my mind, there is no competition, no rivalry, no…”

“No reason not to be supportive,” Blanket finishes. “There’s just mutual respect.”

Visit instagram.com/thee_owl or instagram.com/score6 to view more of Pigeon Brothers’ art.

This article appears in the September/October 2017 edition of Encounter Magazine.

Pigeon Brothers

Great Scot!

October 13, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

He began serving as the vice president of LGBTQ+ advocacy organization Heartland Pride last fall, but David Kerr hails from nowhere near Nebraska. The Glasgow, Scotland, native followed love to Omaha in 2013, and although his relationship ended, his business venture, The Tavern, blossomed in the heart of the Old Market. Today, Kerr jokes about printing cards to answer the daily question of how and why he ended up in the middle of America, but maintains he’s found a good fit in his adopted city.

“Omaha is hugely supportive of young entrepreneurs and business startups, and they have a sense of community here that you would never find anywhere else to nurture someone like that,” he says. Kerr prides himself on running an inclusive establishment that welcomes all; he’s even one of the first locally to offer gender-neutral bathrooms.

In turn, his business supports numerous nonprofits by serving as an event venue, participating in giving program Together A Greater Good (TAGG), and even directly supporting fundraising efforts. Kerr’s interest in giving back to the community began an ocean away, but one particular cause will always be close.

David Kerr

“Before I called Omaha my home, I volunteered for an LGBTQ+ organization in London called ‘The Albert Kennedy Trust,’ and they did some incredible work. And it really gave me an appetite to work for change no matter where I am,” he says.

The 1969 Stonewall riots are largely regarded as the catalyst that brought forth the U.S. gay pride movement. Heartland Pride’s official beginnings trace back to 1985. It’s a better world today for most LGBTQ+ people, Kerr says, but there’s still work to be done.

“Since then it’s remained crucial to our community to remain visible and proud. It’s easy to get complacent when we make strides,” he says. “For the gay community, it’s still relevant because honoring and celebrating our culture is still relevant.”

Dozens of countries around the world still criminalize same-sex activities, Kerr points out, and in eight countries death is a legal punishment.

“It’s important to remember the tradition of honoring those who went before us, the ones who were denied their human rights, and the ones who physically lost their lives as well. It’s important to still get out and be proud to honor those lives and shine a beacon of hope to people around the world. There are people who are suffering way more than people here in the United States,” he says. “We’re not acing it here by any means, but at least we’re making strides.

Allies should take notice, too, he adds. Locals may associate Heartland Pride with its annual June parade and surrounding events, but it’s also an important fundraiser for the nonprofit—run completely by volunteer efforts—whose activities include a scholarship program, a community action grant, and several youth programs.

“It’s obvious in this political climate that anyone’s rights can be called into question at any point by any government, and that’s not just true for the United States. Things are not static; they’re constantly moving, so we need to remain proud and visible so that no one ever does infringe upon our rights again,” Kerr says. “And that’s true for many communities, not just LGBT.”

Visit heartlandpride.org for more information about Omaha’s LGBTQ+ community.

This article appears as part of the September/October 2017 edition of Encounter Magazine.

Bug Out

October 5, 2017 by
Photography by Dave Crane

Sexy moths flap their wings (and cleavage). Some dude dressed like a lightning bug flashes his butt. The audience swarms the stage at Midtown Art (formerly Midtown Art Supply)—with antennae, arms, and legs flailing—rocking to performances by local hardcore noise bands.

There are edible snacks made of insects. Bug-themed artwork covers the walls of the adjacent Harney Street Gallery. It’s like a mosquito trap for Omaha’s weirdest and most creative. But the main event? That would be the keynote bug lecture and photo slideshow by Dave Crane.

Crane—a wetlands biologist with the Army Corps of Engineers—is the co-founder and co-curator of the Omaha Bug Symposium, the strangest science-art-music combo this side of the topsoil.

Crane’s lecture is a psychedelic crash course in entomology (i.e., the study of insects), a legit science presentation packed with big words and Latin binomial names. His photo slideshow features beautiful imagery (zoomed and panned to show macro views of tiny insects like you’ve never seen before) along with ludicrous commentary.

At the 2016 event, Crane’s younger brother (Omaha artist Dan Crane) shouts a question, “Because I find them so fascinating, why are they called boring beetles?” The elder Crane responds to his brother, and other hecklers’ comments, with a genuine enthusiasm that is contagious.

His passion for bugs started at a young age. “I’ve been interested in nature, in general, all my life,” Crane says. “I was an adventurous, outdoorsy kind of kid. I wore holes in my clothes faster than anyone else I knew. Around the age of 7, I started attending week-long day camps at Fontenelle Forest and Neale Woods every summer. I think it was at these camps when I really honed in on bugs. I’d come home from the camps and start looking for the things I found while in the wild. Around this time, I started collecting bugs I’d find around my neighborhood. My parents picked up on this and started buying me field guides and insect preservation boxes. I started making my own collection tools, like a plastic bag duct taped to a long stick for catching butterflies and dragonflies. I had a terrarium out in the back yard that I would put captured praying mantids into to watch them fight, mate, and eat prey. I amassed a rather large insect collection—probably 40 species—by the time I was 12, but without knowing about proper preservation methods, the specimens were consumed by pests and all turned to dust.”

Discouraged by early attempts at insect preservation, Crane’s insectophilic tendencies lay dormant until roughly age 21. That’s when he received his first digital camera as a birthday gift.

“I was snapping away outside one day and noticed a damselfly on my car antennae,” he says. “I snapped a photo of it, and when I reviewed the image, it was like all the memories I had chasing bugs as a kid came rushing back to me. That moment revived my interest in bugs. I was hooked. Taking photos of all sorts of macroinvertebrates became my No. 1 hobby, if not obsession. From then on, I would dedicate more and more time to taking photos of bugs all around me—when I traveled, when I went camping, when I went to the bar, etc. I took photos for the sake of seeing things up close and learning about them, never really with the intention of printing them out as pieces of art.”

Crane’s photographic work captures the essence of bugs’ behavior, rather than focusing on images “that would look nice on a wall.” He prizes subject matter with informative storytelling potential over aesthetics.

Dave Crane. Photo by Bill Sitzmann

“I feel that presenting my photos in this style does them the most justice. I have some very high-definition photos, and they deserve to be blown up, zoomed in, and explored. The content in the photos is very well served by being plastered on a 10-foot-by-10-foot projector screen so every little detail can be magnified and scrutinized by the crowd. Before these bug shows, I started making calendars in 2007 for family and friends. Otherwise, I basically just stockpiled my photos for seven years—until I started showing them off as the bug shows.”

The 2017 Omaha Bug Symposium takes place at OutrSpaces (528 S. 24th St.) on October 7. It will be Crane’s fifth (and fourth annual) bug show. The inaugural event in 2014 went by the name “Nebraska Insect Showcase” because it was held at Midtown Art Supply the weekend following the Nebraska Hardcore Showcase.*

That first year of the event consisted of Crane “giving a two-hour presentation, followed by multiple sets of bug-themed noise bands, and topped off with one of the most bizarre, horrifying bug worship performance art piece I have ever witnessed,” he says. “It was a blast, so we started planning the second one instantly.”

The event’s format has since remained essentially the same. Bug food, bug art, and dance competitions joined the lineup in 2015.

The original Nebraska Insect Showcase co-organizer, Ethan Happe, parted ways with the event to focus more on entomophagy (eating insects). But Crane wasn’t ready to call it quits. He met Andy Matz in 2016 while planning his third bug show.

Matz, who has a degree in entomology, became a co-lecturer and co-organizer for the 2016 event, the first to go by the name “Omaha Bug Symposium.” Joining the party were bug costume contests, insect snacks prepared by local chefs, and kegs sponsored by Upstream Brewing Co.

Crane and Matz continued their collaboration in planning a special 2017 Omaha Moth Night to coincide with National Moth Week in July (which, despite the name, is a worldwide citizen science initiative encouraging the public to learn more about moths). Omaha Moth Night used the same Bug Symposium format with music, art, lecture, and costume contest.

“Ours had to be the weirdest National Moth Week event, but it fit right in with the spirit of the week, as well as the concept of the Omaha Bug Symposium,” Crane says. “The moth night really was a bit of an experiment just as much as it was something we were genuinely excited to put on. The turnout was similar to last year’s symposium, and I’d say we were highly successful in our attempts to interweave moth art, information, music, and the human connection with moths into a fun night for all.”

Attendance grows each year. Insect artworks continue to surprise. Meanwhile, Crane is thrilled to encourage others to share his love for bugs and the greater outdoors.

“A lot of people go ‘birding,’ but I go ‘bugging,’” Crane says, describing his photo-shooting sessions. “The most important part of bugging is to do it frequently. I think as you start out you’re just fascinated by everything, you’ll see a lot of things from angles and magnifications that you’ve never seen before. It’s like seeing the world the way it really is for the first time.”

Crane has developed what he refers to as “bug-eyes.” He’s usually the first (or only) person to spot a bug while out walking the streets or out in the field.

“If I’m walking through a field of weeds, I’m not searching for the next pretty flower, I’m subconsciously scanning every bit of green for that one bug-shaped discrepancy,” he says. “After so many years, I’m still fascinated with snapping a photo just to look at something around me close up. I love using my camera as a portable, photographic microscope, revealing truth that’s just beyond the naked eye.”

Visit facebook.com/omahabugsymposium for more information.

This article published in the 2017 September/October edition of Encounter Magazine.

*UPDATE: The host venue moved from Midtown Art and Harney Street Gallery to OutrSpaces after the publication of the issue. OutrSpaces is located at 528 S. 24th St. 

Visual Narrator

September 21, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Kristin Zahra says she knew from a young age that she wanted to work in film. “Maybe, 12 to 13ish? I remember really loving Pixar animation film shorts,” she says. “So I had a desire to do more of the 3D animation work.”

Despite her dad’s urging to go into engineering, Zahra attended College of Saint Mary and earned her bachelor’s degree in computer graphics.

“He was a civil engineer and also tried to get all my sisters to pursue that path,” she says. “He was one in four for that battle.”

After graduation, Zahra went on to Vancouver Film School, which she says was a great option for her.

Kristin Zahra

“Their program is unique in that it’s essentially a condensed version of traditional four-year film schools. It made a lot of sense to me, being able to invest one year solely to focusing on film, and I viewed it as an opportunity to really do something challenging and completely out of my comfort zone.”

While at film school, she studied 3D animation and visual effects, and kind of fell in love with the city and Canada.

“Vancouver’s film scene was really apparent when I was there, which heightened the experience in a lot of ways,” she says. “My two roommates were extras and had boyfriends that were stuntmen, one was a screenwriter—I’m guessing a lot like L.A. in that way.”

After film school, Zahra moved around the country—Chicago, Houston, New York City, Norfolk (yes, Nebraska)—but she ended up back in Omaha in 2011. She says she knew she would be “calling this home again for quite a while.”

Like most creatives, Zahra struggled when she first started working in the industry. Since she didn’t live in Los Angeles or a place more conducive to filmmaking, she was using her animation degree more in advertising and motion graphics than anything else.

“I realized there was something missing for me,” she says. “What drew me into film was just how alive I felt when I was able to tell stories.”

Over the last few years, she’s been trying to get back into that. She started reaching out to, and trying to work with, local filmmakers.

Which is how she ended up working with Shelly Hollis on his project, The Black O, a film about black crime in Omaha.

Strangely enough, the two happened to run into each other on the street. Zahra says they met one night at a falafel truck downtown. They started talking while waiting for their food and he told her he was in town visiting his family and filming a documentary.

“It piqued my interest and we got to talking more about the work I did and wanting to be involved in film here in Omaha,” she says. “I had been searching for people to collaborate with, especially on film projects that come from a sincere and honest place.”

Hollis’ background is rooted more in the documentary format, which Zahra says brought her back to some of that storytelling she was missing.

For his documentary, Hollis says they spoke with people in the black community—victims of gang violence, ex-gang members, and city council members—and asked them what they thought the issues were.

“We wanted to give the people their voice, to identify their own problems,” he says.

His passion for the project interested Zahra from the start.

“Shelly is that person, void of ego, and his intentions for the film had inspired me from our first conversation,” she says. She adds that working with Hollis, whom she describes as an “exceptional filmmaker,” has been an honor and he has reminded her not to underestimate her skills.

The admiration is mutual. Hollis says Zahra helped him out a lot with the film. “She’s awesome,” he says. “Just incredible.”

“So yeah,” Zahra says, “it seems we were meant to meet, being that we shared an interest in both film and a good falafel pita.”

While The Black O is in its editing process, Zahra still has to make her money. “I keep moving with my projects, that’s for sure.”

She says she continues to do a lot of animation designs that are strictly for income, but adds that she is currently working on a new passion project with a production/animation studio, Edison Creative.

“For me, the passion I have for filmmaking includes that feeling I get when I’m on a set collaborating with a crew or in a studio working on animation or post-production.”

She says this current project is more of a cartoon piece. “It’s got a lot of potential. I’m really excited for it.”

Visit kristinzahra.com for more information.

This article published in the September/October 2017 edition of Encounter magazine.

Have Marcey

September 14, 2017 by
Photography by Scott Drickey

When North Omaha native Marcey Yates talks about music, his face lights up and it’s as if everything makes sense in his world. From conversations swirling around hip-hop to his wild tales of past encounters with various artists, the 31-year-old lives and breathes his passion for music—and it all started at church.

Yates grew up on 49th and Fort streets, just north of Ames Avenue, where religion played an integral role in his community. The young Yates would often spend time with grandparents, who lived on 19th and Sprague streets, not too far from the home he shared with his mother and father. His grandfather was a pastor at the Church of God and Christ, and would routinely take him to service, where Yates started singing.

“I would say religion was big in my family and the black community,” Yates says. “It was definitely passed on through generations. Church got me into music on both sides of family, and it kept me in church until I was in high school. I sang in the choir.”

After graduating from Benson High School in 2003, he went on to take a few classes at the University of Nebraska-Omaha before leaving for Arizona, where he enrolled at the Conservatory School of Recording Arts and Sciences. By this time, his older brother Jeff had already introduced him to underground hip-hop and artists like Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang Clan, Slum Village, Jay-Z, and Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth. He felt it was time to learn how to make his own signature style of music and establish himself as a credible MC/producer.

“I wanted to focus more on the tech side of music and the other side of the industry,” he explains. “I learned how to make this a business and not just be a rapper. I was able to get a lot practice working on my skill and style doing shows. I got turned down in Arizona, but I had some great experiences. I met Canibus [rapper], who told me about his beef with LL Cool J, and once I was with Method Man passing around a joint in the VIP section.”

Shortly after, the self-proclaimed hip-hop head relocated back to Omaha in 2012. Since then has put much of his energy into the hip-hop collective Raleigh Science Project, which he founded in 2009.

“I established the Raleigh Science Project after my last son [Raleigh] was born,” he explains. “It started as my imprint for my music, but I expanded into a collective after bringing artists on board who shared my vision on hard work and good music. [We had] a focus on building up the hip-hop scene in a positive light, so I wanted to strip the negative vibe associated with hip-hop in my community. That means consistency, quality, showmanship, and being professional.”

The father of three is currently working on the annual New Generation Music Festival—now in its second year—an all-inclusive concert that promotes community awareness, drives traffic and support to other local nonprofits, and provides a platform to retain local talent.

“Our mission is to provide a world-class music festival that promotes inclusion and provides economic opportunities for local businesses, organizations and artists,” he says. “We want to cultivate local talent and artistry as a means to a more secure and sustainable economy in the urban core communities. There are so many resources out here that the people don’t know about because information isn’t made readily available
to everyone.”

Aside from the festival, which is scheduled for Sept. 16 at Aksarben’s Stinson Park, the busy creative is working on a documentary about the life and times of Marcey Yates, a solo EP, a mixtape series titled Chicken Soup, and the Flamboyant Gods II project with local rapper Mars Black.

“I’m constantly working on a new project,” he says. “I want to be one of the hardest-working guys in
the industry.

“Music is the only freedom that is really free,” he continues. “There are no rules to making music. It’s total creativity and a space you can go to anytime. Music is your life soundtrack for every genre in your life—from comedy to drama to suspense. When I get depressed or really bugged out, I create music to pull myself out of the sunken place. Everyone should have a creative hobby or passion because what is important to you, you will cherish and be passionate about.”

Visit op2mus.bandcamp.com to hear Yates’ work.

Roots Down

September 5, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ask Keith Rodger where he got his sharp musical tastes and his answer will be simple—from his mother. The 28-year-old Omaha musician, recording engineer, and co-owner of Make Believe Recordings grew up with an eclectic range of influences, which truly shaped his preferences.

“My mother always had a solid taste in music,” Rodger explains. “She gave birth to me as a teenager and I think that had a huge difference on what I was exposed to compared to other kids my age. She was never a musician, but always had an ear for interesting music. She introduced me to the reality of Prince’s lyrics, the anger of Prodigy’s sound, and the essence of Bjork’s personality. There were few limits in our household.”

He also credits his older brother, Alan, with inspiring him to pursue music despite the fact they grew up in separate households.

“When he visited with a guitar and amp one day is when I really wanted to become a musician,” he recalls. “He also introduced me to computer software that was used to make beats, which was what really changed my life forever.”

As he stumbled through various phases of what he refers to as “extreme attachment” to a bevy of different musical genres, he quickly realized there was an infinite amount of exploring to do. He tasked himself with learning the history and adapting to the culture as a young, inquisitive student.

Rodger eventually met Motor City native Rick Carson, another aspiring entrepreneur who was obsessed with music and had recently completed a course in recording/audio engineering at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida. The two would establish Make Believe Records and Make Believe Studios in 2012.

“I met Rick in a dusty basement when I was in a band called Lightning Bug while recording our first record,” he says. “I really enjoyed his vision for the music industry and Omaha. What he was trying to build aligned with what I was interested in pursuing as a career. We came from completely different backgrounds and share very different interests in music, but our goals and views are very similar.”

Make Believe Records has been steadily working its way into the publishing realm. The masterminds behind the label have hit a point where their catalog is ready to be launched into the musical stratosphere. With artists like rapper Conny Franko, hip-hop duo BOTH, and soul group Sam Ayer & The Lover Affair—as well as Rodger himself—on the roster, there are several full-length projects on the horizon.

Similarly, Make Believe Studios is buzzing. Carson recently engineered Grammy Award-nominated artist Terrace Martin’s 2016 album Velvet Portraits, and recently mixed and mastered Danny Worsnop’s 2017 effort The Long Road Home. There’s a sense of exciting things coming together behind the scenes.

“We are busy, busy, busy,” he says. “We have some projects coming through this year that I never would’ve imagined getting the opportunity to experience.”

For now, Rodger, Carson, and Tristan Costanzo are hard at work on one of their latest endeavors, the Kismet production team, which recently scored a documentary series for boxing promotions company Top Rank about boxer Terence Crawford and his team at B&B Boxing Academy. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“I’ve also been working on an EP and film titled Evoleno,” he says. “This has been a project years in the making. It took me several attempts to try to lock in a concept that was worth pursuing to become my first release. Over time, I got the opportunity to work with a wide variety of musicians that helped me shape my ideas into the concept it has become.”

“I also recently locked in a very small crew for this film to keep our ideas consistent and confident without our own bubble,” he adds. “I tapped Miguel Cedillo to direct and Maria Corpuz as one of our main characters. These people believe in the project as much as I do, and I believe we will make something that challenges everything we know about making a film that is timeless.”

Rodger has undoubtedly blossomed into a key player in Omaha’s consistently evolving music and art scenes. From touring with The Faint as a stage technician and DJing for Omaha Fashion Week to writing music and co-helming the Make Believe Records empire, his tireless work ethic parallels that of any successful artist or entrepreneur. However, he always sees room for improvement.

“I think it’s growing into a scene that is more diverse sonically,” he says. “I’ve noticed there are more younger people embracing new types of popular music, and putting down guitars and picking up synthesizers. My inbox is usually filled with musicians asking me about sound design and I find it exciting and refreshing.

“I truly wish there were more women creating electronic music,” he continues. “I always try to encourage parents to allow their daughters to learn how to program and edit in a DAW (digital audio workstation). Fair balance between genders, race, and cultures helps create better ideas within communities.”

The ambitious Rodger finds surrounding himself with creative individuals, staying focused on his goals, adopting routines that exercise his mental and physical health, and teaching others is the way to reach his ultimate nirvana. He’s ready to put in whatever amount of work it takes.

“Omaha still has a long way to go as far as musicians’ and DJs’ careers being taken seriously by people outside of the music industry,” he says. “We plant seeds and starve during their growth, but when they bloom, we will have a garden to feed families. Music is about to change very drastically for consumers and creators. I’m very excited about the future and want to be a part of it when it happens.”

Visit soundcloud.com/kethro to hear some of Rodger’s music.

This article was printed in the September/October 2017 edition of Encounter Magazine.

Keith Rodger

Eye Vibe

August 30, 2017 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

Twenty-six-year-old Omaha native Michael Garrett isn’t simply a photographer—he’s a visual communicator. “I’m a photographer, graphic designer, content creator, and  overall creative,” he says.

The son of a hardworking single mother, the University of Nebraska-Omaha senior grew up around 18th and Pinkney streets and the now-defunct projects near 30th and Lake streets. Eventually, he transferred to South High School, where he experienced yet another segment of Omaha’s  diverse demographic. Despite his challenging circumstances, he managed to beat the odds and will soon be the first college graduate in his family.

As the founder of MGPhotog and co-founder of The Creative Genius collective, the burgeoning entrepreneur is clearly becoming a master of his own destiny, and he understands photography is more than meets the eye.

“Photography is oversaturated. I think it’s due to social media,” Garrett says. “Everyone feels they can do it. But in doing so, they don’t really know what it takes to be a photographer. The goal should be more than taking a picture. As a visual communicator, I treat it more like an experience. And what I’m trying to capture, it depends on the client, but I go in with a strong idea of what I want to do to communicate visually. When you see it, you should feel exactly what I want you to feel from the image.”

With a firm grasp on what it takes to set him apart from other photographers and graphic designers, Garrett takes the time to truly get to know his clients, which he believes is one of his defining characteristics.

“I kind of put me as a person first,” he says. “If I need to do work with a client, I meet with them and go into who I am, just so they’re a little more comfortable with me. To me, I’m building a relationship. I feel good communication is more effective and delivering the work becomes a little easier once you have that open communication with your clients.”

It all started the day he was fired from his job at a bank. Four years after he graduated from high school, Garrett was at a crossroads in his life and not quite sure what he wanted to do next. Getting fired, he says, was the best thing to happen to him. It was from that moment, he realized what he wanted to pursue.

Michael Garrett

“It was a random thing,” he says. “I got into an argument with my manager, and she wasn’t too fond of the things I said. The same day I lost my job, I went to the camera store at Nebraska Furniture Mart and bought a camera. I figured it would give me something to do and get my mind off of losing my job.”

It didn’t take him long to put his camera to use. He was a huge sneakers aficionado and  loved taking pictures of them. As an avid collector, he jumped on the Instagram trend of posting an array of specialty shoes online. Subsequently, owning a camera made perfect sense. His love affair with the lens had begun.

“Sneakers on Instagram took off,” he says. “That started it all. As far as my work, I model some of my work after some [photographers], but I’m very versatile. I can shoot a wedding, food, children, shoes—everything.”

In 2013, he was invited to a celebrity basketball game at the Mid-America Center. At the encouragement of a few of his predecessors, he quickly realized he could make a living out of his passion.

“I met a few other photographers at the tournament, and they took me under their wings. They said I should start charging for my work. From there, it took off.”

While he predominately grew up with his mom in a single-parent household, Garrett says it was difficult not having a male role model around.

“It affected me in a way, but I had to learn to be a man about things,” he says. “I had a bunch of mentors in school because I was active. I did journalism, basketball, track. I had male figures there, but they weren’t an authoritative figure outside of the sport. I could do what I want, but on the leadership side, it was good.”

His life circumstances forced him to grow up quickly, which undoubtedly led to his fierce work ethic. In addition to school, graphic design, and his photography business, he also works part-time at the Boys and Girls Club as he continues to garner more and more attention for his work. The sky is the limit, he says.

“For me, I’m more in love with the process of communication…I’m just living. I want to leave my plate open to the possibilities.”

Visit facebook.com/thecreativegeniuscollective for more information.

This article appears in the July/August 2017 edition of Encounter.

Generational Journey Through Nightlife

August 23, 2017 by
Photography by Amy Lynn Straub

When I was 19, I could be found illegally sneaking into nightclubs. As the youngest person in the room, I was essentially walking into a raucous Generation X party.

Back then, around 2003-2004, the height of the ’90s rave era had passed and the post-rave scene was acclimating into the then-emerging ultra-lounge wave. House music and techno reigned supreme in the underground, Red Bull and vodka covered everything, and Gen Xers lived by this credo to make the most of the weekend. At the time, this apparently meant binge drinking with friends to loud music for long periods of time—every weekend.

As time went on and the millennial flavor began to form, I remember how exciting it was when all the indie kids started dancing. Parties like Goo at Slowdown and Gunk at Waiting Room spawned a new infusion of creativity into nightlife. Along with Bar 415, Loom at España, and Nomad Lounge, it looked as though millennials were headed down the same work-hard, play-hard path as Gen X. That is until the Great Recession struck.

Along with 9/11, and later the technological advancement of social media, the recession of 2008 would become a defining feature of our generation, shaping the millennial psyche and influencing collective movements.

In the face of layoffs and widespread economic downturn, here in Omaha I witnessed early 20-somethings foregoing the cover charges and high drink prices of bars and clubs. Instead they grabbed a gas station six-pack and headed to the nearest midtown house party to aptly channel their youthful angst and economic anxiety through the jaw-grinding sounds of electro. That same year, PBR sales took off and Google searches for “electro music” peaked.

But the millennial taste began to evolve, and all of those sweaty basement experiences transmuted to the rise of micro-breweries, Netflix, and Instagramming your farmer’s market foodie experience as a way to say, “Hey, I didn’t waste away my Friday night like you all did, so now I’m eating this farm-to-table cucumber at 9 a.m.”

There’s an entire industry dedicated to studying generations to predict buying behaviors, and when you study the research, millennials tend to say terrible things about nightclubs. Complaints often touch on high cover charges, rude bouncers, long waits, overcrowding, and loud music—all things that didn’t seem to
bother Gen X.

This notion—supplemented with social media, dating apps, and streaming music—meant that you didn’t really need to leave your house in order to feel connected to your friends, to what’s happening with cutting-edge music, or even to find a date. All compelling reasons to go out for generations before.

Because of these factors, I believe millennials developed a sense of economic conservatism as a response to the Great Recession. Because they didn’t have the expendable income like previous generations, they adapted by finding reasons why the commercial-party atmosphere of a club wasn’t worth it, perhaps merely as a means to justify their inability to participate. This was all, of course, reinforced by the needs technology filled in. But that doesn’t mean our generation doesn’t like a good party.

Yes, nightclubs have been closing in record numbers all across America and the United Kingdom. We are witness to this even in our own city. But festivals have been on the upswing. Think about the rise in awareness of Burning Man, Coachella expanding to two weekends, or even our own Maha festival, which sold out the last two years.

To put it another way, instead of going out every weekend—a routine Gen X had ritualized—millennials decide to save up for the big moments. And with social media and smart phones, they can capture the experience and #TBT-it over the course of many weeks and months as a way to make the moment, and their dollars, last.

All of this in mind, if someone were to ask me today if opening a nightclub was a good idea, I’d tell them, “No.” Throw a festival instead. One that offers coffee with amazing floral and acidic notes, and a fast-casual gastro pub that offers a saffron, foie gras, and grass-fed beef burger.

Now, Generation Z is beginning to pump out its first 21+ers. As they enter into the nightlife picture amidst the Trumpian era, it’ll be interesting to see how they respond to present circumstances. Will the pervasive fear, racial tension, and stagnant wages turn our youth inward, or will they tap into the collective anxiety of our times as a source of inspiration to compel the use of art, music, and dancing as a means to escape, to find solutions, and propel our society forward, like generations have done before?

I sure hope so.

To share your life perspectives—or whatever—with Brent Crampton and Encounter, email millennials@omahapublications.com.

Louder Together

August 17, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Lauren Martin was a small-town farm girl from McCook, Nebraska. She loved country music and never expected she would one day lead Maha—Nebraska’s pre-eminent annual music festival.

On Aug. 19, Martin oversees one of Maha’s boldest lineups ever. Headlined by the controversial hip-hop group Run The Jewels, Maha 2017 is poised to be one huge spectacle that promises to bring together a diverse group of concert-goers.

That kind of unity through music drives Martin, who got her first taste of it when she was a college student working on the campus program council at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “All of the sudden, I realized my favorite thing was to bring people together around experiences,” says Martin, who was named Maha’s first executive director in 2015.

While attending UNL, Martin helped bring such performers as singer-songwriter Jason Mraz and comedian Kathy Griffin to the university. After graduating, she wanted to continue exploring a career of booking musical talent.  Martin interned at Omaha-based Saddle Creek Records in 2007. The following summer, she found herself working at Live Nation, a global entertainment company in St. Louis. However, the Great Recession of 2008 cut her career plans short, forcing her to move back home and assess her future in the music industry.

“I came back to Omaha and felt like a dog with my tail between my legs because I failed—or because I couldn’t hack it—whatever it was” Martin says.

In 2009, Maha was born, and Martin took interest. Over the next few years, she wore many hats, including working as a house manager at Omaha Performing Arts and as programming director at Hear Nebraska. In 2012, she was given the reins to Maha’s social media accounts. She was also named to Maha’s board of directors that same year, eventually serving as vice president.

As she continued to work with Maha, Martin’s view of music changed, especially how it can affect people and bring them together. This feeling and sense of community is something she continues to incorporate into Maha.

“Now I realize music is something we all share, and it has a power to connect. It’s everything from a release, to a way to express yourself,” she says. “And while I myself am not a musician, I find that music helps me process things. It helps me connect with other people. It’s a passion in a way that music is an avenue for my fulfillment.”

Martin also worked in communications at the Omaha Community Foundation, where she helped implement Omaha Gives!, a 24-hour charity event aimed at raising money
for nonprofits.

Then, in 2015, something big happened—Maha sold out for the first time, thanks in large part to a phenomenal lineup that included Modest Mouse and Purity Ring.

“It caused everyone involved with Maha to realize that, if we want the event to continue and really be sustainable and see what even further impact we could have on the community, we needed someone full-time. That’s when I became the executive director,” Martin says.

She also emphasized that the popular festival, currently held at Stinson Park in Aksarben Village, is much more than music. The event serves as a medium for other nonprofits to receive attention.

“It’s about raising awareness,” she says, “not forcing anyone to learn about something or expose them to potential trigger topics.”

For example, this year the festival will have information about suicide, the second-leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 34 in the U.S. Martin says the majority of Maha’s demographic falls in this age range.

“Maha is more than a music festival. It’s a platform for engagement,” she says. “We realized not only can we be a platform for other organizations, but we can help spread education.”

Martin adds that while information is available to event-goers, the staff aren’t trying to make attendees uncomfortable. “Because that isn’t the intent of anyone,” she says. “We’re not impacting the experience by throwing mental health in your face,” Martin says. “We’re not scared to talk about this. We want to be an organization that is listening to what is going on in our community.”

In addition to providing mental health information, other nonprofits team up with Maha as part of its community to culture and social activities.

This year Maha has again partnered with Louder Than a Bomb, an annual youth poetry slam with roots in Chicago that focuses on bringing teens together across all divides. The group was recently the subject of an award-winning documentary of the same name.

Another repeat partner is Omaha Girls Rock, a nonprofit that typically draws plenty of attention. The group empowers young women to voice creativity through music education and performance. In general, to “rock.”

“Maha is an event that connects and reflects the community,” Martin says. “In that kind of structure, you get to walk away saying ‘Omaha’s got some really cool stuff going on.’”

As Maha continues to grow, Martin says people are getting even more out of the music festival. To this date, the event has drawn music fans from 46 states, according to its website.

“While the music is seemingly the main event, you come to Maha and get so much more than that,” Martin says. “I thought I was getting involved with Maha for the music, but what kept me involved with Maha was all the people I’ve gotten to meet.”

Visit mahamusicfestival.com for more information.

This article appears in the July/August 2017 edition of Encounter.

 

Lauren Martin