The Sounds of Iowa

The River Monks make music that reflects the pastoral qualities of their home state

The charming homespun quality of the River Monks' music might cause a listener to wonder if the sextet from Des Moines, Iowa, has pulled back the furniture and rolled up the rugs in your living room for a house concert.

Singer-songwriter Ryan Stier creates gorgeous songs, allowing threads of country, blues and American and British strains of folk into the pastoral rock settings. On the band's debut album, Jovials, the tunes are filled with breathy wonder, often reflecting the natural world—flora, fauna, the elements—as much as the landscape of the human heart.

The album's second song, the lovely "Pelica," alternately personifies a songbird, a tortoise and an icicle, projecting a variety of human emotions. The album also includes references to bears, snow, winter and the atmosphere. Then there's the folk-rock-pop stomp of "The Wind and the Paths," in which Stier reflects on lessons learned from his grandfather.

"There's a lot of Iowa on the album, for sure," Stier says.

"It's very easy to live here and be inspired by the environment and the changing seasons and the creatures around you. It's very engaging, and it really plays with your moods quite a bit. I write quite about that, I guess," he says with what seems to be typical modesty.

The River Monks will play Tucson for the first time on Sunday, March 24, at the Tucson Live Music Space. The concert will also feature local bands Donut Shop Death, Woolly Mammoth, Mind Slums and Run-On Sunshine, which will celebrate the release of a new cassette single.

The River Monks will play third in the lineup. It's part of the TLMS philosophy to give touring bands the middle slot on a bill to ensure they get the most possible people watching them.

Although Stier had played in punk and rock bands in his teens, he also studied classical guitar. He'd been writing and performing as a solo act for a couple of years when, toward the end of 2009, the River Monks started to come together.

"I had written a couple of songs and recorded them in my bedroom, but I was looking to find others who could help me realize them in a live setting," he says.

At the time, Stier was playing in the house band for an Elvis Presley musical at the Des Moines Playhouse. "The drummer in the show was Joel (Gettys), and he was really good. I liked his style and asked him if he was interested in joining up with me and helping out."

Stier then recruited a high-school buddy, guitarist Nick Frampton. This trio recorded the basic tracks for Jovials, which was released in early 2011. During the recording of the album, bassist Drew Rauch (Frampton's roommate) expressed interest in joining, so when it came time for the River Monks to play in front of audiences, Rauch was in.

Multi-instrumentalist Mallory Heggen had sung and played trumpet on the album as a guest artist, but she soon moved to northern Arizona to teach for a year on the Navajo reservation, Stier says. When she returned to Des Moines, she became a full-time band member.

The River Monks were a quintet until recently, when Frampton moved to Nashville with his girlfriend. The group then enlisted guitarist Tommy Boynton to play local gigs around Des Moines. Frampton remains a member, and the group tours as a six-piece. And now the band has a place to crash in Nashville.

The group decamped briefly to Music City in January to record tracks for a still-in-the-works second album.

"People said to us, 'Oh, man, you guys are getting famous. You're recording in Nashville!' Well, we're recording at Nick's house, and it just happens to be in Nashville. We'll be recording a lot of the rest of it in Iowa with friends. I'd say we're about halfway done. We're expecting to finish it in the next few months and maybe have it ready to release in the fall."

The band identifies strongly with its hometown, even borrowing its name from Des Moines. One of the explanations for the city's name posits that it was originally dubbed La Rivière des Moines (The River of the Monks) by French explorers.

Stier says the musical community in Iowa, and specifically around Des Moines, has been growing in recent years, with metal and punk bands abounding, a growing hip-hop scene and a strong focus on folk-rock.

"It's always nice to play on a bill somewhere where there are no other bands that sound like us. It's rare to have two of the same types of bands playing the same night. We really appreciate the diversity of the scene, and what other bands bring to it."

Like Stier, most of the members of the River Monks have at one time or another studied music seriously—in some cases classical, others jazz. A few of them are now music teachers themselves.

If you like to play the RIYL game, some listeners may be tempted to throw the River Monks into a contemporary folk-rock category that might also include Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers, Fleet Foxes and Of Monsters and Men.

Stier doesn't see the River Monks as part of a trend, but he admits he and the band looked to certain musical inspirations when they were creating their sound. "When we first formed, we had a couple of bands we emulated, especially with arrangements and harmonies and certain parts of our sound."

It's nice to learn the rules before you break them. But a real artist—whether a writer or painter or composer—eventually starts to imitate less and speak with a unique voice. The River Monks already are moving in this direction.

"I think so," Stier says. "More recently it's been an effort to create something that hasn't been done and said before, and is not already out there. We're trying to tell our own stories."

The band members are all in their 20s, and their collective musical ambition is to "keep getting better every day, make more music and maybe not have to work a day job. It would be nice to be able to make music as a sole source of earning a living," Stier says.