The University of Iowa

Dave Bess’ wanderlust takes him to Iowa City and beyond

August 8th, 2011

The following article spotlights Dave Bess, a UI graduate who studied abroad in Italy and went on to form the band Public Property. Bess explains how traveling and studying at the UI and abroad influenced his music.

By Stephanie Wise, The Iowa City Press-Citizen

Dave Bess has a chronic case of wanderlust.

It’s what brought the 30-year-old Oahu, Hawaii, native to Iowa City in the first place, then to New York City, Italy and all over Europe; and now, to Arizona, where he’s moving this month.

But of all the places he’s visited or lived, Bess said Iowa City has taught him the most.

“We had a supportive crowd even in the beginning when we were awful,” said the former frontman of reggae-roots band, Public Property, which broke up earlier this year after more than seven years together. “We got support from our friends who gave us a chance here.

“Iowa City made it all possible.”

Rock and reggae

Bess said his brother, Daniel, is part of the reason he is a musician.

His brother started teaching him guitar licks when he was 11.

“It all started with (Jimi) Hendrix,” Bess said. “When I heard Hendrix and his guitar licks, it blew my mind.”

His musical influences are split. One half is rock ’n’ roll and blues rock. Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones — all can be traced down to the Delta and the Deep South, Bess said.

“That’s the beginning of almost all rock, and then that branches into funk, jazz, even electronica, all from raw blues,” he said.

The other half is Hawaiian music. Bess was born and raised in Oahu, where Jamaican reggae and Rastafari are a big part of the culture.

“You hear a ton of it in Hawaii,” he said. “It’s a huge thing there, so it was a huge influence on me, more than traditional Hawaiian music.”

It’s part of the reason Public Property was so entrenched in reggae, and why you’d often see Bess wielding a ukulele onstage.

Many of those reggae bands in Hawaii, as well as many of its residents, never leave the islands. But Bess’ wanderlust took hold early.

“I didn’t want to go to college in Hawaii because as awesome as it is, it can make you feel isolated and waterlocked,” he said. “But I’ll definitely settle back there some day.”

Preparing for “Property”

Bess left the islands to attend the University of Iowa in 1999, drawn by the glimmering reputation of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

“I wasn’t eyeing it to enter, (I just loved) the whole vibe of Iowa City culture and the Midwest,” he said. “I thought I would be an English major.”

But true to his itchy feet, he dropped out of UI after his first year and went to New York City for a year. Not long after that, though, he decided to re-enroll at UI and finish his degree — only this time, he set his sights on Italian.

“I switched to Italian because my girlfriend at the time was Italian and I lived there for a year when I was really little, so I have this strange Italian love affair,” he said. “And I knew I wanted to study abroad.”

Bess never attended college with the end-goal of having a 9-to-5 career. He knew he wanted to be a writer or a musician — “I just wasn’t sure where I’d land.

“That’s why I dropped out. I didn’t see the point (of college),” he said. “But then I saw the point in the social life, having discipline. I knew it wouldn’t be for a career.”

During his senior year, Bess went to Italy and started playing guitar at a bar in Milan with some friends. It was then that he decided to get serious about his music career.

When he returned to Iowa at the end of the semester, he graduated with a degree in Italian and started Public Property. The band went on to record four albums from 2003 to 2010 — traveling 60,000 miles to play 200 shows a year, said John Peterie, the “merch guy” for the band.

“The band was great, and I loved traveling, and we traveled a lot,” Bess said. “I was also the manager, booking agent, travel agent, so it was crazy. I had to be a lot of things, but I learned a lot from doing it.”

Peterie said he’s seen a lot of changes and turnover in the band in the last seven years he’s traveled with them. But through it all, he said Bess has maintained his drive.

“It’s one of the most impressive things, because being as young as he was and having the drive to do it and the willingness to stick it out, and knowing Public Property, all you have to do is listen to the music to hear the message and thought processes of the songs,” Peterie said. “That’s all Dave.”

Bess said though he loved touring, it was perhaps the toughest part of the gig. But Iowa City always was a great place to land.

“Our first several tours, we didn’t make any money,” he said. “It’s a slow growth. You have to grind it out on the road. … It seems romantic to be on tour, but the reality’s way different.

“And once you gain those tools and learn those things, you can’t take it anywhere without support and a fan base. Iowa City helped us in great ways.”

“It’s time to move on.”

Bess performed his final show with Public Property this past spring at the Iowa City Yacht Club. The seven-piece band had been growing apart for more than a year due to changes in musicians and the difficulty of replacing key members, Bess said.

“It was 50-50 with the band, but there’s no animosity. It just sort of fizzled out,” he said. “It’s time to move on.”

The change has been good, though. Bess is ready to move to Arizona and work entirely on his solo career for the first time. His first album, due out this fall, has a different sound than Public Property’s, he said, but the influence of the band on Bess still shines through.

“I’m looking forward to (moving), not being associated with Public Property, making different kinds of music, branching out, learning,” Bess said. “Public Property took so much time away from honing my skills …

“But Public Property taught me a lot. It taught me how to sing, took me seven years,” he said. “So I say I have a master’s degree in Public Property.”

And despite all he’s learned and all the experiences he’s had in Iowa City and with Public Property, he’s ready to go.

“It’s been way too long,” he said.