Take a seat with The Lawn Chairs

The Lawn Chairs performed at Bluestem Music Stage in Ames Saturday. The Lawn Chairs opened for Pieta Brown and Bo Ramsey. 

Ashley Green

A group of landscape architecture students, faculty and alumni have an extracurricular hobby one might not expect: they’re in a band.

The Lawn Chairs have been performing together since 2012, when the members went on the annual Traveling Savanna Studio. The studio, a second-year landscape architecture learning community, goes on two three-week-long road trips to different savanna landscapes in the United States.

Michael Martin, associate professor in landscape architecture, was driving a group of students when two of them began to sing along to the radio.

The singers in question were Molly Murtha and Morgan Van Denack, who are now seniors in landscape architecture. This particular moment is credited with the band’s beginning.

“These two initiated the band,” said Kyle Schellhorn, senior in landscape architecture and fellow band member. “They just started singing together, and then [Martin] just was like, ‘Oh, well we have a band here.’”

Schellhorn was also on the Savanna trip and had a unique storage solution that he couldn’t have known would foreshadow what was to come.

“[Schellhorn] packed his bags inside his drum,” Van Denack said of the trip. “So, naturally, that brought about a ‘Why do you have that? What is that thing?’ and so even if he didn’t want to be apart of the band, he was going to be.”

Another member of the band is Mike McCullough, who graduated in 2011. McCullough now runs a nonprofit landscape architecture consulting firm in St. Paul, Minn., and he plays with the band whenever he has the chance.

But McCullough wasn’t a stranger to music before The Lawn Chairs. There was Cup of Tea, a band which McCullough was a member of when he was an ISU student. Like him, all of the other Cup of Tea members have graduated.

In 2008, McCullough and Martin continued the music and began to perform in the College of Design atrium every Friday, although the two didn’t necessarily have permission.

“This is kind of a continuation of that,” Martin said in regards to The Lawn Chairs.

The band

The group worked well together from the start, and there is no shortage of inside jokes and laughs among them. Each member is compatible and works together for the bigger picture.

“You just sort of naturally find like-minded people,” Van Denack said.

The band doesn’t plan to become famous, but they do perform at small venues and recently recorded for the first time in a studio.

When recording, a band can choose to play live or have the different music layered. There was some concern for Martin, who didn’t want to lose the in-the-moment feeling of playing a song through the layered sound. Instead, he hoped to play as if they were playing at a bar or another venue.

“I think there’s this sort of improv thing that happens,” Martin said. “It’s pretty cool.”

The album that they are working on will consist of a compilation of the band’s favorite originals, which they have no shortage to choose from.

Before the band had formed, Martin already had penned many songs that they could chose from. In more recent times, Van Denack and Murtha have written others.

They don’t have any specific goals for distributing their album. The band offered up a few slightly implausible options, such as sending copies up in a hot air balloon or putting them in bottles and letting them set sail.

“This is basically going to be for posterity, I think,” Martin said. “It’s going to be sort of like the record of what we did.”

And they’ve done quite a bit. The Lawn Chairs have played dozens of small gigs, from bars to cafés to community events. 

They even spontaneously played in Rome last spring while Schellhorn and Van Denack were studying abroad, with Martin as their professor. McCullough also happened to be in Europe and flew in for an evening. Murtha, who was not in attendance, was studying abroad in Japan at the time.

The name

After gaining members, the next obvious step was to come up with a name. McCullough shot down many before the name “The Lawn Chairs” became an option — even then he wasn’t a fan.

“He really hated it, then it grew on him,” Murtha said. “It grew on everybody.”

“The Lawn Chairs” arose when the students had to learn the Latin names of plants in one of their classes. Most of their class used mnemonic devices to help them retain the names.

Van Denack and Murtha had been going through all of the plants saying the names in various accents, when they came across the serviceberry tree of the genus Amelanchier.

“Ah-ma-lan-cher,” Van Denack said, prompting Murtha.

“I’m a lawn chair!” Murtha realized.

With that, the band was no longer nameless.

Memorable performances

Two recent performances stick out to the band. One took place Aug. 28, the first Friday of the school year. 

The band was set to play at the local café Stomping Grounds, which has a large outdoor deck that brings in musicians during the warmer months. 

Martin lined up the gig early on in the summer, unaware that it would be pouring rain. As a result, they were asked to play inside rather than outside.

“I thought, ‘Yeah, okay, this won’t be very cool,'” Martin said of the new circumstances. “We went and set up and the place just got full of people. It was really amazing.”

Martin believes that this performance is the best thing The Lawn Chairs has done to date.

Also memorable to the band was recently opening for the folk singer Pieta Brown, who also happens to have roots in Iowa.

It was the first time the band played to an audience that was free from distractions like in a bar or coffee shop. 

“The focus was really different. That was really great,” Martin said.

The band closed with their typical opener, their crowd-favorite single “Rio Grande.” The song demonstrates the simple nature of the band, with rhythm instruments and voices and includes an a capella part.

What’s next

In May, the remaining members of The Lawn Chairs, aside from Martin, will graduate and likely move far from Ames to use their degrees. Additionally, Martin will spend the spring semester in Rome, reducing the band’s already-limited time together.

Until then, they’ll continue lining up gigs this fall and enjoying their remaining time together as a group.

Someday, they hope to do a reunion tour.