The music is at once loud.
I almost panic, and I know my eyes are wide as the young, costumed band begins their set. But no one else is surprised by the noise. Instead, the crowd at Total Drag on a Tuesday night draws in.
One by one, they step closer to the stage — not frantic, but captivated. Their eyes are locked in, and everyone wants to be in the front row. The girl in blue tights is on her tip toes, and she’s only a few feet away.
A couple minutes in, I can start to feel a beat. Literally, in my belly and behind my ears and under my feet. Boom. Boom. It almost gives me goosebumps, and I race to the front desk for a set of ear plugs. I don’t feel guilty wearing them because the lead singer has them in, too.
He’s so young and brave, I keep thinking. He’s up there on stage, so free and alive!
I can learn from him.
Other than their heads nodding along with the beat, the audience is still. They are not distracted or uncomfortable, disrespectful or rude. They don’t even fidget. Instead, their eyes haven’t strayed from the band. They lean in together. I do, too.
Does everyone know everyone here? Before the show and even as I’m standing with them now, the crowd congregates as if they’re all friends, but I don’t think so. The comfort in the room is just that tangible, and no one is shy either, even if they seem like someone who would be shy in the high school hallway. Here, every single one of us fits in.
The song has gone on about 10 minutes now, and one guy off to the side hasn’t stopped watching the drummer from his very first strike of the cymbal. He’s almost smiling, in his old band T-shirt and Chucks, but he’s too intrigued to smile right now. You can tell: He wants to play just like him. He will go home and think about playing just like him. I saw so much potential in his eyes, and if he keeps coming back here and remaining steadfast in what makes him happy, he will be on stage someday, too, playing just like him.
Welcome to Total Drag.
This is for the music
Total Drag is a record and tape store as well as an all-ages concert venue for the underground music scene. Dan and Liz Nissen opened the doors last May.
“We both love music, and we both love records,” Liz says. “It was the perfect thing to make ends meet.”
They wanted Total Drag to be a music venue “first and foremost,” Liz says. “That was our dream. We grew up going to all-age shows. That’s where we met, that’s how we met all of our close friends.”
But once they were old enough to start playing at the bars, they wanted to bring back a stage where anyone with the same love of music they had at that age could feel welcome.
“If you weren’t 21 in this town, you weren’t really seeing much live music at all,” Dan says. “We just wanted a place to host a lot of the bands we loved, and to show these bands to kids and inspire kids to start their own band,” Dan says.
Dan and Liz embrace creativity and boldness the way every community should — the way OTA strives to every day — so it’s easy to feel inspired at Total Drag, especially when music really is the only focal point.
“There is no other reason to be here except for the music and the show,” Dan says, “so the band almost never has to compete with people who are here just to hang out with their friends and have a drink, because there’s no alcohol. Or even places to sit.”
They’ll bring out chairs for an acoustic show or if they’re expecting an older crowd, but for the most part, the crowd is too excited to sit. I’ve seen that firsthand.
“It’s the energy,” Liz says. “Kids are really interested, and they really care about the music.”
Dan says the bands who come in love playing for the younger crowds, too. Friends of Cesar Romero was the first band to perform at Total Drag, during their grand opening in May last year.
Member J. Waylon Miller remembers the night well. “That first show had a lot of youthful energy that I hadn’t felt since I started going to shows back in the ’90s,” he says. “I knew it was something special.”
Thanks, Moms and Dads
Dan and Liz knew it was something special, too. It’s clear how much they believe in the talent and passion of every performer who takes the stage, but if there was anyone to convince of that, it was parents.
“For the first couple months, I met so many sets of parents,” Dan smiles. “Dozens and dozens and dozens …” But he wasn’t surprised. “The kids would come in just to check it out, but within the next day or so, they’d come back in with their parents. I assumed just because their parents wanted to be sure it was a safe, cool place that if their kids were going to be coming here, that it’s OK and they don’t have to be worried.”
If anything, parents are one of the regulars.
“Parents love to come see their kids play here,” Liz says. “It’s great.”
Dan and Liz are easy to get along with. They are warm, welcoming people who you just want to be around. I don’t own a record player, but I want to buy one just so I can go into Total Drag, buy lots of new records on a regular basis and talk to them about music.
So it makes sense that parents are on their side. It almost feels like Total Drag wouldn’t be all of the warmth and acceptance that it is without the charm and heart of the Nissens.
I think parents see that, too, so much so that Dan and Liz have been invited to graduation parties. Just like family.
“The parents are great! Without their support, we wouldn’t be where we are, so we have to give that back,” Liz says.
Music is possibility
For a long time, Total Drag was only a dream for Dan and Liz, something they hoped to see in Sioux Falls for the new generation of creative musicians. But when you believe in something as sincerely and positively as Dan and Liz do —combined with the ambition and heart of Sioux Falls’ young talent — the possibilities of something as simple as a record shop are endless.
“People are excited again,” Liz says. “People are creating new music, we’re getting bands I never would’ve dreamed would be able to play here. That’s exciting. The energy is contagious, so we got to keep doing it. And that’s a great responsibility.”
It is a responsibility when you think about how difficult it is to fit in some days. As a teenager, as an adult, as anyone who wants to be themselves. Music helps.
“I don’t think it’s something we subconsciously thought about back then, but the underground music scene changed our lives,” Dan says. “It gave a positive environment for nice people just wanting to be creative and express themselves for who they want to be and welcoming anybody in who also wants to do that.
“These are good kids.”
The Nissens are, too.