Proving Des Moines is NOT boring

10 or so questions from Ben Gran: Interview with Mike Draper, RAYGUN

We’re starting a new feature for the Des Moines is Not Boring blog where our resident humor blogger, Ben Gran, conducts in-depth interviews with local luminaries. He’ll interview anyone in the fields of art, culture, music, fashion, sports, entertainment, food, or anyone else who’s doing noteworthy work and who can say some funny things. Do you know anyone who you’d like to see interviewed? Send Ben Gran an e-mail at

Our first interview subject is Mike Draper, founder of beloved Des Moines T-shirt shop RAYGUN. Ben Gran talked with Mike about tasting chemicals, the worst date he ever had, why Philadelphians are awful, and why he thinks everyone needs to leave Iowa.

1. With the crippling costs of labor and health care in “Obama’s America,” how is a courageous job creator like yourself possibly able to afford to run your business? Do you actually hire people in Des Moines to make your shirts, or have you outsourced the work to offshore talent in Pakistan and Indonesia?

541928_10152400211655441_633587905_nI’m still able to afford to run the company, however I did just get my conscription letter that has assigned me to collective farm in western South Dakota. So that will make day-to-day running of RAYGUN difficult, but damn it, if that’s what Obama needs, I’m on board!

And although offshoring to Pakistan would be cheaper, we not only print everything in Des Moines, but 95% of the things we sell are American made. So the shirts are from LA and printed here. Our book, however, was printed and bound by union labor right here in Des Moines, using Wisconsin paper.

Funny how the “free-loading” Millennial generation is doing more for American made products than so many of the older “America lovers.” For instance, pressure from younger consumers (among other things) is actually forcing Apple to start making some of its products in the U.S.

2. Where do you get ideas for your clever T-shirt slogans? 

Don from Architectural Salvage once asked me, “So do you guys just smoke dope all day and think of funny shirts?”

Legally, we can’t smoke in the store. And now that I’m 30, working all day, married with two young kids who wake up insanely early, which makes me fall asleep at 9 p.m., I don’t even smoke outside the store anymore.

Now it’s all kind of a group process for ideas. We throw out as many ideas as we can in idea sessions, and every once in a while a “flash of genius” strikes. Those are few and far between, though. And “genius” is relative.

3. A few years ago I remember that I started seeing people wearing your shirts around town, at the Farmers Market, etc., with slogans like “Des Moines: Greatest City in the World.” Even though your shirts have a sarcastic edge, do you also think messages like these are reflecting a new-found spirit of civic pride in our fair city? Why, or why not? Or is there no larger “meaning” to it, and maybe people just like to buy shirts that say “Des Moines” on them? 

I think the Des Moines stuff in particular has three parts:

1) Tourist-y shirts. A lot of people want to buy Des Moines shirts for their friends or visitors, and there aren’t a lot of those shirts, in general.

2) Humor. We do make funnier shirts than your average tourist shop. And for Des Moines, the humor is built in. A slogan like “Des Moines: Hell Yes” is funny because no one should be THAT excited about Des Moines.

3) Civic pride. That said, we are actually excited about Des Moines, so there is a serious side. When we have a shirt like “Iowa: wave the next time you fly over,” though, the joke isn’t on us, the joke is on people who think all there is to Iowa is an patch of land inconveniently placed between New York and Los Angeles with (apparently) poorly marked exits that mean few people can get out of here.

Everywhere is what you make of it. Des Moines has great stuff that would be cool anywhere. RAYGUN would be cool in any city. I will put our humor and style up against anyone in the country. Gong Fu Tea would be cool in any city. Same for Eden, for Seed, for Domestica, for Ichi Bike, for Zombie Burger. It’s not just “cool for Des Moines.”

We need to stop worrying so much about national lists, about marketing campaigns, or about attracting outside businesses. We just need to support the talent we already have, and encourage talented people who are already here but not doing anything to do something.

There is an ocean of untapped talent in Des Moines.

4. What are your favorite hangouts in Des Moines, and why? (I’m not sure if you should answer truthfully, since any place you mention will likely be immediately swarmed by crazed groupies.)

Ha! RAYGUN groupies. That’d be the day. Although after that Secret Service sign blew up online, I was driving our RAYGUN van (that says “Raygun” HUUUUUGE on the side) to Office Depot, and an old lady pulled up next to me when I was walking in and said, “that sign you made about those Secret Service boys was so funny.”

That’s when I knew we had arrived.

But as mentioned before, having the kids has kind of changed my hangout locations. I spend a lot more time than I used to at the Historical Building (great with kids because it is pretty child-proof and free), the Science Center (2 blocks from my house), Backyard Adventures, etc.

My 4-year-old’s favorite restaurant is Zombie Burger (he calls all hamburgers zombie burgers) and my 2-year-old’s favorite restaurant is Court Avenue Brewing Company, so that’s handy whenever my wife isn’t cooking.

Court Avenue Brewing Company is where I took my wife for dinner when she first moved here (we live about 2 blocks away). And we actually went there after we got married at the Courthouse (Scott, the owner, bought us lunch). I spent New Year’s Eve 2005 at Court Ave Brewing Company back when New Year’s Eve downtown was still empty (we just sat down at a table and hung out).

I eat lunch every day at City Bakery in the East Village. RAYGUN has to account for about 5% of that place’s annual sales, since it’s pretty much our cafeteria. Gong Fu Tea and the Village Bean get a lot of my money.

Beyond that (places we went often before kids), it’s what you’d expect: The Continental and The Lift are the 2 bars I’d hang out at most when I used to go out… now it’s more my wife and I without the kids heading to Django or Americana.

5. You haven’t shied away from discussing political issues on the RAYGUN blog. (Actually – where is the RAYGUN blog? The link I clicked was broken. Do you still have a blog?) How do you balance the desire to express yourself with the desire to not alienate prospective customers? Or do you take the approach that “it’s OK to have opinions, because we’d rather have a stronger core of true fans than try to blandly appeal to lots of people?” 

The blog is coming back soon … we got a little too busy to work on it, so took it down and are rolling out a new online store/blog April 1.

As far as the alienation, I don’t think about it too much until after I’ve done it. There are some things where I’ve thought, “Shit, I wish I hadn’t said that.” however, for the most part, I don’t think my opinions are all that radical, so wouldn’t be too alienating.

Usually our jokes are what have caused more people to declare they’d never shop at the store again, not so much any political opinions.

I’ve always liked bands/companies/etc. that had opinions on matters, no matter what they were. It kind of gave them a little more dimension in my mind. And I think people in general will like the fact that we are an “active” company when it comes to the community.

Whether you disagree or agree, I think it’s handy to know that there are voices out there, and if you need our help, we’re here.

But I think about 75% of the people who shop at RAYGUN don’t know who I am, let alone what I think about politically!

6. Who are some local Des Moines/Iowa artists/musicians/comedians (*ahem – shameless plug – I, Ben Gran, am a local comedian*) whose work you really admire? 

It’s funny, the version of Des Moines that we (people at RAYGUN, I mean) live in. There are probably so many people in the city who don’t think of Des Moines as a creative city, but all we do during the day is follow Des Moines’ creative group.

So your stuff, Indie Moines, Hobart Schmenge on DM Register comments, Lacy Brunnette, Meanz Chan, are all local bloggers that we bounce back and forth between, and the Iowa Nice guys, Scott and Paul.

In terms of other artists, it’s neat to be able to work with artists we like on a regular basis: Van Holmgren (works at RAYGUN), John Solarz (8/7 CENTRAL), Ian Miller (Paste), and Basemint are all designers/printers who do great work. Anna Jones photography, musicians like The Envy Corps, Peace Love and Stuff, Trouble Lights, and my favorite local band: the Autumn Project (according to my store iTunes, i’ve listened to their La Luna De Negra 141 times).

There is almost too much good stuff to mention. Like I said, we can spend most of our time on just artwork that is created in Des Moines. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking of the best ways to pool all of that talent. It’s growing, but it’ll be interesting to see where it goes.

7. You lived and worked in Philadelphia prior to moving back to Des Moines. What are the relative benefits/advantages of being back in the Midwest to do the work that you do? And are Philadelphians as insufferably rude, obnoxious and verbally abusive as the reputation of “the City of Brotherly Love” suggests? 

I think everyone should leave Iowa. And leave the Midwest really (and leave America if possible). When you leave where you’re from, it either shows you that you didn’t fit in where you were from, or it shows you how much you actually like where you’re from. It creates people that choose to be where they are.

Iowa’s problem is not that it lacks jobs or affordable education, it’s that it has both. Kids grow up in a stable environment where getting a job is pretty easy, they can go to 3 great state schools, then leave the state at 23. We may get them back at 30.

Instead, we should send all 18 year olds out so we get them back at 23.

I lived in Philly, then spent over a year in the UK/Germany. I have a good time no matter where I live, but I just can’t see myself living anywhere but Des Moines. I don’t know why. On the one hand I have an exploratory personality (opening the store, creating stuff, etc.), but on the other hand I don’t even travel that much and like just staying around Central Iowa.

Long story short: people in Philly are mean.

8. I’m a 33-year-old, married father of two. Am I not cool enough to wear RAYGUN clothing? What’s the cutoff? How do you know when you’re not cool enough for RAYGUN shirts? 

Yeah, the cut-off is 29. So I can’t wear the stuff anymore either!

I’ve never considered myself all that hip or exclusively cool, and I don’t think the store gives off that vibe. Maybe it does and I actually am hip. If so, I’m giving hip people a bad name.

9. What are your favorite places (outside of Iowa) that you’ve ever visited? Where else other than Des Moines would you ever want to consider living (as a second home/vacation home), and why? 

The only place I really like traveling to outside of Des Moines is northern Michigan. My parents have a place in Leelanau County next door to my grandparents. I used to live with them in the summers, teach sailing, water ski, make out with chicks… man, that was the life… it is a great part of the country, and I’d love to own a house there someday to visit in the summer.

But I need to sell a lot more shirts.

My wife’s family lives in Northern Scotland, we met in southern Scotland, and it’s a beautiful country scenery-wise. But I’m kind of a flip-flops/shorts guy, which makes me the only one in Scotland.

10. What was the best and worst date you’ve ever been on? 

Whoa…though I’m only 30, I’ve been living married for almost 6 years, and lived with my now wife 2 years before that, so it’s been a while since I’ve been on a date, but let me think………

A bad date probably ends with someone crying, which has happened to me 3 times. I apparently have that effect on women where after a certain amount of time with me, they break down. Or maybe I just ran around with a crowd in college that wasn’t particularly stable!

Because once they’re crying, there’s no really good way to transition into “okay, see you later,” or “I’ll call you.” I mean, what do you say? Do you go, “There there, there there… anyhoo, I got some work to take care of this morning, so… I guess I’ll see you later.”

Best date: one that didn’t end in tears.

11. What was the best and worst job you’ve ever had? 

I haven’t had that many jobs, really…I wrote for Cityview, played in a band, taught sailing. Teaching sailing is a pretty sweet gig.

Worst job I guess would be working as a chemical tester at Penn. Their labs on campus would have jobs where you’d go in and taste chemicals, etc., for $20. It was pretty good work if you could get over the weirdness of it.

One time, though, they put you in a closed room at a little desk and put an unnamed chemical in the air. A camera watches you, and every 10 minutes you have to fill out a questionnaire on the desk. One of the questions was, “Do you feel nervous?” and I was like “Fuck! I do now!”

12. What career advice would you offer to young people graduating from college today? 

Do whatever you want, and do it full time. There’s no time like right after college to jump in and start.

13. If you could be in any band, in any era – which band? And what instrument would you play? 

If I could play in any band that had existed? Hmmm….my favorite band is Tool, but I’m not nearly good enough to play with them. And they’re probably pretty strange guys.

I guess I’d play guitar with NOFX. I think I’d fit in all right with those dudes.

14. If you had a time machine that would only work once (one round trip), and you could prevent some past historic injustice from occurring, what would you do? Where would you go, what would you want to do/see? (Everyone always says “Kill Hitler,” but I would go back in time and somehow prevent Stephenie Meyer from writing the “Twilight” books.) 

Prevent one thing from happening? I’d try and prevent the Civil War. We should have let the South secede!

Follow the funny T-shirt-making exploits of Mike Draper and the RAYGUN gang on Twitter or Facebook

Ben Gran is a Des Moines freelance writer and comedian. He does not own any RAYGUN shirts. Follow Ben Gran on Twitter or Facebook