City Paper is not for tourists
Indie-rock kids bring lots of different things home with them from Austin’s annual South by Southwest festival: New sonic discoveries. Queue fatigue. Swag. This March, Dave Mann kept to the margins of the massive annual music festival, but he came back with a mission.
“When I was walking around, I didn’t pay for anything. I just went to all the free venues,” the 32-year-old Brookland resident says. “I’d put my head into a venue and go, ‘Ah, this isn’t for me,’ so I’d go to the next venue.”
Mann had last been to South by Southwest about a decade earlier, before it ballooned to its current monstrous size. Now, he wanted to make his own.
“Nothing like that since I’ve been in D.C. has ever happened,” he says. “I wanted it to happen. I wasn’t going to wait for somebody to do it, so I did it myself.”
By early April, Mann had hatched his plan: a 35-band, two-day festival in Bella Café and Restaurant, an Eritrean establishment across the street from 9:30 Club. It wasn’t exactly the Continental Club, but it was a start.
A week later, when Washington City Paper wrote a blog post about the upcoming event, the number of bands was up to 45.
By mid-May, however, tickets weren’t selling—the kind of setback that would send most aspiring rock-carnival impresarios scurrying back to their bedrooms. Not Mann. Instead, he told the bands that he couldn’t pay them, told the world that the festival was going to be free, and told the media that, by the way, he’d now booked five more venues and a total of 125 acts.
You’d have been hard-pressed to know more than a few of the bands, which were sourced largely from the D.C. underground rock scene, as well as equally obscure corners of the East Coast corridor. But the festival’s title might have struck you: Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie Two-Day Music Festival.
The name? It’s because Mann really likes sweet tea, and he really likes pumpkin pie.
Mann is a big dude, with glassy, inscrutable eyes, a light, prickly beard, and a dizzy demeanor. In a lot of ways, he’s D.C.’s answer to Thierry Guetta, the relentlessly enthusiastic Los Angeles shop owner at the center of the 2010 documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop. Inspired by street artists like Shepard Fairey and Banksy, Guetta became a filmmaker and guerilla artist, took the pseudonym Mr. Brainwash, produced a massive warehouse exhibition, made nearly $1 million, and never let slip whether he was in on the joke.
In the last few years, Mann has become one of the most quixotic, hard-working, and controversial figures in D.C.’s close-knit indie-rock scene. Both ubiquitous and an outlier, he shares all the high-pitched optimism of the Brightest Young Things set—but none of its post-modern remove. Although one of his groups once hosted a Fugazi/Minor Threat tribute, he’s not really interested in the District’s historic hardcore scene. Nor does he really have a place in the current one. His bands sometimes play shows in the clubs that make up part of the landscape, but he mostly looks for less traditional spaces, like restaurants and coffee shops. He doesn’t even appear especially hip; most of the time, he resembles a guy who woke up at noon, threw on a grungy T-shirt, and played some guitar in his basement.
Venues notwithstanding, just about everything Mann does feels multitudinous: A bassist and a singer, he starts lots of bands with lots of members, including one that swelled to 17 before Mann parted amid creative acrimony. He writes lots of songs, too—at one point, a few years ago, he was cranking out as many as 10 a day. From May until last month, he was booking shows at Bella almost every night of the week, offering residencies to local bloggers, bands, and the Sonic Circuits Festival of Experimental Music.
Thus the Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie Music Festival was only ever going to be massive. “If I’m going to fail,” Mann told me at the time, “I want to fail big.” Which is pretty much what a lot of people, including me, expected. But when the shows—planned by one guy in one and a half months at minimal expense with a skeleton crew of volunteers—rolled around in June, the most surprising thing was that it wasn’t a failure at all.
It was Mann’s Mr. Brainwash moment.
“I think after the June festival, I kind of sat back and was like, ‘Man, I just organized a festival for 125 bands, and nothing burned to the ground,’” he says, fixing me with a gauzy stare. “It kind of made me think, maybe I should do this.”
And so, on Oct. 8 and 9 along the U Street NW corridor and in Logan Circle, he’s doing it again. Maybe you got the email last week: “125-175 (maybe more?!?) bands will be playing the STPP Music Fest this Columbus Day wkn,” read the subject line. “..and it’s FREE!!!!”
Ask someone what they think of Dave Mann, and the answer often involves the word “ambitious.” It’s usually a compliment. Sort of.
“I would call him a force of nature,” says Megan Petty, a local music blogger who is helping to organize the second Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie Music Festival, which begins Saturday. “He’s more motivated than most people I’ve ever met, and he actually can make stuff happen.”
“He’s truly a gem of a person and always a pleasure to work with,” writes Arthur Harrison, a thereminist who played in Mann’s now-defunct band Twins of a Gazelle.
“Dave does a lot of stuff and all of it has worked out really well,” says Emily Chimiak, a violinist and singer who’s worked on a number of Mann’s projects. “Maybe [some of] it was a little too ambitious; it’s yet to be seen.”
“I think he’s a really sincere, ambitious guy,” says Pat Walsh, who books benefit shows for the punk-rock activist group Positive Force. “He’s kind of outside the normal structures.”
“Dave Mann is the kind of guy who lives his life in exclamation points,” says his Mittenfields bandmate Sam Sherwood.
Of course, like a lot of ambitious people—especially in a scene that aestheticizes the understatement—Mann also tends to be thought of as, well, weird.
“I don’t want to say anything mean, but his behavior’s very capricious, music-wise,” says Matthew Malamud, who played violin in Twins of a Gazelle. “He gets these grand schemes and tries to execute them, and then gets distracted by something else.”
“I’m really surprised you’re writing an article about him,” says James Wolff, a New York-based musician who worked with Mann in Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie—when it was a band, not a festival. “I don’t know why he continues to do it. He doesn’t know music.”
I made Mann’s acquaintance in October 2009, when I wrote a couple of short City Paper items about Spelling for Bees, a supposedly 40-member musicians’ collective Mann had founded earlier that year. Since then, he has been a prolific, mostly amusing, and always enthusiastic presence in emails, Google chats, and Facebook messages. He does, indeed, live his life in exclamation points.
Often, Mann will ask me to write about one of his bands or devote some ink to his latest project, like the music licensing company he started in 2009 (it has since fizzled) or his short-lived band-management concern (it’s currently inactive). Sometimes he sends me instrumental demos and asks for my opinion.
Once, he suggested I write a story exploring the question “Is ‘indie rock’ the new ‘alternative?’” I don’t think I responded.
I didn’t meet Mann in person until this March, when he invited me to a private show at his house in Brookland. I was the only person who showed up.
Like booking bands for a festival only to realize that you can’t pay them, inviting a journalist to a show where no one has turned out is the kind of thing that might make a lot of people cringe with shame. Not Mann, who didn’t seem bothered by the non-audience.
And, as it happened, it was a good time: Mann’s band, Mittenfields, has three guitarists, and may have more pedals than its members have digits. Mann sings in off-key warbles and yelps, like Arcade Fire’s Win Butler, if Arcade Fire’s Win Butler were completely, unapologetically unhinged. Yet in the context of Mittenfields’ shoegazing maximalism, the vocals more or less make sense: The songs mix ’90s post-rock dynamics with a slacker-rock lilt, stumbling toward catharsis.
Mann doesn’t read sheet music, or have a background in theory, but he frequently recruits classically trained musicians. He doesn’t pen music and lyrics separately, like many songwriters do: Rather, he’ll sit down with a bass or acoustic guitar and sing what comes into his head, or ad lib while his band jams, and listen to the tapes later.
“Dave has a lot of song ideas, and he has a sort of unique ability to spew out lyrics on the fly,” says Mittenfield’s Sherwood. “The side-effect of that is that no lyrics are ever set in stone until things are finally done in the studio.” For some reason, in one Mittenfields song, Mann name-drops Kevin Drew, the leader of the Canadian indie-rock collective Broken Social Scene. “I don’t want to ask Dave what the songs mean,” says Sherwood, “because I don’t want to make him think about it too much.”
Mann sometimes writes song parts in fragments, and because he lacks formal training, he frequently takes bandmates’ ideas in unexpected directions, almost like a musical savant. Oftentimes, when his collaborators are patient, it works. The same, it could be said, goes for his efforts at organizing something as big and new as Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie.
Mann was born in 1978, and grew up in San Antonio. His mother is a paralegal. His dad’s been out of the picture for a while.
After high school and a year of community college in San Antonio, he moved in 1998 to Austin, where he took classes, worked odd jobs, and played in bands. One group was called U.S. Rockers, which he says was influenced by early Weezer. “It was going good until someone in the band found out about [psychedelic collective] Elephant 6,” Mann says. “Our only claim to fame was that we opened up for Marcy Playground.” With U.S. Rockers’ drummer, he then started a Pavement-esque group called Neato Keeno. “I have no idea what it means,” he says.
Around this time, Mann says he found religion, and contemplated becoming a preacher through the Church of Christ. But before long, he and organized religion developed creative differences. “It was the iron first that made me step back and re-evaluate things,” he says. Mann moved back to San Antonio, but spent most of the next two years touring the country—as a technician, that is, for a company called Motivational Productions that produces Christian-themed multimedia presentations for grade schools. Then he spent two years as an Americorps volunteer in Gainesville, Fla.
In order earn money to pay for college, Mann joined the U.S. Navy in 2003. First he was a deck seaman on an about-to-be-decommissioned destroyer, traveling to Slovenia, France, Spain, Italy, Israel, Greece, and elsewhere. The commander “basically told the crew it would be a fun deployment,” Mann says. The Navy then sent Mann to photography school, and stationed him as a photographer at the U.S. Naval Academy. He met his future wife, Elise, in Annapolis; they married in 2007, the day after he left the armed forces. He still hasn’t gone back to school.
For most of the next year, they lived in North Carolina, where Elise had found work. That’s where Mann began writing dozens of songs, maybe hundreds—a creative outburst that coincided with his departure from the military’s hierarchical world. In 2008, a couple months before they moved to D.C. for Elise’s work, he began looking for a vehicle for his music.
In person, Mann comes off as the nicest guy in D.C. indie rock. Maybe he is. But his history of forming and disbanding groups has also earned him a lot of foes, whose gripes go beyond discomfort with ambition. I interviewed a handful of Mann’s current and former bandmates for this article. A slightly larger number declined to comment. Suffice it to say, Mann’s unpredictable, innovating personality drives a lot of his bandmates—especially the ones with classical and compositional training—utterly crazy.
Mann finds collaborators on Craigslist and burns through many of them quickly. Other than Mann and Sherwood, at least seven or eight people have rotated through Mittenfields. He did time in a band called Roma Condor. There have been two iterations of Twins of a Gazelle and three versions of Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie. While Mann was involved, Spelling for Bees lasted for five or six showcases. In addition to Mittenfields, Mann is currently playing in a group called Drawbridges that’s a vehicle for his orchestral whims. He has a mostly solo project called Dave Mann & the Bee-Sides.
Even when the songwriting is collaborative, Mann usually establishes himself as bandleader. His groups strain for different reasons: It can be bad chemistry. Or poor logistics, like booking a gig or studio time before a group is ready. Or Mann’s attention span. “I’d say a lot of it is due to, possibly, me getting bored,” he says.
Sometimes, Mann says, his bandmates’ commitment isn’t up to snuff. “People often, in D.C., have really adult jobs that they worry about all the time,” he says. “They’re definitely not thinking about the music side because they’re working ’til 6 or 7 every day.”
The ultimate breakup of Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie (the band) was notably messy. “Basically, I wanted to have a Polyphonic Spree-type band,” Mann says, so he assembled a group with more than a dozen members. It didn’t work out, and Mann left. He later clashed with the group’s singer, James Wolff, over who had written each song. Mann also wanted to keep the name, which he’d been using prior to that incarnation of the band. Later, a flame war broke out in the comments below a Brightest Young Things interview with Mittenfields. Sweet Tea eventually changed its moniker to The Cascade, and ended up crediting Mann’s contributions to four songs on its 2010 EP.
Among some peers, Mann also has a reputation for self-aggrandizement—a perception undoubtedly buttressed by this press release for Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie (the June festival), which was written by a member of another band but mailed by Mann:
When Mann showed up on the DC music scene in 2008, he was a godsend: An unflappable musician with good taste who decided to skip the politics and attitude and just went out and found his own venues to book. “I didn’t have any experience other than getting my own band(s) booked,” says Mann, “But I wasn’t under any impressions that it was difficult.” Ahahahahaha!
Sherwood cautions against over-examining Mann’s motivations, which he says are quite simple, maybe even childlike. “Dave wants there to be awesome music being made, and he wants to be involved with that,” he says. “What drives Dave is really quite as simple as that.”
Mann has a 9-to-5 data-entry job at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, but he’d rather be doing indie rock full-time. “Whatever capacity within the confines of music,” he says. “If I could live off writing jingles full time, I’d do that, as long as it’s not for some shitty corporation.”
Mittenfields, his main band, isn’t about to become a touring act—the members have careers, and one of them just had a baby—but Mann would like to see it sign with a reputable indie label.
Meanwhile, most of his extracurricular efforts—booking shows at the Eritrean restaurant Dahlak in 2008, attempting to manage bands in 2009 and 2010—haven’t panned out. “He’s tried several times to create a stable of acts,” says Sherwood. “With the exception of the festival and his various forays into booking at Ethiopian restaurants, nothing has really come of those efforts.”
Mann puts just about every moment of his free time toward making, promoting, booking, or writing about music (Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie is also a blog)—a source of great frustration, he says, to his wife, who declined to be interviewed. At the June festival, when I asked him how much he’d spent to make it happen, he asked me not to write how much, so Elise wouldn’t get mad at him.
June’s festival was a lot of things, but mostly it was strange. Mann wanted to showcase up-and-coming artists—way, way up-and-coming artists—using a bunch of hole-in-the-wall spaces in close proximity to one another. He booked his bands, and his friends’ bands, and his friends’ friends’ bands. He reached out to contacts in New York and Philly for still more acts. After he figured out that he couldn’t pay them—a realization that probably surprised no one in the established indie-rock circuit Mann was trying to work around—only about five bands dropped out, according to Mann.
The bands that remained weren’t all pleased, of course. “I gave Dave a lot of shit about that,” says Eric Tischler of Silver Spring power-poppers The Jet Age, who headlined one of the Sweet Tea shows. But Tischler doesn’t think many of the other, smaller bands were disappointed.
At Sweet Tea 1.0, there was indeed some terrible music—bro metal, calcified roots rock, blue-eyed soul in several hues. There was also a handful of surprises. At almost any moment from noon to midnight over the two days, there were six bands playing at a time. If you weren’t there to see any band in particular—and odds were, you weren’t—the lack of entry fee and easy walks between venues meant you didn’t have to prioritize. When bands sucked, you moved on.
Some bands played to near-empty rooms. Other played to crowds of what looked like mostly other bands. Some spaces filled up; on Saturday night, people were spilling out onto 9th St. NW. Mann admits he has no way of really knowing, but hazards that 1,000 people, maybe 1,500, came out for the festival.
Sound was a problem, mostly because there was no one there to do the hard work of engineering the P.A. systems. Out of desperation, Mann paid a sound engineer from Velvet Lounge to man the boards at Bella, the festival’s flagship space.
But for the most part, Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie Festival happened without incident. “Dave took some things on faith,” says Sherwood, “that bands could handle stopping when they were supposed to and loading their gear when they were supposed without some club owner yelling at them. And he made it happen.”
The second Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie Festival, which takes place this weekend, involves the same economics as the first one—a concept local music types knew about well before Mann showed up. Often, Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants will allow bookers free use of their space, as long as the audience buys lots of drinks. Mann’s big innovation is Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie Festival’s ludicrous scale.
The bands, this time, are no less obscure. “I’m hardly at the level where I can get Best Coast or whatever,” says Mann. He’s excited about the Tampa, Fl., indie-pop band Sleepy Vikings, one of the headliners. “They’ve got a lot of good buzz lately, a whole lot of good buzz.” He’s also pumped about a handful of New York-based Australian artists. He’s sending the Australian embassy a press release about the festival.
The bigger changes are behind the scenes. Mann has assembled a committee of fellow musicians, writers, and friends to help organize things. He’s also registered Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie as a limited liability company. He’s grabbed a few local sponsors, like printing company Base Camp and On Tap magazine, and found volunteer sound engineers. Pica Taco will provide each member of the bands with two tacos. Atomic Guitars is providing some gear. Mann is hoping to sell what he’s calling donorships—a spot on the festival T-shirt in exchange for cash.
Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie, it seems, is going pro. But not too pro: When I asked Mann for a list of committee members, he didn’t know a couple of their last names. Likewise, the bands still aren’t getting paid. Donorships will just underwrite the T-shirts and posters. Proceeds from those sales, in turn, will pay incidental expenses. Mann says he doesn’t expect the festival to make money.
And so Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie, a few days away from its second iteration, is in something of a strange spot. Mann has effectively reduced the economics of indie rock to zero, powering his festival on the goodwill of its talent. About 20 bands from the last festival are returning; many groups, it seems, won’t play the same festival for free twice.
Mann hopes to draw more recognizable indie talents to the roster in the future while keeping things free. The plan for next year is to figure out how to accrue some major sponsorship.
It’s not easy. A group that included Arlington audio engineer and band manager Jonathan Chevalley tried in May to stage an event called DC Music Fest that would have featured mostly local singer/songwriters and pop rock bands. When no major sponsor materialized, they pulled the plug. “I think we tried to do it too big to start out,” Chevalley says.
On the other hand, Brightest Young Things, the local scenester website and party-planning operation, pulled off a coup when it hosted a vitaminwater-sponsored art space for a month this summer. Their programming was strong; the swag ranneth over.
If a similar achievement seems far-fetched for Mann, it’s not just because of his track record of fizzled indie-rock ventures. It’s because even in insular D.C., indie rock isn’t an earnest game. And both the Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie Music Festival and its founder are about as earnest as things come. Maybe that’s why—although it was slapdash and flimsily curated—the first iteration felt strangely endearing.
Still, Mann keeps announcing new ambitions. Next year, he says, he wants to host a Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie showcase at South by Southwest. He’s hoping to hook up with a sweet tea vendor for the event, have a pumpkin pie-eating contest, and get a Food Network sponsorship. “I’d love to throw Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie festivals like the Warped Tour,” Mann says, when I ask about his very long-term ambitions. “I would love to do that. I think that would be incredible, just to have a nationwide festival.”
He’s still hoping to parlay his connections into a booking operation, too. “Out of the hundreds of bands that I’ve worked with since 2008, there are a few of them I’ve really kept in touch with, and for whatever reason they haven’t found the right person. At this point, I could say, ‘I’d like to book your tours and whatnot, I’d like to try and find you a record label. I’d like to be that guy.”
“It seems to be a natural knack for me,” Mann says. “I don’t really have a problem talking to people.”
Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie Music Festival takes place Saturday and Sunday at Expo, 1928 9th St. NW; Desperados, 1342 U St. NW; The Islander, 1201 U St. NW; Lalibela, 1415 14th St. NW; Dynasty, 2210 14th St. NW; Caribou Coffee, 1415 14th St. NW; Dukem, 1414 U St. NW. For full times and schedules, visit www.stppfest.com.