If you play live music in the District, there’s a good chance you’ve interacted with Andras Fekete. He made his mark on the D.C. scene as the brilliant and forward-thinking composer who organized mass guitar ensembles, in which he’d assemble upward of 100 area guitarists to perform symphonies of shrieking harmonies and beautiful feedback. He also led the experimental art-rock guitar ensemble Boat Burning.
On stage, Fekete could come off like a madman—a short and wiry person with cool jet-black hair, deep-set eyes, and a piercing stare flailing his arms around and motioning commands like a deranged conductor. This Fekete stood in contrast to the off-stage Fekete: a kind, warm, and wildly ambitious artist who revelled in D.C.’s talented music community and the opportunity to collaborate with anyone and everyone.
“He was extraordinarily giving and generous in his praise,” says Geordie Grindle, his Boat Burning bandmate. “He worked with a wide variety of experienced players. He was patient.”
Fekete, who died on Dec. 21 at the age of 62, did not reside in D.C. nearly as long as some of his bandmates. But you would never know that considering how well-connected he was in the city. Since March of 2014, when Fekete led Boat Burning’s first massed guitar ensemble with 20 players, he set his sights progressively bigger: Black Cat in 2016 with 70 guitarists, and 9:30 Club in the beginning of 2018 with a whopping 100 guitarists.
Born in 1956 to Hungarian immigrants who fled to the U.S. to escape communism, Fekete grew up in Richmond, Virginia in a strict Roman Catholic household. Music was prominent, but limited to classical—the work of great European composers like Bach, Brahms, Chopin, and Schubert.
In 1975 he moved up north to attend Boston University, where he was exposed to the city’s blooming post-punk scene, witnessing first-hand the rise of greats like Mission of Burma. (Fekete counted Mission of Burma guitarist Roger Miller among his many friends in various music scenes across the country. Miller produced and mixed Boat Burning’s eponymous EP released in April.)
Fekete rambled around Boston for nearly a decade before living life on the move for a bit, with stints in New York and San Francisco. Eventually, he settled in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1988 where he married and raised two kids—Matthew and Erin Fekete.
In the Triangle, Fekete thrived musically. He started a Television cover band in 2007 as well as a garage-rock band called Thee Dirtybeats. But his musical curiosity—fueled by his classical upbringing, formative punk years, and his fondness for improvisation, free jazz, and minimalism—inspired him to create something more. The first iteration of Boat Burning formed a few years later in Chapel Hill, and included Pete Gamble, a guitarist Fekete played with in his Television cover band. Fekete organized his first mass guitar event in 2011 at the Nightlight in Chapel Hill, with about 25 people. He would go on to organize two more mass guitar concerts in the Triangle area, in 2012 and 2013, before he brought the project to D.C.
Around the same time Boat Burning began, Fekete—who had long been separated from his wife—met his longtime partner, Robin Diamond, at a Patti Smith show at the 9:30 Club.
Diamond remembers the night they met—11 years ago—vividly.
“I saw this guy standing outside waiting to get in … and I remember thinking ‘Wow!’ I hadn’t had that feeling in over a decade,” she recalls. “We met, you know, as older people.”
Moments later, Diamond ran into an old friend, Andras’ brother Mike Fekete, in line. Andras was in town visiting from North Carolina to take his then 19-year-old son Matthew to the show. “Mike said, ‘Hey, we’re going to be hanging out downstairs in the back, let’s all meet up there.’ And in those moments it took, like, 30 seconds of ‘Hello’ introductions for [Andras] to say ‘Oh, I should have your contact information so we can stay in touch.’ And within two minutes … we were standing there holding hands, watching the show.”
Fekete and Diamond officially started dating a year later. “I couldn’t stop wanting to get to know him,” she recalls of those early years. “I couldn’t stop thinking about him. I couldn’t stop being giddy when he was in my presence, but yet calm and kind of felt like I was in good hands, even with the uncertainty of a really new relationship.”
From 2007 to 2011, Fekete would drive to and from North Carolina to visit Diamond before he permanently moved to D.C. in July 2011.
“I’ve known him for just a few years, but he was someone who came to D.C. and just connected with so many people,” says Grindle. “D.C. can be a bit of a finicky town to break into, and his warmness and kindness reached so many people.”
Mark Sherman, Boat Burning’s current and long-time drummer, first met Fekete in 2012. “He had recently moved to D.C. and wanted to put something musical together,” Sherman recalls.
Fekete had met and started playing music with a friend of Sherman’s, a cellist named David Rabin, along with violinist Mark Kapeluck. Rabin told Sherman that Fekete was looking for a drummer and asked if he’d be interested. So they started jamming.
“He wanted to do a completely improv thing, which was very, very interesting to me,” Sherman says.
Soon after the four of them started jamming, Fekete decided he wanted to organize a mass guitar ensemble in the District. The city’s first “Music For Massed Guitars” took place on March 14, 2014 at Union Arts with 20 players. Among them was Jonathan Matis, who would continue to play with Fekete as a permanent member of Boat Burning.
“He was relentless. He set his sights on something and would not give up,” Matis says.
“Relentless” is a word most of Fekete’s bandmates use to describe him. He had grand ideas of performing and would figure out ways to make them work, including one gig where Boat Burning played at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, with each player in a separate room, out of sight of one another.
“He often worried he was steering us into unknown territories,” Grindle says. “There was a lot of showmanship in this type of performing, but he was a fantastic organizer.”
But for as much showmanship as Fekete had, he matched it with generosity, openness, and enthusiasm—especially when it came to musical collaborations. “When we talk about experimental music, you have to be open to ideas. That’s the essence of experimental music,” Sherman says. “He was never a ‘my way or the highway’ person. He was just open to everything, and I think that’s what made [playing with him] such a joyful experience.”
More than anything, Fekete’s driving influence for his later musical endeavors was the city of D.C. and its thriving creative community.
“He would always say to me about these mass guitar events that the most important thing is that they’re about community. They brought people together,” Sherman adds. “What he was trying to achieve was not just something sonically amazing, but something that was community-building among D.C.-area musicians.”
Diamond, who also plays in Boat Burning, recalls how much he thrived with the musicians who surrounded him. He would get giddy over new projects forming in the different musical scenes—especially ones that evolved from people meeting at a mass guitar event. He would be energized seeing friends and acquaintances—musical comrades in a city that’s often overshadowed by the hollowness of politics and professional life—perform live.
“He loved Washington, D.C. musicians in this orbit that he ran in,” she says. “Wow, did he think they were special people and, wow, did he think the projects were unique and inspiring.”