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!!!!”