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.