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.