Brandon Zwagerman doesn’t live here anymore. But he stays connected to the local music scene through Mittenfest, an annual winter showcase of Michigan bands, which he organizes from his home in New York. This year’s Mittenfest, to be held at the Elbow Room in Ypsilanti beginning New Year’s Eve, spans 4-days, and involves 40-bands. Following is an interview with Brandon on the history of Mittenfest, his plans for the future, and what he’s most looking forward to this time around.
MARK: What is this, like the 4th year now?
BRANDON: Yeah, I can hardly believe it. This all sort of started almost as whim, but has grown into an unstoppable juggernaut.
MARK: How, if at all, has it changed in that time? Do the lineups you’ve put together reflect any personal change in preference, for instance?
BRANDON: Well, the first year of Mittenfest (December 2006) was held at the Corner Brewery, and due to the venue’s noise constraints (no real drums allowed), in addition my own tastes and history putting on backyard shows, it was a heavily acoustic/songwriter/indie-folk-whatever-you-want-to-call it lineup.
Combined with the scheduling (a few days before Christmas) and strong beer, in addition to the venue’s homey furniture and holiday decor, the day had a warm, misty-eyed ambience. And that is really what I had envisioned; I wanted it to feel like a cozy family gathering in the living room.
As the event gradually transitioned to a “real” music venue (and has grown in size annually), we’ve been able to broaden the type of musical styles the lineup encompasses, given that we can be as loud as we want and the environment is conducive to more raucous and experimental performances. I don’t think my tastes have changed so much as we have more opportunity to include a broader sampling. Because it’s at the Elbow Room, we can have totally spazzed-out acts like Child Bite and a large range of indie/electro-pop-type bands. There’s still a lot of acts who are in the “indie-folk”/singer-songwriter (ugh) vein, and people like Chris Bathgate and Matt Jones will always be cornerstones as long as this event keeps going, but even they tend to organize sprawling, louder bands for the event. And this doesn’t mean Fred Thomas can’t still command the attention of a packed bar full of drunks on his own. As a curated event, admittedly my own tastes are mainly to blame for the lack of metal or screamo or hyphy on the bill. I really would like to try in the future to maybe get some more lo-fi pop and garage acts, but the (more limited than it would appear) slots filled this year before I could invite every band I thought of, or had suggested to me, or had contacted me. That said, this is the most extensive and diverse Mittenfest lineup ever, and I know I’m excited to catch both favorites who play annually and new bands I’ve never even seen before.
While I don’t think anyone would confuse a packed Elbow Room for their grandma’s kitchen table, I believe that there’s still a sense of the intimacy and camaraderie and a familial environment in that room, not too far off from the feel of the Corner Brewery four years ago. If we ever lose that, we’ll have lost much of what makes Mittenfest so different than other music festivals, in my mind.
MARK: And how do you determine who plays when? Is it all based on the availability of bands, or are you trying to group people with complimentary styles?
BRANDON: That’s a great question. It’s funny, each year I come into this with a grand scheme that there’ll be an overarching vibe each night. Like, this will be the “pop” night, this will be the “party” night, etc. Some of this worked out to a degree this year, given how generally low-key the music is on Sunday (I figure people will need to ease out after 3 days), and really Friday is pretty pop (in variou forms)-heavy. The other two nights ended up pretty eclectic in comparison; the realities of availability throw a wrench into the best-envisioned plans sometimes. On the plus side, one way to cross-pollinate audiences and musicians (something I consciously try to do with Mittenfest or any show), is to have stylistic variety (in addition to combining different geographies or “scenes”) on the bill. While there are certainly plenty of usual suspects who share bills, fans, and members, every performer and their fans will certainly be exposed to something new every day as well.
MARK: I’m curious as to history with 826, the Mittenfest beneficiary. Were you just impressed by their work, or is there something more to it than that? And, if you don’t mind my asking, how much was raised for them last year?
BRANDON: Mittenfest was born as a benefit for 826michigan due to a few factors. The obvious one is they are an inspiring, small organization that exudes creativity and palpable enthusiasm in all that they do, and it is impossible not to get behind that. More particularly, however, it is due to some close connections between 826michigan, the local music community, and myself. Amy Sumerton, Program Director at 826, was also one of the band Canada’s cellists; I met her by becoming a big a fan of her band. I also met Sarah Schaefer who played keyboards in The Dardanelles and was an 826 volunteer, and several other musicians had been involved with 826 whether volunteering, teaching a workshop, or playing a fundraiser in the past. There’s a natural relationship between the music community and the organization.
My first involvement doing anything directly with 826 was right before I moved to New York in Summer 2006; I put together a sprawling event called Madisonfest as one last hurrah for my old Ann Arbor backyard venue Madison House, and the door donations were divided equally between 826 and two other organizations I had personal connections to (the East Quad Music Co-Op and Growing Hope). When Amy was in New York playing the CMJ Music Marathon that fall, I mentioned the idea of maybe putting a show together in Washtenaw County over the holidays. I think the first thing out of her mouth was “Can we make it a benefit for 826michigan?” Of course I said, “Sure!”, and Mittenfest was born.
There’s a lot of support in the community for 826, and everyone involved with Mittenfest seems psyched to rally around what they do. They do a lot with limited resources and an army of volunteers. Last year at Mittenfest, 826 raised almost $4,500, between the door take, some merch sales, and a generous donation from Andy Garris of the Elbow Room. We hope to top that this year. Given that this year the event is an extra day and seems to have more momentum than ever, and there is genrous sponsorship support from the Detroit Red Wings (who’ll be hosting raffles and selling limited-edition merchandise designed by local artists), Beezy’s Mittenfest 826 fundraiser brunch on Sunday, and shirts for sale donated by VGkids, I am confident that
won’t be a problem.
MARK: So, as you mention, you live in New York now, and come back every year at this time, which has seemed to work really well up until now, but I’m wondering how long you can keep it up. Is that a concern of yours, and, if so, have you taken steps to get others involved, so that so much doesn’t rest on your shoulders?
BRANDON: It’s sort of odd that I still organize this event in Michigan from afar, especially 4 years into this now, but I guess if I hadn’t moved away I never would have had the inspiration to start this in the first place. As much as getting together with your far-flung family is a holiday tradition, this is one time a year that a lot of the Michigan diaspora return to the roost, including many of the performers who play every year. I love Michigan and I won’t be surprised if I move back someday; the week I spent in Ypsilanti last winter nearly seduced me; I miss the small-scale sense of community, mutal support, and DIY ethos that seems so pervasive there.
It has become more difficult the longer I have been away, though. I am not on the ground at the Elbow Room and Blind Pig and house shows a few nights a week, seeing new bands anymore. I try to still read some of the main Michigan music blogs and press, but it becomes more forced the more settled I become in New York. It becomes more important than ever to have the involvement of others. Several of the new bands on the bill this year were recommended to me by other musicians, and a few just contacted me cold (as early as July) asking if there was room on the bill. There was overwhelming interest this year, and I’m sorry we couldn’t make room for everyone who expressed an interest in playing. Other bands (Ghostlady comes to mind) I discovered by chancing on to their MySpace page and loving their sound. I definitely ran the lineups before trusted friends like Jeremy Peters and Will Yates who helped me hone a sensible lineup order each night, given what they know about things like general dynamics and draw of various bands’ live sets. In terms of running the actual event the night of the show, The Elbow Room folks do all of that (thankfully), and Chris Bathgate has volunteered to take the lead on getting a backline together each night, as well as running sound for part of the festival. 826 volunteers are doing the hardcopy promotion, hanging posters around town. Angela Duncan designed the poster and other merchandise. Every year more and more people volunteer to shoulder a piece of whats makes this run, which is necessary, given how unwieldly an event this size can be. I don’t know if I’ll be doing this forever, but at this point Mittenfest has a mind and constituency of its own, it seems. I don’t think it is going anywhere soon.
MARK: You mentioned that a number of the musicians featured during Mittenfest volunteer at 826, and I’m wondering if the collaboration runs the other way as well. Specifically, I’m interested to know if any kids of 826 participate in Mittenfest. Given that it takes place in the Elbow Room, I’m guessing that there isn’t much opportunity for that kind of thing, but I was wondering if that might be a direction in which you want to grow.
BRANDON: There is a tension in having a benefit for an organization that focuses on kids being held at a bar, isn’t there? I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the younger bands might have members who had been touched by 826michigan’s programs, but I don’t know if this is a fact. I think it would be excellent to seek out 826 alums in the future, though. I’m guessing unless it is ever held at an all-ages space having direct youth involvement might get tricky, however.
MARK: Have you ever considered growing into multiple venues, or expanding in other ways?
BRANDON: I’m not sure what is going to happen in the future. Ideas that I, Andy Garris and others have tossed around include giant heated tents in the street, a multi-venue event in downtown Ypsi ala Hamtramck Blowout or SXSW, or finding a single and appropriate bigger room. Some of those options sound like a logistical and/or regulatory nightmares. All signs point to there being an ever-growing audience larger than what the Elbow Room can hold, which is great for 826 and for Ypsi, but on the other hand the last thing I’d want to see is losing all of the immediacy and intimacy of that first year, and there’s something to be said for simplicity as well. It’d be sad to see Mittenfest become something as faceless as a run-of-the-mill street fair or Comerica Cityfest. Growth thus far has been pretty organic; no matter what changes, we need to be careful to not lose what makes it special. It should be the most human-scale music festival possible, outside true DIY/house events.
MARK: I know what you mean. We’re feeling the same thing now with regard to the Shadow Art Fair. There’s this impulse to want to grow it, but, at the same time, you don’t want to dilute it, or change what’s special about it. It’s like it’s a living thing, and there’s this delicate balance of elements that are necessary for it to thrive. And none of us are scientists. So we tweak things and hope for the best. We’re reluctant, however, to try anything too grand… So, getting back to Mittenfest, what are you looking forward to this time around? Anything interesting that people shouldn’t miss?
BRANDON: I know you’d expressed that sentiment before, and I thought of Shadow Art Fair when I was struggling a bit earlier with how Mittenfest should and should not grow and change. I think, at least this year, we’re still on the right side of the line.
As far as this year’s event goes, I’m excited, as always, about artists that have long meant a lot to me. I mean, Great Lakes Myth Society (in their previous incarnation The Original Brothers and Sisters of Love) was really the first local band I truly loved after moving to Ann Arbor years ago, and Fred Thomas wasn’t far behind that and he ranks near the top of my favorite songwriters in the world. Chris Bathgate has something special in store for the strike of the New Year, I’m told. Other Mittenfest veterans like Frontier Ruckus, Matt Jones & the Reconstruction, Misty Lyn & the Big Beautiful, Lightning Love, and the always show-stealing Champions of Breakfast are key highlights. Seriously, do not miss Champions. Trust me on this. Drunken Barn Dance was the surprise hit last year, and I can only imagine they will step it up even further this year.
I’ve gotta say, though, that I’m super-psyched to see some new blood. I have high expectations for Ghostlady, Silverghost, Electric Fire Babies, Secret Twins, The Juliets, and Photographers, for instance. Timothy Monger is debuting a new backing band, and I have no idea what to expect from Hallway as this is literally their second show, but they feature members of Freer and The Questions so I know it’ll be good. They seem super-excited to play, too, which is one-third the battle. I think the potential sleeper-hit is Friendly Foes; it’s pretty straight-ahead power-pop-punk-whatever, but their songs are catchy-as-heck and exude a purity and sincerity that a lot of their contemporaries lack (without being embarrassing). I saw them in Brooklyn earlier this year and listen to their first record in heavy rotation.
Landfill Mountain Boys is the current moniker for Corndaddy, who was basically the first local band I ever saw in Ann Arbor, back when I was REALLY into alt.country. I think I came upon Jim Roll around then as well. On a related note, Whiskey Bottle is an Uncle Tupelo cover band comprised primarily of Scott Sellwood and Jim Roll. It may be a little indulgent, but it will be awesome and worth arriving early for. On the other end of the spectrum, Child Bite and Jib Kidder will be something completely different, and maybe freak out some of the folkies in the audience, which is healthy. And then Black Jake & the Carnies straddle everything else.
There’s something for everyone, and fun for the whole (over 18) family!
Things get kicked off at 4:00 PM on New Year’s Eve, Thursday December 31. All proceeds from the entry fees ($9 New Year’s Eve, $7 other nights at the door, $25 4-day wristband available at Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair in Ann Arbor) benefit 826michigan, a nonprofit writing
and tutoring center serving approximately 2,000 local students at their downtown Ann Arbor location as well as at numerous classrooms, community centers and elsewhere. Their free programs are based on the understanding that writing is important for every child, and that one-on-one attention is key to building academic skills and confidence in the classroom and beyond.