Mittenfest V is right around the corner

mittenfest-poster-21-662x1024Over New Year’s weekend, Ypsilanti will, as it’s done for the past four years, play host to the incredible Michigan music festival known as Mittenfest. Following is a short interview I conducted online with organizers Brandon Zwagerman, Jeremy Peters and Amy Sumerton on what they’ve got in store for us this year, and how the proceeds will be put to use by the fantastic kids’ creative writing non-profit 826michigan.

Mark: I notice that you’ve got a band or two coming in from Brooklyn. Are they Michigan transplants, or just folks looking for a reason to come and sightsee in Ypsi?

Brandon: Per tradition, every artist performing is either currently based in Michigan or is returning home for the holidays. We’ve got acts coming in from New York, California, Ohio, and Illinois; all are former Michiganders, though. It’s a time of year for revisiting roots and reuniting with loved ones, and we like to stay true to that.

Interestingly, this year we did have a few Chicago and Pennsylvania bands with no discernable Michigan ties who heard good things about the festival and were interested in playing. We had to let them down easy, but it’s flattering.

Mark: What’s the most tangential tie to Michigan that would be acceptable? What if someone lived here for a year? Or had a great-grandfather who was incarcerated here? Is it like at the University of Michigan where they make it incredibly difficult to prove residency? Do you have a team of people doing DNA analysis?

Jeremy: I think it is more of a general idea, than a strict rubric. All of the artists that are playing the festival have ties to this area, and ties to the greater artistic “scene” as it were that has bubbled out of Michigan. I’ve said this before, but there’s a certain work ethic and forethought that comes out of artists who have experienced the midwest, be it from living here earlier in their lives, currently making art here, or having spent time in and around other artists from Michigan (and the midwest in general).

Brandon: That, and you need to know the secret code word, “circumspice.”

Mark: Not to belabor the point but I’m curious as to what you’d do with Michigan bands that don’t display this Michigan ethic that you think the folks performing display? In other words, I’m wondering if you can articulate what your criteria are, over and above a tie to the geographic region.

Brandon: Well, Jeremy’s comment about a shared ethic or value system and my sentiments about community and homecomings may be a bit more poetic and aspirational than the reality, but I still think there’s something to it.

The real criteria for booking this beast were more subjective. For the first time we had an open application form to broaden the field; the response was pretty overwhelming. Over 130 artists applied to perform; the booking committee spent several days listening to every band, making notes, and debating potential lineups. We wish that everyone who expressed an interest in contributing could be involved, but in the end I think the bill that we settled on encompasses a strong sampling of independent rock, pop, folk, and “other” acts from across the state and the diaspora, over half of whom are making their Mittenfest debut.

Mark: Do you get a sense that what you’re looking for over time has evolved? Are there things this year, for instance, that resonated with you more than in past years?

Brandon: It’s certainly changed with time. The first year, the show was right before Christmas and was held at Corner Brewery which had volume restrictions and isn’t really a “music venue,” so out of both necessity and sentiment featured pretty cozy, acoustic, low-key performances. As we settled into the Elbow Room and moved the festival to New Year’s Eve weekend in subsquent years, and now on to Woodruff’s, there’s been an impetus, at least from on my end, to include more performers who can not only hold their own from a stage overlooking a packed room of drinkers, but to thrive off of and command such an environment; bands as diverse as Drunken Barn Dance, Secret Twins, Champions of Breakfast, and Black Jake and the Carnies have shined in years past in this regard. Even so-called “folk” acts like Chris Bathgate or Matt Jones have stepped into this role, often assembling sprawling ensembles for the occasion. Among newer bands, I’ve found myself drawn toward the lo-fi garage/pop revival of the past few years, and that aesthetic movement seems to be thriving in Michigan these days as much as anywhere in great bands like Deadbeat Beat and Bad Indians. While Mittenfest V is no folk festival, we’ve still included a selection of quieter acts such Photographers, whom I believe have enough charm to carry the day even in a larger venue.

Mark: Are there any themes dividing the days?

Brandon: In terms of the day-by-day scheduling, much of it was determined by availability as much as anything, and on the whole, each day is weighted with quieter/newer/experimental/lower-key acts earlier on, and full-bore anthemic or party music toward the end. You get sort of a natural build that way, as the crowd thickens and gets louder.

The fourth day of the festival, being a Sunday at the tail end of this marathon, was consciously stocked more heavily with
quiet/acoustic/folk/country acts, given that people need to come down easy. Even that night veers off at the end with Lightning Love and Drunken Barn Dance, who tend to be far-from-subdued live acts. Upon examination of the other nights, patterns do emerge. Thursday is strong with really classic rock-and-roll bands starting with “The”: The Sights, The Satin Peaches, and The Juliets. Saturday seems to concentrate many bands who prominently incorporate keyboards or electronics in some fashion, from MC Trashpedal to Silverghost.

Mark: So, what are some of the acts that you’re looking forward to this time around?

Brandon: I think we all have a different answer to this, but I know I’m most looking forward to bands I’ve never seen before. Loune, In Tall Buildings, Charles Trees, Pistolbrides, Our Brother the Native, and Gun Lake are a few I’ve yet to catch a proper live set from, but have heard nothing but praise for. Word on the street is that Matt Jones and the Reconstruction may be playing Springsteen’s Born to Run in its entirety, so that will be worth showing up for.

Mark: So, let’s talk a little about 826michigan. How much money was raised for them last year?

Jeremy: I’m actually on the board of 826michigan now, so I feel comfortable handling this one. We raised just over $12,000 dollars last year thanks to amazing attendance, and sponsorship support from The Red Wings’ Open Skate program and a few other sponsors who kicked in support on the last day.

Mark: Are there specific programs that the Mittenfest money went to fund?

Jeremy: As far as I know, no, at least in a direct and literal sense. However, the funds raised at Mittenfest helped allow for a more robust programming budget in a year where 826’s outreach and programming in area schools increased.

Mark: Speaking of outreach and programming, what’s new these days at 826? How are things evolving? What new challenges are you responding to in the community?

Amy: The biggest change we’ve had this year is the addition of a third staff person. Catherine Calabro, a longtime volunteer, became our Program Coordinator in August. She took over tutoring and workshops, among other things, which has enabled me to participate in our programs, instead of just setting them up, as I had largely done in the past.

There’s lots going on at 826. I’ll divide it into two categories.

Stuff we are continuing to do:

Free tutoring afterschool four days a week both at 826 and at Ypsilanti Middle School. Free creative writing workshops in the evenings and on weekends, including a weekly English Language Learners program. Publishing: we have a slew of new student publications in the works, including a rewritten American history textbook with Clemente.

Stuff we have expanded:

In-school residencies! We have more than doubled these this year, in direct response to school closings in Ypsi, class size increases everywhere, and funding which allowed us to hire an all-important third full-time staff person. This year, we’re working in eight schools in Ann Arbor and Ypsi with almost twenty teachers and hundreds of students. We’re sending almost forty volunteers into these schools each week, tallying over twenty-five hours in residencies each week.

Field trips! We have doubled the number of field trips we’re doing, and the number OF field trips we offer. We offer free field trips to 826 every Friday for area schools, including a Storytelling & Bookmaking workshop for second and third graders (every second grade class in Ypsi will come this year!) and a fifth-grade persuasive essay writing workshop.

Off-site workshops! This year, we run drop-in writing at each branch of the Ypsi library weekly, a drop-in program with Avalon Housing, and we’re about to start a weekly poetry group at Ozone House in Ypsi.

I think now that we have additional staff, things are evolving expansively. We know that it is hard for some students to get to our physical location, and so we are doing everything we can to get to them, and to help them get to us (ie field trips). I see this as the trajectory we are on. I love the idea of in-school residencies and field trips growing exponentially each year. (As someone who goes into a third-grade classroom every week, I can tell you first-hand that the impact we have on teachers in their classrooms and their students is, well, pretty amazing.) I love the idea of, a few years down the road, having an off-site tutoring program, four days a week, in Ypsi that any student can come to (right now, Ypsi Middle tutoring is for the students who go to that school).

Mark: Assuming this Mittenfest brings in somewhere near the $10k that last year’s did, what does that mean in terms of services provided? In other words, how big of a factor is Mittenfest in the whole scheme of things? Also, what can people do in addition to coming to Mittenfest, and contributing there? Can they contribute online? Do you need additional volunteers?

And here’s a second question…. I’m interested in how, if at all, 826 will be integrated into Mittenfest? I know it’s difficult, given how your students are 18 and under, and the venue doesn’t allow people of that age, but I’m wondering if there might be opportunities for people attending Mittenfest to get some kind of idea as to what you do, and how great the work is that your kids are creating. I assume that, as in years past, you’ll have a table selling their published fiction, but I’m curious as to whether other things have been discussed.

Amy: Mittenfest is a fairly significant chunk of our annual budgeted income. With only three staff members, our overhead is fairly low, and so the $12K that Mittenfest made last year was a huge help to us. Anyone who wants to contribute to 826 can always do so on our website here.

As for incorporating 826, we’ve discussed this, but there doesn’t seem to be a good solution. Brandon and I did talk about talking about 826 more from the stage, although I am of two minds on whether the crowd would be interested and listen. For sure we will have a table set up with pamphlets and volunteer applications and info about what we do for anyone who is interested.

The way I see it, this is a fund-raiser for us. If it generates awareness of what we’re doing, that’s an added benefit, but as our mission doesn’t easily tie into 300 people drinking and rocking out, I’m inclined not to push it too much.

Mark: I was thinking that it might be cool to give artists some 826 work and see if maybe it cold inspire songs. It might be difficult to pull off this year, but maybe it’s worth exploring.

So, is there anything else about 826 or Mittenfest that people should know? Is there a mailing list for more information, or should people just go to Facebook?

Amy: That’s a great idea. 826LA just recently put out a CD with songs written by students and performed by people like Fiona Apple. They’ve also done battle of the bands with student-written/professional-performed songs. Both of which I am SUPER jealous about. Definitely something to think about for next year, although the students might be bummed to not be able to see the performances (we could, of course, record them and have some sort of a viewing party). Jim Roll has been talking about doing a songwriting workshop forever…

There’s not a mailing list. Facebook and the MF and 826 websites are good. People can contact me with any 826 questions, and Brandon with any band questions.

4-day Mittenfest wristbands (which make great Christmas gifts, by the way) can be purchased for $25 at 826michigan’s Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair (115 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor, MI). Tickets for individual days will be sold at the door for $7. All shows will take place at Woodruff’s (36 E. Cross St, Ypsilanti). A complete lineup of bands can be found here.

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  1. Knox
    Posted December 13, 2010 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    It’s encouraging to hear how much work 826 is doing in Ypsi.

  2. Earl Vanlinden
    Posted December 18, 2010 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Bonjour, Dear Website Owner!

    I’m Earl Vanlinden. I live in Isle of Man and I am Civil engineer.
    I found your interesting article via Technorati.
    You wrote an amazing article on Mittenfest, and I am deeply troubled. I do not believe that this bar that you call Woodrick’s can withstand four days of efinimate boys in tight pants sobbing. There will be serious structural damage.

  3. Meta
    Posted December 27, 2010 at 9:35 pm | Permalink has an article on Mittenfest as well.

  4. Bob
    Posted December 31, 2010 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Woodruff’s is a really nice room for music. Are they getting hassled by by the man already though? Couldn’t believe how uptight they were being at the door about letting people in to a room that had plenty of space still. Spent fifteen minutes standing by the door because they wouldn’t let the fourth person in our party in with us until someone officially left for the night. Kind of weird. Other than that, great space.

  5. Kim
    Posted December 31, 2010 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    Fucking Fire Marshal.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mark Maynard, blackjake&thecarnies. blackjake&thecarnies said: Mittenfest V preview from Mark Maynard. […]

  2. […] Several years ago, when talking with you (Jeremy and Brandon) about what makes a band “Mittenfest appropriate,” you mentioned that it wasn’t just about the geography, although all the bands had to have a […]

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