Between Christmas and New Year’s Day, Ypsilanti will, as it’s done for the past seven 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 how Mittenfest got started, how it’s changed over the years, and what they’ve got in store for us this time around.
Tickets for the festival, which is scheduled to run for five consecutive days at Woodruff’s, starting on December 27, will not be available for purchase in advance, and, I’m told, there will be no multi-day passes this year. So, if you want to attend, you’ll have to buy your general admission tickets at the door each day, for $10 a piece. And, as always, all proceeds will be donated to the fantastic kids’ creative writing non-profit 826michigan.
MARK: I think everyone in my audience probably knows what Mittenfest is, but, just in case, let’s start with a little history… Would it be accurate to say that the whole thing has its roots in Brandon’s homesickness?
JEREMY: I don’t think that’s inaccurate at all. Mittenfest has its roots in Madisonfest, which was a fun gathering of local musicians that Brandon put together in his backyard on Madison Street the summer before he left Ann Arbor for NYC, after graduating from U of M with a Masters Degree in Urban Planning. That winter, he had the idea of getting friends together for some music and revelry over the holiday break – so many folks were around, it provided a great opportunity for everyone to see some of the bands they loved, and to hang out over the holidays.
BRANDON: When I lived in Ann Arbor I spent a lot of (too much?) time and energy seeing local bands, and eventually putting on some pretty grassroots shows, most notably biweekly unamplified acoustic shows in the backyard of Madison House, my house venue on Madison Street in Ann Arbor. I booked a few one-night fundraiser festivals at Arbor Vitae as well, and also had a really fun stint as part of the East Quad Music Co-Op, the group that booked shows at the Halfass and even made a point of putting a few guerilla acoustic shows on at the underutilized West Park bandshell. As a last hurrah before I moved away, I put together Madisonfest, a 3-day festival featuring 40+ performers. We had a donation jar at the door like any show at Madison House, but this time proceeds were split among three causes I had a connection to: the East Quad Music Co-Op, Growing Hope, and 826michigan. I think around $300 was raised total.
I got a job in New York and moved away, but definitely missed the music scene back in Washtenaw County, so I had the idea of putting together a show for when I’d be back in Michigan for the holidays as a way of getting some favorite friends and performers together for a party. I mentioned the idea to Chris Bathgate and the band Canada when they were playing NYC for the CMJ Music Marathon, and I think the first thing out of Canada cellist Amy Sumerton’s mouth was: “Can it be a fundraiser for 826michigan?” Of course, I said, sure! And that’s really how the essential pieces of Mittenfest came to be.
AMY: I remember it just about exactly as Brandon does. I met Brandon because I played in a band and he booked shows; Canada played Madisonfest, 826michigan got some of the proceeds; Brandon wanted to book a show for the holidays, I shamelessly suggested my workplace as the beneficiary.
MARK: Tell me about the first Mittenfest.
BRANDON: While I tried some of the more obvious “rock club” type venues in Ann Arbor and Ypsi, for sake of infrastructure simplicity, by the time I really tried getting something together that first year (probably during November) everyone was booked up on the weekend before Christmas, which is when I wanted to do it. Looking further afield, I reached out to the Corner Brewery, and they were happy to accommodate us with the caveat that there was a need to be noise-sensitive to their nearby neighbors. This necessitated that the performers all play stripped-down acoustic sets, and, besides, the seated setting, good beer and pre-Christmas feelings lent themselves well to such an approach anyway. A friend brought in a PA and helped with sound, so it wasn’t completely acoustic, like some house shows, but it was definitely low key. I believe there were about 14 performers, and everyone imbibed plenty of holiday cheer. All of the door take went to 826michigan.
AMY: The first Mittenfest was a lot of beer and a rotating cast of stripped-down sets. If I remember correctly, there was some question about whether Fred Thomas, the “headliner,” would make it in time. (Something about a flight, Michigan weather, etc.) He did, and he played a set I’ll never forget. It was the perfect end to a pretty magical day… I think we raised just about a thousand dollars that year. I remember feeling, all day, like something special was happening. I don’t think it occurred to me that it would happen again, let alone become one of 826michigan’s key annual events, though.
MARK: If I’m reading the roman numerals correctly, this will be your 8th year. How have things evolved since that first year?
AMY: I’d say Mittenfest evolved slowly the first few years – adding venues, days, types of music. And, in the last few years, it’s settled into a comfortable pattern. It happens at Woodruff’s, it lasts about five days, many bands are involved. I’m inclined to say we’ve got a model that works, and I’d expect it not to change much in the future. The first year felt very intimate, and now it definitely feels more epic.
It has, poetically enough, sort of mirrored 826michigan’s growth as an organization. I believe we had two people on staff that first year, a few handfuls of really dedicated volunteers, and maybe a hundred students. Now we have a staff of seven, hundreds of volunteers, and serve almost three thousand students each year. (I’m still awe-struck every time I type that.) There’s been an organic, grassroots feel to our growth, not unlike what I’ve watched happen with Mittenfest.
JEREMY: It’s definitely grown. Mittenfest I was a one-day affair with mainly acoustic sets (and a few awesome comedy performances too). In the following years, we’ve moved venues and expanded the number of bands and days, but we’ve always tried to keep the same basic focus: a fun gathering of awesome music, mainly from the mitten, with 100% of the door going to benefit 826michigan’s work to make it fun for kids to write.
MARK: What, if anything, will be different this year? Or, after years of trying new things, debating multiple venues, etc., have you pretty much stopped tweaking things?
JEREMY: We always try to take a second and re-evaluate what’s been working and what hasn’t – from the exact number of bands, to the set times, and the days the festival is held. We’re insanely proud to be able to work with a venue that donates the space and the labor, which means that there aren’t really any deductions from the money taken at the door. We love holding the event in Ypsi – not anything against Ann Arbor, but the event raises enough to help fund 826’s programming in Ypsilanti, and we love that the dollars raised there go to support programming there. That being said, I think we’ve found a model that works – though nothing’s perfect and we’re always open to suggestions on how to make this completely volunteer led event even better.
BRANDON: Adding to what Jeremy said, having it at one venue frankly keeps things simpler logistically for a volunteer organized event, and Woodruff’s has been a gracious host. (It’s also big enough to generally accommodate the crowd, but still has a cozy and intimate feel.) We certainly continue to tweak, but for the immediate future this general model seems to work well. We’re happy to hear new suggestions, though!
MARK: In spite of this, as I recall, there was some talk last year about moving the event to Ann Arbor. Why did you decide to stay in Ypsi?
AMY: While 826’s storefront, the Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair, is based in Ann Arbor, much of the work we do is in Ypsi. Four nights a week, we offer free tutoring at Beezy’s. Three nights a week, we offer free drop-in writing programs at the Ypsilanti District Library. Five days a week, we offer free in-class support to teachers in Ypsilanti schools. As an organization, we are deeply rooted in Ypsilanti, so it just makes sense to have one of our biggest annual events happen there.
JEREMY: So long as there’s a venue that can handle the sound reinforcement and crowds that the festival generates with management that’s willing to bend over backwards to make the event a success in Ypsilanti, I don’t think there’s any reason to move it. We held it in two cities one year, and it was a bit of a logistical hurdle – it would also be insanely tough to be able to move all the decorations!
BRANDON: I’d just add that the entire community of Ypsilanti has been so supportive, from local media folks like yourself, to Mayor Schreiber who typically attends, to local businesses, and even folks who open their homes to touring musicians from other cities. It’s a personable, human-scaled community for an event like this, and I’m always excited to spend a week strolling Ypsi’s streets every winter.
MARK: Mittenfest, as we’ve discussed, is a fundraiser for 826michigan. How much has been raised over the last seven years, and what has that money allowed 826michigan to do that it might not have been able to do otherwise?
JEREMY: All the Mittenfests combined have raised over $75,000.00, which has gone directly to support programming that 826michigan puts on – in recent years, 826 has been able to host field trips from schools in what’s now the Ypsi-Willow Run Consolidated School District, provide in-school and after-school programming, and tutoring in the city of Ypsilanti. Every single children’s program that 826 puts on is absolutely free to the students, and without the support of this event and our generous fans and sponsors we wouldn’t be able to do what we do. (I say this as a member of the Board of Directors and Finance Committee of 826michigan.)
AMY: What he said. (Points upward.) I’ll also add that in the fall of 2012, we were able to hire a full-time staffer whose main focus is Ypsilanti programming, and Mittenfest funds are certainly a part of that.
MARK: Given that this event takes place at a bar, at night, you can’t really incorporate the kids of 826 as much as I’m sure that you would like to. In spite of that, though, I believe there have been attempts over the years to have them more represented. You, of course, sell their collected writing at the event, and have people on hand to talk about programs, but, if I remember correctly, there may have been attempts to do even more. For instance, wasn’t there talk of having a band or two write songs inspired by the work of 826michigan’s young writers?
JEREMY: Of course we’d always hope to be able to incorporate student writing even more into the event, but the bands are already doing an amazing service donating their time performing, their art, and their gas money to get there, for that matter, but we wouldn’t protest if anyone wanted to write a song and perform it based on student work!
AMY: Over the years, we’ve tried a few ways to show Mittenfest attendees just how clever and funny and profound our students are. We’ve had staffers read student work from stage; we’ve had volunteers act out short plays written by students; we’ve had performers choose their favorite student work from the year to share with the audience…. None of these have been particularly successful, though. People come to Mittenfest, I think, mainly for the music and the beer. Although we do sell a good number of our student publications at the event, so attendees are definitely interested in and supportive of our work.
And I will also say that there are a few bits of student writing floating around here lately that I think would translate pretty easily into song, and I have a now-not-so-secret hope that, in the next year or two, we’ll be able to put together our own album of songs inspired by student work… 826LA did a great one – Chickens in Love. (The song “Boring” is my personal favorite.)
MARK: I know there would be huge logistical issues, but I’m curious if you’re ever considered holding a Mittenfest event out-of-state. I suspect, for instance, that the people of New York would like an opportunity to hear the bands of Michigan, and I suspect that 826 would appreciate funneling some east coast money back into programs serving the kids of Ypsi/Arbor, right?
JEREMY: To be honest, I’m not sure we ever thought of that, but it is a great idea! If we could find a venue and the right grouping of bands who happened to be in NYC at the same time, it’d be great – I know it costs a ton for bands to get out there and even spend an evening in the city. (I work at 2 labels, and have toured with a few bands, so I know this from experience.) We’d probably need to find a partner to help with logistics, but I can’t say we’d turn down the opportunity if the right one arose. We wouldn’t necessarily want to cannibalize any of the fundraising 826NYC (or 826Chicago) does, though!
BRANDON: Well, I haven’t mentioned it to Jeremy, but I’ve tossed the idea of a MittenfEast in NYC around in my head in the past. There are definitely some complications with this idea in my mind …i.e. touring bands already are lucky to break even, so it’s hard to ask them to play a benefit show on tour – some serious outside funding would be needed. Admittedly the saturation of the live music landscape here in NYC would make it a challenge to break through, as there are shows upon shows, and festivals upon festivals, pretty much weekly. But there are also plenty of Michigan expats, so there’s a built-in audience to some degree (as you’ll see any time a Michigan band plays in Brooklyn). And as Jeremy notes, other cities already often have their own local 826s! One situation where I could more realistically see something like this working well would be, say, during SXSW in Austin, when a lot of bands from the area are already there anyway. One could put together a showcase pretty well representing the state as a tie-in. An interesting idea if anyone wanted to organize it – the one time I was at SXSW, two years ago, there was a similar Michigan day showcase; Mittenfest alums Stepdad and Nightlife performed at it.
MARK: I’m curious, Brandon, as to how this whole thing has changed for you. As we’ve discussed, it kind of got off the ground because you wanted to come back home to Michigan and see some of your favorite bands play. Now, however, many of those bands are no longer in existence. And, I suspect, at the same time, your personal interests have changed a bit. I’m just curious as to whether, after eight years, you find yourself deriving a different kind of pleasure from Mittenfest.
BRANDON: It’s kind of funny… at this point, with some notable exceptions on this year’s lineup (Saturday Looks Good to Me is one of my favorite bands of all time, for instance), the performances don’t come with a great deal of nostalgia for me anymore. First of all, I’ve never even seen over half the bands before! So maybe the most exciting part for me is discovering a new favorite by seeing them for the first time at Mittenfest. Then there is a whole group of other performers who maybe I first saw at a Mittenfest, say three years ago, and they’re playing again, and it’s always wonderful to see how they evolve over time. I’ll certainly see plenty of old friends and meet great new people over the course of the five days, as always, but that’s not really as much of a focus anymore, as generations and communities continue to evolve. Mittenfest helps create its own connections among all of those participating or attending, I like to hope.
MARK: So, let’s talk about the bands this year. How many applied? How many will be playing? And what communities will we have represented?
JEREMY: We had a record number of bands apply this year – over 200 by my count, and we selected a representative sample of 40 to play this year’s festival – we wanted to cut down a bit on fatigue for the fans (and bands, for that matter), and thought that starting each night a bit later would make the event more fun for everyone involved! There are bands from Detroit, Ypsilanti, Grand Rapids, Ferndale, Toledo, and all over the place!
[Links to all 40 of the bands who will be performing at Mittenfest VIII can be found here.]
MARK: 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 substantial tie to Michigan, but also a “shared value system” (Brandon) and “a certain work ethic and forethought” (Jeremy) that comes from having lived in the midwest. I’m curious as to whether or not any of you would like to elaborate.
JEREMY: I’d say this still holds true — there’s a certain something about musicians from the midwest. Sure, everyone would like to make it huge, but we’re all here to make art for arts’ sake, and that work ethic and mindset shows thru in all the bands who have performed at the event over the years.
BRANDON: The more I live elsewhere, I’m not actually sure I really believe in a Michigan or Midwestern exceptionalism when it comes to art and music, as romantic as the notion may be. There are folks all over the country and around the world, to varying levels, embracing a DIY ethos and building community centered around the arts, be they up against the (for different reasons) challenging environments of places ranging from New York City to Detroit or Ypsi. However, perhaps from a broad sense, there is a shared language and landscape in Michigan that is often drawn upon by local artists, explicitly or otherwise – the lake-effect snows, post-industrial cities, urban sprawl, small towns, or wooded dunes are all around. What’s the state motto again? Si quaeris coney island amoenam circumspice? Does the cold cold climate build work ethic (or character)? Are disinvested cities primarily a challenge or an opportunity for a working artist? One can discuss these things ad nauseam, likely with complicated results. However, I have a deep love for my home state and I’m proud of those I know who are creating music and art there, and greatly look forward to all of the performances this year.
MARK: If I were more of a prick, I’d use your, “I’m not actually sure I really believe in a Michigan or Midwestern exceptionalism when it comes to art and music” quote when promoting this interview, and try to drum up some controversy. Sadly, though, I’m not that big of a jackass, and, more importantly, you happen to be right. We don’t corner the market on meaningful artistic expression. Still, though, I think you always curate a lineup that, when taken as a whole, articulates a certain vibe that’s perhaps unique to this region… if that makes sense.
BRANDON: As always, you are a gentleman! Surely every creative community and region is a product of its context to some degree (and folks are likely having a similar conversation in Alabama or Iowa or Buffalo, with just as much passion). You are right, if I look at this year’s lineup, Michigan reference points are clearly apparent in much of the music, explicitly or evocatively arising in lyrics, for example, off the top of my head:
Breezee One: “…strong curves like Verlander”
Frontier Ruckus: “I’ll meet you out where the outlet malls turn to black holes”
Saturday Looks Good to Me: “Someone was talking about moving to Brooklyn / Last day in Michigan”
But more importantly what I see, and I think we consciously aim for at this point, is to showcase a relatively diverse set of approaches to live music performance and “scenes” (of course, one can easily note the vast musical communities NOT represented well or at all, we are aware) rather than a particular overarching theme or vibe, especially in more recent years.
Do rappers from Detroit and singer-songwriters from Pinckney and theatrical synth acts from Grand Rapids or psych bands from Ann Arbor have much in common (and what, beyond simply being humans and musicians)? I can’t claim to be sure! It would be interesting (if we wanted to turn this into more of an academic exercise, which I am not so sure anyone does) to have a public discussion among performers at Woodruff’s about whether there is a shared “Michigan-ness” in their approaches or art. If nothing else, regional identity tends to be a powerful rallying-point in the area music scene(s) (and in general)– people seem to rep Detroit or Ypsi or Michigan pretty hard.
What I do hope and believe for Mittenfest is that it represents and encourages a generally cross-supportive community of artists statewide, at least. Everyone performing is playing to support the cause or because they simply want to participate in the event and believe it is something special – everyone is donating their performance, time, and in fact even gas money, since our budget is practically nil. It’s pretty amazing.
I think we’ve always made a point of slotting performers back-to-back with others from different cities or scenes that they (and their fans) may not have been familiar with. I’ve seen, for instance, bands from Grand Rapids and Detroit first encounter one another at Mittenfest and then start sharing bills in one another’s cities in the following months. In a very tangible sense the densification and cross-strengthening of audiences and artists across the state is one of the greatest potential outcomes of Mittenfest outside of the fundraising aspect, and the possibility for such connections is intentional and good for everyone involved.
Here, for those of you who can’t make it out to Ypsi, is Frontier Ruckus performing their song Dark Autumn Hour.