Jon Dindas: "Heady Times at The Capitol Theatre" (and Onward)
Over the next two weeks the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY will play host to its longest artist residency to date as Furthur will perform nine shows at the venue. This will be a culmination of sorts for owner Peter Shapiro, whose first film project when he was a student at Northwestern was And Miles To Go Before I Sleep: On Tour with the Grateful Dead Summer 1993. It will also be satisfying stretch for the theatre’s founding production manager Jon Dindas, who has enjoyed his share of Phil Lesh and Bob Weir shows over the years. Although he recently stepped away from his day-to-day role at The Cap to help Shapiro with his next series of venues and events, Dindas maintains a deep connection to the theatre where he worked (and sometimes slept) over the past two years. In the following conversation he talks about his path: from managing the Dude of Life to his present day activities, which includes interludes with the Disco Biscuits, Wilco, the Gathering of the Vibes, Mountain Jam, Pete Seeger, Christmas Jam, and much more.
Let’s work our way to the present. When I first met you, 15, 16 years ago, you were managing the Dude of Life. How did that come about?
I went to school and I studied government and specifically campaigns and elections. When I was done with school I knew I wanted to end up in the music field, I didn’t want to end up in government. I had friends who went to D.C. and I had job offers in D.C. but I didn’t want to do that. The first job I had in music was working with Sammy Ash of Sam Ash. Sammy himself hired me, and I ended up working at Sam Ash in White Plains, in their guitar department, where I actually hired Steve Pollak [aka The Dude of Life]. Which was kind of weird, at that point, this was mid-nineties, I was a huge Phishhead.
I was a Deadhead and I made the switch in ’94 on the famous summer day when the Dead played at Highgate and Phish played Big Birch. Most of my friends went to Highgate and I went to Big Birch, at that point being more of a Phishhead than anything else. It was, I think, the next year when I met Steve, so I was a big Phishhead who was thinking about what I was going to do in the music business. Obviously, I wasn’t going to sell the guitars for very long, and he told me about the aspirations he had for his career. He had new songs, he had a band, which was for the most part Pork Tornado without Fishman, and had some gigs and we became friends.
Eventually he asked me to manage him and we took off on this little journey. My initial thought was that there were a lot of similarities between politics and campaigns and artists and careers and I think that was right. Where I really learned a lot though was from John Paluska [Phish’s initial manager]. I learned a tremendous amount about artist management, about careers, working with the Dude of Life. I would go to Trey’s house with Steve and see what was going on in their organization. It was an amazing for me and we did some great touring in the northeast and we got a record deal, which is what Steve wanted. The record was Under the Sound Umbrella, which was recorded with Dan Archer, as was the first one, so we were successful on that level. When I did that deal with Tad Flynn and Phoenix Rising Records, I ended up going to work at Phoenix which brought me to an independent label at the time when independent labels and independent distribution were still a viable outlet for musicians.
I think many have forgotten about Phoenix. What was it like working there?
I think the thing I most enjoy and treasure about Phoenix is the core group of people that work there. Jon Schwartz, who has gone on to be Jon Schwartz of Sirius and Jambands, and Rich Schaeffer. Rich Schaefer was my intern and then my assistant and then the first hire for my company. As you know he now is running Gary Gersh’s The Artist’s Organization and has worked for [John] Mellencamp and tons of other people. Jeff Kilgour was there, major label and major artist management people like Larry Braverman and industry legends, like Sam Kopper, and so there were all these great music people. Phoenix was run by Tad Flynn who was a music fans and also a businessman. He did really well on Wall Street and I think it’s kind of the cautionary tale of trying to start a business that is in some ways somebody’s hobby.
We did a Foxtrot Zulu record, we did the Dude of Life record, we did the Big Wu, their first record, which is still a great record when I listen to it, but what I think people remember us for is the Phoenix Live series. Where we did a lot of things at the Wetlands and other places. I gave Joe Russo his first record deal, it was for a Phoenix Live thing: Fat Mama. None of them sold any copies and none of them put anybody on the map per se, but they all were steps for a lot of those bands. The experience for Schwartz and Schaefer and I was great, and that led me to my next step, which was being the co-founder and owner of a label myself. That was something I could do because of what I learned at Phoenix, from Braverman and Kopper and a lot of other people.
As I remember it, you also worked with Agent Porridge around that time as well.
Agent Porridge was a SUNY Fredonia band led by this kid Alex Weinstein, who was really talented. He looked like Trey and he played guitar like Trey, he was one of those guys. I managed Agent Porridge and that got me into the studio again, and I actually did some producing on that record. Very clunky, I think we did the first record in six hours with an engineer I knew. That was an experience.
Have you been in touch with any of those guys? Do you know what they’re doing?
With the social media stuff it sort of happened. I’m Facebook friends with Alex, he’s in music now. A friend of his, Brett [Rothenhaus], who was in the band, he’s now a highly regarded children’s musician artist in the area. I actually got a message from the kid who was the tour manager/production manager for Agent Porridge about a year ago saying “Hey man, thanks for all you did for us.” It’s cool those connections are there. For the most part, the people who were in that part of my life I keep in some sort of touch with.
Jimmy Landry, who was a good friend, his band was one of my favorite bands I’ve ever worked with, called The Wine Field. They did a record, which you can probably still find somewhere, that was fantastic. The thing was the Indigo Boys, with the acoustic guitar, great harmonies, really great stuff. We ended up doing that on the label we started, Watchtower Records. It was a good name because we were thinking of [Jimi] Hendrix, until we went over the bridge one day and saw Watchtower, the Jehovah’s Witness thing, and thought maybe it wasn’t the best thing. But that was a great record.
Agent Porridge and Wine Field came out on Watchtower and we got a national distribution deal through Koch Records, which at that time was a big deal and that was kind of the next step in the label stuff. Jimmy worked at Elektra as one of the A&R guys working on Phish. He was working around the Phish scene, so I knew him through that and we came together, made some great music.
Actually, with Wine Field, I learned more about management in some ways. In other areas, just because it wasn’t the jamband scene. They were clean-cut rocker guys and it was a different experience in terms of trying to get an agent and trying to play the game on that level. That opened my eyes a lot and it would be really important for me later on when I started to get into music that was not just this scene.
In terms of moving from management to the production side, all that begin when you started working with the Disco Biscuits, correct?
That was an education of the other side of the music and another cautionary tale of working for and with your best friends. Marc Brownstein was one of my closest friends, at that time, I mean they all were, so going out on the road with them was challenging. Anyone who has worked with them will understand what I mean, and I say that with love. They’re no better or worse than other people.
I’m a musician, I’ve been playing music my whole life. I started playing French horn in the second grade, and violin, and I’ve been playing guitar now for twenty-five years, and at some point I realized I would never go on to be able to play in front of five, ten thousand people. But the moment when the lights go down on the crowd and the electricity in the room becomes vocal and then the band comes out, and it hits that crescendo—that’s all I really want to do with my life. I realized that while being a production manager and a tour manager on the road with the Disco Biscuits and contributing to this greater thing.
Trey used to talk about the hose and all of our favorite musicians talk about the experience with the crowd. At least all the good ones do because they understand that music made for yourself, by yourself that no one else hears doesn’t matter in the same way. Music is a language of sharing. My ability to contribute to that changed my life.
I had never been a tour manager or a production manager on the road but because of my friendship The Biscuits gave me a shot. And my time with them, what I learned and what I did, changed me. Robbie Taylor [Longtime Grateful Dead/Phil Lesh & Friends/Furthur production manager] who at that point in my life was just a really scary, intimidating guy—I first experienced him when we opened for Phil & Friends at the Greek Theater. That was actually the craziest weekend of my life. I think it was the first Jammys we did at Roseland, in 2001. So we did the Jammys, we got in a van and drove to the Gathering of the Vibes at Indian Point, and then drove back down after our set, got on the first plane out of JFK, flew to the Greek Theater and opened for Phil & Friends. That was like, “Hey, welcome to the world of touring.” Three states, two coasts, Phil & Friends, and that weekend is where my current professional life really started.