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Published: 2013/04/14
by Dean Budnick

Jon Dindas: "Heady Times at The Capitol Theatre" (and Onward)

Making the shift, it’s dramatically different in terms of the day-to-day. What pushed you in that direction?

I think some of the skill set is similar, I mean the management part of it. You know, running the label or being an A&R VP, or being a tour manager, or being a production manager or being a festival director—that skill set goes back to college, that’s what I learned at Cornell, how to lead events and things. So that is applicable, but you’re right, everything else is different. I was able to do it because I’m a musician, and I was able to take my knowledge of playing gigs in high school and in college, and my rough audio and lighting knowledge and start to learn that. I will say that I have been playing catch-up in a lot of the technical aspects since then.

There are two types of production managers—there are production managers who grow up and go to school for audio engineering and then kind of work their way up the ranks to positions of management, and then there are people who are experienced music people and managers who have less of a technical background and who pull on other people’s expertise. I am much more the latter. I made that switch and I think I’ve been very lucky to learn what I’ve learned in the past thirteen, fourteen years. The lifestyle is very different. The road is incredibly exciting, but for me it’s not the right thing.

I was just reading something on Facebook where they had a list of “How to Survive in the Music Business on the Road” and this was actually a pretty good one. Number eight was “Everyone is Bi-Polar on the Road,” there are good days there are bad days, just get through it and don’t make any decisions when you’re having a good day or a bad day. And that’s true, it’s absolutely true and I’d never seen it written like that. For me that’s not what I love.

The natural progression for me was to do that but do it in a situation when I wasn’t on the road and not sleeping for weeks or months at a time. The way to do that for me, initially, was festivals. The Green Apple Festival in 2005—I worked the Jammys and that stuff at the Jammys and Green Apple was more as an artist relation person than a production person. It’s a grey line sometimes, but I wasn’t the production manager in those things. Then I went to Irving Plaza as an assistant production manager, and did that for a year and a half of really just primo shows and that’s where I learned from Daniel Petrafesa and Jeff Webster and some of the other great people who work there.

For me, working out of an office for a couple months and then having a festival come through, or doing your festival for a week or two, that’s much more desirable to me than the road. And you still get that sense of being out there and doing shows and bringing that to people, whether it’s in the venue or at a festival. And all this stuff I’ve been doing with [Pete] Shapiro or at the Cap, or before that with Bob Kennedy, it’s always been, “Hey, I’m going to do whatever we’re going to do but I need to make sure I have these events so I can get that, stand on the stage, put the lights down, share in that communal experience.” That’s the key for me.

You’ve worked at so many of our readers’ favorite festivals. Can you talk about some of those experiences?

It’s been great. Talk about the festivals that we love. The Vibes I have worked off and on in different roles since 1999. I believe, actually it was 1999 that we brought the first internet tent to a festival. We had one tent up in the corner in Bridgeport where people could come and check their emails, so that was the precursor for everything you’ve seen since then. Actually, thinking about that, it was amazing that we actually made it work for short periods of time. Lately I’ve been doing the Gathering of the Vibes with Ken [Hays], and also some other things: the Greenwich town party and some big China Care shows with the Allman Brothers, and Clapton and some of the bands your readers know well. Mountain Jam, I have been to seven of the eight Mountain Jams. I started working Mountain Jam for Hard Head about six years ago, working as an extra production person, taking care of their needs for the festival. I’m now at the point where for the last few years I have been the promoter/producer of the festival, involved in booking and production and security and everything else. So Mountain Jam is a favorite and goes to my heart. This year it seems that we got the line-up that we’ve always wanted so hopefully people will come and this festival is going to grow and be amazing.

I had the honor of running Pete Seeger’s Clearwater Festival for a year. When I was two and a half and my parents, who gave me my love of music, brought me to the original Weavers at Carnegie Hall. That’s where it started. I mean, all of this, who I am, the music and the politics, came from my parents. I remember very vividly going through and pulling out the LP for Satanic Majesties [the Rolling Stones] and Bob Marley and Dylan, these were all in my parents record collection and that was the music I grew up listening to. And then I was asked by Tao Seeger, his grandson, who I knew through a mutual friend, to get involved. I went and met Pete and hung out at Pete’s house and he told me stories.

We did a benefit before the festival and we booked Jeff Tweedy and that was one of the first time I got to work with Tweedy, and basically drove Tweedy down to Pete’s little boathouse and had a rehearsal with Pete and Jeff and me. They made me play guitar, so I played guitar and Pete played banjo. Pete opened the show with some local school kids and Tweedy came out. So I got to jam with Pete and Tweedy and I would consider Jeff and Pete as two of my top five influences in my life, politically, socially, musically, so that moment goes at the top, having that little private jam session with them.

Was that ultimately your entry point to working on Solid Sound?

Yeah, that was. I had been around enough Wilco shows, I was a huge Wilco fan, to have gotten to know some of the players a little bit. But that was the first time I had been able to bring them a gig. Jeff wasn’t planning on doing shows, but he wanted to do that show because of Pete and we made a little tour out of it and at that show I got to spend a lot of time with Tony Margherita [Wilco’s manager] and Ben Levin and Jason Tobias, their tour manager at the time.

Jason and I became really fast friends, so the next year, when Alex Carothers was looking to build his relationship with them into either a multi show run or a festival, he called me and said, “I know you know these guys a little bit, so do I, we want to do these things I want to bring you on.” So that was the entry to it. The first year was a couple of ballparks, one in Lowell, Mass and one near Poughkeepsie, which were fantastic.

The first time I really had a long conversation with Jeff was driving to that Pete Seeger thing and when people say, “Oh they’re better people than they are musicians” kind of thing, it’s trite and it’s contrived, but in this case it’s true. When you meet a band you love and you want to go see anyways, and you get to help them put forth their creative vision, that is as good as it gets. Talking to Alex the other day, we were talking about finances and at some point he said, “Dindas, we all know that none of us get rich on Solid Sound,” and I said, “Yeah, but the wonderful thing is that none of us care.” Solid Sound is what everything should be. It’s brave and it’s on its own merits, it’s on its own terms. It’s done for the right reasons by the right people.

One of the things I love about Solid Sound and one of the things I love about Pete Shapiro, is that when Tweedy or Tony or Alex or Pete say to me “Dindas, we should try this!” and I say, “Sure, it’s never been done.” Most people would hear that and say, “Oh, it’s never been done,” and they find a reason to not do it. Pete and Alex and Wilco say, “Oh, it’s never been done? Great! That’s what we’re looking for. Let’s do that.” That’s art. The creation of Solid Sound is art on its own. Forget the music and forget the actual art in the museum, the creation of the festival, the way it came about to me is art and being a part of that is amazing.

Since you mentioned Peter Shapiro, let’s talk about the Capitol Theatre and how you became involved there.

Well let me just take a step back, because I’m telling the narrative of my career over the past ten years or more and kind of at the same time there’s this alternate past that has always involved Peter. I met Peter at the same time you did, when Chris Zahn said, “You have to come down and meet the new guy running the Wetlands.” I said, “Cool” and I went down to the office and I started talking to Chris and Pete because he was there, and I said, “Chris, where’s the new guy because I got to go.” And he looked at Pete and said, “That guy.” I said, “Cool,” but then Pete left and I looked at Chris and said, “That guy?” He was twenty-four, you know?

From Wetlands we worked together on the Jammys and we worked together on the Green Apple. Green Apple grew from me running Central Park which was really cool—a Laurie Berkner show that again my daughter went to—but then the Green Apple festival turned into the shows at the National Mall and I was the co-executive producer with Peter and Kathleen Rogers from Earth Day for two years.

The second year [2010] was the 40th Anniversary and that was the show that had Sting, and John Legend, and the Roots, and Joss Stone and Bob Weir, and being the co-exec I was involved with everything. So I went from putting Weir together with Jimmy Cliff, and going to rehearsals with John Legend and showing him my Slingbox and him being like, “Oh I need to get that thing, I need to watch basketball on it.” I could spend an hour just telling stories about being poked in the face by the woman who runs security for the National Park Service because we let Wayne Coyne set off his confetti canons. Those shows are amazing—think about running a festival in Tennessee or wherever else and then think about running a festival where we had 300,000 people the second year between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, on national land with the U.S. Park Police watching you. That was an incredible thing.

For Peter and I both, with all we went through to make that happen, the culmination of those shows was really amazing. But then we decided not to go back in and Peter called me and we talked about the Cap and we talked about what he was thinking of doing, and that he had met with Marvin [Ravikoff], and he said, “Well I think we’re going to do this and you’re going to be the production manager.” And I said, “Okay, I am?” You know, what I’ve learned is that when Pete makes a decision about these kinds of things I tend not to disagree with him because most of the time his instinct is correct.

I went to do a site walk with Pete at the venue in October 2010 but it was a year and a half before we got the lease signed and actually moved up there, and it was another few months of dealing with crazy landlords before we could actually get to work. All of a sudden it was April/May of last year and I think luckily, sometime around then Pete and I said, “Look, we’re going to open in the fall and we’re going to take the shot because if we keep thinking we’re not going to be ready then we’ll never open.” And it was the most intense six months of my life, from April until September, several of us sleeping in the theater, pretty much living in the theater, being there for sixteen, seventeen hour days. Knowing that we had to get it done, knowing that we would get it done, but knowing that what we were doing was impossible. Heady times at the Capitol Theater, if you will. At the beginning it was a very small crew, and obviously it grew, but we pulled it off.

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