The Producers - Mission Creek Music Festival

Now in its tenth year, the Mission Creek Music & Arts Festival has grown in size and attendance from a one-day event with eight bands and an audience of approximately 100 to a week-long event with 180+ acts, serving an audience of approximately 3,000 at various venues throughout San Francisco. Besides music, the festival also includes a full film and video program and a mixed media, music-based series named Collision, which facilitates the merging of San Francisco-based experimental musicians with other artists to yield original, art-installation projects.

All of the MCMA festival events are affordable, with ticket prices in the free to $15 range; most tickets are $10. To celebrate the spirit of community in the Bay Area music and arts scene, MCMA donates a portion of its annual festival proceeds to famine and AIDS prevention and treatment at the Malawi, Africa-based Joshua Orphan Care Center.. In addition, this year the festival will donate a portion of the proceeds from one of its art/comic book events to a children’s writing program at 826 Valencia.

As if these creative and philanthropic efforts were not enough, the MCMA festival and its producers serve as a magnet around which numerous local independent businesses and publications have thrived and continue to derive inspiration from the surrounding community. We at A Fine Tooth are honored this year to help the festival celebrate its ten-year anniversary by dressing and photographing its team of producers. The photos here show just six members of the team: Jeff Ray, Samaki Dorsey, Jon Fellman, Shannon O’Leary, Leslie Satterfield and Neil Martinson.

In this article, Stephaine Witherspoon interviews Neil Martinson, festival co-producer and longtime denizen of the San Francisco arts and music scene.

SW: First off, how did Mission Creek begin and when did you get involved as one of the co-producers?

NM: Jeff Ray started it ten years ago. He’s the founder and the producer of the festival. I didn’t know much about the festival until about four years ago, and I only met Jeff then, and it was very odd because we have a lot in common and we have a million mutual friends. It’s like we were circulating around each other, without ever meeting, for years.

SW: Is Jeff well known in San Francisco?

NM: He’s been in a bunch of bands. He had a band called Zmrzlina for years. Now he’s got a band called Radius. He has a large performance ensemble, a very elaborate thing, called Extraordinary Forest. So, about a year ago, a little earlier, he asked me to be a co-producer with him, because I’d been doing a weekly night called Smile for a long time and was a fairly well-known booker and dj. I did Smile for five years at the Hush Hush and I’ve been doing it for about a year at the Knockout. So, I’ve booked several hundred shows in that time, and for somebody who doesn’t run a nightclub that’s unusual.I started doing Smile as a dj night with Megan Hickey, who was also a co-producer of Mission Creek for a few years. We played lots of 60s pop and bubblegum records, and had a regular crowd that would come to dance, but as soon as we started booking live entertainment it was just over the top, we had so much more success, and I really got into that. I really just fell into booking.

So, I’d acquired a pretty good reputation in the city for putting shows together. I branched out in terms of the stuff I play at Smile, and was awarded Best DJ in the SF Weekly in 2004. I’d managed to get a lot of good will going. So, Jeff Ray thought I’d be a good person to ask to be part of the MC team. I actually don’t do nearly as much hard work as Jeff and Jon (Fellman). They’re the ones who stay up late hours juggling and calling. We get together once or twice a week; they’ll come over with Leslie (Satterfield), Samaki (Dorsey), Brianna (Toth) and the others, and we have this huge piece of butcher paper out on a table with all the days.

SW: It’s a solid week right?

NM: It’s a week and a day. Last year it was a week and a half. This year it’s the 14th—22nd.

SW: How many acts are there?

NM: There are about 180, I think. Including performers and bands. There’s a lot of ground covered. It’s now the Mission Creek Music and Arts festival. It’s still generally called MCMF. We’re trying to expand it. Next year we’re trying to have a dance segment.

SW: How would you say MCMF differs from Noise Pop?

NM: I think I would say Noise Pop is already pretty legitimate. I don’t know how their financial structure differs, our is not quite non-profit, it’s almost non-profit, we have a lot of non-profit sponsors, we never make any money on it that’s for sure, because some of the shows work, some don’t work so we end up in debt to the clubs sometimes. This year we actually scaled it back considerably, because last year there were too many shows. One night there was 11 shows and that’s just too much. We’re always careful not to overbook one night. Each night we’ll have one show that will appeal to one crowd like a noise show, a poppy show, a folk show…

SW: So the style or genre is across the board not just a festival that celebrates one type of music over another?

NM: No, no. It’s definitely edgier than Noise Pop, even though the name wouldn’t indicate that. We’re still underground basically. Underground, for lack of a better word: and nothing against Noise Pop! They do a wonderful job, but they’re a little more legit (Laughs). We’re still pretty grassroots.

SW: And they bring in bands from all over the country?

NM: Yeah, so do we. There are bands from all over California, San Diego, and Los Angeles. Bands from Seattle, people from New York. Last year I got a band called Moisturizer from New York to come. They’re great. Really fantastic. This female trio that plays this crazy progressive Go-Go music. The main reason we do this though, is to promote local music. So, we get people from out of town if we really like them and to pull more interest to local music, that’s the idea, because we’re all pretty much involved in local music, either being in bands or just involved in the scene. I mean, the scene that I’m involved in personally leans more towards, and John Fellman and I tend to share a lot of the same ideas in contrast to the others involved in Mission Creek, we tend to prefer the more super-melodic, again not to generalize, but leaning towards 60’s and 70’s pop. I mean, I like all kinds of stuff. We try to be across the board, but of course, it’s going to be according to our tastes. Part of what we do when we get together, earlier on before we’ve booked any shows, is we get tons of demo tapes and sit around and listen to them and usually within five seconds someone says yes or no and if enough people say no we just turn it off.

SW: How many submissions do you get?NM: Hundreds. We go through a lot and then there’s also MySpace now, which has actually made it a lot easier in many ways. Someone tells you, “Oh, there’s this band you should check out,” and we can just check them out, zip, like that, and then we don’t have to wait until we’re all together with a stack of CD’s.SW: How long is that process?NM: Well, it usually starts a month or two after the music festival; Jeff in particular, starts thinking about next year. He’s super dedicated. It’s so obvious to anyone who’s around him that he’s doing something really great for the music scene. We get huge coverage in the Guardian. All the bands get written about, everyone gets some attention.[Small break for irrelevant chatter about the torturous sound quality of downloaded music, earwax build-up and a made-up, Sopranos-like character named, “Itchy Ears Martinson.”]SW: So, this year’s festival, what are some of the acts you’re excited about?

NM: I’m really excited that Vincent Gallo is coming out to play, because he’s an old friend of mine and because I don’t know that he’s spent any time in San Francisco.

SW: What’s his band called?

NM: It’s just Vincent Gallo, and he’s playing with Sean Lennon. He had a band called Bunny a while back. We met because I had seen a record called Bohack that he did in the eighties, and it was dedicated to Pasolini, who’s my favorite filmmaker, so I bought it and really liked it. It was very minimalist. He says that the entire record was based on side two of Yes Relayer — which I find hard to believe, but I’ll take him on his word. We’re both Yes freaks, which is one of the reasons we got along when we first met. Then he gave me a copy of a soundtrack record he did for a movie called, The Way It Is, which was more musical, this beautiful atmospheric stuff.

SW: I liked what he did with the Buffalo 66 Soundtrack.

NM: There are a couple of his songs on there, and he used other people’s music too, Yes and King Crimson are on there. We’re both progressive rock fiends, and we’re also really into Ultravox with John Foxx, one of the best bands of the late seventies.

SW: How would you describe Vincent’s music?

NM: What did I read just the other day? Someone wrote in the Weekly that he was an asshole, but his stuff was very sensitive, melancholy, and very simple. Many people claim to hate him or find him objectionable in some way, but they’re usually people that don’t know him.

SW: Yeah, just throwing his name out recently, you get a very intense reaction from some people.

NM: Yeah. He’s like that. He’s one of those people. Very outspoken and impulsive. Passionate and a bit crazy, but very sweet and funny as hell. I mean, he’s unique. What can I say, do you know any other significant artists that put blowjobs in their movies and are Republicans? I don’t. He’s a one-off.

Other than that, Jon Fellman and I have a particular interest in a show that’s going to be at the Rickshaw Stop this Saturday. The headliner is a band from San Diego called Silver Sunshine — I’m blown away by this band. In L.A. they were recently requested to open for Saint Etienne, which is very strange considering how different they are from that band. When they first started out they sounded a lot like the 60’s band “Tomorrow”, very melodic psych rock, but now they’re getting into a little more early ’70s heavy, riff-based thing. I would put them up there with my top five contemporary bands, which would include Ladybug Transistor and Ghost from Japan. They’ll be playing with Persephone’s Bees, a great local pop band that’s signed with Columbia. The opening band is Willow Willow, these two girls, Jessica and Miranda, who’ve been singing together since they were little kids so they just do these perfect harmonies. They write beautiful songs and now they have a back-up band, which are both of their boyfriends, one on drums, one on bass, and Helene Renaut on violin. And one of my other five favorite bands is playing this show, Winter Flowers. I don’t know how to describe them; it’s very fairy-folkish, a bit like The Incredible String Band. They are marvellous. Citay is also playing, who I’ve never seen. We tried to get Lavender Diamond from Los Angeles for this night, but they weren’t available. I’m really excited about that show.

The very last Mission Creek show on Monday, also a Smile show, which I’m excited about, is a cd release party for Uni and Her Ukelele. She’s this tiny, wonderful woman who works at Amoeba Records, and who wears outrageous outfits and writes beautiful songs and plays the ukulele. I love her. I’ve had her at Smile a million times.

There’s another show on Saturday night at the Knockout with a band called Indian Jewelry from Los Angeles, the Sixteens, and my actual, very number one, favorite band, Master Moth. In my opinion, Master Moth is the best band in the world right now. They’re just drums, guitar and vocals, very simple setup. Cole, the singer, was in Factrix in the early ’80s, late ’70s. Factrix was very organic and mushroomy, but they were part of that whole S.F. Industrial scene, they did shows with SRL and the amazing Monte Cazzaza. Cole is one of those inept perfectionists. He works really hard to get things just right, and he’ll get the best band in town going, everyone loves them, and then they’ll disagree about graphics or something and break-up. It’s happened over and over. Everyone knows he’s the best. He writes the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. It’s rock n’ roll with a poetic spirit. Everyone who knows him considers him one of San Francisco’s best-kept secrets.

SW: Which brings me to another question about San Francisco music. Is there a sound that comes out of S.F. or not? I’ve been playing around with this idea that a specific style of music isn’t coming from these distinct localities anymore, especially with the internet, that, in terms of a specific scene like the punk scene in New York back in the day, or whatever, this no longer exists.

NM: I think you are right. We don’t have that any more. Once upon a time there was a San Francisco sound, when you had bands coming out of here like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane and so on. That was the S.F. sound in the sixties. The L.A. sound could’ve been described as a combination of The Byrds and … well, everybody has a different idea. I mean, if you ask one person what the San Francisco scene is now, they might tell you Buckethead, or if you ask someone else they’ll say The Vue. Whatever.

But in this postmodern era, everything is patchwork and pastiche, and that doesn’t lend itself to the formation of a movement. This is really nothing new. I mean, if you look closely at the various “movements” or scenes in rock, they were mostly unified by locality rather than style. You mentioned New York punk, which I had the good fortune to witness, early on, when I was a kid. But what did the Ramones have in common with Television, or Blondie? Just that they all played at CBGBs and Max’s, right?

But it’s more extreme these days, where we have microgenres for every imaginable style:The only way people can unify this stuff is to break through social strata. That’s what I’ve always tried to do at Smile, booking compatible bands from different scenes, and that’s what we do with the Mission Creek Festival. But the fact of the matter is that very few musicians make it, become really successful, out of San Francisco. It’s very rare. The last few years we’ve had Jolie Holland, Joanna Newsom — she actually had her first public show at Smile, opening for Devendra Banhart when I had him play one night.

SW: Oh, Devendra….

NM: But he really made it in New York. He was here for a long time and everybody felt he was going to be famous either for the music or the drawing, but he didn’t really strike and become the “It Kid” until he moved to New York.

SW: Well, I’ve encountered this thinking that S.F. is a good place to germinate ideas.

NM: Yes. And then you go to L.A. or New York to become famous. It’s true. It’s kind of a virtue of this city that there is no Mr. Big here. They barely ever seem to even show up, you know, these talent scouts and P.R. people … I never meet them, anyway. And so it’s a city where you can spend ten years doing something that has no success outside of San Francisco.

And in one way that’s really beautiful, because people can cultivate something over time, without commercial pressures, and that brings a kind of purity that is rare in Los Angeles, or even New York, which is reputed to be so raw but which is really very bottom line because it’s so hard to survive as an artist there. Here, the people in bands might have a day job, or else they find a way to scam, and it’s always been like that here, it’s like a tradition, that people find a way to scam. I don’t really know if that’s a good way to live, but that’s what people do here. It’s always been a place where lots of interesting music has come out of. There’s never been a shortage of people appreciating the music of San Francisco. It’s just, nobody ever seems to take it out of that little appreciation society. The audience here is composed mostly of other musicians. San Francisco has always been somewhat in a bubble. If you look at it historically, San Francisco was a failed port city that’s thrived because of its beauty. People come here because they want to see the beautiful city.

When I first got here, after growing up and living in New York, which is a very grey city in many ways — I mean it’s exciting but it is a grind. But when I came out here, it felt like the land of broken toys or something, you know? There’s definitely a fairy tale atmosphere, it has an effect on the music. There’s a feeling of tremendous idealism and openness here. People come to San Francisco to “come out” in some way, either heading to the Castro, or just in the sense of doing their thing. If you go to L.A. you go there to make it. If you go to New York it’s because you want excitement. People come to San Francisco to let it hang out, to do whatever the hell they want because nobody gets a second look here.

SW: It’s the ten-year anniversary of Mission Creek, anything special planned?

NM: I think every year Jeff and whoever is involved with him just try to make it a little better. I think we have succeeded this year, but who am I to judge? These undertakings depend entirely on the audience’s reaction. So far, it has been a success.

All: Long live the Mission Creek Music Festival!