Having been raised in Portland, Maine and having lived the bulk of his adult life in Burlington, Vermont, Nick Mavodones III is finally right where he belongs — or at least where I think he belongs — in Detroit, Michigan, as the general manager of up-and-coming venue El Club.
Located in Mexicantown, El Club opened in the Spring of 2016, Mavodones being hired in November later that year by club-owner Graeme Flegenheimer. “(Graeme) used to come to the venue I managed in Vermont when he was in middle school,” said Mavodones, “he ended up becoming friends with everyone at the venue and over the years we’ve just stayed in touch. He just called me Labor Day weekend and was like, ‘Hey do you think you’d want to move to Detroit?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t think so, man.’”
So what changed? Mavodones came out to Detroit for a couple of days to help with shows and check out the scene. After he returned to Vermont, Flegenheimer kept on him. “I talked to all my friends and I was like, ‘ah shit maybe I should try to do this.’” So two months later, the day after Halloween and shortly after his 15th job anniversary at Higher Ground — a music venue in South Burlington where he will be dearly missed — he hopped in his car and moved to Detroit.
Despite the quick turnaround, he was pleasantly surprised in Detroit when he found that he would be working with a couple of people he had previously worked with in Vermont. It also just so happened that his best friend from college had roomed in Portugal with one of the club’s other managers for a time. “I had a few familiar names to come into it. But everything’s been sweet; it’s been fun!”
Since his arrival in Detroit, Mavodones has been working on envisioning an installment of Waking Windows — the festival-slash-booking-company that he runs with four other friends — in El Club’s space. Recently, the venue has hosted a couple small festival-like events which, Mavodones says, “gave us a little better idea about how we could better utilize the space.” Now, only eight months into Mavodones’s time at El Club, Waking Windows Detroit has become an immediate reality, with headliners of Mount Eerie, Whitney, Dâm-Funk, Moodymann and Car Seat Headrest as well as 20 other acts.
Waking Windows as it is today originally began with a blog Mavodones started over 10 years ago. During his time at Higher Ground, he started putting on shows — “house shows, gallery shows, proper shows” — and his blog eventually metamorphosed into a booking promotion company. That company evolved into another entity and two years ago he and the friends who operate the company changed the name to Waking Windows. “We’ve done seven of them in Vermont, two in Portland, Maine, with the third one coming up in September,” Mavodones said. The most recent iteration of the festival in Vermont was held early May, where they had “185 acts over three days and something like 12 stages.”
But the festival didn’t start that big. Eight years ago, a friend of Mavodones’s who was involved in the local jazz scene put on the first and only “Other Music Festival,” a more experimental, weirder alternative to Jazzfest, which was happening at the same time. This original curator formed a band and moved out of town, leaving the festival to Mavodones and another friend. The two both worked at Monkey House at the time, a small, endearing bar and music venue in Winooski, Vermont, a city that had recently undergone some serious redevelopment. As a result, the city’s storefronts were mostly empty.
The next year, in putting on the festival, Mavodones and company used this emptiness to both their advantage as well as that of the city. “We talked to the realtors and we talked to the cities, and they were letting us use all these storefronts for free, to showcase music to get people to come to the town and potentially move in there,” he explained. This is where most of the idea for the name “Waking Windows” came from; it was the idea that they were literally waking up these empty storefronts for weekends at a time and hopefully longer. “We were taking overall of these empty spaces and then turning them into either galleries or performing spaces or reading rooms,” Mavodones said.
The other inspiration for the name, Mavodones noted, came from “a list of bands that were coming through the Monkey House, and there was one that had ‘walking’ in the title, like ‘walking something’ and someone thought it said ‘waking.’ So we were like, ‘Waking Windows.’” The important bit, though, is that Waking Windows has always been a serious practice in community development, and will ideally continue in that same vein in Detroit.
I am especially hoping that Waking Windows will help have a lasting, positive impact on Detroit and, more specifically, Mexicantown because when the venue originally opened Flegenheimer got no insignificant amount of kickback from the community for being an agent of gentrification in their neighborhood. Their worries were legitimate, but Mavodones held that Flegenheimer and the venue as a whole has been doing more, especially recently, to be involved in the community in a positive way.
“Graeme maybe didn’t reach out to everyone he should have,” when originally opening the venue, Mavodones said, “but I think It’s always tough for folks coming in, that aren’t from an area, to gain the trust or gain the connections that make it worthwhile for everybody. I think there are still lots of conversations to be had.” Even now with the club’s recently successfully funded Kickstarter project — the Vernor Cafe, which will add another dimension of community to El Club with retail space, practice rooms and an additional, smaller music venue — there are plans to have the construction work done by local crews.
Aside from that, Mavodones said that he feels that the club has become more integrated with the community, just as far as people coming in to hang out or to have a beer and some pizza after work. “We definitely want everyone to come (to El Club), and there’s definitely a diverse crowd.” Additionally, he talked about how it’s been cool to get to know individuals in the community. For example, “the owner of Armando’s (a Mexican restaurant just down the street from El Club); his daughter is Jessica Hernandez, from this area. She sold out two nights at the club when I got here… She crushed it.” At the very least, Mavodones and Flegenheimer are aware of their position in the community and the responsibilities that come with it.
In terms of other features of the festival, Mavodones said that “each day is kind of just jammed with music.” Mount Eerie and Jeremy Gara (of Arcade Fire) as well as two other acts will be playing the pre-party on Thursday, with the festival proper taking place Friday through Sunday. “Thursday’s pretty chill, Friday’s kinda got some rockers,” chuckled Mavodones, adding, “Most of the earlier sets will probably be a little shorter, and then as the night goes on it’ll get longer. And Saturday is pretty much R&B, hip hop and electronic night.” Sunday will feature Car Seat Headrest, and Mavodones also mentioned Low Cut Connie, who got some press a few years ago because “when Obama put his first playlist out they were like the only independent artist on his playlist… they’ve been kinda bustin’ a move. (They’ve) been super fun to work with.”
Outside of music itself, Mavodones mentioned that he is also hoping to feature some comedy, though it’s “coming down to the wire” with the national act that they had in mind. According to him, there will definitely be music and DJs on the patio all weekend long, and “one of the sponsors is a vodka company — Deep Eddy — they’re gonna be out there with samplers so people can take free shots if you’re of age.” El Club will also, per usual, have their pizza oven firing all weekend.
Excited that he and the festival are both experiencing their first year in Detroit, Mavodones is here and he’s involved. Mavodones is a guy you want to meet, and this festival, with its youth and the precedent it can set for the young venue, is one you definitely don’t want to miss.
For those who want to attend the festival: Three-day passes and single-day tickets are available at El Club’s website for $75 and $35 per day, respectfully. See our interview with Katie Alice Greer of Priests here, and stay tuned for an interview with Whitney’s Julien Ehrlich next week.