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Thursday, December 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 22.0° F  Overcast
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The Madison Pop Fest returns for round three
Homegrown indie music festival back at the UW
Manning: 'It's our feeling that there's an art to presenting music as much as there is one to making it or appreciating it.'

The winds are blowing and the temperature's dropping, but this weekend the Madison Pop Fest aims to warm you up with scorching hot local and national bands, music movies and a full-on opening night revival with none other than the Master of Party, Andrew WK. An ambitious lineup follows over the weekend: a dozen-plus acts, along with workshops and screenings of Electroma from Daft Punk and Heima from Sigur Ros.

This is the third year a group of ambassadors of good music have put on the event on the UW-Madison campus, and the buzz is building. Pitchfork recently plugged the festival and delivered so much traffic to its website that it temporarily crashed. That's just a small kink in the process for the people running the show, though. Nothing they can't handle.

Started two years ago by Jamie Hanson, Danny Tenenbaum and Wyndham Manning, the project is an ambitious labor of love. This free music festival highlights both local and national acts, and also features educational events, including a music promotion panel and a series of workshops and demonstrations of "circuit bending," a niche genre that explores the use of any and all electronic devices that make noise for the creation of music.

As with any festival, there have been bumps and hiccups along the way. This year, however, organizers think they've solved some of their venue problems by moving most of the shows to Music Hall, a renovated historic building at the foot of Bascom Hill typically used for UW opera classes and performances, and possessing an auditorium well-suited for live music. Hanson and Manning also made the smart decision to recruit a pair of Madison music bloggers to take care of the booking: Kyle Pfister of Just Sayin' Is All (a contributor to The Daily Page) and Ryan Matteson at Muzzle of Bees.

What they put together is a pretty stellar line-up that includes performances by Pale Young Gentlemen, Murder By Death, Bon Iver, The Selfish Gene, La Bruja and others.

Curious as to how and why a couple of students would want to take on such a seemingly daunting task, I tracked down Manning just a few days before the kick-off of the festival. Possessed of the kind of optimistic enthusiasm necessary to dive headlong into a venture that is sure to involve pain and suffering before the payoff, Manning appeared passionate about what he and the other volunteers are doing.

"What we like is creating events, parties, celebrations that people want to be a part of, not just a casual observer of," said Manning. "It's just fun to be surrounded by a community of like-minded people who are creating this organic experience in dynamic environments. It's fun when you see people get it like you do, and we feel like that experience is easier to cultivate in the context of a free festival where, though we may not be able to provide the most extravagant acts, there is no obligation or expectation for what has to happen or what you have to take from it."

Madison is inundated with shows, often to the point where attendance is low for a really great act because there was another really great act playing down the street or simply a Packers game on TV. Just what is it that makes their festival unique?

"We try to offer some different ways for people to engage with [the art]," Manning explained. "Whether it be just by seeing shows, being part of a panel, having Andrew WK teach you how to party, having hands on experience with workshops, or seeing films about the music you love. It's our feeling that there's an art to presenting music as much as there is one to making it or appreciating it."

Instead of the traditional weekend music festival, events that usually focus primarily on the shows themselves, the Madison Pop Fest includes a variety of musical delivery vectors. The organizers even went so far as to bring two films to be screened, neither of which has been shown in the United States before (one of which, Electroma, doesn't even have a domestic release date).

Manning said he'd learned a lot over the past few years, both about what it takes to coordinate any number of various individuals, to get everybody's vision of the event on the same page, and to work carefully with venues to make sure everyone's needs are met. One major issue organizers encountered last year was the massive interest in attending the Joanna Newsome show in the Great Hall of Memorial Union, where a line to enter the room elicited comments from many attendees, including Matteson and Pfister, as well as music bloggers Steve Schwerbel and Nick Giffin, among others.

Manning is optimistic about this year, especially about having most of the shows in the Music Hall, which he says is a great space. "We make mistakes pretty unabashedly," he admits. "For us, that's what it's about, that's what college prepares us for and that real life is about; making mistakes and learning and growing from them."

If your definition of "real life" includes organizing festivals, that is, which Manning and crew absolutely believe it should. They're hoping that the increased attention the event has been receiving coupled with an attractive schedule and an enthusiastic, music-loving populous will mean good attendance levels. The goal is to continue the tradition in the years to come, but a free music fest is no easy thing to maintain.

"We just do what we can," says Manning. "We don't have much money so it's hard to encourage a lot of acts to want to play this little festival somewhere in Wisconsin." That won't stop them from trying, though.

Manning has a gregarious but realistic attitude about the weekend, acknowledging that there are other events to contend with but noting that it shouldn't be about competition, just a love of creative expression. "People should come because they can trust us to see something different, that they know to expect something they won't experience in the near future, to see something they haven't seen before and because it's free," he explains.

"We know there is plenty else going on this weekend, and if you want to, go! This weekend is about music and as long as you are a part of something we'll be happy," Manning concludes. "All that we ask is that you don't waste the opportunity to be a part of and contribute something to the community while you have the chance. We want to make this festival about the people who share in it."

The Madison Pop Festival kicks off Thursday evening at 9 p.m. in the Great Hall with an "Opening Convocation/Revival" with Andrew WK, who is returning to town for the first time since a gig at Party in the Park a few years back. Live music, workshops, panel discussions and movie screenings continue through Saturday night.

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