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Jammin’ with Matt Mandrella, Huntsville’s new music officer

HUNTSVILLE — It is an electric week for the Rocket City leading up to this weekend’s much-anticipated opening of the Orion Amphitheater at MidCity.

As the internationally known performers arrive and local musicians tune their instruments for this weekend’s star-studded First Waltz, 256 Today sat down with Huntsville’s very first and very new Music Officer Matt Mandrella.

Born in Ohio but brought to Daphne, AL, when he was three, the 6-foot-8 singer/songwriter and now Huntsville executive, certainly stands out in a crowd, but it’s not just his imposing height that draws you in.

His easy demeanor with a backpack slung across his shoulder much like I suspect a guitar once did; his infectious personality and self-deprecating humor make him the most interesting person 256 Today has spoken with lately – that we don’t already know;.

Matt Mandrella may have come to his new position by way of Austin, Texas, and Memphis, but he has a whole lotta down-home-in-Alabama about him!

First question, what is a City Music Director? What do you do all day?

“My position was created to implement the music strategy developed by the Music Board over the past three years. We continue to define and establish exactly what Huntsville’s music ecosystem should look like.

“I am also here to celebrate Huntsville’s depth and music diversity and I want to incorporate live music into as many spaces as possible, including places like the airport. Over time, I think the music office will help facilitate new music initiatives and events too.

“But a big part of my role in the music office is making sure all the things within Huntsville’s music ecosystem are connected and growing and working together when it makes sense for them to collaborate.”

Mayor Battle told us their search for the Music Officer took more than a year. How was that interviewing and hiring process from your perspective?

“I was not looking for a new job and I loved my current job, but somebody shared the job post on social media and it kept following me,” he said with a smile. “When I read it, it was like wow! My resume fits right with it. That and it being a new position, I had to throw my hat in the ring.

“Now, I wake up every day thinking, what can we do today to make the music sector in this city more awesome and fun?”

Have you had time to assess the music culture here and what has stood out for you?

“There are a lot of smart people here. I always say that most of the time, I’m the tallest person in the room but, in Huntsville, I am definitely not the smartest.

“The Music Board is great. They have in-person meetings once a month, but we are in constant communication. They have been a tremendous resource.

“If you look at what the library has done with their new Blast online streaming platform for local artists, it is not only amazing, but I expect to see some of these local artists on the stage a lot at the Orion as people have access to their music.

“I popped in for 15 minutes to talk to Danny Davis with Tangled String (Studios). I wound up staying for two hours. He makes some of the best guitars in the world. I play a lot of Taylors and Martins but the guy handed me an $8,000 guitar he designed while helping develop a lot of acoustic elements for NASA projects.”

I cannot help but laugh. No other place but Huntsville ….

“And how can I describe Board member Codie Gopher? Codie is all things Huntsville music. He designs attack helicopters during the day, doing amazing work in music technology the rest of the time. He organized a worldwide Hip-hop technology conference here in Huntsville.

“And then there is Chris Vrenna, Nine Inch Nails’ Hall of Fame drummer who stepped back from the band to become head of the music technology department at Calhoun Community College.

“He was arguably the greatest industrial drummer of all time, but there is such a humbleness about him.”

What is your overall assessment of Huntsville building a music economy?

“We have the foundation in place to make this a music city. The building blocks are in place but many of these musicians have been running under the radar for years. It’s part of my job to get them back on the radar.

“We don’t want to be the same as Austin and Nashville, but we want to be in the conversation when people are talking about the music epicenters of the country.”

Do you think Huntsville will be competitive with the long-established Muscle Shoals music scene?

“The Muscle Shoals music culture has a separate identity. It is a treasure not just in Alabama, but worldwide. Their legacy is long-term and sustainable and awesome, and I’m excited about working with them to grow North Alabama’s music as a whole. But I don’t see that as competitive. I think it is more collaborative.’

Okay, I will bite, did you play basketball?

“I did. Two years at Spring Hill College before a knee issue forced me out. The doctor asked me, ‘Do you want a knee replacement now or when you are 50?’ so I went back to intramurals.”

Are you a musician?

“Yes. I play guitar and sing. I got into the ‘music business’ in college, had bands, sang at bars. I thought I would be the next great singer/songwriter.

“When it was time to get focused, I moved to Fairhope and got a little apartment by the bay for a year. I concentrated on songwriting, and I wrote a lot of songs while I played around Mobile and the Fairhope causeway.”

Then you initially went to Austin to play and perform!

“I was told if you really want to do it, go where the musicians are, so I went to Austin to pursue a music performance career.

“Two weeks in, I attended an open mic event and this guy got up there and he was one of the best guitarists I’ve ever seen.

“Then the next guy got up and he was even better than the first. Of course, they were all working at banks and supermarkets during the day, but in Austin, hand someone a guitar and they turn into Stevie Ray Vaughn.

“So, not for a lack of enthusiasm and effort, I realized there was no way I had what it took on the performance side.”

Sounds like you went into the business side of music, and not the music business?

“I wanted to stay in music. That’s my passion, my love so I navigated my way into a seasonal position at South by Southwest and did that for a year, working in the special projects department. I was able to see how large conferences and festivals operate strategically and that was a very valuable experience.

“A friend recruited me to run a venue called the Parish, which at the time, had fallen by the wayside. I built it back up, so it had an amazing reputation as probably the best sound room in Austin, which is kind of a big deal because there are a lot of great sounding rooms in Austin!

How about your stint at Graceland? Do young people even know who Elvis is?

“Outside of the White House, Graceland is the most visited house in the world.”

I didn’t know!

“It is amazing the legacy of Elvis Presley and I can tell you that every morning I went in to work, people were waiting in line to get in to see Elvis’ home.”

Are you in the least concerned it will be a lot different building a music economy from the ground up, compared to such an established venue as Graceland?

“No, because even though Graceland is a well-established brand, leadership invested a significant amount of capital in making sure Elvis’ legacy lives forever, and that meant they had to continue to attract new and younger visitors as you just mentioned.

“To do that, we established the property as not only the home of Elvis Presley, but a regional national pop culture center with about 300,000 square feet of exhibit, restaurant and venue space.

“Some of it is Elvis but, in addition to his jumpsuits and cars on display, there is over 200,000 square feet of exhibit space with a 2,300-capacity soundstage venue and stadium style theater known as the Graceland Exhibition Center there.

“There are many non-Elvis-related things that attract people to the campus, and my primary role was developing the live music and events aspect of the campus, most of which was not Elvis-related.”

What are the chances you will from time to time jump in and play for us locally like at the Orion or some other venue?

“If you have ever watched the TV show ‘Parks & Recreation’, I would be the Ron Swanson of Huntsville’s music scene! The guy who is buttoned up and steely during the day but has an alter ego that plays jazz at night clubs.”

I take that as … a “Yes!”

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