The Independent Interview: “Pandemic” Pete Spynda talks the ‘tonk about Pittonkatonk

Pittsburgh Independent: Pittonkatonk is in its ninth year and happens at the Vietnam Veterans Pavilion. The music festival is aiming to go ZeroWaste, diverting 90% of waste from landfills.
Pittonkatonk returns to Schenley Park May 14.

Pittonkatonk, Pittsburgh’s original May Day Brass Band DIY community potluck extravaganza returns to Schenley Park’s Vietnam Veterans Pavilion this Saturday, May 14, with 10 straight hours of no-cost, contribute-what-you-can musical performances, everything from Balkan brass to Ethiopian funk to cumbia and punk.

Pittonkatonk, now its ninth year, is about “music without boundaries, creating events, performances, and actions that promote music as a catalyst for positive social change.”

Organizers don’t post set times in advance because the whole event is meant to be experienced holistically. Hear something new. Head to the activist greenhouse to meet grassroots organizations and find how to get involved in your community. Meet your neighbors. Bring the whole family. It’s that type of vibe.

Pete’s day job is as executive director of 25 Carrick Avenue Project, whose mission is to “provide the region with technical training, cultural programming and maintain the Carrick Community Pavilion.” Last year they ran a live sound apprenticeship program at South Side Works and also provide summer courses and other youth programming out of their state-of-the-art headquarters inside the repurposed Birmingham United Church of Christ in Carrick.

This year’s lineup: Son Rompe Pera (Mexico City), Gili Yalo & Anbessa Orchestra (Ethiopia/Israel/USA), Kiko Villamizar, Undertown Brass Band (formerly What cheer? brigade), Detroit Party Marching Band, Bitch Thunder, Colonel Eagleburger Band, Timbeleza, Big Blitz, Afro Yaqui Music Collective, and others.

Pete Spynda, looking thoughtful at ECHT Coffeehouse in Mt. Oliver.

Previously, Pete collaborated with Deeplocal on the Bayardstown Social Club; hosted the long-running monthly world music dance party, Pandemic; and ran the weekly Shadyside Nursery concert series, Weather Permitting.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How’d you get into producing live music in Pittsburgh?

I’ve been playing in bands since I was like 14, 15 years old. And one year I went to Lollapalooza in 1990…something, and [Pittsburgh concert promoter] Manny [Theiner] walked up to me and handed me a flier saying, “this are some cool indie rock shows happening in Pittsburgh.” And at the time, a friend of mine, we bribed his sister to go to some shows in Oakland and Uptown and started meeting people who were similar to us. And from there, with another friend of mine, I started helping to flier and set up for shows. I always pictured myself being on stage, but then I started enjoying like all the other stuff around putting a show together, and realizing that there is a whole industry behind it. Right?

2013, I got laid off from a full time job and I had some time and I just started producing events professionally and it just kind of escalated from there. At the same time, what cheer? brigade had come to Pittsburgh and we did a party in Jason Dunbar’s garage, and 150 people showed up. They came back a second year, 350 people showed up, and we took over all of Highland Park. And then the third year, we’re like, okay, we need to move it to the park. And that’s when we officially created the festival.

I didn’t realize you had worked with Manny back in the day.

Well, I was young, maybe 16 or 17. He’s brought so much amazing music to Pittsburgh, and his DIY aesthetic, he’s extremely hardworking, he’s been consistently putting posters around an entire region for years. I got to see some incredible music that I never thought I would see. I got to meet artists just because of the stuff he was doing. I think that he should be celebrated more. I think he is a big part of the Pittsburgh music scene, um, regardless of people’s opinion.

And so those formative teenage years, it’s safe to say that’s when you started to be exposed to other types of music and quote-unquote world music?

Yeah. I mean, I remember the Jazz Fest and Cecil Taylor performed there, like, Thurston Moore at the Temple in Oakland. And, you know, seeing some of that stuff and then hearing like, Henry Grimes and some of the experimental jazz stuff. [Manny] was running a few different venues, like even going back to like Luciano’s, and Charlie’s, I think it was called, in Uptown, which is now I think a fucking Starbucks now, and then he was doing shows at the Beehive in Oakland, which is also probably a fucking Starbucks.

I saw the Neutral Milk Hotel play in this tiny little room, and like Olivia Tremor Control, and some of these bands exploded, but man, he was bringing them and putting them in these, like, amazing little venues. And, you know, there’d be maybe 100 people seeing these incredible artists. Yes, that was definitely it. Before the Internet really was like a thing, it was like, that’s what you did. You just went to a show every night, and that just became my life. I never thought that I wanted to work in that because I was like, oh, I wouldn’t want to miss shows because I’m working in shows. But now I get to produce shows for bands that I fucking love. So that’s pretty amazing.

Pittonkatonk 2019

How did Pittonkatonk begin?

I was going to the Mayday Parade in Polish Hill, and a friend of mine, Caleb Gamble and I met and we were having coffee and he was like, you know, we just need to do something more for May Day. And there were, and there are these festivals called “honks” that happen all across the world. They are basically activist street bands that all kind of all converge on a city for one weekend or a few days and they activate parks and public spaces and sometimes they have parades. And so Caleb and I were like, let’s create our own type of festival that celebrates world music, and marching band music, and an extension of what was happening in Polish Hill. And so that was kind of like the the seed for Pittonkatonk. And so when we were trying to figure out what the fuck to call this thing, one of the members of what cheer? brigade, was like, oh, it’s Pittsburgh’s Honk – Pittonk. And, I added the extra “a-tonk” because it kind of sounds like honky tonk, it kind of plays off the badonkadonk, it’s almost like a tongue twister and no one can ever say it right.

The platform is really created by the people that participate in the event. Like I’m always amazed as people start rolling into the park cause because, I mean, you go to some festivals and no one shows up until like the marquee band. So I’m always amazed at like 1:00 when there’s like a thousand people who’ve set up their camps, they’ve got their blankets and got their food ready, the kids are running around in the playground. So it’s really like it’s not me so much as the fact that the community kind of comes together. It’s not like this, wait till 6:00 when the marquee band is on. It’s like, no, we show up at noon, and we’re ready to be there for the day.

You had one of Pittsburgh’s longest running dance parties for a while there, with Pandemic. Now that Brillobox is back…

I don’t know if Lou will still deal with me. No, I’m joking. I love Lou. We have a love-hate relationship. Half the time, we either are hugging and high-fiving or, you know, he wants to punch me in the face. But I also push a lot like because I just get intense about events.

I needed a break, managing this nonprofit and then having Pittonkatonk grow to the level it’s at right now, I needed to kind of step back from deejaying regularly. And I’m also getting older now. And, you know, while I loved my my time as a deejay in the club, I think I can finally admit that maybe that time is almost up. I still want to produce events for artists who want to come to Pittsburgh. But I just don’t know if I want to do it as like a monthly scheduled thing.

Pittsburgh’s honk.
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He is a 2x 2023 Western PA Press Club Golden Quill award winner, in feature and business reporting. And a 3x finalist in the investigative reporting category.

He is a 2018 first prize winner in environmental reporting from the Keystone Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for reporting on lead in Pittsburgh’s drinking water.

In 2022 and 2021, he was awarded a grant from The Gumshoe Group to support his investigative reporting.