Cortt Dunlap & Sarah Sexton

The time has finally come – tonight, Mayhem kicks off its winners’ festival at Oakland’s Awaken Cafe. After countless nominations streamed in during September and then three straight nights of jury deliberations in early October, fest co-founders Cortt Dunlap and Sarah Sexton announced the winners back on October 21, including some names that are probably very familiar (Waterstrider, The Seshen) as well as some new names (Ted the Block, D. Edward). Now, the two Oakland devotees are bringing everyone together for three blow out nights at the corner of Broadway and Telegraph, celebrating the city they love and its music.

Dunlap (owner of Awaken) and Sexton (owner of Oakland Indie Mayhem) are now in their second year hosting this festival, and its popularity put their selected judges through the wringer when it came time to select the winners. “Judging three successive, three-hour nights of songs and music videos was a most enjoyable form of musical Mayhem,” judge (and The Bay Bridged Production Associate) Daniel Senter said. “Cortt and Sarah had everything incredibly organized, which nicely complemented the creative onslaught thrown our way (the snacks and drinks didn’t hurt either).”

But knowing about these two Oakland stalwarts and their devotion to the Town’s music scene, it’s not surprising that they run a tight (but fun) ship for their now-flagship event. “In two short years, Oakland Indie Mayhem has become a magnet for Oakland’s fantastic music scene,” Senter (our man-about-Oakland) told me. “And Awaken Cafe has established itself as ground central for indie music meet ups, especially now that it hosts the East Bay’s weekly Balanced BreaKfast every Friday morning.”

I caught up with Dunlap and Sexton recently to talk about their mutual love of Oakland, the history of Mayhem, the winners’ festival, and much more. Read my conversation with them below, and then get full details on the next three nights’ shows at the end of the interview.

The Bay Bridged: Despite the fact that neither of you is a native Oaklander, you both have been integral to the continued growth of its music scene. Cortt, you opened Awaken Cafe in 2006, and it’s been at its current location right in the heart of Oakland since 2011, providing a nightly platform for musicians to engage with East Bay music lovers. And Sarah, you started Oaktown Indie Mayhem in 2010, booking shows and events all over Oakland, creating countless opportunities for musicians to connect with venues in order to have their music heard. What drew you both to Oakland initially, and what has kept you here, fighting to support the local independent music scene?

Cortt Dunlap: Since 1996, I’ve lived in Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, and back to Oakland. In those 18 years, Oakland has always called to me. It’s got the spirit, culture and progressiveness of the Bay Area, without the limelight of San Francisco and less pretense. It’s always seemed a little more raw, a little more authentic to me. And it feels like every kind of person is here all mixed together in this sort of overlooked, super urban, grand city right in the center of the Bay Area. All of that has made it a very attractive destination for an incredible creative class wanting to connect to other people and the world around us through art.

Sarah Sexton: In 2005 when I landed in the Bay, it was in Richmond. I was in a crappy relationship, with a crappy job, and living in a crappy part of town. Then in 2009, I dropped about 180 lbs. of dead weight, stumbled into Oakland with its blue skies and fragrant foliage, and never looked back. When I discovered the highly electric music scene here, I knew I found my calling. I wanted to live and breathe music all the time. Art is the most genuine way I can connect to a person, so it felt natural that I would find a way to live like this.

TBB: How did you both meet, and what was the spark that led to the creation of Mayhem Festival last year under its previous name Oaktown Music Festival?

CD: Sarah used to come into the first incarnation of Awaken Cafe around the corner. She’d always have some underground show or art project she was working on. When we opened the current Awaken Cafe, Sarah sent me an email saying if I ever need help booking, she’d love to work with us. I asked for a proposal and she put together a couple of one-off shows. The music was great. The lineups were interesting. People came out. We kept working together more and more. We seemed to have overlapping skill sets. Be on the same page about a lot of things. Eventually she was booking all my shows.

SS: I had been a fan of Awaken in its early years and was stoked when I saw their new, bigger space. I had been doing events at various other spots and this seemed like a natural fit. Indeed I had no idea when I emailed Cortt just how natural a fit it would be in fact, and that we would proceed to work fairly closely together for the next two years.

TBB: What prompted the festival’s name change to Mayhem Festival in only its second year?

CD: The first year we called it Oaktown Music Festival. The day after we printed flyers we started seeing flyers for the Oakland Music Festival. So disambiguation for one.

And it wasn’t just a festival. It was a celebration of music. Of recording. Of film and music videos. Of a scene. Across all genres. It was part competition. Part jury. Part party. Part awards. Part celebration. We wanted a tight brand and something simple and liked the reference to Sarah’s company, hence Mayhem. (And yes,we are aware there is a metal festival called Mayhem Festival — although not a lot of overlap.)

SS: Partially this was to differentiate from the Oakland Music Festival that had popped up right about the same time as our event, collective conscious ya know. But it also had to do with a commitment to the event and dialing in our branding. I know for me, my life is Mayhem. Its everything I do. I have lived my life getting into trouble one moment and then being praised the next…and almost always for the same underlying reason, I do what I want and speak my mind, and can’t possibly live any other way. These traits are either loved or loathed. I’m okay with that.

TBB: This year, you added two new categories – Best Song by a Solo Artist or Band Under 18 Years Old, and Best Song by a Solo Artist or Band from the San Francisco Bay Area—not Oakland. What spurred the addition of these two categories?

CD: For the Under 18 category, last year we had several submissions by super talented young people that we were very impressed by but weren’t quite yet able to compete at the level of the more senior bands. We decided to give them their own category.

For the greater Bay Area category, we wanted to extend an outstretched hand to all the other amazing bands across the Bay. We wanted to let musicians know that while the focus is on celebrating Oakland’s music scene, there are great bands all over the Bay Area and we’re all really working together to expose more people to great local music.

SS: The youngsters have to be encouraged. They’re making wildly creative music, and not just “for their age.” I mean some of this stuff is really comparable to musicians that have been playing for most of their adult lives, and we just really wanted to highlight that. As for the SF Bay Area category … I really think that Oakland is blossoming right now, but that doesn’t take away from the hundreds of killer bands in the surrounding areas and all that they’re accomplishing too. We really want the music scene to know that all of those artists are valued and appreciated, even if we happen to be focused on our beloved locals.

TBB: You received a huge number of submissions this year. Why do you think you’ve been so successful spreading the word about the event and the nominations?

CD: Our social networks are full of musicians. There are only a handful of venues around the Bay Area and if you’re in the Oakland music scene you’re connected to us by one or two degrees. Between Oaktown Indie Mayhem and Awaken Cafe, we can get the word out pretty quickly to lots of musicians who tell people they play with, who tell people they play with, etc.

Also I think the Oakland music scene is on fire. Lots of musicians are working hard, pouring their time and their passion into their art and the time is ripe to celebrate that community. That’s why we’re seeing so many great music festivals and music communities emerging right now, like Undercover Presents, Oakland Drops Beats, Balanced Breakfast, Mission Creek, Eastlake Music Festival, SF Offside, and Oakland Music Festival to name a few.

SS: Word of mouth is key. Once respected musicians are in, its just a matter of time before the rest of the crew is interested. I have spent the last two to three years hustling to infiltrate every music scene I can find, and have been able to tap these communities which has helped a ton, in addition to all the footwork with Awaken. I want good music, I love all genres, and I’ll walk to remote far remote edges of Oakland to find it.


TBB: How did you go about selecting your panel of judges?

CD: To select the jury, we identified some of the most visible and respected local music and entertainment organizations and then just asked. We looked at who we knew and tried to get a variety of representatives who each kind of have a different point of access to local music. Again we were met with an overwhelmingly positive response. Every one seemed to jump at the chance to be involved.

SS: This jury was so badass this year. We basically just brainstormed and reached out to every person/company/organization that we felt has made an impact on either the national or local industry. Because Oakland is on fire, most everyone was stoked to take part and joined in the fun.

TBB: Which performance are you most looking forward to during next week’s shows at Awaken?

CD: I’ve got to say I’ve got my eye on Waterstrider. This band is really doing it for me. They’re making great music, their sound is unique and just seems to be getting better. Also, Ted the Block. We hadn’t heard his solo stuff before this year’s contest. Something really special about his sound. But really all three nights are a lineup of headliners. You can’t go wrong.

SS: I have to say that although I’m really pumped about all three nights, Waterstrider has been in my top three favorite local bands for the past year(ish) and I’m still just as excited to see them as I was the very first time. I’m also really stoked to see our under 18 winner, The Jamming Nachos, and how they handle themselves on stage … something tells me, they’re gonna blow people away.

TBB: You are also both involved in the Balanced Breakfast series – can you tell me a little bit about your perspective on what you hope that program accomplishes?

CD: We’ve been hosting Balanced Breakfast East Bay at the cafe every Friday morning for a bunch of months now. Each week it gets bigger. These folks are up to something. Up at 8am to talk about their craft and what it’s going to take to make it. Sharing resources. Sharing knowledge. They’re walking the walk. Look for big things from Balanced Breakfast.

SS: The folks that are spearheading Balanced Breakfast are making serious progress for the east bay music scene. When they approached us about expanding the SF version to Oakland, I was skeptical at the 8-10am timeframe, but my god do people come out in droves! I’m still desperately trying to make it by 9am so I can soak up more of their knowledge, but we’ll see how that develops. [laughs] Bottom line though, they rock and I would recommend that meetup to anyone, as a first step in taking your music to the next level.

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Mayhem 2014 Winners:
Best In Show: The Seshen, “Unravel”
People’s Choice: D. Edward, “Love Is”
Best Song by an Oakland Solo Artist: Ted the Block, “Cocoon”
Best Song by an Oakland Band: Waterstrider, “Redwood”
Best Music Video by an Oakland Musician: Kill Freeman, “You Wanted”
Best Song by a Greater Bay Area Band or Solo Artist: Billie Gayle, “Flickering (Remix)”
Best Song by an Under 18 Oakland Band or Solo Artist: The Jamming Nachos, “Anytime Anywhere ”

Mayhem Festival Poster