It’s Saturday, May 11, and Jonathan Neman is gazing out across the lawn of Maryland’s Merriweather Post Pavilion as Solange slinks through a funky early-afternoon set.
It’s a venue he attended countless times as a music fan during his years in college at nearby Georgetown University with classmates Nicolas Jammet and Nathaniel Ru. This is the third year the three friends and co-founders of Washington, D.C.-area salad chain Sweetgreen have hosted Sweetlife, a one-day music festival. But, as of less than 24 hours ago, this is the first year they’ve sold out the 20,000 capacity space. It helps that they booked an impressive lineup for a young festival -- Lindsey Stirling, Gary Clark Jr., Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Kendrick Lamar, Passion Pit and Phoenix all joined Solange on the main stage, while the B stage featured performanes from hot indie bands like Holy Ghost!, Youth Lagoon, Foxygen, Ms Mr, Haerts and Neman’s personal favorite, Nicky Blitz.
“This is a full-year process for us,” Neman explains from a watchtower above the Merriweather lawn. “You start out and make your wishlist and you have different levels of success. But this year we made ours and the fact that we got pretty much the whole wish list is unbelievable… We just saw Phoenix three or four years ago at Rock N Roll Hotel at the beginning of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, so to have them here now headlining is surreal.”
Sweetlife was produced and booked in partnership with Seth Hurwitz and I.M.P., owners of D.C.’s top club 9:30, and branding agency Cornerstone, whose co-founder Jon Cohen was in the crowd. Festival veteran Laura Rankin also pitched in as Sweetlife’s director, coordinating sponsorships and marketing activity. Having an all-star lineup on the back-end as well as the marquee should explain how Sweetlife grew from “13 to 14,000 the first year to 16 or 17,000 last year to over 20,000 and three stages today,” Neman says. “It’s combining the things we love -- food, music and community.”
Music has been in the DNA of Sweetlife’s stores since the company was founded in 2007 with one location on M Street in Georgetown, while Neman, Jammet and Ru were still students. Curated playlists helped give the store a fresher feel than the average salad shop, as did colorful design and a culturally fused menu. A third location in DC’s Dupont Circle that opened in 2008 was “really struggling,” Neman said, until they installed a big speaker outside the store that could play music. “We just started DJing outside and it really resonated with people that this was a restaurant that’s about more than just salads.”
Over the next several years, Sweetgreen began reaching out to their favorite bands whenever they played the D.C. area to book them for Sweetlife Sessions, acoustic in-store sessions “like what Tower Records used to do,” says Hu. Toro Y Moi, Walk The Moon and Theophilus London are among the bigger names who’ve stopped by in addition to local acts. Sweetlife now totals 17 locations in the D.C. area, with their first expansions set for June with two locations in New York and one in Boston. The New York flagship on 28th and Broadway will come equipped with built-in stadium seating and a stage to make music an even bigger part of the Sweetgreen experience. An additional New York location is set to open on 413 Greenwich Street in Tribeca.
Prior to this year’s sell-out, Sweetlife had been a “break even” event for Sweetgreen, but “definitely not a moneymaker,” Neman says. “We donate a very huge chunk of proceeds to charity as well, choosing a charity that targets teaching kids about healthy eating and provides healthy food to schools from D.C. farms. It has its own ROI [return on investment], just not in the profits from the festival.”
Back on the mainstage, Solange is about to close her set with her dreamy, Afro pop-kissed single “Losing You.” Released last fall on boutique indie Terrible Records, co-founded by Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor, it’s a song that many have said has hit potential all over it -- if only the right label could get behind it. But as Backbeat confirmed with multiple sources throughout the day at Sweetlife, it turns out Solange has found that right label -- Sony has signed the singer for a proper full-length to be released later this year that will likely incorporate selections from her Terrible EP True. The deal would not only put her on the same label as her older sister, but it would be a fascinating reverse-course for a singer who started out on a major (Geffen) only to go indie, and then make the majors chase her all over again. After Backbeat heard the Sony label might be Columbia, Solange issued a pair of tweets Tuesday afternoon in which she clarified the news: “Big news day for me! Wasn't ready to announce, but since false info is spreading I will gladly do so:) Supppppperr EXCITED!” she wrote, then added, “Super stoked to announce I've started my own label,SAINT RECORDS,where I'll be releasing my music & other projects distributed through SONY!
Later that day, Thomas Mars and Christian Mazzalai of Phoenix tell Backbeat in a backstage interview that they’re prepping a “very special” tour for the fall. “We’re working on it right now,” Mazzalai says. Might it be a co-headliner? “We can’t tell, but we want to do something unique.”
One thing Phoenix is not a fan of is repeating themselves. So don’t expect an encore version of the epic night at Madison Square Garden in 2010 when their French buddies Daft Punk joined them for a surprise live remix of “1901” -- something many anticipated at last month’s Coachella. “We didn’t realize that, but it was the total opposite -- they were just there, backstage, not in costumes,” Mars says. “The second weekend, we got in touch because people were expecting robots and we wanted R2D2 and C3PO. I’m sad that it didn’t happen, it would have been neat. They do unexpected things so people expect them at all times.”
Meanwhile, the band’s actual surprise Coachella guest, R. Kelly, almost didn’t happen. “He doesn’t fly, so he drove for three days just for one song,” Mars says with a laugh. “What was stressful for us was when we got onstage, he was still stuck in traffic and at some point we forgot about it. We thought, ‘He’s not gonna show up.’ And then he came. He appeared with this giant cigar.”
“Even though it was windy for us, we could smell it,” Mazzalai adds.
“We had no time to rehearse. We met him for the first time onstage,” Mars says.
In the meantime, you can expect some near-term collaborations with Solange’s producer/songwriter Blood Orange, who’s opening for the band at their Tuesday night gig at The Apollo, as well as a series of upcoming dates with Dinosaur Jr. (who recently turned Phoenix’s rave-up single “Entertainment” into a funked-out slow jam).
Other folks spotted throughout the day include Big Hassle’s Ken Weinstein, Sweetlife’s PR rep; Cornerstone co-founder Jon Cohen, who accompanied his 12-year-old son to catch MS MR; Cascine Records’ Jeff Bratton, whose band Kisses releases its sophomore LP Kids in LA Tuesday; and Neon Gold’s Derek Davies, whose band Haerts made its festival debut at Sweetlife with a dreamy daytime set.