SXSW 2010: Twin Cities bands head to Austin for a week of music and mayhem

Lookbook, Grant Hart, Gay Witch Abortion, Off With Their Heads, and many more blaze their own trails at the festival

"I guess what shapes my attitude, predominantly, is that I hate to see kids having to be so much exploited just to have fun. When I was growing up, there were so many fun things you could do for next to nothing. The whole idea of punk rock was doing it on the cheap, learning how to do it on the cheap. Now it seems there's a lot of this attitude of promoting posers. The whole 'party like a rock star' thing."

With the SXSW demographic skewed toward people in their 20s and early 30s, the 50-year-old Hart scoffs and says that the festival is billing his as a "heritage act," a label the longtime punk rocker finds ludicrous. "It makes you think that you're supposed to have, like, a spinning wheel onstage, and a rocking chair," he jokes, shaking his head.


Twin Cities breakout act Peter Wolf Crier, performing their showcasing set at Emo's
Stacy Schwartz
Twin Cities breakout act Peter Wolf Crier, performing their showcasing set at Emo's
A Twin Cities punk-rock summit at SXSW: Tom Hazelmyer (Halo of Flies), Shawn Walker (Gay Witch Abortion), Paddy Costello (Dillinger Four), and Grant Hart (Hüsker Dü)
Erik Hess
A Twin Cities punk-rock summit at SXSW: Tom Hazelmyer (Halo of Flies), Shawn Walker (Gay Witch Abortion), Paddy Costello (Dillinger Four), and Grant Hart (Hüsker Dü)

BACK IN DOWNTOWN AUSTIN, punk band Off With Their Heads are preparing to play their first official SXSW showcase, having just signed to Epitaph Records earlier this year. The band's show is at the Red 7 Patio, a dark, back-alley performance space that somehow smells dingy and stale despite being outdoors. As soon as the quartet takes the stage and plays their first note, a crowd of at least 50 young men rush to the stage to start pushing into each other and jumping to the punchy, tight punk-rock vignettes. A City Pages photographer is swallowed up in a split second, assaulted by elbows and knees from all sides as the eager fans shove themselves forward and shout along to every word.

Though Off With Their Heads keep a low profile in the Twin Cities, they've been playing and touring regularly for six years, gaining fans across the U.S. and eventually catching the attention of one of the largest independently owned record labels in the country. For the road-tested band, playing SXSW is just another stop on their seemingly nonstop tour.

"We don't work or live anywhere," says singer Ryan Young, laughing. "No one could get a job, and we were just like, fuck it, let's do it. Who cares what happens? And it worked out. That wasn't the goal, but it worked out."

If their official showcase was any indication, Off With Their Heads are well on their way to building a sustainable following nationally, and Young expects their eager fan base to grow with the release of their first record on Epitaph on June 8. But for now, the band is content to play high-octane shows like their four gigs in Austin and share bills with like-minded punk bands like the Riverboat Gamblers, who joined them at their official showcase. "The last song, the entire crowd was on the stage," Young says, his eyes gleaming. "They are one of my favorite bands, so it was really fun to play with them. That got nuts."

Young says the band's under-the-radar status in their hometown has only motivated them to get out on the road even more. "That's why we toured so much," he says, "just because no one ever liked us there. And we were like, oh, fuck it. We'd could go to Chicago and play to 150 people on a Tuesday night. The style of music isn't necessarily that popular there. Even Dillinger Four, who was my favorite band, and still is—their shows have gotten smaller and smaller every year, and it's a similar kind of music. It comes and goes so much, we just hit it at a bad time, I think."

He pauses, grinning sheepishly. "Or everyone just hates me personally."


FRIDAY AFTERNOON is by far the warmest day of the festival, and the sun is beating through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the District 301 bar in the financial district as another slice of the Twin Cities scene congregates for the Six Degrees of Chain Reaction day party, organized by Cloud Cult manager Adrian Young. Familiar names like Solid Gold, Lookbook, and Jeremy Messersmith are listed on the bill alongside a few less prominent local acts—including psychedelic rock band Jake Dilley and the Color Pharmacy, who had more gigs scheduled than any other local band we talked to this year, despite having no official showcases.

"This will be our 14th show in the past two years," Dilley says, getting ready to take the stage yet another time for Friday's party. "It's really great just to get your name out there, and your band's name out there, and give people a chance to see what you do, and show them what you're up to."

Dilley says he uses the festival as an opportunity to network with club bookers and press, often just by chance. An optimist with an easygoing smile and demeanor, Dilley has a disarmingly straightforward personality that could easily lead him into conversations with just about anybody, including people who could open doors for his musical career.

"It's an environment where you can meet somebody just because you're ordering a beer at the same time at the bar with them—and next thing you know you're playing a showcase for them," he says. "There's no real reason people in any kind of entertainment industry shouldn't try to make it down here at least once. Ultimately, it's always difficult to get into a car and take all your equipment and go somewhere. It's tough, but why not?"

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