SXSW Aftermath: Sleigh Bells, Man or Astro Man, Liars, and finding a quiet moment in the madness

SXSW Aftermath: Sleigh Bells, Man or Astro Man, Liars, and finding a quiet moment in the madness
Photo by Andrew Flanagan

Day 2 at SXSW
March 18, 2010

SXSW makes you feel like a pervert. After a decade of winter, all grey and snow and parka, the skin on offer makes your tears well...this is no mirage. Every shape, color, and genre is accounted for, and after a day of beer your thoughts take a turn to the abhorrent. I'm not speaking to any gender in particular either; whatever you're into you'll find a million, all fucking hot. I'm not a creep. Honest.

I arrived late into Liars set at Club Deville, the tent packed and weirdly relaxed. Packaged as a sort of art experiment, Liars drift in and out of minimal meditatives and ululating headpunk, the sort of music best heard three-fourths high and one quarter drunk. I was neither, unfortunately, having had to beeline straight to the stage to catch what was the most professional set of the day. Their singer is a commanding, greatly odd-faced and tall shapeshifter who doesn't sing very well (even in falsetto) and that doesn't matter. His crazed finger repeatedly pointing at you, staring cockeyed and head-tilt, is a tractor beam, pulling and punching. Meanwhile the band barely head's all business. They are far cooler than this festival usually allows.

While Liars ended, two blocks south in an on-street patio Fucked Up was getting their gear in order as the crowd swelled and the smelly kids began to arrive. Their singer is a big bastard, obviously a very nice dude, owning the tiny allotted square as leaves rained down, reverbed off the roof. How wonderfully they messed up: four songs in a row were stopped halfway through, the guitarist busting out the opening lick of "Mansard Roof" (or something), dripping sarcasm all over us. "We're opening for Hole tomorrow night." Jesus...what happened to hardcore? A pack of nice Canadians. Whut. Anon.

I met up with some friends after slugging a plastic cup filled to the brim with Southern Comfort (delicious! -ly free), making our way through 6th St, merrily merrily to a bar named Lovejoy. What I didn't know then but know now is that Lovejoy is the best bar in the entire world. The jukebox is free and stacked: Murder City Devils' first record ("Boom Swagger Boom"), Crucifix, The Germs, Man Or Astro-Man? (you'll hear about them soon), the beer and whiskey is $2, the staff has facial tattoos but are still nice as can be, and a gorgeously putrescent mural the subject of which is somewhere around the seventh circle of notes read this to me: "tortured tree with eye stare medusa bottle of vodka dude on a spit." So yeah. We were here for hours, the respite from live music wholly welcome. So so welcome.

Walking trough a bathroom hallway, one kind girl leans to a sick-looking little lady, gestures towards the men's bathroom and says: "Can you throw up in the sink?" Aw.
After walking aimlessly for a long while, it was back to Club Deville for Man Or Astro-Man?, the nerdsurfers returning after a decade lightly peppered with reunion shows. The Cave Singers were on when we arrived (I had no idea they were playing), and they had grown. Seeing them open for Black Mountain at the 7th St. Entry a few years ago the singer seemed nervous, the sound was good but thin, and nothing remarkable happened. Same deal here, except everything had filled out, their singer had grown a pair, and some people had heard of them. Anon.

And a quip: more than anything SXSW means a homogenous perfume, a sort of love seat serenade that wants your nose to run away.

As Man Or Astro-Man? set up it was pretty obvious things were going to get weird...giant theremin, every mic stand wrapped in luminescent plastic swirls, band members flitting back and forth in red jumpsuits and sunglasses, everyone pressing and pushing and dead excited. What ensued was an onslaught of reverbed surftardness, looking like Kraftwerk on cocaine, blowing amps and fixing them...I would attempt to wrap up what seeing them was like, but instead I'll point out three things: near the end the guitarist used a small TV as a guitar pick (it sounded fantastic), the theremin was lit on fire, and the band closed the night by bringing a giant Tesla coil on stage shooting electric striations a foot over the crowd's heads. So that happened.

Day 3 at SXSW
March 19, 2010

Going an entire day without seeing a band at SXSW is nearly impossible, but I pulled it off. While tweets get sent by the thousands and bands make or break by the millions I walked around with friends, drinking and joking and giving piggyback rides. While Les Savy Fav was most definitely tearing it up I was in a giant garage scheming to steal Petron, talking to some British people. While Superchunk was most definitely tearing it up I was finishing up this week's episode of Lost. While a friend was giving a panel discussion I was arriving downtown, and while I type this even more amazing things are happening.

You are constantly missing something, there always things you should be doing but aren't, you're a lazy fuck, etc...somewhere in Austin I learned to settle down and realize the music will still be there tomorrow, or Monday, or on a desert island. A simple lesson from South by Southwest.

Day 4 at SXSW
March 20, 2010

All week we knew things would get hairy: the free tallboys, the copped whiskey sips, the maximum four hours of sleep per night, the music being nearly ruined due to inundation and lack of I was having none of it. It's the last day, and I missed enough already (though I had learned to deal with this, doesn't mean I'd let it stop me).

Spent too much money at the Third Man pop up shop, Jack White continuing to innovate and pique with the marketing and concepts of his boutique label: they were selling "Texas-sized" 8" and 13" records reissues specific to SXSW. They're now selling for roughly three times what I paid on eBay, so suck it suckers. Just kidding, I already played them so they're totally worthless except as things you use to hear music. & 'lo: woe.

And so back to the near-interminable Fader Fort, where I was able to hold an entire conversation before realizing a band was playing (it was Real Estate, and they were...there), my corpus freezing in the 35-degree Austin grey. Other than saying Yelawolf played while I was there, I refuse to acknowledge his existence. Painful music for facile ears. No, I was here to see Sleigh Bells, after three months of confusion as to why their CD-R was named #1 of 2009 by The New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones. My guess is it was ranked so because he hadn't seen them live. I had heard rumors of the band being shaky in small crowds, so the thousands-large ocean of heads in this tent was to be an uphill battle at least, drunk and easily excitable youngsters notwithstanding. The shred and blow-out of their (intentionally or unintentionally, nobody cares) poorly recorded demo disc was gone, Alexis Krauss' vocals far too clear for the delivery, guitars too low, beats too thin, etc. That said, they really were very green for a band playing this type of space, and they have plenty of room to grow/nip/tuck/ buy a reverb and distortion pedal for those vox. Or they will fulfill the destiny of so many other flashes in the hype pan (most of whom never had the honor of warming up for Bone Thugs 'N Harmony). At least we'll always have "Infinity Guitars" circa December 2009.
After stopping by a bar where Mike 2600 had just finished up a set, the Red Bull something-or-other was having Cut Chemist and Jazzy Jeff up back to back. Where Cut Chemist could be called cerebral or at least learned, Jazzy Jeff was pure pelvis. Jay-Z, Biggie, Onyx, Tupac...this set was major hits and total crowd pandering in the best type of way. We had clawed to the front during Cut Chemist, and turning around halfway through Jazzy Jeff the crowd had quadrupled, everyone at least smiling, most losing their shit. It was the most enthusiastic and jubilate bunch of heads I had seen in Austin, or any show anywhere,
for a long while. Everyone was just ecstatic, and so was the little tart that began to rub my ass and her unmentionables on me, licking her lips and begging me to stay...molly must be a hell of a drug if it makes you think I'm a looker. Thank you, Jazzy Jeff, for the re-up on fun. And we ditched.

Overheard at an unknown time of the evening: "You guys rocked're a band right?"

I'm guessing around the time Jazzy Jeff had started a city's worth of skinny bespectacled irony-machines were starting to assemble outside of an abandoned office building for the Vice Magazine afterparty, scheduled from midnight to five in the AM. When I arrived the line was thousands long, snaking around a square block and leaving everyone scratching their heads about what the hell was going on. After some recon we decided to leave the poor teeth-chattering souls to the shittily managed door, heading for now-legendary peterpunk band Death at the Mohawk.

Being "a little drunk" and "too assumptive" at this point, I bought a shirt for $25 before they had started playing. I don't regret it (in fairness anyone should regret paying $25 for a t-shirt). What I do regret is the show, sadly. "Rock-N-Roll Victim" sounded neutered under the weight of 35 years, its Sabbath drive replaced with a sort of funky bar band vibe. Same for the rest of the set: bar band and no punch to speak of. They were so so so happy to be there, though. They hadn't lost the ideals that led them to start the band originally (providing some context for their genesis by bringing up Nixon) and were so endlessly thankful for the opportunity that maybe it ends up even. ends up even. It does. Leaving no room for context or error makes you an asshole and a sycophant and someone who subconsciously avoids unsanctioned fun. So support Death, see them live even though I don't recommend it, and smile. You goddamned haters.

Now this is where the night took a turn towards the weird for me: a friend had received a shiny little bracelet that allowed entrance to the late-night party being thrown by Mad Decent (label of Diplo) in the Mexican American Cultural Museum on the banks of the Colorado River. I, of course, didn't have a shiny bracelet. All I had was a friend on the inside, an entrepreneurial spirit to party and one little chain-link fence to best. I ran around in the woods, found a nice little trailer to block the sight of me awkwardly flailing over the divide, and sauntered with a furrowed brow, wheedling my way in with nothing but a bad attitude. Inside was a gym-sized room stocked with free Red Bull, free Red Bull Cola, and free Red-Bull Sugar-Free to mix with the free midshelf vodka Mad Decent had suckered into donating. Five days of partying had taken their ferry toll on everyone (except the guy from Ninjasonik, seen dancing with three girls at once in a round-robin), many simply standing or nodding or even sleeping.

While maybe not worth it, doing something as stupid as hopping a fence to get into a closed party I barely had interest in was totally worth it in the sense that I now know what I wouldn't have missed, and the little bookshelf in my brain had one more volume, titled "Partying And How to Cut Your Losses." It ended at 4:15 a.m., we wandered through the streets looking for a cab (ouch), and wrapped it up with a deep, always short, sleep. Oh, sleep. I missed you.

And so SXSW was gone, strained work schedule and a Greyhound home the only things left. The grandest lesson I took away from the festival was something I had learned the year previous as well: there's little better than a real show, one with friends and set breaks and definite closings and beer you have to pay for and musicians you know and a Catholic reverie fully in place. It makes you love music, that kind of show. What keeps music's loveliness at arm's length is the compartmentalizing, the hierarchy, a feeding frenzy. The things SXSW puts on your tiny shoulders. I highly recommend it.

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