SXSW 2010: Twin Cities bands head to Austin for a week of music and mayhem
A single highway connects Minneapolis to Austin, Texas, making the drive to South by Southwest a theoretical breeze—stay on I-35 south, wind through a couple of states, and you're there. But in reality, the road trip to Austin can be downright wretched. Drive it all at once and you run the risk of skidding into town already drained of a week's worth of energy, cramped and sore from trying to sleep sitting up on a 20-plus-hour trip. Break it up and the cost of hotel rooms and days off work start to add up, making it hard for musicians to afford getting to a festival that rarely pays bands to play.
Despite all these challenges, more and more bands from the Twin Cities decide to make the trek southward each March. This year, roughly 20 local bands, artists, and DJs were chosen out of the thousands of applicants to be featured as showcasing bands at the festival, while another 20 traveled down to play unofficial, mostly grassroots-organized day parties and shows. Once down in Austin, the locals are mixed in with thousands of other bands, from folk acts to punk bands to flavor-of-the-second indie-rock and electro-pop acts, each and every one trying to make a name for themselves amidst the chaos. The result is nothing short of cacophony, a sprawling, city-wide hootenanny featuring freaks of all stripes walking the streets at all hours and playing music until they drop, a spectacle that more than lives up to the festival and city's unoffical slogan: "Keep Austin Weird."
Some bands incorporate the festival into a larger tour to absorb costs, while others bite the bullet and write it off as a working vacation or a chance to hobnob with industry professionals.
After talking to several local bands with a wide variety of experience, levels of popularity, and outlooks on the industry, we found that there's really no right way to participate in SXSW. But there are plenty of ways for a band to extend their SXSW experience beyond the booze-guzzling and PR-pumped schmoozefest many outsiders associate with the festival—and getting away from the hype and finding the artistically rich, inspiring aspects of one of the largest musical meet-ups in the world is easier than you might think.
THE MUSIC PORTION of the SXSW festival kicks off on a Wednesday, and this year the first day of the festival coincidentally (and somewhat unfortunately) happens to fall on St. Patrick's Day. At a two-story, open-air bar called the Belmont, legions of Austinites are dressed head-to-toe in green, sporting spring-loaded four-leaf-clover headbands and "Kiss Me I'm Irish" T-shirts and working their way to the bottoms of plastic cups of green-tinted beer. The crowd is all but ignoring the live music at the bar, save for a small section of non-green-clad attendees on the main floor in front of the stage, and in a few minutes City on the Make will play their first SXSW show.
The members of the local blues-punk hybrid band seem unfazed by their decidedly un-rock 'n' roll surroundings or the distracted audience. It's sunny, they have the week off from working their day jobs, and they are taking advantage of their trip to Austin by incorporating it into a mini tour. "I think the best thing we will get out of this is just more experience being on the road," says lead singer Mike Massey. "We play in Minneapolis, and that's great, and I love that place—but it's a real good test to go out and play where there's no one that knows you, and that's all I want out of this."
Only a few days into their first tour as a band, they have already discovered a few challenges of being on the road, Massey says. "It's made me appreciate how easy it is to fucking get off work back home, and go home for a little bit, and then go to the venue, instead of driving all fucking day," he says.
"Yeah, we all just got our first shower in today," adds bassist Stephen Rowe. "It was monumentous."
The band members say they are using SXSW as a test run, playing things by ear and building up experience for future tours. "Hopefully we'll start doing this more consistently," says Massey. "If that means we play back home a lot less, that's fine. We'll go back to picking and choosing when we want to be playing."
"We have to," adds guitarist Peter Blumgren, chuckling. "We just bought a van."
When the band starts to play, Massey's voice begins to give out, straining under the pressure of playing shows three nights in a row. Despite their singer's painfully hoarse voice, the band give it their all, and Massey pushes through. It's not their tightest set ever, but the crowd eats it up anyway, a section of the St. Patrick's Day revelers breaking off from the party to get a closer look at the charismatic, genre-fusing rock band.
In between songs, a middle-aged man with gigantic, bright-green sunglasses stumbles toward the stage to yell at the band: "Hey, you guys kick ass!"
ON THURSDAY AFTERNOON, a couple dozen Twin Cities musicians are gathered at a coffeehouse just south of downtown Austin for the "All Your Friends Are Here" day party. The atmosphere is calm, the coffee strong, and the weather a perfect 75 degrees and sunny. Compared to the mayhem of the main drag of SXSW, which centers on Sixth Street and takes on the atmosphere of an all-night, frat-boy-heavy Mardi Gras parade, the "All Your Friends" gathering is a welcome retreat.
Peter Wolf Crier kicks off the day at the crack of noon, playing to a small gathering of other local musicians at what's likely their lowest-profile gig of the festival—which, for the freshly signed neo-folk duo, included an official show at Emo's opening for Rogue Wave, a set at the highly publicized Rachael Ray day party, and a recording session with the taste-making indie site Daytrotter. Though the band is excited about the busy schedule, singer Peter Pisano seems relieved to play a smaller gig for a few rows of familiar faces, like an indie-rock version of a pep rally before the big game.
For other bands on the bill, however, Thursday's party is the main event. Eight-piece acoustic folk group Spirits of the Red City have brought seven of their members to Austin for the festival, and they play an unplugged, gripping, and joyous set for the growing crowd. Led by troubadour Will Garrison, the group sways and swells from the softest whisper of a melody to a bursting, full-chorus sing-along, combining banjo, mandolin, upright bass, squeeze organ, trumpet, and drums to create an ancient, organic folk sound from another era altogether.
After the show, the band members take a moment to talk about their completely unamplified setup and how it helped them to take a unique, off-the-beaten-path approach to SXSW.
"I feel like there's maybe some venues that aren't really appropriate to play for us with our current setup, but a lot more doors get opened that way," says drummer Anthony Poretti. "We sacrifice being able to play some very large, aggressive rooms for being able to play really anywhere. Right here, right now. I won't trade that for all the Marshall stacks in the world."
The band applied to perform as an official showcasing band at this year's festival, but when they didn't get in they decided to go the unofficial route instead. "We figured it's maybe smarter to just show up and see how it works," says trumpet and keys player Brian Voerding. "We have no idea. It's impossible to understand it from afar."
"We're just really curious to see how it would work," adds Garrison. "We walked around all day yesterday and went to a bunch of shows, just to see what it's like."
"It's incredible, controlled chaos," says Voerding. "It seemed like it would be really overwhelming, but for some reason it's not. It's incredible to see a whole town turn into music; everyone from around the world comes together in one place and gets to play for each other."
LATE IN THE EVENING on Thursday, Grant Hart, the former drummer and co-songwriter of Hüsker Dü, is perched on a low brick retaining wall in a leafy hedge, rolling an unlit cigarette between his fingers and staring off into the clear, black midnight sky, contemplating the festival.
"This is only the second SXSW that I've ever played. Last year was the first," he says. "I think of this whole festival as being the Midway of the State Fair, where you can get some shitty doughnuts, you can be exploited in 15 different ways per minute. It's great that there's an in gathering for music, but $600 for the pass? Who's making that money? Where does this money go?"
Hart just finished playing an avant-garde improvisational art show with two-piece rock band Gay Witch Abortion and Tom Hazelmyer of Halo of Flies, an oddball gig sandwiched between his two official showcases at the SXSW festival, and he is quietly and shyly celebrating his birthday with a smattering of friends at an art gallery on the east side of Austin.
The four musicians set up in a sectioned-off room of the gallery. Hart tinkers on an organ, Hazelmyer's on vocals, and a camera projects shoddy footage of the players onto a screen in the main room, disorienting the audience as the sound from the band shakes the walls of the poster-plastered art space. The quartet couldn't have played together for more than 15 minutes, but the audience ate it up, crowding into the small space to catch a glimpse of the rare collaboration of Twin Cities punk veterans.
Afterward, sitting in the hedge, Hart reflects on the challenges of playing at a festival filled with industry professionals and distracted concertgoers. "If you're demanding the attention of the audience, you have to break the audience, basically," he says. "You have to earn their silence. Because there will be chatter, people are talking about business, people run into somebody they know, they want to give them the business card. Erik Estrada walks in, or something."
When asked whether he thinks traveling down to Austin for SXSW is an important step for a young band, Hart waffles. "I guess the advice I would give that band would be to take the money that you would spend coming to SXSW and book yourself a tour, and have that money as security in case you lose money on the tour. And you're going to lose money on the tour, if you're a band starting out," he says, staring down at his hands and running an emery board over his fingernails. "But you can't deny—I mean, it's almost like the Pride celebration, except for music. In the sense that people have a certain musical commonality, and it is overwhelmingly progressive acts that are playing down here, or post-punk rock. I think it's good for people to go through an initiation of some sort at this time of their life.
"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.
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?"
Likewise, electro-pop two-piece Lookbook say that they choose to venture down to SXSW for a chance to make new contacts. "It's people from all over the country coming together for one purpose, and so I think it's kinda cool, solidarity-wise," says singer Maggie Morrison. "I hate to say it like this, but to see and be seen—it's a good networking opportunity, and you meet a lot of people, a lot of people you would never meet if you weren't down here."
Lookbook played three shows at this year's festival, including one official gig at the First Avenue South day party, but Morrison says she likes playing the unofficial gigs just as much, if not more, than the high-profile sponsored showcases. "There's a lot more hype around it," she says of the official party.
"Yeah, we're too cool for those official showcases," jokes bandmate Grant Cutler.
"We played at Maggie Mae's, which is right in the middle of everything, and it was cool, but it was also kind of like, well, I'd rather just play at a weird bar for random people," Morrison says. "We like to be off the grid."
HOVERING SOMEWHERE off the grid entirely are Gay Witch Abortion, whose mostly instrumental, technically complex, and trudging art rock puts them on an entirely different planet than the bulk of SXSW performers. At their official showcase Friday night, which took place in the cramped upper level of a downtown dive bar, the duo pounded through an ear-splittingly loud, dizzying set, leaving the small crowd of onlookers awestruck. The only time the band breaks concentration is at the end of their set, when they quickly and politely bow their heads to signal they have finished, and they otherwise remain locked into watching one another's limbs flail and fingers fly as they maneuver through seemingly impossible time and chord changes.
Once they have finished playing, however, the seriousness lifts and the band goes back into party mode. Guitarist Jesse Bottomly leaves the venue with his mother, who came out to see him play, while drummer Shawn Walker grabs his beer and works the room, graciously shaking hands with attendees.
Unlike most other bands, Gay Witch Abortion played only one of their gigs in a traditional concert venue; the other two included their art-gallery collaboration with Grant Hart and a show in the parking lot of a video store. Walker says he views SXSW as a chance to unwind, have fun, and collaborate with friends, and that his band takes a fairly lighthearted approach to playing the festival.
"I love Austin," Walker says. "I'd rather come down here when it's not SXSW, but it's a good excuse. I think the whole 'trying to come down here and get seen' thing is a little overrated, just because there's so many bands. I don't know. That part of it, I'm kinda like, eh. But it's still super fun to come down.
"It's really crowded, it's kind of a pain, but you come down and you party and there's conga lines going down the street." He looks out the window of the second-story space, down onto Sixth Street, where a conga line is snaking its way through a crowd of people. "It reminds me of when I used to live in New Orleans."
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