SXSW Diaries

SXSW 2007

I don’t belong here, or The Interloper Invades SXSW

My brother said it best after he got off the plane. There he was, on an earlier flight than mine from Seattle to Austin, reading a book. Sitting behind him was a band, and it was obvious. “Dude, what should we play first?” “Man, I think we should play that new one we just posted on MySpace!” My bro’s comment? “I feel so old, so NOT rock and roll.” That pretty much sums up the trip so far for me. This is not to say that I haven’t had fun, it’s just that one word continued to cycle through my mind, as if the word were tattooed upon my forehead for everyone to see. As if it were emblazoned upon my chest in six inch high flaming letters, “Interloper.”

I got in through a loophole, snagging an entry badge and wristband by helping him out with Flatstock, an exhibition of poster art that deserves far more attention than it gets. However, my brother’s hotel reservation was cancelled due to confusion over a lost credit card, and we had no place to stay. Luckily, some of the other poster artists were checking in, and were more than happy to let us squeeze in and cut down on costs. (Thank you, Crosshair Design!) So, the first night in town, the `poster people,’ as they so pointedly called themselves, partied on the roof of the Holiday Inn, talking shop, disparaging the scene and shotgunning Lone Stars. This was merely the first group of people to which I didn’t belong. They’re an amazing and fun group of people, funny and cynical, but, not being a poster artist, I didn’t quite fit in.

No matter. Alcohol is the great equalizer in all things, and we were all soon getting along famously. I won’t reveal much of our conversations for two reasons. One, because I don’t remember half of them; two, because some of what we talked about were such great comedic ideas, that I wouldn’t want someone to steal them. Go to the next Flatstock near you and you might see a t-shirt with a hilarious philosophy on the business of art posters.

But enough about that, let’s get on with the music. My first full-fledged night of rock at SXSW started with one of the better shows I’ve seen, and will probably forever color the conference favorably from now on. Sage Francis played the first evening show at Emo’s and brought the house down. He was introduced by Slug, came out unpretentiously, and flowed with humor, energy and raw passion. He dropped the name of the forthcoming album, Human: The Death Dance, but all of the tracks he performed were crowd-pleasers from past records like “Sea Lion” and “Makeshift Patriot.” Before the latter, he whipped out an American flag with corporate logos in the place of stars, draping it around himself like a superhero’s cape. I love Sage’s stuff, but I can’t claim to know any of the lyrics that the crowd shouted out. The Interloper strikes again!

Sage was the only act playing early that I really wanted to see, but the rest of the evening, as the rest of the week would pan out, became like a day at Disneyland, trying to plot out the best times for particular rides, which parades to avoid and whether or not you have time for the `C’ ticket attractions. Time was short, and in any given hour, there are about fifty bands to choose from. I decided to use a complicated formula based on whether I had already seen them perform, weighed against my fandom, and complicated with a distance factor. If a band was from Sweden or Norway and was probably not going to come around all that often, that counted for a lot. So, my next decision was made easier by the fact that I didn’t have to move one single step. The next band at Emo’s was Under Byen, the amazing sludgy psychedelic band from Denmark.

Under Byen consists of five guys and three gorgeous ladies. You know you’re watching an interesting band when both the saw and the viola are played as if they were Jimi Hendrix’s Stratocaster. Henriette Sennenvaldt matched her Danish good looks with an even more incredible voice. Unfortunately, half of the show was ruined by two guys standing behind me, who I will forever now call the `Austin Shitty Dimwits,’ who unendningly complained about the lighting and how they couldn’t get a good photo. It’s bad enough when people talk incessantly during a rock show, but it’s another thing altogether when they critique the most miniscule inconsequential aspects of that show while it’s going on. Guys, get over the lighting, or wait until the show is over. I may have been an interloper, but at least I wasn’t one of these schlubs.

After two amazing shows, I took a long walk (or at least a long walk to someone with several beers weighing him down) to Antone’s to catch Sondre Lerche from Norway. I ended up catching the end of a set by Small Sins, a band from Toronto, Ontario I reviewed a few months ago. They were really fun and spirited, and really tight musicians. Sondre came on in a few short minutes, but I just wasn’t feeling it. There’s not many who could follow Sage and Under Byen successfully, and though I love Sondre, his new rockin’ stuff from Phantom Punch just wasn’t doing it for me. So, I hoofed it back to the hoppin’ part of 6th Street to get in line for Birmingham, England’s Jesu at Emo’s Annex.

Jesu was the first band that necessitated the use of my earplugs. Although I didn’t hear the subtleties of Justin Broadrick’s guitars through the plugs, I felt them in my ribcage. Jesu easily provided the loudest show of the evening, and possibly even the festival, but Mastodon has yet to play, so I’m going to hold off on that particular award presentation. Every time I mention Jesu’s metal past, and the fact that his guitars are very metal-inspired, I get a few quizzical looks, and a few corrections as to the idea that Jesu is a `shoegazer’ band. I’ll tell you this, that show was full of headbangers. Match point, me.

Just across the street, Emo’s IV was hosting Shara Worden, aka My Brightest Diamond. She broke one of my rules, I’d seen her open up for Sufjan Stevens, but her voice and guitar work absolutely blow me away every time. The fact that she was playing a solo semi-acoustic show made the temptation too hard to pass up. I’m glad I didn’t, as I was standing front and center, enjoying every nuance of her performance. Her covers of Jeff Buckley’s rarity, “Gunshot Glitter,” and Prince’s “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” were inspired, not to mention they are two of my favorite artists. Watching her perform was one of the first times that night that I shed the mantel of the Interloper, feeling entirely at ease, even comfortable, you might say. The show was so good, I had to finish up my evening with it. It was nearing 2 a.m. anyway, and I was tired. I had to reserve my strength for two more days of partying in Austin, and one more show might have made me pass out.

Part Deux: The Business of a Good Time

It occurs to me that maybe everyone reading might not know about what SXSW actually is. After all, it’s not just a bunch of bands playing shows. That’s part of it, for sure, but there’s a whole lot more. Essentially, it’s a business conference almost like any other business conference. Almost. The three main aspects of SXSW are music, film and interactive product. Thousands of people from around the world attend SXSW to meet people in their industries, to catch up on the latest and greatest trends, and to schmooze and make business deals. Business cards are handed out even more than showcase fliers, everyone looking for a new way to make money in this constantly changing field. Right now, there are lots of worries about the future of retail music. While it seems there is no shortage of artists out there, as was evidenced by the diverse roster of attending bands, there is a shortage of money being spent on CDs.

So, what’s the solution? As of SXSW, there doesn’t really seem to be one. There are stopgap solutions, as was seen in conference topics such as “Record Companies: Who Needs Them?,” “Reinventing Payment Models for Digital Music,” “Placement in TV and Movies” and “The Relevance of Retail.” While these topics may seem incredibly boring to the ordinary music fan, they are vital to the future of what you listen to and how you will have access to it.

One of the aspects of SXSW that keeps getting more and more popular is the aforementioned Flatstock festival. This art exhibition displays the perfect marriage between indie music and handmade artfully done promotional posters. What better way to express your love for a band than with a lasting piece of memorable artwork to hang on your wall? Do yourself a really big favor and head on over to to see a listing of artists and their individual websites for some really fantastic stuff. I had the privilege of meeting a lot of the designers over a three-day span and really came out with a much better appreciation for not only the gorgeous creations, but also the friendly camaraderie between all of the artists involved. It made me think that this is how all business should be.

After a day of selling posters and people watching, it was time to go out and see more bands. As it was a Friday, and the locals didn’t have work the next day, the streets were far more crowded. There are clubs all over downtown Austin, but most of them are concentrated in a five to six block span of 6th Street. Generally, this meant that the drunken hordes usually didn’t venture out too far beyond the barricades, and if a good band was playing in the fringes, there was a pretty good chance the place wasn’t going to be packed. Meanwhile, inside the barricades, it didn’t seem to matter who the hell was playing, they just wanted in. I also found out fairly quickly that either the Austin locals or the SXSW party crashers weren’t really into the kind of music that Treble supports. The evidence of that came with the showcase I attended on Friday night.

After unsuccessfully trying to see My Brightest Diamond for a second time, however this time with a full band, then fleeing Friends as I felt it far less than friendly, I arrived early for the Arts & Crafts Showcase at the Habana Calle 6 Annex. I saw the last few songs of Young Galaxy’s set, a promising newcomer to the roster, before Amy Millan came to the stage. YG’s set went long, much to the dismay of the nice young lady in charge, and the sound problems ensued. Millan went as far as to say that feedback should be a sponsor of SXSW. I started to feel bad for sound guys. Here they are, handcuffed by sets that go overtime, having only ten minutes at the most to try and set up the next act. If something goes wrong, they get the blame. It just doesn’t seem fair. Being the polite Canadian she is, Millan soldiered on, finding the humor and trying not to complain. She played a great set, including a cover of her former tourmates, Death Cab for Cutie, in “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.”

Following Millan was one of the week’s biggest surprises for me, Apostle of Hustle. I’ve always known they were a great band, but I didn’t know how dynamic a performer Andrew Whiteman was, or how they could energize a crowd and play a live show as if their lives depended on it. These guys rocked. Every member of the band also displaying immense talent and a gift for inciting audience participation. Hands down, Apostle of Hustle was one of the highlights of the conference.

The Dears were the surprise guests and I couldn’t have been happier. The catch with most of these acts is that they’re only going to play songs off of their latest release, unlike a full-length show. Let’s face it, they’re showing up to hawk their latest and greatest, and they only have forty minutes in which to do it. So, all of the songs the Dears played were from Gang of Losers, a great album with many noteworthy songs, but I was kind of hoping for some tracks from No Cities Left. Oh well.

On the walk home, I was accosted by a local wearing a staff t-shirt. After asking where I was from and what I was doing in Austin, he proceeded to try and convince me to write an article on the idea that Austin doesn’t really have an identifiable music scene. From what I could tell, I’d say he was crazy, but he started to make sense. Mentioning Seattle’s former grunge era and New York’s no wave movement, he tried to illustrate that it’s more than just having a lot of bands and clubs, it’s about inspiring a culture. He claimed that most Austin bands sound like someone else, and that the only originality to come through town arrived with SXSW. I don’t know if I’d go that far. I mean, after all, Spoon’s from Austin, but I figured this guy’s ideas could stir up debate.

Part Tres: This one’s for all the beautiful ladies…

Every great drama needs a third act, and the dramatic story of the Interloper is no exception. Flatstock, which started out slowly in its first few days, became a madhouse of activity on Saturday. There were no day jobs to occupy the time of the locals, most of the conference attendees either `discovered’ the exhibit or were just plain sick of seeing bands. By Saturday night, I knew that feeling well. However, during the day, I got to thinking about all of the different types of people I was seeing at the conference.

“I’ll bet it’s just fun to sit here and people watch.” This is what one woman said to me as I was helping man my brother’s Flatstock booth. Man, she wasn’t kidding. Being in one stationary position, you can literally watch the world go by, or at least the weirdest ever cross-section of said world. So, as a way to get all of you who were not able to go to SXSW a little taste of what it looks like, here is a primer to SXSW stereotypes:

Aging Punk Rocker:
Punk was one of the most identifiable `looks’ within the rock genre, but the fans from the late ’70s have, for the most part, moved on from the safety pins, Mohawks and denim jackets with a big patch on the back. Instead, you can identify the former punk by his `Simonon Action Figure’ get-up. Skinny black jeans, either Doc’s or Converse, a silk shirt and a sportcoat are all the aging punk needs to stay cool and `not fade away.’

Hessian Refugee:
Did you refuse to let the spirit of metal die when Metallica’s locks fell to the floor like Samson’s? Many haven’t let go, sporting those long wavy locks that make headbanging oh so much more fun. For some reason, a lot of these people were inordinately short, I suppose they’re into metal because you just can’t harness that much rage in such a small package. An Iron Maiden or Judas Priest tee is pretty much required, but extra points go to those that are so faded, they absolutely have to be from the actual tours.

Emo-bomb Orphan:
I don’t even know what emo is anymore. It used to be those listed later under “Hipster: Fueled by Tofu,” but now pretty much covers anyone who shops at Hot Topic. Here in Austin, it’s merely the name of eighteen clubs. There are more buckles in emo rock than at Plymouth Rock, and enough straps to satisfy Houdini. These stereotypes are more likely to be wearing a brand new, just off the rack tee of their favorite band, always in black, and cannot get through a sentence without mentioning their MySpace page.

Hipster: Fueled by Tofu:
First of all, I was not nearly skinny enough to attend this conference. It was as if it were the polar opposite of the Comic Book Convention in San Diego. There should really be a groundbreaking `fat exchange’ between the two. But the thinnest of the thin here in Austin were those considered today’s `hipster.’ Clothes by American Apparel, or perhaps jeans stolen from their younger sibling, are the order of the day. A heavy regimen of tofu, falafel and PBR has kept these youngsters as `toothpick’ as they want to be. I don’t know how they even stand up on those stems, but quite often there’s an oversized belt buckle to maintain a low center of gravity. Hipsters wobble, but they don’t fall down.

Keith Moon is my Co-Pilot:
This look was actually revived in the ’90s, mainly by the Gallagher brothers, but has since been adopted by everyone wanting to look like a Brit in the music industry. The shaggy mop is a requisite, usually just able to reach the shoulders. Any self-respecting `Moonie’ also has quite a bit of neck scruff and large aviator sunglasses. Bonus points for twitches that make one wonder whether or not that trip to the bathroom included a few lines. Extra bonus points are up for grabs for Americans who busted up their own teeth skateboarding, but minus points if anyone `cool’ saw you skateboarding.

The Arm Candy:
This was one of my favorite stereotypes, one I saw frequently. I don’t know if it ever was, but SXSW evening shows are not really a place for singles. Every female seemed to be paired, usually with someone mind-boggingly insipid. One such male decided that he didn’t want to just stand behind his woman with his arms draped around her neck, he also wanted to dance like a lunatic, repeatedly knocking his girl in the noggin with his meaty limbs. Woman, get some self-respect and tell that oaf to stop treating you like a rock `em, sock `em robot! Another bit of silliness occurs when the show in question is featured at one of the many outdoor tents or patios. Inside, the girls meticulously check their make-up and fret about their oh-so-stylish frocks as the aromas of garbage, beer and fart clouds waft throughout the tent. At some point, these girls have to brave the porta-pottys, and there’s no way to make that look stylish.

The easiest people to identify are the bands themselves, especially those newly formed and just getting started. They travel in packs, as if to separate would either damage the reputation of the group or seriously endanger the `unit.’ Also, that way, as people see the phalanx of four of five walking in unison, they’re bound to be asked who they are. Right? In truth, it looked like most of the conference attendees couldn’t care less. The more established bands are more comfortable heading out on their own, wanting to meet up with friends they’ve met on tour, at the conference, or are just plain fine with getting away from their bandmates for a period of time. There seems to be a more refined sense of style in the more established groups, making them just as simple to identify as the newbies, but for a vastly different reason. I easily spotted the drummer for the Dears as I was standing on the curb of Austin-Bergstrom Airport waiting for the hotel shuttle. His shaggy dark mop, leather jacket and air of confidence as he talked to two non-band members all pointed towards notoriety. Earl Greyhound, though maybe not AS established, also exuded that air of confidence as they walked down 6th Street toward Friends. They had style, they had grace, they just had cool all over the place. I was sorry to miss them perform, but the band preceding them was quite bluntly crushing my soul. I will refrain from mentioning their name, they had a packed house, but they did have a singer who desperately wanted to be Bon Scott, even scream-singing the in-between song banter. “THIS ONE’S FOR ALL THE BEAUTIFUL LADIES BEHIND THE BAR!! IT’S CALLED…GIRLS…IN…BLACK!!” The bartenders, naturally, ignored him.

Remember, these are just stereotypes, there are plenty more where that came from and not everyone fits, but there was one uniting thread amongst nearly everyone at SXSW, and that would be texting. Text messages were sent from everywhere in Austin, from out in the streets, to inside the convention hall, and especially in the middle of shows, with attendees either sending set lists song by song or just telling their friends what they’re doing every minute of every day. I can’t wait for the day when someone texts the details of their bowel movement. Friends to the end! I can tell you this, because of the massive amounts of text messages in Austin, I’m sure that somewhere, Strunk and White’s heads were exploding, and not just from the groovy scene, man!

All right, enough about that. I had almost forgotten during the madness of Saturday that my departing flight was at 7:10 am on Sunday. As most shows didn’t end until well past two, I had a decision to make. I could either go to shows all night, pick up my bags and go straight to the airport (that would be the rock and roll thing to do), or I could try to get a good night’s sleep so I wouldn’t be stranded in Austin without a way to get home. I decided to play it by ear, and what I ended up doing was splitting the difference. Because I desperately needed something to fill my stomach (thank you `Best Wurst’), I missed out on the Watson Twins performing for like the third or fourth time that week. Please come out to Seattle, I’m begging you!

Instead, I moseyed over to the Beauty Bar Patio to catch Field Music and I wasn’t at all disappointed. Yes, this is the only show I went to on Saturday, but by the time I got back to the hotel I only had four hours to try and get some shuteye. Did I forget to tell you I’m a big wuss? Oh well, there you have it. I did catch the last part of Art in Manila’s set, but I was all about Field Music. Again, technical problems were the order of the day. The band was borrowing Tilly and the Wall’s drums, Art in Manila’s gear, and one of the members had a pedal crap out on him. But, after a ten-minute delay, they ripped through quite a few of their latest two to three minute songs, making it a particularly rewarding set.

Although I might not have had the FULL SXSW experience, which I hope to have someday, I will have a lot of great memories from this one. Whether it be hanging out with the irreverent Flatstock crew, seeing a bunch of great bands, or just plain being in Austin, I will always look back on my time here with fondness. And you never know, I just might get a craving for Lone Star that I just can’t satiate anywhere else.

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