SXSW 2004 Diary
By Peter Bottomley
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 17
It was my first trip to South By Southwest. It
was my first trip to Texas even, a state I honestly thought
I’d never visit in my lifetime. So I knew it’d be
a learning experience. The number of shows I go to seems to
dwindle every year, and the “music industry” isn’t
something I would generally consider myself a participant in.
But here I was – Austin in March. Some 1,100 bands, playing
in 52 venues over four days to 7,000 music conference participants
(and those are just the official numbers). It was going to be
a new adventure, and I could only hope that I was prepared.
The heat and humidity was somewhat expected, though
actually living in it in the month of March was a little strange.
Standing on your feet and walking endless miles a day was not
something I initially anticipated, but as soon as I arrived
on Wednesday afternoon I began what would be my first of three
straight days on my feet for twelve-plus hours.
Once I finally made it to my hotel I headed right
out to find the Austin Convention Center to pick up my badge.
This required quite a wait but wasn’t too difficult, though
I quickly realized after I left the convention center and started
to look for food that I had no idea where anything was. I wasn’t
given a directory, and of course I hadn’t been to Austin
or SXSW before. Fortunately after a frustrating search I found
a venue map and grabbed a quick bite to eat before checking
out my first show. That first show was the Flameshovel/File
13 showcase to see Che Arthur.
Che is a touring sound engineer and the guitarist for Chicago's
Atombombpocketknife, an indie rock band with post-punk leanings
and Sonic Youth style vocals. But on Che’s debut full-length
as a solo artist, All of Your Tomorrows Were Decided Today,
there is still the sound of a fully realized rock band but it’s
more of a guitar-soaked affair for fans of Bob Mould/Sugar,
Shiner, and Heatmiser. His live show, though, is a more stripped-down,
acoustic-based and somber affair. It’s just him and an
acoustic guitar, and even though he said he hadn’t played
a guitar in six months before tonight it sounded good. I would’ve
liked to stay for Atombombpocketknife as well, but they were
playing last and I had other shows to hit.
The next stop was Plan
B. Plan B is James van Leuven, Seattle-area musician/
DJ/ producer (and former drummer for the indie rock band Automaton).
The sound is a foundation of trip-hop beats with elements of
post-rock and a cool jazz vibe. But what originally started
with laptop programming and James handling nearly all of the
instrumentation quickly expanded with the live show, and tonight
there are a total of five performers including the addition
of female vocals to a few songs. Two laptops, keyboards, cello,
stand-up bass, acoustic guitar and spurts of breakdancing really
injected new energy into electronic music, this being the NW
Electronic Showcase. However, it was time for some no-nonsense
Those Peabodys are
Austin locals with straight-up punk and rock’n’roll
influences. On the group’s self-titled debut in 2001 they
combined Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
for cocky, catchy, primitive riff rock with a garage dynamic.
It could be said that on their latest, Unite Tonight,
the sound was a little more derivative (or at least they mellowed
out a bit), but it was no less fun and live they rock you like
you need to be rocked. It was a packed house and the crowd was
loving it; I couldn’t have asked to see them in any other
I would’ve liked to see Division of Laura
Lee but it meant missing Plan B, but at the very least I had
hoped to see The (International) Noise Conspiracy later on.
But there was a long line, something that I wouldn’t see
the last of tonight, and so I headed back over to the NW Electronic
Showcase to talk with James from Plan B. We hadn’t seen
each other for years so almost two hours went by before I realized
I’d missed The Bronx and had to get across town to try
and see Modest Mouse. This is where the evil line monster struck
again, and when Modest Mouse started to play and the line wasn’t
moving an inch I decided to call it a night. But on the way
back to the hotel I hear “I Love Rock & Roll”
coming from Stubb’s Bar-B-Q, and with the line gone I
walked right in to see the end of the set from Joan
Jett and the Blackhearts. The catchy rocker “I
Hate Myself for Loving You” was also on the menu, and
despite whatever feelings people might have about someone like
Joan Jett trying to stage a comeback this (seemingly) late in
her career, the crowd was definitely having a good time and
that’s about all you can ask for at the end of a long
THURSDAY, MARCH 18
I got maybe five hours sleep before day two began.
It’s probably the average amount of sleep I’d get
for the next three days, and yet surprisingly I never got very
tired until the final show on Friday night when I could barely
stand up any longer. For that matter, I was barely hungry the
entire time considering how much energy I was expending compared
to my average day in front of a computer… I just knew
to stay hydrated, because each day seemed to get longer. Anyway,
day two started early.
The entire dilemma of an event like SXSW was how
do you possibly attend all the good shows on any given day.
Add to that the fact that some venues are far apart and any
show with some amount of hype is bound to have a line, and it
comes down to making choices.
The first stop today was Schuba’s BBQ just
after 12 noon to see The National.
On record the group plays indie rock with a mixture of alt-country
and chamber pop. But live they take the slow, melodic sound
and infuse it with a more emotive rock sound, full of bouts
of screaming and screeching guitar freak-outs. It’s an
interesting combination of genres, and they were most compelling
when they kicked it up a notched.
Straight from seeing The National I headed back
towards the convention center to try and catch the “Alt
Weeklys and Other Uses for Wood Pulp” panel. It ended
up being the only panel I made it to all week, and even then
I missed the first 15 minutes and had to duck out during the
Q&A. But I did catch some interesting discussions, including
one on how alt-weekly editors view national music coverage versus
local music coverage. The majority of the panelists seemed to
agree that a national band, The Darkness being an example, is
open to more critical coverage whereas local bands get written
about more positively, being treated with kid’s gloves
at least until they’re a little more well-known. Peter
Margasak from the Chicago Reader, however, voiced a slightly
different opinion, asserting that he feels no obligation to
cover a local band unless he feels inclined to. He was also
the sole staff writer on the panelist, having been until recently
the local music columnist and having a very diverse and plentiful
scene to draw from. The other panelists were all music editors
and therefore held certain responsibilities Peter does not.
After leaving the alt-weekly panel it was off
to see Stars, the first of what
would be four performances for the Montreal group on this day
alone. They may be French Canadian, but they draw heavily from
the ‘80s new wave and Brit-pop of the United Kingdom.
Some might call it chamber pop or electro pop, but seeing them
this day in what is more of a punk club (Emo’s) they seemed
to have a lot more raw pop/rock in them than straight ballads.
I took a little break before the late day acts
started, the first being Trachtenburg
Family Slideshow Players. I think everyone knows the
concept by now: Jason Trachtenburg plays light and fun-loving
pop songs about slideshows they assemble from deceased people’s
yard sales. Live, it includes Jason mainly on keyboards and
his ten year-old daughter Rachel on drums and backup vocals,
while his wife Tina is the slide projectionist. It was a short
set, only about 20 minutes, but it was great fun. The whole
affair is very tongue-in-cheek, both with the concept and the
song lyrics, but also with how Jason serves as part musician
and part comedian, keeping a continual dialogue with the audience
between (and sometimes during) songs. It’s questionable
whether someone could stand seeing them perform multiple times,
as the concept could potentially wear off quickly, but in a
small dose it was pure musical entertainment.
I quickly went over and caught part of The
Constantines, another Canadian group, this time playing
a raw combination of funk-punk grooves and hard rock pounding.
I’d heard some good things about the band but felt the
combination of aggressive rock instrumentation and strings didn’t
succeed in the live setting. The urgent nature of their music
just didn’t translate in my opinion, at least until they
sought audience participation towards the end by passing out
tambourines and maracas and encouraging hand clapping.
Another group I’d heard a lot of good things
about was Volcano, I'm Still Excited!!
The group plays a quirky '80s-inspired indie pop built around
organ, synths, guitar, and drums. I only caught the end of their
set, but what I saw wasn’t that memorable or fun, leaving
very little of an impression. I was really there to see John
Wilkes Booze, who I unfortunately missed because the party didn’t
list set times, and The Decemberists.
The venue was packed for The Decemberists, a five-piece outfit
who were crammed on the little stage at Lucky Lounge. The group’s
symphonic pop is often compared to Belle & Sebastian and
Neutral Milk Hotel, though the songs are a bit more epic with
their story tales. It’s really beautiful music, though
I thought guitarist Chris Funk’s blank face and sleepy
demeanor on stage took a bit away from the drama of their music
on this particular occasion.
My first showcase of the night was Kilowatthours.
The Louisville and Brooklyn-based group plays melodic indie
rock with soft vocals and lush keyboards, creating soaring and
dreamy soundscapes. It was a very small crowd gathered to see
them, which was unfortunate because the venue (Momo’s)
was probably the best sounding (small) room of the festival.
The group just released a split album with The Rum Diary, who
I’d be checking out the next night.
Year Future have an amazing indie/underground
pedigree, including vocalist Sonny Kay formerly of The VSS and
Angel Hair, plus former members of Dead and Gone and The Pattern,
just to name a few. They play nihilistic, foundation-shaking
punk rock not unlike that of the Dead Kennedys and Joy Division.
It could be Sonny’s unmistakable vocals, but The VSS seems
like an easy reference point for the group, minus the keyboards,
and overall it’s a more raw, stripped-down approach to
the arty post-punk genre. Unfortunately, it was another short
set, something that seemed all too common at the festival.
The Movies would’ve been my next stop but
there was no power to the stage and after waiting around for
about 30 minutes I had to move on and hear more live music.
Where I ended up was Zero Degrees to see the one-man performer
Boy From Brazil (from Berlin).
It was like discovering the male counterpart to Peaches, a front
man (the only man) with a punk attitude and sexually explicit
music that includes a video montage of looped B-movie leather
chicks and other trashy material. Boy From Brazil, a.k.a. Razi,
is just the embodiment of cool. Up there alone, performing to
pre-recorded sequences that combine disco-punk, throbbing bass
lines, ‘50s rock’n’roll, and ‘70s porn
soundtracks, Razi is wearing sunglasses, a black tank top, tight
white pants and elbow-length white gloves while hanging off
of railings and roaming through the audience (part of the time
with a cardboard box over his head). It was truly a sight to
see, and it’ll be interesting to witness whether his persona
translates as well as Peaches in the States.
The rest of the night would be mostly dominated by hard-hitting
music, starting with Unsane. The
pioneering noise-metal band developed a devoted, cult-like following
in the ‘90s but is probably best known for the “Scrape”
video – featuring a montage of nasty skateboarding crashes
– that received heavy rotation on MTV in 1995. The group’s
final album came out in 1998 and they disbanded in 2000, but
with the Lambhouse “best-of” double-album
coming out last year it seems the band is together again and
I wasn’t going to miss the show. The intensity and aggressiveness
of their music is undeniable, but what I didn’t expect
is that this would possibly be the loudest show I’d ever
been to. If you were to stand in front of the speakers on either
side of the stage it was physically painful. It was unfortunate
that the vocals cracked over the sound system, because their
hammering sound was otherwise a menacing success.
I next headed over to the unofficial “NYC
Band Night” showcase to see The
Izzys. The group mixes rock’n’roll with the
best of country and blues, showcasing influences that range
from garage rock and punk to alt-country and blues-influenced
rock. The band has mostly made waves in the United Kingdom and
has often been compared to The Rolling Stones. Although their
performance was intriguing, a combination of the odd venue and
a sparse crowd made me feel like they were out of their element,
so it’ll be interesting to see them again as they tour
in support of their upcoming debut full-length this summer.
Don Caballero would
close out the night. The band’s core sound revolved around
hard-hitting drummer of Damon Che and guitarist Ian Williams.
But that was then and this is now. Don Caballero released their
last album, American Don, in 2000, but Che decided
to reform the group in late 2003 with himself as the only original
member. The much-hyped Battles, featuring Williams, would be
playing tomorrow night. But on this evening it would be Damon
Che’s chance to introduce the new Don Cab. The band’s
sound was always given the math rock label, a Drive Like Jehu
without vocals. I never saw the band before, but it’s
hard to say that they’re hard-driving instrumental rock
with the new lineup differs at all (in the live setting, at
least) from the former, seeing that they played very little
new material. Distinctive, complex and powerful, full of off-time
melodies, most pit parts and overall “challenging”
music. Damon kept it somewhat interesting with his confrontational
banter between songs, but an hour-long set this late at night
(or rather this early in the morning) did make it feel like
the band overstayed their welcome. A smaller dose would’ve
been just right.
There was plenty more music I would’ve liked
to take in on the second day – Ted Leo/Pharmacists, The
Modey Lemon, Mission of Burma, The Walkmen, just to name a few
– but even a fourteen-hour day is limited.
FRIDAY, MARCH 19
I was up and about early again, but logistics
made it so that I didn’t see my first band of the day,
The Sleepy Jackson, until early afternoon. On record,
the group’s sound is an eclectic mix of psychedelia, alt-country,
and George Harrison-esque pop. Live, they’re supposed
to turn the volume up, so loud that they’ve been referred
to as an “arena rock band.” So maybe it was the
setting, because playing outside in a courtyard patio in front
of a small industry crowd (this was an invite-only Astralwerks
party) didn’t really give off the “rock show”
vibe, and in some ways they came across like a band that sounds
too good to be true on record, because they can’t quite
reproduce the same sound on stage.
I skipped out on The Sleepy Jackson early in order to make the
Spin party just in time to see The
Von Bondies go on stage. The group’s garage punk
sound has become all too common in the last few years, but the
combination of a major label debut and the timely altercation
between The Von Bondies’ Jason Stollsteimer and The White
Stripes’ Jack White has given the band endless publicity.
But despite all that hype their performance today did very little
to convince me that the band can set themselves apart from their
contemporaries for an extended period of time. At the same time,
it could just be that The Hives
showed them up. The Hives exist to be a live band. They may
have been one of the biggest bands to come out of the garage
rock revival, but on record their sound can wear thin over time.
But they make up for it on stage, because Howlin’ Pelle
Almqvist is possibly the best frontman in rock today. It’s
a combination of energy, attitude, confidence and humor (and
the black-and-white dress code doesn’t hurt either). He
keeps the crowd interested by, among other things, asking for
applause during songs rather than only after the music
stops. It’s music as entertainment, and sometimes there’s
absolutely nothing wrong with that.
A short walk down the street produced Pretty
Girls Make Graves. The group takes angular guitar riffs,
tight drumming, noisy synth, and soaring female vocals to create
a sound that comes close to matching the greatness of their
influences, which range from Fugazi and Sonic Youth to Gang
of Four and X-Ray Spex. This all led up to the group’s
best record to date, The New Romance. But the show
this afternoon left something to be desired (and the MTV2 Subterranean
banner hanging behind them seemed cheesy), so I’ll have
to wait and see how they hold up when they play outside the
SXSW setting next week. Next up was Gogogo
Airheart, a San Diego group whose experimental art-punk/post-punk
attitude displays influences ranging from kraut rock to dub,
funk and disco punk. They might be less danceable than some
of their contemporaries, but they are also more accessible and
straightforward. Seeing the band live is always interesting,
though, because as they like to say each night is a “special
engagement” and you’ll never see them perform the
songs the same way again. A group that is spontaneous on stage
can sometimes come across like music for geeks by geeks, but
most of the time, like this afternoon, it at least stays interesting.
The first official showcase of the night would
be The Rum Diary. The Rum Diary
toils away to create a “visual sound” combining
two drum kits, double bass guitar, Moog, Farfisa organ, layered
guitar and soft vocals. Their artsy contemporaries include Sigur
Rós and Godspeed You Black Emperor!, with slowcore bands
like Three Mile Pilot, Mogwai, and Codeine serving as their
immediate predecessors. The music ranges from moody experimentation
and spellbinding instrumentals to what are practically pop songs.
They simply can’t be pinned to a single genre, making
them something different. There were no slideshows tonight,
but on the last song they graced us with the “indie rock
drum circle,” where all the members pick up drum sticks
for a tribal drum beat conclusion. It’s too bad Explosions
in the Sky and/or Trail of Dead, two like-minded Austin groups,
didn’t play SXSW this year, because a showcase with them,
Kilowatthours and The Rum Diary would’ve been quite a
gig. It also would’ve attracted the size audience the
latter two groups deserve to be exposed to.
The last time I saw Aveo
it was in a small punk bar, not necessary the best environment
for a band devoted to The Smiths. So it was great to see them
in a good sounding venue with a decent crowd – this was
the Barsuk Records showcase after all, with John Vanderslice
soon to follow and a rumored surprise appearance by They Might
Be Giants (which I’m told was true). Their mix of driving
rock and passionate pop songs played with punk rock sensibilities
might draw comparisons to Morrissey & Co., but Aveo is something
spectacularly singular and watching them on stage was a delight.
The Starlite Desperation
The Starlite Desperation anticipated
the mix of new wave and garage punk that’s in style these
days way back in 1998. Of course, they broke up in 1999 and
missed the height of the garage rock revival, having reformed
barely a year ago (but already signing to a new Capitol Records
imprint). One of the newspapers from their former hometown of
Detroit declared that “they blew” and said they
have “some of the worst songsmithing in rock’n’roll
history.” Another writer at the same paper referred to
their music as “irritating”; both writers also managed
to spell the band’s name wrong though. And so I have to
disagree – in fact, they were possibly one of the best
performances I saw all week. The band is able to take their
punk and post-punk reference points and redevelop them in ways
that don’t sound cliché. They just let the music
take over; one of the more compelling bands on stage in Austin
After a failed attempt to see Kill Me Tomorrow
play at a BMX ramp of all places, I headed over to check out
Hypatia Lake. The Seattle group plays a mix of expansive
space rock and shoegazer-y psychedelia along the lines of The
Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev and Grandaddy. It’s abstract
music that conveys mood, and unfortunately at this late hour
(in a strange sit-down venue) it was almost trance-like, just
asking me to close my eyes and sleep a while.
The final stop of the night, and ultimately my
final show of this year’s festival, was the much-hyped
Polyphonic Spree. You have to
assume the live performance is the only way to see The Polyphonic
Spree, since it entails a ten-member choir and a dozen or so
musicians all dressed in colorful robes. They can be compared
to The Flaming Lips and The Beach Boys, a catchy pop sound laced
with a gospel choir. It is certainly uplifting music, and the
group is lively and energetic. But the feel-good vibes just
seemed a little too much, and the whole performance came across
as hooky, like I was watching a group of children's music performers
playing to an all-adult audience. After about a half hour there
wasn’t much keeping me there, so I called it a night.
Of course, there was once again much more I would’ve
liked to have seen – The Black Keys, The Catheters, British
Sea Power, Moving Units and Comets on Fire – but that
seemed like the inevitable.
My first trip to SXSW was over. I was at the airport
ready to fly home, and I couldn’t wait to rest my feet
since I could barely walk on them at that point. But after all
was said and done, I was surprised at the fact that I can actually
see myself going back next year. SXSW was an opportunity for
me to drop my usual routine (of not going to shows) and just
see as many bands as possible at one time. It was indeed a celebration
of live music. Sure, there were plenty of bands that I wish
I’d seen or I wish had played in the first place. And
I skipped out a day early, so some groups – Decahedron,
Battles, The Unicorns – I never even got the opportunity
to see. But there were also plenty of bands that I probably
wouldn’t have made the effort to see at a stand-alone
show, especially since that usually requires an entire night
with a 30-minute drive to and from Denver. I can see how SXSW
is just a big party to people who live in New York City, Chicago,
et cetera – people who regularly go to three or four shows
a week. But it was different for me, and with the lessons I
learned from my first trip to Austin I can definitely see myself
having a more pleasant experience next year.