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 rock.

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 setting.

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 day.

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



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.


Unsane



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.


The Hives



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 this year.

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.

 

 

 


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