SXSW 2005 Diary
By Peter Bottomley
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 16
It started off as a cold and wet South By Southwest, much different than the previous year. But the bands inside were ready to warm things up at what is steadily becoming the biggest music industry event of the year. It might be debatable whether everyone is here to check out the up-and-coming bands or just partake in the meet-and-greet nature of the beast, but the numbers associated with the festival certainly don't lie - 1,300 bands, playing in 60 venues over four days to more than 7,000 music conference participants. Not to mention that the music conference alone brings nearly $20 million into the Austin, Texas economy.
But we're not here to talk numbers; we're here to listen to music! My first show would be a drop into Emo's Main Stage to see Japan's instrumental export Mono. A lot of people refer to them as boring Sonic Youth without vocals, and though it can be hard to judge from just a few songs at the end of a set, the music might be beautiful but live the self-indulgent repetition becomes fairly obvious. I would suggest checking them out on record though, since they've progressed from homage to past and present instrumental noise rock and become a more passionate, aggressive quartet. It's just that any experimental rock without the use of vocals is hard to hold the audience's attention for longer than a few songs.
The next stop was the first official showcase of the night, Selfish Cunt. Called "art-rock terrorists" with Cabaret Voltaire-style, politically inclined synth songs - a Sex Pistols for the digital age, if you will - the group wasn't nearly as destructive or confrontational as the UK press has made them out to be. Yes, vocalist Martin Tomlinson ventured into the crowd many times wearing his clown suit, persistently followed by a video camera. And he certainly carried the show and proved himself a born entertainer. You just have to wonder if their performance was toned down for the United States and/or SXSW, since in the UK they’re notorious for fighting audiences and being banned from venues across the country.
I caught the tail end of instrumental post-rock group Tristeza's set. It was interesting to me how many people turned out for the live performance of what many would refer to as "background music," almost always better suited for the soothing home-listening environment. But Tristeza deserve the attention; they're one of the longer running instrumental bands to come out of the late 1990s and tour consistently, not to mention that they're one of the more ambitious groups in the genre.
I'd seen Chicago's dance-funk group Watchers before, but tonight they were just crazy and off the wall, literally (vocalist Michael Guarrine nearly took out guitarist Ethan D'Ercole with a hardcore-style bounce off the stage wall). The group always set foot on the stage ready to dance, and they hope that you'll join them every step of the way as they embark on a non-stop groove combination of soul, punk and funk. The David Byrne-esque vocals bring a lot of references to the Talking Heads, but the group's no wave edge brings to light why the group has also served as the backing band for James Chance recently. They're a band that you truly have to see live in order to fully appreciate.
It was starting to feel like a trend that would continue all week, but I caught yet another partial set, this time the distorted pop of The Thermals. They're a refreshing combination of lo-fi, melodic, punk-fueled energy and exuberant, politically-minded indie rock. It's not every day you hear a band take the three-chord punk of The Ramones and mix it with the unorthodox, raw sound of Beat Happening. Well, maybe it happens a lot but the results are never quite this good.
The night was still young but the body was getting tired, so a couple quick songs from Modey Lemon would signal an end to my evening. It would be a taste of the main course to come tomorrow, as the band was set to play the first ever Skyscraper Magazine day party at SXSW. But for now, let's just say the group’s early 1970s proto-punk doesn't disappoint.
THURSDAY, MARCH 17
It was a very last-minute decision, but Skyscraper chose 2005 to put on our first ever all-ages day show at SXSW. The Back Room, being a venue to host predominantly metal acts, was not necessarily the best fit and it turned out to be a little further from downtown than we would've liked. But we assembled a stellar lineup of bands, and the energy of the show felt right.
The Holy Ghost would kick things off after a slight delay. The group tours endlessly, so they're always a great band to see live because they've perfected their stage presence and sound. They're often considered to be "the next big thing" out of New York City, though their music still hasn't been able to break out to a larger audience quite yet. It's a sexy indie rock frenzy of hooks and melodies galore mixed with the hypnotic and intense vocals of Christopher Heine. They deserve the attention critics have been anticipating, so let's hope this is their year.
The Holy Ghost
Next up were Austin locals Those Peabodys. Their brand of powerful, straight-up garage rock ala Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is damn fun rock'n'roll and they'll pummel the crowd with it. A perfect blend of classic rock and Seventies metal that teaches the crowd that rocking is all that matters.
Coming off their high-energy performance from the night before, Watchers graced the stage with more of their high-energy dance-punk. Dance to the rhythms…
One of the toughest bands to come out of Los Angeles in recent memory is 400 Blows - and you must see them live! They've created a maddening stage presence to support their noisy, punk-inspired metal sound. It's a minimalist, stripped-to-the-basics approach that has already earned them "Best Punk Band in Los Angeles" from LA Weekly.
Unfortunately, Some Girls couldn't make their scheduled performance due to illness, but The Flesh stepped in at the last minute. The Flesh have managed to take the Gang of Four-influenced sound brought back by The Rapture and Radio 4 and add their sex- and death-obsessed approach to create a wholly distinctive sound. It's what synthesizers were made for; a dance beat-infused art-punk eruption that mixes horror movie synth riffs with deadly love stories. They'll get your attention with the goth and hip-hop blend and keep you dancing, which is what counts right?
By far the largest crowd gathered for a brief appearance by Pittsburgh's Grand Buffet. The white hip-hop duo has a truly unique brand of humorous, often satirical rap. If you thought the Beastie Boys had their fun in the sun, wait until you hear the goofball beats-and-rhymes of these guys. The live set was just as much standup comedy as it was "songs", and yet they could've kept that crowd interested for hours.
Possibly the most successful mid-Nineties back out of Pittsburgh, Modey Lemon take what they learned from Sixties and Seventies garage rock and created a sound equal parts Stooges and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. They don’t revel in the muck but instead take their blues rock and bizarre tales and creates the kind of raw, powerful rock'n'roll that makes for one hell of a live band.
Crashing drums, spooky keyboards and thick bass lines fuel the energy that is The Apes. The group's guitar-less, driving psych-rock "future punk" is glorious art-damage minimalism. And like many of the groups on this lineup, they have an essential live show. It's no joke, they’re one of the top indie acts to see live!
As much of the audience filtered out, Ryland Bouchard (a.ka. The Robot Ate Me) set up for an intimate, acoustic set at the back of the room. He took his personal, achingly heartfelt pop songs and sang them directly to the people sitting in a semi-circle around him. Though it was difficult to hear at times (he sang with no mic, so you had to be seated directly in front of him as he moved around), his accessible yet obtuse art pop is so refreshing because there is literally almost no one else out there right now doing the same thing. A truly once-in-a-lifetime performance, both for the audience and the performer.
Skyscraper Magazine's all-day event was over, but the night shows were still to come. The Plot To Blow Up the Eiffel Tower can most simply be described as spastic, screamo punk. They draw a lot on their hometown "Gravity Records" sound and its revival with contemporaries like The Blood Brothers and Pretty Girls Make Graves. But they're not just another hardcore punk band, so pay attention. The faux-SS uniforms may “shock” people to get their attention, but the mix of smart punk with free jazz and high-energy live performances are what get you sweating in the mosh pit. Yes, it appears the mosh pit is back…
Veronica Lipgloss and the Evil Eyes might be called "sleaze-rock", and they certainly have a lot in common with the Suicide Girls’ live burlesque tour. And it's to be seen how their music comes off on record, but they definitely thrive on being a live band. The half-male, half-female group's disco, goth and glam sound is accompanied on stage by a troupe of dancers that add to their post-punk dance attitude and energy. Call it music or performance art, the band will find its place within the fashionable art-rock scene rather quickly. It would be tough to argue a case for crossover success though, but I doubt they have fame and fortune on their minds anyway.
Certainly one of the more interesting and eclectic "noise" bands from the post-hardcore scene is Get Hustle. The group's experimental, frenzied avant-rock cabaret is accompanied by the vocals of their strong, eccentric female lead singer, Valentine. The dramatic, confrontational nature of her live show is raw and exciting, and on this night it was no doubt the performance of the last two songs topless that got this crowd's attention.
Everyone knows Graham Coxon as the guitarist from Blur, but now that he has removed all ties from his celebrity Brit-pop heritage he is throwing all his energy into a solo career. The songwriting of his solo work might recall vintage Blur, but at the same time the straight-ahead lo-fi sound makes his recorded work sound like a homemade record. Live, the fuzzy guitar pop makes you feel comfortable. But it also didn't carry the energy of a Blur performance. He may have worded it best himself: "tired and emotional."
A couple of songs from the spazzy hardcore punk of Strikeforce Diablo began to usher in the end of the evening. The chaotic elements of emo hardcore and dual shouted vocals bring you back to the mid-1990s screamo scene, and it was a good setup for the final band of the evening.
Something of a hardcore supergroup, Some Girls brought stage diving and the mosh pit back into fashion this night. It's fast and heavy hardcore that doesn't take itself too seriously, and from this you get one of the best hardcore bands in today's scene. What do you expect from a group of musicians that think hardcore is dead?
FRIDAY, MARCH 18
Friday afternoon would be consumed by the SPIN Magazine party, and the lineup didn't let down. The Futureheads were one of several "the next big thing" groups from the UK playing this year, and their mix of post-punk, new wave and pop isn't to be missed. On record the band’s music can fall flat in places, but live the playful and energetic sound is undeniably danceable and exciting and a pleasure to soak in. And it's always a plus when a band can incorporate fan participation into their performance without it feeling forced. Also included in the latest movement of UK post-punk/new wave is Bloc Party, and they were easily the buzz band of the festival. Even if you haven't heard them, you've no doubt read about them. Their debut album, Silent Alarm, doesn't disappoint, and neither does their high-energy art-punk in person. Although they did bring as much of a fun "party" element on stage as The Futureheads, their music combined with their stage presence does support the hype they've received.
The newly reunited New York Dolls served as the guilty pleasure for those in attendance. Although only two original members remain, just hearing a song like "Personality Crisis" live for the first time in decades is a special treat. It can be argued that the group created "punk rock" before the term existed, but the current incarnation of the group took a much more blues-based rock'n'roll approach to their catalog and furthered this move with a couple of new songs. And even though it appeared David Johansen needed a lyric sheet to make it through every song, it was a thrilling dose of nostalgia.
New York Dolls
The evening began with the biggest question mark of the festival. I show up at Beerland to catch Clorox Girls at 8:45pm, but who did I actually see perform in that time slot? I might never know, because it wasn't Clorox Girls and the band never spoke their name to the audience, and no information I can find now suggest who it could've been. But whoever it was, their raw hardcore punk required them to turn their amps to the max, and at the end of the set the singer threw up on stage, rubbed his guitar strings in it, and continued to play…
Baby Teeth's happy-go-lucky sound provided the sweetest (as in sugar candy) set of the festival. The synth/bass/drum trio's quirky indie pop is full of intoxicating harmonies. A full-length recording of this could potentially be an overdose, but for fans of classic pop hooks and soaring vocals you can at least enjoy sunny, whimsical evening of live music with these boys. Just as much new wave as glam rock, the cheerful and carefree nature of the band's stage presence can’t help but bring a smile to your face.
The buzz surrounding The Raveonettes has produced mixed results over the last few years, and though a few of their singles have caught my attention, the live performance of their fuzzy garage rock on this evening was not very difficult to walk away from. The group's noise-rock approach to their original sound has produced a predictable, detached set of songs that was simply difficult to endure. All of the fun and adventure from their last album is gone.
The final performance of the evening would be my first introduction to yourcodenameis:milo. They're a rising Brit-rock group that mixes the emo of At the Drive-in, the new wave/post-punk of Interpol, and the intelligent, artistic post-hardcore of Fugazi. And the group's raw, energetic approach to mashing all these musical styles together just shows they have the whole package to make it work, which they proved on this evening. Plus their singer was the only person I saw smash a guitar at this festival, and well the only person that I've seen smash a guitar in years… and it only seemed natural that it happened.
SATURDAY, MARCH 19
There's no arguing that SXSW is consumed by live music, but "conference" is just as much a part of the event's name as "festival" and so it would be misleading if I spoke about only the live music performances.
The majority of the conference events were of more interest to bands/artists than to the general industry crowd, with panels covering management, touring, legal matters, radio, merchandising, accounting, how to sign to a label, online record sales, and other topics with even more specific themes within these issues. It's a lot of helpful information for musicians looking to educate themselves on the state of the music industry and how to get a firm footing on the "business" of making music. However, I did find that some of the panels, such as "Dissecting the Buzz" that focused on the components of a music publicity campaign, seemed to really focus on the mainstream aspect of marketing a band for mass exposure. At the same time though, there were panels dealing specifically with independent labels and topics a little more realistic for the average band looking for advice.
The music trade show also seemed to be directed mostly to musicians, with the majority of companies exhibited selling/promoting equipment, merchandise, and music associations. As informative as the panels and trade show are for artists, it can't be denied that registrants come from all varieties of music professions - booking, radio, promotions, management, press - and that some of the events should be directed towards topics of interest for these attendees, not just musicians and record labels.
SXSW Trade Show
By far the most interesting exhibit was the Flatstock 6 poster convention, a free rock poster show showcasing the work of some of today's most popular poster artists. There's been a sort of revival in the interest and collection of show posters, particularly within the indie rock community. Although much of it is becoming a "financial investment," the personal connection to the medium has no doubt driven this renewed interest. And along with the renewed interest has come a rapid growth in both the quantity and quality of poster art. Some artists/collectives in attendance to take particular note of included Aesthetic Apparatus, Kangaroo Press, Tara McPherson, Patent Pending Press, The Small Stakes and Jay Vollmar. The poster convention certainly held interest for any music fan attending SXSW.
Saturday was the last day of live music, and the first performance I would witness was from the pAper chase. Frontman John Congleton has an intimate knowledge of his guitar and the experimental post-rock that his group produces live is the closest you'll come to punk performance art. The spastic, engaging art-punk is often described as the soundtrack to a thriller or horror movie, making bad sounds sound good. It may be uneasy listening to some and the future of rock to others, but either way you can feel the pure emotion.
the pAper chAse
20 Miles is the blues-based side project of Blues Explosion guitarist Judah Bauer, and even though the current status of the group is up in the air Judah decided to get the latest lineup together and play a round of shows at this year's festival. 20 Miles' raw, thoughtful rock is never far away from The Rolling Stones, and it really finds the punk spirit and root of the Blues Explosion's sound with the shtick of frontman Jon Spencer. It's a comforting American hybrid of blues, garage rock, and earnest singer/songwriters.
As the final night set in, a partial set from The Holy Ghost was once again welcomed before I barely squeezed in to see the reunited Harvey Danger. Another guilty pleasure, it was the group's first show at SXSW since 1998. It was expected that the quirky alternative pop group from Seattle didn't play "Flagpole Sitta", but it was still disappointing that they would intentionally ignore the one hit single that the crowd might recognize. (Standing in line, very few people even knew who Harvey Danger were - how old that makes one feel; it turns out most were gathered to see Menomena and Aqueduct, so you have to wonder if headliners Nada Surf fell upon deaf ears as well.) The group's new stuff was mostly low-key, clearly moving away from the infectious post-grunge that brought them national attention in the mid-1990s.
The eclectic, offbeat outsiders Nightingales are a veteran British punk group that aren't quite "reunited" (Robert Lloyd has been continuously under the Nightingales name), but the band on stage tonight has only been playing together for this short tour. They might not be that exciting live, but they play solid a combination of blues-rock, country, glam, and dramatic punk that is worth checking out if you weren't already aware of their existence.
Finality would be reached with the set of local singer/songwriter Daniel Johnston. A "talented but troubled" artist, Daniel has carved out a respectable, influential career but still battles his mental illness daily, a fact that almost prevented him from taking the stage on this evening. But once he did take a seat in front of the packed crowd, wearing sweatpants and accompanied by only a songbook, acoustic guitar and keyboard, he worked straight through a set of his delicate, naive and endearing love songs that he has become known for. He is a true original and the audience was appreciative of his performance, and Daniel was just as thankful in return.
My second trip to SXSW was over. It felt like I saw a lot less bands than the previous year, and it's inevitable that I missed more bands that I wanted to see than the number of bands I actually did see. But this year I definitely saw how giant the "industry" status of SXSW has become. And it was indeed, once again, a celebration of live music that can't be missed.