South X Southwest 2009
“You can hate a hammer but it’s a good tool,” said Pat Todd, owner of independent label Rankoutsider Records (and front man for Pat Todd and the Rankoutsiders) when asked about the good and bad of South by Southwest. I had no idea what to expect from SXSW – how would it compare to lame-o festivals like Lollapalooza,Warped Tour and CMJ? Why the hell am I, a person who suffers regular, frequently crippling, anxiety attacks willingly surrounding myself by tens of thousands of people?
“Bands of our level spend $1000 to make $100,” continued Todd, matter-of-factly, when asked why independent bands go out of their way to play SXSW. The four-day music festival is undeniably good exposure, not just for bands that are looking for a label or management, but to get their music heard and their name out there. Todd said his label doesn’t pay to bring in its acts, they come in on their own dime and they don’t expect to make any money.
Rankoutsider Records solo artist Patrick “Salt” Ryan drove himself down from New York and seems to be enjoying the party atmosphere (I watched him do three shots of whiskey before his 12:30 p.m. set.) What a way to begin a four-day bender… I thought I should wait a few more hours before I began drinking but that plan lasted about a half hour.
Chad Kelly, owner of Austin-based indie label Licorice Tree Records, said his label isn’t having any showcases this year but has in the past. “Getting a showcase at SXSW involves some red tape and luck. Really, it just requires filling out an application and the SXSW folks decide who gets in and who doesn’t.”
“There’s no real rhyme or reason for some bands getting in and others not,” he continued. “We’ve sent in applications for bands that would get shot down one year and allowed in the next, so bands shouldn’t be discouraged if they don’t get in because there’s always next year.”
“We’ve never paid to bring bands in, but have contributed here and there,” Kelly said, when asked how his label has put on showcases in the past. “Each label works differently though – guess we’re just cheapskates,” he joked.
SXSW’s Music and Media conference has been around since 1987, expanding in 1994 to include film and interactive media, according to their official website. Being the narrow-minded asshole that I am, I didn’t give a shit about most of what was going on… I was just there to see live bands. SXSW likes to toot its own horn about championing independent spirit and making sure the little guy gets a fair shake (like Metallica playing a “secret” show to promote their new Guitar Hero game?) They had some interesting-sounding panel discussions (“Artist as Entrepreneur;” “Licensing for Unsigned Bands;” “Bands, Brands and Fans”) that covered important topics for someone who wants to make their band their life (unlike myself, who can’t even get a band going and has to work 40 hours a week.)
Kelly said SXSW has benefited Licorice Tree Records. One of their bands, the Stepbrothers, was approached by someone affiliated with the ABC network, who was able to get a song of theirs onto one of their television shows, making both the band and label some cash.
According to the Austin Chronicle (local alternative paper – think Village Voice, East Coasters) there were 1950 showcasing bands at 87 official venues (down 10% from last year.) I noticed a hierarchy: the “Official SXSW Showcase,” the “Day Party” and the “Renegade Show.” The official showcases and day parties seemed to have themes (labels, booking agencies, highlighting a certain region.) Official showcases had a hierarchy within themselves (due to fire codes): badge holders (industry folks or related money/connected types,) wristband-holders (ostensibly, Austin-only residents or musicians/label people who can get one in lieu of payment) and the lowly cash payers. Even then, not everyone is guaranteed a spot. The day parties were free and weren’t necessarily related to SXSW. Many seemed to offer free food and beer (but not any I went to!) and were much easier to get into. The renegade shows were house parties or say a 3 a.m. power generator run gig on a pedestrian bridge… totally illegal but totally fun. Beerland, by far the surliest club I’ve ever been to, had a sign at the door saying, “This is Beerland, Not SXSW. We don’t care about your wristbands or badges.” According to Kelly, owner of Licorice Tree Records, Beerland altogether stopped participating in legitimate SXSW showcases. As far as my tastes, they seem to have the best rock and roll parties (In the Red Records this year, Goner Records in previous years).
“Don’t come to SXSW expecting only to see specific bands,” said Cody Leitholt, my host and partner in crime. He’s lived in Austin since 2005 and this will be his fourth SXSW. I tried to keep an open mind as I made my itinerary. I did wind up missing some bands (like Personal and the Pizzas) but saw others I wasn’t expecting (Circle Jerks.) I didn’t pay for a single show and only didn’t get into two shows (and one of those I didn’t much care about.) I really did want to see the Sonics but I didn’t put too much stake into actually getting in. Fortunately for Cody and myself they were slated to go on at 8:00 p.m. so we would find out early enough if we weren’t getting in and could try to catch another show. It looked like a real possibility at first, as there were only 25 people ahead of us on line. Then club staff divided the line into three: badge, wristband and cash. Needless to say, we got pushed way back and didn’t make the cut.
Overall, I’d say I had a really good time and don’t hate SXSW, I didn’t have many anxiety attacks and might go so far as to recommend someone go next year. Most of the people I asked to compare SXSW to other festivals said they couldn’t and that SXSW is much more fun. By the way, SXSW officials did not respond to my request for an interview.
Wednesday, March 18
Rankoutsider Records Day Party, Room 710
Pat Todd and the Rankoutsiders, Scott “Deluxe” Drake and the World’s Strongest Men, 8-Foot Tender, Hearts Explode, Patrick “Salt” Ryan
Patrick “Salt” Ryan is a one man with acoustic guitar act, with a weather beaten voice. Hearts Explode played mid-tempo rock with a country twang but didn’t really do it for me. 8-Foot Tender is a punk outfit from Portland, OR. Think Wimpy-fronted Queers or GG Allin and the Jabbers. They also served as “the World’s Strongest Men,” backing Scott “Deluxe” Drake. I saw the Humpers the last time I was in Austin but this is the first I’m seeing Drake’s new act. Humpers fans should enjoy it. I had to cut out after about 40 minutes of the Rankoutsiders set (who sound like a logical extension of front man Pat Todd’s Lazy Cowgirls) and miss the Woggles, who were headlining, to make it down the street to Emo’s. A friend warned me before I came to Austin: “SXSW is all about calculated risks.” This would be the first of many.
Fat Possum Records Showcase, Emo’s
King Khan and BBQ Show, Thomas Function, Strange Boys
Shit, Emo’s is at capacity, with both indoor and outdoor shows. They have a “one in, one out” policy and there are a dozen people in front of me. I made my way in, past blaring hardcore in the front room and out to the back to catch what turns out to be Austin’s own Strange Boys’ last song. I spot a friend from New York that I haven’t seen in years and talk to him for a while. I catch the last 13 minutes of Thomas Function’s set. I saw them a few years ago at Gonerfest… which is a good way to describe their sound. I double fist tallboys of Lone Star and make my way up front for the King Khan and BBQ Show. If you don’t know and love King Khan and BBQ, I hate you. They are a perfect mix of low-fi rock and roll, 1950s doo-wop and punk. They are a power house live and should not be missed!
Later that night, Cody and I find our way to a house party at the Natrix Natrix house. Cody calls this “the least accessible show as far as SXSW goes” since we have to drive to the outskirts of town (most of the shows are in the infamous 6th Street area). I really want to see the band Psychedelic Horseshit because I think their name is amazing. We get there late and it is balls-hot inside, seriously like 15 degrees hotter than outside. I can’t tell who’s playing and different groups of people I eavesdrop on keep saying different names. Whoever it is, it is fucking annoying. They take forever to tune and the noise is painful. Cody and I hang outside, drink Lone Star and people-watch.
Thursday, March 19
Here’s another time where that “calculated risk” theory comes into play. There are several conflicting shows we want to see. We wind up getting shot down at two shows. Cody wants to see a band I can’t remember the name of at the local Moose Lodge, but it’s practically empty, even of scheduled bands. We rush downtown to see King Khan and the Shrines at a barbershop, but its way packed with a line down the street. On to Breakaway Records, my favorite record store in Austin.
Breakaway Records Day Party
Cute Lepers, Gentleman Jesse and His Men, Girls
The Girls play some dance-y new wave pop but only last 15 minutes and I unfortunately don’t recognize any songs. Since the singer was wearing the tiniest pair of underwear (and nothing else but a hat) everyone noticed he was at half-mast for the entire set. If anyone has paid attention to anything I’ve said over the past year and a half, they know I love the power pop of Gentleman Jesse and his Men. They threw in a few new songs and a King Tuff cover. Jesse tells the crowd that the Circle Jerks are playing with them tonight at Beerland and I don’t know if I believe him. I haven’t made up my mind about the Cute Lepers yet. The singer is from the Briefs, who I like, but there is something I’m not so sure about the Cute Lepers.
Next, we head to a random day party at a building I didn’t catch the name of. This is the first time I’m seeing Prizzy Prizzy Please, a Bloomington, IN band even though I’ve lived in Bloomington for almost three years. They have a saxophone!
Circle Jerks, Easy Action, Mark Sultan, Gentleman Jesse and His Men
Wouldn’t you know it, the Circle Jerks are the secret headliners. Keith Morris is small, maybe 5’1” and his dreads are as long as he is tall. We come in while some guy is doing terrible shtick… I like bad jokes and stupid puns, but come on! Gentleman Jesse and His Men are fantastic, again, and play some different songs than this afternoon’s set. I thought Mark “BBQ” Sultan would be solo, just him, a guitar and his old kick drum but he has a band (and apparently the bassist couldn’t make it.) He seems tired but then again, everybody is pulling double and triple duty. Easy Action sucked. Since I was drunk, I decided to tell Cody this.
Me: “These guys suck. Are they local?”
Cody (with the condescending stare one music snob gives another): “That’s the singer of Negative Approach.”
Me: “Oh.” (To myself): “Why would you think I care about hardcore?”
Speaking of hardcore, Circle Jerks are up next. I’ve always thought they’re more punk than hardcore so they’re okay in my book. Boy, Keith Morris likes to talk! And he’s so little!
Friday, March 20
Douchemaster Records, Rob’s House Records, Colonel Records Day Party, Longbranch Inn
We had to take a few buses to get to the Longbranch and consequently missed the first few songs of King Tuff’s set. Seems like he’s the next big thing, or at least the guys at my local record store think so. If you haven’t heard King Tuff, the album is an amalgamation of all things ‘70s (heavy on the Bolan.) Live, the band is more rocking and upbeat.
Goner Records Day Party, Scoot Inn
A short walk from the Longranch brings us to the Scoot. I know Cody will dig Nobunny. We pound several beers, Schlitz this time, and make our way up front. Nobunny is dressed in his typical rabbit mask, women’s high heel shoes and pantyhose; can’t tell if the underwear is men’s or women’s. Nobunny writes really great pop songs. The only bad thing about the set is that it lasts less than 20 minutes; at least Cody is a convert.
Next up, we try to see the Sonics at Emo’s. This is the only time I’m agreeing to participate in the stupid reindeer games perpetuated by SXSW. Motherfuck their stupid hierarchy… ah, I’m not really that angry and I don’t expect us to get in; we don’t and Cody is really bummed. Saw a group of assholes push their way forward when Emo’s staff divided the line into three (badge, wristband, cash); they threaten violence to the people who stand up to them and of course the assholes get their way.
Annihilation Time, Vivian Girls, Trash Talk
I think we left for this show around 2 a.m. Not so sure, I was drunk. And ornery. I thought it would be a good time to heckle the Vivian Girls about being from New Jersey. Cody didn’t approve. After a particularly shitty, drunken solo, I yelled, “If you’re from Bergen County, you can afford guitar lessons!” I thought I was hilarious but Cody called me “belligerent” and said he would take me home because I ruined our group’s chances of having a late night/early morning breakfast. Aside from my behavior, the show was fun. It’s really on a pedestrian bridge and apparently the cops didn’t shut it down. The volume was kept down, partially on purpose, partially because it was muffled by the large crowd (I think there were as many people here as at Beerland last night.) I don’t remember what the other bands sounded like.
Saturday, March 21
Breakaway Records day Party
Dogs, Poison Arrows, Magic Christian, Parallax Project
Cody is excited about the Dogs and the rumor that Wayne Kramer may play with them. I’m excited about Magic Christian, a super band of sorts featuring members of the Flamin’ Groovies, Blondie and the Plimsouls. Cody makes us start drinking at 11:30 a.m.; this is going to be a long day. Parallax Project is power pop-ish, okay at best. Magic Christian are tight; Groovies and Plimsouls fans won’t be disappointed. We leave for a while to check out the Evaporators, Nardwuar the Human Serviette’s band. I had no idea he had a band but if they’re half as insane as the interviews he’s famous for, then I’m all for it. We come back and see most of the Poison Arrows set. They’re dressed like Johnny Thunders and their songs aren’t memorable. Los Angeles-by way of Detroit’s Dogs are tight and Wayne Kramer guests on “John Rock and Roll Sinclair,” one of the Dogs’ more famous tunes.
The Evaporators are a surprise. Musically, they’re so-so punk, but Nardwuar is even more of a madman than I expected. If anyone has read any of his interviews with pop culture icons (ranging from Getty Lee to Glenn Danzig) they’ll know what I mean. He’s all over the crowd… crowd surfing one minute… shirtless the next… where did that sweater come from and hey, did the band change costumes mid-song?
Mess With Texas 3, Waterloo Park
Black Lips, Circle Jerks
This thing was too unwieldy (some 25 bands) and I didn’t want to fuck with it. Sure, I missed another chance to heckle the Vivian Girls, but I was only in the mood to see the Black Lips. We get there and the Circle Jerks are just starting; this seems like the only show that I went to that didn’t run on schedule. Keith Morris says pretty much the same blah blah blah from the other night. The crowd goes wild for the Black Lips, who may have attained the status of garage rock royalty. Some drunk asshole behind me keeps burning me with his cigarette. The Black Lips call up King Khan for a cover of KK and BBQ Show’s “Too Much in Love.” Near the end of their set, they pelt the crowd with dozens of hamburgers… Wendy’s by the look of the bags, but it’s dark and I can’t be sure. As we’re leaving, security guards are handing us fliers for an after party – no, really!
Goner Records Showcase, Red 7
Jack Oblivian and the Tennessee Tearjerkers, Box Elders, Ty Segall, Harlan T. Bobo
It looks like I might have to pay for a show… eight bucks isn’t bad but no one seems to want to take my money, so I guess I shouldn’t mind the extra dollar the club tacked on the Lone Star tallboys. Harlan T. Bobo is just starting. He looks like a hobo and the music is okay. I get the impression Ty Segall is King Tuff’s competitor for “next big thing” and his band plays a tight, fast noisy rock and roll set… lots of energy and flaming solos while thrashing on the ground. At first, I wasn’t so sure about the Box Elders, one of the guys has really long hair (doesn’t seem to be ironic, either, as if that would help) but they play some fun, poppy rock and roll. Jack Oblivian and the Tennessee Tearjerkers consist of Jack O., Harlan T., John Paul Keith (who I missed at the Goner day party) and, umm, some guy on drums. I love pretty much every band the individual members of the Oblivians are in. The Tearjerkers play mid-tempo, at times heavy, rock and roll and many of Jack O.’s songs seem like Jim Thompson stories.
As we’re walking back to Cody’s car, we pass the Mohawk club and a shirtless man carrying a kick drum, crowd in tow, misses us by a hair. It turns out to be Israel’s Monotonix (I’ve seen them live twice and they are fucking madmen.) What a way to end the evening.