South by Southwest is a mirage. It transforms Austin, Texas, into something utterly unreal. The Sixth Street strip is closed to traffic and filled with people, music is pouring out of every other doorway and window, and more shows and parties are happening at once than you could possibly attend. Your friends from all across the country are here, as is half your hometown music scene—people from labels, the owners of Neumo's, the guys from Sing Sing, Vera Project staff, the Club Pop kids, Seattle/Olympia crust punks, familiar faces from the Egg Room—all blissfully out of place along with you, wandering around dazed in the 90-degree heat. It's a music mecca, an industry convention, and an alternative spring break all wrapped into one. It's a magic bubble where the impending doom of economic depression and the industry-specific blows of plummeting CD sales and file sharing are set aside for one more free drink. If it's not rock-n-roll heaven, it's a hell of a party, and it's also a bit of a grind. And then, like that, it's gone. Except for the hangover.
It's an expensive mirage, though, and behind all the partying is serious business. Labels, publications, and other companies invest a lot in getting their bands and brands to Austin, hoping that the hype generated here will set the pop cultural/musical agenda for the coming year. Every available surface is emblazoned with some logo or other. Your hotel key is brought to you by Island/Def Jam, your internet/press room by RCRD LBL, your lunch by Eastpak, your afternoon showcase by Brooklyn Vegan, your free drinks by Sparks and Lone Star, your afterparty by Playboy or Red Bull. It's Naomi Klein's old No Logo nightmare.
And, really, everyone is not-so-discreetly trying to sell you something—the bands offer themselves with as many shows as they can score in one long weekend (although there are notably fewer merch tables than at regular rock shows), the publicists push their clients, the label guy sneaks you into the packed day party while making his pitch. The better the product, the more laid-back the pitch. The most aggressive salesmen are the door guys at the non-SXSW-affiliated bars, barking at passersby about their "real rock music all day long" or their $2 beers, although the roving street teams in their matching T-shirts come close.
You do become mildly suspicious of anyone telling you how great a band's show was. You wonder: Does your booking-agent friend really dig this band or is he just looking ahead to some sold-out shows? You try to remember whether or not that band a publicist friend told you about is on his roster of clients. You start to feel a little like the protagonist of the recent New Yorker short story "Raj, Bohemian," by Hari Kunzru, in which a leisure-class hipster's life falls apart as he realizes his early adopter friends are all actually viral marketing zombies.
Indeed, some of the best if perhaps unintentional influence is coming from your many peers. Long lines beget even longer lines—the harder it is to get into something, the better it looks. If you follow your friends, you just might be able to get in, especially if your friends are connected (or sponsored). Conspicuous consumers in the crowd, wearing designer T-shirts and jeans mixed with American Apparel basics, rack up wristbands like certain Seattle scenesters used to rock multiple, useless white/studded belts.
There are some people going against the tide here, though. Outside the Fader/Levi's day party, two older men pace around with placards decrying Levi's use of Chinese labor. One night, someone else slips a painfully impassioned one-page missive about Scion's evil marketing agenda under our hotel door, titled "They 'Get' You: Scion Finds a Way to Tap the Oh-So-Cool Counterculture." It's pretty boilerplate stuff, railing against trend spotting, early adopters, and attempts at corporate cool. The text is inexplicably accompanied by blurry color photos of crashed Scions even though the text doesn't mention anything about vehicle safety. The idea that anyone age 20 to 25 doesn't already realize they're being marketed to seems a little far-fetched, and part of me hopes this is actually some super-next-level meta marketing campaign by Scion hoping to tap into the youthful elite's disdain for heavy-handed sincerity. Hey, it got them a pretty long mention here.
In the tote bag of swag given to every registered SXSW attendee, amid the gum, flyers, CDs, playing cards, and guitar picks, is the latest copy of Wired, promising to reveal "Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business." The story, by Chris Anderson, has some obvious applications to the music business. The "free" business models he describes include "Advertising," in which bands bring demographically desirable eyeballs to brands; "Cross-Subsidies," in which the free CD is the loss leader for the shows or merch that will make the real money (the tour used to promote the CD, now the CD promotes the tour); and "Zero Marginal Cost," i.e., file sharing, in which the costs of distributing music drops to zero so the product becomes free "with or without a business model." Some artists, Anderson suggests, will see this as a loss leader, "but others have simply accepted that, for them, music is not a moneymaking business... Which, of course, has always been true for most musicians anyway."
All of these models are at work at SXSW—advertising, as previously mentioned, is everywhere; many of the most freshly hyped bands here have built their buzz on leaked MP3s; and many more bands have certainly accepted the fact that they're not going to get rich here. Anderson makes one more observation that's especially applicable to SXSW: In an economy of abundance, the only real scarcities are your time and your respect. It's impossible to see everything you want to see at SXSW, no matter how meticulously you plan ahead. Two or three shows you want to see will be booked simultaneously, or you won't be able to get into the most popular shows, or you'll have to abandon your itinerary to get a much-needed taco, or you'll run out of steam and follow some friends around regardless of where they're going.
Before I get to the highlights of my week, let's just get this out of the way—the shows I was looking forward to but for one reason or another missed: Athens, Georgia, psych collective and recent Vice-signees Dark Meat, whose neon war paint and confetti-combustive live show looks, from the photographs, to have been extraordinary; Islands, the post-Unicorns indie-pop ensemble, who were debuting new material from their forthcoming sophomore record, Arm's Way; rarely stateside London MC Dizzee Rascal; No Age, who apparently killed Austin in a way they failed to at their recent Showbox performance here; She & Him, the Zooey Deschanel/M. Ward collaboration, who along with also-missed Vampire Weekend, had the longest lines I saw all weekend.
At a venue called Emo's Jr., Paper Rad duo Extreme Animals score the first great moment of my SXSW with their awesome, barely recognizable neon-noise cover of Archers of Loaf's "Web in Front." Extreme Animals consists of one mustachioed long-hair on drums and one on circuit-bent Roland TR-707, a Casio, and feedback knobs, along with one laptop doing some vital sequencing. Believe it, Extreme Animals can straight kill a feedback knob solo.
Next up is Free Blood, a duo comprising John Pugh, the tall, lanky, stage-stalking falsetto singer/guitarist of !!!, and Madeline Davy. They both sing over a thumping prerecorded backing track that sounds like the funkier electro moments of !!! or Out Hud; the vocals are reverbed no-wave soul.
The first big disappointment of the night: Japanther have mysteriously disappeared from the bill, to be replaced by fellow Brooklynites Team Robespierre. Bummer. Team Robespierre, it turns out, are a kind-of-okay replacement. In fact, if I'd seen them under any circumstances other than expecting to see Japanther, I'd probably have nothing but good things to say. Their show combines a little Japanther, a little Matt and Kim, a little youth-crew hardcore, and a little Atom and His Package. There are dual keyboardists and dual vocalists. There is some dancing into the crowd. Team Robespierre summon up the best/only mosh pit of the night, with kids crowd-surfing on a crowd not quite big enough to support it. Some dude loses the lens of his glasses.
The second disappointment: Norwegian disco producers Diskjokke, Kim Hiorthøy, and Lindstrøm, all of whom I was ready to cut a rug to, play in the worst place possible—a long, narrow saloon, with the stage awkwardly cornered between the door and the bar, a too-quiet PA, and a too-thick-to-dance crowd standing still watching the performers.
Vancouver, BC's chamber pop/R&B trio No Kids play at the Emo's IV Tent. It's kind of the perfect place to see them—Austin is slightly overcast this morning, making it feel a little more like the Northwest, and the tent is as sparsely attended and roomy as No Kids' songs. It isn't an acoustic set—they have live drums, electric piano, and another keyboard—but without their album's little production flourishes, the songs sound stripped-down and bare; "Listen For It," for instance, lacks the awesome T-Pain style autotune, but singer Nick Krgovich nails its vocal run well enough without. Krgovich is the very definition of a nerd—not in some phony Rivers-Cuomo-look-I'm-wearing-glasses way, but like straight-up Asperger's syndrome (so hot right now). He's a hell of a musician, though.
Best set of the afternoon belongs to Why?, playing in the same tent after the weather has warmed up and the crowd has swelled in size. They play songs from their stellar new album Alopecia, as well as from Elephant Eyelash. Lots of skin-tingling good moments: the "Billy the Kid" refrain of "Song of the Sad Assassin," the double-time rap of "The Fall of Mr. Fifths," the shouted refrain of "your face never forgets a cry" from "Waterfalls." But by far the best is the closing rendition of "Gemini (Birthday Song)." It's just a stunning song, deep and resonant, minutely personal yet universal, anthemic and subtle.
There's Saul Williams—with bright-blue streaks under his eyes and a green jacket with neon feathers sticking out of the breast pocket, kind of an aboriginal dandy look—playing with a three-piece backing band. There's a long tribute to Lou Reed, featuring performances from My Morning Jacket, Mark Kozelek, Thurston Moore, and others, culminating with Moby and Reed performing "Walk on the Wild Side." Weird. Reed: "I love punk rock, and I was the first one."
Fucked Up play at a bar called Vice. I expected them to be more of a brutal hardcore band, but it's more like one brutal hardcore screamer (and total bear) fronting a kind of straightforward punk-rock band. They're a six piece that sound like a three piece. But, then, if they were a three-piece, their giant singer wouldn't be able to charge through the crowd and climb the walls. Throughout the show, the singer keeps pounding himself in the forehead with his mic, but at one point, the mic comes unplugged, he flashes a goofy smile while fixing it, and it totally cracks the band's tough facade.
I catch a couple Throw Me the Statue songs over at Mohawk's, notably "Take It or Leave It" and the rousing "About to Walk," and they sound great, playing in a small back room.
Next up, around the corner at Beauty Bar, is Shout Out Out Out Out, a band I've been dying to see ever since they killed Club Pop last year. SOOOO's electro-funk draws not-unfair comparisons to !!! (maybe the repetitive name has something to do with it, too), but SOOOO are way more electro than !!!, with two drummers, two keyboardists, and live bass. And their vocoded lyrics are slightly socialist compared to !!!'s "no fucking rules" attitude—one of SOOOO's songs is about the tension between competition and collectivity; another is about consumerism and credit-card debt. Anyway, super stoked for the show. Bummer then that at least one dude from SOOOO, the guy in the red shirt with the fake mustache, is SOOOOOOOO fucking wasted that he can barely stand up, let alone play keys.
Next stop: the Playboy Party. To see Justice (and for the articles). But it's not really my scene, and I leave before Justice comes on to go catch a house party across town. The "house" is actually more of a complex, with a pool in the center, some kind of tree house/crow's nest, an outdoor DJ booth, and at least three big yards. Diplo is DJing. A few brave people are jumping in the pool, fully clothed. James Ford of Simian Mobile Disco is here, as is Cadence Weapon, Shout Out Out Out Out, dude from Extreme Animals, and no doubt tons of other people I should recognize. The one problem is that it is kind of a BYOB affair, and we are empty-handed and it's after hours. A guy from Division Day is nice enough to give me my one last beer of the night, and for that I vow to give their album, Beartrap Island, a more thorough listen.
The iheartcomix/Mad Decent party (sponsored in part by Scion), is a blast, minus a couple strategic snags. The party takes place on top of a parking garage attached to some high-rise and features three stages and two DJ stations, but the occasional high winds are messing with the turntables, blowing the record needles during Flosstradamus's still relentless set of party anthems. There are free drinks, but for some stupid reason they stop serving between 6:00 and 9:00 p.m., by which time they've also run out of water. They do have tiny, branded squirt guns, though, and one guy is walking around with a squirt gun in his mouth, killing himself for some water.
Santogold plays a much-anticipated set, but is hindered by technical difficulties. Santi White comes out in a neon pink-and-green clashing jumpsuit and big wrapped shades, flanked by two stone-faced dancers in white blouses and sunglasses (whichever critic first compared these girls to Public Enemy's S1W deserves a medal). So, obviously, Santogold is drawing a lot of M.I.A. comparisons—there's the aforementioned outfit, the fact that Santogold's electro pop is made with some of the same producers, and having Diplo as your live DJ definitely isn't going to help matters. The most striking difference, besides White's more trained singing voice, is that whereas M.I.A. samples from a grab bag of global urban music, Santogold mashes mostly Jamaican influences, notably rock steady and ska, into '08 club music (the bright, 8-bit crunk of "Creator" is an exception).
Diplo, for whatever reason (maybe he's still reeling from that pool party), kind of bombs at backing up Santogold. After the first song, there is a long, drawn-out silence, while Diplo works out some apparent technical issue. White's backup dancers stay totally still and expressionless like total pros, while Santogold asks if anyone knows any jokes. A friend wonders if she's lip-synching, and, after finally doing her next song, White admits, "I don't know if I should tell you this, but that was the CD version of the track," so she had been singing over her own recorded vocals. Later, her voice is thinner but still impressively elastic. One song starts playing backward part-way through, and another one just cuts off completely maybe a minute in, causing White to snap, "I don't even need to say anything. I'm looking for a new DJ." Then, amicably, "Just kidding. You all know Diplo's the shit." It's a forgiving, forgetful party.
Another long line, and it's up to a rooftop pool and patio, where they are serving wine. The sun is setting, all pink and orange behind the DJ booth, girls are dangling their legs in the pool, a trance riff is playing on the sound system—it's like walking up the stairs from SXSW and winding up in at WMC in Miami. Definitely the best-looking crowd of the weekend so far (music critics aside).
Back down on the parking-garage floor, after dark, Cut Copy absolutely light the party up. Their new songs have a serious New Order vibe—soft, mopey singing over shimmering synth arpeggios, dreamy pop shoegaze guitars, and electronic kick thump. They have neon, kaleidoscopic videos playing behind them. Like New Order, the lyrics are frequently secondary to the songs' pulse. "This is a pretty cool party, here's some more party music," says their singer before introducing another simultaneously joyous and melancholic song. Later, during an instrumental lull: "It's time for everyone to go nuts, not just the people in front, but all through the place." When the beat kicks back in, the crowd obediently goes apeshit.
Half an hour later at the Sub Pop showcase, Pissed Jeans are playing out on a patio stage and fucking killing it. The gravel pit the stage is set up in front of isn't great footing for moshing, but a few dudes give it a shot. The lead singer of Pissed Jeans is a great frontman, part Iggy Pop, part David Yow, part Will Ferrell (Ferrell hat tip: Brandon Ivers), alternately shuddering, sneering, leering, and cringing, his thrusting and writhing at once sexual and self-deprecating. Plus, he's funny: "You guys need more pebbles? There's more pebbles back there." The band is heavy—drums pounding hard, rumbling, and rolling; bass vibrating below audible frequencies; guitar droning feedback. They swerved from ranting drones to bursts of thrash to sludgy headbanging snarl, easily executing each. "I'm Sick" and "Don't Need Smoke to Make Myself Disappear" are particularly brutal. After them is Grand Archives in the main room, their newer, more rootsy songs sounding more at home here than in Seattle.
Old Time Relijun, playing across the street, are an ecstatic, mad freak-out, free-jazz skronk mixing with swamp boogie mixing with mutant disco grooves mixing with shamanic throat singing. Stand-up bass and dual saxophone (two reeds, one mouth) and Arrington de Dionyso looking a little less impish than usual but still summoning some apocalyptic fire and brimstone. I see the drunkest, douchiest dude of the weekend so far, shouting and shoving people incoherently, sporting a shiny baseball cap. I see another guy fall ass-backward, passing out, head thunking hard on the ground.
Then I ride to some massive, expensive-looking, but ultimately bunk afterparties with a couple of photographers who are taking flash photos in the front seat while driving buzzed. I don't want to die driving to see fucking Squirrel Nut Zippers (or whatever that band was) at some energy-drink sales pitch, but fuck it, if that's how I go out, so be it. Spring break.
Saturday starts at the free, non-SXSW-affiliated Mess with Texas fest, in a large park some blocks up from Sixth Street, with the Night Marchers, the new project from John Reis of Rocket from the Crypt and Hot Snakes, taking the stage. "We're Johnny Club Med and the Cabana Boys," says gracefully aging greaser Reis. "We're happy to be here entertaining you for the next 23 minutes." The banter is bullshit, with Reis referring to his band by several fake names throughout the set, but the rock was very real—hard-driving, raw-throated garage in the tradition of all Reis's bands.
Outside the Fader Fort, someone says of Brooklyn trio Telepathe, "I think this band drove out anyone who gives a shit about music, which means they should be letting more people in soon." Indeed, Telepathe aren't much of a band—three lanky ladies singing echoing mumblecore over listless electro beats and delay, like well-draped mannequins singing chopped and screwed karaoke.
Hype band of the second BLK JKS, a South African band who had all of one song available online before scoring a Fader cover and a prime slot at their Austin party, doesn't live up to push. If it weren't for their foreign origins and good style—if, say, they were white nerds—nobody would forgive their noodling, aimless jam rock. It's like a reverse image of Vampire Weekend.
Santogold plays a well-executed set, handily correcting yesterday's misstep.
Headlining at the Fader Fort are Spank Rock followed by 2 Live Crew. Given Spank Rock's recent 2 Live send-up, Bangers & Cash, it seems likely that the two might share the stage for a few songs, but nothing of the sort goes down. Although both groups make raunchy party rap, Spank Rock's modern version benefits from a sense of playfulness, possibly irony, that 2 Live Crew's set lacks. Both groups get girls up onstage, but Spank Rock's is Amanda Blank, rapping along with the guys, spitting as filthy as any of them, whereas 2 Live Crew's are mere props, punch lines. Also, Spank Rock's set is much more of a party, with MC Naeem Juwan backed up by Devlin and Darko on the decks, Pase Rock on hype, and a live drummer on bongos and cymbal.
The rest of the night is more or less a blur: Flosstradamus and Kid Sister rapping with A-Trak; Digitalism destroying it at the DFA party, flanked by the bottle-service nightclub's go-go dancers; John from Iron Lung, Judd from Sex Vid, and Richmond, Virginia, crusties Municipal Waste trying to sneak into the Vice afterparty, a party in some historically fancy old hotel room.
On Sunday morning, the spell is broken. The alcohol has metabolized (mostly) and the drugs have worn off. There's a pile of garbage in our hotel room. The streets are relatively bare, although a couple last shows will go down tonight. The sky is overcast and the air has cooled down. It almost feels like Seattle—until I get home and it's 40 degrees and raining. Then, Austin feels like it was just a dream.