WVKR and the VSA graciously sent Noah and I to Austin, TX over Spring Break to South by Southwest (SXSW for short), an annual music festival and conference. It was my first SXSW, and first time in Texas for that matter. I expected something similar to the College Music Journal’s yearly festival (CMJ for short), which I have now twice attended. Yet the five days we spent in Texas were hardly that. It was, to some degrees, CMJ transplanted to the south. The same ol’ promoter friends, good bands and abundance of free booze. But this was on a much grander scale—an event that only Texas could possibly pull off. Although it takes place in a college town, much unlike CMJ, SXSW is not entirely geared toward college students and college radio. It is a massive arena for the film, music and technology industries to showcase what is new. And indeed, there were opportunists galore. Weeks before the event, having been placed in a SXSW attendee directory with everyone else that registered, I began receiving emails from various parties looking to meet up and network. Namely, bands that were coming all the way from Australia and the Netherlands that wanted a way in to the American music indie scene reached out to me via email. Already bogged down by the daily responsibilities of music director, I did not have the time nor will to make contact with these people in advance of the event. But I did have my calendar ready upon groggily boarding the plane at Laguardia on Wednesday morning. I was perhaps too ambitious about the whole venture, spending the entire evening before jotting down every email I received from promoters, anticipating every opportunity I could to meet up with them and represent WVKR. The first flight I took from Laguardia to Chicago was a short, early jaunt: a plane full of business men in their business suits readying for a day of work in the Windy City. I napped through the entire thing. After slinking onto the plane at O’Hare bound for Austin, I noticed an entirely different atmosphere. A lot of young twenty-somes were twittering away on their Blackberries, despite the stewards and stewardesses’ ardent requests for them to turn them off, and talking a mile a minute about what they were going to be seeing immediately once they got off the plane. I folded up my calendar and realized I did not want to be one of them. I would relax and roll with the punches, and refuse to fall victim to SXSW ADD before seeing my first show.
And SXSW turned out to be an extremely worthwhile experience for us. We met up with a lot of friends, made some new ones. Ate a lot of Mexican food, drank a lot of cool drinks. The best one could ask for out of one’s spring break, right? I had typed up a massive timeline, but after losing it to a computer crash, I have ultimately decided to highlight a few things from each day for you:
HIGHLIGHTS, MISTAKES AND LESSONS OF DAY 1:
-Getting a free airport pickup from a local musician named Carlos in a Scion…err, Yaris…something Toyota?
-Discovering how much I liked cornbread, but never knew it.
-Accepting the huge totebag full of shitty corporate products and magazines, then lugging it around all day, only to throw pretty much everything inside away at the end of the weekend (except the free Dentyne Ice of course!)
-Get to the Levi’s Fader Fort (the annual free sparks/soco party in the back of a Levis store with really rad lineups) early the first day, because this year 15,000 people RSVPd and there was a line around the block pretty much the entire time. We waited in line to get our wristbands for about 30 minutes, and then saw a killer set by The Kills (no pun intended).
-Best Friends Forever put on a really nice set at Ms. Beas. I think they are from Minnesota. Band is led by a couple girls with a revivalistic sound. Saw them in the backyard of this house turned into a bar. This is where the hippest of hipsters hung out and sat on top of tour buses and wraught iron fences smoking cigarettes..it was called Ms. Bea’s and the Mae Shi performed there about 100 times.
-The K Records showcase at Emo’s IV was pretty solid this year. I only got to see Mahjongg, but that was the jam, especially after whiskey shots.
-Don’t trust Google Maps to find your way in Austin. I typed in the name of a restaurant in Central Austin for dinner, and ended up on the river. Oh well, there was no time to eat really all week anyway. Kind of a shame, though.
-The entire Ms. Bea’s crowd moved over to the quad on the UT campus late night to see acoustic sets from about forty artists. It was a really great location to catch a nightcap and see some favorites out of their element. I was exhausted and nodded in and out of sleep, but better to a Jeremy Jay or Deer Tick acoustic set than anything else.
-Having only used my $600 badge once over the course of the day, realizing we got totally gypped.
HIGHLIGHTS, MISTAKES AND LESSONS OF DAY 2:
-After a French toast breakfast, being the last one to leave the house. Woops!
-Seeing the line out in front of the Vice Metal party and refusing to tolerate it.
-Seeing the line outside the Secretly Canadian showcase that night, and laughing at all of the stupid Jens Lekman fans.
-Chouette and Other Musics two day party at the French Legation Museum was what everyone needed when they wanted to get away from the awkward setting of Ms. Beas, where people just stood around in an overly intimate setting, being force-fed performances by the mediocre bands they could see in Brooklyn any other night. Not a single location could beat the lineup they put together for this party set up on a beautiful, sprawling lawn in East Austin. I only had the opportunity to catch LA’s Bodies of Water at the beginning of the day, but jeez was it a remarkable setting.
-Seeing Akron/Family for the first time at Flamingo Cantina AND getting a free backpack at the Team Clermont/Jansport party.
-I felt a little queasy about going to a party sponsored by Real Rhapsody. But Clipse was playing, and it turned out Blue Moon was sponsoring. Saw the last bit of the Brit punkers Sons and Daughters’ performance and then waited about forty five minutes for Clipse to take the stage. It was a little disappointing hearing them scream over their own recorded lyrics, but when Sandman and Ab liva came out and performed a few songs from the new Re Up Gang mixtape (free online so definitely cop it!), it definitely made up everything.
-Waiting in line at the Fader Fort for what seemed like forever (the people next to me in line , on a hunch that Lou Reed might perform at his own “tribute.” Got to see him perform “Walk on the Wild Side” with Moby sporting the guitar! Hah!
-Filling up on Freek Sparks at the Fader Fort instead of dinner. Definitely a good, and comparably inexpensive, idea.
-The Social Registry showcase was a nice alternative to the B.S. that was going on up the street at Mohawk, where the SC/DO/JAGJAG showcase was going on. A lot more low key, and some solid acts. Got to see Blood on the Wall and Sian Alice Group, who both have very new material out.
-Eating some garbage tex mex burrito from a truck that tasted microwaved. Oh well, drunk munchies call.
-The Bersa Discos showcase, one of my most anticipated showcases on calendar, did not disappoint. Oro11’s set killed, digging in the crates and dropping a marvelous fusion of cumbia and hip hop that I think has such a future here in the states. You should be hearing a lot from this Oakland based label in the near future.
-The late night party put on at the Austin Children’s museum by KVRX kind of blew. I mean, I knew it’s trendy and everything to put on concerts at museums after they close, but the sound was mediocre and the low children’s seats (and believe me, all that I wanted to do after that Bersa Discos showcase was sit) around the museum were horribly awkward and uncomfortable.
HIGHLIGHTS, MISTAKES AND LESSONS OF DAY 3:
-Skipping breakfast and moving right to lunch. Good call. Food is for the weary.
-The Vice Parties in East Austin were okay (they did have free booze and Vice catalogs/merch so its hard to knock that), except for the fact that they were literally in backyards with no shade whatsoever. Yet starting off your day with some combination of Monotonix, Howlin Rain and a Sparks is better than the best cup of coffee.
-There was an Iheartcomix/Mad Decent party all day which turned out to be on the top floors of a parking garage. There was just way too much space and too many stages, despite the popularity of the event. Franki Chan needs to stick to DJing. The latest Check Yo Ponytail parties out in L.A. have been pretty week-sauce.
-The lawn party at the FLM was solid once again. Although the weather was heating up as the weekend progressed, I found some nice shade here and caught a bit of Antietam and then Atlas Sound (the full band!). They were selling overpriced brisket tacos. I was getting so hungry I almost gave in.
-Yet good things come to those who wait. Went back to the center of town and found amazing fried avocado tacos!!
-Rehydrated at some place that was giving away free water. Clutch!
-The only story at the Lovepump/Panache showcase at Flamingo Cantina was that HEALTH just got that much more popular. At the risk of seeing a second of the Mae Shi’s set that followed, I only caught a bit of their set before I skipped out. The Sub Pop showcase was across the street at Bourbon Rocks. Has anyone noticed that Sub Pop’s new bands have really picked up recently (sans Flight of the Conchords which was just god’s joke on everyone for 2008,—unfortunately Sub Pop became the worst victim)? Got to see the Ruby Suns and Fleet Foxes among many others. There were a lot of old people here, presumably industry veterans I should have recognized.
-Having to walk all the way down to the river to see a punk show on the Lamar Pedestrian Bridge turned out to be pretty weak. Fucked Up and No Age…meh.
HIGHLIGHTS, MISTAKES AND LESSONS OF DAY 4:
-Got to Fader Fort early to see if I could catch David Banner’s set. Sadly, he did not come on until later in the day and I missed it. However, fellow WVKR DJ, Kappy Mintie, saw it and reported that it was out of this world. I instead got treated to a really lackluster set by Lykke Li, who everyone was hyping before the event, but no one I knew went home raving about. I hear she has some cool videos, even if you aren’t into her stuff.
-I instead set out for West Austin and this random party for Hometapes Records. There was candy and some nice free beer in the driveway of this art gallery. Saw the amazing duo that is Pattern is Movement with a very original sound, reminding me of the time I first saw the Dirty Projectors.
-Not going to the annual Mess With Texas party was a good idea. Everyone was there, so most of the day parties (and night parties to some extent) were pretty quiet.
-Got to see the San Francisco group The Dodos (they are on French Kiss records now) put on a folky acoustic set.
-Had to gorge on the free booze for my last night there, so where else to go other than the Fader Fort? I had to check out Blk Jks, recently signed to Diplo’s Mad Decent label, before they went back to South Africa. After waiting in line for a few minutes, finally got in to see the second half of their jammin set. Because it was hot, and once again I decided I would rather drink than eat, chilled at the Fort for Santogold and some of Spank Rock.
-Darondo is one old, twisted man. 70s soul artist was like James Brown as a showman, and like Blowfly for his obscene fixations. This was at the Ubiquity showcase at Club DeVille. I don’t know how they got him to perform, but after that performance, I had learned everything about how to make love to a woman.
-The Summer Lovers Showcase was a perfectly eccentric way to cap off the night. Sincerely Yours artists The Tough Alliance performed what many people are calling the best performance they saw over the course of the week. There were some wild shenanigans, lip-syncing but most of all, solid summer jams. It was so much fun to shamelessly dance around in the half-full room to (what I think are) the best pop anthems of 07.
-Ended up tired and passed out on the sidewalk in front of the Vice Late Night party (heard it wasn’t worth it anyway).
As you can probably derive from my fragmented telling of the week’s happenings, SXSW 08 was very much a blur. The most memorable moments took place at the beginning and the end of the event for me. I consumed more free beverages and products than most people consume in their life. And there is something to be said about that. SXSW is not geared toward college radio, as I had so naively thought when I set out. It is geared toward young people, and is a consortium of corporations essentially testing out their multimedia and products of mass consumption on people in the 20-30 age range. Thus, the average of crowds at shows was surprisingly high, and surprisingly oblivious. Whenever I overheard a woman at a war fail horribly at trying to pronounce “Mae Shi” or the sleazy dude touting this really hip new band he heard called “Spoon,” I could not help but long to be at a more CMJ-like event, where the individuals attending have a more united purpose.
As Red Bull cars roamed the blocks looking to hand out free samples, Toyota Yaris’s also wandering aimlessly looking to pick up people to shuttle around, waiting in line to get into a Levis store, I realized how deep the corporate world has sunk its nails into the beloved indie music world. I suppose I should not be such a high and mighty Vassar student, taking whatever opportunity I can to dismiss anything that is corporate. Music has a universal influence greater than any media. I recently attended a lecture here at Vassar given my Mohsin Hamid, author of “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”. He also was alarmed by the influential power of music in his native Pakistan, citing the tremendous underground rave culture that so many Pakistani youths identify with. Despite the RIAA’s relentless pursuit at curtailing musical piracy in the U.S., music means (and always will mean) money. All over the world. SXSW was an otherworldly gathering of a lot of worlds. It is crazy to think that thousands of people had vastly different four-day experiences than I did. The music and free stuff were certainly nice, but all one had to do was look up at the sunny Texas sky to realize that Austin is one of the most irresistible spots in America, and a worthy, hospitable host of the largest music and multimedia festival in the world.