Tuesday, March 12
I’m a nine-year SXSW veteran. I love this fame-crazed party behemoth, and I keep coming back no matter how long the lines get or how ridiculous the sponsorships get. The increasingly corporate nature of Austin’s SXSW doesn’t get under my skin — it’s annoying sometimes, but sure, so are people who watch The Voice, and you’re probably surrounded by them every day. And now for the first year since they started rolling out the new earlier Tuesday start date, I get to be in Austin for the genesis of the whole shitshow. YES! More SXSW! More Austin!
There are fewer band options to see tonight and the streets are still relatively uncrowded, but that doesn’t mean anyone flying in for Rock ‘n’ Roll Spring Break is taking it down a notch. The line for the Pitchfork showcase steadily builds and turns out to be a great place to eavesdrop on DIIV charming the packed outdoor patio and to watch the line for Deadmau5 at Stubb’s wind around the block. Naturally, it’s also a great place/time for us to complain about how the line isn’t moving, which is exactly what my friend and I do through the entirety of DIIV’s set. But we’re here for Cloud Nothings, a band my friend none-too-enticingly described as “used to be kinda pop-punk, but they’re really not anymore.” So, my expectations are low. But then the band takes the stage and starts cranking out blistering, intense punk rock. Which apparently, isn’t quite what their album sounds like, as I discover when I once again return to the normal world, where the internet works and I can listen to stuff on SoundCloud. (Did I mention that our hotel internet did not work for the entirety of SXSW? This will become a running theme.) But whatever, Cloud Nothings turned the punk rock notch up about 17x and kicked out the jams in a promising start to the week. I should also note that this showcase has free fancy granola bars and a top-notch taxidermy jackalope mounted behind one of the bars. Bars with jackalopes = always a good sign.
Afterward, without a lot of show options, I catch the tail end of a garage rock band at a venue next to the Mohawk, before heading to Beerland to catch the tail end of another garage rock band. Everybody’s in a garage rock band this year. Or in line for Deadmau5.
This is the reason I go to SXSW: to see these bands that never tour in my area, that are beautiful and spectacular and are probably going to just keep flying under the radar.
Wednesday, March 13
Free tacos. Free booze. Free haircuts. This is the greatest place on earth. TACOS TACOS TACOS. People complain about how SXSW has gotten “so corporate, maaaaaan; it’s not even about the music, maaaaaan” and this year it does seem like a good 60% of the festival is sponsored by Doritos and has its own hashtag. Wednesday is when everybody comes in, and by midnight almost all of my people are here, from LA, NY, and my hometown in the Midwest. For me, SXSW is about getting to see weird little bands that never tour, eat enchiladas with friends from around the world, and drink margaritas outside on patios at inappropriate times of the day. And, of course, free haircuts. And tonight, it’s about getting into the impossible-to-get-into Nick Cave (pictured) show at Stubb’s. I spend most of the day alternately trying to find a way into the show and convincing myself that my soul won’t shrivel up and die if I don’t get in. But SXSW magic happens, and I do.
People have been in line for hours, and once the gates open, they literally sprint to the front of the stage. This is some Lord of the Flies shit. What a bunch of weirdos, these super fans are. I am not like them. I AM NOT LIKE THEM. The Bad Seeds walk across the stage. Everybody screams, but they’re just walking across the stage. Okay, it’s cool. Whatever. Nick Cave walks across the stage. He waves. Everybody screams. Stars: they’re just like us. They walk across stuff. OKAY COOL WE CAN HANDLE THIS HE’S JUST WALKING ACROSS THE STAGE. The sun is setting. The band comes out again. “We’re going to play a long song, and hopefully by the time we’re done, it’ll be DARK,” Nick Cave jokes before launching into new track “The Higgs Boson Blues.” The band plays a few songs off its latest, Push the Sky Away, and at the end of “Jubilee Street,” with Warren Ellis’ violin wailing like a soprano demon (not like a totally scary demon, but a demon you’d kinda want to kick it with and talk about the movie Badlands with) and Nick Cave strutting around like a Southern Gothic Mick Jagger, the Spirit of Rock ‘n’ Roll descended from above and settled over the crowd, keeping a thousand-plus people in a blissful, yearning trance from “Red Right Hand” to “The Mercy Seat,” until Cave launched into “Stagger Lee,” that great ode to the profane joys of violence. At this point, everyone just basically started whooping it up and shouting along to the lyric “I’m a bad motherfucker, don’t you know.” It was pure heaven. It was mind-blowing, It was transcendent. It was the liberal arts English professor’s all-time favorite topic “sex and death” all wrapped up into one fleeting sex moment under the stars at Stubb’s. It was one of those moments when you remember why exactly you’re a music person, what music can do to you when it really hits you — one of those moments you carry around for days, that initial blast of euphoria still intact no matter how long your flight home gets delayed or how many bills you fear creeping up in the aftermath of a week-long vacation.
Afterwards, I try to get into Austra at Viceland, but the line is too long and I fail. Because it’s Viceland, and everyone wants the chance to possibly BE a fashion Do or Don’t and eat free opium tacos handcrafted by Lana Del Rey or whatever they have over there. So I instead head over to the Holy Mountain because (a) it has an awesome name, and (b) it’s where two Chilean Sacred Bones bands, The Holydrug Couple and Föllakzoid are playing. I catch the tail end of The Holydrug Couple, who sound like when you hold a seashell up to your ear, but like, if the seashell had garage/psych/Paisley Underground/80s English sad person music as a reference. In other words, perfect jams for a rainy day. Alas, their hypnotic space rock gets somehow muted by the fact that it is SPRIIIIIIIIING BREEEEEEAK and everyone is drinkin’ loud and drinkin’ proud. (Possibly also because I have just seen Nick Cave, and my brain is still like “Stagger Lee, crotch thrust, DARKNESS.) Föllakzoid also mine a similar vein of trancey psych, with heavy drums and heavily-reverb’d vocals, and they set the patio of Holy Mountain ablaze in hazy, distant washes of guitar and drums. The band played a record short set, but it kept the people wanting more. Despite the oonz-oonz-oonz of dance music and the screaming hordes outside, these two bands, for a brief time, created a portal into another cooler space dimension.
Thursday, March 14
As previously mentioned, the internet at our hotel doesn’t work, so I can’t check out bands online and listen to their music before venturing out. Instead, I was stuck reading about music on the internet like it was 1997, as if I were scrolling through Angelfire pages. Boy, what a racket this whole WRITING ABOUT MUSIC THING IS, isn’t it?! I’d read a review online that was like, “This band sounds like if Serge Gainsbourg grew up in Twin Peaks and started fronting The Sonics” and I’d be like, “OoOoh that sounds good, I’m definitely gonna check that out,” and then I’d get there and in reality this much-hyped band would sounds more like, say, Linkin Park doing slam poetry with a ska horn section. So after being led astray several times, I said to myself, “Fuck it, I’ll go see The Blind Shake (pictured) after breakfast. They won’t let me down.” And they didn’t. There are only a handful of people waiting for the hard-rockin’ trio to take the stage and half of them are standing around, asking the friends who dragged them along, “Who are these guys again?” Invariably, the answer turns out to be simply “They’re fucking awesome.” And midway through the band’s set of tightly-wound punk menace, the room gets fuller, as if the crowd of new converts is sending out psychic vibes to their friends who should be there too. Everyone is nodding their heads, caught up in the music. It’s 2:30 PM on a Thursday afternoon, and you can tell that these guys were giving it their all on stage. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how hard bands work at SXSW when you’re drinking free shitty booze under the warm Texan sun. Then you see something like this, where you know people are moving forward just by sheer force of will, solid tunes, and rave reviews from people who like music that feels like you’re willingly hitting yourself in head with a hammer. While on trucker speed. It makes you realize how much those tunes really mean. It’s something totally unhashtagable.
Afterward, I go to see Chrvches because, man, that’s a pretty cool, trv goth kinda name. Warning! This band is not goth. They are an upbeat Glaswegian electro-pop group that will probably be stealing stages from Robyn at a few European summer festivals sometime soon. The crowd freakin’ looooooves these guys, and they definitely put on a show, with several of their tracks sounding like the lost soundtrack to a forgotten 80s fantasy flick. But for me, it’s not quite what I’d expected, and I’m beginning to worry I won’t have anything to write about for my First Ever TMT SXSW Rundown. So I go to get a massage and a free drink that tastes like lemon dish soap and regret, and my fancy drifts off to my spiritual brethren, the bats that live beneath Austin’s famous bat bridge. By now, the sun is setting, and the bats will be venturing out into the night. Those little guys know a thing or two about echolocation, and here I am striking out pretty heavily on seeing bands based solely on their names. What would a bat do? (#WWABD?)
Everybody’s in a garage rock band this year. Or in line for Deadmau5.
Apparently, a bat would fly over to the Victorian Room at the Driskill, which obviously has a promising name, if you’re into repression, gothic throwbacks, and hair jewelry. And so this is where I turn up around midnight to see Lushlife, the Philadelphia dream rapper with smart lyrics and spacey production. The venue is in a side room of a beautiful, historic hotel, and the lights are up full blast between sets — not the most conducive atmosphere for getting down. People are sitting on the floor like it’s second grade just before story time. Obviously nothing says PARTY FUCKING TIME like a bunch of grown-ass adults sitting on the floor in a room full of floor-length curtains and brocade. But then, Lushlife nicely ask the crowd to get up on their feet, and they oblige. Video projections of hazy summer days and backing tracks with a touch of Stereolab or RJD2 dreaminess set the mood, and Lushlife starts rockin’ the microphone like a street-corner preacher who knows that nothing is gonna save you except for music. Visually, it’s riveting. Sonically, I can’t really understand what he’s saying. The sound mix is weird, which is a shame because it seemed like we were forever on the verge of having all of our minds blown… in a very intellectual, dreamy way.
The night is winding down, but a friend has convinced me I needed to see No Ceremony. I had heard a single from them and wasn’t blown away, so I am prepared for yet another overhyped band. But as I stand in the crowd, already convinced I’ll like this band’s name more than their sound, they start to win me over. This British band’s shimmering, powerful electro-pop succeeds where a whole lot of other electro-pop bands I’ve seen over the past few days (and not bothered to mention) have failed. I can feel something worming its way inside my chest. I can feel this band’s urgency and yearning. It plucks away at my heart and makes me want to go back to my hotel and check out what their recordings sound like, but OH WAIT YEAH I CAN’T. So instead I get last call.
Friday, March 15
I get up and walk the streets of Austin before noon, which is pretty surreal. It’s a SXSW ghost town. A crumpled-up show flyer advertising free beer — SXSW’s version of a tumbleweed — whistles down the street. A crazed prospector leans out of a saloon. “There are $1 shots of tequila in them there bars,” he says. In the distance, a street punk plays a saw. None of the copious amounts of food trucks I pass by are open. “This must be what El Topo is like,” I think. (I am too scared of what I imagine to happen in this movie to actually watch it.) I’m awake early because today is the day of a thousand showcases I must attend: two put on by friends, and one put on by my gifted associates at Tiny Mix Tapes and Northern Spy Records. A short distance away from the main action, a small crowd is growing at The Museum of Human Achievement. I’d like to give you an in-depth review of everything that happened during the showcase, but I have staked my (volunteer) claim as the Queen of the Beers (a.k.a. bartending) and am busy swilling out fancy beers and a rainbow of energy drinks to the rapidly growing crowd. (So hi. If you saw me there, hi.) Lantern melts everyone’s faces off. Spires That in the Sunset Rise swaths those melted faces in gauzy experimental folk. I’m sorry. That’s gross. But in reality, it’s lovely and stirring and absolutely nothing at all like the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where all those Nazis’ faces explode in a super-gross 1980s CGI sorta way. It’s more like the scene where Karen Allen drinks that guy under the table because she’s a total badass who doesn’t take no for an answer. Yeah, it’s like that.
There’s not a lot I want to see tonight, apart from Kendrick Lamar and Depeche Mode, two up-and-coming bands whose cassingles you might have picked up at your local punk rock record co-op. I cannot get into either of these shows, but it’s all good, because Weyes Blood (pictured) is playing at a theater in the back of a coffee shop tonight. And I’ve been longing to see Natalie Mering’s experimental folk project ever since I scooped her record up on a whim solely because it was described as “Victorian attic folk.” This show is mind-altering. Just two people onstage, disappearing and appearing from behind wisps of fog from the lonely English moors — er, the fog machine. From the fog machine. Such a huge, haunting, lingering voice from such a small person. The group’s brief set is chilly and distant and autumnal and other adjectives a bat would use to describe hair jewelry. Maximum dreamy fainting melancholic Victorian. “That was amazing,” I told Mering while in line for the bathroom. “One of the best things I’ve seen here so far.” This is the reason I go to SXSW: to see these bands that never tour in my area, that are beautiful and spectacular and are probably going to just keep flying under the radar. That’s the secret to SXSW. That prospector was right, maybe. There’s super fancy, mind-blowing tequila in them there bars, if you know where to look for it. But, like, the tequila is MUSIC and the bars are our HEARTS.
Saturday, March 16
Everybody in Austin is sick of drinking. Everybody in Austin is under the thrall of a devastatingly high pollen count, which everyone is insisting to each other is the reason why they’ve all lost their voices. “It’s from allergies. Not from partying.” Ugh, we are all weirdo rock frat boys. But the show goes on, for one more day at least, and, fortunately, so do three of the best live acts I see at SXSW this year.
The surprise of the week is Mac DeMarco (pictured), who is probably only a surprise to me. This guy has played like 15 shows in the past week. He is drowning in hype. But he is one of those rare, magical unicorn cases who totally deserves it. “I guess I’ll check out Mac DeMarco,” I go in thinking. “Everybody says he’s good.” The set starts off a bit jammy, and I’m scared this train might veer into Hippieville when things start getting real jangly, real raw, and real weird. “Rock and Roll Nightclub” is the game changer. The whole band has a sloppy, rough Replacements vibe, with a well-placed scream here and there and a tirade of swears spilling out faster than the festival’s entire output of free shitty vodka. “I understand that many of you have been here since Tuesday, and you’re probably tired and not the drunkest,” DeMarco says. “But it’s our job to get drunk every single day!” Oh yeaaaaah! People remember what it’s like to dance. To carouse. To swill cheap booze and to yell curse words into a microphone. This is rock ‘n’ roll. We all get our groove back.
Next up is The Soft Moon, who I have missed several times throughout the week for assorted excuses, which, living in a post-Having-Seen-The-Soft-Moon world, I now realize are horribly inaccurate. I really liked this band before. Now I love them. Like, “I want to follow them around to all their shows like a sorta goth Deadhead” love them. Some of my people are at Justin Timberlake, which, no shame, I would’ve been pretty pleased to see, but who even cares about all the JT photos my friends are posting because THE SOFT MOON. There is no future, and there is no past. There is no present. There is just THE SOFT MOON. Fog machine. Flashing lights. Ultimate cool dudes playing mean, rough, echoing guitars that just extinguish everything else. You know this band likes Swans. You know this band likes Bauhaus. But what they do with those influences is a logical extension, and it’s their own thang. It’s a new scarier velociraptor tearing its way through the flesh of an older, still scary, but, in comparison, less terrifying tyrannosaurus. But what I write in my notes is “If you missed this, how can you even handle it, just straight up amazing, Top 3.” I may or may not have chased down someone from the band after the show to tell them they should move to L.A. so I can go to every single one of their shows. It wasn’t weird AT ALL though, no way! I’m like a stalker who’s fun and not at all scary and who doesn’t wear tinted aviator frames or burn the wings off of bugs.
And then Austra kissed SXSW on the forehead, tucked in the covers, and put it to bed. Except for the covers were on fire. Like, in flames, it was so good. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Austra, who I have seen several transcendental times but whose new stuff hasn’t really set my heart alight. The few tracks I’ve heard have been more light and airy, without the desperate edge of the last record. I mean, GOSH, why on earth would a band named after the Germanic goddess of light go and move in that upbeat astral direction? WHY. But the energy in the room is still burning from The Soft Moon, and when Austra take the stage, they harness the fuck outta that energy. They take all that yearning and desire and spin it into some powerful, long-forgotten earth magick. Everything is sweat and movement. It’s like going to a church service for witches — witch church — and it’s the perfect ending for the festival. Right now everybody is in love with life and far, far away from the anxieties and boredom of the workaday world. The spirit is in the air. And that’s the magic of SXSW. Not everybody sees it, but it’s there, buried beneath the hashtags, concerts that we impoverished music fans can’t get into, and the ridiculous rowdiness of 6th Street on the weekend. There’s transcendence in those tacos and bad drinks and overworked indie bands. Somewhere off the creepy river path from the hotels to the venues, there’s a secret Narnia door into the sublime. (Note: Next year I’ll be bottling that feeling and selling it to Twix for their Twix Presents Skrillex “Fuck, the haters I wub SXSW” showcase.)