[Tiny Mix Tapes sent three writers to cover SXSW Music 2014. Page 1 features Mukqs’ experience, Page 2 showcases SXSW-inspired artwork by Carolina Purdum, Page 3 comes courtesy of resident SXSW expert Grant ‘Gumshoe’ Purdum, and Page 4 features six full-set streams that comprise the entirety of the Ba Da Bing/Northern Spy showcase.]
My first South By Southwest experience occurred a decade ago. One of my firmest memories from SXSW 2004 has always been a random one: the sight of Jason Molina showing up at a small-time Skyscraper Magazine showcase, looking chipper and obviously enjoying the laid-back atmosphere. He was at the peak of his popularity then, but you would never have known it from his humble demeanor as he milled about and enjoyed watching (for once), rather than playing, a few shows. And that was what struck me about SXSW all those years ago: The unity, the thrill of seeing the artists who brighten our lives with their music as people, as friends, and as, just maybe, equals. Sure, later that week I ate fancy chicken out of steam trays and was asked, “Who are you with” at a party, but my image of SXSW as a utopian musician’s/music writer’s dream, at least somewhat free of the textbook twattage of the music business-at-large, remained.
Now, 10 years later, Molina is dead and SXSW has been invaded by several new varieties of Dorito, a stinging reminder that no matter how much I want the conference to remain what it was 10 years ago, things done changed, mostly for the worst. But there’s still hope to be found, and luckily for people like me (and a good chunk of TMT’s readers), the best stuff goin’ at SXSW these days has nothing to do with long lines that never move, product lines with too much to prove, and lines of coke that steal the groove. Below are 10 reasons I continue to believe in the power of love. And South by Southwest.
I can’t think of a more inappropriate way to tunnel into the giant mound of glossy dirt that is SXSW than by seeing a family-friendly comedian and ex-star of Houseguest toss out a few jokes about how fools be actin’ like zombies at the mall, and that’s why, in a strange way, it made all the sense in the world. You see, we weren’t quite ready to plunge ourselves in head-first, and the Esther’s Follies environment offered a nice respite from the beard-fluff, beer foam, and blunt smoke we’d be second-handing all week. Despite the limited nature of his antics (we’re talking relationship/marriage patter and little else), it’s tough not to smile when this dude subtly diddles your funny bone because, despite yourself, you relate to everything he’s saying, at least if you’ve ever been in a relationship. And if you haven’t… shit, what do those people do on a Tuesday night? It’s too depressing to think about… Speaking of depressing, a mildly inebriated Jim Breuer played host and, from what I could tell, didn’t crack a single joke. Why?
DJ Rashad / DJ Spinn
Photo: Carolina Purdum
It’s embarrassing to exist on the wrong side of history, and that’s exactly where I have resided when it comes to DJ Rashad and the footwork stuff so many TMT folks helped break for you a few years back. But I’ve been working my way into the groove and doing my best to understand, to the point where my eroded resistance has become wanton acceptance of everything Rashizzy stands for. And it all started with one song: “She Gonna Go.” While the duo of Rashad and DJ Spinn didn’t touch that particular number, their set delved into the corners of their repertoire you might expect, hopping spastically from “CCP” to “Acid Bit” to “10 On Da Cush” and flexing the versatility I once doubted they possessed. The crowd seemed mostly confused as to how to dance to Rashad and Spinn’s spiraling samples and beats, and that’s part of what makes it all interesting. Until commercial rappers finally start hitting Rashad up for some of those hot trax, we’ve got him to ourselves, so let’s enjoy it.
Quite an inauspicious outing for a man of much repute in the world of underground metal and rock, King Buzzo, hyping up recent 10-inch release This Machine Kills Artists, played one of his first solo acoustic sets during SXSW. No one would accuse The Melvins of being a band easily covered by a voice and acoustic guitar, so while my expectations were high, I tried not to expect too much from the veteran ‘fro-basher. The outcome was much as you’d expect: Quaint, small-scale recreations of selections from The Melvins oeuvre, growled out by Buzzo and occasionally accented by a comic-book scream. The best conversion was “Boris”-lite, which kept most of the longform track intact and gave Buzz the chance to stretch his voice to the rafters. He also told a story about his relations with Dave Grohl, and while I love his snide delivery, the gist of the story was that he turned down the chance to hang out with Grohl, so Grohl doesn’t call him any more (what a sellout?); not exactly earthshaking stuff.
Fat White Family
Photo: Carolina Purdum
Fat White Family were disgustingly distinctive enough that I can still smell their sweat and feel the discomfort I suffered when confronted by their lack of dental hygiene. But these are BRITS, and they’re bloody-amazin’ in a way American bands just can’t be. I got my first hint when their Golem of a co-lead guitarist started sound-checking all the band’s equipment leading up to the set. He looked grimey and a bit grim, and his fascination with sounds shone through his soul even as he puttered around waiting for the show to begin. The fact that he looks more like a roadie than a band member was a good sign; usually those dudes can shred harder than any of the ‘lookers,’ and sure enough, he prowled ‘round the small space allotted to Fat White Family at Hotel Vegas like a scorned bookie. But that’s not the best part: FWF boast the most ROCK-AND-FUCKIN’-ROLL frontman since… jesus, I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen such a traditionally punk-appropriate singer in person. He’s aggressive like J. Rotten, Brit as fuck like Jagger and the Gallaghers, cocksure like Small Faces-era Rod Stewart, and sorta sexy in a quasi-Jim Morrison kinda way (you’d have to ask a female for more details than that). He’s the dutiful cheerleader most rock bands can only dream of employing, riling up his charges, climbing half-stacks like a punk Tarzan, and emitting a haphazard shriek when all else fails. I’m so goddamn impressed by how motivated Fat White Family were, bouncing off each other and laughing like the ugly-ass UK hyenas they are. And unlike a lot of the other “motivated” bands I’ve seen over the years, these fatties have the songs to back it up, songs that spill out their influences, which range from Thee Oh Sees to Oasis to Brian Jonestown Massacre, without betraying their hand. How can Sean Lennon not see a band like this and be a bit embarrassed? I’d pass on a three-hour set by Ghost Of A Saber-Toothed Tiger for three minutes of Fat White Family. Go ahead; test me.
If ever there was a performance that encapsulated exactly what I LOVE and H8 about SXSW (and even hip-hop concerts in general), it was Tech N9ne’s bizarre late-night set at The Main. We’re talking major schitzo action here. For every homerun Tech hit, he let at least a few smashable balls right past him. Part of the blame can be put on scheduling: Since most SXSW sets last a half-hour at most, to require Mr. N9ne to play for upwards of an hour seems a bit taxing. But T9 has a long way to go when it comes to connecting with a crowd and keeping that union strong for more than a few numbers. To wit: Burst onto the stage in bright-white facepaint, jail inmate uniforms, and a heart full of murder? That’s good! Talk about Monster Energy Drink between just about every song, sounding more than a little unconvinced about the product you’ve obviously been told to peddle? That’s bad! Hype your hometown of Kansas to the sky amid slamming, almost threatening beats? That’s good! Ramble on and on about how everyone should be getting drunken tonight, almost awkwardly so? That’s bad! And on and on we go… My complaints aside though, not a single person in the crowd will ever forget the first 5-10 minutes of this performance, no matter what happened later.
Over the years, Thee Oh Sees have rounded-out their sound and turned it into an unstoppable juggernaut. Which is good, of course, but what about those down ‘n’ dirty years John Dwyer spent as frontman of Coachwhips? I finally got my answer at the Yellow Jacket Social Club, and I’m still trying to coax the grit and grime from my ear cavities. Where do I even start with these fuckin’ amateurs? I mean the trio, after a day full of bands standing up on the stage, set up on the ground and played out of what sounded like a couple of practice amps. The concert that resulted was closer to a gang-rape than a proper performance, with no separation between artist and crowd and the distinct likelihood that one of the onlookers would have his or her head smashed into a bass drum at any minute. WHAT A ROW! Hearing the drummer struggle to propel the simple beats was annoying at first, then sort of drifted to the background as the unit pumped out non-hit after non-hit. After 20 minutes or so, it was time to hit the dusty trail, appropriate because the melee had produced a thick cloud of floating dirt. Just goes to show: You can take Dwyer out of Coachwhips, but you can’t take the Coachwhips out of Dwyer.
Easily the most understated performance of the week, and easily one of the best; New Bums don’t strum and sing as much as they pluck and whisper, their set ready to blow apart and scatter at any second like dandelion seeds in the wind. Ben Chasny and Donovan Quinn (holy FUCKhole, that’s Donovan Quinn?) spin spare folk ruminations that betray a maturity well beyond their relatively young years, using space and an almost eerie quiet to leave the listener hanging on every pin-prick of a string-slide. Chasny might have been trying just a little too hard to look casual — at one point, I caught him checking the length of his cuticles in between string plucks — but as I mentioned, there’s a lot of room to stretch out here. New Bums play it like the too-cool-for-school cats they are, vanishing around the corner, leaving you wanting more. Watching them stop playing was like my ears just got out of a hot tub. Just one more song?
Cloud Becomes Your Hand
Photo: Grant Purdum
CBYH put on the best show of SXSW, bar none. I’m almost afraid to write about it, lest my memories fade once I’ve committed them to paper. But persevere I must, because you must know of their charms, especially if you’ve heard the album, because, to me, there’s a huge gap between what Cloud Becomes Your Hand achieve on-record (somewhat of a post-Curtains feel) as opposed to in a live setting, their off-brand mind-pop growing wings before your very eyes. Not that the record isn’t good; it’s just that a cut like “Bay Shamps,” in all its slide-whistling, xylophone-ing majesty, doesn’t quite hit home unless you can see exactly what they’re doing, because it’s rare to see a band in which each member seems to be accomplishing something completely different. And the performance-art aspect of the show took things up yet another notch as the quintet acted as a strange variety of dance troupe, lining up parallel in order to use their limbs to communicate, then falling out, crawling about, and finally huddling together under a blanket for the final moments of worshipful drone via “Waste Park.” I hadn’t heard a note of Cloud’s music before this show, so I (and you!) have a lot of work to do.
I WAS aware of NYMPH’s psychedelic ear-clog beforehand, but had forgotten just how powerful their twin-guitar attack is. Talk about scattered appeal; it’s as if the guitarist from The Rhythm Of Black Lines got together with the drummer from Comets On Fire, the singer from Degenerate Art Ensemble, and the quiet guy from Talibam! (hey, that actually IS the quiet guy from Talibam! [Matt Mottel]!) got together and made not only a day of it, but a band out of it. We’re talking ZS-level thrash here, too, particularly when a loooong soooong stretches out and gets into an on-off progression. But that’s not even the best part: As Devi Mambouka worked herself into a banshee-style freakout, she singled out TMTer Mike McHugh and MIND-FUCKED the SHIT out of him. Seriously, I’ve never seen anything like it. If you’re aching for colorful music and even more-colorful characters, NYMPH is the acid-damaged nectar you’ve been seeking. Holy GOD!
Being a fan of Gay Beast/AIDS Wolf/Arab On Radar/Sleetmute Nightmute and just about anything in between places me in the perfect position to appreciate a band like Guerilla Toss. Their withering assault is so effective as to serve as a continuation of said bands, a new benchmark for nihilistic post-post no-wave with a sax to grind and a heady sampler to match the unhinged vocals and fill-filled drumming. I reviewed their split with Sediment Club for Cerberus recently, so I don’t want to bust my cherry, but what am I supposed to do when a band wields such a formidable sound-cock? In fact, I’ve never heard anyone denigrate Guerilla Toss for this precise reason. They sound dangerous, uncontrollable, and that, above all else, is what we ask for from a band in position to bang our dear eardrums. Toss’ set at Beerland didn’t offer anything you wouldn’t expect from the group, yet they almost seemed to push twice as hard on what they did provide. It’s a fine trick to sound scattered yet fused, loud yet complicated and clear, and GT have no problem getting this intricate combination to fire on all cylinders.