SXSW Music 2016 From D∆WN and Xander Harris to Seth Graham and Downtown Boys

Photo: Jesse DeFlorio/Hype Machine's Hype Hotel

I want to tell you about a horrible mistake I made. No, it was not going to SXSW. SXSW is, for me, like a wonderful Narnia/black hole where you get sucked into a magical otherworld where time and responsibility don’t really exist and all that matters is watching bands, hanging with friends, drinking margaritas at inappropriate times of day, and trying to convince Lust for Youth to get tacos with you via Twitter. (They graciously declined.) Anyway, the horrible mistake I made was to take a kickboxing class for the first time in ohhhhh like 15 years the night before SXSW and then try to save money by limiting my food intake. This is a mind-blowingly stupid idea and will result in you hobbling around Austin like a young grandma (if you use Yung Gramma as your new rap name please just PayPal me like $5 or something) for four days and being in a sort of constant hunger-induced haze. Do not do this. This is not how I recommend you do SXSW.

Wednesday, March 16

However, this is the state I am in when I wander off the plane, visit the nice people at the Austin Convention Center to pick up my credentials, then head to Cheer Up Charlie’s to check out Guerilla Toss. The place is packed and people are jostling to see the fittingly psychedelic-painted stage. The band soundchecks before launching into their first song and instantly the room erupts into a space-punk dance party. It’s like riot grrl meets James Chance meets the future. It’s very sweaty and very heady.

Next up is Downtown Boys, who thankfully play outside, prowling across the larger stage emanating raw energy and classic punk sound. Over the next few days, everywhere I go I’ll hear people talking about this band, but in this moment, it feels like one of those rare SXSW moments when you discover a band that seems so primal and fierce they transcend the corporate bullshit that people joke about surrounding the festival (i.e. the much-maligned giant Doritos vending machine from a few years ago, the T-Mobile eXtreme Vape Lounge — jk I made that one up, but who knows? It could be there next year.) It’s a great way to start SXSW.

After a much-needed pizza break, it’s back to the crowded sweat lodge where Guerilla Toss had played to see Lust For Youth. This time it’s infinitely more pleasant, as I’m sandwiched into a corner with people who share one of my main life interests: talking about Lust For Youth. The band starts off with songs off their new album, Compassion, with a few hits from Internationale thrown in and the room is awash in a weird but pleasant mix of melancholy, yearning, and euphoria. It’s all good vibes, kinda like what I imagine nights at Manchester’s The Factory were like before so much of dance music became synonymous with bad drugs and bros.

Later on Wednesday night I head to Mohawk to check out White Lung. The show starts late, but the band make up for it by unleashing more formidable female energy and raw intensity on an appreciative crowd. The new songs are super catchy but substantial.

After White Lung finish their set, I walk into the bigger outdoor area and catch, by chance, Kelela. A lot of my friends who are into R&B are huge fans, but the recordings I had heard seemed to fall kind of flat. Live, however, I get sucked in. The LA-based singer owns the stage with a commanding presence, her songs falling mostly on the smoother end of the new weird R&B spectrum. The sun has set but it’s still pretty warm out, and with this early evening slot, Kelela’s performance gives off a sultry vibe that promises to be a party-starter.

Thursday, March 17
Photo: Jesse DeFlorio/Hype Machine’s Hype Hotel

N.A.A.F.I kicks off the day at the Tiny Mix Tapes party at the Hype Hotel, and instantly 1 pm feels more like 1 am. The DJ spins a dark atmospheric mix punctuated with radio hits from the likes of Nicki Minaj and Britney Spears. The bass is heavy and the room is huge — a little too huge so early in the afternoon, when most people are just crawling out of bed or still gorging on breakfast tacos and not watching a show. But by the end of the set, the small group of eager onlookers has grown significantly and keeps growing. People are dancing. The drinks are flowing. There’s a couple of masseuses. It’s kind of like a rave?

Next up is Blanck Mass, who starts off so low key I’m not even sure it’s him. Then he launches into “Dead Format” and it’s like rays of power just start shooting out into the room. For a dude standing behind a laptop, the Fuck Buttons founder sure can rock a stage. I feel like sometimes when you see a lot of music, the whole experience becomes kind of ho-hum, like “OK, saw that band, time to go home.” Blanck Mass is life-affirming. It’s one of those shows you see once or twice at SXSW where you leave just feeling joyful and you remember why you love music.

A recurring theme: I leave to get food. After a tofu banh mi in East Austin I head back to 6th Street to Elysium, where I encountered the Austin duo Breathing Problem. The band play music that’s simultaneously cold and industrial yet brutal, raw, and unsettling. Featuring female vocals that alternate between screaming and gentle and quiet near-whispers, this was totally electrifying and also one of the most legitimately scary things I’ve seen on stage. Towards the end of the set the vocalist seems to have stuck the mic down her throat while still moan/screaming while the male half of the duo comes over and cradles her head and kisses her. When it’s over I stand in silence, impressed, then do the only logical thing one can do after such a performance: get in line for free pizza.

Another Austin-native, Xander Harris, takes the stage next. His set starts out ominous and cinematic, before seguing gradually into thudding techno beats, John Carpenter-esque washes of sound, and stabbing, propulsive industrial synths. Over the course of his performance, the sound and mood transform again and again. By the end, the room is full of dance floor rhythms and the eerie beauty of a giallo soundtrack. It might sound odd or cheesy or whatever, but the atmosphere is almost sacred, like a black mass dance party set in a ruined cathedral.

Once darkness falls, I headed back to East Austin and Hotel Vegas where I do something I wouldn’t do for anything other than Sacred Bones: I stand in line. I’m worried I won’t get in before Exploded View, the new project of German journalist-turned-singer Anika, but it turns out to be fine. The vocals are kind of buried early on in the set, but over the course of the performance their brittle, haunted quality comes through. The whole set has a hazy, dark paranoiac air, like the soundtrack to a David Lynch road movie. (Use Lost Highway or make up your own version of what you imagine a Lynch road movie to be like for reference.) Standing in the spotlight, Anika herself seems to be from another planet, separate and wary of the crowd. Then on the last song, she gets down from the stage and stands among the front row of the audience, singing into their faces, cool, disaffected, and confrontational. This is not a stage presence archetype I’m familiar with, and I like it. I’m impressed.

Yes, I stick around for Blanck Mass and Lust for Youth again. They are incredible, again. End of review. Also there is the best drunk guy there. He is like a parody of a drunk guy. I give him a Pitchfork-style 10.0 and hope he gets home safely.

Friday, March 18

At this point it seems safe to say that my SXSW is looking more and more like a Goth By Gothwest. What can I say? I like what I like! And what I like is a deep unyielding sense of unease, minor key melodies, all black everything… and free breakfast tacos.

Anyways, it’s a banner day. In the 12 years I’ve been attending SXSW this is the earliest I’ve ever gotten up to see a showcase, and I’m making this effort for Tel Aviv post-punk band and new Burger Records signee Vaadat Charigim. It’s noon and the Israeli trio gives off a much bigger vibe and sound than you’d expect to be currently filling the small room at Cheer Up Charlie’s. They’ve got that 1987 sound, from when post-punk was no longer in its minimalist, snotty infancy, but was now getting more lush and more loud; when bands were on the verge of touring America and playing stadiums.

After Vaadat Charigim, I walk to the Convention Center to check out Flatstock, the touring poster show series that displays some of the best artists from America and beyond. In addition to posters and original art, many artists also sell shirts, patches, pins, and journals. Hot tip: cloisonné cat broaches will be the next big thing to adorn your lapel. I personally am now the proud owner of two amazing cat pins: a fluffy Persian cat with the words “Touch of Class” emblazoned on her tail from Midwestern artists Land Land and a cool cat wearing sunglasses and holding a can labeled “cat beer” from Massachusetts artist Nate Duval.

As I’m leaving the Convention Center I walk past a band that sounds cool. I stop and listen. I should get back to the hotel to drop off my lap-top, I think. I don’t go back to the hotel; I keep standing there, listening. When has a band you’ve heard from outside ever been good enough to warrant walking inside to watch it? I think. Finally I give in and walk into the Sounds Australia party to check out the band, something I’ve never done before. This band turns out to be Nite Fields, a very young, effortlessly cool Brisbane band featuring laconic vocals, some really tight, succinct drumming, and searing guitars. Like the other band I saw today, they’re a modern post-punk group, but they’re the total opposite of the Israeli trio. Nite Fields are raw, intense, and insistent. Towards the end of the set, the band layers some dance beats in beneath their early Cure, Xymox style sound, and despite the small crowd that afternoon, it feels like they are on the verge of something bigger.

Later, at night, rain sets in. Rumors abound. Shows are canceled! Rescheduled! Moved indoors! If you go to that venue you will probably die in a flash flood! But HEALTH are playing at Easy Tiger and I love HEALTH. They start late, but that doesn’t bother the slightly damp crowd, who seem willing to rough it to see the raucous Los Angeles noise rock quartet take the stage. Despite the weather, it’s a good thing the band is playing under the open sky, because it gives their no holds-barred approach to noise/punk even more resonance. The band seems even wilder than usual with more room to roam. It’s thoroughly satisfying and well worth the rain and the potential (if exaggerated) threat of death by flash flood.

Saturday, March 19

I see a lot of bands my friends want to see today and I don’t really dig them (or worse, much worse), so I’m not going to get into reviewing them. Instead I’ll tell you about the two solid bands I did see at Bar 96 on Rainey Street, which is located near a very top-notch food court (shout out to kimchi fries at Chi’lantro) and seems to draw a largely local and/or largely clueless crowd (read: lots of dude-bros) who nevertheless are quite appreciative of Hibou’s soft, dreamy and catchy take on post-punk and 90s college rock. The band plays furiously and runs around the stage, with the lead singer jumping on the amp and cranking out riffs in a frenzied crescendo. The crowd is dancing and moshing. They love it. They all disappear inside for more whiskey shots, which means they miss one of my favorite surprises of SXSW: Better Person.

Better Person’s modern take on an ABC/Spandau Ballet/Wham! style of melancholy 80s pop seems calculated to make you swoon and I’m here to tell you, it does. The sound is bad tonight. On stage, it’s just the Berlin-based musician Adam Byczkowski and a backing track but the mic feedback is so intense it’s distracting. It doesn’t matter; the music transcends that. Better Person’s songs references a very specific point in pop music history, while still coming across as the perfect soundtrack to all the most heartbreaking yet glittering and lovely moments of doomed romance in life. No one else is making music like this in 2016. It’s lovely.

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