This year when the American DIY contingent journeyed out to Austin, in the sea of press, it became clear that though the correspondents like each other a lot, they don’t agree on very much.
I, Hannah, am an indie rock devotee, schooled in all things Brooklyn hipster - the cynicism, the sarcasm… actually that’s something both Tristan and I have in common - but I take this stuff seriously. Having lived in some of the music capitals of the world and more importantly, working in the music industry in these capitals, one can gain a jadedness that’s just sad. I try to stay away from that, try to see the fun and jubilance that is possible when really great musicians play. It’s not easy all the time, but there consistently seems to be something to bring me back from the edge of the blasé abyss. I always hope and believe it’s possible to see a band that will move your feet, your heart and maybe even your soul. I am going into it with a positive attitude; basically, I love this stuff.
As for me, Tristan, I’m like the old-school Imperialist: disdainful even as I profit by another’s toil. I can’t help it. Unlike Hannah, I grew up in New York City. It’s too easy to see all these scenesters as parallel Universe, evil versions of myself - complete with facial hair and goofy costumes. Listen, the fact is that most of these bands are not very good. I’m sorry; it’s just like a buffet. Who walks into an all-you-can-eat buffet thinking that the egg salad is going to be palatable? Fat people. Maybe.
But I love music. I teach music, I play music and I live in one of the most musical cities in the States. And it is this love, like the father you just can’t please, that drives my skepticism. Hannah is basically the mom that’s just glad you’re making a lot of good friends and expressing yourself. Both are needed to raise a healthy, emotionally maladjusted child, and what else is South by Southwest if not a crying kid who won’t shut up?
Thus, much to you the audience’s benefit, it became clear that there were two distinct voices. Two very different experiences of this strange conglomeration of festival and conference and all around dance party. So we have put together the two views side by side in an attempt to give you a good idea of the insanity that is Austin, Texas for the next few days.
Hannah Hancock Rubinsky
Walking along in the convention center, a man, who was in all likelihood a member of a band or the press or somesuch, turned to his companion and said, “I’m sure there is a bunch of music that I would be into, but I wouldn’t know about it.” This is one of the most astute statements about SXSW and the way it operates. Much could be said about the fact that it’s like a smorgasbord, literally hundreds of bands a day are thrown at you in the hope that you like their music, or are someone who can do something about making them successful. The fact that it’s a conference in truth rather than a festival is really felt these days. Maybe it’s just because we are getting old and more cynical but everything feels a little harder, a little more contrived.
However - and it is a big however - there are some really phenomenal bands here. One is reminded of that when you walk into a performance that just knocks your socks off.
Thursday is a bit of an ease into the festival, though most of the day is spent running, or rather biking, across the city to interview different bands. Finding the music the part of the festival is put on the backburner. However, at 4.45pm Savoir Adore play an unofficial showcase at Valhalla; whilst, like most of the venues here, the sound is not the best, the band shine. Their happy, sweet but always challenging sound pushes through, showing they can really play. From there, Empress Hotel’s modern popish sensibility and 70s rock throwback sound draw a sizable crowd for 5pm.
We head back to the house we’re crashing at, where, of course, there’s an all day unofficial showcase, East Bound Low Down; a bunch of local bands playing along with some less local ones like Turbo Fruits. This is what SxSW does - it infects the city with music; it’s everywhere.
Then! 8pm rolls around. Strokes time. It seems everyone and their freaking mothers attend; there are so many pre-school kids around it’s a tad strange. I guess that’s what you get when you have been around for as long as they have. While the show may not be the best of SXSW, they don’t disappoint. Julian Casablancas sneers his way through their songs, and everyone else plays to the perfection. In true dramatic fashion, during ‘Last Nite’, there are fireworks. Real live, actual fireworks exploding over Ladybird Lake as those most famous chords pierce the air.
The rest of the night, for this correspondent, was spent attempting to get into some of the biggest names playing: The Kills - the line does not move; TV On The Radio – one in one out; as well as surprisingly Those Darlins. The other highlight of the evening is Maps & Atlases. No matter how many times they perform, they bring joy. Maybe it’s because Dave Davison just looks so thrilled to be here, unable to stop grinning and thanking the crowd.
Well here we are again. Has it been a year already? South By Southwest to most, SXSW to advertisers and simply Southby to its friends, has once again descended on Austin, Texas, These United States of America, and dutifully, we follow in its tracks.
Coming into Austin, the first thing you notice are the skyscrapers: new, glassy, and shining with that kind of weird, too-quick-out-the-oven Chinese prosperity. The people are shiny too. They brill and gleam from vintage bicycles, from around Ray Bans and reflected in the screens of their iPhones (your faithful correspondant not excluded from this catalogue of kid couture).
They are all making their way to 6th Street, the main artery of musical and social life in this town of 800,000 where once a year bands from all over the world come to perform their music and inflate the price of beer. And God damn there are a lot of them.
Being at South By Southwest is a lot like going to an amusement park. You have the unenviable responsibility of choosing in which line, for which rollercoaster, you would like to wait. And though we are carrying those coveted, laminated Press Passes, in a sea of photographers and writers, the water takes very little notice. And floating on an ocean of musicians, it’s hard not to go a little blind by the glare.
Let me give you an idea. Between 12pm Thursday and 2am Friday I see perform, in descending order of awesomeness…
Cold War Kids
Bombay Bicycle Club
A Place to Bury Strangers
Janja Nabay and the Booboo Gang
Sharon Van Etten
It’s no coincidence that the bands at the top of my list are also the ones that play later, much later in the evening than say, Lia Ices, who declam airily to a wide lazy lawn sprinkled with hipsters soaking up the sun.
Taking the cake and a special place in my heart is Japanther. It went like this:
I have just eaten a vegetable samosa from an Indian kitchen operated out of a trailer called (wait for it) Ga’Raj Mahal. My stomach, perhaps paradoxically now adjusted to Mexican and Barbeque, immediately raises vocal protest. I go for a walk to settle my digestion, hear music that sounds ecstatically alive (quite rare, that) and soon find myself in the front row of a Japanther show, thrashing my little ass off to the first band I’ve seen break a sweat on stage.
And there, surrounded by a wooden forest of an audience, in that magical time that stretches out somewhere between midnight and 3am, I find myself, like Ebeneezer Scrooge before me, guided by spirits.
Did I find Japanther or did Japanther find me? Perhaps both, perhaps neither. But I did find rock and roll, at long, long last on that first, noisy night in Austin, Texas; and in one wonderful wave, it washed the shit away.
Onward, then! And let the weekend come!