Thursday, March 26, 2009

All You have To Do Is Ask: Some Thoughts on SXSW 2009

Returning from SXSW is never easy. Chances are, a five hour plus drive awaits you as opposed to the usual three, you leave later than you said you would to chug down one last quality espresso from one of many coffee shops (as opposed to driving to that one coffee shop in Dallas), if you drink you're hung over, if you haven't gotten sick you will, you're suddenly thinking it's time to stop by the free clinic, you're going to call in to work though you've already missed three days, and on and on. The general feeling of being so physically, mentally, and perhaps even emotionally run down always leads to the same question: Was it worth it?

Well was it? Depends on who you ask of course. This is the week where I read more out-of-town weeklies and newspaper reviews than I usually would. I need a little bit of levity to balance out the usual glut of local coverage (not to mention even my boss and my father asking if I "saw Metallica?") that denies just how jealous DFW acts anytime SXSW comes up the rest of the year. Talk about a phrase I really loathe, although it is extremely relevant in this case: sour grapes. The classic attitude towards the festival in DFW is to pretend like it's completely lame eleven months out of the year, since we know that something of that stature is likely to never happen in Dallas. And that's OK. But the minute it rolls around, just about everyone drops whatever they're doing to overpopulate Austin with grown men and women who swore they'd never sleep on a couch again past the age of twenty five. Yeah, well... scoot over, pal.

Back to what I was saying about reading outsider coverage, it is much more interesting to read what a San Francisco writer thinks about Metallica's performance or even more relevantly, what the same writer thinks about anti-internet, Sacramento-based group Mayyors, an act I really regret having missed. As I have said before, not having an internet presence is the new overexposure. Well, not quite, but it is true in some ways, considering Mayyors was probably mentioned to me by more credible sources than just about any other band all week. They have been compared to The Brainbombs, and I hear traces of Chrome, The Effigies, some Amphetamine Reptile stuff, and thankfully, The Slugfuckers. Now having gone back to track down either homemade YouTube videos or even better, a WFMU recorded performance of their showcase at Spiro's, I understand the appeal of this devastating and scummy punk with the weird noises, and low-pitched shrieks for vocals. Hopefully they'll come back to Texas.

All of this led me to draw another conclusion: That as this glossy, neon-hoodied decade draws to a close, many are revolting against the carefree, postmodern raver sheen that had become almost blinding at some point and stopped being ironic a long time ago. Everything has been about "lo-fi, nasty, unrefined pop," "lo-fi, nasty, unrefined punk," "lo-fi, nasty, unrefined metal," "lo-fi, nasty, unrefined tropical dance music," recorded on a boom-box, or recorded on Garage Band and tampered with until it sounds like it was recorded on a boom box. Honestly, I wasn't bothered all that much by the lighthearted disco aspects of this decade, and on the ride home I made my case to SR that it's usually best to be neither aggravated nor impressed by movements in general, and just try your best to focus on what truly holds artistic and/or expressive value to you. If the point is that something has little to no value at all, that too is completely valid in my opinion, and surely the brightness and willfully disposable glam of the early 2000's has been a natural, collective back-turning against the sullen and bleak 1990's.

But if you spent any time at Mrs. Bea's, The Mohawk, or Ballet Austin(!) last week, you would think that maybe that time isn't as far-removed as we thought. In a sea of flannel I saw behavior that's making Ian Mackaye spit out his ginger tea somewhere as we speak: Completely sincere crowd surfing. It's been creeping up on us for awhile. At some point it became the most passé activity in the world, something that went out at the first Sponge concert after Cobain died, when the crossed-arm, milquetoast pacifism of Indie Rock dominated the show-scape. And then all of the 80's and 90's indie-punk giants began reuniting and people started half-heartedly bringing it back, but there was still a smirking absurdity to it, like someone doing the "Running Man" or "Tootsie Roll." But there's no smirk or absurdity now. Just me having to avoid being kicked in the head more than I have in about thirteen years. At least they're having fun.

As for the aforementioned Ballet Austin, this show was thrown by KVRX, very similar in lineup and venue to last year's now legendary event at The Children's Museum. And as I said last year, I want to reiterate: The city is totally a sucker for SXSW. They'll let you get away with murder down there this time of year. The Ballet? Are you out of your fucking minds? Austin is like your high school friend's overly lenient parents that buy liquor for your parties and look the other way when they smell pot smoke. In Dallas, you can't even rent out a warehouse where someone was murdered to throw a show. There was one stipulation that I saw: "NO STILETTOS." That's it. They forgot the sign that said "NO LEAD SINGER OF TOTAL ABUSE KICKING IN THE CEILING TILES WHILE CROWD SURFING." Or, "NO MONOTONIX UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES EVER."

Though we wrote about the Monotonix several times over two years ago now and have always enjoyed them, they have certainly been talked up a lot lately, and I have to admit I got chills when I saw the lead singer mischievously yet quietly dragging a trashcan out of the hallway and into the main event room of the ballet just before their set was to begin. He maintained eye contact in the awkward and intimidating way that a predator does when it's caught dragging a carcass back into the bush. Terrifying. Anyways, next year why don't they just hold this inevitable show in the middle of the Japanese Reflection Garden at the Zilker Botanical. Hey, why not? At this point, I'd believe it.

South By Southwest is a good place to gauge what's going to bubble up from the underground and pop; splattering everyone with an annoyingly sticky goo that will crust over and contort your body into another adopted and most likely misappropriated stance, surely to make everyone feel a little silly a year from now. I don't think I have heard anyone listening to Vampire Weekend since last year. That could be what it's like for Wavves a year from now, though I think it could be even worse for that guy. Things don't really move so quickly in the underground, and the people who really make things happen in art and music are forever annoyed by this type of exhibition, though they are never really above participating. In other words, the mainstream shows up every year to learn how to alter their pose to try to stay relevant, and the underground shows up to exploit the mass gathering: sell some tapes, move some prints, whatever. As a fourteen year old genius from New England once sang, "And the tall people want what the short people's got..."

I'm not too proud to admit that our showcase didn't exactly have the turnout we had hoped for, and that's a shame since the quality of the bands certainly wasn't the problem, nor was the sound, even though the show was outdoors. Nite Jewel, for instance, defied the odds of putting on a convincing live show since a lot of the group's, and many groups' sound revolves around having such treated recordings. A big part of their success was most likely due to the onstage mixing setup the group carries with them, and I recommend this trick as long as you are communicative with the sound guy. Actually, you should always be communicative with the sound guy (or gal), just be polite or face having your twenty minute set ruined. Nite Jewel's onstage prowess aside, one of the most disappointing aspects of South By this year was a sentiment I heard over and over, and it's that when you strip away all of the tape hiss, sometimes it's just a dude strumming a guitar. If you can accept that, then a lot of these shows weren't so bad. But apparently, some of them really were.

The most disappointing aspect of our showcase was having to miss PRE due to scheduling conflicts and time constraints, and then subsequently missing Los Llamarada because I went along to drive PRE to their next show. The very next day I was walking in an alley to see Six Finger Satellite play for free at the Typewriter Museum and I heard a band playing in the distance. It was clunky, unwieldy keyboard music with impressively ratty guitar sounds and nihilistic moans for vocals. I said aloud, "Shit, this is the show I wish I was walking to." When I finally approached the spot, I realized we were walking right behind Los Llamarada's set, which made me even more regretful. Six Finger Satellite's reunion was good but they were much better when they actually used their synthesizer at their headlining Load Records performance at the 501 Theater, now called "The Independent."

While I'm swallowing my pride and getting all confessional I'll also admit that I absolutely stood in line too long at The Hot Freaks event to see Camera Obscura. I often get pegged as "DL the stupid, artsy, noise-punk snob, shit-head that everyone hates and even his own mother can't stand" but I was really anticipating that performance. This is sure to bug older CO followers, and people that own Isobel Campbell records, but I didn't really become a fan until the overdone melodrama of "Let's Get Out Of This Country," and I was really glad to hear the organ intro of "Lloyd, I'm Ready To Be Heartbroken" when they played it. Even moved, actually. And from the sounds of their two new singles, "French Navy," and the title track from their next full-length, "My Maudlin Career," it sounds like Camera Obscura is continuing with this all out, big arrangement attack and I'm just glad that I still have a bigger name pop band I can trust.

Afterwards, the festival started building to its Saturday night climax and the Panache Booking show had such a strong lineup that I almost didn't need to go anywhere else. Panache is probably the only booking entity I can say that I have ever been a fan of, and their roster gets stronger every six months it seems. AIDS Wolf turned in their second unbelievable performance in two days, repeatedly beating the crowd over the head with a huge invisible wall of noise that seemed to just buzz and rotate in place, with the singer Chloe Lum jumping and slam-dancing into the crowd as she sang through a mouthful of ice cubes stolen from a random man's drink. Seeing a friend of mine that has been recovering from cancer out in the crowd and dancing with the singer was probably the personal highlight of the entire festival.

HEALTH is back for the third year in a row, with a cinematic, percussive, almost Brad Fiedel sound to their work, and giving me one of two moments during the festival where I was actually starstruck. Not for the band itself, though I am a fan, but for the man watching them: The GZA. He was there I'm told, because his manager advised him to see a band that should perhaps devise a track for him. I wanted to take a picture with him, but after seeing how comfortable he was leaning against the bar with a female companion, I thought it was better not to. Meggie Hilkert of Eat Avery's Bones did ask him, however, and he was more than glad, responding with "Girl, all you had to do was ask!" Ladies and gentleman, that's how you respond to a fan, OK? None of this socially challenged indie rock shit where you look like you're trying to do long division in your head while drooling just because someone approaches you. Get over yourselves. What kind of world do we live in where GZA says "Hi" to you but The Strange Boys don't?

Even though I really enjoyed the sets, I couldn't help but think about the subjects I heard Harvey Pekar discuss at the NX35 panel the week before, about how music must evolve in order to keep from becoming stagnant and avoid turning into folk art. The irony of Pekar saying this at an event that was so heavy with self described folk artists was not lost on me, but the fact that some of us are still in danger of artistic stagnation no matter how much we fancy ourselves above it all is something I struggle with. Even with the acts I saw, I knew what I was getting myself into for the most part, and so there was little risk involved. I think next year I'll try to avoid the sure things and go out of my way to see bands that I know the least about, acts that I have little chance of seeing the rest of the year. You know, the part of the year where we pretend that South By Southwest is the stupidest thing we've ever heard of and that pretty much all of our good shows and mini-festivals aren't almost completely reliant on it every March.

Oh, and my other starstruck moment? That came when I met Henry Owings, editor/creator/designer etc. of Chunklet Magazine, an admitted influence of mine and a guy I've always wanted to meet. I wanted to tell him, "Hey, I write for a website that is sometimes accused of biting your sense of humor," but all I could muster was "Um, I'm from Dallas." He told me how he payed $1,200 for a last minute plane ticket pretty much just to see one band. He also said that experiencing Mayyors play in a kitchen was one of the greatest things that he's ever seen in his life. Finally, and keep in mind it was 2:00 AM, he revealed that he had to get on a plane back to Georgia in five hours. And that it was totally worth it.

I would like to thank the following people/places/bands/websites etc. for making this week possible for us: The Bellfuries, Barrett Walton of Infinity Recording Studios, Gorilla VS Bear, Polly Smith of Spork Booking and If I Like It, Meggie Hilkert, Dana Falconberry, Daniel Francis Doyle, Cherrywood Coffeehouse, Asti, Matt Burgess, Panache, Nevada Hill, Ric Leichtung of Secret Agency Booking, Adam Calhoun and Orange Coax, HEALTH, all the bands that played our show and the one band that didn't who really ruled when I actually saw them. Sincerely, thanks.

Pictured Above: Two Legends Of Bass. Photo by Adrian Laurant.


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