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Photo by Chris CaffaroAfter a 29-hour drive from Orange County deep into the heart of Texas, the members of Relish barely knew their tired asses from the hole in the ground where they played their 45-minute set. South By Southwest (SXSW)? That's what it said on their credentials, and that should say something about their credibility. But Relish has accumulated seven years' worth of cred, and it has taught them to appreciate the baby steps rather than anticipate the big break. "All we know for sure," says Laurita Guaico, the slight, spunky lead guitarist for the four-girl band, "is that being able to play here is a step in the right direction."
"I heard there was some buzz," offers Michele Walker, guitarist/lead vocalist. Happily, she wasn't talking about first-night glitches in the sound system at Room 710, a boxy, kinda boring club—except for its wagon-wheel bar—that sits a few feet from the crumbling curbs of Red River Street in the Texas state capital of Austin. "We heard there was some buzz from the locals about us. More than one person told us that. And I guess it was true. We figured nobody would come out for the show, but it was a pretty good turnout. That's got to make us feel good about ourselves."
Still, it's a career Relish is trying to build here, not just self-esteem. The satisfaction of putting another best foot forward sometimes feels nervously similar to taking two steps back. After their set, with their equipment packed away, the band gathered around the tiny table in their medium-sized RV for a quick assessment of what they had just done and what would come next.
"It was a little anticlimactic," Walker admitted.
"Our set was weird," said Guaico. "The way we structured it, the songs went from hard to mellow. It seems like we could have mixed things up a little better."
Sarah Connell, the group's new bassist, just shrugged. "After only seven months with the band," she said, grinning, "I'm just excited to be playing."
"We'll have more energy on Friday," drummer Lynnae Hitchcock said encouragingly, referring to Relish's invitation to do three songs in a Battle of the Bands at Austin's Waterloo Park. "Traveling, arriving, doing our show on the same day—it's not surprising that our first show lagged."
The thing is at SXSW, there is only one show, one shot—that Battle of the Bands gig notwithstanding.
Despite their wincing self-assessment, Relish's energy survived the trip to Austin very well. The band's tumbling instrumental thunder and windswept vocal harmonies seemed to have rushed into town, sure and sorrowful, as unstoppable as those cyclonic rainstorms that arrive unencumbered off the west Texas plains. The women twisted their voices and instruments into some blessedly haunting collision among Hole, X and Jefferson Airplane—both in the musical influences of those bands and the non-defensive feminism of their lead singers: Courtney Love, Exene Cervenka and Grace Slick.
"When we formed Relish, we wanted it to be an all-girl band," recalls Walker. "Not for marketing purposes, but more for the camaraderie of it. We wanted that sense of strong women working together."
There have been plenty of challenges to that mission, especially since the process of growing as a band involves so much more than making music. "We've had lots of ups and downs over the years," says Walker. "And during the past few, there have been a couple of really dead spots—times when we were all wondering whether the others were doing their fair share, whether that was promoting the band or just improving on their instruments. But we haven't had one of those conflicts in a while, certainly not during the past year."
Perhaps that has something to do with a rise in Relish's public profile. The band played 15 dates on the Warped Tour last summer and now SXSW.
"We've been gaining momentum steadily," says Hitchcock. "We're getting a lot of interest. The Warped Tour helped us increase our fan base, since the sort of crowd that tour attracts isn't necessarily our crowd. We're probably more attractive to the college art scene. And now after SXSW, we'll hopefully get a lot of exposure to industry types."
Sure enough, Relish was awakened in its hotel room at 2 a.m. on Friday by a phone call from VH1, inviting the band to audition that evening for the next edition of its show Bands on the Run, a sort of real-world game show chronicling the career swings of up-and-coming musicians.
"That was a really last-minute thing," explains Hitchcock, phoning from the RV as it crossed the Arizona-California state line Sunday during the long drive home. "The woman from VH1 said she liked what she heard us play, so she squeezed us into the audition the next day. We rushed over to it after our Battle of the Bands show. We played a couple of songs, they filmed it, then they filmed an interview with us. They seemed interested. It was a fun interview—we really camped it up—and then we said goodbye, and they said they would be in touch. No matter what happens, it was more than we expected."