Holy Fuck(ed) Up Buttons: My SXSW
South By Southwest (an annual conference/festival in Austin, Texas that essentially serves as the music biz's spring break) keeps growing—and that's a proverbial mixed blessing.
There just ain't enough great artists to fill all of the performance slots. About 1,700 acts played this year; maybe 150 are worth more than five minutes of your dwindling attention span. Some 12,500 people registered and 12,000 purchased wristbands; nearly 61 percent of them are rather sexy, an informal study shows. According to the Austin American-Statesman, SXSW helped to pump around $90 million into the city's economy, with about 75 percent of that going to booze and tacos.
You can read my daily SXSW accounts on the Weekly's Heard Mentality blog, where there's unlimited space to bloviate. Here in print, I need to keep it brief, and perhaps draw some general conclusions about "what it all means" (if anything). Pardon me if this comes out convoluted, because, dudes, you would not believe how sober I was on this Texas trip. Epic teetotaling . . .
Enough preamble. To the meat. Fuck is the new Wolf—with regard to band names. That's the big message I have for you after attending SXSW 2008. Savor that one. I know I am. Luckily for the profane, these "Fuck" bands are worth the FCC-snubbing awkwardness their monikers entail.
As I said on the blog, Holy Fuck, unlike just about everything else in today's record industry, keep improving. Their set at Emo's Annex was among my top three of the fest; it combined the most exhilarating elements of psychedelic rock and hypnotic electronic music without sounding like it was being quantized or calculated to appeal to today's dominant tastemakers. Holy Fuck's ascent (modest as it is now) seems completely honest and natural. Heads win, for a change.
Fucked Up (from Toronto, like Holy Fuck) are the punk band for people who find punk an exhausted cliché in 2008. Led by rotund muckraker Damian "Pink Eyes" Abraham, a bear's bear, Fucked Up write songs about women's oppression and meld metal and drone to punk's cobwebbed template. They're so poonk, they're not even on MySpace.
Bristol, England duo Fuck Buttons follow Holy Fuck's primitive, homemade electronics m.o., but apply it to a more anti-social strain of head-fuckery. Think Wolf Eyes' misanthropic discord set to Suicide's mesmerizing oscillations and Cro-Magnon's tribal thump. Not exactly a recipe for getting spins on Morning Becomes Eclectic, but the attentive aficionados at Prague Friday night seriously dug it.
On the OC tip, Santa Ana's Free the Robots lived up to all the hype I've poured upon them. Playing on a bill including mega-talented LA producers Nosaj Thing, Gaslamp Killer and Flying Lotus (and some bum named Diplo), the former Weekly cover stars held their own with their best live set yet. The whole night was a seminar in slinging instrumental hip-hop futureward, and FTR added alternately whimsical and ominous hues to the freshly-minted blueprint.
If you want to know how the buzziest of the buzz bands (Vampire Weekend, Duffy, Santogold, etc.) did, or how the way-past-their-prime legends (R.E.M., X, etc.) fared, you came to the wrong SXSW wrap-up. I apologize. I prefer to seek out artists toiling on the margins, where most of the outstanding music happens—and because life's too short for the sonic equivalent of B-/C- bands clogging up the SXSW schedule. We need to stop handing out gold stars for groups who merely "rock" or singer/songwriters who tepidly "move" us . . . to buy another cappuccino.
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Striding down Austin's main strips is akin to rapid-dialing through the radio and catching maybe one compelling song out of 20. But to be fair, there are more excellent artists playing each year than any well-organized mortal can hope to experience without a team of clones. So frustration is built into SXSW's very DNA.
Warning: gross generalizations ahead. Major-label execs want us to believe the industry's in crisis, and it very well might be. But in the artificial paradise that is SXSW, all seems to be robust. The desire to hear live music rages as strongly as ever. The challenge is how to monetize those ears. This observer wants the biz (the indies, anyway) to survive, because I'm a parasite on its bloated corpus, but even more vehemently, I want musicians to get fairly compensated. All I know for certain is that technology is the new Beatles. How it's exploited will be fascinating and determine much.
Okay, now for some of SXSW 2008's major disappointments: Canadian garage-psych legends Simply Saucer canceling . . . getting shut out ofBlack Moth Super Rainbow at 1 a.m. Saturday (hey, I wrote one of the first positive reviews of Dandelion Gum; doesn't that count for something? I practically made you bastids) . . . missing A Place to Bury Strangers (a buzz band I actually may like) and Holy Ghost! due to my impatience over waiting in outrageously long lines . . . missing Indian Jewelry and Bear in Heaven because I spaced . . . electronic music and hip-hop still being relatively under-represented (the guiding principle seems to be: there can never be too many twee indie rockers or stodgy roots rockers in the lineup) . . . people still smoking cigarettes and eschewing deodorant in 2008 . . . didn't make it to a single panel discussion because of trivialities like sleeping, eating and blogging . . . way more texting than sexing . . . no impromptu Lou Reed/Ice Cube duet . . . mistaking Daryl Hall for a room in the Austin Convention Center . . .