South By Southwest, the annual spring break for the music industry held each year in Austin, Texas, the self-proclaimed (but entirely accurate) "live-music capital of the world." This year's numbers: more than 1,000 bands, both official and unofficial; more than 50 clubs, both sanctioned and unsanctioned; more than 6,000 badge-wearing conference registrants, both scrupulous and seedy; the biggest OC/Long Beach contingent ever, both performing (Relish, the Ziggens, Bird3, Thrice, Pinwheel, Stavesacre, Chris Gaffney, TSOL, the Dingees, and label showcases from Junk and Sympathy For the Record Industry) and not (Tazy Phyllipz and club guys like Jon Halperin, Tim Hill and Mike Concepcin). Plus, five Weekly scribes who really, really needed to get outta town, if only to mack out on the free beer and barbecue at all the record-label parties. Go . . .
TUESDAY Arrival. After picking up my rental from a surly Hertz agent, I head directly to Waterloo Records, Austin's popular indie shop, where I find a huge throng lined up outside, waiting for an in-store performance by Bob Schneider, a.k.a. Sandra Bullock's Boyfriend. Whilst perusing the aisles, I spot a CD called Don't Quit Your Day Job, a compilation of bands the store's employees play in, selling for $10 a pop (I don't buy it, though—I've heard enough bad record-store-employee bands to last an eternity). Off to Jovita's Mexican for dinner and music from Don Walser and his band, who play traditional country (frequently peppered with Walser's high, endearing yodel). This "Pavarotti of the Plains" has a grin as wide as his considerable girth, and his tunes inspire two complete strangers to get up and dance a slow, happy, slightly drunken waltz in front of the bandstand.
WEDNESDAY I pick up a stack of newspapers and find that the Austin American-Statesman has a nice blurb on Long Beach band Le Shok in an article on the "new hard rock." The paper says readers should "check out Le Shok's no-wave riffs and keyboard cutups." This would be great publicity if the band hadn't splintered in the weeks leading up to their now-canceled SXSW showcase. OC's Killingtons also landed a 40-minute gig at this year's fest, but they couldn't make it because of last-minute lineup changes (though they did make the complete band listing on the back of the official SXSW T-shirt, which oughta count for something). The Austin Chronicle's man-on-the-street interview column this week asks the probing, well-timed question, "If you had a band, what would you call it?" "Bad Monkey Spunk," says Steve, 30. "We'd play thrash tejano. At the end of every gig, we'd take our accordions and smash them to a pulp." "The Papal Pap Smears," says Gregory, 29. "Really aggressive, Christian-feminist music." "Anime Enema," says Mark, 32. "But if we come out on a Disney label, we'll change it to the Ovulating Moxies."
Registration. I sift through the SXSW guidebook and see bands from such exotic locales as Cameroon, Finland and China. A quick read-through of the endless list of showcasing bands this year reveals some great ones, some good ones, some average ones, some not-that-great ones, some terrible ones, some who-did-they-have-to-blow-to-get-invited-here? ones, and Yngwie Malmsteen. I play it easy for the first of four straight club-crawling nights —don't want to burn out too early. Pop into Maggie Mae's for the Peenbeets, an Austin band who are overly cute, like characters in a Fox sitcom, all dressed in shirts and ties and doing shtick that's not unlike the Moseleys, but far dorkier—and not in a good way. They get annoying and unfunny-even-though-they-think-they-are really fast. (Incredibly, I read a few days later that they were interviewed by National Public Radio; now I know why I'm not a member). A few blocks away, I catch Seattle's Bloodhag, who play grindcore metal but without the shaggy mullet hair and black ensembles. Instead, they look like close-cropped Mormons, and all their songs are quick biographies of such authors as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, delivered in that guttural, acid-gargling way that renders them completely indecipherable. Though it's funnier than the Peenbeets, the inescapable fact is that I've seen two skinny-tie-wearing bands on the first night. This might be a pretty bleak year.
THURSDAY Ray Davies delivers the confab's keynote speech and does a dead-on Johnny Rotten impersonation while relating a tale about running into him in a Philadelphia bar some years back when Mr. Lydon was on tour with PiL.
"What you been doing?" Ray asked.
"Everything I've always despised, Ray," said Johnny. "I'm supporting INXS at the Spectrum."
After the keynote, the trade show opens. I vow not to take any free crap that I'll just wind up leaving in my hotel room, no matter how cool-looking it may initially seem. How many bottle openers and matchbooks can one possibly need, anyway? I do snag a tin of mint chewing gum, the pieces of which are shaped like little round balls that bear a remarkable resemblance to rock cocaine; this could come in handy if I run out of money. There's a daytime stage at the trade show, where I check out Steadman, a U.K. band who happen to be playing the Gypsy Lounge on Sunday. They're a five-piece who play modern Brit pop, sort of like Coldplay but with a fiddle player. They're very sweet and lushly melodic, even in this acoustic setting; toward the end, they are given the ultimate approval by Beatle Bob, a St. Louis miniceleb who comes to SXSW every year, slithers up to the front of the stage when a band he likes is playing, and proceeds to dance this quirky, awkward shimmy. If I were in a band and he pulled that distracting shit on me, I'd clock him.
To the Loft for Bird, an excellent Long Beach trio including former 12 Hour Mary bassist Greg Coates. Bird are armed with delectable hard-pop, pained lyrics, eloquent jams, deep ballads, sweeping grand statements and a supportive indie label (with, as they said from the stage, "big balls") that'll put out their album in June. We'll be scribbling more stuff about them in due time. Perhaps between now and then, their singer could lose those silly bird wings that he straps onto his back?
I head back to the hotel around 3 a.m., but I can't sleep. Luckily, Eyes Wide Shut is on HBO, which works great—faster than Sominex!
FRIDAY Thrice are gonna be in big, big trouble. The Irvine hardcore band (no, that's not an oxymoron anymore)—or one of their people—have been slapping their band stickers on just about every flat surface around downtown Austin. On the three-block walk from my hotel to the convention center alone, I count at least 10 Thrice stickers affixed to light poles, traffic switch boxes and cell-phone towers. On Sixth Street the night before, I even spotted a Thrice sticker on a curb next to a rain gutter—why? So hard-drinking SXSWers can think of Thrice as they do the Technicolor yawn? Apparently, Thrice still think they're in OC, where band stickers get pasted on stop signs and stay there for years. But as the SXSW rules plainly state, bands that commit this nefarious tagging are in danger of getting their showcases pulled. Lucky for Thrice, no SXSW federales had time to track them down, so their Saturday gig goes off without a hitch.
The Big Surreal SXSW Moment—one of which hits me every year—occurs Friday night when I realize that in the span of five minutes, I've stood within fist-throwing distance of Nikki Sixx and Jello Biafra.
Dialogue between myself and the Security Nazi working the door of the Empire club on Sixth Street:
"Can I see your ID?"
"I have a badge."
"I still need to see your ID if you're gonna drink."
"I'm not going to drink."
"Well, I still need to put this wristband on you anyway."
"Um, okay, but don't put the sticky part on my arm hair."
"I can't put it on you if you keep flinching like that."
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"Don't put it on the hair!"
"There. Uh-oh, did I get you? Here, let me—"
SATURDAY The "Covering Your Local Scene" forum at the Convention Center. A rock critic on the panel relays the advice an editor once gave him: "You're going to discover that the only people who care about local music are local musicians and their friends." Like I didn't know this? One of these years, maybe I'll actually learn something at these panels. Suddenly, that Dirty Dancing marathon back on my hotel-room cable looks pretty inviting. The last full night of showcases peaks with Cold Blooded Animal, a trio from China who do slow, grinding, minimalist songs that slowly explode into something like grunge used to. While they sing in Mandarin, you can still sense something that transcends the need for an interpreter—just from their fliers, which announce, "This is not the cultural revolution Chairman Mao had in mind!" For things like that, they've had their gear confiscated by Chinese authorities —too anarchistic and anti-authoritarian, y'see. But you can dance at this revolution, and people do—including one old guy who's really into it, twitching wildly and rubbery-armed as if he were still at a long-past Dead show. By the set's end, the band is contorting both their music and their bodies, coming off like Sonic Youth doing Nadia Comenici. When the bassist flops down, he lifts his instrument over his head, revealing a small sticker on the back—the cover of Rage Against the Machine's Evil Empire album. Finally—it may have taken four nights, but I've found the true meaning of rock & roll at SXSW again.