What the hell does a local artist have to gain from going to South by Southwest in 2017? Think about it—based on everything we’ve known for the past decade about Austin’s hipster music takeover, all signs point to the reality that this Spring Break bacchanal for tech nerds and NPR listeners could care less about your music. As a bastion for undiscovered acts, the festival is well past its prime. These days, most breakout bands have already been groomed for coronation before they even arrive. And unless you’ve got at least a few thousand followers on any given social media platform, the phrase “never heard of ‘em” is the death knell uttered from every urban tastemaker in downtown as they decide to skip your set to go grab an horchata stout and a vegan burrito.
By that logic, it seems a little foolish for a couple of local Long Beach bands to pile into two cars and a tiny windowless Ford Transit van and drive halfway across the country to play a handful of unofficial bar shows. So it’s probably better that this defeatist attitude never really occurred to me when I convinced my band Devil Season and fellow LBC comrades The Vespertines that it would be a good idea. After all, we’d known a handful of more established local bands who’d gone in the past and raved about their experience. Even before my time as the music editor of this infernal rag, I’d gone to cover the festival in a more official capacity as a reporter and had an okay time, though that feels like eons ago. To think I actually had credentials back then— access to cool parties, free booze and rockstars—all the Hollywood bullshit I thought I was leaving back home in L.A.
This time around, I was going as a nobody in a sea of nobodies, carrying my own equipment, playing local bars for free. While I’m no stranger to the touring lifestyle, it’s a bit different when you’re performing for peanuts right next door to a band who is doing an official showcase for a corporation like Doritos making some pretty decent nacho cheddar for playing basically the same show. But I digress. Actually, the real reason I came out to Austin was the hope that playing back to back shows in a chaotic touring environment would be the quickest way to get my band (which has only been together for about three months) up to snuff after having just released Going South, our debut record on Long Beach label Heaphone Music. An added bonus was getting to connect with other local bands from around the country, establishing some friendships along the way. And of course taking back some ridiculous stories to share with you fine people. The latter part happened a little sooner than I thought and I almost wish it hadn’t.
After a full day of endless highway driving, truck stop bathroom breaks and joint smoking, my drummer Rick and I entered El Paso, ahead of our crew, rolling in the white windowless van packed to the gills with gear and personal belongings. Little did we know that despite our best efforts to ditch the tiny remainder of bud we had stashed in the vehicle before the border stop, we hadn’t done as good of a job as we thought. Stuck in the long line of cars lurching toward the check point, I spotted a sheriff with a drug sniffing dog who came up to our vehicle. We figured the medicated brownies stashed in sealed tupperware in the center of the van would go easily undetected—they did not. Suddenly the dog started jumping, barking and pawing at our van and we ended up getting pulled over and asked a bunch of questions by the sheriffs who quickly seemed pretty sure that a couple of musicians reeking of pot and carrying a van full of music equipment to SXSW were probably not coyote smugglers or members of Al Queda. All the same, it was more than a little scary to watch them open our van doors and try to root around with the dog to find our stash.
Side note: Texas law does not recognize little gifts (like brownies or a dime bag) as being the same as possession like most states do. Therefore a gift of even less than 1/4 of an ounce carries the same 6-month $2,000 fine as simple possession, but without the probation requirements (i.e. you will likely serve time). If it is a sale of that same amount, the penalty jumps to 1 year. This applies to even extremely small amounts, even less than a single joint cigarette. Long story short—if you need to smoke bud in Texas, you better not be bringing it in yourself. Lucky for us, the sheriffs who stopped us decided to let us go, probably because they couldn’t bear the thought of unloading our ridiculously packed van. We later found out that there was even more weed we’d been unaware of that was stashed in a pocket of a gig bag which we promptly
smoked disposed of for our safety. Apparently we’re a bunch of very lucky bastards.
Once every one was finally settled in Austin, we stopped at a house 15 minutes outside the city to meet up with OC promoter John Hampton of Hampton Productions and local Austin bar owner/entrepreneur Gary Della Croce, who were kind enough to let us crash with them in Della Croce’s basement through the weekend. During SXSW, Hampton was able to book a swath of local bands from SoCal to come play for him on the rooftop at the Westin in downtown Austin, a clutch gig for any OC band looking to come out and get a taste of what it’s like to play the festival. The country house with a stone facade and wooden floors was freshly built with a deck that had a great view of downtown Austin. The one thing we hadn’t counted on was that we’d be sleeping on concrete in the basement since the place wasn’t completely renovated downstairs—nothing a few sleeping bags and some space heaters couldn’t fix. Besides, homeless people do this shit every day—outside no less.
Our first show with the Vespertines was on Thursday at around noon, while most of Austin was still passed out from the night before. We loaded our gear at 11 a.m. on 6th St. at the Chuggin’ Monkey, a fun local watering hole nested in the mélange of dives, and gentrified, urbanite eateries that make up the area. Although we were certain there would be nobody there to catch our Austin debut, surprisingly there were apparently some diehards out there who enjoy crunchy riffs and beer for breakfast. Lured in by the explosive riff heavy rock of the Vespertines and their powerhouse vocalist Vanessa Acosta, who donned a blue cape to go with her superhero stage presence, crowds started filtering in and hung out long enough to catch us as well.
A few natives from Austin and Dallas came up to us asking where else we were planning to play during the weekend. Had our luck stopped right there, I probably would’ve been happy. Having locals who’ve been bombarded by SouthBy for several days already come up and express gratitude and ask to buy an actual physical copy of vinyl of an out of town band is a big reason why we all do what we do as musicians. In the free music gluttony of the information age, there’s still no better feeling than making a hand to hand sale and feeling that appreciation. It has nothing to do with being the next big thing, and everything to do with being the thing right now, entertaining people squarely in the moment.
In the endless crowd of people who shuffle through 6th street looking for something to catch their attention, it was interesting to see how so many were more content with sitting around stalking their friends on social media rather than actively going into bars and checking out bands. Luckily, that’s a big part of what unofficial events like Red Gorilla Music Festival still thrive on. For those who’ve never heard of it, Red Gorilla is the largest independent festival in Austin happening during the same time as SXSW. They’ve helped many artists gain large-scale followings early in their careers and has showcased some of the best up-and-coming acts over the years, including Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Kendrick Lamar, Imagine Dragons, The National, Foster the People, Cage the Elephant, Ryan Bingham, and more.
RG founder and Austin native Chris York made it his mission nearly 15 years ago to provide unofficial SXSW bands a chance to play. As a musician who was turned down by SXSW himself in the past, he decided it was time to launch his own fest on 6th street and is now responsible for curating over 600 acts at over a half dozen bars on 6th street with the help of his team. While there were a few really awesome SoCal based showcases happening around SXSW this weekend, it was cool to be embraced by a local guy like York whose festival actively supported us without the expectation that our set would be bring in 500 people or be reviewed on Fader the next morning. Out of the five shows we wound up getting booked for SXSW (which was five more than I expected) all of them were unofficial, either through RG, Austin Creative Media or Hampton Productions. I think the closest we got to being a part of the official SXSW was hanging out with John Halperin and Mike Cubillos, organizers of the Long Beach based Music Tastes Good showcase at a bar called Valhalla and sneaking into the British Music Embassy to catch New Portals, a rad set of electro indie pop from Belfast, which we enjoyed while we swiped some free meatloaf, an ice-cold Lone Star and a bit of UK-powered air conditioning.
Walking around busy areas from Red River Avenue and Rainey Street to South Congress, it’s clear that the tech boom tourist culture of SXSW is inescapable in Austin, whether locals want it there or not. It stands to reason why so many get the hell outta the city for a week so as not to feel like a walking commodity or in the case of homeless people a few years ago, literally a walking wifi hotspot. Austin feels a lot like LA, not only because of the rampant homeless problem where the poor get stepped over by Coachellites and trust funded tech bros around places like Austin’s ARCH building on 7th St. But there’s also a parallel in the sense that people come to California looking for something greater in a festival while ignoring various aspects of the local surroundings that already give the city its character. Not everything needs to be a cute, wifi-ready lounge full of beautiful people.
Throughout the weekend, OC bands played the Westin rooftop pool party which was up on the 20th floor pool deck overlooking the city right next to the Frost Bank Tower, one of the tallest sky scrapers in the city. As far as hotel parties go, this one was pretty cool and was packed all day with people coming up to lay around and drink complimentary booze while listening to the music of our fellow OC/LA cohorts The Vespertines Poorman’s Change, Big Monsta, The Shape Pitaki, The Sugar and Olivia May.The elevated stage offered us long look down at the city below which I tried to ignore for the sake of my stomach.
Both nights we played there, we were scheduled to play late so the place was at capacity—trying to load in between drunk party goers and hotel guests was a bit tough but we made it. It was a bit like walking a tight rope when we first got up there on stage, trying to play our set and entertain a crowd where half the people were there to party and the other half were just trying to get fucked up. But I think we managed pretty well. The air was electric up there, hearing the sound of our instruments echo through the atmosphere, and to turn around and see the entire city under our feet was about as surreal as it gets, even for a music writer like myself who’s been to every sort of concert under the sun.
We wound up getting a pretty good response during our 30-minute set. Then all of the sudden after we were done, we were told that another performer named Kabaka Pyramid, a reggae artist from Kingston, wanted to take the stage with us and his band. The night before his official Mixologi Reggae Revival SXSW showcase at the nearby Flamingo Cantina, he was looking for a chance to get on stage. For the uninitiated, Kabaka’s cred in the reggae world is extensive, working with every relevant reggae act you could name from Protoje to Damian Marley. He came up on stage in a red Puma track suit and head full of dreads, followed by his band who jumped on our instruments and all the sudden I was up there with him he asked me to rock the stage with him and spit some bars. Let it be known that I never was and never will be an actual rapper. The closest I ever came was writing angsty bars in my bedroom in eighth grade.
The energy on the roof exploded as soon as Kabaka took the stage wielding the mic and spitting lyrics and bars as the crowd went crazy. I sang back up and improvised a few things then he turned to me and gave me the floor to spit some hot fire with a look on his face like “betta not fuck dis up, mon!” The first thing that popped into my head were some bars I’d written years ago that just came outta my mouth. I closed my eyes and just let the flow go. When I opened them the crowd was going nuts and Kabaka was smiling so I guess I did okay. The next thing I remember was looking out over the crowd and seeing the city lights and thinking to myself “Wow, this feels pretty goddamn official to me.”
Though it started out as a risky idea by a local band from SoCal who had almost no following, this show reminded me that having the courage to get out of town and try touring, especially when success was neither guaranteed nor even expected in a place like SXSW, is what makes the weekends like the one we had in Austin so amazing, the opportunity for an unknown band to feel like they’ve made it. Going from sleeping in a basement to partying with a reggae star on a rooftop is the reason why I did this and is only further confirmation of why I’ll be back next year—unofficially of course.