A virgin experience from both sides of the stage, by associate editor Blake Madden
“But no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time in the world. Whatever it meant.”
– Hunter Thompson, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas
South By Southwest is a carnival with costumed characters, stick meat, and bizarre rides. It’s a house party with overflowing solo cups, perpetual joint-passing, and sticky people making out. It’s a marketing ploy with free t-shirts, water bottles, mixtapes, and condoms, with laminated credentials that stand for nothing.
More than any of these things, it’s a casino, an endless clockless row of bright colors and flashing lights, a cacophony of dueling bells and whistles that go up to 11, all promising at least a good time and at most THE good time. Of the thousand other schmucks who dragged their guitars through airport security, you will be the one to stand out. You will divine the immaculate show schedule. You will beat the house, with a chance for greatness at each new day and doorway. And after a while the impression of any individual game washes away and all that’s left is the experience. Was it a net win or loss?
In December of 2011 I grew tired of hearing the stories. Where was this mythical place that bands with no music could sneak onto showcases and mere mortals could engage in endless rock-god debauchery for chump change? More importantly, my band had been around the block; why hadn’t we given it a shot yet? It was senior year of high school and we were the only band that still hadn’t gotten laid. I issued an internal decree: “SXSW is a band rite of passage. We must go. Playing or not, we are going.”
This worked surprisingly well; a few short weeks later vacation time had been arranged, flights had been booked, and hotel rooms had been secured. We were going to SXSW.
If you can’t spot the sucker at the table, you’re it. I was overwhelmed by the visceral onslaught of my first time on 6th street. Bars and clubs squished tightly together blared dueling music of all styles, some live, some not. Who can make sense of any of this madness? I thought. Instantly I remembered one of my darkest fears in being a musician: In a sea of millions, why should anyone give a shit about what I do? 6th street is a microcosm of the life of musicians at large; we simply throw everything we can at the walls of your mind and heart and see if anything sticks. If nothing does, you walk ten feet, skip the track, change the channel, and we hope for better luck tomorrow. It’s all one noisy gamble.
On Tuesday night I was a spectator as Kyle (our keyboard player), Tilly (our manager), and I waited for the other half of the band to arrive on Thursday. My mind froze up as it does when I enter a record store or a book store. Who was I here to see again? Bands, you say? Playing live music? The endless string of RSVPs, confirmation emails, and Facebook invites disappeared from my mind.
At the Pond5 party on top of Maggie Mae’s I got my first look at SXSW business. Before the festival, you are told you need to spend exorbitant sums of money on badges and wristbands in order to be somebody going somewhere. On the ground, however, you find that most venues are indifferent, some even posting signs that openly sneer at credentials (“We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!”). Still, you’re told you should pay for single admissions to shows. Then you find out that everyone you want to see is playing somewhere else for free later on. Finally (hopefully) you figure out that the only people who aren’t getting taken advantage of are the ones who are taking advantage. We were about to learn this. Tilly and her cohort Ann readied their confirmations on their iPhones, while I fumbled awkwardly with my phone, looking for a confirmation that likely didn’t exist. As security asked for tickets, Tilly began with “Yeah” and then started to show hers but we were all waived up immediately, as if just acknowledging the existence of tickets was enough. Tickets? Of course I have my tickets right here…
On the roof of Maggie Mae’s, in the midst of what looked like a drunken exhibition of acro-yoga set to techno music, Lone Star was the beer of choice. “You’re in Texas. Drink Lone Star,” its advertising demands of you. Why fight city hall? Texts were sent around. Who’s here? Who’s getting here? When? After a bit, we finally remembered that live music was happening somewhere and stumbled out into the night in search of it, grabbing some street tacos en route.
As we strolled up to an open-air venue, Gardens and Villa were setting up. Bathed in blue light, they launched into a set of smooth and energetic electro-pop. Their lead singer had what looked like a Native American quiver of pan flutes strapped to his back. This fit with my growing image of the festival as casino and circus rolled into one. I was ready for a dancing bear to join him onstage or for him to announce winning Keno numbers in between songs. But this music was alive; you could tell it had a freshness that wouldn’t translate on record. The collective energy of the festival warmed up the air around the sound like a perfect reverb. This was night music, and it was night.
After Gardens and Villa, Pond, a band featuring members of Tame Impala, played. The scrawny blond singer jumped into the crowd, high-fiving and cajoling with anyone that cared to do the same. I finally succumbed to travel and rookie exhaustion, and we returned to our hotel. I had just seen several bands I didn’t know existed the day before. I went to several bars and parties I had no business being at. I knew nothing of what happened that night, nor had I learned anything that would help me duplicate the experience going forward. The only lesson: If I were to survive the week, I would have to approach each day with the same lack of order and coherence, the same reliance on the randomness of chance. Buy the ticket. Take the ride.
People Who Need People
Outwardly, musicians want to project a unified front; it’s all of us against the cruel uncaring world that just doesn’t understand. Privately, we seethe and snipe at each other. Band X got that show instead of us, Band Y is trying to get us to open the show instead of them, and Band Z is totally over-hyped (people only like them because of their name).
But Austin and SXSW are different. It’s the closest most of us will ever get to a battlefield, as we are all pinko commies who are only inspired to fighting by excessive drinking. The one true battle corollary stands: when the chaos makes you forget why you’re actually there, look out for the guy next to you. The madness comes full circle; if you are going to pack up your car and drive thousands of miles to play in half-hour chunks for no money and to nobody, why not help out those who are crazy enough to do the same? Maybe if you help someone else out, maybe you will get helped out, and maybe it will you allow you to play the greatest show of your life, which maybe the mythical Mr. Big will stumble into, maybe hurling record contracts at you from his greasy outstretched fingers. Maybe maybe maybe. Or maybe it just makes sense to not be the dick at the party.
It was Wednesday, and Tilly had finagled our first show at The Lodge on 6th street just after Seattle rock quartet Fox and the Law. Early success. Except we were still only half a band, missing a lot of gear. “But this is SouthBy.” It’s a phrase you get used to saying over the week. You don’t turn down shows. You don’t miss a free pull at the giant slot machine, even if your odds are low. As Donnie Rumsfeld once said: “you go to war with the army you have, not with the army you want.” Kyle and I jerry-rigged everything we had (including our music) to succeed as a two-piece. We borrowed gear from friends in Seattle band Vibragun and Fox and the Law. Never leave a man behind.
I spent the next five hours making crude yet serviceable beats on my computer, while Kyle mulled over how to fit four different synths into just one. How many musical career choices are dictated solely by the shit you have to lug around and set up? Should I have been an acoustic guitar-slinging singer/songwriter? A DJ with a laptop and a lone Microkorg? The stoic knob-twister male half of an electro-pop duo? No- we were here to “showcase” what we do, even if we could barely do it. It was a Zen challenge: our scrambling work would mean nothing in the grand scheme of life, this setup likely to be never used again, the impact of the performance echoing only as long as the tap delay on one of our crappy pedals. Who gives a shit? It’s SouthBy.
We caught the end of Fox and the Law’s set in a cramped corner at the front of the bar and quickly set up. My finger on the play button of our iPod drummer, I introduced us: “We’re Hotels from Seattle, Washington, but since only half of us are here, you can just call us ‘Hot’”. Some patrons nodded and moved enthusiastically while we played. Others walked ten feet out the door, skipped the track, changed the channel. We made one new fan that bought a CD, a mini-jackpot from our first spin of the wheel. Life was good, even if no one knew it but us.
At a party later, I spoke to Fox and the Law about their sleeping situation. They had plenty of places to play, nowhere to stay but their van. Even as I offered up our hotel room floor, I was masking my initial reluctance with a series of caveats: Only if you’re really desperate… It will be super cramped… Did I really want four additional sweaty non-female strangers in our room at night with the lights off? They had helped us in a big way with gear. In the end, the only answer seemed “fuck it.” Thursday night (after the rest of our party arrived), Fox and the Law knocked on our door late, and proved their road prowess by throwing down sparse bedding on the floor and all falling quietly asleep instantly. We were now eight deep, clogging the air of the room with our sweat and oppressive man-stench, a band of brothers indeed.
Sorry We Missed You
Thursday morning, before Fox and the Law moved in, I decided to walk the five miles from our hotel in North Austin into town. Walking a town is the only way to get a true sense of it, like going on several dates with someone before hopping into the sack with them. If you only hit the touristy areas right away, you get your rocks off, but don’t notice the signs of a herpes outbreak.
North Austin is a string of strip malls, chain restaurants, taco stands, and gas stations, hugging I – 35 for dear life and relevancy. I passed the Texas Institute of Medical Technology, a small, one story building, and I felt concern for the future of medical technology in Texas. Some dilapidated houses stuck out oddly along the way, enclosed in dense foliage. With the heat and humidity, they reminded me of parts of my hometown of Miami. Some places look different, maybe nicer than others, but all towns are the same really: you either have something to do there or you don’t.
I did and I didn’t. I embraced the aimlessness of my SXSW experience, blowing in whatever direction this fierce loud wind would take me. At the same time, I needed to believe there was light at the end of the tunnel; this would all amount to something more in the end. As performer and audience member I had two chances to learn something, and better not blow it.
A friend posted something on Facebook the night before about a ‘must-see’ band that morning. I picked this as a random event to start my day with. As Red River neared the intersection of 6th, guitars, sunglasses, and jorts joined me on my walk. I was getting close. As the last notes of Fela Kuti’s “Zombie” rang out on my iPod, I walked past Andrew W.K. and was back in the freak kingdom. I looked up to the balcony of some luxury condos to see three well-dressed people with badges passing a joint back and forth: the 1% of SXSW.
Of course I missed meeting up with the friend and seeing the band. In hindsight, this was existence at SouthBy: everything you wanted to see had just ended or just started in a place nowhere near you. Friends in bands would give you their showtimes, and you would of course show genuine enthusiasm, even while knowing you could not escape the unpredictable undertow of now. Over time, I called this “The Deerhoof Effect”, named so for one of my favorite live bands. Deerhoof played six times at SXSW. I know I was RSVP’ed for at least one of those performances, but I never came close to seeing them. I never even knew when or where they were playing.
The band I ended up seeing at Cheer Up Charlie’s that morning was something light and poppy outside. I noticed (or imagined) a pattern in performances in Austin. Electro and pop bands always seemed to be outside and on elevated stages. Singer/ songwriters were always in profile to the street while metal bands often had their backs to it. Hip-hop acts were tucked away out of street view, hidden and mysterious.
Back on 6th street, I finally recognized and made sense of something: The Under the Radar party at the Flamingo Cantina. Bear in Heaven and Chairlift were playing. Chairlift I knew, and Aaron (our drummer) had recommended Bear in Heaven as the number one thing he wanted to see here. The set times were in the near future. It was already at the venue. I asked the girl at the door if an RSVP was needed and she chuckled and shook her head. I was going to this show.
Aaron was right- Bear in Heaven played an extremely dancy and catchy set that delivered on all fronts. Singer Jon Philpot “got it” more than any other act I saw during my time there; he understood what it meant for us all to be in that place and time together, in that exciting moment of sweat and hot air under the Texas sun. He looked giddy as the music pulsed underneath him, at one point entreating the audience to ‘dance with him’, then putting down the mic and launching into a heartfelt and genuine catalog of 90s George Michael dance moves. His eyes were wide and his smile was wider. If you were watching, yours were too.
The sun was shining, the festival was in full swing, and people wanted to talk in between music. We traded viewpoints on bi-coastal life with a couple from Brooklyn we met in line. One guy had moved back to Austin a year ago to care for a sick family member. He was nervous that his girlfriend was working the uber-private artists’ hospitality tent, tending to stars like Bruce Springsteen and Arcade Fire while he waited idly for her. A girl cursed the fact that we were from Washington because some weird fucker from Olympia had taken all of her money without mailing her the weed he promised her. After Chairlift, we headed over to the Embassy Suites for a happy hour/ party, which we also missed. But the whole band had arrived. We enjoyed stiff margaritas in the hotel bar, served by our local bartender, Cliff. He was a throwback type, the kind that knows a little something about everything and likes talking to his customers. “SouthBy is all about people; connecting, networking,” he said, polishing glassware. He encouraged us to watch the million bats that were just about to fly out from under a nearby bridge, always at the same time in the early evening. The rest of the guys went, but I had seen it before; great with sound, not so great with vision- that’s a musician.
Because Aaron missed the first Bear in Heaven show, we caught them at the Mohawk Diner that evening. Gardens and Villa also played. We paid $15 a piece to get in and neither band sounded as good as when I had seen them for free earlier. It didn’t matter. The genuine energy and excitement from Bear in Heaven’s lead singer was becoming contagious; we were all beginning to understand the unique nature of our time and place, reaching out into the night to capture a moment.
As the fuzzed out and phasered grooves of The War on Drugs enveloped me, I felt a certain luck and gratitude. Being in a band is like being in a relationship; only more difficult because it’s with multiple other people instead of one, and you rarely ever get nookie to counteract the bad times. But this is what makes it more pure. The people I had come here with- my band- had no reason to be here except for the belief in our music. They had traveled thousands of miles with me- sacrificed their time, money, and effort for an idea: If we’re on our game, our music can move, entertain, and inspire as well as anyone else’s. We can make our own moment. Any time you can get four people to share that idea, you’re lucky. Tomorrow we would show Austin what we believed in.
At some point, a waking delirium sets in. Every decision seems critical in the moment but ultimately amounts to nothing. Dissecting the logic involved reveals only madness and short-sighted paranoia. You start to laugh just a little too hard and too long at inside jokes, especially the unfunny ones, until you realize that wasn’t actually a joke at all; someone just told you you’re not allowed to park there.
Friday morning, we had already arrived, clueless and scrambling into town for the first of three days in a row at The Jr (formerly Emo’s). Did we have gear? What were we borrowing? Who were we borrowing it from? The answers would not come from the dank and musty quiet of our hotel room.
Things fell into place once we were on the ground and by three o’clock we were onstage launching into our first song at our first official unofficial show at SXSW. I do believe it was our best set in Austin. It felt natural and new all at once. More than anything, it felt great to play, to be there in the heat and sweat like every other band big and small and to look at each other and say ‘we belong’. We had maybe twenty people at our peak; one I even recognized from our two-piece show the other night. We were a part of it now, winning hearts and minds, one at a time. Grinding it out but hoping for the big score. We had done it. Popped our SXSW band cherry. Not that hard really. Can’t see what all the fuss was about. Time to go back on the other side of the stage.
Guy, from Fox and the Law, hipped us to a house party of mythical proportions that was brewing. Built to Spill was going to be there. No. Andrew W.K. Whatever. It was going to be nuts. In fairness, this already might have been the second or third time we heard this story this trip. But this was different; we could feel the energy shifting in our favor. The table was getting hot; we were in for a run of cards.
At least once in your life you get to say you were at that party and mean it. The co-op at West 21st housed a few hundred people, a dozen bands on two different stages (one outdoor and one indoor), and its courtyard ran golden with Lone Star. People- some clothed, some not- poked out of every hole and cranny, lined every inch of walk-space. Bathroom lines ran forty or fifty deep. It was a hipster amazon. The bill: Japanther, Maps and Atlases, Dan Deacon, Grimes, Pictureplane, Andrew W.K. and more. Best not to ask too many questions or the thing might disappear before your very eyes. I texted friends I had played phone tag with all week, giving them only the message of “house party” and the line-up. The responses were fast and furious. Where? When? NOW. No cover. No badges. No wristbands. You know – That party.
We squirmed our way upstairs for Japanther, the ferocious bass and drums punk duo from New York. My band had played a show with them in New York years ago, and my friends from Portland had only days earlier finished a music video for them; a wonderful synchronicity was taking shape.
Heat compressed our bodies as we entered the room. Ian from Japanther wore a hoodie while Matt wore an overcoat; they reveled in the heat. They ripped into their set and the audience ripped in two, a swirling swarm of chaos up near the stage, and those weighed down by heat and beer at the back. I found myself doing something I hadn’t done in 15 years: entering a pit. I always hated pits growing up. This is because I was/ am a giant pussy and am afraid of getting one or many things broken.
At actual adult size, though, I found it much more manageable- enjoyable even. I had caught the wave, the one we claw through the aether for, the one thousands flock to Texas annually for. The promise of eternal youth stuck in one moment: NOW. No thought; just the roar of life and loud music in your ears, pushing and shoving the energy to and fro. After four songs I was out. When I was 15 I was worried about my nose getting broken; now I’m keeled over like an old man gasping for breath. Punk rock forever.
At two or three in the morning, the wave broke; the party seemed to slow down and our crew got sloppier, eventually hitting a wall. We didn’t even see half the bands we hoped to. The evening’s prevailing story was one about someone who entered the pit at Japanther covered in their own shit (we never saw nor smelled him). Some damn fool tried to drunkenly scale the co-op structure in order to beat a bathroom line and was manhandled out. We lost one of our party, Aaron’s friend Cory, and could only hope it was because he was hitting on a woman. We had peaked and it was time to go. Fox and the Law were with us again in our room; it wasn’t a question this time. Music soothes the savage beast; the savage beasts that make the music fall asleep to cartoons.
What We Do is Secret
The smell in our hotel room Saturday morning had become its own person; it was still tossing back Lone Stars as we awoke, covered in Dorito crumbs, dirt, and dry sweat. We scrambled once more to figure out gear for The Jr, but were given a reprieve: all shows there were indefinitely postponed due to some labor dispute with the subcontracted sound people. Fine by us as we had booked juicier shows in the interim: a house party with Fox and the Law that night and Sunday night at The Firehouse.
I joined Fox and the Law on an excursion to Austin’s freshwater swimming attraction, Barton Springs. This was much needed R & R, away from the (loud) things of man. Families and children played in the pure, ice-cold water, oblivious to the amplified armies ripping their town to shreds just a few short miles away. The sun was bright and the day was calm. The air was clean and still. It’s the quiet in between that makes our noise meaningful at all.
Seattle musician Lisa Dank was putting on the house party, and the details were hazy. We arrived sometime after six pm and a guy named Ernesto opened the door. We told him we were there for the party, and he invited us in, although it seemed possible that a guy answered his door, found several musicians wanting to throw a party, and acquiesced on the spot. We were the first and only ones there. The mood was somber. Had our luck finally run out; had we turned into lifers pulling at the penny slots with cigarettes drooping from our lips as the early morning vacuum cleaners buzzed around us? Not yet. A keg arrived, and with it came the people. This thing was happening.
Don’t let any rock musician tell you house shows aren’t their favorites. Removing the stage and the trappings of rock clubs reminds performer and audience that their goal is the same: let’s have a good time, dammit. Once that’s established, everyone is on the same trip, working together to get there. This was on display when Ryan from Fox and the Law and two party-goers sweated, sawed, and hammered a microphone stand together out of wood and electrical tape in twenty minutes. A singular act for a singular performance, comets streaking across the night sky. Burn out or fade away.
It was another relaxed show for us. We had nothing to prove and we were all in it together. Fox and the Law’s dirty and raucous rock sounded excellent off the stucco walls of the living room. The party never really “peaked” but the energy was still there. A good musician plays the same for four people as four hundred. After a thousand times through, no note/ chord/ song can mean as much as it first did; all that’s left is the experience and the moment in which it existed.
We hit town again after the party, unaware the festival was officially ending before our very eyes. At a gas station, two women took off their shoes to fight, reminding us that Austin is a real place, not just a hipster Disneyland. We ended up at Cheer Up Charlie’s for Tanlines’ closing set, more smooth electro pop in the starry night sky.
Sunday, Austin was a ghost town. Not only had the bands and audiences left; the energy had gone with them. The air was stale, and rain fell in clumsy outbursts throughout the day. The pull of NOW was gone; in its place was only THEN. We spent half the day on a park bench, looking dumbly at our phones for last vestiges of fun.
A few years ago, an official study found that a small percentage of festival-goers just decide to live in Austin after SXSW is over. This was relayed to us by Mariana, Austin native and manager at The Firehouse. Each year the festival seems to get longer, and each year the locals get more pissed at the poor shape their town is left in. Still, she agreed that SXSW is all about the people and the random experience. You never know when Bill Murray is going to hop behind the bar and start pouring everyone Tequila shots.
Sunday night was our last stand in Austin. We had our own little Seattle send-off with hip-pop duo Fly Moon Royalty and our friends The Horde and the Harem. Exhaustion was in everyone’s eyes, but also a humble appreciation for our time there. The Horde ended their set with acoustic guitars, off stage and in the crowd, singing a soft farewell song to our festival ride. Hugs and handshakes were plentiful. We ended our evening by the pool of our hotel, like the last night of a high school field trip.
It was 6:15 Monday morning when the fear and loathing finally took hold. It’s a simple equation, really: non-stop sensory overload in a crowded and chaotic place + abuse of various substances – sleep – privacy – quiet x time = eventual breakdown. For another consecutive night, I had fallen asleep after everyone and woken up before everyone, a pain in my guts and only awful thoughts in my mind. I thought of ex-girlfriends, missed opportunities, my dwindling finances, and how the darkness in our room was as much metaphor as anything else. I get emo when I don’t sleep. The room’s man-stench sneered at me as it stole the last Lone Star, and I could no longer take it. I got up and paced around the hotel swimming pool a few dozen times as the sun rose on Austin.
I hadn’t learned anything. In fact, it was a safe bet I had actually gotten dumber over the past week. I had certainly tried. Back in Seattle, my niece was learning how to walk and talk. Don’t look this way, little one- you can already stumble around and drool on yourself just fine.
A breakfast of chicken tortilla soup and Red Bull made me feel human once more. Cory had left. Ann, Aaron, and our guitar player Brendan were on flights later that day. The noise around us had stopped, making the sound of everything ending that much more audible. We lay comatose in the room after breakfast, not attempting sleep, but immaculate rest.
We grabbed some last margaritas at a bar on Congress before hitting the airport. As we parked, a bearded, shirtless guy played drumsticks on a practice pad behind us. His showcase did not appear official. The weather was the best it had been during our whole trip, and we schemed ways to make everyone miss their flights and stay just one more day under a warm and beautiful sun. We finally left the bar when we could no longer hold off reality.
As we shuffled into the car, angry shirtless practice drummer yelled something at Brendan, and Brendan- formerly content with margaritas- responded in kind. Our piece was shattered in a wave of stereotypes- the angry local resenting the callous musical tourists. A few more shouts back and forth and I looked back over my seat to see fists flying and the two of them going to the ground. This would not help us get home.
“Get your friend off me!” bearded shirtless practice drummer screamed. “You’ll have to let go of him in order for us to do that,” I responded calmly, the maximum energy I could muster through my own margarita buzz. Brendan put out his hand to shake with bearded shirtless practice drummer as we hurried back to the car, but his opponent just kicked at it and walked back to his practice pad in disgust. Burning the locals for good measure. “This is the end of my story” I remarked as we raced toward the airport in hysterical laughter, Brendan rubbing hand sanitizer on a bite mark.
Ann and Brendan made their flight with minutes to spare. Aaron would end up sleeping on the floor of the Denver airport due to weather. Tilly and I decided to head to San Antonio for the evening, hoping to hook up with The Horde and the Harem as they started the tour home, settling instead for some barbecue along the riverwalk. We rehashed the week’s events and lessons learned as we walked through quiet streets.
We drove home to the sad and lonely sounds of This Mortal Coil, and watched schlocky television in Tilly’s room over stiff cocktails we made with the last of our booze. Outside a great storm began, the biggest in Austin’s recent history. I imagined this was God’s catharsis, an ocean of tears being shed after finally being freed from having to listen to a week’s worth of shitty metal, 90s hip-hop, fey electro-pop, and endless singer-songwriters. Back in my room, I stepped lightly in the dark to avoid the bodies I knew were no longer there as loneliness set in. All towns are the same: you either have something to do there or you don’t.
Our trip ended on a Tuesday afternoon. It was a week from when we first arrived; the rookies had gone pro. I finally understood things many nights later back in Seattle. Brendan and I were out at a bar, not knowing exactly why given our lingering exhaustion. It was something we felt that told us we shouldn’t or couldn’t stop, a special energy and purpose learned during our brief time in the heart of Texas. We musicians are not like others; we are seekers, and must continue to reach long and hard out into the night for something that may never come. The only way to stop the sadness of things ending is to constantly start new things. It’s all a wash of bright color and sound, with only a few chances ever to grab a moment in time before the wheel stops spinning and everything closes for good.
The truth: nothing means anything really; no single note or song carries anything universal in its sound particles. It’s the ride itself that matters. Strangers become friends, friends become family, and if you’re lucky, the seemingly meaningless becomes a winning ticket. I was there when…When it’s over? Rip it up and start again. Buy another ticket. Take another ride.