I flew into South by Southwest this afternoon. Tonight, I strode 6th Street. amid the scene here in Austin. I felt a tension between, and within, the musicians, attendees, and the city. The dichotomy is an inclination toward indie values, opposed by the gravitation of commercialism.
I realize this as I happen on IFC’s Fairgrounds, which features a music stage, interactive attractions such as a Velcro wall, and food trucks and a beer stand. It’s like a festival within a festival and it is a microcosm of SXSW. It’s an insular fantasy realm manifested by marketers and advertisers. Yet the crowd doesn’t feel smothered by IFC’s enveloping corporate bosom. The tone is anti-commercial despite, or in spite, of the undertone of being commercial.
Friday, March 20th
Austin is drenched. It’s raining, and has been all day. The streets, sky, and horizon are gray. My Converse are soaked. They weren’t the smartest pick. Everybody walks around stuffed in garbage bags. Soggy hair and fucked makeup contrasts with the pains individuals took last night to craft distinct styles. Everyone slumps against the damp. Their trudging gaits imply defeat.
On the other hand, thousands of people still flow into the streets from bars and small concert halls, sloshing through gutters to find new venues blocks, or miles, away, just for the privilege of waiting under showers in lines to get in.
Tonight I was at Elysium Nightclub for Japan Nite, a showcase for bands from Japan. Mahousyoujo-ni-naritai was the first band. They pranced onstage. Their style parodies Japanese pop-culture stereotypes. They divide vocals, one of the singers screaming incomprehensible Japanese whilst the frontwoman smiles treacly J-pop pastiche through a hospital mask. The instrumentals blend the vocals into layers of Nintendocore, all in front of 8-bit video in homage to early gaming and Hello Kitty kitsch. It was like a bukkake of peppermint flavored rainbows coming into my eyes and ears. It was blinding in the best sense.
Samurai Dynamites wears matching kimonos while playing music that sounds exactly like Gogol Bordello. I decided to coin the term ethnic punk to describe the relation. I heard somebody next to me call it world punk. I hate to say it, but I like his better.
Pirates Canoe plays an Americana made weaker by virtue of its sounding like Americana by an American band. I think the singer is even American born. They’re competent, though, and the crowd seemed to like them. In fact, they are the first band at SXSW’s annual Japan Nite to play a return booking. But, they left me uninspired.
By the time The fin. took the stage, I was buzzed. All the better. The fin.’s chillwave vibes spoke to my state. I spent the set grooving and dancing to their low-key rhythms and sinuous melodies. I dig them.
Japan Nite continued, but I left to see a band I missed two years ago at Denver’s Riot Fest, Best Coast. The air was misty, but the rain had abated. I got to Uproxx House an hour before Best Coast was scheduled. Unfortunately, they were “at capacity” and were “one out, one in” at that point and I had to endure my first SXSW club line.
That shit happens, so I complied and found the appropriate queue for those SXSW goers endowed with either an all-access wristband, which I had, or a coveted, ultra-swanky, super-duper all-access badge. The poor, pathetic plebs trying to get in on a cash cover and a smile sorted into a separate line. I don’t know how many of them would eventually get in, but their fate seemed grim as our whole line would be vacated before a single cash patron would be allowed through the doors.
So I waited. Only problem was, I decided that there was no way the club was at capacity and I decided we were being left outdoors, risking pneumonia, to raise interest from those passing by. As in “Oh! Look how long this line is! This must be the spot. Let us also get in line so that we, your average fest-going hipster, can likewise be seen not getting into a club!”
While I was waiting, I heard the person behind me mention that the rapper Future was playing the bar tonight. That was my first hint that I wouldn’t be seeing Best Coast, again. When they let us in, the rapper opening for the headliner guaranteed that Future would be playing, instead of the band I came to see. I realized later that Austin’s alt weekly, The Austin Chronicle, did list Best Coast as playing tonight at Uproxx, but are actually playing tomorrow night.
I was disappointed but decided Future might be just as good, or better, than if I was seeing Best Coast. I’ve never heard of him, but so what? I don’t follow hip-hop but appreciate it. This guy might be awesome. Plus, inside is dryer and warmer than outside. Sold.
I didn’t pay attention to the opener as I checked out the bar and got myself a tall boy of Miller Lite. The club, with its alternating neon lights and white color scheme looks like it could have been a set for the Miami Vice remake, the Bad Boys movies, CSI: Miami, or anything set in Miami from the 90s on, I guess.
Future commanded respect as he strode on stage. The area front of the stage became hazy with weed. The audience was jazzed. Future fed off a symbiotic reciprocity with the crowd, raising the tension with every cut, absorbing and reflecting back the twitchy energy he draws forth from his fans. As an MC he embodies gangster and ladies’ man with equal panache, like Tupac, but with a smoother, suave chic, instead of Tupac’s muscle man image. At least, I think so. I was pretty buzzed by then. After the set, I shuffled back to Sixth St., waded through plastic bottles and littered flyers, and got in line for a slice. I scarfed it, then went back to my room for sleep.
Saturday, March 21st
I’ve spent the better part of today writing about my weekend and reviewing bands for you, John Q. Internet. The words came steady, so I battened down the hatches against Austin’s incessant rain, and wrote until evening.
When I did get out, I was anxious to make up for having been cooped up, working like a sap, when SXSW was literally outside my window. I Googled some Tex Mex joints that looked good, grabbed my Austin Chronicle, and went to grab some grub while I made a plan.
When I found the restaurants I was considering, they were both closed. Back on 6th Street. the places that were recommended to me were hemorrhaging customers. I had no plan, no food, and had to poop. I retreated back to my room, took care of the latter, found some bars that looked interesting, and decided the frozen pizza I had earlier would have to get me through the evening. It was 8:00 before I made my second assault on the city.
I read about some punk bars that sounded promising, all within a couple of blocks, so I made my way toward them. As I did, I passed the British Music Embassy, an annual British music showcase that features all UK bands, at a bar called Latitude 30. I heard Honeyblood beckoning through the open door with their bright, sharp riffs and bratty vocals, and I quickly abandoned my meticulously formed plan I threw together in two or three minutes and obsequiously took my place in the wrist band line.
It was the worst move of my weekend.
Unlike Uproxx, Latitude had three lines, dividing wristbands and badges. Like Uproxx, I decided that their “at capacity” and “one out, one in” claims were bullshit. I was right next to a window. There was enough free space to let everyone waiting in with room to spare.
Instead, they’d just about clear the badge line until there were two or three people left, leaving wristbands and the chronically deluded cash cover lines to flounder. Then they’d wait until the badge line filled up again, let them through except for a handful, and left us “others” to wait indefinitely, our consistently growing lines drawing more and more interest. The guy behind me called the badge wearers “badgeholes.” I would have agreed, but his group seemed like pricks.
I waited fifty minutes before I decided the British Music Embassy could “piss off,” and I gave up my spot, “third” from the door that I held the whole time. This, of course, moved the line forward, giving the poor punters way back false hope that they might get in.
I, therefore, am putting both Latitude 30 and Uproxx House on my ineffectual and meaningless despicable cocksuckers list. Maybe I was feeling like a persecuted white guy about it. Maybe I’m being cynical, jaded, and paranoid about being made to act as a prop in order to attract business. Nobody else seemed to be coming to the same conclusion about what was going on. But I know what I saw and experienced. Latitude 30 and Uproxx can suck my South by Southwest nut.
I heard Smallpools were playing at 9:30 p.m. at the IFC grounds again. I went back and found that the well-tended park was now a mud-pit. Again, my Chuck Taylors fucked me in the ass. When I got there, I found out Smallpools was scheduled for 9:10 and not 9:30, so I missed the start of their set.
But everyone, especially the IFC staff, was in a great mood. So I found myself back in the place that symbolizes the wider problems of SXSW, but that didn’t stop the people present from being decent while coaxing me out of my cantankerous shell with their contagious liveliness. That extends to the band, as well. They played with enthusiasm and conviction. I started to loosen up.
Their cover of College & Electric Youth’s “A Real Hero,” from the Drive soundtrack, was surprising and charming, even if the drum solo at the end stalled the momentum the band had built. For such a short set Sean Scanlon, their frontman and keyboardist, was rather chatty, but his diatribes served the intended effect of making the band seem relatable and likeable. And, in his defense, the stories did lead in and out of the music, adding cute context to their songwriting.
Scanlon introduced the single “Killer Whales,” off their new album LOVETAP!, by explaining people used to think the name of the band was an animal rights appeal against the conditions of marine mammals at Sea World. He clarified that the name Smallpools was not a reference to that, but when they kept seeing those results in searches when they’d Google themselves, it inspired their new tune. An interesting aside that made the band appear humble, even humanitarian. The song wasn’t bad, either. Smallpools proved themselves to be entertaining, talented, and unpretentious. They’ll likely be remembered as standard-bearers of indie synth-pop music.
My final stop tonight was Holy Mountain, a block from the main chaos on 6th Street. There I saw my favorite band of the trip, and one that redeemed my whole night.
Their name is Residual Kid, they’re fourteen years old, and they fucking own all. And not in the “gee, they’re really good for being fourteen” sense. Rather, it’s like “shit, this band is amazing. Are those teenagers?” It was the most hardcore set I’ve ever seen. These guys are punk to the marrow. I even bought their goddamn merch. I’m a sucker.
Holy Mountain has two stages set up, one out back on their patio, the other inside the bar. There I had the pleasure of hearing Pity Sex, from Ann Arbor MI, channel Dinosaur, Jr. and Beat Happening into some great songs. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch the whole thing as Residual Kid was wrapping up out back.
The bar itself greets its patrons with a wonderful, trippy diorama, set in their front window, composed of Star Trek action figures, Troll Dolls from the 90s, and Smurfs, among countless other nostalgia toys and collectibles, decidedly not in their original packaging.
Holy Mountain has the quintessential Austin vibe and spirit. If Austin wants to keep itself weird, it could do worse than looking to the example set by the laid-back, comfortable in its own skin coolness Holy Mountain didn’t go too far out of its way to capture. Its patrons and staff are cool and weird while barely trying. If all of SXSW was like what I found there, cynical corporate exploitation would have nothing to stick the suction cups of its tentacles to. There’s nothing there for corporate America to hold onto, though it might try to grasp it. Holy Mountain is keeping Austin weird. The self-conscious yuppie hipster clones on 6th Street. would do well to take note.
There’s a remarkable number of subcultures and subgenres at SXSW. Diversity is strong. There’s no one subculture that we should try and adopt as the standard for our generation. Subculture is our subculture. It’s DIY at its essence. Everyone is a subculture of one. Pretty cool.
SXSW has gone corporate. This is my first time here, but it’s evident that that it’s not what it once was. Some festival goers are, or have gone, corporate, too. Hipsters seem to tolerate corporate America, not because they support it, but because they don’t feel particularly threatened by it. Maybe we should. It has to affect us more than we realize. But for the most part, corporatism isn’t dangerous to Millennials because we refuse to allow anyone to define us but ourselves.