Alan Sparhawk has a few suggestions for his weary flock. “Around about one tonight you’re gonna peak, and Friday and Saturday are just gonna get tougher and tougher. So get some rest, drink lots of water, and eat eggs.” Sparhawk is holding forth from the altar of the Central Presbyterian Church, his audience sitting comfortably in pews. But they aren’t here for a sermon. They’re here for the thousands of bands flooding downtown Austin, Texas, for the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival. The church is just another venue. And Sparhawk and his onstage buddies—the appropriately named Retribution Gospel Choir—is just another band. It’s only Thursday evening; it’ll be a long, grueling forty-eight hours before the festival wraps up on Sunday, March 16.
As for me, I just flew in from New York that afternoon. I’m working on a solid seven hours of sleep (a habit I’ll manage to maintain throughout the festival), and I’ve got a bottle of water at my side. The eggs won’t come until Sunday brunch at the Star Seeds Cafe and a heaping portion of migas (which, for the uninitiated, is a Tex-Mex take on scrambled eggs with jalapeño peppers, onions, cheese, and tortilla pieces), but, as they say, two out of three ain’t bad.
In fact, Sparhawk may have overreached with his fire-’n’-brimstone speechifying. SXSW wasn’t nearly the clusterfuck I’d heard so much about. With the two-thousand-plus bands stretching across the four-day extravaganza, I expected an angry sea of hipsters, industry glad-hands, and starry-eyed journalists (myself included)—all drunk and jostling in line for the next big thing. All those folks were there, and the alcohol certainly flowed, but it never felt like too much—none of it detracted from the good times, the great bands, and the beautiful weather.
Only one thing was overwhelming—the options. You could see the Black, the Black & White Years, the Black Ghosts, Black Moth Super Rainbow, or Blackholicus. You could check out Fuck Buttons, Holy Fuck, or Fucked Up. You could see big guns like R.E.M., My Morning Jacket, and Vampire Weekend. Having a blast meant ignoring that nagging feeling that somewhere, somehow cooler people were partying with cooler bands. It meant paying attention to the action in front of you.
My SXSW didn’t really take off until Friday afternoon, when I caught the Pitchfork/Windish party at Emo’s along Sixth Street—Austin’s own Bourbon Street and the eye of the festival’s storm.
I am, of course, referring to that Pitchfork. Chicago’s perennial tastemakers packed more critical acclaim and blog buzz into a single show than nearly anyone else. The eleven acts splitting half-hour sets between Emo’s indoor and outdoor stages included Brooklyn’s sonic-terrorists A Place to Bury Strangers, L.A.’s avant-punk duo No Age, and Sweden’s latest pop princess, Lykke Li. You went to Emo’s, in other words, to find out what the kids were listening to—one of the only occasions when you could truly do so.
And what did we learn? That noise and pop are still the dominating forces in emergent indie-rock—a revelation that will likely surprise no one. It is, in fact, notable how little independent music’s guiding lights have changed over the years. The Jesus and Mary Chain, Sonic Youth, and My Bloody Valentine—who released their definitive albums in 1985, 1988, and 1991, respectively—continue to wield their influence at deafening volume. It’s there in A Place to Bury Strangers’ piercing guitar and Fuck Buttons’ laptop bowel-rumble. It’s there in High Places’ tribal electronica, Jay Reatard’s spazz punk, and Atlas Sound’s somnambulant drone-scapes.
The majestic harmonies of Seattle’s Fleet Foxes and Brooklyn’s Yeasayer, on the other hand, point to the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and other sixties psych-pop. And it would be hard to create a more perfect young pop star than Lykke Li, or a more perfect pop song than her hit “Little Bit.” Li, who I managed to catch again the next day, was a vision Friday afternoon with her blonde hair swaying, her white-denim shorts riding high, and those kazoos and peace signs dangling down by her navel.
By the time No Age closed things out, around 5:30, I felt debauched—drunk on musical couture. (Though I have to give No Age the prize for most overrated SXSW draw. The duo managed to drain the best elements of shoegaze and SoCal punk, leaving only a thin scrim of yelping feedback.) In the end, all this noise/pop business seemed essential—an admirable, if vain, attempt to recapture the innocence of teenhood by surrendering to the bliss of white noise and perfect pop. And the damn thing didn’t cost a dime.
That night I headed to the Parish for the Merge showcase. The venue would play host to one of SXSW’s biggest draws: She & Him, singer-songwriter M. Ward’s new project with actress Zooey Deschanel. (See Almost Famous, All the Real Girls, Flakes, etc.) With the band’s debut album, Volume One, hitting stores in four days, the Parish was packed. Waiting four hours for She & Him’s midnight start felt like waiting for the stars to show up at the red carpet. Would Ward be comfortable playing second fiddle to his new lead singer? What would a young actress like Deschanel actually do onstage with a full band behind her?
Not much. Chalk it up to nerves, arrogance, or simple cluelessness, but Deschanel did little more than tap her tambourine and sing her faux-naïf Loretta Lynn odes as if she’d rather be talking to her agent or sipping a latte—anything but standing in front of a room full of sweaty, exhausted, slightly drunk, but totally enthused music fans in the middle of Texas. Deschanel looked bored, and for a musician at SXSW, that’s a cardinal sin. Zooey was the only performer I saw who seemed not to need or even want the audience’s approval. And by the end of She & Him’s forty-five-minute set, she wasn’t getting much.
Everyone wanted to get into the Rachael Ray party the next afternoon. Yes, the Food Network queen and purveyor of all things “yummo!” hosted her own day party on Saturday. The Raveonettes, the Stills, and some band called Holy Fuck (!) got invited, along with Ray’s husband’s band, the Cringe. I wanted to go too, but the line at the Beauty Bar stretched halfway down Seventh Street. And to think, just a couple months back the blogosphere sent their attack dogs after Ray when she announced her little shindig. When you can’t beat ’em, make with the irony and join ’em, I suppose…But no matter, the Hot Freaks III party down the street at Mohawk and Club de Ville proved a suitable alternative. All thanks go to Ms. Li and Brooklyn’s rollicking Jealous Girlfriends.
Room must be made at SXSW for personal favorites. (The bloggers are sure to cover anything buzz-worthy anyway.) In my case, this meant catching Nada Surf at Maggie Mae’s Rooftop Deck later that night. Unlike many of their SXSW peers, Nada Surf can draw on more than a decade of quality records and on the credibility that comes from overcoming their one-hit-wonder status. (Blame 1996’s “Popular.”) In other words, the Brooklyn trio can rely on a backing choir to help them sing their songs.
And sing they did. On “Blankest Year,” singer/guitarist Matthew Caws got a big, jubilant “Fuck It!” for his schlocky chorus, “Ah, fuck it! I’m gonna have a party!” And on “Inside of Love,” the audience sashayed along in time to the song’s languid melody, singing every word they knew and mouthing the ones they didn’t.
Nada Surf’s bare instrumentation made the crowd participation all the more vital. Caws strummed an acoustic guitar, while Ira Elliot banged out beats by hand on a roughly 1.5’ x 2’ wooden box that also functioned as his seat (a Cuban drum box, maybe?). The audience—or rather some dude to my left with a rum ’n’ coke—christened Elliot’s instrument the “magic box” and wouldn’t shut up about a “magic box solo!” Caws and Elliot finally obliged, ripping into Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick,” which offered Elliot an opportunity to do his best John Bonham impersonation. Fantastic—I heard no louder applause in all my days in Austin.
One is never afforded a bird’s-eye view of SXSW. It’s a festival you experience on the ground with a piece of pizza in one hand and a map in the other. It would be dishonest to attempt some tidy summation. Friday’s Pitchfork party was about as close as I was going to get to a précis of the state of independent music. I’m just one guy without a badge.
I started my festival sitting in a pew at the Central Presbyterian Church and ended it three nights later doing tequila shots surrounded by the glittering red Lucite of the Karma Lounge (a “roofie palace,” said my girlfriend), while former Le Tigre members JD Samson and Johanna Fateman manned the DJ booth. The real SXSW is somewhere in between.
ContributorJohn S.W. MacDonald
JOHN S.W. MACDONALD is a recent graduate of NYU's Cultural Reporting and Criticism master's program.