Tuesday, March 12
I’m an anxious person, but not about flying, thank God. When my plane touches down, I relax my body as much as my angry, underused muscles allow. I take deep breaths. I don’t even turn my phone on. It’s the last time I’ll feel so calm this week. The feeling is shoved out the door by exhilaration as I walk out into the airport. I’m back in Austin, back at SXSW. Back in my happy place.
For the last four years, SXSW has been my Olympics. My training involves headphones and BitTorrent and extensively color-coded Word docs (spreadsheets not involving numbers overwhelm me). The Austin, Texas music festival and conference is a sprawling, indefinable monster that brings thousands of bands and many more observers — fans, bloggers, label veterans, Future’s entourage — to the state’s only California-liberal-safe city, to wallow in free booze and cheap Tex-Mex and the broken dreams of D.I.Y. musicians blowing next month’s rent money on a handful of #killingit tweets. That said, they keep coming back. SXSW is a festivalgoer’s dream, offering a half-dozen budget Coachellas to choose from or, for the truly ambitious/insane, the chance to see the world’s most exciting bands every half-hour for four (or five, or more) days and sleepless nights straight.
Outside of actually playing a show, I’ve done everything one can do in Austin: thrown day parties with bands such as Sondre Lerche and Big Deal, been a panelist, reported, blogged, photographed, and walked home from Ihop along the interstate at 4:30 a.m. All that, and the SXSW guides I’ve written the last two years, have earned me a certain amount of cache among people who think having a blog makes you important, which means this year’s trip to SXSW attained a degree of #VIPfest: I did not see Prince or Justin Timberlake, but I did sit three feet from a Zombies living room set. Sorry, the Zombies. It only gets wilder. What follows is the story of what happens when bizarre opportunities, indie rock, 20-hour days and breakfast tacos collide over one unbelievable week.
It’s Tuesday: I spent the previous four days in Lawrence, Kansas, visiting a college pal, playing Magic: The Gathering until 3 a.m. and generally stocking up on sleep deprivation. Lawrence is charming, by the way — come through for dinner at 715 Mass and drinks at the Sandbar if you get the chance. Going to Kansas in general was a good idea; not spending those particular days doing yoga, drinking kombucha and sleeping 12 hours a night was a bad one. But SXSW wasn’t made for great decisions.
It’s now 11:30 a.m. I’ve been up since 6. The timing must be off for flights from Los Angeles or New York, and I don’t see anyone I know in the taxi line. At SXSW, I am the most outgoing, enthusiastic version of myself: I feel safe here, open to possibility, too nervous to miss the chance to connect with someone as passionate about all this as I am to be shy. This does not help me find somebody to split a taxi, and so Austin’s most introverted cabbie drives me solo to my hotel. The complete transcript of our half-hour drive:
“How is your day going?”
“It’s all right.”
“Are you pretty busy with the conference this week?”
“It’s going alright.”
A long beat. I clear out my Twitter feed and wonder if there’s anything good on Gawker. We arrive at the hotel and a fashionable young man hails the cab.
I hand over my credit card. He swipes it.
“You have to sign this.” I sign and tip him $5. He stares down the man waiting for a ride. “We’re not done with the transaction.”
A minute later, we are. I walk into the hotel with my backpack and computer bag, a rain jacket packed for Kansas’ 27-degree lows in my arms. Check-in’s not until 3 so I leave my stuff with the clerk, an older gentleman in wingtip shoes. The convention center is all hustle and bustle, but I pick up my badge and photo pass with a minimum of hassle. On my way out, I have a nice run-in with Jonathan Clancy, the frontman of A Classic Education and this year, His Clancyness. His other band played our day party last year and sounded like the Shins’ second coming; his current one is very good. In the first of many of this week’s good-faith promises, I tell him I’ll see them play. (Spoiler: Sorry, dude. I really did want to.)
With a noon sunburn an immediate concern, the Hype Hotel’s wristband pick-up opens in “10-15 minutes,” a well-meaning wristband handout man informs me. There’s no special line for press, a missing luxury that irks only because the event, hosted by the immensely useful blog aggregator Hype Machine, had one last year. I walk to the back of the line like a peasant and think about Jack Donaghy in 30 Rock. I greet Veronica, a Los Angeles publicist, and Shira, a New York one. We compare notes on arriving in Austin, who we’re excited to see, what we’re working on. Email-originated relationships often blossom from transactional into actual substance at South by Southwest, and not just because it’s real life: for a few days, we’re all in this crazy thing together. That said, Veronica tells me about a party sponsor that can hook up a free hard drive, which I’m going to need after six days of photos; I make a note on my phone.
A tweet about lunch gets a response from Stephen, a music critic I’ve been reading for years. We agree to meet and I kill an hour in the convention center, drinking a caffeinated soda and taking snarky Instagram photos of Interactive attendees sitting in car-company sponsored “lounges” and not interacting at all. I notice a line stretching through the building and ask what’s being waited for: “The Oatmeal Q&A.” Oh. The Oatmeal’s popularity outstrips any band I can think of this week: the line fills both sides of the convention center and covers multiple city blocks. The Oatmeal is a relentlessly irritating webcomic with the depth of a paper plate; the outsize popularity of its observational humor format can in part be blamed with inspiring the posts on Buzzfeed that copy-paste a dozen movie gifs and a YA monologue about getting over a bad relationship or whatever into an “article.” To his credit, at least dude draws his own shit. I walk against the line and miss my cat.
I meet Stephen and a friend of his in the center’s marketplace. iPhone battery cases and giant Post-Its and a wonderland of aspirational but moderately useless tech products fill the floor in a horizonless pop-up. Usually, I’ve seen this room lined with guitars or dirty vinyl boxes. It is overwhelming and strange: it feels like Target in space.
We have lunch at South Bites, the food truck corral curated by Paul Qui, a name breathed in respectful tones in Austin. Apparently he won Top Chef. It is the single best new experience I will have in Austin this year: blocks from the hotel and uniformly delicious. On Stephen’s recommendation I order beef tongue sliders and a veggie Fritos thing, sort of not realizing there will be Fritos in it. The sliders are terrific. Dan, another editor and an alumni of last year’s Blogger Karaoke, appears next to us: he is wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses and I do not recognize him until he repeatedly re-introduces himself. This will happen with two other people in the next few hours and generally makes me feel like a terrible person, or at least a person who needs more sleep. Consider the previous sentence foreshadowing. Across the way, an Interactive survivor is wearing Google Glass. They look silly and a little scary; I want them.
I make it to Red 7 for my first band of the week. Red 7 is a dumpy, two-stage venue that routinely has many of the week’s better bands, playing to outdoor porta-porties and an allegedly red room that might as well be a second home to the Austin bridge bat colony. For the week, I am borrowing a Canon 5D Mark II, a full-frame DSLR camera that’s a few years old but still formidable enough to overcome Red 7’s interior black hole. It works wonders on Fear of Men, a U.K. band who no one else will tell you sounds like the Cranberries. They’re excellent: their new sorta-debut, the singles-collecting Early Fragments, is full of potential 1993 Sarah Records hits, and songs such as “Seer” and the urgent “Born” stack up into a charming, driving live set. Singer Jessica Weiss sways back and forth as she strums, her dark hair catching the blue light in a way that makes me forget the rest of the band.
Outside, Alex Bleeker and the Freaks remind the crowd that their frontman plays in Real Estate with a jangly, guitar-worshipping set. There’s a reason the other dudes don’t let him sing, though—as an adequate Gram Parsons impersonator at best, the Freaks’ ya-yas are best let out when they shut up and channel the Allman Brothers. On the same stage, Fol Chen plays a rock-star-cool set of experimental dance-rock, the band’s on-record disco-ball shimmer bloodied with guitar noise. The room’s half full, less a sign of the band’s draw than Tuesday afternoon’s awkwardness: the Interactive nerds are heading home and the Music geeks, fashionably late, won’t finish their annual migration until well into Thursday. In other words, get in on Tuesday morning next year.
Garrett, the band’s drummer, emerges from backstage and shakes my hand. We meet randomly last year, at the apartment party of a mutual friend whose only industry connection is that time I brought him as a +1 to Radiohead. Unless “living in Los Angeles” counts, which it does. Garrett and I go to the same gym, though “go” is a relative term. The afternoon is a whirl of meetings: Tyler and Jake from blog collective Portals introduce themselves; there’s Katie from the 405; L.A.’s Criminal Hygiene, a trio of goofy skater kids whose music I feel bad about having probably deleted as I ask them to pose for a portrait; my wife’s friend Misha and her crew, enjoying an afternoon off in the sun. This is just how SXSW is. Like Cheers, it’s a place where everybody knows your name, especially when you have a marginally popular Twitter account.
My social media encounters finished, I watch Norwegian band Young Dreams triumph over a gear delay and a late arrival in Austin with a set full of boundless energy — they sing boyish, Beach Boys harmonies over the ecstatic acrobatics of Local Natives. It’s post-punk, in a way, the genre’s bitterness spooned in with cream and sugar and a sense that things are actually going O.K. Young Dreams do not read the New York Times opinion page, and I’m thankful for this.
But if it’s sunlit joyfulness I’m after, it’s waiting outside the bat cave. I’ve followed Shugo Tokumaru for a few years now — we all fell hard for him when I wrote for the webzine Cokemachineglow in college, and a “Young Folks” cover he recorded for us wound up a surprise hit in Japan. So I feel in tiny part a proud parent when he begins his Red 7 set, playing with a necessarily manic drummer and a keyboardist stocked with a rack of toy instruments that’d impress Pinocchio. That’s until his guitar playing virtuosity and total mastery of his loop pedals becomes clear: I am in no way responsible for this, and in fact, should be bowing to it. But Tokumaru’s talent is bent toward welcoming pop pleasure, in a way that recalls Jon Brion or Sondre Lerche. Barefoot and smiling, he plays “Lahaha,” an undeniable song from 2010’s Port Entropy, and the backyard crowd dances.
I meet Jeremy, another writer/photographer with a mid-‘80s birthdate, at the bridge to South Congress, Austin’s likable hipster-yuppie neighborhood. The real hipsters have all moved east, of course. We head to the Raptor House, a semi-secret Roc Nation party sneakily revealed in an email from Haim’s publicist the week before. The SXSW gods sent over an email from a second publicist on Monday, offering to put me on the list; would Haim be on at 7:30, I asked? Who else was playing? Even he didn’t know.
With directions similarly foggy, we wander into the Hotel St. Cecilia courtyard, knowing the hotel had been the site of last year’s Jurassic gig. A dozen or so people sit at tables and chairs with the ease of old ladies playing bridge. As we step closer, one group includes the rapper J. Cole, while Carrie Brownstein, smiling in a white Peter Pan-collared shirt, lingers nearby. “Did you see her?” I whisper to Jeremy. “Who?” “That’s Carrie Brownstein.” He tiptoes back to peek before we walk up the stairs, looking for a party and finding a catering table and a fussy head waitress instead. She points us in the right direction: down the hill, toward the big tent. We make our exit and I wonder if I should tell Carrie I’m thinking about moving to Portland.
With 7:30 p.m. come and gone, L.A.’s Hunter Hunted play another Local Natives-indebted set of optimistic, kitchen-sink indie-pop; it won’t change the face of music, but it makes the Austin spring feel a few degrees closer to summer. Two of the band’s tour sideman once played in the belated Big Moves, possibly the best jazz-punk band in L.A. history and certainly the most Chicago-sounding indie act we’ve ever had; during the few months the Los Angeles Times’ marketing department thought it was a good idea to let me book “L.A. Unheard” shows, I put them on a bill with J. Irvin Dally and the One AM Radio that they tore up like credit card offers in a paper shredder. After the set, we talk about their run of SXSW shows before they have to run to the next one. When in doubt in Austin, commiserate. For no discernable purpose, unless Ryan Adams is coming by later, the party includes several vintage arcade games: Pac-Man, X-Men, Tekken. I lead Wolverine through an army of Sentinels as Jeremy and I talk about relationships and our generation’s embrace of nomadic living.
As in life, timing is everything at SXSW, and Haim running late starts to mean skipping dinner at Guero’s Taco Bar. Barack Obama is equipped to make this kind of choice, but I’m just a man. Finally, they arrive. On stage, exposed bulbs dangling over their well-coiffed heads like an open-air gastropub, the ascendant L.A. group is visibly frustrated: first with monitor buzz audible in the crowd, then with a keyboard unable to be played at all, with a sisterly argument adding a few more minutes of delays. This is a band that’s been opening stadiums for Mumford & Sons and will play Stubb’s, one of Austin’s most prominent rooms, to help close out the festival on Saturday—playing a private set for some drunk industry schmucks with a busted Korg has to rank about 359th on their 2013 goals list, right under “Favorite one of @daverawkblog’s tweets.” (Which they also did. Haim: troopers.)
Without the keyboard, they skip the exultant, ‘80s-indebted singles, their frustration turning fierce as they crackle through guitar solos and double down on weighty percussion. They sheepishly call it quits three songs in, a slightly more public set at the Vevo party across town looming. “Do you want to come do karaoke across the street?” I yell. They did favorite that tweet, after all. “We have another show or otherwise I would,” Este Haim says into her microphone. Danielle Haim, wearing a Tom Petty hat, has a moment with J. Cole.
We make it to Guero’s. The waitress convinces me to order al pastor tacos instead of my beloved pork, a missed opportunity I atone for with two Patron margaritas (in honor of The-Dream and his bottle of Patron, much respect). We go to Blogger Karaoke at Ego’s, an unofficial event in its second year which basically involves me convincing writers to come watch me sing Todd Rundgren and drink Lone Star. Ego’s is a South Congress dive bar that does karaoke nightly; it’s a nice break from the SXSW insanity, or in our case, a prelude. Jeremy does “Unbreak My Heart,” I do “It’s Too Late.” The Patron margaritas have turned the high bits of my voice into a blackened husk but I nail enough of it, I think. The Austin locals have crashed the party this year, so another writer’s girlfriend drives me back to the hotel before I get the chance to do Sheryl Crow’s “Anything But Down.” We promise to hang out and get pancakes, the kind of empty promise you make at SXSW to assert that your friendships are real, that all those retweets and favorites and Gchats mean something more. They do, I know it. But pancakes won’t happen, either.
Wednesday, March 13
I wake up at 7:30 a.m., a drop of sweat crawling down my back like a spider. Iron & Wine is on at 8:30; I hate myself. I am not hung over, which is a plus. I walk/jog to the W Hotel a few blocks away, the most exercise I’ve had since lifting pieces of metal at the gym three weeks earlier. I felt great and promised myself I’d go back. Promises, promises. Burt Bacharach is not happy about this.
At the W, a flustered publicist does her best Shoshana imitation and finally brings me upstairs to the KGSR radio taping. They hold early morning shows every year — I assume it’ll be two dozen people in a studio. The #VIPfest potential fades once I see the ballroom, packed to bursting with people. I’m used to SXSW events being empty well until mid-afternoon, but lesson learned: it is never too early to get to an SXSW party. After two minutes of fruitless door-eyeing, I cut my losses and head back out. “It’s packed, I can’t get in,” I tell Shoshana, who pouts in solidarity.
The afternoon goes better. Equipped with my blogger-blue wristband (#menswear!), I make it into the Hype Hotel’s private entrance for the Gorilla vs. Bear party after waiting through a band’s +1 (or +5) doorman negotiations. Empress Of is up first, playing a good-enough set of electronic psych-pop that doesn’t quite match her head-turning recordings. She may have been hit with first-gig jitters: I’m told her later sets are great, though I’m told everyone’s later sets are great. If there has been a bad performance in SXSW history, no one will admit it. But the Hype Hotel is a big room to start the day in, a city block-sized building that feels more upscale than last year’s warehouse (and happens to be next door to my hotel). The light show, all rainbow spotlights and DSLR happy endings, is better than most full-time venues in L.A., much less Austin: the story goes that the week’s lighting designer works for Cirque De Soleil, and the whole million-dollar set-up’s on loan as a test run. I hate to leave, but I’ve seen Fear of Men already, and scheduling anxiety tugs me out the door.
At Bar 96, across the street from South Bites, Kim Janssen asks us to imagine it’s winter before playing a melancholic, icily European folk set. I tweet an Instagram shot and urge people to come watch; moments after he steps off stage, I ask to take a portrait and he mentions my tweet. There is no way on Earth he has checked his phone: at SXSW, you can sense the at-replies in the air. Janssen also plays in the sublime Black Atlantic, who’ll be on later, but I head to the Danger Village/Pretty Much Amazing party at the Empire Control Room, formerly Lipstick 24. Torres, whose music lands somewhere between (or among) early Cat Power and Sharon Van Etten, plays a thunderous set: her charisma is powerful and raw, but some songs need more sharpening. Goldroom’s L.A. EDM, all summer sunsets and teenage daze, converts well to a live trio, with “Fifteen” the best song with that title since Taylor Swift’s.
I’m at the Belmont that night for work, reviewing the Billboard-sponsored Warner Sound showcase for Billboard and waiting for my wife to arrive from the airport. The Belmont, a quirky ‘60s-ish mod hotel, is adorned with portraits of musicians — a larger-than-life Tegan and Sara print curves over a couch, watching the bartenders. Apparently, Gorburger, a monster-costumed man with an indie-rock web series and two Korean-game show-ready assistants, is hosting the show to the complete bafflement of everybody. He encourages the crowd to stay drunk, stay hydrated, and shouts out the brave souls among us on drugs. A three-story Doritos stage is weird: this is fucked up. Tegan and Sara’s set, heavy on the band’s great, Cyndi Lauper-inspired new album, is worth the wait, but exhaustion and dropping temperatures begin to set in before Paramore’s headlining show. They arrive an hour late, at 1 a.m., still as fresh as a band playing one Austin set this week ought to be. There are bands playing 17 sets this week: doing that will probably not make them Paramore, but I have to applaud the effort. By then, Hillary, my wife, has dropped her bags at the hotel and picked up her Warner wristband, a favor from Kyle, our roommate for the week—who happens to be the night’s house photographer. On the upstairs deck, she hands me my earplugs, left in my other pair of pants back at the hotel after switching to my fancy jeans. She’s the best.
Paramore’s set is live-wire electric and filled end-to-end with hits: “Ignorance,” “Now,” “The Only Exception,” “Misery Business.” Singer Hayley Williams wastes no time running into the crowd, bouncing about the stage like a smashed racquetball. Of every band to emerge from the sludgy, sleazy modern-rock ghetto in the last 10 years, I don’t think there’s been one more worthwhile than Paramore. Or any worthwhile at all after them, for that matter. I wondered before the show if the indie kids would boycott the set, but the Belmont courtyard’s packed, as is the photo pit. For the opening songs, I shoot from the side, behind an Australian photographer wrapping up his fourth month of touring the U.S. in a van. Someone presses me in toward the end and I’m briefly two feet from Williams, snapping the photos I’ve been hoping to all night.
Before “Ignorance,” she discusses the band’s recent drama — the loss of the founding Farro brothers. It becomes clear that Paramore relishes their so-called “soap opera”: it makes them underdogs, gives their ABC Family-aged fans narrative threads to hold onto. Selling records often means being larger than life these days, whether that means dating Chris Brown or knocking up Kim Kardashian, and taking sides in Paramore’s civil war can only mean cementing their fanbase. I can’t blame them for milking it, though all these months later, bringing it up feels more disingenuous than any of their forthright songs. At the hotel, I eat an ice cream sandwich, write my review and get to bed before 4 a.m., which seems almost sensible.
Thursday, March 14
At 10 a.m., I’m up early enough to attempt the Pitchfork party, an event annually so busy I don’t usually bother with it. I like indie rock in part because I hate crowds: one reason to see the newest possible bands at SXSW is that they’ll only draw a couple dozen people, and possibly zero other photographers elbowing for Hayley angles. But today quiet-storm soul duo Rhye is playing the Pitchfork party, and I have fallen deeply in love in Rhye. It occurs to me, as the line stretches back from the 1100 Warehouse toward the freeway that separates East Austin from downtown, that I know someone at Pitchfork I can text — then it occurs to me that he’s in a panel. I send out the world’s most pathetic tweet about this situation and we walk to the Brooklyn Vegan party instead. At Jr, Shugo Tokumaru is transcendent again, playing a tighter set, though one that doesn’t include a cover of “Video Killed the Radio Star.” The party is somehow not wall-to-wall, a happy circumstance at the Hype Hotel all week, too. Are blogs’ influence fading? Are there fewer people at SXSW? Or was this year’s lineup just so great and broad and balanced that going to see anyone who hadn’t played Saturday Night Live lately was going to be a good time? Let’s go with the latter.
There’s a bigger crowd at the Mohawk for the IAMSOUND party, but I have a text telling me to head around the corner for VIP wristbands. I show my phone to the doorman, who hands us three. Elated, we had to the bar—and pay for drinks. Tell me more about SXSW’s suffocating corporate sponsorships, please. I see Veronica again and ask about the hard drive, trying not to show desperation—the 5D photos are enormous and there’s no Best Buy in walking distance. She’s working on it, but it sounds like I’ll have better luck finding free beer.
We walk in as DIIV is finishing “How Long Have You Known,” my favorite track on the Captured Tracks band’s swirling, tremendous debut album. Already, they sound less thrashy and speed-driven as they were at L.A.’s Echo last year, willing to let the engine hum at their album’s pace and allow the volume of their glistening arpeggios to speak for itself. They play a new song that sounds wonderfully like a DIIV song, weightless and five miles deep all at once.
Inside, L.A.’s Hands bleat over staccato keyboards and snap-to-fit drums. They’re kind of hometown heroes right now: they just signed to the venerable Kill Rock Stars for their debut album, an achievement which on Thursday earns them an overflowing room. I heard back out for Lord Huron, another L.A. act on the rise (and, full disclosure, L.A. Unheard alumni), and watch them play the most invigorating Dave Matthews Band set of the week. Sitting upstairs, my neighbors are also wearing green New Balance shoes; I take a photo and forget to Instagram it thanks to a conversation about Chance the Rapper and Chicago hip-hop. Now no one will know.
An attempt to get into Red Eyed Fly for Haerts fails, and a tweet from inside describes it as packed with industry types. Dinner beckons. In the span of the next hour, I separately meet the bookers of Bowery Ballroom and Piano’s, my two favorite New York clubs, so I guess I’m all set for CMJ. Hillary, Misha and I walk over to Congress to take the bus south, a possibility I hadn’t envisioned in four years of 20-minute walks to Guero’s. I’m from Los Angeles: I’m not even sure we still have buses. We reach Homeslice Pizza in time to order the best pie west of the Mississippi and catch the last three songs of High Highs’ outdoor set, the New York dream-pop band alight with romance and the sinking sun. They play a note-perfect cover of “A Real Hero,” the striking song from the Drive soundtrack that beat the rest of my iTunes library into synthesizer submission in 2011. A woman in a wedding dress watches from the back of the crowd, the show an unplanned reception. There is a Lovin’ Spoonful song about this called “Do You Believe in Magic?” I believe in SXSW.
On that note, Slow Magic takes the stage next, wearing an obnoxiously large mask—holler at you later, SBTRKT—and playing a blend of laptop samples and jackhammer live percussion. It is remarkably watchable, if not music I’d listen to right before bed. Hillary and I finish the pizza under the Congress bridge, watching the bats empty into the descending evening. At B.D. Riley’s, a Irish bar with the narrow architecture that’s ubiquitous on 6th Street, Brothers in Law play a Captured Tracks-worthy set, all reverb and rhythmic hypnosis. They’re Italian, and I run into Jonathan Clancy again, supporting his countrymen—there must be a dream-pop/New Wave scene hiding over there, waiting for bloggers to fully devour. For every band you see at SXSW, it’s hard not to imagine the half-dozen in line behind it, playing local shows and saving for next year. Few things feel as exciting or frustrating as music’s endlessness.
My night’s nowhere near done. At the next bar over, the sound of a band called Sidney York draws me in—a rarity in my SXSW hyper-scheduling, but when the magnet pulls, I let it. When I look them up on YouTube after, I find an aggravating ukulele post-Zooey Deschanel dystopia, but the live show shimmers with Stars-style electric indie-pop. The Secretly Canadian showcase is full, so plans to see Night Beds are abandoned for another half-hour with Fear of Men, playing at Valhalla—an odd room with more video games and a long hallway into the side stage, where the band plays to an intimate audience. The hits — “Your Side,” “Born,” nearly all of Early Fragments — sound as much like winners as they did on Tuesday, brighter and cleaner than the nostalgic takes on record. When I go to write this diary days later, that is the album I will put on repeat.
At 8 p.m., I walk into a mostly empty Beerland to see Waxahatchee, whose performance at the Pitchfork party that afternoon seems like another lifetime. The mystery of SXSW is why certain shows are the cramped stuff of legend and others are bad gigs, over before they’re begun. This isn’t a bad gig — the room fills once the set starts — but it is boring enough to get me to leave halfway through. On record, Katie Crutchfield’s spare songwriting has potency and heart, but as a three-piece, 15 minutes of aimless punk made me wish I was seeing her sister’s band, Swearin’. The show was $10 for everyone: Beerland does not suffer badge-holders lightly.
I’ve been assigned to see Snoop Lion, formerly Snoop Dogg, at Viceland. My last Vice party, 2011’s closing event, was a mess of free shit, frantic punk and sheer terror. After confusion at the main entrance, I head to security for the alleged press gate. I recognize the publicist, thank Jah. “I’ve been waiting a long time for you,” he says. I am on time! But not for the opening acts. I leave that negotiation to my editors and walk in, with one guard checking my ID and the other my badge. A petite woman with an all-access badge is next in line. She introduces herself as Jessica, staring me down as if I should recognize her. I’ve been out all day, I’m dazed: is she another publicist I’ve forgotten? Can she direct me to Snoop? She asks if I want to get a drink now or wait until after the show; I tell her, uh, I need to cover the set, and walk off. My wife explains to me later that she was hitting on me. It is the least weird thing that happens in the next hour.
Snoop divides his set between reggae, rap, and rap-reggae remixes, including the reggae version of “Drop It Like It’s Hot.” Really. For a doobie-sized chunk of the set, I can’t get into the main room: Snoop fans, or Vice ones, came to party. Viceland could be an air hanger: it’s enormous, which must be how the smell of pot doesn’t fill the building. The cavernous second room is full of vodka bottles and corporate sponsorship. People start leaving and I make my way forward to see Snoop give a terse, emotional speech about school shootings. There is a line in “Drop It Like It’s Hot” about an AK-47 which goes unedited minutes before; Snoop’s commitment to his Reincarnation, and how his past—and much of hip-hop’s—will reconcile with his present remains to be seen. But no second thoughts are needed when he covers “Jump Around” and the whole air hanger jumps with him.
Friday, March 15
I wish I could say my night ended with Snoop Lion, but at 5 a.m., I find myself wrapping up my review on the hotel’s second floor as Kyle edits photos. “Is there a show we can go to right now?” I’m joking. I’m not joking. 45 minutes later, we’re at the W, in line for the KGSR taping. I thought 8:30 a.m. crowds were flat-out bonkers: turns out, they’d been there all day. The first 300 people through the door get free breakfast tacos: we do not get free breakfast tacos. The KGSR line seems to be an older crowd, the kind that’s crazy like a fox for the day’s main attractions: Steve Earle, on about four delirious hours later, and Third Eye Blind at 9. Third Eye Blind. For this and breakfast tacos, 300-plus people are in line at 5:45 a.m. at a boutique hotel. Kyle and I spend $10 on the stupid tacos and think seriously about waiting it out to hear “Jumper.”
Ostensibly, I am in Austin this year to moderate a panel: “Guiltless Pleasures: Imagining a Post-Snob World.” At 11:36 a.m., I check into the panelist lounge and wait for Simon, my co-panelist. Lindsay, our third, will be Skyping in. I have slept possibly three and a half hours. Simon arrives, we bro-hug and head directly for the panelist refreshments: I remember the cookies from last year. They remain delicious, buttery and rich. After some technical issues and a moment of Skype panic, we pull Lindsay up on Google Hangouts and finish our prep. At 12:30 p.m., our room has maybe 20 people in it, which is about 19 more than I thought would show up. My wife waves.
The panel goes pretty well. We talk about modern snobs — the High Fidelity archetype, the Justin Bieber superfan who refuses to listen to One Direction, and the internet, where those worlds collide and possibly, begin to disintegrate. We define a snob as someone who imposes his or her taste on others. The goal isn’t necessarily to promote omnivorous listening — just to explore why Spotify and YouTube and our era of access hasn’t yet made it the norm, and how in some ways, it’s reinforced the power of snobbery. I’m trying to argue in favor of being open-minded: that “good” and “bad” are fake terms for fan purposes, that Radiohead may be more “important” than Taylor Swift but one person’s love of either act shouldn’t be. Chuck Eddy, a famous rock critic whose face I don’t recognize, raises his hand and interrupts the panel. He’s hearing assumptions he doesn’t like. I ask him to sit down, we’ll do a Q&A shortly. The Q&A, which we almost skipped, winds up being the best part—this needs to be a conversation, one that keeps going and ends with us all on the same page, given the multiple implications of all these loaded terms. It is a nerdier hour than any of the time I spent playing Magic: The Gathering in Kansas and I love every minute.
On the way out, Jim DeRogatis, another famous rock critic and one whose books I own, approaches us and says nice things and gives us avuncular advice. “Who are the snobs?” he says. “You should call them out. I would call them out.” I believe him. We part ways and head to lunch at South Bites. I order the chicken and waffles from Waffle Bus, a sort of sandwich involving two waffles and, yes, a hot, spicy lump of dead bird. It’s the second time I’ve had it this week. Simon and I are a little shell-shocked. One of my editors at MTV joins us and we have an intense discussion about the panel, to the point where it doesn’t occur to me that my friend Sarah’s handsome friend is Alfred Darlington, A.K.A. Los Angeles beat-scene godfather Daedelus. He introduces himself as Alfred and we have a pleasant conversation about living in West L.A. and Venice Blvd. bars; I give him my business card and we talk about getting cocktails at Oldfield’s. Please email me, sir.
At this point, I feel good: alert, strong, past the previous day’s muscle fatigue. Perhaps 27 isn’t so old. I order the first beer of the day and we head to the Stereogum party at Hype Hotel for Kitty, who plays a hilarious, ambivalent set that reveals her as 1) a solid technical MC 2) an embarrassed, amusing actual human being who wants to play for her screaming fans, not the 1 p.m. hangover crew. Apparently nobody told her touring sometimes sucks. But it’s nice to see someone be a person and not an entertainer or a keyboard zombie for once, and the songs she gets through are poignant and great.
Youth Lagoon, however, is a keyboard zombie. I don’t blame him — his new album is a huge step up in ambition and complexity, and playing it must require his full attention. But the show could be more sonically textured, and the band’s set-up just isn’t enough to capture the album’s myriad layers.
The highlight of the whole week — close encounters with rock critics aside — comes that evening at the Daytrotter house, where bands have been stopping by to tape three-song live sessions all week. Daytrotter has long been one of the better sites generated by the music blog era; so many of its documents of touring indie bands over the last few years, from the National to ARMS, are the essential ones. The site’s taste is unquestionable: on this day, it has lined up the Canadian singer-songwriter Hayden and the Zombies — the original ones. “I’m more excited for Hayden,” I tell Hillary on the walk into the east side, toward an anonymous little house next to a recording studio. This is a stupid thing to say.
Hayden’s Skyscraper National Park is one of my all-time favorite albums, which I tell him as we walk into the backyard after his session. The taping went well enough, with three strong takes tracked after removing a wobbly pop filter. He claims he made an error on a piano bit, but no one else can hear it. His voice sounds like the creaks in a hardwood floor. When I bring up Skyscraper, he warms. We take a portrait in the backyard and he’s smiling, his grey-flecked beard curling up around his lips.
Inside, we’re waiting for the Zombies. The Daytrotter house is a few square feet bigger than the one my friend rents in Lawrence: there’s a front room for guitar playing, a tiny living room stuffed with recording apparatus, a coach and a piano, and a kitchen in the back. A drum set’s hidden behind a closed door. The Zombies have brought comet-dust trailing in their wake, a dozen or so people who squeeze in the hallway behind us. There are just two of the remaining Zombies today, original members Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent, and their soundcheck is like watching your amiable grandpa, the secret Miles Davis sideman. They are all self-deprecation and good manners, nervous about flubbing a take.
Once the reverbs have been sorted, the ‘60s heroes perform four perfect songs in a row: “This Will Be Our Year,” “Any Other Way,” “Time of the Season” and “She’s Not There.” Blunstone’s voice has lowered from its youthful tenor but remains clear and true; Argent’s piano mastery is the most impressive instrumentation I’ve seen all week. A Wikipedia perusal will tell you that there was a time this band wasn’t named among the great pop craftsman of all time: how impossible does that feel? From three feet away, my heart expanding in my chest, unthinkable.
They finish. They’re grateful. Everyone applauds. A Daytrotter engineer tries to communicate how special the evening has been as they pose for a photo and they brush the praise off, kindly. I follow them outside to ask for a quick portrait and my God, they say yes and stand up. Blunstone towers over Argent and I try to get the aperture right.
We walk back toward downtown, glowing in the dark. That was the ideal SXSW experience: special bands, a unique setting, the feeling that music means more than a ticket or a set list or a haircut. Christ. We think about experiences that could be better: Neil Young playing “I Am a Child.” Paul McCartney playing “Yesterday.” I’ve seen all my favorite modern bands many times over, gone to hundreds of shows, and fewer than a handful of times — Elliott Smith at the Henry Fonda, Jon Brion’s last show at Largo on Fairfax, Daft Punk at Coachella — has the imprint of history felt stamped on the evening. If only Daytrotter could record the feelings in the room along with the lovely music.
No contemporary act made prettier sounds to my ears at SXSW than the Staves, the second sister trio of the week and certainly the more polished. The folk group took the stage for the second year at the St. David’s History Cathedral, backed by a rhythm section though in no immediate need of them. Their debut, Dead & Born & Grown, was produced by Glyn and Ethan Johns, which means it sounds as clear and gorgeous as an acoustic album can sound. But the way their voices intertwine takes on an unimagined power live; it’s the kind of music that makes your heart hurt. For such sad, longing songs, the sisters maintain the day’s British self-deprecation streak: their between-song banter is poised and funny. They should tour with Jeff Tweedy.
Our geography dictates eating dinner at Cozzoli’s Pizza, a mom-and-pop Sbarro’s; we enter as Future and his entourage, Kyle in tow, head out. The next day, I’ll wonder what he ordered. There’s no lasagna in the front. “Do you have lasagna?” They do. Someone will bake it for me. It arrives looking like a New York suburb after Hurricane Sandy, spread over the plate with total disregard for lasagna modesty. I eat half of it and all of the burnt garlic bread.
At Silhouette, our entrance to Archie Pelago’s set is stopped by a badge-only edict: Hillary can’t get in and for once, I have no one inside to text. Defeated, we head back to the hotel. I start editing photos as the rest of the night’s plans falter and blink. I wanted to see King Tuff and Wavves bring L.A. snot-rockets to Bar 96: this is too ambitious. My body weakens and crumples into the fetal position and I close my eyes.
Saturday, March 16
I wake up feeling nauseated. I get back under the covers and lie there, waiting for the feeling to pass. As long as I’m in bed, I don’t feel like barfing. The lasagna bubbles to the back of my throat. I give up: I drink a bottle of water and decide to catch up on sleep for the afternoon. The phrase “too old for this shit” comes to mind, though this is the hardest–and most sleep-deprived–I’ve ever hit SXSW. At 3 p.m., I think about going to get food. (I do not get food.)
Hillary calls at 4. I walk downstairs to meet her at the crepe place by the hotel, the combination of wind, sun and my general discomfort making it impossible to tell how feverish I am. I order a vegetarian crepe with no cheese and an orange juice. The waitress hands me a from-concentrate bottle, which makes me sad, as does the realization that the orange juice’s acidity may wreak havoc on my stomach. I steer my fork away from the crepe’s tomatoes and pick out the spinach. I don’t feel awful, just tenuous. I would rather not vomit in the middle of the Hype Hotel. I go back to bed. Around 7, we walk to Frank, the forever-trendy gourmet hot dog restaurant, with an hour until the Ravens & Chimes show. The Frank wait is ridiculous, so we head up Congress and I buy a Jamba Juice. I finish two-thirds of it before my stomach tells me I’ve had enough.
Ravens, a literary-minded band halfway between the Arcade Fire and Okkervil River, open the show with a new song. It’s great, a lengthier piece with more movements than their previous work. They seem confident, in control: the songs are played with live energy but without breaking the songs’ speed limits. Asher, the band’s frontman, smiles as he plays, an expression not seen often enough on stage. He shouts out Hillary and me at the end, which has happened before—it is adorable and I feel lucky to be his and Rebecca’s friend. (Full disclosure: I wrote the bio for their sophomore album, which I did because I loved it.) We say hi after the show and make plans, real ones, to meet in New York in May.
I’m approached by a man who introduces himself as Johnny. I wait a beat for the second half, “I’m with [publication].” It doesn’t come. Instead, I get, “I read your blog and you tweeted to come here.” The Internet is real. He liked the band. We talk about our weeks. He’s nice. It’s rare to encounter a reader who is only a reader—frankly, I can’t remember the last time it happened.
We meet Simon for dinner at Moonshine. I eat most of a spinach salad, no dressing. Hillary orders meatloaf and grits, which look and smell tremendous. My stomach grimaces. Next year. Simon tells us about his interviews and New York real estate and we talk about Portland.
Wiped, we head back to the hotel. I edit photos. At midnight, I’m suddenly starving; I walk to the bodega next door in basketball shorts, holding my wallet, and spend two of my last dollars on Nutrigrain bars. The clerk, certainly the Americanized son of the store’s owner, the tiny, motherly woman at the next register, sounds relieved to be finishing up the week. Being outgoing and curious in Austin has gone so well and so generally warmly that it makes me feel like I should maintain that energy. People just want to tell their stories. The Nutrigrain bars, strawberry and blueberry, go down successfully; everything feels possible. I sleep.
Sunday, March 17
My alarm rings at 9:40 a.m., early enough for the free hotel breakfast. My stomach feels merciful and I eat a bowl of oatmeal. We pack up, check out and walk down 1st Street to Torchy’s Tacos’ closest location. There’s a line, but it moves quickly, and I need the time to sort out the menu anyway. After my Guero’s misstep, I am intent on the right order: a breakfast taco and one with seared tuna. 10 minutes later, watching Kyle and Hillary eating fried avocado, there can be no right order.
We spend an idle hour on South Congress. Stag, as good a menswear store as I’ve ever been to, proves the power of #menswear blogs with the presence of brands such as Saturdays NYC and Herschel—though local flavor, such as Imogene + Willie and Baldwin makes the cut as well. The store’s also twice as big as the average menswear boutique–as important as curation is, it’s nice to be able to find your size. Perhaps that’s a metaphor for how best to experience SXSW, or just a slight on Los Angeles rent. At any rate, a week’s waffle eating doesn’t keep me from squeezing into the last half-off pair of Baldwin jeans and I rush them to the sales counter. Hillary likes them. “They’re going to lower my sperm count, but I’m buying them,” I tell her.
In retaliation, my stomach guides us to Amy’s Ice Cream. I order Mexican vanilla with cookie dough, which the barista – creamista? – pounds in with vigor. It’s fantastic. I sit on a bench in the baking sun and eat it slowly until there’s nothing left but melted drops of once-frozen dairy lining the cup. Last meal.
I wipe my beard with a napkin and prepare to part ways with Austin once more. We get in a cab and I look at my phone. The hashtag has already vanished from Twitter like last night’s empty beers. But SXSW never really ends. In airport security, I run into four members of the Portals collective, rounding out my staff meetings from earlier in the week. We’re all tired and giddy with a week of memories and our awaiting beds. Tim and I agree to hang out in L.A. soon. Promises, promises, promises.