My Rant from SXSW (South By Southwest) in Austin, TX.
Before I leave the comfort and sanity of my Upper West Side brownstone, I have spent weeks pondering the task at hand. Do I kick back and enjoy the music and excitement of discovering new artists to share with you readers and viewers of our content? Or do I further my business partner Richard's goal and convince all the hip marketing and sales people that will be exploiting their brands on the conference floor that they should be doing business with us? (Sure, why not.)
Many have suggested that SXSW has become a corporate sellout. That it's become the Spring Break for the music industry; a chance to schmooze and hang out all hours of the night watching music, getting drunk, and maybe get lucky enough to discover the next music heavyweight champion of the world. We leave early Wednesday and will fly into Dallas where we'll pick up our "super-sized" RV and begin our journey with Colonel Kurtz up the river. I'll let you know what we uncover as we roll through the week in our CC RV with our Culture Crash Crew.
SUNDAY, THE 12th of MARCH, NYC
3 days to launch...
Sunday morning, pissing rain. I hope it clears up because I'm supposed to shoot a vidcast interview with artist Gary Baseman. He's in from L.A. and I've been chasing him down for months. If you don't know him by now, you don't much about pop culture, because Mr. Baseman has infiltrated many, many of its corners -- from his whacked illustrations in tons of national periodicals and gallery shows to his daily Emmy Award-winning animated series Teacher's Pet to his crazed vinyl toys. I own all four of his "Splash n' Burn" figures.
Anyway, the next task after taping the interview is figuring out if we're going to host an unofficial SXSW pizza party with some really hip psychedelic bands from L.A., the U.K., Australia, and other points outside of my insulated world of New York. I've checked out these bands in advance thanks to L.A.-based documentarian Ange's enthusiastic emails and myspace links. Yesterday, I actually downloaded a number of their tracks off of iTunes. I was blown away by many of the tracks. (Download "Taken" by The Quarter After immediately.) The Morning After Girls, The High Dials, The Lovetones, The Quarter After, and The Black Angels sound like they've discovered a time machine and hung out in L.A. and San Francisco circa '67. Very encouraging and exciting music from some very talented young musicians. Can't wait to see them in action on stage or, I hope, in front of our RV in a parking lot!
Need to find my SXSW band list and start targeting venues, too. Well, maybe not. With the CC RV we can pull up anywhere in Austin and jump-start a party. Pod and vidcasting should be a snap if we get decent content. Mike Dias from Ultimate Ears has his finger on the trigger, too. The dude can galvanize a scene instantly. Better call him and ask him what he's targeting.
MONDAY, THE 13th of MARCH, NYC
Got up early and started in on the press release assault to friends and foe heading to Austin. Many of the bands can be had in NYC so we're looking for special cases, special situations to shoot vidcasts with bands using the Austin City Limits as our stage.
Check out the bats under the Congress bridge!" screamed my friend Glenn from the 63rd Street Y's Writer's Voice program. He'd just returned from Austin and was amped on the bats.
I thought he meant the alt rock band The Bats from New Zealand. Wonder what happened to them? I check AMG and find out that 23 years on they still play out with the same original line-up and even released a new CD last year. I'll have to investigate further.
So I ping my partner Richard and he tells me he's secured a parking space for our CC RV. And dig this, it's only a block away from the bats. We will commune, observe, photograph, sing, and howl to them every night. Bonus points for moi: I really dug Batman Returns, too, if you're keeping score at home.
Back to band recognition insanity... I blast away on cleaning our vid and podcast equipment while waiting for a telephone call from publicist Angie Carlson about legendary folk-rock troubadour Billy Bragg hooking up with us. I'm hoping I can walk him into a Walmart and let him play for the people a la Woody Guthrie. It would be amazing and we'll have cameras blazing if I can pull it off. Take the message to the people Dust Bowl style.
And speaking of the British, er, the Irish, the Belfast-based duo Oppenheimer has struck a chord with me and I'm working on an acoustic gig with them. I wonder how their quirky Jon Brion-like synth pop will translate to an acoustic guitar and portable Casio. Could be rather wicked, if I do say so myself. Some of the CC music love we plan to share includes: Dale Watson, Echo & The Bunnymen, Judith Owen and her hubby Harry Shearer (Derek Smalls), Gomez, Merz, Billy Joe Shaver, and the dude (John Hawkes) from HBO's Deadwood's band King Straggler -- a Waits-ey roots-rock trio that ain't half-bad. The test is always live!
We shall see and hear, taste and feel.
TUESDAY, THE 14th of MARCH, NYC
It's show time, folks. Tomorrow bright and early me and my crew fly south to begin our assault on Austin. I've been busy checking the gear, finishing up some last minute podcasts (Henry Rollins), and figuring out our first shoot for Wednesday. Time to pack it in and grab some sleep.
WEDNESDAY, 15th of MARCH, NYC/AUSTIN
Eight miles high. Atlanta-to-Dallas bound and I bump into producer/lead guitarist Roger Greenawalt. He's aping for the very pretty 'Bama-bred, NYC-based sister duo The Pierces. I ask him what they're all about. He offers, "they're a "witchy Stevie Nicks, Kate Bush kinda sound."
He cues up the track "Three Wishes" on his iPod. I cue up my vidcast interview/performance with Mark Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon). We trade iPods.
Wonderful voices. The girls have an engaging folk rock sensibility, more like a hybrid of Sandy Denny or Maddy Prior (Steeleye Span) meets Gillian Welch. Very string driven, multi-vocal layered ballad replete with delicate acoustic guitars, mandolin, finger snaps, bass, kettle drum, and fiddle by fellow NYC roots-rocker Deni Bonet. I've known Deni for some time as we've traveled the same singer/songwriter circle for the past ten years or so.
Their next song "Boring" really resonates with me. It's the ultimate bitch slap to party girls everywhere. A wonderfully scathing indictment of Paris Hilton and other jet setting bubble-headed hedonists. I dig the simple Yma Sumac-like arrangement. During the chanted verses the sisters list all that most social climbers aspire -- international travel, sex, drugs, fashion, booze, food, love, marriage, and even child birth.
When they launch into this very catchy chorus -- "No one thrills us anymore/No one kills us anymore/Life is such a chore/When it's boring" -- I'm praying "E" will license it immediately as the channel's theme song. Can't wait to see them live. If not in Austin, then certainly back in New York. In the interim, head directly to The Pierces website. So refreshing in these overly retreaded, musically challenged times. Lizard King will be releasing their debut soon. The label that dropped The Killers into your living room.
Pick up the CC RV in Royse City and Walter drives south to Austin; well, after a stop at Walmart for some motor-home survival essentials. We finally arrive in Austin and we hook up with one of our PAs, a local dude named Matt. LATE NIGHT. Echo & The Bunnymen, Spoon. Tapes 'N Tapes. Tequila. Egg tacos at 2 am. And we're off and running at the private Blender magazine party. Hangin' out backstage talking guitars, German progressive rock bands, and why Liverpool's football team has balls with Bunny guitarist Will Sergeant. Nice man, soft spoken and just as passionate about his progressive rock as moi. He even gives me two of his solo CDs from some DJing he's done in Liverpool. Glide: Space Age Freak Out (Ochre) quickly becomes one of CC RV's most cherised CDs. Very cool trance, chill out music with just enough prog to keep us both happy. Me and Richard shoot the first four songs and then crawl back to our CC RV to collapse after a 22-hour day.
THURSDAY, 16th of MARCH, AUSTIN
Gotta move the CC RV. The man don't want us in his bank parking lot. Go figure. We hook up our rig outside the Convention Hall and slam into all kinds of cool kitties and kats.
Local music hero and charismatic honky tonker Dale Watson drops by to share life and song for a future podcast and vidcast. Folks, Mr. Watson is the real deal; a talented storyteller with a kick ass band and a voice deeper than a rancher's well. His new documentary Crazy Again will be coming to you real soon through the lens of Hollywood director Zalman King (9 1/2 Weeks, Red Shoe Diaries).
Next up is Universal's new favorite Texas-based alt rock act Blue October. Believe it or not, they were dropped by them just a few short years earlier only to be signed again. I guess you can go back home. A rare thing in this music industry. Richard tapes their sound check and my interview with lead singer Justin Furstenfeld. I normally don't drink kool-aid from the same trough of the majors, but these lads deliver. Given their chops, road tested live shows, enormous SW fan base, and rich music, they should be popping very soon.
Then it's off to shoot a vidcast with Ian McCulloch of Echo at the stately Driscoll Hotel (built in the mid-19th century). We talk of Sinatra and Pete Hamill's tome Why Sinatra Matters, the nature of man's Viking tendencies, and the lasting impact of The Bunnymen.
Later that night he and his mates headline a free outdoor concert and they are magnificent. A haunting rendition of "Killing Moon" swells and recedes under the backdrop of a near full moon. Afterwards, den mother Melissa drags him to on CC RV and then over to the Hilton for cocktails and tales from publicist Jody Miller and her beau Stanley, the Cooking Vinyl men, and some other UK music industry freaks. Jesus Speed finally rolls in from NY and they fall right into step. Let the party begin.
Gotta meet Mike D. and his UE crew at Stubbs. Gomez and Nickel Creek. Amazing. Talk about organic...
FRIDAY, 17th of MARCH, AUSTIN. (ST. PATRICK'S DAY)
The morning is spent organizing our Guerilla marketing campaign by Walter, Richard, and our local hire Matt. I get restless and peel off to check out some muzak.
Not one to shy away from crashing a party, I grab Melissa and two video cameras and race to catch a band locked on my radar. We make it just in time for Vice magazine's afternoon delight at the Victory Cafe.
If you fancy guitar rock mining the shoe gazer/psychedelic quadrant then The Morning After Girls from Australia will be your new favorite quintet. Plenty of black and detached coolness with copious amounts of fuzz and din to inspire the listless, restless, and bored music industry elite. Frontmen/guitarists/vocalists Sacha Lucashenko and Martin B. Sleeman will escort your mind to new realms of perception. It's a perfectly engaging trip.
Immediately after their revelatory set, a tiny van with huge PA speakers gaffer-taped to the roof roars up the grassy knoll next to the stage and stops. The side door slides open and out pop 4 punk rockers (2 guitars, bass and singer) who launch into song with their drummer hunched over his kit inside the van and begin their wailing, buzz saw assault. They're Teenage Harlots from San Fran and it's the coolest shit I've seen so far. Talk about guerilla punk rock marketing on wheels. So simple, yet so genius.
The crowd surrounds them and before you can whistle "Sheena Was A Punk Rocker" they roll up their handmade cotton sheet billboard, jump back into the van and roar away. A stunned crowd whipped into a happy frenzy walk away smiling.
Happy hour at the CC RV. But it doesn't last long. I drag Robert Vickers out and hoof it over to the Bar/None showcase and tape the sound check of the new Belfast-based quirky synth-pop duo Oppenheimer. They get a standing ovation from the other bands and patrons waiting for the evening to begin. I arrange a sit-down with them for Saturday AM.
About an hour later, me and Matt and Melissa are strolling down 5th Street after taping my home-boy James and his super-octane rawk and roll trio Jesus Speed. Melissa some how gets dragged into a side door of a nondescript building. We follow blindly. Doesn't take long to realize it's the Mexico-Arte Museum and private reception for a new documentary entitled Los Lonely Boys: Cottonfields and Crossroads by filmmaker Hector Galån. And damn, it's the Garza brothers ripping it up live for about 80 sweaty listeners. Soon after their blistering set, Ms. Melissa's inviting them to hang out with us on Saturday. Los Lonely Boys got the certain somethin' without tryin' too hard.
Cab it to Stubbs for some BBQ where I bump into local Austin git tech and all around righteous dude Riley Moss. He apologizes for Joe Ely's incommunicado. (He gave me his phone number the day before.) After entertaining our table with some hilarious rowdy road rock stories, he promises me he'll arrange a sit down with Charlie Sexton. That suits me just fine as his Dylan road stories are certainly pod worthy.
Where does it begin and when will it end? So it goes in the world of spring break music madness. Too much to hear, see, and feel. Sitting in the Red Bull House, a marketing device of wicked proportions and the perfect backdrop, situated just off the beaten path, I update this blog. As I type and unwind new UK grime rapper Lady Sovereign throws down her nursery school rhymes to a thrilled crowd in the other room. No caffeine-infused ingredients required.
I wander outside to a chain link fenced courtyard where Mike D. Carmen, Richard, and Vanessa suck down cocktails while scoping out a tribe of Capoeiristas demonstrating their skills next to two basketball courts. And yeah, some cavemen are actually playing 3-on-3 ball in a courtyard full of disinterested females.
SATURDAY, 18th of MARCH, AUSTIN
A bleak, rainy morning comes up fast and it's time for a too-early vidcast interview with Oppenheimer. High school chemistry teacher and falsetto vocalist/drummer Shaun and mad Moog/guitarist/vocoder partner Rocky are a much-welcomed addition to scene-stealers looking to snap their gum and fingers in unison. They're so very polite for nursing brutal hangovers and the wrath of their legendary sound man who was last seen Hoovering the floor of a Denny's at 4am. Next up is the most unique sounding band I discovered prior to heading to Austin.
They Shoot Horses, Don't They was a cool movie but also happens to be a cool seven-piece performance art/music band from Vancouver who deconstruct the fabric of contemporary music and reassemble it in their own freshly oblique fashion. Who do they sound like? Comparing them to anyone would be a huge disservice. Richard and I shoot their early afternoon show at Emo's and grabbed leader Nut Brown for a quick interview.
Afterwards, I pack my laptop and dash over to the convention center for some wifi time to check mounting emails. I'm not there 20 minutes when I get a call from the LA-based French actress/singer-songwriter/painter Maylin. (Props to Glenn Morrow at Bar/None for the hot tip.) She's heading to the CC RV to drop off her CD. I scramble back and we hang out and talk of music and the state of life in LA. But I don't have much time to chat cuz I've got yet another show to shoot.
Richard and I hustle over to tape the King Straggler showcase at Six. Actor/musician John Hawkes (of HBO's Deadwood) and his boys offer up their rootsy folk-rock stew. And guess what? There's Maylin! Synchronicity? Divine-inspiration? Naw, just the magic of music.
After Mike D. and his posse shut down their booth we start our happy hour and order carry-out BBQ from Stubb's. We'll actually I give Melissa my credit card and send her on a food and beverage run.
Before you know it, all kinds of folks are crammed into the CC RV to grab a beer, a shot of tequila, some BBQ, and a tune on our acoustic guitar. It's grand finale time and officially the last night of SXSW. It'll be a sprint to the finish. Before I can suggest some music, 'cuz I'm not tapping shit tonight, no friggin' way, our den mother Melissa is up my ass about Grady. She's been busting my balls for two weeks about seeing one band and one band only and tonight it's time for me to appease her female arm twisting. No matter that I'm exhausted and just want to kick back and do my own thing. Grady stops by and drops off two CDs and asks me if I'll be there tonight. What can I say? I'm trapped.
Well, I'm happy to report that Grady (aka Gordie Johnson from the Canadian hard rock/dub reggae band Big Sugar) and his monstrous trio kicked up a shit storm at the Dirty Dog. Mr. Grady wailed on his double neck Gibson playing blues and country licks while headbangers and line-dancers alike boogied all through his high octane set. Me? I crawled all over the stage shooting from every angle, smiling from ear to ear.
The Living Things are quite the buzz band these days and for good reason. Rock music with no silly frills, catchy tunes and plenty of rawk attitude. But when they had to cancel their gig due to family tragedy at the Dirty Dog things looked like they might get ugly.
Enter their very capable replacement. Bad Wizard are from Brooklyn and they are the kings of New York in my school. They are big, loud, genius hard rock band that is fronted by the incredibly charismatic and completely in control front man Curtis. Two screaming talented guitarists - Tina and Eddie - frame him while he tears up song after song flailing away on stage, patting the heads of his guitarists, and throwing beer at his adoring audience. Their high octane set buried any longing for the regularly scheduled band.
Still time to catch The Pretenders at Stubb's. The place is a mobbed, but Richard and Carmen push their way to the very front. From one Akron-born Kid to another, she done us proud...
SUNDAY, 19th of MARCH, AUSTIN
Raining again. What a way to close out the weekend.
Grady stops by for his Q&A session with me. And Matt has arranged a last minute vidcast with local folk-rock hero Pink Nasty. We grab the gear and guitars and head over for burgers, beers, and an impromptu courtyard performance from Ms. Nasty who is anything but that. I guess growing up in an Amish community can do that to a gal. (Not that there's anything wrong with the Amish.) But I bet she's pretty cool cuz she played in Bonnie Prince Billy's touring band last year at the ripe ol' age of 23. How's that for chops?
Time to grab some t-shirts for the kids and then pack it up and start our long drive back to Dallas. Richard is trying like hell to get the stain off the RV from the colored paper that has watermarked the front of the RV. While he's working on it, Gates -- Willie Nelson's longtime bus driver -- walks over and offers some suggestions. Just then Riley arrived with Charlie Sexton swag and before you can say -- "Let's drive bumper to bumper in the rain to Dallas" -- Richard is behind the wheel of the CC RV driving bumper to bumper in the rain all the way to Dallas. We spend one last night on CC RV on the lot of the RV rental joint and early Monday AM catch our flight back to New York City.
What more can I say? We made it back with plenty of cool content.
Mr. Wright is the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released 3 solo CDs and a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was an agent at the William Morris Agency!