Split between fresh-faced and full of expectation to back home and a little jet-lagged, Irish acts Robocobra Quartet, A.S. Fanning, Jealous of the Birds, Ryan Vail, Ciaran Lavery and Birds of Olympus report back from this year’s South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.
Chris Ryan (Robocobra Quartet)
SXSW: The Land of 2000 Line-Checks
I really like watching bands line-check. A line-check is like an extremely stunted sound-check. At festivals there’s literally no time other than 15 minutes before your set for you to plug in and hope everything sounds alright. Watching a band line-check is a true insight to the human condition; even the cockiest lead guitar players quiver when their monitor wedge sounds terrible and they have no time to [mesa boogie triple] rectify the problem.
Austin, TX’s gigantic bulging beast of a music festival, SXSW, is extremely industry-centric. As much as it is about playing in front of your would-be fans, it’s about ‘showcasing’ to music industry types. If I was big label-head Ricky Starmaker going to check out one of the two thousand or so artists on the bill, I’d pay more attention to the line-checks than the show.
The reason is simple: If you show up 15 minutes before a band’s set, you feel like Attenborough observing four or so humans interacting and working things out as a hive mind. You get to see how they treat each other and how they behave in the wild, communicating in technical tongues with stage managers and sound techs under extreme pressure.
Admittedly, most bands can play their own songs quite well and it’s rare that a show is revelatory so the best chance you have to stare right into the soul of a musician is in that 15 minute gap before they play at a festival. That’s when you either find out that the drummer is a piece of shit or, alternatively, you become so endeared by the group’s collective patience for one another and their excitement to play their favourite music to a new audience that you’ve been made into a fan before you’ve even heard a note.
SXSW has so much going on it’s hard to take in. Every street has people queuing for different venues. With so many acts from all over the world it can be very overwhelming. On my first day here I’ve already played my first show and seen bands from Germany, the USA, Australia and Portugal.
Second day here and it’s the Output showcase on a boat. We turned up to a massively over subscribed showcase, which the cream of the music industry are all standing waiting to get on. With whispers of ” we are going to need a bigger boat next year” we set sail.
Jealous of the Birds
Since the city’s motto is “Keep Austin weird!” you tend to encounter some strange things on the street during SXSW. I saw a man walking his two pet ferrets on a leash and taking pictures with people, a guy on the sidewalk rapping at a dalmatian puppy, someone dressed in a Chewbacca costume in thirty degree heat, and a huddle of women in traditional Amish clothes in the middle of 6th Street.
This of course is all secondary to the music that just sizzles out from every bar and venue across downtown. Within a few footsteps I could go from hearing funk, to punk rock, to hip-hop, to indie. That’s ultimately what’s great about SXSW. It doesn’t discriminate between genres, cultures or artistic sensibilities. If you can strip back the industry etiquette, at its core it’s still just about having people play good music together — to be part of a collective sense that something human and vital is happening.
I was fortunate that I got to play some full band shows this year like the BBC Radio 2 showcase at the British Music Embassy, which was definitely a highlight. But I’d say my favourite moment was going to see Girlpool play at a venue called Elysium. A year ago I saw them perform on a London rooftop back when they didn’t have a drummer and their first record was out. This time they could be explosive playing new songs with a full band, but still leave room for the delicacy, vocal harmony and lyrical vulnerability that first blew me away.
It’s quite lovely to be back in Austin again. The weather is great and so far I’ve avoided sun burn so – in the words of D-Ream – things can only get better.
There is an intensity to the festival that I’m sure everyone speaks of and it’s very true. It is almost impossible to turn a corner without meeting at least a handful of bands with tons of equipment and the buzz that exists on the street can be felt right underneath your feet. It can be simultaneously eye opening and overbearing. I have yet to meet any real cowboys so far, but this I hope to rectify before we depart on Saturday.
All in all, it’s been a grand old time, though it’s still early days and there is much to see and do.
South by Southwest is very intense. In the best possible way for a musician. Gigs happening everywhere and crowds of people up and down 6th street and the surrounding areas, and permanent lines outside the bigger venues. Couple that with my personal sleeping situation, on the floor between two beds in a motel on the northern outskirts of Austin, and, exciting and stimulating as it is, you can imagine that I occasionally felt the need for some respite.
I found it in a small Mexican bar a couple of doors from the seemingly unending queues for Hotel Vegas. A group of men sitting on the steps outside and a less-than-friendly dog couldn’t deter me from a $3 beer known as an Armodelo – a can of Mexican beer with tabasco and lime juice generously poured onto the rim of the can. When I ordered my second the barmaid asked me for ID for a second time, apologising ‘I’m sorry hon, y’all look the same to me’. I guessed she meant the musos and SXSW crowds and took it in the spirit in which it was offered, returning there several times over the course of the week and was greeted warmly each time, though the dog never got any friendlier.
Birds of Olympus
They say in Austin it’s easy to fall between the cracks and get lost in the music. Stepping foot on 6th street for the first time you realize the incomprehensible scale of SXSW.
The city’s heartbeat becomes a crescendo, dictated by a culture-clash of new music oozing through the doors of each venue. On the streets, there’s a palpable energy, with thousands of people moving through the city’s veins all at once. SXSW is a river ready to sweep you away at any time.
We were fortunate enough to play five showcases during our time in Austin. Each gig brought it’s own atmosphere, from the wild Irish at BD Riley’s to a local texan crowd on the closing night at Central Presbyterian Church – for an almost unheard of new band, getting to play to a responsive new audience each night was very special.
The best part of SXSW was getting to make genuine connections with other great artists from different musical landscapes, and learning that southern hospitality is not a myth.
Strangers loaned us gear, came to our gigs, bought us drinks, replaced a tire on our van, and let us party on their boat – we had a blast.
SXSW your chaos is beautiful and Austin your people are inspiring.