Goin Down South
By all accounts, the South by Southwest Music Festival and Conference this week in Austin, Texas, is huge. Take the crowd you’d see at a sold-out show at the Uptown, multiply it by a couple thousand, spread it over five or six days, then factor in all the journalists, promoters, booking agents, record label reps, interns, money people and miscellaneous hangers-on from every corner of the music industry. Throw in 1,300-plus bands (many of which are famous; most of which aren’t), douse the whole thing in enough beer to flood Louisiana, and you have some idea of the teeming mass of humanity that is SXSW. The official music showcase runs Wednesday through Sunday, but hundreds of peripheral, unofficial or even anti-festival shows rock the city all week.
If SXSW really were indie heaven, though, then every band would play a great show and leave with a lucrative recording contract. The wristbands wouldn’t sell out, and everyone would get to see every show they wanted.
I’ve never been to South by Southwest. As it turns out, neither have several area bands that are bravely trekking to Austin this week. Others are old pros. In any case, the country’s biggest independent music (and now film and “interactive media”) festival will not be devoid of representatives from Kansas City and Lawrence. Among them, three attitudes seem to be prevalent: relaxed, hopeful and fuck-it-let’s-party.
Closer to the first camp is Brodie Rush. First of all, the man just needs a vacation.
“I’m excited about the fact that I’m getting out of town,” he says. “I need to get out of town before I kill myself or someone else.”
The band he leads, Be/Non, is known for its revolving-door membership (how many members since inception, 25?). Still, several weeks before SXSW wasn’t the best time for the drummer, Brody Doores, to quit. Luckily, Architects drummer Adam Phillips was willing to step in, saving Be/Non’s SXSW bid.
“Adam fucking rules,” Rush says. “It’s real exciting and fresh. He gives a great example of the kind of professionalism and musicianship that is needed for the part.”
Still, Rush, who has never been to SXSW, isn’t overly excited about the event’s logistics.
“I can’t get too excited about driving 500 miles [make that 738] to play for 30 minutes for no money. If I’m gonna have fun, I’m gonna know when I get down there.”
Be/Non is playing in a showcase of bands on local label Anodyne Records. Joining Rush’s crew are the Dark Circles and the Architects. Circles keyboardist and Anodyne owner John Hulston seems all business about making the trip. I spoke with him after seeing his band for the first time at Jilly’s last week. It’s a dark, noisy, melodic outfit led by guitarist and singer Byron Huhmann, who constantly sounds like he’s on the verge of breaking down, in a good way.
“We just want the bands to go down and have a good show and reach out,” Hulston said after the show. When it comes to the question of breaking big, Hulston is a realist.
“There’s so much competition,” he said. “It’s a sea of white vans. I think everyone wishes that South by Southwest was the way it used to be, with indie bands and unsigned bands. All the sponsorship that’s gone in has diluted it. It’d be nice if another festival would spring up.”
Of all the groups headed to Austin, White Whale may have it the best. This brand-new band from Lawrence already has a deal with prestigious North Carolina label Merge Records (Spoon, Dinosaur Jr. ) and has two definite SXSW appearances lined up. Airy-voiced singer and guitarist Matt Suggs has a history with the label, having released on Merge two solo records and four with his earlier band Butterglory.
White Whale drummer John Anderson talked about going to Austin to meet people in person with whom the band has been in contact online. Anderson hasn’t been to SXSW, but he’s been to the CMJ Music Marathon (a fall industry showcase in New York), so he’s familiar with this kind of event. Mostly, he wants to have a good time.
“There’s no stars in our eyes, man, that’s for sure,” Anderson says. “Of course, we want to play to as many people as possible. I don’t think anybody knows who we are, because it’s a brand-new band.”
The kickass and unjustly unsigned Ad Astra Per Aspera is anything but new. Nonetheless, leader Mike Tuley — one of the most underrated singers and guitar-noise experimentalists in town — feels that his band’s Wednesday night show will be the most important of its career. Still, his hopes aren’t completely through the roof.
“We hope something will happen. We hope we’ll either meet up with an independent record label that would like to distribute our record and help us tour and maybe meet a booking agent — that would be ideal,” he says. “We’re not hoping for a major label deal or an Ad Astra Per Aspera media explosion.”
The band’s strategy, according to Tuley: “Awkwardly standing next to people that we heard were important and trying to put a CD in their pocket.”
Tuley recalls a Sonic Youth concert at which Ad Astra drummer Kurt Lane Frisbeed one of his band’s CDs at guitarist Lee Renaldo after the Youth’s encore appearance. A roadie picked it up, and Ad Astra never heard from Renaldo. Better luck in Austin, Kurt.
Last on the list is Architects bassist Zach Phillips, a four-time SXSW veteran who’s all about rocking out and having fun. “I love playing early in the day, packing up the trailer and hitting the town.”
Not surprisingly, Phillips doesn’t put much stock in the notion of a non-famous band being discovered and catapulted to fame via SXSW.
“Fuck that,” he says. “It’s like a giant barbecue.” Goin¹ Down South Local musicians gear up for a little hoedown in Austin.