My seventh year of South By Southwest coverage is now an Austin-based memory for me, but thankfully I'm filled with a notebook of band reviews and stray observations to sift through.
Making sense of SXSW has long become a job for somebody else. Grasping at a big picture in between the long lines, the milling crowds of people and the constant low-level thump of hundreds of kick drums on repeat is ultimately a fool's errand. By now, I mostly stick to the comfort of my musical wheelhouse, gorging on hordes of garage, lo-fi pop, noisy psych-rock and punk-minded acts that play places like chic, eastside dive Hotel Vegas or the dank, dark but friendly confines of Beerland.
Chasing buzz acts can mostly be somebody else's job, as the chance of this year's crop of highly-touted up-and-comers (Eagulls, Drowners, Temples, Thumpers) surviving more than a few years seems remarkably slim. That's both a reality of real-time Internet buzz's fleeting fascinations and the entrenched fickleness of the music industry in general.
Fullerton, Calif.'s Burger Records has become something of its own genre, folding in all matter of garage-rocking, basement-popping heroes under its banner. They hosted shows all across Austin, but for the most part the Burger sound made its home at Hotel Vegas. Now the biggest Burger question is when one of their bands will breakthrough to become, at the very least, a major indie rock touring act. While the bet had long been on party-rockin' band Audacity to make that leap, now there is plenty more Burger bands clamoring for attention.
In past years, the faint smell of marijuana only permeated the air in the biggest open-air venues and at a select few shows. This year, it seemed as if pot smoke wafted across a good portion of the city. People felt free to light up a joint or hit a personal-sized metal bat or glass piece on patios and in the street across the city. What remains unanswered is if the mass tokings are a sign of the changing attitudes of those under 30 to smoking weed or just a symptom of festival life.
While Burger raises the banner for its brand of party-punk garage, the best sounds emanating from Red River Street club Beerland took nastier, angrier turns, highlighted by two different breeds of abrasive Detroit rock. Protomartyr, led by business-attired frontman Joe Casey, pummel with their heavy, menacing attack. The anthems lurk underneath, but Casey's scowl and pissed-off delivery add a meaner fuel to the fire. Meanwhile Tyvek rip through their songs with guitar riffs that cut into the sonic din, effectively conjuring up what Devo would have sounded if marinated in the DNA of the MC5 and the Stooges. Then there was Arizona's Destruction Unit, a garage-punk journey into heavy stoner rock, post-rock and the sort of sonic overload that previously only Swans could pull off.
A Dose of Buzz
So I did subject myself to a few of the must-see new bands -- acts that people seemed overly-eager to wait an hour or more for just a 30 minute slice of these acts. UK artist Charli XCX seems hellbent on crashing the charts next to Lorde and Lana del Rey. Her pop lean is evident in her playing a cover of "I Want Candy", but she also folds in elements of spiky British indie rock. Tons of commercial potential, but I can't remember a single song three days later. Eagulls, whose frontman does the disinterested asshole singer thing pretty well, also owe a lot to British music history, dropping a post-punk groove into its punk-pop smash-up. Perfect Pussy seemed a mismatch for their set at the sprawling Stubb's amphitheatre, sounding like their chaotic volume was merely a product of a souped-up PA system. They belong in a basement or dingy DIY venue. This year's biggest out-of-nowhere buzz act though was 4AD synthpop act Future Islands. The band's career seemed locked in place until earlier this month when frontman Sam Herring captured David Letterman's attention on the CBS Late Show, thanks to Herring's intense dance moves. This band is about to explode, especially with a stellar upcoming record Singles about to drop and a live show that shows Herring channeling the best of Morrissey and hardcore frontman in equal measure.
The best part of SXSW is no longer the discovery of a new act, but a chance to be overwhelmed by just how great a familiar band can be on stage. Piano-based songwriter Perfume Genius did just that at St. David's Historic Sanctuary, a downtown church that doubles as a SXSW venue. Mike Hadreas is Perfume Genius and his songs are simultaneously pretty, delicate, emotionally heavy, stark, and brittle. It was impossible to not be moved by such a fully-felt performance. Canadian goth-dance act TRUST also delivered a set that shattered my expectations, proving that maybe touring with the Faint has helped him push his own stage show to another level. It was a sweaty, dark dance party. Finally, I saw the Coachwhips three times, each set of the John Dwyer-fronted act elevating to another level. Thee Oh Sees' mastermind revisited his Casio keyboard-powered trio, which had dissolved right before the advent of Thee Oh Sees. The return was welcome and ended my SXSW at Beerland with a crush-mob huddled around the Coachwhips, who always play on the floor. The Coachwhips are too good to be sterilized by some artifical raised performance platform.