Basically every convention or festival is some kind of all-you-can-eat buffet, full of opportunities to sample and explore and otherwise fill your plate, but SXSW is the arts buffet as Ragnarok, an apocalyptic feast where your senses are all fighting one another for control until the event ends and the world starts over. And if you’re a workaholic like me, it’s even worse.
Every year I attend SXSW, I make a mental note to hold back the next year, and the second day of Stickers showcases pushed me to a new breaking point because of how poorly I heeded my own warning from the previous year. Like I mentioned earlier, I went into this year expecting to take it pretty easy, just covering film, until Stickers wound up on a handful of showcases. But I also play drums in a Wavves-like duo called Team 2nd Place, and both of my bands had agreed to hop on a SXSW party at Mozart’s, a cafe located on Lake Austin. I didn’t know both bands would be playing the same bill when I agreed to it, but that’s not much of an excuse for my musical masochism.
Even without the double booking, I knew this was going to be a tough show. Mozart’s was new to the SXSW experience, since they’re located a decent length away from the main stretch of SXSW and typically have a crowd that skews young. But my brother works at Mozart’s and campaigned hard to get the cafe to do SXSW stuff, and my bandmate in Team 2nd Place, Alex, is also a Mozart’s employee, so it was as much a show for solidarity as it was for anything else. Besides, something you learn early on about SXSW is that every place becomes a venue, no matter how ill-suited to being a venue it is.
What Mozart’s has going for it that, say, the Wendy’s parking lot doesn’t is a beautiful location and plenty of space. When we first arrived at the cafe, Vorcha, a local post-rock trio, was set up in what the cafe calls the “grotto,” a little alcove below the main patio with stone walls and direct access to the water. For a group like Vorcha, who have a heavy, spacy sound and no vocals, that’s a perfect spot that can make up for typical SXSW issues, like unpredictable crowds and a constant feeling that you’re being rushed. Unusual spaces are usually a hassle, but when they’re actually interesting and effective, it can make for a special kind of show.
For Stickers’ set, Mozart’s wanted us to move up to the top part of the patio, which would give us a bigger audience and made more sense for our simpler, more dialed back sound. The drawback was that there wasn’t as much lighting and there were no walls for the music to bounce off of. Usually, even if you’re playing an outdoor venue, the stage has a backdrop or some kind of acoustic treatment so that your sound isn’t completely disappearing into the ether, but the only substantial thing behind my kit was an old tree. This was mostly a problem for me, since much of our sound is dependent on our singer Kate’s keyboards and in order to stay in time I needed to hear what she was playing. Kate also needed to be able to hear herself and the lack of monitors made that pretty difficult. The ducks heckling us from the lake didn’t help much, either.
Shitty sound is an inevitability at SXSW and there’s only so much you can do to minimize it. You’re often dealing with unorthodox spaces that normally don’t have to deal with sound and even in proper venues, there’s everything from overworked live sound engineers to unforeseen technical difficulties keeping you from sounding your best. The key is to keep calm and collected and remind yourself that chances are, the people you’re working with are equally frustrated by all the challenges of SXSW and you have a show to do. Crowds don’t really care about whatever technical mishaps you’re dealing with, especially the kinds of crowds you get at an event like SXSW, where there are hundreds of other shows they could go to instead.
We were fortunate that the weather was perfect while we played, which helped smooth over the sound problems, and you really couldn’t ask for better scenery. I don’t know what it sounded like from the crowd’s perspective, but I felt like it was a fun set, and the bulk of the crowd were new to us, which is always welcome. I felt less sure about Team 2nd Place’s set, mostly because I went straight from playing Stickers’ indie pop to Team 2nd Place’s punk without much of a break in between, and I was already exhausted from screenings and putting that FADER Fort wristband to use earlier in the day (for the record, the Fort is not worth it and all your friends who tell you otherwise are only doing so because they don’t want to be the only ones who got conned). Also, the venue wasn’t exactly a match for Team 2nd Place’s sound in the same way it was for Stickers; quaint cafes in rich neighborhoods don’t lend themselves to punk bands, no matter how poppy they might be. But we did drown out those asshole ducks, so I’d call it a success.
Next: Closing out SXSW on a high note at Cheer Up Charlie’s
– Morgan Davis