by Morgan Davis
Photo Portrait by Carlos J. Matos
Ovrld and the SIMS Foundation recently partned for a Cultural Arts Division-funded portait project titled Heart of the City (which you can donate to here). Spearheaded by our own Carlos J. Matos, the project aims to put faces to the struggle of music industry professionals in Austin with beautiful portaits of 12 of those professionals, ranging from performers to sound technicians to radio personalities. We also interviewed each of the subjects and will be releasing the full interviews throughout the year. We previously shared our conversations with veteran singer-songwriter Gina Chavez, KUTX personality KUTX DJ Laurie Gallardo, veteran hip hop duo Riders Against the Storm, beloved Austin producer and musician Jim Eno, Mohawk stage manager “Jesus” Josh Siebert, prolific fan favorite singer-songwriter Betty Soo and today we’re excited to bring a freewheeling conversation with secret Austin music VIP Aaron Miller, who has booked for a number of vital venues, co-founded Austin’s first hip hop festival Weird City and creates music as Multi-tracker.
Morgan Davis for Ovrld: Aaron, you’re actually an Austin native, so you’re kind of a rare breed at this point but it gives you a distinct perspective on how things have changed in the community. So instead of asking you about your journey to Austin, I want to ask you about how you think things have changed in the time you’ve lived here.
Aaron Miller: You might have to help me on that one by getting me to focus on a specific topic. Is this music or traffic or buildings?
Ovrld: Specifically music.
AM: It’s interesting, I have a totally stereotypical hippie parent story where my parents, at least my mom, took me out a lot, for the entertainment and also for single mom convenience. Like “Kid’s going to the show, I get some peace…”
Ovrld: Music as babysitting…
AM: Right, yeah. I can’t say I was aware of it, I just went to a lot of stuff with her. It seemed like a normal element out in the culture. I guess as an actual child it’s hard for me to separate that environment from where we are now, whatever this is. There’s stuff I can’t remember— my mom says she took me to a Frank Zappa show at the Armadillo [World Headquarters], that kind of thing. Lots of Auditorium Shores free shit. I just wasn’t very culturally aware.
I had played guitar since I was ten. It was my first instrument. I was always just like “I don’t know, I’ll see what I like and I’ll learn it and I’ll do it.” I went to lots of shows alone because I was a weirdo as a kid. As a teenager you can’t do a lot of shit but you can go to a show.
Then maybe when I was in late high school I started meeting people like Nick Moulos from Attack Formation and the Crack Pipes. It was just when I started meeting my musician friends.
Ovrld: A lot of that whole (in)Sect Records team came up together at the same time in the scene, right? And did a lot of different projects together…
AM: Yeah, the older dudes. Because I’m like the oldest dude on the roster. Some of then I know from college and high school age, but some of them have met in like the last five years. But yeah, as far as the music thing, it was just sort of there when I was growing up. I didn’t necessarily become aware of it then. I wouldn’t say I’ve done it professionally, there are other people doing it professionally and making money, or not making money. But I was just intrigued by it throughout my twenties and then I started working in bars.
A friend got me a door guy job at the Red Eyed Fly, it was a rowdy, excessive kind of space. Not from me, because I just got there and was like “Show me what to do!” My first boss dude in the bar world was this guy named Handsome Joel, he died later in a tragedy, he was a much beloved local figure. But it was sort of like being schooled. I started working in bars just so I could get my hands near a stage and be near the process, even just helping the sound dude do something. Mostly it was breaking up fights or taking out the trash or whatever. I did some goof off stuff there.
I think The Ritz was probably the first place that let me book a show. It was a trial by fire. It taught you the stresses of being in a venue. What the stress is like for musicians. These aren’t just hobbies for some of these people, they’re trying to make a living, or at least supplement a living. I did maximum two or three shows at The Ritz while I worked there for two or three years. But they were good ones. Like Tia Carrera early on and this Japanese band Mono. I was basically not even doing it right. Like making my flyers and not doing the direct contact. I would just hit people up and be like “Who can you get to do this for me?” and then they would get it and then I would just be like “Okay, I think it’s gonna be on this day and it’s upstairs” and I would just like wait for everyone else to show up and do the work for me and I’d be like “Hey! I booked a show!” But they happened and some of them went off pretty nicely. But you were working with people who would very bluntly say “You better bring some people to this fucking room tonight because we’ve gotta make money, because these people are trying to eat and if you fuck up we won’t let you do it again.”
I think the first place that let me book for real for real, on an extended basis, was Club De Ville. It was in the chain of bar jobs. I had plenty of other cool jobs and local jobs. Coincidentally, lots of local owned stuff. I worked for Thundercloud, a flowershop, I Luv Video, stuff like that. I worked at Club De Ville for a hot minute, like six or eight months. Then basically ended up trying to get a job at the Mohawk when it first opened.
I worked at the Mohawk for like six months. Some of those people are still there and it’s still awesome. That place right out of the gate was too big of a machine for me to fuck with. I was like “I don’t know if I want to mess with this stage.” Then I was like “Oh, I wonder if they’ll give me my old job back at Club De Ville” and they did and I worked there for like six years. Will Rhodes was the booker, or resident guy. That was when Club De Ville was in a weird place. Because before the Mohawk and when Stubb’s was still young, Club De Ville was like the shit, it was the most amazing bar downtown for a solid five or six years.
By the time I got back, it had sort of gone into its Wild West period of like times changed, you’ve got the best venue in the country right next door to you and maybe like the third best venue in the country across the street from you. There was like no competition. So Will just started doing whatever he wanted to. I begged him and begged him for like a year to let me do some shows, like “For real, give me the calendar, let me do some stuff, give me some dates.” And we would just do whatever we wanted to, book hodgepodge shows. He had a different set of taste and we had a brilliant sound guy, he was self taught. And Will begrudgingly let me do it.
By default I became one of the bookers even though I was just door and security everywhere. That added pressure, because you’d book shows and people would be like “What’s up with this door guy, why’s he hollering at me at shows?” Because people either love the door guy or they hate the door guy. People have weird boundaries when they’re used to being drunk around you all the time, and touching you and fighting with their significant others ten inches from your head like you’re not there, then you find out it’s some dude in a band and you’ve got to be like “Hey dude, you’re on in ten minutes, sorry you thought I was a door guy, I’m also running your show.” That’s not the most positive way to do things but that’s how I did it at Club De Ville, pretty much running shows from the door.
After a couple years of that, Will and I were in sync and we booked some shit and we put on some good shit.
Ovrld: It definitely seems like there’s a lot of trial by fire things that happen in Austin music.
AM: Yeah, definitely. I always liked to book sort of incoherent shows. Loud stuff, weird stuff, rap stuff, quiet stuff. Getting hands on bands that blow people’s minds way way way early. People that are now doing well, who I probably didn’t pay, or underpaid. I’m still on good terms with people but that’s what goes with getting in early. It’s almost to the you name it local group and I probably booked them at least once and I am certain there are people who don’t even know who did that show they were on that they enjoyed. Hopefully it’s not like “Oh, that’s that show where they ripped us off.”
Ovrld: Do you feel like that part of it shows that people are not giving dues to the people who are doing it? Or that’s kind of a thankless position because they don’t know what you’re doing and what goes into that job?
AM: Yeah, it’s totally thankless. I mean, you cover music, so I’m sure you see how the mechanics work. Like money doesn’t just come out of thin air because you have a pretty voice or you can hit a lick or you have some good records. There’s some kind of work to be done and there’s a division of labor that’s fun to watch when it’s working well and it’s miserable and thankless when it’s not working well because you do, sometimes, as a booker be like “What do you want me to do, man? Play the show for you?” Because they really disconnect sometimes or people think the talent dictates exposure and I don’t think that’s really been the case since like the fucking Renaissance [laughs]. You have to go show off every now and then!
Ovrld: Right, you have to hustle.
AM: Or at least pick the guy in the band who wants to show off the most and let him do all the work. And booking shows to me is like being in the band and never getting to play the show. But it also gives me opportunity to…dead end job or not, there’s a lot of free time in downtown spaces, like you’re getting paid to socialize and wait and maybe see if anybody punches somebody, or grab weirdos and throw them out of the bar. Or clean something up. You get to see all the people networking, it’s almost like this meta-networking thing. People just funnel you information. It’s like being some not-so-secret agent, because you’re always up in everybody’s business whether you like it or not.
I didn’t really seek it out but it’s cool to see people networking. You see bands go from “Who are you?” to blow the fuck up real quick. Basically whoever you didn’t know about five or six years ago, a lot of those people are doing extremely well now. They’re making movie soundtracks, or scoring your favorite Netflix show right now. That kind of stuff.
AM: I know! I totally booked them before, dude. They probably don’t care in the least. We definitely didn’t pay them enough but I love them so much. Mostly from loitering at Switched On because I obsessively hoard gear of all kinds. It’s like watching the connections form there in the scene. At first it was like “Oh my god, what is this beautiful place.” On the first day I was just loitering there, and it was fun because as much I like to talk about gear, those guys really talk that talk. Even if it’s like 30 minutes, they will talk your ear off about every piece of that gear. And I would buy some stuff every time I was there. Then I learned those guys were in a band and I was like “How is this possible, do they just funnel shit from the store to the stage?”
I’m really good at making a small show feel important. It’s just logistics and money and I don’t really have a tolerance for bullshit when somebody else’s money is on the line. When it’s not even money I’m going to make there’s this weird pressure. It’s a strange kind of pressure to be responsible for a revenue generating arm in a business. But when it’s an entertainment business, everything is so subjective, and it could be the weather, it could be the lights, it could be there was an ambulance in front of the club at 7:30 and it looked weird so nobody decided to come to your place tonight. There are so many variables that make or break a show. And there’s all kinds of stuff that makes it go well. The stars could totally line up and you’ve got that one show everybody wants to see and it’s booked on a Tuesday and there’s nothing around it for a hundred miles and it’s the only cool thing that people want to be at.
I’ve totally been something like a confidant, or maybe adviser, maybe henchman. Me and my friend Emily Strong, who used to work for Soundcheck Magazine, we were just like “Let’s spend some money on a show.” She was one of the serious bloggers, she took this little niche and she took it so seriously, like she didn’t do drugs, she didn’t drink a whole lot, she just loved music and she heard about everything you ever liked before you did and then if she saw a show she would wait after for the band and she would ask them questions and buy them dinner and get their phone number and build these contacts. She made friends with all these people, like internet friends for real. She knew Will [Wiesenfeld] of Baths and she wanted to get him on a show at Club De Ville and she said “If you make this happen I will love you forever,” so we put it together and turnout was pretty insane for that place.
Ovrld: Yeah, I remember that show.
AM: His album was like #1 in electronic on iTunes or whatever. We were just feeling ourselves on that show. And the other ones, eh, they didn’t do so great. But they were easily just as magical and strange and brain feeder shit. And I was like “Oh, man, I think I would rather help someone with an idea than watch them do it better than me, and maybe get on as a customer.” Because for me— and this may be the most selfish part of the interview— the same part of me that made me gravitate towards shows downtown just to get paid to socialize, I just really prefer for people to put together something that’s so cool I have to like beg to be involved in it. If that makes sense.
It’s like, man, you can get some cool shows when your friends are involved and they’re doing cool things.
Ovrld: I feel like that connects to your involvement with getting the hip hop scene in Austin more recognition.
AM: Yeah, and Club De Ville was always a weird place to do hip hop because when it was live and it went off and it was popping they were like “Aaron, that was badass!” Even people I had known for years, it was like breaking some kind of wall. It feels like racism, but it’s not quite racism, it’s like music racism…
AM: Yeah! And it’s almost like people are shocked when nothing bad happens! And there’s no bad vibes! And “Ooh, y’all made money at the bar!” and that. And it’s because we were not a shady club, we weren’t shady promoters, we didn’t put on a shady show where shady shit happens. It was like we were purveyors of culture.
I gravitate towards hip hop, it’s like my thing. I listen to everything. And I was joking to people at work that it’s like my goal, as far as music, to not be a snob but I enjoy being able to talk to anyone about what their favorite music is with very few loopholes. I like to be able to talk to my peers about what’s going on right now and happening and stuff that was going on when we were young. I listen to all kinds of prog rock and people can’t stand that I listen to it every day of my life and I listen to it obsessively the same way I do rap music. I hunger for new shit.
But I am selfish with the rap world. I will put it anywhere. I will cover it. I will make it happen. I will put it with weird shit. Or weird rappers with bands. Sometimes it’s a clash, sometimes people meet and see music they’ve never seen before. Sometimes they smile and work it into their music. They end up doing even weirder shit.
As much as that “Keep Austin Weird” thing has become a very self-aware, cornball sentiment, there was a very brief time before that graphic where people were just like “Fuck yeah, there’s weird shit going on over here, you should check it out!” Like the post-rock scene here in Austin in the ‘90s, it was the shit. There were phenomenal musicians. Their technique, their loudness, their creativity. That stuff is like when you can tell people are making music because they can’t fucking help it and if I can be involved and if I can be in seven fucking bands, I’m gonna do it, because I’ve gotta play this shit for everybody. It’s fun to watch people do that, to do their things, to work that shit out. I think I just mimic the parts of it I like best.
Ovrld: Do you think the electronic scene happening in Austin now is kind of similar to what was going on with that post-rock scene?
AM: Yeah, yeah, I do. I think it’s even more wild there because it’s like a boundary-less thing that’s not limited by what you can play. A lot of these dudes are musicians that are doing it on the side and doing it from a musical standpoint, but a lot of these dudes are these wunderkind, inspired people that I don’t know, the internet or something taught them to make beats and now they’re doing some of the finest music in the world. I would put Lo Phi up against any dude that presses buttons in some other town. He’s making fiery shit all the time. He makes it look easy.
There’s a lot of precision too. There are a lot of DJs with real pride in the craft here. There’s a lot of dudes that respect the divisions of labor because there are so many things a DJ does, right? Nobody can rock a party better than the fucking Breakaway dudes but they’re not gonna DJ battle right in front of you and let you rap on it, you know? There are dudes that will, there’s Austin Mic Exchange for that. No promo [laughs].
And then there’s the party rockers, there’s the workhorses, there’s the people that run the fucking party, they dictate to people how to party, like fucking Kid Slyce. Dudes like Applied Pressure. You see guys finding their niche and sucking everybody in.
More than half ass booking I just like going to shows. I’m not gonna book a show where a thousand people come but I will go to a show where a thousand people turn up. I enjoy being a customer. I enjoy being on stage. I enjoy playing shows much more than I do booking shows.
Ovrld: Do you think it’s become easier or harder for people to book in this town?
AM: Wayyyyy harder. Well, it depends on what you define as difficult. To me, it might seem kind of cynical, but I look back on my earliest memories of house shows and the co-ops and the small clubs and Flamingo [Cantina] and 710 and The Ritz and all that and I sometimes think it’s difficult for those people that are like running their own little shit and they care so much about their scene and they are literally just breaking their backs. Every moment they’re not working their job, every moment they can get to hone and fine tune their craft and curate these parties, that seems incredibly difficult to me to do out of pure love and hope it pays off, because so often it just never pays off. And people keep doing it. I mean, there are a million people in town who have been doing something awesome for 20 years and that’s inspiring but the spiritual side is difficult. Keeping your spirits up when everyone is like “Where’s my money at?” It’s definitely difficult when you’re doing it for the love and you can’t get through a wall because you don’t have the money, and you don’t know the guy with the money.
I’m really not good at hype man type behavior. I get frustrated easily with myself. Basically if I find myself putting into too much effort kissing ass just to get a phone number or a favor or some advice…a lot of the time you want to go ask somebody “How do you do that thing so well? Can I get involved?” and they’re like “No! It’s mine!” A lot of people share but some don’t.
I think also we’re spoiled. We’re oversaturated with venues. Overstimulated. There are, I don’t know, 40, 50 shows a week, from tiniest to like a stadium. And then there’s this exaggerated version of this you get at SXSW, that you get at ACL, that you get at Fun Fun Fun, even within the festival culture here there’s these divisions of like “That’s my festival,” “I like that one,” “I like this one because it’s small and out of town,” “I like this one because it’s right up on top of all of my shit.” You can get what you want musically anywhere you want at any time in this town.
Then there’s this trend, or I don’t know if it’s a trend, where something just happens organically and draws in crowds but the shows started getting bigger. Real big. Four or five bands turned into six or eight bands turned into ten bands turned into ten bands and a fashion shoot and a raffle and live screen printing and maybe there’s two days in a row of that and you’re edging right up on being a festival and you’re giving away free food now.
I remember in my days as a door man booking shows and getting yelled at, “Aaron, why did you book a show like this? You could have split it up into three days and made three times the money.” And now that shit keeps happening and it’s dogpiling. I’ve probably been guilty of it myself. I know I have. I remember setting up this KOOP event and thinking “Wouldn’t it be crazy to put the KOOP DJs on four stages like they’re all on the air at the same time? It will blow people’s minds!” And for the like four people that were there it was intense. And on paper it was like “This is pretty fucking cool,” and it was cool, but it was cool and hard. It was difficult. I was like “Ohhh, that’s what happens when you try to do too much in a day.”
Ovrld: The final question I’ve been asking people is if you were to pass on information to yourself that you know now back when you were first starting, what would it be?
AM: Uh, do it right [laughs]. And I think, more specifically, it’s like do your homework. Know what you’re doing. Learn how to be nice. Took me five years to figure out how to send a goddamn email right. But yeah, basically do your homework. Realize that even if you’re going to do something semi-professionally, go ahead and be good at it because the people you’re courting, all this runs on social capital. And all that stuff about “How do you get this talent I’ve heard so much about?” or “How do we get so and so’s band to play here?” or “Can this band get their friends’ band to play here?” it’s all predicated on not being a dick and maybe not promising too much.
You can donate to the Heart of the City project here. Heart of the City is funded in part by the Cultural Arts Division of the City of Austin Economic Development Department. Thank you to our sponsors Rojo Hospitality and Distinctive Life.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City, the multimedia collective he co-runs. When he isn’t doing that, he gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes here at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.