Out of Step: Zen and the Art of SXSW

by Brian J. Audette

SXSW Music 2015

If all you can do during SXSW is complain about the crowds, the traffic, the spotlight hogging big names, the branding, and how “corporate” it has become, then you’re doing it wrong. Sure, all those things are real and valid concerns, but if you purport to love music and can’t find a way to enjoy the hell out of SXSW, then I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion. Maybe I’m the weird one though. Maybe I haven’t been dealing with SXSW long enough to become jaded by it, or maybe it’s simply that I’ve turned South By prep and execution into a yearly ritual experience.

It begins as I spend the month leading up to SXSW doing my homework. When it comes to music, I tend to only trust the opinions of a select few and even then, only for specific things. I’m not the kind of person who’s willing to accept someone else’s list of “Band’s You Need to See at SXSW”. I’m not looking for some hipster’s artisinal playlist of who’s hot and who’s not. I like to curate my own list, first composed of bands I already know I’m interested in and who are going to be in town and then combing through the 1200+ other acts for signs of musical life. Every year this process nearly destroys me.

I generally use Do512’s exhaustive Spotify playlist of officially showcasing SXSW artists as my starting point and over several weeks of listening to as much of each track as I can stand (sometimes less than 5 seconds) put together a list of acts I potentially want to see. Once I have that list I give it a listen and maybe drag in a few other tracks by the artists and ultimately end up with a list of 30 or so acts that I plan to seek out during SXSW. By the end, I’m usually sure that I hate all music and never want to hear another band again. Go ahead. Try it sometime. See if you can make it past your 20th R. Kelly wannabe and remain hopeful about the future of music.

About a week before SXSW Music kicks off I go back to my curated list and (having spent ample time convalescing) start getting excited about who I’m going to go out and hear. By this time the schedule is up online and I allow my South By OCD to kick in … I make the spreadsheet:

SXSW Spreadsheet

I generally run with a group of friends during SXSW and depending on how much prep they’ve done, we may have some conflicts in schedules. Even on my own I run into conflicts and while the SXSW web site and App are decent, I find my compressed spreadsheet format the best way to compose the data I need to plan and execute my SXSW week.

Every year there are a few “must see” acts on my list and while I try to steer away from locals if there is a conflict with an out of town band, I’ll usually show up to see my Austin faves whenever the schedule allows. This year I was way more excited about my SXSW schedule than previously. While I was initially less than enthusiastic after listening to 1200+ tracks that seemed to include way too much stuff I had no interest in, when I returned to my final list I found that it contained a lot of stuff I thought I could get into. Where 2014 saw what I considered to be a glut of synth pop hopefuls, few displaying what I would consider talent, my 2015 list gave me a bunch of picks that hit me right in my 90’s feels with shoegaze hazy indie rock, and that sound I still think of as “alternative.” Add to this the fact that Frank Turner (my Folk Punk soul mate) was going to be playing and I was really excited to get downtown for official showcases.

Now I know that many observe SXSW as an all day long bacchanal of shows and drinking, but I tend to stick to the official evening showcases that my SXSW wristband will get me into. Perhaps it’s my reluctance to buy into the day party RSVP frenzy of Fader Forts, Pitchfork palooza’s, and McDonald’s madness, that has allowed me to remain positive about SXSW all these years. It could also be that I’m a confessed music addict and SXSW is my Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Bat country indeed.



The Marmalakes representing local talent

The Marmalakes representing local talent

This year my SXSW excursion started at Empire on Tuesday March 17th where an excellent local showcase of groups I hadn’t seen in quite some time (SpeakMarmalakes, and Shakey Graves) was on offer. I’m still not sure how Empire generates the consistent line it has these past couple South By’s but at least this year it seemed more organized than last year’s sidewalk free-for-all. While I danced along to the local tunes, my friends picked up their wristbands at the convention center and (seeing the line at Empire) ducked into Red 7 for a bit. By the time I hopped over to meet them after Shakey Graves’ set, they were already gone, opting for a comedy showcase at Esther’s Follies. With a beer in hand and more interested in music than comedy, I decided to stick around at Red 7 and in doing so caught the tail end of Digital Wild’s set before moving over to Friends on 6th to catch Canadian Hip Hop group Grand Analog.

In my pre South By planning I had described Grand Analog as being like Minneapolis-style hip hop and if that doesn’t mean anything to you then I’m probably not the one to explain it. Think: Atmosphere or Cecil Otter, except with a bit of a reggae vibe. Grand Analog blew my expectations away and had the crowd in the palms of their hands for the entire set, singing along, dancing, and raising their hands in the air like they just didn’t care. Though throughly impressed with our Canadian neighbors, I left Friends after Grand Analog’s set and finally met up with my friends a couple doors down to catch locals Black Books for my final act of the night. Maybe I was just tired, maybe it was the thin and less than excited crowd, or maybe it was just that (unlike their upstairs counterpart) the sound in Parish Underground sucks, but Black Books just weren’t doing anything for me that night and along with my friends (several of whom had worked that day and would again the next day) I decided to call it a night.



Fight Like Apes

Fight Like Apes winning over the crowd despite technical difficulties

Wednesday night I was going to be running solo as my group (who unlike me had only taken Thursday and Friday off from work) decided to take it easy for a night and commit to the rest of the week instead. I certainly wasn’t going to let their withdrawal stop me though and I headed out to Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room to catch the Rilo Kiley-esque Irish rock/pop group Fight Like Apes, who wowed the crowd despite technical difficulties and got the night off the a great start. My next stop was across town at the Cedar Street Courtyard for “Flood Fest”, a showcase sponsored by Flood magazine. I was there to see Speedy Ortiz and whoever the act was before them, but as I learned after arriving, the event was a full hour behind schedule. I ended up catching the first act of the night, an apparently very popular world music group called Dotan whose first show in the US this was. They were decent, playing like a well oiled machine and bolstered by tons of percussion, and I didn’t mind having to catch their set at all. It became obvious that sticking around for another hour to catch Speedy Ortiz would cause me to miss LITE however and while I dig Speedy, Japanese post-rock wins out.

I hoofed it over to the Hideout Theater on Congress and got in early enough to catch the end of the act prior to LITE, an instrumental rock group from Mexico City called Run Golden Boys. Simply put: they rocked and I found myself wishing that I had skipped Flood Fest’s schedule agnostic event for this instead. As Run Golden Boys packed up, the Hideout Theater began to fill up. In the post rock world, LITE are definitely on the list of major players and they don’t make it over to the states very often so it seemed that I wasn’t the only one who understood what a rare and amazing opportunity this was. If you have any interest in instrumental rock at all, you need to see this group when they play live. Every time I see them they are incredibly, almost inhumanly tight, fusing the playfulness of jazz with an unimaginable mastery of technique. They’re a treat.

My final stop of the evening would take me to Red Eyed Fly to check out a shoegazey group called Talk in Tongues. It could have been the completely blown out sound levels at Red Eyed Fly and my lack of ear protection or may after LITE it was just too hard to get me impressed, but (while decent) Talk in Tongues didn’t leave me much to write about. It was only 1am after Red Eyed Fly and I could have caught another one of four groups on my list, but I was tired from walking all over the city and besides, Thursday night was Frank Turner.



Frank Turner SXSW

Frank Turner, sans band

The night started off when I joined my friends at Red 7 indoor for Ume. For some reason I’ve never seen Ume except for at SXSW, which is odd for a local group and I had no idea that frontwoman Lauren Larson was pregnant … 8 months pregnant! If you’ve ever seen Lauren perform before then you know that she simply owns whatever stage she’s on. For the duration of her set she’s a flurry of vocals, hair, and face-melting guitar licks. I was concerned how the pregnancy might affect a performance that I had been very much looking forward to. It turns out that even with child, Lauren cannot be stopped and though a little more fatigued and only slightly more reserved, she still owned the stage and proved that pregnant women rock!

Swapping indoor Red 7 for outdoor Red 7 we next settled in to wait for Frank Turner who wouldn’t be going on for another 2 hours. There were a couple of other acts in the area that I has also been interested in seeing, but I couldn’t risk not being up front for Frank and instead we sat around Red 7, drinking beers and listening to a procession of samey LA bands, each haircut more feathered and each riff more blandly pop rocky than the next. Finally around 11:30pm Frank went on for his solo set (he’s been touring around promoting his book and left the band at home) and I was right up front. For the next 45 minutes a sweaty group of people grinned widely and sang loudly along with Frank and like an old-fashioned tent revival I was reborn! Sweaty and hoarse, I stumbled out of Red 7 with my friends and even though I had planned to catch the end of Quiet Company’s set at Swan Dive and Happyness at Valhalla, decided to call it a night. Nothing else would live up to Frank that night, nothing.



Friday was a wash, literally. With pouring rain just before the start of the evening showcases and more on the way, we decided to stay in that evening and play board games instead. Had I not seen Frank the night before I’d have probably gone out anyway, but I was still riding high and Saturday showcases were looking to be quite a bit drier.



Hikes SXSW

Hikes, shooting some arpeggios towards the heavens

As Saturday loomed we learned that my friend Chris’ wife Ann had come down with a cold and that they would be staying in for the night. This is relevant mainly because when it comes to SXSW, Chris and Ann are cursed. Every year for the past three years one or both of them has gotten sick, causing them to miss one or more days of music. While they would be missed, the rest of us soldiered on, catching the far-less-interesting-in-person avante-pop act Dreamend at the still lousy-sounding Parish Underground and some punk/rock action at Holy Mountain in the form of Lifted Bells and Young Statues. Bolstered by the upbeat music we departed Holy Mountain and made the excursion over to Rainey street to close out the evening.

The first act we had come to see on Rainey were Otis the Destroyer a local group that never sounds the same to me live as they do recorded, but that are awesome to see regardless. Next was Hikes, a group that I had become very excited to see (I have a weakness for arpeggios) and didn’t realize until that day were also local. Both Otis and Hikes blew the doors off of Rainey’s Javelina and after George grabbed some drunken noodles from a nearby food truck, we headed to Lucille where I had what I hoped would be a real treat to end SXSW.

Based on the little that I had heard of this band on Spotify, No Brain were a Korean punk band and a really good one at that. To say that they didn’t disappoint live would be an understatement. They destroyed! Harnessing the hookiness of K-pop and the fury of punk, No Brain’s solid licks and commanding stage presence ignited the crowd at Lucille. The set had all the hallmarks of a great punk show: singing, pogoing, finger pointing, fist raising, and that community feeling you get from all great live music. It was the perfect way to end my SXSW. As George and Joe stuck around for a Russian band that would be coming on next I (somewhat regrettably now) stumbled off to head home, having hit a definite high point to end my week of music on.

SXSW may not be what it once was and the logistics are often nightmarish for bands and locals alike, but if you want music from all over the world right in your backyard, if you want to spend some time discovering something new and great, if you love this city and are willing to embrace the sheer luxury of being able to walk between dozens of venues for as many different shoes, then SXSW delivers. I still love South By and it’s less than a year now until it happens again.