SXSoothsayers: Recapping SXSW 2017’s Fader Fort

by Dylan Garsee and Kayleigh Hughes

Fader Fort 2017

One of the most hotly debated topics at SXSW this year was the immense shrinking of SXSW stalwart Fader Fort. Rather than take place in a giant stretch of undeveloped land in East Austin, this year’s Fader Fort was slim and intimate. So we asked Fader Fort vets Kayleigh Hughes and Dylan Garsee to recap their experiences with the new set-up and how it compared to years past.

Kayleigh Hughes: Okay, let’s get this Fader convo started. So, you and I have both been Austin locals during SXSW for about 7 or 8 years now, and we hit up Fader Fort most years. (Most for me, all, I think, for you.) Sitting on a very dusty plot of land in East Austin, it built itself into this enormous, fabled chaotic iconic space where you could experience the music that was going to rule the year before anyone else did. And then this year, due in part to the development of that land (and perhaps in part due to some lost sponsors), it moved to a smaller, more intimate space that is typically like, an art gallery I think.

My initial thoughts about Fader Fort, before I got there, was that maybe it’s just no longer the place to be. There was less hype, the smaller venue, no Converse partnership, no lineups released before the event started. But then I got there at like 2pm on the first day and I remembered how awesome it is to not be swallowed by an enormous crowd. The lack of “activities” (t-shirt making, bottle painting, crafts on crafts) made it feel less like this grand event, but it didn’t take away at all from the music. I got there during English teen prodigy rapper Dave’s set, and it was super refreshing to be able to walk right up to this small stage and see people there just to hear good music.

It might be snobbish, but I loved that it was invite only this year. We can talk more details later, but what were your initial experiences with the different venue? How did it feel to you?

Dylan Garsee: Fader Fort has this reputation of being THE set to get into because like the magazine, the showcase always gets acts right as they’re about to blow up. That combined with the exclusivity made the Fort in the past feel so special. This year might have been too small of a reduction for me. The stage was definitely more intimate and it was incredible to see acts like Lizzo and PWR BTTM so close but since there’s nowhere to go, people just camp at the stage until the headliner.

KH: Yeah, the DJ sets contributed to that too, for better and worse. Since they were in-between the main stage sets, there was always a “performance,” so there wasn’t really a place to go except for into the weird empty chairless rain room. But I mean, seeing Slim Jimmy and the rest of the Sremm Life crew just hanging out, laughing, and dancing in the DJ booth literally at floor level with the audience made it feel like you were all there together for the party. It really made me happy to be there for that. It felt very carefree. And I know it *was* super branded and fairly artificial, but it didn’t feel that way.

I see what you mean, though, about the smaller space. I was working during the two biggest days, which you went to. The day I stayed to the end was for Chloe x Halle, who were delightful and bright and inspirational, but not the biggest names by far. So I never felt the crowd-crush the way you must have for DRAM, Mike Will Made It, etc.

DG: It really felt more like a big house party with weaker drinks.

DRAM sadly seemed very tired after playing nearly every SXSW party. His set at last year’s Hype Hotel was a revelation. That set was that rare magical set where you can tell than the artist knows that they made it. The joy was all but gone a year later. I’m going to chalk that up to exhaustion though, DRAM is still perfect in my book.

I’m spoiled by Mike Will Made It at Fader because the last time I saw him at Fader he brought out Rae Sremmurd, RiFF RAFF, Future, and Miley Cyrus. This year’s guest: perennial SXSW performer 2 Chainz. It’s cool to see them in essentially a back yard, but it was a big step down.

I’m happy to hear about Chloe x Halle. Seeing them on the daily line-up was honestly the first time I saw their name. Which brings me to my next point: this was the first year I felt truly out of touch. Of the headliners, I only knew DRAM.

KH: Oh that’s interesting! Yeah, most of my must-sees were earlier-in-the-day acts, compared to headliners. I would have loved to see Lil’ Yachty but I made a stupid schedule mix-up and thought I could see Mykki Blanco somewhere else, so I ended up missing both.

I definitely really wanted to see Noname and she put on a really breezy, friendly performance, that, though she is clearly talented and very likeable, I was a little underwhelmed by honestly. I think her band overwhelmed her and she didn’t seem to be bringing everything she had.

My top acts from Fader (the days I was there) were Downtown Boys and Little Simz. Another writer I know had noted that seeing Downtown Boys in a small venue at night versus outside during the day would be more ideal, and I’m sure there’s some special magic to that, but holy shit can that band put on a show no matter where and when they are. The crowd was super not there for a punk band, but Victoria Ruiz won them over by performing with everything she had, with utter conviction and brutal punk rock passion. That band is why punk exists. I am so thankful that this band gets up onstage and celebrates what’s right and fights what’s wrong, no matter where they are.

Little Simz from England is just so cool, and her set was really energetic and her delivery was really sharp and confident. Her live performance of “Dead Body” was so fierce, she was practically screaming “do you wanna see a dead body” by the end and dancing like a badass.

I reallyyyy wanted to see Young M.A. Did you see her?? How was it?

DG: Mykki Blanco is a god damn legend. I saw them at Day For Night in Houston and that was next level.

Downtown Boys are one of those bands that benefit from a small venue. I saw them at Pitchfork’s day party and while I loved the energy, it did seem to evaporate into the SXSW miasma. They played the Third Man Showcase at Beerland which we watched from the outside and it seemed insane and perfect.

Little Simz is fucking cool and I’m so mad I missed her. Every year there seems to get an artist from Europe that tries to break out at SXSW. Hopefully Little Simz sticks more than Stromae and Christine and the Queens.

Young M.A. is an artist I 100% don’t get. Her big song “Ooouuu” feels like a boring version of “Hot N*****”. We left her set early to catch Otoboke Beaver, a Japanese band that 100% should have been at Fader.

KH: I can’t help it, I love Young M.A.’s vibe so much.

But can we talk about how Fader picks the Fort’s indie/rock acts?? Time goes by, and those bands just get more and more distant from the hip hop, rap and electronic stuff. Before I could see Noname, I had to sit through this band HOOPS, the most unoriginal, low-rent Real-Estate-From-7-Years-Ago white indie rock dudes, who just had no relevance, it felt like. I know pubs like Pitchfork and Fader like them and cover them, but I truly do not know why. There was just nothing special or forward thinking about them. People are into that “Gemini” single, and even though I am a self-obsessed Gemini, I couldn’t pick it out from all of their identical, generic songs.

Same with White Denim, who I was surprised were scheduled as late in the day as they were. They felt out of place, not just because they were rock, but because they didn’t feel like fresh, progressive, innovative, or exciting new rock.

DG: I’m v disappointed that Hoops the band isn’t Hoops from Flavor of Love, but you can’t always get what you want. White Denim I can kind of see because they’re localish but they haven’t released anything of note in at least 8 years.

Dams of the West have the distinction of being the only band fronted by a straight white guy I saw and they weren’t bad! It’s the drummer from Vampire Weekend and they share some of the same DNA. He spent a lot of the set shitting on all the corporate sponsorship which I will always laugh at.

Indie rock always seems to be on the verge of death, but this SXSW it was incredibly obvious that we’re in a sea change. The Spoon showcases were incredibly easy to get into, Real Estate played a tiny bar on Rainey. Future Islands had a big crowd for their Mohawk show but I still don’t think they’ve proven themselves past “Seasons.”

The biggest surprise to me was Cardi B. She’s from Love and Hip Hop and I immediately wrote her off as a reality star trying to cash in on her new fame. Everyone at the Fort was rapping along and everyone knew who she was. Her performance was very charismatic and her dancers were on point. I still think reality tv has yet to produce a truly great artist and Cardi B isn’t reinventing the wheel, but her charm and presence earns her a lot of good will.

KH: I’m so glad you said that. I was sort of embarrassed by how much I liked her: how, like you said, charming she was. She had to reschedule her Thursday set because she was running late, but she showed up to rap a couple verses at the DJ booth and apologize for the reschedule, and I just loved her.

Wow, I did not know who Dams of the West were and I feel so old. God bless the boys of Vampire Weekend for still not screwing it up yet. They’re all freaking great.

Who do you expect is most likely to blow up from the Fort this year? Remember Chvrches set that one year, which we were both at (but we didn’t know each other then?). I’m not sure anything felt like that for me, yet. Maybe Cardi B is on her way there, and I hope Little Simz finally breaks out in the U.S. Yachty and D.R.A.M. already broke. I think Downtown Boys are going to have their biggest year yet, but mainstream success isn’t really ever going to be their path (and that’s awesome/okay).

DG: I can definitely see Little Simz breaking out. If she can land a killer summer single that’s her ticket to mainstream success. I think Downtown Boys and Cardi B can be more successful in their relative spheres but as far as a full on Sam Smith or Chvrches Fader break out, I doubt it.

I think Kyle could break out. He already has a pretty buzzy single with “iSpy” which might be riding the Lil’ Yachty success but there are worse trains to hitch onto. He surfed the crowd!

KH: I forgot about the Sam Smith breakout. That happened.

I didn’t know anything about Kyle before. It sounds like he had a great set, so I’m excited to check him out.

Odds and ends-wise, how much did you cringe every time you saw that fake throne in the empty room?

DG: He’s cool! He had some killer dance moves at the Gucci Mane show too.

It was so funny seeing people charge their phone and look so bored on that throne. It seems like the second they set it up, Fader Fort just tried to pretend it didn’t exist.

Were you able to snatch a hat? I got one and immediately flattened the bill and took off the sticker because I’m punk af.

And can we all please forget Sam Smith. Please

KH: Okay, I knew cool kids kept the sticker on their hat, but when did they start keeping the little plastic tag on the top too? That confused me. I am one million years old.

Re: the throne/hat/etc., it was definitely so many notches below the level of swag/activities from years past. Converse pulling all sponsorship for SXSW music stuff played such a big part, I imagine. Just so much less money there.

I may be jaded, but that free kinda-cheesy stuff did nothing for me this year, even all over the fest as a whole. I feel like the Interactive brand-bleed from peak Tech Fever years is slowing, and that crowds are responding more to raw, unadorned stuff. Like, the Pitchfork party is just a big picnic in a field, and the She Shreds showcase was like a dirty grassy corner alleyway with cases of Lone Star on plastic tables, and those were some of the most refreshing spaces to me. It’s cool to see who shows up when there isn’t the chance to get free t-shirts or Fitbits or personalized gifs, just music. (Also, lol that the still-very-brand-plastered parties I’m talking about feel unadorned and genuine compared to years past)

DG: I think ever since Lady Gaga played a Doritos vending machine SXSW has definitely chilled out. There’s still branding and especially at a small space like Fader it’s stupid egregious but this was a much more low key year. People complain every year that SXSW is too big and too many people blah blah blah. They’re not wrong by any stretch of the imagination, but if you plan out and do a smidge of homework, SXSW becomes a much more appealing fest. Stick to one place, tip your bartenders, and bring some phone chargers. SXSW isn’t some crazy River Styx gate to hell like some people think it is.

On that note, all time favorite Fader Fort performance from any years past. I’d say mine is Destruction Unit in 2015. They for some reason booked a hardcore noise project in the opening slot the same day Rick Ross headlined. Nobody was into it, and it was amazing seeing the band completely relish in how much hate they were receiving.

Also Santigold debuting her Master of my Make Believe-era show was absolutely bonkers. She made her band get in a horse costume for god’s sake!

KH: Oh man, 2015 was the only year when I didn’t go to SXSW (was out of town) and that Fader Fort lineup is insane! Jesus Christ. Hard to see this year’s reaching those heights even in retrospect. Honestly, bc I’m a bouncy, dancey tacky girl who knows what gets her going, my best Fader Fort memories are Chromeo and that time Damon Albarn reunited the Gorillaz briefly.

DG: God Fader is a magical place where careers are made (Disclosure) and destroyed (Salem). I miss the old one dearly.

KH: It really does feel like we can’t go back in time.

DG: I saw the Future at Fader, but he only did two songs.

KH: Haha, the phrasing of that is so bleakly prophetic.

DG: I am a SXSoothsayer.