Four years ago I claimed that I would come back to Austin for South by Southwest every year until I die, and so far I’ve kept that promise.
You’ve probably heard a wide variety of accounts of the festival, and here’s why: SXSW is different every time, and for every person who attends. It’s not just the obvious fact that different bands are buzzing every year, and it’s not in the same way that, for example, Street Scene used to change venues all the time. SXSW is different every year because there is just so much stuff going on, and in such wildly different venues that it’s impossible to have the same experience twice. One day you’ll be in a narrow bar eating pancakes and nachos to soak up spiked fruit punch, while a Finnish psychedelic band plays in the corner. The next, you’ll be at a backyard barbecue eating bratwurst and sitting in a tree fort above a bluegrass band from New Jersey. Huge, established bands can be playing right next door to some crappy group your cousin put together last week.
If you go, it’s a good idea to keep a schedule on you, but throw any set plans out the window. At the festival, arenas compete with dive bars to pick the next big thing, and unpredictable hype can trigger lines around the block for a band that even your biggest music-geek buddy has never heard of. Places are always at capacity, and it doesn’t matter if you’re in the music industry or in a band — because so is everyone else. A friend of mine watched actor Adrian Grenier leave a stagnant line in a “this place blows” huff.
When entry seems impossible, your best bet, as we learned this year, is to say not “I’m with the band” or “I’m in a band,” but “I’m in the band that plays in 5 minutes.” Your mileage may vary, but when we applied this technique, my “publicist” and I were passed to a series of different staff communicating by walkie talkies. The last guy whisked us through the back entrance of the Fader Fort into a trailer, where we were given artist passes and strict instructions to hurry to the side of the stage because our bandmates were waiting for us. Luckily, we got a chance to duck into the crowd before I was shoved onstage with a guitar in my hands like in a sitcom, but a valuable lesson was learned regarding the ragtag organization of these impromptu showcases.
The beauty of the festival is that there are upwards of 2,000 bands there, so if the “I’m in a band” trick doesn’t work and you’re forced to wander from bar to bar looking for something interesting, the odds are actually in your favor. This is how we stumbled across Dead Sexy Inc. Like the person in your NCAA pool who picks teams based on mascot alone and ends up winning the whole thing, my friend won big when he decided, based on absolutely nothing, that we needed to see Dead Sexy Inc. I dismissed them from the first note of their sound check on the outdoor patio, and my friends and I wandered back into the main bar to discuss another move. But before we could leave, a French-accented voice came on the PA saying “We take five minutes now for make-up and drugs.” We quickly reconsidered, and ten minutes later we were near the front, exchanging earplugs and high-fives as the crowd around us jump-danced to thrashing techno-metal by three guys in glam make-up. The guitarist wore a mesh tank top with the nipples cut out and something about Spam handwritten on it with magic marker.
“Are you ready for Satanic frickin’ gay black metal?” the bald, lipsticked singer announced before the next song. “This next song is for the boys who wear dresses and the girls who have mustaches.” The lyrics were about what you might expect from a gay French glam metal techno punk band, and of course I can’t really write any of them here, so I’ll only give you a sample of a verse with the naughty words omitted: “Rot in human *** and penetrate the **** with ***** and ***.” I actually happened to meet a nice girl on the dance floor; if it turns into anything, I’m sure on our wedding night, our mothers will be choked up by the storybook tale of our meeting.
SXSW has evolved quite a bit since the first year I went, with the unofficial day parties becoming much more prominent, and in my opinion, better than the official showcases at night. The hassle of crowds and expensive drinks at night are easily trumped by the laid-back, sponsored parties during the day, which almost always offer free food and drinks. I have no idea what the organizational and funding atmosphere is that forces this dichotomy, but for someone like me who’s too cheap to buy a badge, the perfect formula is to hit a couple of parties with great lineups during the day, saturate yourself with free music, food, and beer, and head out at night with an open mind and comfy shoes — equally prepared to hang out at a bar on the east side with (true) rumors of Bill Murray and Wu Tang tending bar, or trek out to a bridge on the west side where a great punk band is supposed to play and give out free shoes (half true — just the shoes part).
The experience is amazing, and I recommend SXSW over any other festival for all those discerning music mavens with huge appetites who soak in all the blogs and the magazines, who immediately skip to the upcoming shows and record review sections of CityBeat, and especially for those who take pride in finding great music and sharing it with friends. You know who you are. Because both the vastness and the variety of the music here is unparalleled — and your list of new bands to check out will be different from your friends’, no matter how similar you think your tastes are — it’s like a musical DNA fingerprint.
That said, here are a few of my lists. Don’t confuse favorite performances with favorite music — I can tell you right now I’ll never buy Dead Sexy Inc.’s album. On the other hand, I’d pay whatever it takes to see them live again.
Dead Sexy Inc.
Who Made Who
Rural Alberta Advantage
Best music that was new to me:
Leslie and the Badgers
These United States
Best band to pretend like you are part of in order to get into a show:
Best Austin BBQ:
Best breakfast taco:
Best dive bar where Bill Murray might be bartending with GZA from Wu-Tang:
Best music festival to return to every year until you die: