This is part one of a two-part column previewing South by Southwest. Part two will feature Mynabirds, Thunder Power and UUVVWWZ, along with anyone else I can track down (Eagle Seagull, Brimstone Howl).
Column 262: Austin Bound, Pt. 1
Little Brazil, It’s True, Digital Leather talk SXSW.
I used to think that South By Southwest’s legendary role as facilitator of the great rock ‘n’ roll dream was a load of you-know-what.
Just look over the list of bands performing March 17-21 at the annual music festival in Austin (located at sxsw.com). Most of them — almost all of them, actually — are already signed to a record label, have plenty of “representation” in the form of publicists and booking agents; and some are downright huge (Metallica, for example, played last year). Any thoughts of SXSW being some sort of rock ‘n’ roll casting call where a young band is “discovered,” signed and processed, and set upon a road of excessive sex and drugs, well, that was a thing of the past, right?
Then I went last year, soaked in the showcases, and found out that there was more to SXSW than unlimited free beer, bad PA’s and terrific Mexican food. There were plenty of unsigned bands (or bands signed to microscopic labels) who were grabbing the attention of indies such as our very own Saddle Creek Records, who I later discovered signed Rural Alberta Advantage and Land of Talk after seeing them play in Austin.
Still, there had to be more to it if poverty-level musicians were willing to lay out literally thousands of dollars in tip money to travel to Austin with the bravest hope of just not getting lost in the sideshow. What do they want from SXSW? That’s what I asked a handful of local bands that got invited this year.
Among them, Little Brazil, who has performed officially and unofficially at SXSW for five of the past six years. This year the band’s itinerary includes playing a showcase for Anodyne Records — their label. Little Brazil guitarist Greg Edds said there’s more to SXSW then trying to get signed. “Performing holds endless opportunities to expand your career in different avenues,” he said, pointing to the army of publicists, music distributors, and booking agencies on hand. “Your performance might also garner the attention of one of the many company owners looking to hand out product sponsorships. Who can so no to free gear?”
Radio reps also can be in the crowd. “If they happen to enjoy your set, you’ve gained a push with the music audience they influence,” Edds said. “In the grand scheme of things, it’s an important gamble, minus the addiction.”
So what’s come of their past SXSW odysseys? “Only time will tell on how those performances have affected our careers,” Edds said, “but we’ve made a nice impression with the locals as well as making new fans that attend the festival and live on different coasts.”
Karl Houfek, who plays keyboards for local unsigned band It’s True, said this is his first year to be invited to play in Austin. What do they think they’ll gain from the experience? “We have no idea,” he said. “I guess SXSW is one of those things that we look at as a benchmark of sorts, and that we’re excited about doing, but we’re still not convinced it really means anything. Actually, I think, for the most part, and this applies whether you’re a shit band or not, if you’re invited to play SXSW, you’ve worked hard… so I think, at the very least, it means that.
“We’re not on a record label, so I guess the great hope is that maybe people we’re interested in talking to (booking agents, labels, publicists) will come watch us play and express some interest in partnering with the band in some capacity. But, we also realize that the most likely scenario is that we’ll just play our set, get some polite applause, and walk down the street and have a few beers with Little Brazil.”
Houfek said that if their van doesn’t break down on the way to Austin, the trip will cost the band over a grand for gas and lodging alone. The Reader is “sponsoring” them, so that’ll help (probably). They’re also playing a SXSW send-off show at The Barley Street Tavern March 14, “so we’re hoping that raises a bit of scratch.”
Digital Leather frontman Shawn Foree said he sold Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore a record a couple years ago at SXSW, but other than that, he has no idea how his past festival experiences have helped him. “Mostly it seems like SXSW is an opportunity to have other bands hate you because they aren’t playing,” he said.
Foree, whose amazing new album, Warm Brother, was released on indie label Fat Possum, isn’t looking for a new home. “Really, I just hope to have fun this year, to see my friends from around the country, eat real Mexican food and play music,” he said. “There are plenty of other bands who spend all their time worrying about big label attention.”
Moneywise, he said bands are offered two payment options for performing: either $250 “no matter who you are,” or a wristband that gets you into the clubs. “We’ll take the cash,” he said. “Most of the cool shows don’t even require wristbands anymore.”
Austin is just another stop on Digital Leather’s spring tour. The band will be playing in Tulsa on St. Patrick’s Day, and then will have to drive nine hours to get to Austin, get their rooms and get one hour to rest before their first gig.
It’s a grind, but Foree said despite what he said before, SXSW is still an opportunity to play in front of a lot of people and get a taste of how the music business works. “It’s a fickle world operated by soulless vultures.”
Next week, The Mynabirds, Thunder Power and UUVVWWZ.
* * *
So who are these folks interested in seeing at the festival?
Karl Houfek: “Off the top of my head, I’d say that personally, I’m excited to see Band of Horses, Broken Social Scene, Thurston Moore, Local Natives, er..The XX, maybe? Kyle’s got a crush on Meiko, so he’ll probably wander off by himself to go see her and not tell anyone…but I’m onto you, Harvey! Oh, and I recently saw that Hole is playing…I’ll be very tempted to go see whether or not Courtney Love flips out on people.”
Shawn Foree said he and his band are “excited to see Wizzard Sleeve. I kinda want to see Uffie, who we are playing with one night.”
Greg Edds said Little Brazil will be in Austin for 48 hours. “And believe me, that is just enough time to permanently do damage to your liver and grow financially incapable of buying life’s necessities,” he said. “It’s hard to plan for something like this, but it’s good to start out with a nice blue print, with 15-30 minutes between each artist to improve spur of the moment decisions. We’re looking forward to hearing; Band of Horses, the Antlers, Local Natives, Spoon, Ray Davies, Joan of Arc, Midlake, the Walkmen, Maps & Atlases, and of course supporting the many Omaha artists that were asked to play SXSW.”
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