Every year, The A.V. Club reports from the South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas. This year, we have five writers—Kyle Ryan, Marah Eakin, Josh Modell, Sean O’Neal, and Marc Hawthorne—in town. Here’s our daily mini-reports on the best stuff we saw, ate, and did. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.
Every year I try to see something stupid at SXSW. This year, I was mulling over going to see Ru Paul’s Drag Race winner Sharon Needles do her weird goth tunes, but instead I opted for the much, much stupider choice of The Pizza Underground, Macaulay Culkin’s pizza-themed Velvet Underground band. The group has only released a nine-minute medley of cheesy (literally) covers online, so I didn’t have high expectations for the band’s 30-minute Buffalo Billiards set. Somehow, though, the “band” failed to meet even those. I suppose it’s my fault for assuming I’d see a semi-musical performance or anything less than a super stupid, poorly organized art piece, but that’s what I got. In theory, The Pizza Underground is a funny idea, but in practice it was incredibly dumb. The band would do a few bars from its “Satellite Of Love,” “Have A Bite Of Crust,” and then bring out a pizza-inspired astronomer to do some open-phrase riffing about how a pizza looks like the moon, or some shit like that. The band also had Nevermound, a “past tense Kurt Cobain” come out and do Nirvana songs with all the verbs switched. Again, funny idea in theory, super stupid in practice. Long story short: Listen to The Pizza Underground online for a couple of minutes. Don’t invest time in going to see them live.
On the bright side, I did see three different groups of people doing Culkin’s famous aftershave face expression from Home Alone, so that was kind of interesting.
With everything that SXSW offers—and there is an overwhelming amount of it—it’s still possible to bust out, to have a day that adds up to a big “meh.” I haven’t had one of those in a few years, but the final day of SXSW 2014 delivered.
Precipitation hung over the city into the mid-afternoon, increasing from a mist to a gentle patter of rain as I hoofed it out to Scoot Inn to see Marc Hawthorne’s Favorite Band (and 2010 “year in band names” honoree) Diarrhea Planet. But a massive, barely moving line snaked around the block and over the light-rail tracks to get in. When the band began—with a “We’re Diarrhea Planet. We just woke up!”—I could see part of the stage from my vantage point in the line. I hopped out, stood on a rock, and looked over the fence as the band played in rain that gradually grew heavier. I like Diarrhea Planet, and Marc’s newfound fondness for the group tickles me, but not enough to spend the rest of the day in wet clothes.
Luckily, the Fader Fort was nearby, so I went in to see what were the same five minutes of the same closing song of Destruction Unit’s set that I had seen as I arrived at Red 7 last night for Perfect Pussy. With nothing that interesting on tap at the Fort, and the rain finally stopping, I left to grab a bite ahead of Doug Benson’s Movie Interruption at the Alamo Drafthouse.
I’ve seen a lot of long lines at SXSW, but none more surprising than the one waiting for Benson’s event: It stretched past the Drafthouse on Sixth Street, up Trinity, and stopped right at Seventh Street—and that was the one for badge-holders, not general public. I’ve been in that theater before, and looking at all the people in line, I knew there was no way I was getting in. Then it started raining again.
Eventually I ended up back at Red 7, where Josh Modell, Marah Eakin, and Marc had ended up for Protomartyr and The Hold Steady (and A.V. Club House Band Wye Oak was playing again). I stuck around for The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, who from what I could tell, exclusively played new songs from the upcoming Days Of Abandon, due out April 22 via something called Yebo Music. (It means “yes” in Zulu, according to its Facebook page, and is “obey” spelled backward!) The new songs sounded solid, but it would’ve been nice to throw a couple bones to fans.
I had on my schedule a set by No Malice, formerly just good ol’ Malice, when he slung rhymes about coke in Clipse, before he found Jesus. It was part of a Christian music showcase at a remote venue, and as is typical with SXSW hip-hop showcases, No Malice was only going to perform for 15 minutes. As attractive as the potential weirdness was, I headed back to the hotel to hang out for a bit before leaving for a decidedly non-born-again hip-hop showcase.
Up first was a Bronx rapper named YC The Cynic whose round glass frames and plaid button-up shirt gave off a nerd-friendly vibe that I appreciated. His short set—again, 15 minutes max—was punctuated by a song that sampled Digable Planets’ famous hit, “Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” which itself sampled Art Blakey, Fred Wesley And The J.B.’s, and The Honeydrippers. YC even closed the song out repeating the song’s famous “Cool like dat” chorus. We grow ever closer to the future The Onion predicted. YC was followed by fellow New Yorkers T’Nah Apex & Chelsea Reject, whose style recalled the heady days of Lauryn Hill but with a tad more bite. They’re still rough around the edges, and the appeal wore down as the set progressed, but there’s promise (ditto with YC).
That showcase was going to feature Murs, Twista, and Talib Kweli later, but my early-morning flight on Sunday prevented me from sticking it out too long. I bounced over to Cheer Up Charlie’s to check out the end of Crooked Bangs (solid, straight-up punk) and Ex Hex (totally fine), but I’ll let Marc write about the latter.
As we left the bar, Josh asked me what I’d seen that I liked, but this was a day where nothing stood out as especially impressive or memorable. Maybe I should’ve gone to that Christian-rap show after all—it could’ve made for a better story.
The most notable band I saw on Saturday, traditionally the tiredest day of SXSW was Detroit’s Protomartyr, whose records—including the upcoming Under Color Of Official Right—will appeal to fans of wiry post-punk bands like Pere Ubu or Wire. Live, they’re a funny proposition, with frontman Joe Casey looking either sort of disinterested or lost in far-away thoughts. It was definitely the punkest move I saw this year. Other than that, Saturday for me was a blur of jumping into shows for a song or two, with nothing terribly notable standing out. That’s the luck of the draw when you head in without an agenda—sometimes you can be massively surprised, and other times you’ve just seen a bunch of things you’ll forget in a few days.
After three days of anxiety and violence, Saturday felt surprisingly sedate, as though the tension had finally dissipated. Maybe it was because most of the biggest performers had already boarded their Doritos planes and flown off to other excitingly bold branding opportunities. Maybe it was because Tyler The Creator was arrested, and we could all breathe more easily knowing this nefarious criminal mastermind couldn’t hurt us anymore. But definitely it was because dozens of members of Come And Take It Austin stood in the middle of Sixth Street with their assault rifles slung across their backs, advocating for everyone’s Second Amendment right to bear arms in the middle of the most chaotic music festival in the world. And who wouldn’t feel safer after encountering this?
With all of these guns on the streets finally keeping the peace—other than on my Twitter feed, where my calling them “automatic” weapons instead of “semiautomatic” had stirred a passionate debate about how I’m a huge, libtard pussy—I was able to relax at Holy Mountain, where I saw The Range again. His set was both better attended and more focused than Wednesday’s showcase, free of DJ interludes and concentrated on songs from his recent Panasonic EP. His rolling R&B glitch was a perfect prelude for the group I was mostly there to see, Forest Swords, whose Engravings was one of my favorites from last year. The duo layers heavy, haunted house beats, live bass and Ennio Morricone-evoking guitar, and twisted samples of flutes, gamelans, and other Far East exotica; it’s a deep and mysterious sound that evokes David Lynch doing a samurai movie. Pulling off that kind of vibe at 4 p.m. isn’t easy, but they did it.
Time and setting continued to work in Trust’s favor, as I deliberately held off seeing the electro duo until it was evening at Elysium, the goth club where I’d spent so many ’80s dance nights, and where I’d first encountered them two years ago. The group’s grime-and-glitter vibe is still intact on the new Joyland, even if the songs aren’t quite there this time, but live it all still comes together in a hazy, feverish pulse of seasick synth tones, throbbing beats, and black moods. The spell was broken when the speakers suddenly dropped out after “Bulbform,” leaving just the tinny monitor mix and singer Robert Alfons looking very exposed without the huge sound to boost his croaking baritone. But in an odd show of community spirit for a crowd of spiritual outcasts, the crowd took up clapping the beat until it returned.
I’d done the same trick of saving Gary Numan until tonight as well, knowing it just wouldn’t feel the same to see the new wave android in the afternoon in, say, a parking lot. Still, Numan isn’t the same himself these days: He’s gone from being a robot version of David Bowie to looking like he fronts a Nine Inch Nails tribute act, rocking a dyed deep-black shag, tight screen-printed shirts and a chain wallet, and a slinking, messianic stage presence that matches his new music’s Trent Reznor-aping industrial churn. Still, he played (especially heavy, oddly “sexed-up”) versions of “Metal,” “Down In The Park,” “Film,” “I Die You Die,” and— even though it really didn’t fit—“Cars,” so I was happy and left SXSW feeling fulfilled. And, thanks to all the guns, perfectly safe.
With the rain coming down, it was nice to start my final day of SXSW away from the masses in the Eastside dive-bar confines of the Shangri-La, which has been acting as the headquarters for the Kansas City/Lawrence/Midwest-centric MidCoast Takeover. Got another much-appreciated chance to check out the indie-rock duo (and sometimes trio/quartet during this trip) of my friends in St. Louis, Sleepy Kitty (who, by the way, have a new record out called Projection Room and, I’ve been promised, will finally be touring their way out to the West Cost later this year). Also had a hell of a seitan sandwich (called the Hail Seitan!) with buffalo sauce on a Hawaiian bun at a food truck down the street. When I open my gluten-full restaurant, that’s definitely going to be on the menu.
It’s basically impossible to move quickly on SX’s last day, and I definitely took my time getting back over to the mess to catch The Hold Steady at the Brooklyn Vegan party at Red 7. I didn’t really realize how much I wanted to see them again until I got stuck in the inside room that had a long line to get back out onto the patio. But things eventually worked themselves out (as, miraculously, most things have for me this week in Austin) and I was soon reveling in the band’s anthemic story-songs about boys, girls, drugs, and everything else that inspires frontman Craig Finn. Ironically enough, the band physically looked a lot better during this show (their seventh and final of the week) than they had on Wednesday at that unattended IFC thing. Makes me wonder how bad I looked when I was over there at sadfest.
Nighttime started with Macaulay Culkin’s pizza-themed Velvet Underground/Lou Reed cover band named, appropriately enough, The Pizza Underground, at Buffalo Billiards. Marah’s called dibs to write about them, but here are my two cents: As long as you aren’t the biggest VU fan in the world who can’t stand the thought of their songs being messed with (and if that’s the case, it probably would have been better for you to have seen that Lou Reed tribute at the Paramount on Friday), it’s actually a pretty entertaining concept. Not ridiculously funny, but Culkin and crew knew the songs well enough to impressively swap in tons of pizza references (“It’s such a pizza day / I’m glad I spent it with food”) while keeping a pretty straight face, and they even had Andy Warhol milling about in the back. (MC’s GF played the role of Eatie Breadstick.) I was also into the weird tangent with Kurt Cobain’d of Nevermound playing a medley of Nirvana hits with the lyrics changed to past tense. Someone yelled out “Too soon!” Good times.
Next up was Mary Timony’s new punky DC trio Ex Hex at Cheer Up Charlie’s. The three ladies certainly kicked out the jams, but is anyone else out there still scratching their head over the fact that Timony made some of the coolest, most intriguing indie-rock songs of the ’90s with Helium but since then hasn't come even close to touching any of those beautiful nuances? Simply put, I want a Helium reunion, and I bet you Ben Gibbard does, too.
After being underwhelmed by New York post-punk outfit Bear Hands at a Gap-approved (seriously) show at Stubb’s, I ended my SX pretty much how I started it: Getting into a crowded show that I likely wasn’t on the guest list for. I’ve been really wanting to see the new live-band version of electro outfit Washed Out, and I finally got the chance at the Hype Hotel. For a band that started out as a pretty chill bedroom project, they certainly rose to the occasion as the headliner at a big, drunken party where my sense was that a lot of people there didn’t know who they are. Even the old stuff sounded epic, and Ernest Greene did a good job of playing the party-starting frontman role. We even got a rare SXSW encore (much like the way my week started at Coldplay); it’s great and ever rarer when South By ends on a high note.
The wristbands have been pulled off and the hand stamps are (mostly) a distant memory. Thanks, SXSW, I hope to see you again next year.