Every year, The A.V. Club reports from the South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas. This year, we sent five writers—Josh Modell, Sean O’Neal, Kyle Ryan, Marah Eakin, and Marc Hawthorne—who will be filing daily mini-reports on the best stuff they saw, ate, and did. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.
A rooftop show on a beautiful Thursday afternoon isn’t the worst way to start your day, and that’s why the upstairs area of the Hangar Lounge was packed at 1:30 p.m. for the Sony City event. The crowd was also there to see Third Eye Blind, whose membership seems to get less recognizable with each passing year. But it’s still Stephan Jenkins up front, and that’s kind of all that matters at this point—well, that and the promise of hearing some of their monster hits from the late ’90s and early ’00s. SXSW long ago stopped being just about breaking new bands, but it’s still weird to see an act down here whose heyday was 15 years ago. But Jenkins and company played the part of a showcasing band, opening with four new songs that are supposedly going to show up on a new record. He warned us that he likes to change lyrics up to the last minute, so things may not end up sounding exactly the same, which is probably for the best considering the rough sound coming from the makeshift stage. But, overall, the new stuff gives me hope that I’ll want to continue listening to 3EB in the future, despite my complicated relationship with SJ. And the old hits—which consisted of “Crystal Baller,” “Never Let You Go,” and the evergreen, magically epic “Motorcycle Drive By”—left the crowd literally begging for more.
Over the past year or so, I’ve developed a strong emotional bond with Seattle radio station KEXP, so I decided to head over to their live broadcast to check out Iron And Wine and see if morning guy/my favorite DJ John Richards was in the house. I sort of knew he wouldn’t be there (same with my second favorite, Cheryl Waters, who’s currently battling breast cancer), but I asked anyhow, and some woman at the DJ table—who wasn’t impressed with my inquiry—confirmed my suspicion. I have to admit it was a little weird being in Lance Armstrong’s Mellow Johnny’s Bike Shop, with all of his shamed yellow jerseys hanging around like the past few months never happened, but it was worth it just to be there for a beautiful hangover set from Sam Beam.
After a quick stop at Rachael Ray’s house party thing at Banger’s, I made my way over to the Fader Fort, which, thanks to its impressively diverse lineup, really is the Benetton party of SXSW. I got there in time to see a great set of shoegazey indie rock from New York outfit DIIV, who closed with a new song that frontman Zachary Cole Smith said they recently recorded with Girls’ JR White. That’s probably the first and last time they’ll ever open for Solange, who closed the party with expertly executed soul-pop with her Morris Day And The Time-style backing band.
Across the street at the 1100 Warehouse, I got my punk-rock fill with FIDLAR and Pissed Jeans (whose set-opening cover of “It’s So Easy” was pretty fucking spectacular), then made my way across town to settle in for a night of Tegan And Sara and whoever played before them. (After spending way too long in the cold the night before in my attempt to see them with Paramore, I was pretty focused on seeing the new pop-slick version of T+S.) Indie-soul outfit Fitz And The Tantrums and the folky City And Colour (led by reformed post-hardcore dude Dallas Green from Alexisonfire) brought their own crowds, so Austin Music Hall wasn’t nearly as packed as I expected when the ladies went on at 12:30 a.m. During the next hour, they mixed in some solid older material, but they were here mainly to show off the new stuff from Heartthrob. Though it definitely feels like Tegan And Sara’s musical trajectory has been leading up to this electro-fied pop explosion, it’s still a little weird seeing them play songs without guitars in their hands. But it’s all about the hooks, and these twin sisters have plenty of them, a point driven home by show-closer,“Closer.” The duo clearly has an agenda to take their career to the next level (this was their sixth show in three days), so here’s hoping this is what’s dominating the airwaves for the next year and beyond.
SXSW has a tendency to be a little hit or miss sometimes. I suppose that’s par for the course when 2000 bands are playing a fest, but, yeah, some days are better than others. Thursday was a little bit of a dud for me. Everything was running late, and I didn’t really see a whole set from any act besides this band Papa, who I thought was just pretty good. I did—along with Kyle and Josh, as seen here—get a chair massage at the Billions And Ticketfly Day Party, which was nice.
The best thing I saw on Thursday was probably Pissed Jeans, who played at 9:20 p.m. at the Pitchfork showcase in some warehouse that looks like it’s used for storing salt or grain during less profitable weeks in Austin. (WBEZ’s Jim DeRogatis says it’s a poultry slaughterhouse, but the neighborhood seems too nice and that telltale smell wasn’t there, so I’m skeptical.) The Allentown, Pennsylvania quartet opened with a cover of Guns N’ Roses’ “It’s So Easy,” which was fun but a little slow. Things picked up from there, though, with a massive pit forming seemingly out of nowhere and singer Matt Korvette going absolutely apeshit on each track. He writhed and wiggled, and at one point convincingly pretended to kick the guitarist in the head. Solid takes on tracks from the band’s recent record, Honeys, just made things that much more entertaining.
Every SXSW has its share of WTF? shows—like, say, Christopher Cross or Lionel Richie last year—but some are on a much smaller scale. Word came down a few weeks ago from our friends at Flower Booking that D.C. post-hardcore band Edsel was playing a party on Thursday. The band’s 1995 album, Techniques Of Speed Hypnosis, was one of my favorites from that year, though I think 1995 was the last time I saw Edsel play (a lunchtime set in the food court of Mizzou’s Brady Commons, of all places). At the east-side bar Liberty, Edsel took the stage at 5 p.m. after a heartfelt introduction by superfan Courtney Ryan Buie of Austin’s Slip Productions, who had never been able to see Edsel before the group broke up in 1997. Singer-guitarist Sohrab Habibion (who currently plays in Obits) mentioned that the last time Edsel played SXSW, it was a showcase with Braniac, Girls Against Boys, and Man Or Astro-Man? (That awesome lineup ©1990s.) While it’s good to be vigilant against lazy nostalgia, it wasn’t necessary here: This was a show borne out of friendship and fandom, and Edsel was awesome. Songs like “Suits Me Fine” still sound great.
One of the bands generating a lot of buzz at SXSW this year is L.A. punk outfit FIDLAR—short for Fuck It Dog, Life’s A Risk—a direct descendent of loud-fast-rules SoCal punk bands of the ’80s. (Literally—guitarist Elvis Kuehn and drummer Max Kuehn are the sons of TSOL’s Greg Kuehn.) The group’s self-titled debut is a collection of debauched songs about skating and getting fucked up (such as “Wake Bake Skate”), and FIDLAR’s live performance at the Pitchfork showcase was similarly piss-taking. “Thank you, Pitchfork—this is the Pitchfork one, right?” asked singer-guitarist Zac Carper, reflecting how many SXSW shows the band has played this year. “Pitchfork: what old people think young people think old people want.” (One of the other members added quickly, “In a good way.”) The band blew through an agreeably snotty set—the sound muddled by the crappy warehouse hosting from Pitchfork this year—which ended with Carper jumping into the pit to sing “Wake Bake Skate.” FIDLAR set the table appropriately for the similarly antagonistic Pissed Jeans, who followed immediately after.
I usually don’t start my SXSW days as early as I should, especially after a particularly long night. But the swag gods blessed us on this trip (which they rarely do), and an invite to a Sony party included the offer of some free, Simon Cowell-approved Sony X headphones. Since my two-of-a-kind A.V. Club-branded Astro headphones just snapped in half the other day, it was perfect timing.
After that, it was over to another day party to check out the Manchester band The 1975, who have Ned’s Atomic Dustbin-level haircuts but play super-catchy, ’80s-indebted rock with some welcome flair. The singer even said something like, “This was our attempt to write a song for a John Hughes soundtrack,” which is an admirable thing to attempt. (And it was good!) Then it was over to the always-crowded Fader Fort—an extensive makeshift venue just off the beaten path—to check out a bit of CHVRCHES, who Kyle will surely be telling you more about because he’s in love. Just across from there was the Pitchfork day party, featuring an audience of the young, the fashionable, and the fashionably young. I didn’t stay very long, but what I heard of Parquet Courts was excellent, as is their record,Light Up Gold.
The day’s other big highlights: a grand meal at Uchiko, the “Japanese Farmhouse Dining” restaurant whose executive chef, Paul Qui, won Top Chef a couple seasons back. Also: Mikal Cronin at the Merge Records showcase, who seemed like a completely different dude than the one at his Pitchfork show earlier in the day—way ballsier and more tuneful, and not unlike Ty Segall, whose band he plays in. And then I experienced !!! in the best way to do that, live in front of lots of kinda-buzzed (to seriously drunk) folks in the back of a restaurant off Rainey Street. The once-quiet street, just south of the madness of Sixth Street, has now become the SXSW mania annex, with half a dozen venues popping up to serve as headquarters for various companies and publications. It’s a slightly quieter alternative, at least for now. Which isn’t to say !!! was quiet—they were as boisterous as ever, playing that one great song over and over…
Usually if you want a snapshot of this year’s burgeoning musical trends, you go to the Pitchfork day party, and then your snapshot gets all crowded out with kids in stupid clothes. So what does the “underground” of 2013 look like, besides wearing an American flag tank top ill-suited for its body shape? Slick yet sincere ’80s R&B (the smooth Sade-isms of Rhye, the raspy loverman pleas of Autre Ne Veut), jangly, vaguely psychedelic bar bands (Foxygen, Mac DeMarco), and the lingering wisps of warm, bedroom-electro (Toro Y Moi, Youth Lagoon). And like everything else at SXSW, it’s also branded out the ass: The inside of the 1100 Warehouse was blanketed in Newcastle and Nationwide Insurance ads, including reps handing out sunglasses emblazoned with the Nationwide logo, and a chalk “graffiti” wall where you could draw your own, Nationwide Insurance-protected dreams.
Out of these, the most exciting was easily Parquet Courts, whose hooky, deadpan shamble-rock—the kind of spiky yet aloof sound every Velvet Underground acolyte has ever aimed for—has been the talk of the festival, and for good reason, as they’re primed to be the Cloud Nothings-style breakout of this year. They whipped through cool struts like “Stoned And Starving” with arty aplomb, and then sarcastically thanked Nationwide Insurance with the same deadpan air. As I overheard someone say after the band’s set, “They just get it, you know?” (Though I suppose he alsocould have been talking about Nationwide.)
Wandering off to get food at the Liberty led to one of those random SXSW happenstances: Finding this guy who jumped, unannounced, onto a stage to scream his improvised songs built around one repeated lyric (“The woman’s at the door!” “Gotta have that punk-rock style!” etc.) over a Wesley Willis-style keyboard backing track. One of our Onion employees seemed to think it was an especially grubby-looking David Liebe Hart, of Tim And Eric fame. I kind of think it was just a crazy person. Watch the video and judge for yourself.
After that hectic day—which culminated in an apparently moonshine-fueled set from snarling, shouty Canadian punks Single Mothers—I looked to the Ghostly International showcase at Holy Mountain for something a little more soothing. I definitely got it with Dauwd, whose throwback deep house music relies on a huge, unwavering four-on-the-floor beat and warm synth-bass lines. It was hypnotic and, eventually, kind of dully repetitive, which set things up nicely for Beacon, whose wispy, soporific downtempo electro-ballads—delivered in Thomas Mullarney’s hesitant sotto voce—were dreamy enough, yet so hookless and anticlimactic, it took the audience a moment to realize that they were over and it was time to clap politely.
No Ceremony/// is another one of those bands everyone’s been talking about over the last couple days, and it’s also easy to see why: They hit that current sweet spot between dark, new-rave electronica and the smoothed-out, early-’90s soul-pop that’s suddenly so trendy again. The group’s also a bit of a mystery, purposefully shrouding itself in promo photos, rarely consenting to interviews, and apparently even using different female singers at their shows. Whoever was fronting the band at its Latitude 30 set was certainly bewitching, and she had a star quality that gave even the more weightless disco-pop numbers real gravity. If the band wanted to abandon its whole occult enigma shtick and play up her sensuality, No Ceremony/// could well become the second coming of Garbage. Or, judging by some of its more ethereal ballads, maybe the next Lisa Stansfield.
Finishing out the night, I caught Local Natives doing their last SXSW show of the week over on the Mohawk stage. The first time I ever saw this band was at a sparsely attended 7 p.m. slot on a Frenchkiss Records showcase a couple years ago, and it was obvious then they would never play such a low-stakes slot again. Their evolution was borne out here by a packed crowd singing along not only to “Airplanes” and “Sun Hands,” but even the songs from the just-released Hummingbird. The group makes straightforward, pleasantly harmonious, old-fashioned indie rock—and in a landscape where that style’s becoming increasingly shoved aside, it’s nearly back to sounding like something special.