Even when South By Southwest was solely music-focused, there was no way to catch everything of import, and as it’s grown its film and tech festivals, coverage has only gotten harder. We sent a few A.V. Club staffers this year to cover music, film, and tech, so you can dive in and catch a week’s work of experiences without having to walk through the throngs of people wandering around Sixth Street.
I am a sucker for any newfangled tech doohickey whatchamacallit experience, which is why, 40 minutes after landing in Austin and seven minutes after checking in to my hotel, I was at the convention center to check out “The Mummy Zero Gravity VR Experience,” which was billed as an exciting combination of the above ingredients—like a roller coaster ride, the guy who introduced it assured us—as a promotional tool for the upcoming Tom Cruise film. Ready for a heart-stopping experience, I strapped on the headset, sat back in the specially designed chairs built exclusively for this purpose, and then was treated to… a 10 minute-long documentary of Tom Cruise, talking straight to camera, about how cool it was to film a sequence for his new movie in zero-G. We would periodically watch from the point of view of the cameraman as he was lifted into the air alongside his actors, as the chairs tilted slightly, perfectly mimicking the experience of being in a slightly broken chair. It was the lamest VR event I’d see at SXSW, though perhaps the promotional team can take solace in the knowledge that I’m still 100 percent going to see that silly movie in the theater.
@Midnight was live! I enjoy that show, so this was an easy sell for me. Prior to the taping, a few of us media nerd types were ushered into a room where we ravenously consumed some rare and precious vegetables from a simple spread (roughage of any type is in short supply when you’re working in Austin—my stomach gets very used to chips, Clif bars, and/or hunger), and then met Chris Hardwick for a few minutes. He was very nice, and generally conveyed the aura of a man so busy, he’s rolled out of bed straight into a suit and then ferried, Pope-like, from place to place, until his duties are fulfilled, the vague memories of reading or watching anything for fun slowly receding in his mind, a warm and hazy glow of “free time” slowly flattening into an unbroken line of work-filled, Euclidean perfection.
Our party celebrating the launch of our brand new television show went swimmingly, with a comedy lineup that included Janeane Garofalo, Eddie Pepitone, a brief appearance by Bob Odenkirk, Chris Cubas, Lashonda Lester, Vanessa Gonzalez, and Ashton Swinford. We also had A.V. Club host John Teti playing games with the audience, and of course two hours of Wooden Wisdom (a.k.a. Elijah Wood and Zach Cowie) playing great records. In a display of journalistic integrity, I will say this: A good time was had by all.
Now this is the kind of VR experience I’m talking about. I head to the Lionsgate Lounge, where the “John Wick Chronicles VR Demo” is set up. It’s basically the perfect use of virtual reality: You ride up an elevator to a rooftop, where you spend the next 10 minutes or so picking up various guns and absolutely annihilating an unending procession of anonymous antagonists. It’s one of the most entertaining demos I’ve played in a long time, and I spent the rest of the week wishing I had time to go back. Hopefully my superiors won’t notice the thousand dollar purchase for the required game system and attendant accoutrements I’m going to try to charge to The A.V. Club to get that thing in the office.
Game Of Thrones is making more wine! The HBO series unveiled a couple of new varietals at SXSW—specifically a Red Blend and a Chardonnay, which, along with a Cabernet, will be on sale soon. I had several glasses, as well as taking one of those cringe-inducing pictures we all take whenever we’re anywhere near a faux Iron Throne. The wine was delicious, the picture deeply embarrassing. All men must take shitty novelty photos.
I found myself at a private house far from the action, at a party full of venture capitalists (I think?), complete with fancy appetizers and a string quartet. I was there to see James Mercer of The Shins do an acoustic set (which was lovely and included “New Slang”) in a thoroughly non-sanctioned event. He has a photo-collaging app called Pasted, which is pretty cool, and he was there—quietly—to promote it.
With no time to spare, I arrive at the film everyone I meet at SXSW is excited to see: Baby Driver, the new crime caper movie by the masterful Edgar Wright. If you were anyone near social media when the movie let out, you may have noticed the tidal wave of adulation being showered on it by those at the theater, which was filled with applause and whoops of delight every couple of minutes. I really enjoyed it, though I don’t know if I’m as high on it as everyone else seems to be. That’s not me being contrarian—it just didn’t feel like an Edgar Wright movie in some ways. It’s hard to explain: The picture is nonstop entertaining, very funny and violent, and it features car chase scenes that Fast And Furious producers could only drool at, but it gets very dark in a weird way I’m not fully certain I love. Wright is paying homage to the era of nihilistic ‘70s crime actioners, but a few beats left me feeling unsettled. Perhaps I’m overthinking it, and will come to love the movie without these reservations. And as it is, I haven’t stopped turning it over in my mind since I saw it—surely a sign it’s doing something very right.
I was deeply tired after Baby Driver, and had to get up early, but I had also been informed about a new music-themed game demo happening at the Mashable House. I was intrigued enough to overcome exhaustion, and was glad I did. A collaboration between Hasbro and Harmonix, the game DropMix involves dropping cards on pads in order to mix various songs together into new mashups, while scoring points and trying to beat the team on the other side of the machine. It sounds abstract, but was actually really fun, even as I cost my team a clear victory with my general lack of know-how. It’s not reinventing the wheel, but it’s a worthy addition to the strange assortment of music-based games out there.
I met Grumpy Cat. This is the second year in a row I’ve done it, and unlike last year, where I asked the feline about the year’s best albums, this time it was the Oscar Best Picture nominees. From Grumpy Vat’s private perch on the Viceland bus, the answers were deeply surprising.
Los Pollos Hermanos has opened up an Austin location! The iconic restaurant of Breaking Bad (and soon to be Better Call Saul) fame got its own brief pop-up shop, featuring chicken and curly fries for attendees. But the real draw here were stars Bob Odenkirk and Giancarlo Esposito—the latter of whom got fully into character for the event, delivering a speech about his fast-food chain and even answering questions in character as Gus Fring.
This is now the second time John Wick will be mentioned in this recap, but David Leitch, one of that film’s two directors, strikes out on his own with Atomic Blonde, a delirious and super-stylized action thriller set in Germany during the fall of the Berlin wall. Charlize Theron plays a British agent who kicks ass after being sent to retrieve a MacGuffin and… actually, the plot gets hilariously and needlessly messy, but Leitch, Theron, and James McAvoy make up for it with this gonzo-glam period piece’s sheer entertainment value, selling this nonsense with maximum enthusiasm. It’s not a great film, but it’s a fun one.
I’m pretty shocked by all the love for James Franco’s The Disaster Artist, the feature film based on Greg Sestero’s book about the beloved, bizarrely awful movie The Room. I’m a fan of the movie, and the book offered some amazing insights, but the film is pure fan service—made by fans (including Franco, his brother Dave, and Seth Rogen) for fans. In a huge theater with a primed audience, it felt like a total triumph, but I can’t imagine the movie making much sense at all to those not already indoctrinated in the cult of The Room.
The book captured plenty of nuance in the relationship between Tommy Wiseau (who directed and starred in The Room) and Sestero (his star), but the film version is mostly a long-form excuse for James Franco to do an impersonation of Wiseau, which I will gladly admit is spot on.
But that leads me to another problem: Rogen, at the post-screening Q&A, insisted that The Disaster Artist is a love letter to Wiseau and The Room, which is nice—Wiseau was there, too—but pretty disingenuous. The whole cult of the movie is built on the fact that The Room is, as the title suggests, a disaster. Wiseau meant to make a beautiful, heartfelt film about love and despair, but he was absolutely terrible at it: He can’t act, he has a thick accent, and he doesn’t understand plot. That he eventually rolled with the punches and gained some fame out of the whole thing is great for him, but let’s not pretend that this whole isn’t about making fun of somebody who did something so alarmingly off-point that it became unintentionally funny. I’m not trying to moralize—again, I love making fun of The Room, too—but let’s not romanticize this too much.
To the surprise of no one, there is at least one paintball range outside of Austin. On a rainy Monday morning (that soon turned nice), a group of us head out there to play some paintball with a few members of the cast of Free Fire, the new film from High-Rise and Kill List auteur Ben Wheatley. If you’ve never seen a collection of introverted nerds play paintball, well, then you have spared yourself an embarrassing scene. It was a lot of fun—and we learned Sharlto Copley is an absolute animal at paintball—but after being hit right between the eyes (wearing goggles, I’m not quite that stupid), I remembered why I spend my days huddled behind a laptop. Speaking of Free Fire….
We had a big ol’ party, and so many of you came that there was a line for two blocks pretty much the whole time. (Sorry to those who came but couldn’t get in.) I won’t review everything, but rather just thank all the fantastic bands who played: Chrissy & Hawley, Muncie Girls, Bash & Pop, Frankie Rose, Split Single, Ggoolldd, Adam Torres, Har Mar Superstar (a last minute replacement for Lizzo, whose band members got stuck in the snow), Mothers, Noname, SOHN, and Sylvan Esso. (Have I told you yet how great that new Sylvan Esso record is? It comes out April 28. It’s great.)
…Damn, Free Fire was so close to being a great movie. A cast stacked to the gills with talent (Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, and Armie Hammer, among many more), a premise that practically guarantees the film’s presence on dorm room posters in perpetuity (oddball collection of gangsters meet up in a warehouse, things go south, and for 90 minutes they all try to kill one another in the confined space), and yet the movie careens off the rails—entertainingly so, but still. It lacks the command of space needed to convey with clarity the geography of the location and its occupation by the actors; by the second half, there’s no real understanding of where any of the characters are relative to anyone else, which is a serious problem for a film of this nature. The responsibility for making it enjoyable is then left to the actors, who hoist this confusing miasma on their shoulders and carry it across the finish line, particularly Hammer, who shines as a genial gentleman who just wishes everyone could get some manners.
Last year, British punk trio Muncie Girls released the excellent From Caplan To Belsize, which easily became my (and Alex McLevy’s) favorite album of 2016. The band has only been to the U.S. one other time, to play the Fest in Florida, so Alex and I were determined to see them as many times as possible while we had the chance. That meant rallying after our party to head over to the British Music Embassy to watch Muncie Girls close out a bill full of their countrymen. Still battling jet lag, the band also had to rally, but was clearly enjoying its first SXSW experience. Singer-bassist Lande Hekt is as charming on stage as she is sharp with her words; From Caplan To Belsize tackles a host of issues without sacrificing hooks in favor of the message. The band closed out its set with the album’s standout track, “Respect,” a pointed—and gloriously catchy—dismissal of harassment that has never felt more timely.
Kicking off my first full day at SXSW, I headed to Austin’s East Side for one of the many unofficial showcases happening on that day. I dropped by the Lagunitas day party to catch Diet Cig bright and early. Last year, the New York two-piece was probably the band I saw most, built on my obsession with its two EPs, as well as its placement on seemingly every other showcase I attended. With the band’s first full-length still not out (it’s coming in April) the band leaned heavily on its back catalog and singles from its debut, and the crowd ate it right up. Diet Cig is still one of the most joyously energetic bands you can see, making an early morning schlep across town well worth it.
Nothing like a visit to the Nat Geo event to make you feel like you’re among your own people. This pleasantly geeky installation featured a VR experience in which you watch two of Einstein’s theorems demonstrated. Take in one of those strange “bringing photos to life” exhibits that just adds unnecessary (though sporadically cool) animation to already striking photographs, and then delivers a computer that draws your visage in the handwriting of Einstein himself, which isn’t as strange as it sounds. Amid all the boozy revelry, it was a nice return to smart yet silly fun.
Immediately after Diet Cig’s set I hopped over to the She Shreds Magazine showcase. Taking place in a tiny parking lot, people packed in early for a lineup that didn’t let up for a second. I caught the tail-end of Jay Som’s set and was able to see all of Lisa Prank and Sneaks. Despite a ramshackle setup, the sound was great and the 25-minute sets, with little time for changeovers, made it one of the most exciting events I made it to all weekend. And it doesn’t hurt that She Shreds is one of the best magazines in the game.
Since Kyle has already sung the praises of Muncie Girls (I saw them again after he left), it’s time to point out America has its own band vying for the position of most appealing rock group. Charly Bliss has gone from the best band without an album out to the best band with an album coming out very very soon. They played in the middle of the afternoon at a stupid tourist-trap barbecue restaurant, and delivered a set as great as any heavily distorted pop-rock group could possibly unleash, regardless of venue or time. If you haven’t yet seen them, they’re on tour all spring and summer. Get thee to a club.
The most difficult to attend SXSW performances are, unsurprisingly, the ones for artists who are currently blowing up, which meant that Lil Yachty’s Tuesday afternoon show at Empire Garage drew a packed crowd and a line down the block. The 19-year-old rapper offered a sampler platter of his two mixtapes, performing shortened versions of songs and segueing quickly between them. But he gave closer “One Night” the full treatment, to the delight of the cellphone-wielding crowd. I tried not to be too distracted by the jacket on the guy in front of me.
Though I’ve long been a fan I never had a chance to catch Thee Oh Sees live. The band was only playing one show at SXSW, back at the Lagunitas party, so catching John Dwyer and co. was a high priority. They wasted no time getting into it, and the crowd response was the kind I rarely encounter at a festival, with people moshing hard and fully letting loose. The band rarely came up for air in its hour-long set, not letting the midday heat slow its pace.
Even with the bulk of the Austin venues being a stone’s throw from one another, venue hopping isn’t always the easiest practice. Long lines and packed rooms often make staking out a spot beneficial if you’re trying to catch a headliner, but I was able to nimbly bounce between Beer Land and The Sidewinder for the Post-Trash and joint Father/Daughter Records and Riot Act Media showcases. Both featured bands I’ve seen before—Ratboys, Peaer, Ovlov—but the proximity made it easy to catch them and some newbies in the process. While Ovlov was the night’s highlight (and its Weakerthans cover was on point), Caddywhompus turned in a set that shows the band’s dexterity, and I was plenty impressed by Plush’s ability to offer up a propulsive take on its dream-pop offerings. There wasn’t a quiet moment most of the night, but that was more than welcome.
Alex and I had signed ourselves up for a trio of VR experiences, all of which promised to be “music-based.” And while two of them were basically music videos that you could interact with, one of them actually made me want to stick around and experience it a few more times. The Melody Of Dust wasn’t like the other simulations, in that it was part album and part game. Exploring an old, opulent castle, you uncover objects and hurl them into a portal, which then makes a custom song out of your creation. It rewards repeated trips, and also gives you the chance to unlock over 80 unique songs. While I’ve long been a skeptic of virtual reality, The Melody Of Dust actually gave me faith in the form.
I was, sadly, a little late to Vagabon’s set, an artist who put out one of my favorite records so far this year. That said, what I was able to see showed me that, in a live setting, Laetitia Tamko can make those quiet, ruminative songs stab right through your chest. Playing as a trio, Tamko guided the band effortlessly, showing off how malleable her songs are, and that she can put on a show, too. It’s going to be a big year for Vagabon, so catch her in small clubs while you still can.
Last summer Baltimore’s Snail Mail released Habit, its second EP and first for Sister Polygon Records, the label run by Washington, D.C.’s Priests. I hadn’t revisited either in some time, but seeing the band play inside at Sidewinder showed me exactly how foolish I’d been. While its EPs were lo-fi pop goodies, the band transformed them into punchy little pieces that hit hard and stuck with me long after its set ended. The band was hitting SXSW hard, and its packed shows suggest that we’ll be hearing more of Snail Mail in 2017. This time around, I won’t be so slow to return to them.
I finally caught one of the big, surprise shows this time at SXSW when I made it into Mohawk by the skin of my teeth for At The Drive In’s show, which had been announced just a few hours earlier. While At The Drive In’s reunion has been marred by low-energy performances and inner turmoil, I was pleasantly surprised by how much fun the band was having on stage. Its set was almost entirely culled from Relationship Of Command—save for the new song “Governed By Contagions”—wasting little time aside from a few weird jokes from singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala (at the very least Hannibal Buress, who ended up standing next to me, got a hearty laugh out of one of them). The crowd was returning this energy as best it could, with a few attendees attempting stagedives and falling straight to the floor, but even those botched moments couldn’t diminish the band’s performance. At The Drive In was on, offering hope that its new album in·ter a·li·a will be a worthy addition to its catalog.
Having gotten a sinus infection somewhere in the time since I saw At The Drive In, I decided to take my final full day at SXSW slow. I attended a panel about DIY labels in the hopes that sitting in an air-conditioned room in a convention center wouldn’t be too taxing. It proved a worthwhile trip, as Dan Goldin of Exploding In Sound and Jessi Frick of Father/Daughter Records made up half the panel, and the pair reminded me just how inspiring the independent spirit can be. It was fascinating to hear opinions on what really matters to small labels in 2017, and that making mistakes is probably the best thing you can do when you’re getting your start.
While there were plenty of showcases I wanted to catch on Thursday night—Polyvinyl Records and Don Giovanni Records were both high on my list, as well as the show featuring some of the best names in Chicago rap—my head cold made venue-hopping seemingly impossible. The Exploding In Sound showcase won out, and I was able to catch a six-band bill that never dipped in quality. Just before midnight Rick Maguire from Pile took the stage, dressed as if he was attending a wedding, and promising a set of “Pile karaoke.” The venue couldn’t figure out how to accommodate Maguire’s request, so he took to playing a solo set featuring Pile deep cuts and a couple covers. While quiet solo shows often falter at something like SXSW, especially late at night, people were rapt by Maguire’s performance. In the truest sense of the word, it showcased a talent, and a label, that have built a cult fan base and is slowly crossing over. If that’s not a fitting end to a SXSW trip, I don’t know what is.