SXSW is like summer camp for music people. I’ve heard a lot of people say it, but every year I go it remains true for me, as well as everyone I meet. It seems like just a few minutes ago we were all leaving for the airport with butterflies in our tummies, and now we’re back home, massively hungover, nursing bloody stumps where our feet used to be. Who are we? What have we done? What happened to our feet? Will our pals remember us next year?
In the extended adolescence that is being in a band (and, in a slightly different way, being a rock journalist), this festival provides five days’ worth of carefree shenanigans the likes of which are not generally experienced past age 16. New friendships are forged, and short-lived more-than-friendships play out under bleachers, in stolen hot tubs, and down by the river (like camp, pretty much nobody has a room to themselves). There is shitty food, and lots of it. And, of course, there are activities galore. It was with this in mind that I went about gathering performers’ most cherished 2012 memories for my Southby scrapbook, handing out memory-triggering friendship bracelets as I went. As anyone who’s been to camp knows, these bracelets are the single most meaningful accessory one person can craft for and/or give to another.
Girls fill me with a different (but just as specific) type of nostalgia. The project is informed by front man Christopher Owens’ complex feelings about his cult-raised childhood and subsequent late-blooming discovery of the world through the language of great American pop and rock. They rocked long and hard at Thursday’s packed Mess With Texas party, soulful back-up singers and sunny chords providing a counterpoint to Owens’ fragile croon.
When I found Owens hiding behind the press tent afterwards, he was sweatily nursing a coconut water and catching his breath. Nevertheless, he was game for a brief interrogation, and asked me how the sound had been. (“Loud and great!”) But his favorite memory from Austin was playing with someone else’s band. “I really only did one thing so far,” he replied. “See Thee Oh Sees and play tambourine on stage. If we’re on tour, I always play it with them.” Not having picked up any real bracelets yet, I made him a makeshift cuff out of a promotional Sailor Jerry beer coozy. Like a real summer camp bracelet, it was a bit janky but did the trick.
This slowed down, fuzzed-out punk band plays a ton back home in NYC, but I still see them every chance I get because no two shows are exactly alike; their extended, feedback-laden jams take on an infinite number of permutations. Augmenting this fact at Cheer Up Charlie’s on Friday was new guitarist Coley Brown, who gave Tucker Rountree even more leeway to go nuts during his solos. During one interlude, Tucker kicked, spun, jumped, and fell on the ground, then climbed up on the bass drum to play his guitar behind his head.
When I asked him about his favorite memory thus far, Tucker knew immediately. “We played last night at [redacted]’s show, and everyone was stoned out of their fucking minds,” he said. “The guy who threw the show was totally incoherent, and he came up to me, and he says, ’Tucker, you’re playing a festival, but you’re not playing a festival,’ and he points to Ava Luna. He was philosophizing our psychotherapy, like, ’You can play in the next five minutes, but you can’t play in the next twenty minutes…this is not a festival!’ He was trying to pull off a communal idea of a show, but it was just bizarre. We decided to play anyway, because we came down here to play as many shows as we can.” Then he asked me to redact the guy’s name and change it to “Dr. Doggy Style.”
Bassist Emily Jane added a less negative memory of her own. “We passed through this crazy oil refinery in Louisiana [on the way to Austin] at midnight, and we’re listening to metal in the car. As we came over the hill there were a ton of flames, and we felt like we were entering hell. We took a wrong turn and got lost in it, and we were all psyching each other out. The music fit perfectly, it was really epic. We want to go back and shoot a music video there…we’ve been calling it Mordor.” It stands to reason that Mordor is in Louisiana.
The only band I caught twice during the festival, Widoswpeak evokes first kisses and moonbeams with their dreamy, reverb-y shoegaze that seems descended directly from Mazzy Star. This music is best experienced in the middle of the desert under a silver sky, so it came as no surprise that they’d played Festival NRMAL in Mexico the previous weekend. Like with Christopher Owens, singer Molly Hamilton’s favorite thing thus far had been Thee Oh Sees. “It was just fucking awesome,” she said. “They’re such a good band and it was really great. “They’re the best rock and roll band in America,” added drummer Michael Stasiak. “Or the world!” emphasized guitarist Robert Thomas. When asked about his favorite southby moment, Devin Perez of excellent post-punk outfit Dive said much the same thing. Thee Oh Sees: truly a rock band’s rock band.
Besides Thee Oh Sees’ electrifying performance, Widowspeak’s favorite recent memories were all of Mexico. “Todd P took us on a trip to Real de Catorce,” Molly recalled. “We rode horses in the desert and then we picked peyote, and then we rode horses into the sunset, and we stayed in the same suite where Brad and Angelina stayed.” No wonder their tunes sounded so magical.
Composed of Christi Jo and Jessica Zambri, this synth-pop sister act combines haunting vocals with electronic wizardry to create a sound many old school Goths find irresistible. Unfortunately, that’s not the only thing people find irresistible about them. “I got in a fight with a guy onstage yesterday,” Christi Jo Zambri explained. “In the middle of our set, a guy poked me in the ass…I pushed him and got upset.” “It’s weird, because at CMJ a girl from Holland came onstage and bit my ass,” added Jessica. “We’re calling this tour a journey through groping.” And that wasn’t all. “When we played Orange You Glad Fest in Orlando on the way here,” said Jessica, “a woman rubbed my legs up and down, but she was cool, she was peaceful.” Peaceful or not, some people need to learn to keep their hands to themselves.
When the dynamic Philly electro-rap duo took the stage at Biz 3’s warehouse party Friday night, they had to contend with a crowd that was at least half composed of glowstick-waving kids who’d been waiting in line for hours to see headliner Skrillex. Unfazed, MC Naeem Juwan swiftly dominated the stage with his rapid-fire verses, ass-shaking beats, and one very energetic stage-diving female DJ named Musa. Backstage afterwards, Juwan was mobbed by well-wishers, but took the time to select a colorful heart bracelet and dole out some warm fuzzies. “My favorite memory of Southby this year is playing a show [The Check Yo Ponytail party at Beauty Bar] with Dan Deacon and Andrew WK,” he said. “Me and Dan came up together in the Baltimore warehouse scene and we hadn’t seen each other for awhile…we did a lot of house parties together.” As for Mr. WK, “this Vice band called Win Win put out an album and we wound up singing a song together on it…it was really fun being in the same place at the same time.”
As this is generally a posi column, I was reluctant to cover someone whose music I do not personally enjoy. And yet, as I stood backstage telling some new acquaintances about how they should not, under any circumstances, chew on coca leaves proffered by a large, gay Mexican man in a clown suit (or if they did, not to swallow them), the world’s biggest dub step DJ horned in on our conversation. Before I knew it, everyone else had gone, and I was telling the end of my story to Skrillex. As it turns out, he’s the exact same height as me (5’4″), and his little brown eyes peered directly into mine.
“I’m a beer and weed man myself, I don’t do drugs,” he said, reassuring me the Mexican clown would pose no problem for him. For someone who makes such evil music, he was surprisingly sweet, but quickly grew nervous when I identified myself as a journalist. “You’re not gonna make fun of me, are you?” he asked, the wounded tone of an emo kid who’s been kicked a few too many times rising in his voice. I promised I would not. I got the feeling he’d run away if I tried to write down anything he was saying, but the jist of our convo was this:
1. Skrillex does not care what people say about him.
2. Skrillex thinks many of the things people say about him are extremely mean and unfair.
“You don’t know what it’s like to have people all over the world make judgments about you who don’t even know you,” he lamented. I agreed I didn’t. On the one hand, I felt bad for the guy, because even dub step DJs are human beings deserving of basic respect. On the other, he’s a gazillionaire with three Grammys and legions of adoring fans, which would make most reasonable people feel fairly unfuckwithable. But as someone who’s built much of his creative output on the angst of being a freak and an underdog, I guess he needs to keep that fire burning any way he can.
Skrillex’s favorite Southby moment was “seeing and hanging out with AraabMUZIK,” whose career he has aided quite a bit. For his bracelet photo, he insisted I jump in with him, and also that we take it with my cell phone camera, because “It’s gotta be real, man.”
I was feeling pretty beat by Saturday afternoon, but Class Actress’ bouncy electro-pop got everyone at the Village Voice party in the mood to drink wake-up cocktails and dance for one more day. Despite having played seven shows that week (with one left to go), singer Elizabeth Harper seemed none the worse for wear as she delivered sweetly sad lyrics and rocked out on a makeshift keytar (i.e. a keyboard she picked up in her hands).
Drummer Jeff Curtin told me his favorite Southby memory thus far was occupying the Bank of America building for some late night liquor and snacks. “It was great,” he said. “We basically had an office conference room party. When the bars close, you hit up the corporate office kitchen.” “There was nudity, I won’t say who,” piped in synth man Scott Rosenthal. “We partied with lawyers and talked about water law,” added Harper. “We rolled around the office in big chairs like, ’So, what do you think?’ ’I don’t know, let’s get Taiwan on the phone, we’re blowing you up!'” Let’s hope this doesn’t get anyone fired.
In their ecstatic headlining set of Saturday’s Peelander Fest, this “Japanese Action Comic Punk band hailing from the Z area of planet Peelander” crammed more insanity into twenty minutes than most people experience over the course of the whole festival–nay, life. With a giant lobster/alien costume, audience jam sessions, stage dives, extra-venue dance parties (Peelander Yellow ran clear across the street and jumped off a trailer), and numerous non-sequitor interludes like “Baseball Time!”, this band of Japan-to-NYC transplants made us non-Peelanders feel we had no right to complain about fatigue. But even as we realized this, they beckoned us to join them up at 11. After his customary intros of each band member (“Peelander Pink! Peelander Silver! Peelander Green! etc.), Peelander Yellow gestured to the audience, declaring us “Peelander South By Southwest!”
When I asked for his favorite memory, it was unsurprising that Peelander Yellow chose the gorgeous communion of energy that had just happened. “This is our festival,” he panted. “Today over one thousand people come. We are so, so happy.” True to his alien roots, he seemed unsure of where on your body a bracelet is supposed to go.