Texas is far away and scary. Perhaps that's why I avoided South by Southwest for so long. Well, that, and it's a bit hard to find freelance assignments when magazine staffs gobble up all the coveted $600 badges. That the invitation would finally come via the friend of a drummer (in turn, the soon-to-be-ex of an ex-roommate of two close friends) at first seemed coincidental, but the annual music industry conference doesn't work like that: So, I answered an open invitation to crash on the couch of a writer I'd been editing for years and had never met, gathered a handful of food recommendations that I promptly ignored, listened to friends' accounts that all expressed a cynical awe with the music conference, and headed out to Austin.
A cab driver told me where I could find Matthew McCaughney on given weeknights, should I need him for any reason, and tried to sell me on moving to the state capitol because, "Dude, Austin doesn't have natural disasters." I met people, and then more people, some of whom I actually remember. Their faces now match up with the stack of business cards on my desk.
Oh: There were also bands.
Most Surprising Music No. 1
The most surprising music I heard during South by Southwest occurred within 30 seconds of arrival on Sixth Street: a tree full of grackles. They chirped with manic density, siren kaws ricocheting in a lumpy sphere as they splattered the sidewalk beneath in dung. I stepped away gingerly. By the next day, they—like many smart locals, probably—split town, to be found only on the perimeter of the approximately 125-block, 1.75-square-mile city center, padded with dozens of official venues, countless makeshift stages, and an estimated 8,000 music industry geeks on spring break. What Austin resident would want to pay $140 for a local ticket to hang out with them?
It's Kind of Like Bonnaroo
With a carnival atmosphere—seven closed-off blocks of Sixth Street, 4,000 performers performing 15 hours of music daily, and vast quantities of barbecue, Mexican food and free alcohol—South by Southwest's meta-structures practically enforce bacchanalia. The lack of proper sleep and frequent showers also add to the transcendence.
The question of whether it is "worth it" to go to South by Southwest is one raised repeatedly by attendees at all levels—bands, fans, industry scum, journalists, publicists, managers. This often has to do more with the psychic toll than the financial one, which is around $600 for a pass, plus travel expenses.
The Convention Center—the only place all attendees were required to pass through in order to pick up their badges on quick-moving lines that wound Disney-like across levels and up escalator—resembled a gamut to be run. A tornado of promotional items (wristbands! download cards!), glossy magazines, hideous fruit drink giveaways, flat screen televisions flashing electronic press kits, hawkers offering to turn your band's songs into ringtones, bloggers blogging, and texters texting, it is probably the closest one can get to a corporeal version of the contemporary culture industries' insane oversaturation. At a booth sponsored by Major League Baseball, I learned I could pitch a fastball in the upper 30s to the dead center of the strike zone.
What that had to do with being in Texas to see bands play is still lost on me.
Metaphor No. 1: Bandwidth
On the day stage at the Convention Center on Wednesday afternoon, Brooklyn's A Place to Bury Strangers stepped to the mics like a band designed to play 30-minute industry showcases, which they promptly did, providing a perfect soundtrack to their surroundings (and making the cover of the local paper). The songs of A Place to Bury Strangers did just fine, exploding with helicopter guitars that seemed to float from the Convention Center expecting to be treated as liberators. But still, a weird room for this sort of stuff.
At SXSW, bands faced a problem of bandwidth: how to fit their music into the available channels. Playing at the Co-Op later that afternoon, on the corner of Sixth Street and Trinity, Staten Island songwriter John Biz (paying tribute to Woody Guthrie with his National Seashore project) found his acoustic guitar up against the self-described loudest band in New York. Being appropriate can be tough in Austin.
Metaphor No. 2: The Zoo
A band cannot be plucked from the wilderness at South by Southwest, by definition, because there is no wilderness. It is a zoological garden where the creatures have consent, opposable thumbs, and exist in a faithful recreation of the music industry's Net-endangered ecosystem. But that doesn't mean mating and other anthropological wonders don't occur. For working bands, it is a chance to see some of the acts they've missed while touring. In a national music scene where one's closest musical comrades might turn out to be from North Carolina or San Francisco, as Williamsport/ Williamsburg's Akron/Family has discovered in collaborators Megafaun and the Dodos, respectively, Austin is where worlds collide. Both those bands, as well as Baltimore's Lexie Mountain Boys and Copenhagen's Slaraffenland, joined the Akrons for their midnight set at Emo's Jr. on Saturday, which tumbled into the street with A/F guitarist Seth Olinsky leading the Danish horns in "Auld Lang Syne."
For all the noise and chaff that turn South by Southwest into an impenetrable ripples of miniature scenes, it still seems extraordinarily valuable, at least, as the rare place communities might take shape. Like summer camp, BFFs can be made quickly, but also (perhaps) retained for life. For friendly people, SXSW can be plenty friendly.
Music is (Still) the Best
Perhaps the most underappreciated aspect of South by Southwest is the music. Amid tantalizing buzz bands like Seattle Sub Pop signees the Fleet Foxes and Blitzen Trapper, struggling singer-songwriters, and white noise rawk bursting from rooftop bars, there was a surprising amount of authentically great shows occurring for the interested fan.
Playing in quartet form, New England freeform collective Sunburned Hand of the Man avant-jammed with the chaos of Sixth Street from the Thirsty Nickel, a corner bar. At the Signal To Noise party on Saturday, reclusive outsider musician Jandek performed alongside Houston's Weird Weeds. The night before, underground faves Half Japanese reformed (featuring Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan inexplicably on saxophone) at WFMU's Spiro's bash.
Other Music, the venerable Manhattan record store named for its location in the shadow of the now-departed Tower Records, meanwhile, curated the most tantalizing festival-within-a-festival. Making camp for two days at the French Legation Museum on an idyllic hillside just east of downtown, the breeze-stroked tent offered a country fair-like haven replete with an ice cream truck and taco stand. Featuring stalwarts like Dinosaur Jr's J Mascis, Yo La Tengo, and Superchunk's Mac McCaughan, as well as newcomers like Lower East Side comic book artist/anti-folker Jeffrey Lewis, night-burnt strummer Phosphorescent, and Bradford Cox's Atlas Sound, the trek up the hillside made it seem like a paradise one should never leave, despite the siren call of more music in the debased city grid.
But great sounds or no, South by Southwest is the opposite of populist, wonderful shows kept hidden behind guestlists and, in many cases, even public announcements of their existence (like The Fader's Lou Reed tribute starring Thurston Moore, Moby and My Morning Jacket). At an event for insiders, it takes every string one can pull to actually see all the music he wants to see. More than the lack of showers, this can feel fairly dirty.
Metaphor No. 3: The Game
Regardless of whether one plays to win, South by Southwest is the game: 30- to 45-minute sets to jaded listeners. Even Hoboken veterans Yo La Tengo (who wryly closed their 2003 SXSW appearance with Bachman-Tuner Overdrive's "Taking Care of Business") made the rounds of promotional parties on behalf of the Independent Film Channel, The Fader and the YLT-scored The Toe Tactic, the feature debut by Emily Hubley, sister of Tengo drummer Georgia.
There are always reasons to go to South by Southwest, personal, business, or both. For those stuck in northern climes, a March trip to Austin can be a body's first real taste of spring, or even summer. For young bands, some kind of new deal—a booking agent, a label, a product to license—might not ensue, but it could. Mostly, the chaos field created is so vast one truly does get the feeling anything could happen. Or that could just be the mass hormonal release of several thousand bodies in arrested development simultaneously experiencing sunshine.
Most Surprising Music No. 2
The second most surprising music I heard at South by Southwest occurred near the end of a grumpy, blistered Saturday night. Beginning the early evening at the 8bitpeople showcase at the Molotov Lounge, including Gameboy hacker Nullsleep and 1-bit tactician Tristan Perich, I limped from a performance of perhaps the newest genre at SXSW to the oldest, Indonesian gamelan.
Onstage was Houston's Space City Gamelan, a band I'd once heard an apparently mislabeled mp3 of, and—now—discovered they were actually a shimmering, malletophone orchestra playing music that sounded like a thousand toy pianos twinkling in the evening sun. After five days of electric guitars, acoustic guitars, lines to wait on, and venue after venue after venue and wristbands and handstamps, it felt monumentally good to sink into the stern wood of a church pew, the sound of the ancient instruments the sonic equivalent of swimming in a cool mountain pool.
Jesse Jarnow is a contributing editor at Paste and Relix. His writing has appeared in the London Times, Village Voice, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He has written children's books about presidential politics, Mark Twain, the Grateful Dead, Prince, Johnny Bench, socialism, telegraphs, Davy Crockett and other topics, and once helped curate an historical exhibit titled Reimagining the Ordovician Gothic: Fossils from the Golden Age of Spam. His original songs and field recordings occasionally appear under the name Funny Cry Happy. There's a novel, too. Based in Brooklyn, he blogs about books, b-sides and baseball at wunderkammern27.com.