by Marc Masters
The eternal dilemma at SXSW is how long to stick around at any single venue. There's at least five bands, sometimes more than 10, playing in every possible location. So the temptation is to dart all over Austin catching snippets of everything. That strategy works well at night, when more of the shows take place in the radius of a few downtown blocks, and on-the-hour schedules are more strictly adhered to. But during the day, things can happen miles apart, lineups drift off time and rearrange by the second, and crowds swell unpredictably. So you can spend 30 minutes to get from one show to another only to find out the band you want to see either isn't playing yet, already played, or will be done by the time you can get through the line outside. It seems absurd to camp out anywhere for too long when so much is going on everywhere, but during the day, if you can find one venue hosting a lot of great stuff, it's a pretty good option.
I found one on Day 2, at a great store called Domy Books, which hosted a lineup curated by Zum, the fine subterranean San Francisco label run by musician, writer, and all-around friendly scene-maker George Chen. Chen's taste runs the gamut of the underground, and while the bands I saw all shared an experimental spirit, the sounds were excellently varied. Portland's Eternal Tapestry crafted a kind of post-rock psych that built simple grooves into washes of jamming near-noise. L.A. duo Moment Trigger were actual noise, using a guitar, a table full of effects pedals, and some kind of noise-generator involving a flat piece of metal. And Total Abuse ripped out some overloaded hardcore punk that sounded like misinterpreted Black Flag covers played by
those kids who hang out down on the end of your block, the ones who dress kinda off and you can't really tell what music they're into, but it's probably something cool.
Those three together would've made an impressively varied lineup, but the best two bands at Zum's show were even more wide-ranging. Austin veterans Weird Weeds played subtle, masterful songs from a forthcoming album due later this year. Flowing deftly from brainy instrumentals to patient climaxes to some melodies that sounded almost like folk, the group managed to easily hold the attention of a crowd who'd spent most of the day having their ears blown. Just as dexterous, but in a more aggro way, were Brooklyn noise/jazz/whatever vets Zs. Sitting in chairs on the ground in front of
the stage, the quartet blurted out sharp, syncopated blasts-- presumably also from a forthcoming album, due in May on Social Registry-- that felt both repetitive and morphing, like bricks melting into one seamless wall of sound. The fact that the crowd could get as stoked by Zs' seated set as all the other groups' flavors of energetic experimentalism was testament to Chen's smart curating. None of these bands will probably ever get compared to each other, but watching them all in a row made it clear they are all natural brothers and sisters in sound exploration.
The only other band I saw on Day 2 that matched the power and energy of the groups at Domy Books was UK trio Male Bonding. The three guys in this band were previously part of the raucous post-Fall quartet Pre (who I wrote about during last year's installment of SXSW), and their new project's sound shares some of the taut rhythms with that venture, but Male Bonding's songs are more varied and accessible.
It's post-punk with the brightness turned up, more happy than brooding, more infectious than detached. Tonight, playing songs from their aptly-titled forthcoming Sub Pop album Nothing Hurts, they were basically a whirwind of caffeinated melody. It's a sound shared by a communal scene of underground UK groups (most of whom are collected on a great recent comp on a label run by Male Bonding members). But it will be interesting to see how US crowds respond to that sound now that it's getting a glimpse of above-ground exposure. It's hard to imagine anyone who gets to see Male Bonding play like the did here coming away with anything but positive vibes.