SXSW  2013 - Ground Zero and Day One 1

SXSW 2013 – Ground Zero and Day One

By Peter Dysart and Mike Hughes

Mike speaking. I’m sitting in Austin-Bergstrom Airport at the end of my second SXSW. On the way into the airport, a well-dressed local guy randomly asked me if I’d been in town for “SouthBy”. I guess I’ve got the thousand yard stare, but his coming up to chat apropos of nothing is typical of this liberal and overwhelmingly friendly city (apart from those religious fuckers, more on that later). Checking my luggage, the desk agent, another smart guy in his forties, asks “who’dya see bra’h, how’s it gone?” and he’s not just making small talk, he’s actually interested.

It’s kinda hard looking back, but I’m no sap, I made notes; well a few anyway. I got in on Monday night, to meet up with my best buds Peter and Pam who’d driven down from Chicago for the third time in as many years. The week started as it was to go on. Text messages “the hotel’s lost the booking” “it’s OK they’ve put us in the Holiday Inn instead” “where’re we meeting” “I’m going to lock everything in the trunk of the rental car and see you at the venue” “The plane’s late but it’ll be fine”.

We had an appointment you see, that night, before the Music Week even properly started. SXSW is now three weeks long. Film, then Interactive, then Music. The Joy Formidable were playing on the Monday, officially an ‘Interactive Week’ closing party that you can’t get into on a Music Week pass, but after waiting in line with a few hopefuls, I was in. Peter was already inside. He knew I’d been travelling too many hours and handed me a fresh tee-shirt, one he’d just snagged from the sponsors.

Peter: No really, Mike, you needed it and I was happy to oblige. After a solid day of driving and sorting out the hotel affair, I didn’t even enjoy the free drinks at the bar. The focus now was on the music.

The first set belonged to the Kopecky Family Band, a seven-piece folk rock band out of Nashville, and an excellent start to my SX. Whilst technically not related, I’ve read this is a very tight-knit group personally and it shows when they play. KFB weaves complex rhythms and sounds around bursting vocals and punchy hooks. It was my first time seeing them and it certainly won’t be the last.

SXSW2013Kopecky_3360Kopecky Family Band

The second band was a bit of a miscue. After agonising over the drummers set up and sound check, St Lucia came on to play hooked filled pop tunes with loads of 80s synth sounds that pretty much melded one into another. They had fans present at the gig that knew all the lyrics and were happy to sing along. Unfortunately, it wasn’t my cup of tea. 

SXSW2013St_LuciaSt Lucia

Mike: The fun part was seeing TJF’s tour manager, a sterling guy called Andy, trying to work out how to get Matt Thomas’ drum kit onto a diagonal stage that tapered to nothing. I spotted Ritzy Bryan over the back of the stage, being chatted to by some industry type, and you could see even from that distance how hard he was trying to impress, cheesy tooth smile flashing in the semi-darkness. TJF are big news over here. Eventually Andy’s work was done and Matt’s throne was installed. If truth be told, it was done bang on time, as were most things that week. If an event stated it was going to start at 9.15, it damn well did. I’d missed the previous band, but Peter told me they had been prima donnas setting up, and the venue stage manager had told them “you’re on in five or you’re not on at all”. Brutal at times, as we were to see later, but necessary when there’s something like a thousand bands and a hundred venues.

The Joy Formidable hit the stage bang on time for what was to be the first of six SXSW performances to kick off a 55 date tour. It was a corporate event, a nice venue, more like the bar of a smart hotel, but they played a blistering gig. They were clearly and obviously buoyed and brimming, totally up for it, as they launched into a nine-song set fitting their status as headliners (most of time at SX you get six songs). The mood was happy, not aggressive, no guitars were thrown, although familiar faces got tapped smartly on the head with Rhyd Dafydd’s bass. Ouch!

Peter:  I think I received a hug. No ouch there. This first set covered all the hits, but included ‘I Don’t Want To See You Like This’ which was the only time we’d hear that song during SX. Overall, it was a very high-energy set, especially from Ritz. I did fear that Matt’s monstrosity of a drum cage would slide off the stage into Mike and me.


The Joy Formidable

Mike: That – TJF being (very) familiar faces – illustrates an ongoing dilemma for anyone going to SXSW. Of course you go in order to see people you wouldn’t normally have the chance to, but when you’ve got people you know playing, and love, it’s more difficult. It wasn’t just TJF either, Deaf Club, who I’d last said hi to in a car park 10 miles from my house in North Wales, were also playing. There was going to have to be some balance achieved.

It was then out into the night to say proper hellos to Peter and Pam who’d I’d last seen a year ago in Austin. It’s great when music forges friendships, isn’t it? Post-gig we had to make the schlep out to Buda, a town half an hour out, where we booked hotels defensively to the frankly disgusting profiteering in town. The place I’d stayed last year by the airport was now charging $400 a night for a $100 room. Way-to-go Microtel, but it’s wrong to single you out, all the chains were doing it. Somehow it was suddenly 4am and I’d been on the go since 4am UK time, 30 hours ago. We crashed. Four hours later I was up and awake, worryingly bright as a button.


Mike: After all good intentions of an early start, we stopped for burgers on the way into town. Many venues are not ‘Official SXSW Showcases’ but co-exist comfortably alongside, and we needed to pick up passes and wristbands that we’d RSVP’d for; a tedious process. As as side note, but one I know will be of interest, I was concerned about not having a photo-pass. Truth be told, we’d left it very late in applying, and a result, got offered the lowest tier, which was that I could have one, at the discounted rate of $650. Wow. I’d said no to this bargain, and as a result tonight I was toting the point and shoot camera just in case. I needn’t have worried, there were precisely two venues allowing no cameras at all, and I saw plenty of DSLRs without the flutter of the press tags which they make pass-holders zip-tie to their camera bodies.

Band number one of the night was someone I hadn’t seen before, Io Echo, out of LA. Aesthetically, they’ve got a faux Japanese thing going on. In fact they use some Japanese instruments in their recordings, but the idea confuses and conflicts with their sound which was a long way in the direction of electro-goth. I liked them, enough that they’re on my list to seek out when I get home. Singer Ioanna Gika’s sweatshirt, the one decorated with acid smileys that she had under the well-worn kimono gave more clue to the dancey vibe.

Peter: This was my first time seeing IO Echo and I was impressed. Having known them primarily for their hits, this set gave us proper insight into what was a shoegazey synth-driven pop and rock fusion that at times truly tingled the auditory senses. You call it electro-goth, but I heard vestiges of epic Zeppelin pouring from the amp cabinets at several points in the set. The electonica presentation merely updated the compositions and arrangements to present time in a way that work very well.


Mike: Still getting acclimatised, I’d decided that I wanted to see DIIV and Marnie Stern at the Mohawk. It’s a venue with an indoor and outdoor stage, of which the latter was going to be the venue for Iggy Pop later in the week. Fancy seeing those big acts like Iggy? Forget it. What typically happens for Iggy, and Prince, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, is that there is a raffle amongst holders of the $700 silver and platinum badges.

Anyway, back to tonight. DIIV were slotted to play the indoor stage, Marnie Stern outdoors, so we flashed our new wristbands and headed inside. Problem was that despite my best “coming through!” foghorn tendencies, honed by years of gig going, the indoor stage was just too packed, and the throng pressed right round the bar so you couldn’t even see it in any shape or form. We gave up and decided instead to catch whoever happened to be on the outdoor stage before Marnie. It was a lot easier out there, despite the early evening drunks, and we snagged a decent spot. Out come the band, and it was Io Echo who we’d just seen! We decided to hang on. They were still good, all smoke and drama, even if Ioanna did fling her mic stand to the ground at just the same point in the set.

Marnie Stern came highly recommended. As they were getting set up, New Yorker Marnie chatted to at the crowd. I wasn’t really listening until she made some random but loud reference to her vagina, putting undue stress on the word. And then still setting up, during some technical issue, there was some buzz coming out of the bass cab. “That’s nothing compared to the buzz coming out of my VAGINA” quoth Marnie, in case anyone had missed her the first time. I’ve no problem with words, but the deliberate-ness of the whole thing was icky, not uncomfortable at all. Her music? She’s an impressive axe wielder that’s for sure. Peter and I argued about whether the math-rock tag applied to her is justified. I can see that, it was very clever stuff, like watching fractals being transformed into guitar wail as she ran super complex lead solos up and down the neck. Trouble is that while my brain was impressed, my heart wasn’t in it.

Peter: The whole Marnie Affair gave rise to thoughts of other putrid acts I’d seen in Austin in previous years. Considering that gaining access to play at SX is partially a juried process, it makes me wonder just how much effort it takes to be a SX artist. Entrants need a demo of their band and act and must be financially sound and technically prepared to commit to the event, but the jury certainly has no idea how these artists might sound in a live setting versus their studio demos. Marnie was a good case in point. Bands coming to SX should have their technical issues sorted in advance and that includes things like giving amps a tune up before hitting the road. The aforementioned buzz was coming from the bass players amp, which had clearly not been road ready. Meanwhile, Marnie’s stage presence gave us a quick indication that there were probably more worthy acts to catch in the waning hour of the evening, especially from women not so concerned with their noisy personal cheese. As for the recommendation on Marnie, the word “no” sprouts to mind. As a guitar player, I’ll have to take issue with her alleged guitar talent — it was a second rate fret tapping technique that average teenage kids tackle in their early guitar lessons. Nothing special here. Move along, move along.

SXSW2013IMG_1007Marnie Stern

Mike: Next, we headed off then to another bar with a ‘patio’ – a concrete back yard with an awning over it. There was some redneck band on; I won’t name them. They were awful, best epitomised by the scrawny office-worker dude in the audience, brand new cut-off Levi jacket over a tee-shirt over scrawny arms do not a rocker make; neither does loudly assuring all his mates that it was “orr-sum”. They went off – yay – and the reason we were there came on-stage to save the day. Lauren, lead singer of Ume, looks (and tonight was dressed) like a down-home kindergarten teacher. What really is awesome is the change that overcomes her when she straps-on the guitar. This girl shreds transcendentally in a way that others can only hope to, it’s like watching your neighbour turn into a were-wolf at midnight as she throws it all down on stage. The format is straight driving rock, it’s the performance that matters, they’re a band that hardly make sense except in a live setting. Peter was impressed “I wasn’t expecting THAT from HER”.

Peter: Ume is apparently one of the top unsigned acts in the country, but after this SX, I have a feeling it won’t be for very long. Mike, when you say, “she throws it all down on stage,” we need to be clear that we are speaking literally as well as figuratively here. Midway through the set, Lauren’s thrashing and gyrating included curling up on the stage in a tight ball with her guitar whilst she continued to play without missing a note. Then she arched her back creating a bridge with her head and heals. It’s difficult to say there was anything sexually suggestive in her motions, but the energies emanating from her must have been measurable by local telemetry. At the end of the set, I check to make sure my eyebrows hadn’t been completely singed off. Yes, there are many pretty blonde girls with guitars, but few play their axe with any true proficiency. I think we were so taken by her playing that we forgot to mention that she’s a talented vocalist as well. Wow.

That was quite the way to end our evening.




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God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.