SOUTH BY SLEEP LESS: A JOURNEY THROUGH SXSW


“South By Southwest is like Mardi Gras. You can’t do it all.” These are AG EIC Dan Fox’s sage words of advice to me when we meet up a few days before I make the pilgrimage—sound advice that I mostly ignore during my first ever trip to the behemoth music event. Most people I ask for advice about SXSW bemoan a corporate takeover of sorts that has supposedly spread through it like a plague. I expect to see Doritos logos everywhere and Ronald McDonald himself handing out Big Macs in between sets. Although SXSW has become a polarizing entity for many music fans, I discover that it can be an incomparable playground for the open-minded. During my first SXSW, I watch an immeasurable amount of bands, drink lots of coffee to cope with sleep loss, and am more or less banned from one of the venues.


MONDAY
WING IT

For $60, I board a mostly empty flight at 6 a.m. Unable to fall asleep on the plane, I start my SXSW on three hours of sleep. The sun isn’t even up when we arrive at 7:30. While in Austin, I stay at a small, cheap hostel downtown.

Although everybody highly emphasizes the importance of getting tacos in Austin, that isn’t what I eat for my first meal. After spying a decaying mural painted by Peelander Yellow, I decide to stop inside Ramen Tatsu-Ya. My logic is simple. If it’s good enough for the man in yellow, it must be good enough for me. I get the tonkotsu ramen and am pleased that it’s better than a lot of the ramen I typically encounter in America.

I quickly discover that the nearby Hotel Vegas is SXSW’s hub for garage rock. What other venue can boast four back-to-back nights of Thee Oh Sees? Over the brief few hours I spend there, I experience everything from Sabbath-worshipping garage punk via Birmingham, England to a bizarre rock opera featuring costumes and children’s xylophones. The most impressive act I encounter is Squid, an experimental indie freakout session. By the end of their set, the drummer is red-faced from screaming his lungs out. Even a week later, his intense, expressive face is still etched in my mind.

For my first official showcase, I watch Chicago’s mopey songwriting masters Ratboys play at Mohawk. Although I’m disappointed to find out that Ian from Treadles is no longer drumming with them, the band is still as strong as ever. I quickly discover that one major drawback of official SXSW events is a lack of engagement from audiences. Having seen the band play to positive responses in New Orleans multiple times, it’s weird to see the attendees so indifferent to what’s in front of them. Still, Ratboys have plenty of enthusiasm and personality to make up for the crowd’s bland attitude.

Via a Twitter message, Peelander Yellow invites me to a pop-up called “The New Japan Islands,” which features karaoke as part of the lineup. I watch him be the natural performer he is in front of a primarily Japanese audience. He rushes on stage donning a black cape before dramatically tossing it aside. He then runs through the audience demanding high fives mid-song. Even when it’s only karaoke, Yellow brings his full energy. I follow him a couple of songs later with “Big Mac” by BBQ Chickens, a Japanese punk band’s ode to shitty fast food. I’m immensely nervous, reviewing lyrics and shaking a bit as I chug water. When it’s my time to shine, the transition away from Japanese pop music is sharp. I walk on stage and give it my all, sprinting around and repeatedly dropping to my knees for my 58 seconds of fame. Yellow immediately approaches me afterwards, yelling “You should have a band!” Not to be outdone, he performs again, running into the street mid-song and forcing attendees to pick him up and carry him around the room.

The most important lesson I learn this night is that you should always go with your heart, even if it means ditching some plans. That’s how you will make the most out of SXSW.

From there, I run as fast as I can through a labyrinth of corporate-sponsored pop-ups to find the one where Zola Jesus is playing. The dark electronic star is clearly nervous for her first full solo piano set ever. Despite the nerves, she delivers—all beautifully sparse melancholy. Too bad that her performance is almost completely drowned out by the “important” chatter of self-proclaimed industry insiders. In the right atmosphere, Zola Jesus’ performance would have been brilliant and transformative. Here, it’s just cocktail music for drunken know-it-alls.

TUESDAY
IT’S A SMALL WORLD

I start my day in a fashion that will mostly remain the same for the duration of my time in Austin. I wake up, lie in bed for a couple of minutes in disbelief that I’m not going back to sleep, shower, chug a cup of shitty hostel coffee, and then run out the door. This morning, I eat breakfast at the semi-famous Voodoo Doughnut, a small chain known for their impressive array of bizzare doughnuts. On top of a table plastered with celebrity obituaries, I eat a doughnut decorated with a pentagram and another one vaguely decorated like a voodoo doll.

“This is the kind of rocking that’ll rock your bra strap off,” shouts Ratboys singer / guitarist Julia Steiner after singing a song about her dead cat at Cheer Up Charlies. It’s important not to take yourself too seriously during SXSW or else you won’t leave with your sanity intact. When post-punk outfit Priests soundchecks on the same stage later, their singer repeatedly chants “buttholes” over the band’s dark music.

Although SXSW has become a polarizing entity for many music fans, I discover that it can be an incomparable playground for the open-minded.

After Priests finishes, I run down to The Main for the official music opening party. Somehow, my favorite band, Otoboke Beaver, finagled their way into the first slot. I planned this entire trip to SXSW because they seldom play outside of their native Japan. I’m so excited that I get there an hour before their set and walk into the venue only to discover that it is still being pieced together.

Alone in the sea of photographers up front, I shake my head like a maniac and bounce around with energy that I didn’t even know I was capable of producing. My long hair whiplash probably ruins countless photos, but I have no remorse. This is about rock’n’roll! When your favorite band travels halfway across the globe, you can’t just sit back idly and nod. Thankfully, Otoboke Beaver shares a similar mindset. It isn’t long before my face is unexpectedly crushed under guitarist Yoyoyoshie’s butt when she starts crowd surfing.

During “Anata Watashi Daita Ato Yome No Meshi” (“After Making Love to Me, You Eat Your Wife’s Meal”), Yoyoyoshie and singer Accorinrin plunge into the crowd with complete disregard for the inactive audience. Somewhere in the tides, Yoyoyoshie loses a shoe, but doesn’t even seem to notice. When she runs back on stage, something in her setup malfunctions which results in a pure abrasive noise coming from her amp. Without even batting an eye, Yoyoyoshie turns and begins manipulating the harsh noise. Eventually, she removes the amp’s mic and starts screaming her backing vocals into it. In a moment that would’ve caused most bands to piss themselves and call it quits, Otoboke Beaver soldiers on as if failure was never an option. Otoboke Beaver thrives on chaos and the unexpected.

Broken Social Scene

After watching Otoboke Beaver, I run into my friend Itsumi Okayasu, a Japanese photographer who runs a tiny arts and culture publication named Antenna with her partner Daiki Tsutsumi. I follow her to Elysium, where she is excited to see Broken Social Scene perform later. Standing next to Daiki, I find myself wondering why I’m standing in the front row for this band. I’ve never even listened to them in my life. Despite my embarrassingly late introduction to the band, I can attest that their set rules. Although they have completely different styles, BSS’s nine-piece configuration gives Slipknot a run for their money. Their ability to rearrange their final song on the spot to cope with dwindling set time is especially impressive.

At 2 a.m., I sit outside in the rain and eat steak fajita tacos from a food truck. I go back to the hostel and am serenaded to sleep by some guy loudly threatening to beat another guy up in the alley.

WEDNESDAY
BANNED AT VALHALLA

I eat my first meal of the day at 4 p.m. The tacos at a restaurant named Pueblo Viejo pack a bigger bite for my buck than any of the food trucks I’ve frequented thus far. You know it’s going to be a good place when the employees chuckle at your butchered Spanish.

Otoboke Beaver’s headlining set at Valhalla is pure madness. Since the band is performing at an actual club instead of a snooty party, the crowd gets in on the action this time. I spend much of the set fixing mic stands and trying to keep moshers from crashing into the band. During “Love is Short,” Accorinrin runs into the crowd and her small frame is consumed by the bodies flinging back and forth. At the beginning of “Anata,” Yoyoyoshie jumps on top of the PA system. Immediately, the venue cuts the power and lights, but it’s too late. There’s no stopping Otoboke Beaver. They aren’t even phased by it. Their amps are more than loud enough and they scream the lyrics as loud as physically possible. Yoyoyoshie jumps into the crowd, kicking, screaming, and strumming the hell out of her guitar. At one point, Accorinrin climbs another set of speakers and begins playfully grabbing the lights dangling above her head, as if to symbolically say, “We could tear this whole place down piece by piece if we really wanted to.” It’s the best set I see during all of SXSW.

Afterwards, the sound guy is fuming mad, telling band members to “fucking die.” He screams at them and I have to step in, reminding him that they’re Japanese and don’t speak English, to which he shouts with disgust, “I don’t care. They should know common sense!” I would think a guy with multiple Juggalo tattoos would be more understanding of energetic off-kilter performances.

Afterwards, I discover the sound man has banned Otoboke Beaver from Valhalla. I realize I’m likely banned as well for coming to their defense. Frankly, I half expect him to beat the shit out of me if he sees me in public.

Otoboke Beaver (with the author)

Walking back to my hostel, I feel so energized from the show that I could run a 5K. I lay in bed but fail to fall asleep until sometime after 4 a.m.

THURSDAY
LISTEN TO YOUR FRIENDS

After surprising the hell out of me yesterday, I leap at the opportunity to watch David Boring from Hong Kong play again today. They play some of SXSW’s most powerful freak rock. These no-wavers have it all: an intense frontwoman, a genuinely unsettling atmosphere, and guitars that sound like police sirens.

With a few free hours in the early evening, I decide to wander downtown. “Willie!” shouts a familiar voice. It’s none other than Ian and his band Treadles, some of New Orleans’ most loveable DIY weirdos. After a few minutes of group hugs, they convince me to join them on their way to Beerland to watch Rick Maguire from cult indie band Pile. With just a guitar and synthesizer, Rick sculpts some of SXSW’s most spacious music. Maguire indulges Treadles’ long series of requests and even debuts an acapella song he wrote that day about SXSW. “Some people play music, some are best,” he sings. “If you like music, consider this a test.” After the set, Treadles and I discuss everything from Dungeons and Dragons to anarchism. When I ask Ian for nearby food suggestions, he recommends a Korean restaurant named Koriente.

Arthur Brown

I take his advice and bid them farewell. Although I discover the restaurant is unsurprisingly closed at 11 p.m., Ian unintentionally brings me a SXSW miracle. “I am the god of hellfire and I bring you fire!” commands an eerie voice from across the street. My ears perk up. “No way. It can’t be,” I think to myself. I rush across the street with a reckless disregard for my surroundings. On an outdoor stage, 76-year-old Arthur Brown is performing his 1960s organ-heavy freak hit “Fire.” The tune was an essential part of almost every show I’ve ever DJed at WTUL. I didn’t even know that he was still alive, let alone performing. Now he has materialized, walking directly past me as he wades through the crowd singing the tune. When the band finishes the song and closes their set, I can’t stop screaming in disbelief. Passersby look at me like I’ve lost my mind. Always listen to your friend’s suggestions, because you never know where it will take you.

I grab a brisket sandwich from a nearby food truck and rush down to Palm Door on Sabine to watch Jambinai again. This show’s intimacy starkly contrasts last night when the heavy post rock band probably performed to around 1,500 as part of a massive South Korean showcase. Here, fewer than 100 people gather up close to watch the spectacle. After the set, I approach famed rock journalist David Fricke and ask him for his opinion on their set. He makes respectful comparisons to Godspeed and Sigur Rós while noting the group’s distinct sound, partially the result of their usage of traditional instruments. When he comments on my headbanging and how he saw me “getting into it,” I tell him about how I cried during the last song for the second night in a row and the conversation doesn’t go much further than that. Clearly, I’m an expert at networking.

FRIDAY
“Let’s Hear It For the Fire Marshal!”

After another night of not nearly enough sleep, I decide to test out one of the many electric scooters that litter downtown. The 20-to-30 minute scoot across the city is quite scary. As someone who doesn’t drink, managing the scooter goes relatively smoothly. However, I can’t imagine what operating this deathtrap would be like even slightly inebriated or hungover. I’m amazed that the citizens of Austin haven’t gathered all of these public safety hazards together for a giant bonfire. Oh well. Maybe next year.

My first stop of the day is the tenth annual Peelander Fest. As a longtime Peelander-Z fan, attending this event has been a bit of fantasy for years. Spider House is by far the coolest space I visit in all of Austin. It looks like a dystopian playground with curiosities like suits of armor and clown sculptures set up all over the outside grounds. Following my continual belief that any establishment adorned with Peelander Yellow’s art is probably worth supporting, I grab some Japanese karaage fried chicken from the nearby East Side King food truck for my first meal of the day.

It’s important not to take yourself too seriously during SXSW or else you won’t leave with your sanity intact.

The early afternoon sets at Peelander Fest pack a surprising punch. Guitar and drum duo Super Buff from San Antonio sound like they dove into the deep ends of Lightning Bolt and Melt-Banana and never came back up for air. Their raucous instrumental noise brings back fond memories of early Caddywhompus. When I ask if they’ve ever played New Orleans, the duo tells me this is only their fourth performance, but they hope to release an album tentatively in August and possibly tour afterwards.

After a few sets at Spider House, I scoot my way down to Hole in the Wall, where Community Records is hosting their annual, unofficial showcase. Originally, the New Orleans label planned to host the event at the Hikes house, a DIY space run by the Austin band of the same name. However, less than a week and a half before the event, the fire marshal shut down the space and the showcase was hastily moved to the new spot. Below Hole in the Wall’s logo, the venue’s sign proudly (and incorrectly) promotes today’s event as Hikes Fest, in reference to Hikes’ own long-standing SXSW event.

Former Alaskan emo trio Granddad kicks the event off with a powerful set. After attending so many industry-conscious events this week, it’s refreshing to finally be back at a relatively DIY show again. Nobody here feels too cool to enjoy the music. Austin emotive punks MeanGirls’ passionate performance serves as a reminder that, while Community Records is a New Orleans label, it handles multiple Texas acts as well. In this respect, the showcase is a sort of family reunion that brings together their Texas and New Orleans contingents.

Back at Spider House, I’m surprised to find that many of the front row fans for Peelander-Z’s headlining set are well below the legal drinking age, despite the band itself being 21-years-old. As always, the set features brightly-colored costumes, human bowling, and songs about tacos.

Hikes

I return to Hole in the Wall just in time to watch Hikes. Their guitarist Nay Wilkins has an unnatural level of talent, effortlessly conjuring complex and beautiful guitar parts. Recalling how he describes Community Records to others, Wilkins tells the crowd, “They’re kind of like these ex-ska guys who toured in a veggie oil van for 10 years.” At another point he says, “Let’s hear it for the fire marshal!”

SATURDAY
LET THEM EAT BURGERS

Treadles

My first show this afternoon is New Orleans’ “gay sex kvlt” aspirers Treadles at Beerland. The band performs on the floor in front of an array of different Elvis busts. With only a tiny bit of lighting coming from outside, the atmosphere fits their downer tunes well. Since their leader KC Stafford’s schedule has been predominantly filled by Thou tours lately, it’s a nice treat to watch their four-piece in action. It’s also their new guitarist Switch’s first week of shows with them.

Today, Mohawk features one of the greatest contrasts in all of SXSW. Darkwave duo Drab Majesty—beloved by New Orleans’ goth community—performs immediately before the brightly colored Peelander-Z. Adding to the bizarreness of it all, the show is sponsored by OkCupid. Personally, I think knowing if someone is down with both Drab Majesty and Peelander-Z could be an important indicator of whether or not our relationship will work, but I’m probably in the minority on this.

For dinner, I stop at Cisco’s, a tiny Tex-Mex diner across from Hotel Vegas. I order the Cisco special, a $12 sampler featuring a taco, an enchilada, and a quarter-pound fajita, in addition to sides. Pleasant conversations with staff and fellow diners offer a rare reprieve from my hectic schedule.

For Saturday and Sunday, Burger Records has taken over Hotel Vegas. There are five stages of continuous music and hoards of people crammed into less than half a square block. On just Saturday alone, there are 61 bands performing in less than 10 hours. This is complete and utter sensory overload. Still, nothing can make Peelander Yellow unrecognizable. After he walks up next to me, I say hello and ask for his recommendations for the night. He suggests Daddy Long Legs, a Brooklyn band that does a great imitation of 1960s British bands imitating Black bluesmen; and the Briefs, a fairly straightforward punk rock band that the crowd adores.

Peelander-Z

Although the night time shows are technically official SXSW events, it is overwhelmingly filled with disdain for the SXSW elite. One man walks around wearing a sign that says “Douche badge.” I feel so awkward that I actually hide my press badge under my shirt for most of the night.

Representing New Orleans at Bugermania are Trampoline Team, Buck Biloxi (sans the Fucks), Sick Thoughts, and Pscience. This configuration is truly one of the most astonishing displays of New Orleans’ inbred musicality that I have ever witnessed. Here are four different bands comprised of just seven people.

Buck Biloxi plays the type of sloppy three chord rock’n’roll where you never know when it will end—nor do you care. Considering they share two of the same members, it’s downright comical that the organizers put a band in between Buck Biloxi and Trampoline Team, forcing members to lug their gear on and off stage. Despite the common members, Trampoline Team is the exact opposite of Buck Biloxi. After not seeing them for the past couple years, I’m shocked by their sheer speed. They might be the fastest band in New Orleans now! Their set is so fast and precise that they blow through their allotted 30 minutes in less than half the time.

Trampoline Team

On my way back to the hostel, I walk down the crowded hell that is East 6th Street. As I contemplate turning onto a less packed side street, I see police on horses coming near with a galloping clonk. They sweep the crowd off the street à la Bourbon Street at the end of Mardi Gras night. The process goes relatively smoothly until one of the cops spies a pedestrian in my vicinity doing something he doesn’t approve of. “Police! Stop!” he screams. Six or seven large stallions gun it in my direction. Everyone around me screams and we do our best to jump out of the way in the sheer milliseconds we have to react. Thankfully, none of us are trampled to death.

SUNDAY
BUC IT

On Sunday, I ride back to New Orleans with Greg and D-Ray from Community Records. I make a speedy run to Voodoo Doughnut and run into Rui (from Lawn) there. I trade D-Ray a vegan apple fritter for two breakfast tacos and we start our journey back home.

The ride back to New Orleans is surprisingly painless. An eight-hour drive doesn’t feel so long when there are good friends and plenty to talk about. We discuss ska, KoRn, and the childish humor of a sign for Kickapoo Road. D-Ray is even kind enough to indulge me with a pit stop at Buc-ee’s since I’ve never been to this massive oasis. I buy Beaver Nuggets, a pack of stickers, and a 44 ounce fountain drink.

Our triumphant return to New Orleans is greeted by broken stop lights, blocked streets, and a dying possum in the middle of the road. Home sweet home, it never changes. I fall in bed and promptly sleep for 13 hours.