South By So What

Unknown bands can't expect much from SXSW, just ask the Czars' Chris Pearson.

There are roughly 1,061 miles between Denver and Austin, Texas. It's a journey that takes the average driver -- traveling at the recommended speed, of course -- about twenty hours to complete (or, to be more specific, 1164 minutes if you follow the route provided on www.mapquest.com, which takes you east through Kansas and then south at Wichita). You'll pass through two cities that make for somewhat macabre roadside attractions. There's Oklahoma City, most recently made famous by current Cañon City dweller Timothy McVeigh. Then, heading straight down into the Lone Star State, you pass through Waco. Finally, you'll arrive in Austin, a city fortunately more known for its country music. Willie Nelson still lives on the outskirts of town, as do Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Yet the town's music reputation has expanded from its country roots since 1987, ever since Austin began hosting the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference each March.

But the festival has mushroomed so much in recent years that many people have begun to question its purpose. Whereas the conference ostensibly originated as a way for unknown and unsigned acts to showcase for record-label reps and other star-makers, it has, with each year, mutated into a gargantuan round of music-industry show-and-tell, with more than 800 bands competing for the attention of roughly 50,000 schmoozers and boozers. For the unknowns -- who travel the distance without label money or guarantees of crowds, and who are often relegated to playing at the most undesirable time slots in far-away venues -- SXSW is both a blessing and a curse. You gotta go if you're chosen, but you'd be wise to check your expectations at the Texas state line.

Chris Pearson of Velveteen Records and his band the Czars recently returned from their third trip to SXSW and can attest to that fact. This year, unlike the previous two, the band played as part of a label showcase for Bella Union Records, which is putting out the new Czars CD, Before...but longer(which will be available at the Czars show on Saturday, April 8, at the Gothic Theatre, with the North Americans). Although Backwash chose not to attend this year's SXSW proceedings (opting instead to wait for the College Music Journal festival in New York City in October), Pearson was kind enough to lend us excerpts of his SXSW diary, an annual ritual he's kept since the band's first Texas sojourn in 1996. (The full diary, as well as information about Pearson's various projects as the bassist for Velveteen Monster, Sarina Simoom and Jux County, can be found at www.velveteenrecords.com.)

Reading it, one has the sense of the dichotomous mixture of excitement and hassle that comes with SXSW. Surely, no single gig is likely to make such a long trip worth the effort -- especially when bad sound and an unwieldy venue are essentially status quo. There must be more to the experience, like excellent Mexican food along the way, new friends made, rare glimpses of good music caught in between merely so-so offerings. And a long drive home to ponder what it all meant, or didn't.

Pearson and his bandmates (singer John Grant, guitarists Andy Monley and Roger Green, drummer Jeff Linsenaier) didn't take Mapquest's time-intensive route, opting for a Texas-via-New Mexico loop Pearson describes as "a sixteen-hour marathon." When the Czars hit that long road, they had at least one clear goal: They hoped to line up an American distribution deal for Bella Union Records. When Before...but longer is officially released in May, it'll spread all over the U.K. and Europe, but domestic copies will be limited to the hundred or so Pearson and company make available at Denver-area record stores or through the Web.

When they actually arrived in Austin, however, hygiene seemed a more pressing priority.


Wednesday, March 15

Inauspiciously called South by So What by the industry-types, we were dubbed as a "sleeper pick" (is that good?), and "repeat offenders to SXSW" by the Austin Chronicle (we played at the Ritz Lounge last year). We rolled into town Wednesday at noon after driving all night. Our showcase was only twelve hours away, and I felt like a combination of used chewing gum and a smelly gym bag. Luckily, we met ex-patriot and Denverite Kashka at her work (Kirby Lane) for directions to her house for a well-needed nap, shave and shower. By 4 p.m., we had to get our badge and wristbands at the Austin Convention Center and immediately ran into ex-Cocteau Twins Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde from Bella Union Records. Amazingly, even though 50,000 people frequent SXSW each year, you still somehow manage to meet people you know in the oddest places. We headed over to the club to unload equipment and check in. Bella Union Records's showcase was at Maggie Mae's East, and the club is split into three separate performing rooms with an upstairs and west side. The east side holds only about 150 people, and the layout is similar to a LoDo brewpub. Unfortunately, it is not the ideal place to showcase bands of lush and dreamy qualities and extensive effects and vocals. One lesson learned from last year is that you never go to SXSW without a soundman, as we were last year sandwiched between Nirvana Jr. and the Junk Yard Gang. So the soundman's answer was to keep us loud -- even in a small club such as the Ritz Lounge, we were all feedback and headaches. So this year we brought our recording engineer and newly appointed soundman Mario Casilio to make do with a paltry sound system (supposedly "donated" by Peavey).

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