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).
When it was time for the Czars to take their turn and perform, they had a somewhat rare experience. Though it was a midnight slot on a Wednesday night, the club was packed to capacity, due in large part to Bella Union's sponsorship of the showcase. In attendance were reps from Columbia, Drag City and SpinArt. By all appearances, everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, though Pearson doesn't yet know if any meaningful contacts were made. Certainly, no deals were inked that night. Like most SXSW gigs, it was over before they knew it.
The showcase included fellow labelmates Sneakster and Violet Indiana (featuring Robin Guthrie), as well as Departure Lounge and Risk Records's the Autumns (with Simon Raymonde). By 9 p.m., the place was packed and all bands were exceptional, but limited by the P.A. system and lack of visibility. Our set started at midnight and was inspired and tight, but we played too loudly for the small club. The feedback after the show was great, and the Bella Union label personnel from London, who had never even seen us play live, loved it. The crowd bought fifty copies each of our new CD and single for "Val," which sold out by the end of the night. Andy and I went over to Emo's Jr. to have a Shiner Bock with Tammy Ealom and John Hill from Dressy Bessy, who were on tour with the Apples.
SXSW is one of the city's biggest tourist draws. It's second only to an annual business convention that takes over the town, according to the Austin Visitor and Convention Center Bureau. But the majority of SXSW-goers don't arrive until Thursday night, which means many Wednesday-night gigs go unnoticed by the so-called "important" patrons of the conference. Some of the bands that, like the Czars, find their official mission accomplished by Thursday, opt to hang around and check out other bands, the many trade shows and panels (Pearson skipped the panels this year, but said some -- particularly those on Internet promotion and tax law -- were actually pretty helpful in the past), and Austin culture. It's also an opportunity to play rock star and take advantage of the many media outlets clamoring to cover the event.
Thursday, March 16
The next day it was back to the incomparable Magnolia Cafe for some much-needed grub, and a radio interview for KUSF from San Francisco. Then back over to the Convention Center for a candid interview with Austin's own Fallout Magazine and on-camera with Mike Drumm at Musiclink. We interviewed right after Cypress Hill, so it must have been alphabetical. At 5 p.m. it was over to 33 Degrees Record Store for an in-store performance by my favorite band, Calexico. From Tucson, they have been to SXSW as Calexico or Giant Sand for ten years running and feature Joey Burns and John Convertino on guitar and drums. The usual hot weather of Austin gave way to rain and cold by afternoon, and the town seemed more like Seattle than Texas. Later that night, Andy, Roger and I braved the cold and rain to get up to the U of T Union Ballroom to see Mark Eitzel, John Cale and Daniel Johnston. Johnston was a treat. Contrary to Cale, Johnston is an eccentric cartoonist and a unique songwriter with very funny lyrics and quirky songwriting (e.g., "My first 1,000 years in hell, my feet started to smell/My second thousand years in hell, I couldn't live with myself").
Friday, March 17
Friday saw us getting up at noon to eat at the Mexican chow icon of Austin, Las Manitas on Congress Ave. Joey Burns even recommended it as the best Mexican food in Austin, if not the world, and it was. Then a film shoot at McKinney Falls State Park with Kirin and Jason of CC Music out of London, which recently produced videos by Spiritualized and Death in Vegas. (How many band names can I actually drop?) They asked each bandmember four separate questions and filmed us walking around the eerie landscapes of the park. The film should be edited and out by May. That night we saw Patti Smith play a dreary, cold St. Patrick's Day night at Waterloo Park, but it was entertaining, political and sounded great. Then over to Club Velvet to see acid jazz in London's own Cinematic Orchestra on Ninja Tune Records. Similar to Amon Tobin, they were tight and fresh, very groove-oriented. A rave ensued.
Eventually, everyone must go home. (Well, almost everyone.) Like most who showcased at SXSW, the Czars did not come home any richer or more famous than they were when they left for the event. They were, however, more tired.
Saturday, March 18
We left immediately after the showcase at 2:30 a.m. for another heinous drive, as I had the 3-to-7-a.m. shift. Through west Texas nonetheless. Everything REALLY is big in Texas, including the size of the DAMN state.
The bottom line about Austin: When you go down with six people and come back with three, they must be doing something right.
In 1996, the Czars played at SXSW to a crowd of about fifty. In 1999, there were forty. This year, 150 people saw them play. It was a hometown-sized crowd, almost. It might have, for a moment, felt like a real show, instead of just one in the sensory-assaulting series that SXSW has become. Maybe that's why the band returned feeling satisfied instead of like they'd been tricked into believing that their careers and lives would change after one more night in Austin.
We had plenty of time to think about the SXSW experience in the fifteen-hour drive back. The little-known fact about being in a band is that you spend hours and hours of driving with bad road food and gas-station coffee (is it coffee?) and sleeping on friends' hardwood floors, just to play for an hour or so, and many times the ends do NOT outweigh the means. But, in my third try at SXSW, it was finally worth it. Three's a charm, I guess.
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The top reasons SXSW bites: the drive, the sound system, the P.A., the clubs, the parking, the mass of people going to the name shows (forget ever getting into La Zona Rosa to see Elliot Smith or Sebadoh; and Stubb's should now be called Snubb's), the set-up times (ten to fifteen minutes), the outdoor tents, the weather, the "in-the-know" industry schmooze.
The top reasons to go to SXSW: the bands (well, some of them, but if you have 800, there is a chance you'll see something new and interesting), the other bandmembers (most often great people), Shiner Bock (aka "the piss water of TexASS" as they told me), the other non-SXSW gigs (usually at private BBQs and little coffee shops), the people (genuinely nice and friendly), Las Manitas (anything), The Magnolia Cafe (the pancakes and fish tacos) and, of course, the fans.
P.P.S. The best way to get into gigs with a line -- get a Maglite flashlight and laminate any kind of badge, then approach people from behind and flash the light in their eyes and say "SXSW Security. So move!" -- Laura Bond
Got stories to share with Backwash? E-mail Laura_ Bond@westword.com.