Deep in the heart of Texas, about seventy bazillion bands and at least as many tastemakers are converging in Austin for the annual South by Southwest celebration. It's a symbiotic relationship: The bands have high hopes of being fawned over (or at least remembered fondly) by the tastemakers, whose meager existence depends solely on discovering the next big thing. Before it's all said and done, SXSW will have turned into a giant belly-rubbing convention with lots of music and drinks (lots and lots of drinks), and a handful of acts will emerge victorious, their names printed above the fold in bold print.
Here are the bands from the Centennial State most worth keeping an eye on this week in the Lone Star State.
Keep up with Denver artists in Austin on Backbeat, at www.backbeatblog.com/sxsw
BLKHRTS: BLKHRTS has emerged as one of the most powerful, original and captivating hip-hop acts in Colorado. At first there doesn't appear to be much groundbreaking about BLKHRTS. A rap-rock hybrid — haven't we heard that before? Although BLKHRTS has an aesthetic that indeed recalls past progenitors, this is truly some next-level shit. The context may help; after all, Joy Division — or Warsaw, rather — isn't exactly the first band you'd expect to hear sampled in a hip-hop song, much less presented soulfully alongside references to Morrissey and Johnny Marr.
Like The Pirate Signal, which birthed the outfit, BLKHRTS has a tinge of familiarity but honestly doesn't sound like anyone else, thanks to Yonnas Abraham's retro-futuristic production. He has a knack for mining the past for inspiration, but then processes it through a digitized lens of his own sensibilities to present it as something entirely unique and progressive.
The act is even more compelling live, with unbridled energy that's as ferocious as Onyx, as primal as Body Count and as frenzied and unhinged as Bad Brains.
The Chain Gang of 1974: It's extremely fitting that White Guts, the Chain Gang of 1974's self-released recording that caught the attention of everyone from Warner Bros. to Spin (which recently listed it as one of the 35 Must-Hear Acts at SXSW) had the word "guts" in the title. The songs that made up that album represented a brave artistic leap forward for the band, which had initially built its reputation as a frenetic, dance-based act with an equally energetic live show. By tinkering with his sound, Chain Gang mastermind Kamtin Mohager took a calculated risk of alienating at least a portion of the core audience. But even those who weren't too sure about the stylistic shifts initially were won over with songs that were considerably more tuneful and mature but had lost none of their inherent danceability. Pulling from an array of disparate influences, White Guts displayed a heaping helping of DFA decadence flecked with '80s synth pop, Madchester and early-'90s Brit pop.
As it turns out, following his own muse was the right call for Mohager. He's making exactly the kind of music he's wanted to make ever since he started playing shows under the Chain Gang moniker in 2007, inspired by Primal Scream's XTRMNTR.
After a long stint playing in 3OH!3's live band, Mohager devoted some well-deserved attention to his own group — and it's paid off. The most recent addition to Warner Bros. and the Modern Art imprints, Chain Gang just put the wraps on a new record, which will be released later this year. Although Mohager's been living in Los Angeles since January, that city hasn't had him long enough to claim him just yet. We still think of him as one of our own.
Pictureplane: Travis Egedy, the man who performs under the name Pictureplane, is an unwitting (and sometimes unwilling) arbiter of cool. Among his many notable attributes, the Santa Fe native who releases music on the Lovepump United imprint is often credited with coining the term "witch house."
He reportedly meant the whole thing as a joke that some intrepid music scribblers then turned into a full-blown sub-genre. Useless qualifiers aside, "witch house" isn't the worst name in the world for describing Pictureplane's music, which sounds kind of like a spliced-together, mechanized adaptation of house.
Beyond that, Pictureplane has been hugely influential in Denver's underground scene. Through extensive touring and favorable write-ups in Fader and on Pitchfork and Stereogum, Egedy has pretty much single-handedly focused the attention of the country's tastemakers on Denver's burgeoning DIY scene, of which he's very much at the epicenter.
Egedy doesn't seem to be taking all the attention (or himself) too seriously. As his Twitter followers can attest, he's endlessly entertaining in his own subversive way. You get the unmistakable sense that the guy just doesn't give a goddamn. About anything. Well, unless it amuses him — you know, stuff like lighting tires and Craigslist couches on fire and then shooting them with guns, as he evidently did while on tour in Alaska. Or just plain fucking with people, writing things on his blog like "The 13 Rules to Make a Great Witch House song."
Wheelchair Sports Camp: If BLKHRTS is one of the most original and captivating hip-hop acts in Colorado, Wheelchair Sports Camp is the most unique. Led by Kalyn Heffernan, who's been wheelchair-bound almost her entire life after being stricken with osteogenesis imperfecta as a child, Wheelchair Sports Camp immediately stands out from all of its contemporaries. That's mostly due to Heffernan's animated delivery, but also to her steadfast refusal to be held back by any obstacles she might face.
Merriam-Webster defines Heffernan's condition as "a hereditary disease marked especially by extreme brittleness of bones and caused by defective or insufficient collagen." In laymen's terms, she has extremely fragile bones. How fragile? Well, before she turned a year old, she had broken her arm in 25 places just from moving it. Facing that sort of fragility early on both toughened Heffernan up and helped her develop a finely tuned sense of humor, as evidenced by the music she makes with her band, which also includes DJ Whitelabel, the unimonikered Isaac on drums, and Abi on sax.
A diehard hip-hop head with "Crip for Life" tattooed on her stomach, the 23-year-old MC is irresistible when she rocks the mike. When you hear her tiny voice booming on such cuts as "Party and Bullshit," spitting lines like "This is my party song/And these are my party pants/Maybe if you're lucky, I will show you my Bacardi dance/Don't stop, get it, get it/Rock with the midget," it's impossible to wipe the grin off your face.
And just when you think it's all merely a party with bullshit, Heffernan kicks in some science: "I'm with Stephen and we're hawking our hair/We're in the middle of the break circle locking our chairs/'Cause in this brief history of time/Quantum gravity is mine/I eat a mike with relativity and dystrophy to spine."
Wheelchair Sports Camp: You might come for the novelty, but you'll stay for the style and the substance.
In addition to these four acts, there are a slew of other Colorado-based bands making the trek this year that are also worth keeping an eye out for, including perennial SXSW veterans like DeVotchKa, Slim Cessna's Auto Club, the Photo Atlas and other outfits such as American Tomahawk, Lola Black, the Knew, A. Tom Collins, Air Dubai, Paper Bird, Danielle Ate the Sandwich, Candy Claws, the Epilogues, Drag the River, Woodsman, Gangcharger, Flashlights, Natural Selection, Wire Faces, Caldera Lakes, Port Au Prince and Lords of Fuzz, among others.