March of the Sanguine (Through an Ideal Town) Part 1

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wavves1.JPGThere are two things in my head.

There’s actually more, but right now the last time I was on this flight, I was a happier person and there are more guitars on this plane than there’s plane take precedence. The first statement overcomes the second -- but within the latter lies the distraction that I will later realize I'm seeking. It's an impulse that put me on this flight -- an impulse to illuminate a certain area in my essence that was rather toned town by certain internal and external events. Thus, in a dark night of the soul, I made a list, and wrote "SXSW" on it. My intent is to resuscitate my fascination with my environment and regain a certain joie de vivre through a trip to Austin which had provided me with enough of that and then some, a good four years ago.

I realize there’s a camaraderie between every music buff, hipster, musician and innocent bystander (significantly outnumbered) on this Southwest flight. When overhead compartments run out of space, a guitar is promptly given a window seat. Music is in the air before the plane is. There's a visible, communal joy in everyone heading to the festival, which is only slightly weakened by the collective hangover of St. Patrick's Day. I'm somehow the least hungover which is rather perversely embarrassing. Before the plane even takes off I manage to hang out with my good friend Mathieu Young’s buddies, Elevaters, a wonderful band from Los Angeles, and make a pact to see them at a show in Austin. To top all of this, I’m holding onto the card of Brett Williams, manager for Cold War Kids, Delta Spirit and Richard Swift.

I’m suddenly quite festive.

When Mark Jackson, my college buddy, whom I’ve last seen at this very spot for this same reason (not counting this Key To Your City video) rolls over in his VW to pick me up from the Austin airport, I promptly have to subdue the temptation to draw a set of cock & balls on his dusty windshield. I also expect a bear-hug but instead he pops his trunk from his seat, in goes my luggage and off we go. I completely dominate him by all the shit that happened to me within the last four years on both sides of the Atlantic, in the town I grew up in and in the town I adopted as my home, and how much I’ve changed among sporadic texts to my boss in LA. I then ask him why we’re not headed to Zilker Park, where he lives.

“I bought a house dude,” he says.

"Oh."

When we get to his house, I impose the hug upon my friend. It’s a good hug, the type which is imposed by sentimental people on others who are only introspectively so. Within minutes I've got my gear in my newly acquired army surplus cargo pants and we head to Austin, where South By Southwest Music 2009 events have been underway for the last two hours.

Austin, Day One: The Powers That Be Can Suck It

As you probably know, unlike many territorial festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo, Roskilde or Glastonbury where the festival takes place in a designated area, South By Southwest is a very urban festival that occupies Austin streets. The territorial aspect of SXSW manifests itself in a badge or a wristband, which exist in several hierarchic packages that apply to anyone from industry professionals to the average Joe. The last time I was here, Mark had acquired us Average Joe wristbands, but this time we have decided to emancipate ourselves from any kind of admission-enablers. This was not entirely by choice, we were both quite broke, Mark because he had bought a house, and me, because, well, AIG executives spend the money I make annually only on either chewing gum, cocaine or condoms. I decide to turn this into a superiority complex where I gleefully tell people we are simply not paying and checking out events that are happening because of SXSW rather than as a part of it. Besides, once you step in the line of an event where a Pitchfork-approved band is playing and realize that the line is only comparable to the size of Ron Jeremy’s not-so-private parts, you realize entrance is wishful thinking. emos.JPG

We start out at Emo’s where Crocodiles are playing. It’s two dudes in sunglasses and a drum machine and a whole lot of confrontational garage-rock noise. Quite entertaining, but their drum machine is detrimental to their quality, its synthetic beats having an unhealthy affair with the their overall sound. Mark believes they would’ve been way more popular eight years ago when this sound was only freshly rehashed, and now it seems to have run its course. When Velvet Underground is mentioned as an influence, I realize that our times are a lot less satisfying than they were forty years ago, when Cale and Reed were at the height of their prosperous bickering. This century already seems bleak, soulless and out of date. Have we simply expired all that was awe-inspiring in art in the latter half of the last century and intentionally trying to re-discover the wheel because "two-thousand-fucking-nine" is instinctively implying a beginning but ostensibly suggesting an ending?

I get older as bands get younger. When I was here during my senior year of college, I truly looked up to my favorite bands. They were not only up on that stage, but they also seemed older, wiser. Jump ahead a few years and not only are they getting younger, but I'm transforming into a fragment of my former self, inadvertently so, trying to re-acquaint myself with my old enchantment of how things operate, my life having become a noble yet half-assed attempt to become the more than the sum of my parts. For the next band, Strange Boys, Mark and I simply discuss the length of the guitar strap. They’re wearing them high, I like them low. Although I’ve swayed more towards the side of The Clash rather than the Sex Pistols, I’ve always loved the way Sid Vicious wore his bass. The lower it is, the more empowering. I am getting less comfortable with our retro references that reach back half a century. Fortunately, I'm distracted by a band playing a song called "No Brains, No Fucking Headache." Yeah, no shit. Keith Morris of Circle Jerks, who's walking around, is kind enough to tell me their name: Annihilation Time. The name prompts me to count the beers I've had before I get another one. elevaters.JPG

After dinner where I meet Mark's wonderful friends Bill and Lori and I bump into Sam from Elevaters outside the venue who is doing some wonderfully shameless promotion with their banner. He delightfully tells me: “Yes, we’re here in Austin, TX, trying to, you know, finagle our way into shows, finagle people to come to our shows and being interviewed here by the one and only…” His attitude and enthusiasm tells me that this is not a struggle for Elevaters, it's the real thing. It doesn't matter if you sell millions of records or play Letterman -- you're doing what you're supposed to. You have arrived.

As Mark struggles to get into Peter, Bjorn and John showcase, I watch Sam Baker, an Americana musician, introduced to me by my friend the author Don Henry Ford Jr., who sings and plays wonderful, quiet tunes with his guitar, backed up by lush, comforting instruments. sambaker.JPGHe survived a bombing in a train in Peru with serious injuries (check out his website for more), and you can hear it in his voice when he sings. In an interview he’s said that the “loudest thing [he] can hear is the ringing in his head." After the show, when I approach him to introduce myself, he turns the other ear to me, saying that the one I’ve been mumbling into is not his ear of choice. We talk about Don and Sam's upcoming album, which will complete the trilogy after Mercy and Pretty World. There are certain bands and artists that I would, selfishly, like to keep to myself, but nothing would please me more than Sam getting a mainstream recognition. He wouldn't be the only one but he would most certainly be on the list.

On the Intercontinental's outside patio, I take a moment to reflect on the day. Austin is breezy and the flags are gently waving and the weather is beautiful. The welcoming temperature evokes something that takes me to my childhood, to a distant land, to the backyard of the house I grew up in, a house that is no more. And just as fast, the moment is gone. I meet up with Mark and his good friend Rob at Lovejoys. Rob welcomes me like an old friend even without any substantial history. This, again, is one of those moments where our mutual recognition of each other, at least for me, is sacred -- without any contact within the last four years, Rob takes me exactly to our brief yet fervid acquaintance four years ago. I'm quite relieved that we don't have to catch up. We did that at "What's up, man," and moved on to the now.

On the way back home, prompted by several texts I have received and the consequential assumptions I have conveniently made about the near future which will, in hindsight, turn out to be worse than I imagined then, I rant to Mark about the hopelessness of everything. But the futon that’s waiting for me in the guest room of his hew house is the same thin futon I slept on four years ago. Some things should never change.  Hello futon.

Austin, Day Two: There's No Subtlety Here

I’m walking on Mark's backyard, pretentiously mumbling into my tape recorder.  

"Things are considered a detriment in today’s society, one of them is sentiment and the other is seriousness. It’s almost like when somebody is as such, it’s seen as a weakness. I’d be the last person to embrace a hippie like perspective of love, but that’s not a lack of sentiment, that’s my own cynicism."

I believe my thoughts are a relevant extension of what Austin is letting me experience. When a patron watching a band suddenly embraces you, alcohol or chemicals traveling in his system notwithstanding, exclusively high on the experience of the music itself, it’s hard not to be sentimental about the act of embracing. As for the seriousness, that might just be me. There's a mild perversity to revisiting an event such as SXSW, that was initially for entertainment and experience and initiated spontaneously four years ago, again, solely to relive that original moment of joy, vicariously through the foundation of one's own memories. The thing is though, as long as those initial memories exist, the second walk around the block becomes only comparable to the first by default thus immediately invalidating itself. But that's just a fickle game the memory plays on people who are incapable of staying within the moment: a hard lesson I've only learned the idea of lately, and I'm currently working on my practice of it. So far, let's say the jury is out, but I got trust in my lawyer.

As we gorge on soyrizo tacos at Mr. Natural, I ask Mark what makes trailer-served food in Austin so popular after seeing immensely popular trailer-park restaurants on our drive here. “Maybe it’s a subconscious anti-establishmentarian mentality that you’re eating food prepared by people who don’t work within the confines of the food system – it’s the punk rock of food,” he says. Thinking back, this is the same city that gave us Whole Foods, but nonetheless: if this town doesn’t like their food, if it gets boring or repetitive, it’ll surely get customized. Even if trailer-park restaurants turn into gazillion-dollar chains, I bet someone in Austin will serve food out of a grate by the sidewalk and still make it delicious.

dananananaykroyd1.JPGI found out about Dananananaykroyd that morning, and their name-based promotion has worked. If you see a band that has put three extra syllables in an actor’s name and called it their own, you tend to try to find out about these crazy fucks. Turns out they are a bunch of over-excited, nice Scottish kids who call their music “fight-pop,” which couldn’t be more appropriate. They’re pop, for sure, but like Los Campesinos! there’s an urgency to their sound, with two drum kits, a hyper call/answer scheme, and constant movement, which borders on teleportation. They will come down the stage and wave at your photos, hug the members of the audience, invite them to play guitar, jump into the audience to play with them. You see, when these kids perform, they’re not just a sextet, they’re a sextet plus the entire venue.

I have a few reservations about watching LA-based bands because I live there, but my decision to watch The Afternoons (one of LA's flagship bands, in my opinion) makes me glad I do; we watch them smiling to our ears. And you know what? Like Dananananaykroyd, The Afternoons also have two drum-kits. I’m rather floored by this. There’s such a sheer force in having two drum kits, no matter what you sound like. But the true moment of complete glee is when I watch Band Member A adjust the tie of Band Member B. It’s a quiet moment, but powerful and hopeful. One might wonder why I'm so infatuated by such moments. First off, because I was simply there and the camera of my eye simply caught it, and also because living in a time where more bands break-up rather than form (which one might consider a microcosm of something) this trivial act of mild grace suggests perseverance. It suggests that this band, this friendship, this plan might last.

Somehow, I get cornered by a mob of gangstas and I’m made an offer I can easily refuse when I’m asked to purchase some guy's album. His names is Yates, and he relaxes only when I wave five dollars in front of his face for the album he’s selling for ten. I tell him that if his album is good, for the other five bucks I’ll mention him in my article: Yates is good. We head to Red 7 for a showcase including The Hold Steady (to whom I was introduced a few years ago at this very same festival at a Spin party I snuck into with Mark) and No Age (another LA flagship band), both notorious for their live performances. Inside Brother Reade is playing, and lo and behold: two-drum kits. Somebody’s out there to please me. I am enmeshed in the outside crowd to watch them when a DC fellow named Shawn and I end up displacing ourselves from our comfort-view zones. We clear our throats with the obvious intention of starting an argument. I tell him that if we were in LA, we’d probably be fighting. He tells me that if we were in DC, we’d probably be fighting. Instead, we say fuck it, we’re in Austin and start talking about music instead.

Like I need any more beers, I’m trying to honor my tiny drink coupon at the bar and I bump into Randy from No Age and have a brief conversation. As Austin devours No Age, Randy and Dean tear the venue apart. The entire set feels like one epic song with brief segways in-between for the breath that needs to be caught. Outside, we meet up with Mark’s wife Cathy and make an attempt to enter the Central Presbyterian Church to watch Grizzly Bear but the line gets cut off only a couple of people shy of where we are. I search in vain for a bathroom but in this open street there are no hidden public exposure spots, even for a man. I'm told to "get creative" by a bystander, and before I cause an epic scene by a bridge, I sneak into a frat party thanks to two UA kids, happily utilizing their porta potties. You see, in Austin even frat parties rent porta potties.

We end up again at Lovejoys as a large group, with another large group mingling with us. Entirely unprovoked, completely out of left-field, a female member of that group makes eye contact with me and asks the following question:

“Do you like to (inaudible)?”

“What?”

“Do you like to (inaudible)?”

“I can’t hear you!”

“DO YOU LIKE TO TITTY-FUCK?”

I have enough alcohol in my system to reciprocate an equally legendary response, but all I can do is turn the color of an overgrown red apple and beg the bartender for another pint. torchys.JPG

On the way home we stop at Torchy’s Tacos (check it out here), in yet another trailer-park. At the end of a meal that consists of three fried-avocado tacos, I decide to give their fried cookies a chance, the conscequences of which I’ll feel in the morning. For your information, they have a Dirty Sanchez on the menu. I'm eagerly waiting for the taco recipe they're going to import from Cleveland.

There’s no subtlety here.

I didn't realize this four years ago. I was too busy being content. Given the turn my mood took last night at a moment where I was relatively distraction-free, I realize how essential the level of healthy disengagement this city provides me is. Sun goes down, shows end, and all I end up looking forward to becomes a futon which is, in a way, merely a means to get relocated to the next morning. I need a permanent method, an event, or certain events that will liberate and disengage me from the real world for an extended period of time, until, at my own convenience, I will idly stroll back into it, put my dirty shoes on its grandmother's ancient coffee table, light a cigarette, take a giant drag, blow it in its face and say: "What now? You're so fucking overrated."

Sinan G. writes all kinds of articles for Steve's Word. Part II of his SXSW adventure will run next week.

 

 

 

  

 

 


2 Comments

  • 1

    Well done, Sinan. Makes me pine for all the things I miss about home: real Tex-Mex, the Hill Country, armadillos, and the only part of Texas that actually matters -- the thin strip of land from slightly north of Austin to slightly south of San Antonio.

    Looking forward to the next installment!

  • 2

    [...] Editor’s note: This is the second part of Sinan G’s adventures in Austin for the SXSW Music Festival.  To read Part 1, click here. [...]

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