After the Gold Rush- SXSW 2012 As I Saw It by Brad Houser… Music is in good health. The music “industry” as we have come to know it, is in tremendous flux, and is “dead”, according to some. What IS dead, as far as I can tell, is being able to get paid from sales of recordings. Seen the latest reports of income from streaming (Spotify, etc.)? Hear about Lady Gaga’s royalty check from Spotify for $166? For tens of thousands of plays? If that’s what Lady Gaga is getting, how does that bode for…. the rest of us? As it stands now, streaming plays of songs are outnumbering iTunes and other paid downloads by about 80 to one. Ponder that… for a minute. Right now, the best seller for musicians seems to be vinyl. At shows… after your set… it also helps if you have a cool t-shirt for sale. Merch!
As stated earlier, however, Music, herself, is in GREAT health. I had the privilege of interviewing a number of bands for Big Picture Media during SXSW, and the main impression I came away with was that music is in good hands. These musicians radiated enthusiasm, and love, for their art. Some of them drove cross-country and were sleeping in vans. No hotel money. Lucky to get a shower every 3 days. Commitment. Love. Passion. There has been a lot of bitching in the press about how modern music is crappy, processed, auto-tuned, etc. True, in some cases, but out here in the real world it’s a different story. Real music played by hand is as vital as ever, there just seems to be more of it.
In brief, for the uninitiated, SXSW is South by Southwest, the weeklong music fest/conference that takes place in Austin, TX (my present hometown). Literally hundreds of bands descend on Austin, from all over the planet, to rock, party, and try to get noticed. Austin, especially downtown, South Congress, and the East Side, bursts at the seams with humans. Favorite SXSW sight: A few years ago there were blocks of bright yellow posters all over town that said in big black letters – THANKS FOR COMING. DON’T MOVE HERE. SEE YOU NEXT YEAR (people are still moving here in droves. if you are a musician, don’t move here. we have a glut).
For me the high point was having Meshell Ndegeocello sitting in on *my* bass (endless omfg), during my set with David Garza, on an extended dub jam. She was standing off to the side of the stage during the rest of our set. Almost as bad as having Jaco at your gig. I was nervous. She is one of my bass heroes. Later that day, seeing Lee Fields and the Expressions on the same stage, behind the Hotel San Jose, was sublime. That band’s pocket as a group, was incomparable. SXSW. You never know what’s going to happen next… As a result, I ended up starting a Meshell cover band, which debuts this fall. We’re called “Comfort Woman”.
As hyped-up and surreal as SXSW can be, magic is also out in full force, just waiting. Another feature of SXSW is that hardly anyone (bands) gets paid, a source of much cynicism here in Austin. Also, all the local musicians I know do LOTS of gigs that week, mostly for no money (lots of tip jars on stages ). There are gigs everywhere. Basically, Austin parties that week. Most are non-SXSW events (most often, these are the gigs that pay the best, go figure). Got some plywood? Build a stage! In parking lots, coffee shops, clothing stores, in front of the pet store on the sidewalk, out in the yard……….. We all know we’re not getting paid, but we do it anyway, probably to defend our turf against all the “interlopers” from out of town. LOL… Viva Austin.
Now, for the bands I talked with. We convened on a patio at a bar on 7th Street, next to the police station/jail/Waller Creek where homeless folks hang out.
Car Party-great rock/pop band from Baltimore. Bassist Chris Martin and drummer Taylor Hughes are tight. Chris digs his 57 reissue P bass, Mike Dirnt was his first big inspiration. Mr. Dirnt has caused MANY a young punk rocker to pick up a bass. Righteous.
Super-Prime are from Boston, with some Berklee students on board… Austin Bond, their bassist, also rocks a 57 reissue Fender, and tells me that hearing Victor Wooten speak made him appreciate the value of simplicity. For all his ThunderChops, I’ve seen Victor play with eloquent simplicity, myself. Beautiful. Austin and his band mates spoke of “study jazz, play rock”. There are a lot of us out here in the world just like that. “We study jazz, but we don’t play it (at gigs)” Chiefly due to economic concerns. Even in such a music town as Austin, our jazz scene does not seem as big and robust as one thinks it would be, considering how many amazing players we have here. (Note to jazz musicians everywhere- Cargo Shorts Are :Not: Cool On Stage. Ever. Amen). None of these guys look like they would have that problem. Regarding Berklee, Austin told me that “Berklee teaches you how to be like everyone else, ‘you’ take it further on your own”. Words for the wise.
Hailing from New Jersey, The Ugly Club are generating some buzz these days. Great sound, sort of Steely Dan-meets-America… in London as it were. They drove here in their van, busked on the street in Nashville. Bassist Rick Sue-Poi, who usually rocks a Fender Mustang or a Gretsch hollowbody, plays uke and melodica when the band busks. They are living in the van on this tour, with all that entails. Cool songwriting and playing from these gents.
New Jersey also sends in The Glory Days, 27 hours by van. Bassist Julian loves his SansAmp ‘little box of magic’, and SVT rig, favoring a P/J bass and an Epiphone T-bird. Citing punk roots such as NoFX,MXPX, and a long time Stevie Wonder fan, Julian really digs Nate Mendel (Foo Fighters) and McCartney these days. Glory Days’ newest, ‘Broke in New York”, was tracked at Converse Rubber Tracks, a new studio owned by the shoe company. Wear your Chucks (no Adidas) if you go there.
Comprised of half Nashvillians, and the rest from…. somewhere, States describe themselves as sounding somewhat Cardigans-McCartney-Coldplay. Having debuted in Nashville, their most memorable show was in LA, with 2500 people singing along. (in LA. See, music IS healthy, at the root). Bassist Dean likes John Paul Jones, Carlos from Interpol, and Greg Edwards, along with his P-bass/Ampeg setup. The band’s self-described motto is: “we sound like everyone else, but better”.
We Are The In Crowd throw down some punchy power pop. Their bassist, Mike Ferri, likes his MexiFender/ Aguilar rig, and also favors a First Act (as in Wal-Mart) bass. Rumour has it, he says, that Gibson took over production and the quality went up. I’ve also been informed by WATIC that they stayed at a haunted house in South Carolina [perfect], where one of the beds shook, and the resident ghost is named ‘PS’.
Lily and the Parlour Tricks. Hot. Rockabilly Rumba. “If Tom Waits were backing the Andrews Sisters”, is how Lily envisions the band’s sound. Their most recent release was recorded at Dap-Tone studio in Brooklyn, of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings fame. Bassist Brian Kesky favors a ’67 Silvertone, and the band dug how the production team mic-ed the drums with one (1) mic, old school style, on some of the songs. These folks are going somewhere. Also notable are the L&TPT condoms that were handed out. Purple. Great logo. *ahem*
Mercies are an “atmospheric folk” (think Led Zep acoustic) group who name Elvin Jones (!), Chet Atkins, and Steve Gadd as influences. Their debut, “3000 days” was recorded in vocalist Josh Rheault’s restored Northern Connecticut barn, after his having returned from living in LA for years. Accompanied by drummer Sammy Dent, bassist Jordan Flowers favors a ’66 Kay hollowbody, and a 1965 Bassman and 2×12 cab, a setup which he describes as ‘awesome’. Their forthcoming EP “The Ballet”, was commissioned by The Charlottesville Ballet in Charlottesville, VA.
Asleep ( the band) called esteemed producer Steve Albini up “out of the blue” and ended up spending” 4 days of chaos” recording their most recent release, which is on pink vinyl. Albini, who has “great taste in food”, has ‘a million pedals’ at his Chicago studio. That’s gotta be fun. Their guitarist and drummer and I all share a deep love for Moog pedals. They’re from Youngstown, and are a self-described ‘rock band. loud.’
I am struck by how passionate and committed every one of these artists are. Music is alive and well, just having a little trouble with the rent sometimes.
In walks Casey Desmond, who cuts a striking profile in any room. In short, she is an Empress of electro-dance pop, who has a notable collection of analog synths that is being featured in Keyboard Magazine this year. Citing Bowie and Cyndi Lauper as favorites, Casey has been a musician since age 5. I think this woman is a stone-cold badass. Among other things, Desmond has recorded with uber-bassist Tony Levin (‘I was stoked’), and cites having instruments around all the time growing up in a musical family as being a key factor in her journey.
June Divided found their drummer on Craigslist. Their bassist, “our college friend Rich”, rocks on a MusicMan, thru a Mike Pope preamp, into an Ampeg rig with SansAmp/BBE enhancement. ( I wonder what THAT sounds like… cool). When asked about their band name, they told me that June divides the time between graduation and having to go into the job world. They started as a college project. Singer Melissa’s vocals drive this band like petrol on an open flame.
After a short pause and a swig of water I meet The Body Rampant [great name!]. Bassist Berel and Singer JM met at guitar lessons, and these self-described ‘ heavy-hesh-prog-jazz-stoners’ have “seen a lot of ‘booty’ this weekend in Austin”. Singer JM cites his favorite bassist as Cliff Burton. These guys play with tremendous energy, and there is evidently some serious time spent in the rehearsal room, from the sound of things. Their song “Sativa” is a 3:43 epic. Great writing. The drums kill.
Chad from the non-profit service group “To Write Love On Her Arms” sits down for a chat about his organization, formed in 2006 to help a friend in need. This organization serves people who are struggling with addiction and mental illness, and is based online. “If the chief culprit is isolation, then the remedy is community”. True. Chad describes “the addiction trident” as biological-psychological-social, and notes that the “social stigma ” is preventing a lot of people from getting help. It is, indeed. I’m glad organizations are springing up to help, it’s long overdue. The SIMS foundation here in Austin has helped many musicians, and offers counseling and treatment services.
Well, that wraps it up. I almost missed these interviews, if Rachel from Big Picture Media hadn’t called with a reminder I would have slept straight thru. SXSW lag. It was a pleasure interviewing all these artists, I found them all to be gracious and engaging, and I wish them well. Music is alive and well, just struggling with the rent sometimes.