Yeee-Haaaa!

The SXSW music conference promises live music, booze, parties and barbecue. And then more music. Our reporter wends her way with both ears blown.


Jennifer Maerz
March 22, 2001 1:00AM (UTC)

Every addict has his city. For gamblers, the Las Vegas lights burn like $100 bills. For alcoholics, gin-soaked New York and New Orleans clink like ice cubes against cocktail shakers. But for music addicts -- people hardwired to their headphones -- Austin, Texas, is the biggest rush of all.

For five days out of the year, the self-proclaimed "live music capital of the world" hosts the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) music conference. After 15 years, the long weekend is still one of the largest and most important events for the popular music industry.

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From March 14 through March 18 this year, record labels essentially shut down their big city offices while over 1,000 bands entertained approximately 7,000 label heads, industry drones, vacationing critics and ecstatic fans at 40 different venues. The slightly more sobering daytime panels offered discussions that examined every piece of the industry -- from indie label and indie artist relations to business models for digital music companies.

Legend has it that SXSW was once the place for industry scouts to find unsigned bands. On the flip side, it was supposed to be the place for unsigned bands to find a manager, chat up a producer, get someone to book tours and ink a record deal -- all in one trip. Nowadays, some SXSW attendees still spend a little time cutting deals, but the real draw is the never-ending, sleepless party, with 15 hours of live music a day. By Saturday, the mid-afternoon showcases run on Red Bull-and-vodka cocktails, and the bands play for walls of sandbagged eyelids. "It's like a punk rock barbecue," says Steve Manning, a publicist for Seattle's Sub Pop record label. "We go because we love the aesthetic, even if we all like different kinds of music."

For all the cellphone conversations held at top volume in luxury hotel elevators, breakfasts about salable units and corporate sponsor banners hanging behind almost every band, Austin creates a little sonic heaven. For one blur of a weekend, the entire world revolves around music. It's a heaven inhabited by bands like Speedealer and Cutthroats 9, little devils that will leave you at the pearly gates deafer than your 90-year-old grandpa without his hearing aid. But more than that, it's a heaven where the amplifiers don't have off buttons and the music plays all day -- and all night -- long.

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It doesn't take friends at Spin magazine or good publicist connections to get into SXSW, but either can help an average person navigate through the festival's daytime picnics and sometimes decadent after-hours parties. For regular schlubs, the conference costs a hefty $500 if you walk up to the door and ask for the badge that will get you into every SXSW show, the daytime panels and what amounts to a massive trade show with all the plastic bottle openers you can carry with you. (There are price breaks for buying early and companies that buy multiple tickets; most journalists go for free on ad trades done with their publication.)

For a much lower $105 -- as almost a concession to the locals -- club hoppers can buy a wristband that promises access to hundreds of shows of every size, from Ike Turner to the Black Crowes to screaming punks the Locusts. The only catch is that the wristbands have to deal with long lines at most of the premier concerts. The almighty badge always gets in before the wristband, and at every show there are scores of frustrated wristbanders who spend more time waiting outside the club than actually hearing the music.

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In addition to the hundreds of nighttime shows, there are countless private barbecues that run from early afternoon until 8 p.m. and then after-parties that start around 2 a.m. and run through the wee hours of the morning. No one wants to waste any precious time sleeping.

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You can't make it to everything, and sometimes you're just not invited. I didn't care about missing a hyped listening party for the new Radiohead album; with so much live music, why would you want to sit in a room and listen to a record, even if it's Radiohead. I also avoided some private, informal affairs at a strip club and a certain hot tub party that was supposedly snowing with coke. (What is it with all this art rock and cocaine, the '70s?)

I did make it to a "late night afterglow breakfast party," sponsored by the Village Voice and Loudeye Technology, on Friday at Threadgill's, an American-style restaurant tucked away from the madness of Austin's main Sixth Street drag. I imagined that the employees would be bitter about having to stay late, but SXSW brings in a lot of money, and it trickles all the way down to the cocktail waitresses and bus boys. At Threadgill's, I asked the blond boy in his 20s who was greeting partygoers if he minded the extra hours. "They paid us a lot of money to be here late," he said with a shrug.

I passed on a buffet of pancakes and eggs and moved on for even more drinking.

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Every year at SXSW you can pick out an emerging musical trend if you squint hard enough -- that's one of the reasons journalists and A&R people still find it useful. Sometimes the trends turn into little cultural blips. For instance, SXSW has always been friendly to the kind of alt-country singer-songwriter acts that have run in and out of town since Townes Van Zandt and Willie Nelson. You could always see singers like them in the early days of SXSW, and they all inspired the intelligent countrified bar bands that sparked the nationwide No Depression alternative country scene in the early '90s.

This year, at times, the conference felt more like Detroit than Austin. I heard dozens of bands that sounded like cousin derivatives of the hard-rocking Stooges and the MC5. Motor City garage rock revivalists the Go ran the sound through the Rolling Stones ringer and added some good, old-fashioned sideburns and shaggy hair, while Vancouver, British Columbia, trash rockers the Black Halos captured something of Stooges frontman Iggy Pop's death-by-rock 'n' roll attitude. Stooges bassist Ron Asheton and MC5 co-founder/guitarist Wayne Kramer also played gigs that drew lots of murmurs and, subsequently, larger crowds than I imagine would turn out to see them on, say, the county fair circuit. (They weren't the only lingering rock stars hanging around SXSW: I spotted Taylor Hanson of the teen group Hanson checking out shows and parties; supposedly his band was discovered at one of the famed SXSW Sunday softball games years ago.)

On Thursday night, Asheton took the stage with Dinosaur Jr. founder J. Mascis and Minutemen founder Mike Watt at a dank, rambling alternative rock haven with a huge backyard called Emo's. When the mocked up band broke into old Stooges classics like "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and "No Fun," you could almost imagine the burnt-out skyline of the Motor City, even if Watt didn't have a chance of re-creating the nihilistic energy of Iggy Pop. Still, I figured that if I wanted to hear Stooges songs that it's better to hear Stooges songs by a Stooge than just another band working hard to sound like them.

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One of the great things about SXSW is that even amid a massive festival infused with corporate sponsors and major label cash, held in massive ballrooms and professional clubs, you can still see music for free in out-of-the-way spaces that feel more like house parties. I went to one Thursday afternoon party at the collective home of a group of people that puts out a zine called Salt for Slugs and the modest indie dot-com Epitonic. The collective had turned up their mattresses to block the doorways to the bedrooms, hung up scrawled signs asking guests to respect their living space and opened up splotches of pudding-colored carpet as stage areas.

The two stages, really what must have been the living and dining rooms before the furniture was moved out, showcased acts as diverse as Austin's Dakota Smith and Dayton, Ohio's Swearing at Motorists. I would have missed Smith's lo-fi comic relief act at night because my schedule was jam packed with quality punk, hard rock and experimental acts. But at the same time, his goofy little songs about his Canadian girlfriend and squirrel fights seemed just perfect in a casual space where I could relax and nosh on free candy and sandwiches.

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Again, every year at SXSW, three or four bands emerge out of the hundreds that play. Faced with more music choices than one person should ever have to make, most conference-goers comb through extensive listings in the local papers and the official program guides for tips. But the real buzz comes from word-of-mouth conversations that happen in between sets or during downtime at the afternoon panels. Likewise, if a certain band really smokes at a particular show, you can end up hearing about it for the rest of the weekend -- and in the press that piles up in the following year.

Listen.com, one of the few dot-coms left with the money to throw around, held an invite-only Friday afternoon industry barbecue at Fat Tuesdays, a massive frat bar where you could get alcoholic slushies in a big cup with a plastic sports straw. The party, featuring Detroit duo White Stripes, was one of the conference's hottest tickets.

Stripes singer/guitarist Jack White introduced drummer Meg White to hundreds of industry types and other musicians packed into the backyard space. He called her his "sister," but the publicist-heavy crowd buzzed with another rumor: She's really his ex-wife. I was blown away by their white-hot psychedelic indie blues; there's no denying the two have chemistry.

Sounding like a young Robert Plant and dressed in skintight red from head to toe, Jack White sang songs about all the ladies of Detroit who love him and covered Dolly Parton's "Jolene" while Meg smacked the drum set and smiled at the sky. It was a performance worth seeing twice, which I did. The Stripes' second set at the Room 710 club Saturday night packed the band's sex appeal into an appropriately sweatier venue that was wall-to-wall bodies. Spotted at the show: Jello Biafra, looking more like an industry head than the former Dead Kennedys frontman, bending Jack's ear after the show.

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Last year, El Paso emo rockers At the Drive In were the darlings of SXSW. Those who saw their explosive show in a tiny venue claimed that the staunchly punk band would become the "next Nirvana." The conference helped earn the band an ever-growing international audience, and a fat feature in Rolling Stone.

Peaches might not be a next Nirvana. She's more like a female Prince for the My Life with the Thrill Kill Cult generation. The musical dominatrix made her audience sweat with sexuality to her homemade techno-beat songs about "dicks," "tits" and getting laid. Dressed in a vinyl mini-dress (later stripped down to a shimmery gold tank and red hot pants), the petite, curly-haired performer took her drooling audience by the balls and showed them her uninhibited libido. I think that even the people who don't smoke were reaching for cigarettes at the end of her set.

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The third breakout act of the weekend was the Strokes, a young New York outfit that publicists and magazine editors were describing as a contemporary version of the band Television. Before SXSW, the label-less Strokes had only a three song EP, the strength of their live shows and write-ups in England's the Face magazine and Rolling Stone. Based on the number of times a publicist or magazine editor asked me, "Hey, did you see the Strokes last night?" I have to assume the band will not go long without a label.

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And then there were the panels. Set in the ballrooms and lecture halls of the sprawling, white Austin Convention Center at the edge of downtown, the SXSW daytime panels attempted to bridge the ghosts of music culture present and past. You could find out "The Word on Christian Rock" or talk about women in the music business at the "Does Gender Hinder?" panel. But a few of the discussions were less topical.

One of the most popular discussions went down on a sunny Friday afternoon, as publicists, journalists and musicians filled out a medium-sized room to hear about the history of the legendary music magazine Creem.

The eight-member group of ex-Creem writers and editors told stories of living and working together in a Detroit rock 'n' roll critic's Garden of Eden, before the days of major publicity machines and corporate control of the music and publishing industries. Writer Jaan Uhelszki said she started working for Creem three decades ago because she was a musical "superfan." In an us-vs.-them culture of the '70s, Uhelszki said, "I was there to tell the truth. We were on the band's side."

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Like a Texas twister disappearing back into the sky, SXSW ended just as suddenly as it began. Although the official conference doesn't end until the last band sings Sunday night, by noon on a stormy Sunday even silver-haired David Byrne was catching a flight home. The Austin airport was full of music junkies draped on black vinyl seats at every gate, attempting to get a head start on the first good night of sleep they'd had since the beginning of this bender. It was kind of hard for me, though. With ears still ringing, I was busy plotting my return.


Jennifer Maerz

Jennifer Maerz is a music writer living in San Francisco.

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