Apr 1, 2016
What It’s Like to Play SXSW When You’re Not Drake
South By Southwest gives you a pretty rare opportunity. If you sit at the corner of East 6th Street and Trinity in its home of Austin, Texas on the Tuesday when the bulk of the conference—the sections devoted to technology, film, comedy, sports, and more—wraps up, and just before the music portion begins, you can actually hear the sound of money fleeing the music industry in a mad panic. Companies like Samsung, Google, and IBM had all been hosting gigantic interactive marketing experiences for which lines had been snaking through downtown for days, many revolving around virtual reality (Google’s was actually a gigantic claw machine filled with phones and tablets which functioned as a neat metaphor for capitalism: you seemed close to fantastic prizes, but in fact the game was rigged against you). On the day before the music started in force, all of these installations were being hastily torn apart by event staff, working with highly paid efficiency, as if there were nothing more important than preventing a Deftones fan from getting to feel like he was riding a roller coaster by strapping on a Samsung Gear VR headset.
Originally begun as a music festival far back in the murky mists of time (1987), South By Southwest (abbreviated as “SXSW” in written English and “South By” when spoken) long ago saw the writing on the wall and transformed itself into a technology festival. This portion, called Interactive, is plainly the focus of both SXSW as an organization and the emotional understanding of the festival to a great many people. The app the festival produces, SXSW GO is fantastically helpful at finding panels and drink receptions during Interactive, but basically useless during Music as much of the actual music is at unofficial showcases.
A sort of cross between CES and TED, or a sort of Davos for middle-managers, Interactive features inspirational panels and basically unparalleled networking opportunities. Without really trying, I saw a discussion from the CEO of the New York Times, a panel featuring the founder of Mashable, JJ Abrams introduce a series of films (ads) he produced for Google, and narrowly missed the President of the United States; as was widely reported, he ended a casual list of his accomplishments in office by pausing before saying, “Thanks, Obama.”
My Uber drivers and cabbies disagreed about how many people come to town for the festival, and whether it’s more during Music or during Interactive. Locals like to say that SXSW brings 200,000 people to Austin, but the only confirmation I can find of that is in articles about a 2014 car crash that killed four people (and even there, it’s without a citation). The festival itself gives confusing and overlapping tallies—in one place, it says it attracts “72,000 registrants and artists,” in another it gives a detailed breakdown of attendees that seems to add up to more than 90,000.
Poignantly, despite the festival pivoting away from music in a very real way, it remains one of the country’s major music events. Even if Google and IBM pack up and leave town, looking over their shoulder to be sure they beat the music crowd, that crowd continues to come. Last year, Music drew around 30,000 official registrants, more than 2,200 bands, and many more of both who attend the large events not technically part of SXSW, like Fader Fort, Spotify House, Hotel Vegas, and Hype Hotel. The music crowd is louder, drunker, and plainly less wealthy than those attending interactive. And they seem to be having a great time.
The bands they see come in all sizes, and all stages of their careers. This year Drake, Iggy Pop, and Charli XCX all performed, as did several thousand smaller artists. What is it like to be one of those acts? And what exactly do they get out of it?
To find out, I tagged along with two bands performing at this year’s SXSW: Car Seat Headrest and Prince Rama. What exactly were they hoping for, and what did they actually find?
The first time I saw Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toldeo, he was lying flat on his back. I was at Rough Trade Brooklyn to see the much-buzzed-about new band, who had a New Yorker profile before they had a proper first album (that record, Teens of Denial, is due out May 20 on Matador Records). He had his guitar balanced on his stomach, and was staring at the ceiling. As I remember it, he played the entire show that way, and I was impressed. Toldeo’s music has a faintly Weezer-y vibe, covering painfully awkward topics of youthful white male alienation, and was actually recorded a least partly inside his car (hence his band’s name); the band projects a very ‘alone in my room’ vibe to which a concert performed lying down seemed more or less a perfect fit.
Later, when I tell him all this, he laughs. “That was not our best show,” he tells me in his mumbly monotone (mumbletone). “That was something I tried out that didn’t work.” Why?
“It was very hard to play the guitar, because I couldn’t see the fret board.”
I found out later that his label had taken him out for steaks and wine just before the show, a total violation of his usual pre-show ritual. Before his first SXSW performance, he told me he’d spent more than an hour hanging out at a bar without drinking (because it messes up his voice), and that he tries to eat light before he performs, a veggie burger being about as heavy as he likes to get. That day in Brooklyn, he’d felt so sick to his stomach that he couldn’t stand up.
When we meet in Austin, he’s getting ready for his first show of the festival at Barracuda, a bar near 6th Street that I want to call cavernous not so much for its size as because of dark dampness. It’s over 90 degrees, and Toledo paces around the room drinking water as The Inventors, the day’s first band, sets up and sound-checks. Car Seat Headrest is on second. We go stand outside to chat.
Car Seat Headrest is 23-year-old Toledo’s project; he’s been recording and releasing music under that name since 2010, though he now tours with a full band. Part of Toledo’s myth is that he’s done it all for himself: he released his music through Bandcamp, a sort of audio YouTube where anyone can upload music, where he built a fan-base and eventually found a record deal. However, he told me, the truth was that he’d been searching for a regular record label for years, mailing demos out to every one he could find, without ever getting a reply.
In 2015, his music caught the attention of Chris Lombardi, the co-founder of Matador Records, a major indie label that also releases music from Belle & Sebastian, Kurt Vile, and Queens of the Stone Age (I spotted Lombardi in the crowd at one of CSH’s shows later in the week). He personally reached out to Toledo over email.
“When I first saw the email, I just saw “Chris@MatadorRecords.com” and I thought it might have been an intern or something, because sometimes you get that,” Toldeo told me. “I think I got an email from Capitol Records, but it was just somebody who did not have any power there.” Matador released a compilation of Toledo’s early work, Teens of Style, in preparation for this year’s collection of new music. This deal is the subject of the song “Times to Die,” which CSH played at each of their SXSW shows. In it, Toledo sings:
Got to have faith in the one above me
Got to believe that Lombardi loves me
It’s a deal
I want a deal
Let’s cut a covenant
Lombardi finds this song very embarrassing.
Toledo is obviously a little uncomfortable during our talk, and later when our photographer does a short shoot with him he shuffles his hands so awkwardly that I worry it might be causing him physical pain to be paid attention to so specifically. I take this to be nervousness about performing. Car Seat Headrest was initially a recording project, and Toldeo didn’t like the idea of performing its songs live, because he thought those recordings were the best way to hear his music.
“I objected to it,” he said, “and felt that it was akin to making a film director hold plays of his films.” Then, of course, there was the fact that performing made him nervous, and he thought he was a bad guitar player.
Several years on, Toledo has a band he trusts and has found a way to perform with which he’s happy. His band puts on a great show with necessarily performing – but their set builds from a slow start to a frenetic, heavily rock climax. It’s emotional and transporting to watch. To pack two clichés into one sentence, Toledo is clearly coming into his own as a performer, and is much more at home making music than making small talk. This, however, carries over to the stage somewhat, as he usually lets drummer Andrew Katz (who’s confident and good-looking) tell jokes between songs or lead the sound check.
This isn’t to say hasn’t escaped the idea that shows are work. It’s just that he’s hopelessly dedicated to work. His band is playing a punishing ten shows during SXSW, stretching from Monday through Saturday—two each day, with only Tuesday off (he’ll tell me later that he hates days off). They’ll take place at a variety of parties and spaces that run the complete gamut of SXSW, from a tiny corner in a record store far from downtown Austin to the backyard of an Urban Outfitters to several bars, and a large corporate daytime party. His default position, he tells me, is to do any show he can. Why?
“Usually the money we receive for doing a show is more than it costs to go do it,” he says. “And it is a job, and that’s how the band members see the money from this thing, The advance money goes to me, and to the recording and everything. So, this is our day job, basically.”
Prince Rama approach things differently. The band is primarily two sisters, Taraka and Nimai Larson. Everything the band does is an over-the-top performance. Nimai plays the drums and takes care of business matters (it’s with her that I exchanged the seemingly endless series of emails and texts it takes to figure out where and when to meet someone in Austin), while Taraka is the singer and frontwoman of the band. When we meet up to talk on the festival’s last day, Taraka is wearing yellow and red tights with a Guns N Roses pattern underneath a spandex skirt with the face of an Egyptian queen covering the entire front, a gigantic coat, mirrored sunglasses that take up half her face and, and a necklace that seems to be made of 100 brass coins arranged in a triangle, all framed by her truly impressive head of curly blond hair which crests four or five inches above her head before falling almost to her naval. She’s approached by fans several times, and I ask her if this happens often as she’s so easy to recognize. She looks at me blankly for a moment before saying, “I thought I was dressed incognito today.”
With anyone else, this might seem like dry sarcasm. The Larsons, however, are relentlessly positive and relentlessly sincere. Raised Hare Krishna, their music mixes pan-Eastern pop music (Taraka’s very high vocals, bell chimes, and a semi-tantric repetition) with melted psychedelic synths. Their conversation retains a Krishna influence, too, and is full of big picture ideas as well as talk of positivity and living in the moment.
Prince Rama has been around since at least 2007, when they first began performing at SXSW. They first heard of the festival as kids growing up just outside of Austin, when Hanson was discovered there in 1994.
“We were like, we want that to happen!” Nimai told me. And, in fact, it did. The band was performing at the festival for the fourth time in 2010, and was slotted in as last minute replacements at a friend’s showcase. As it happened, Animal Collective’s Avey Tare was in the audience. He was impressed, and came up to speak with them afterwards.
“I didn’t recognize him right away,” Taraka told me. “I was a fan, but I wasn’t like, that kind of fan, I didn’t stalk them online. He was just this weird, guy who came up to us after a show, like, ‘Oh, hey, I love you guys, do you have a label?’ and it’s like, who is this guy?” The band would put out their next three albums on Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks label. Their latest, Xtreme Now, is on Carpark Records, also home to Beach House and Dan Deacon.
What brings the band back this year?
“The main draw this year was to promote our new album, which just came out March 4th,” Nimai tells me, logically enough.
“I think in the beginning we were attracted to this kind of utopian spirit—just like, taking over a city, and transforming any banal space into being this temporary autonomous zone of auditory wonderment, you know?” Taraka adds. “It’s pretty magical, if you think about it. It’s like Christmas or something—like that ubiquitous quality. It’s like kind of amazing in that way! But I think we came into this year with less expectations and ambitions than other years. I definitely remember coming here before we had a label, and being like, ‘we’re gonna find a label!’ or ‘We’re gonna try and find a booking agent!’ or whatever. This year, I think we’re just coming to play some music and hang out.”
They plainly love performing. For their current tour and album, they’re wearing neon outfits inspired in equal parts by extreme sports and the medieval: motocross pads, neon tights, chainmail, and a sword that Taraka usually brings out to wave around the stage and touch to the heads of anyone in the front row. Nimai plays the drums while standing, bouncing from foot to foot the entire show, a maniacal grin plastered to her face like a figure skater on meth. At one point in the show she usually unplugs her microphone and takes it dancing around the stage singing, though no one can actually hear her (but she sells it). Taraka frequently walks into the crowd – during one show, she climbed onto the shoulders of a particularly sturdy male fan, and sang an entire song while sitting there.
“It’s not like we’re just rolling up there in these clothes and putting on a show,” said Nimai. “No, no. We honor the fact that we’re performing. People can just buy our record and listen to it, but it’s great to have a whole ‘nother wild experience. That’s what people are showing up for. It’s fun for us.”
When I ask Taraka if their current tour has a unifying theme, she’s quick to answer.
“Extreme now!” she says. “Presentness, making people feel very present in a situation, making myself feel very present in a situation. I think we really treat performances as a kind of like extreme sport, or like extreme meditation. You know, like with the sword and stuff, it’s dangerous when you’re whipping it around! Someone could get like really really hurt. And I’m not very good at swordsmanship. I’m just whipping it around, you know?”
Though they’ve been around much longer, Prince Rama doesn’t get the kind of opportunities that Car Seat Headrest do. CSH are playing large corporate shows, put on by people like Spotify, Pitchfork, and Urban Outfitters. It’s obvious that people within the music industry expect them to appeal to people, and over the week they find themselves in front of many different large groups of people. Prince Rama play three shows, its largest being Brooklyn Vegan’s party at Cheer Up Charlie’s, an extremely Brooklyn-y venue a bit outside of the main downtown strip, with rainbow-colored wood paneling and kombucha on tap. It is certainly packed with an appreciative crowd enjoying the band. But CSH play to crowds that big or bigger at least 8 times.
Part of this is obviously down to the music the two bands make. Where Prince Rama is experimental and (at least somewhat) hard to access, Car Seat Headrest couldn’t be more traditional. As I said to Toledo, he’s a white man making songs about being a teenager. It basically doesn’t get more classically rock and roll than that.
“I think there’s something about being part of a tradition that people don’t like, they try and distance themselves from that,” he said to me. “I definitely never felt that way. I was always more seeking out a tradition that I could be a part of. Even the more experimental Car Seat Headrest stuff, the early stuff where it was just very embryonic and not a lot of solidified ideas, I still very consciously had some artists in mind that I was emulating, like Jandek. . . when you’re trying to figure out a way to live your life, that’s what my mind jumps to—how people have already lived it, how they figured it out, and to not venture too far from models that work, basically.”
Prince Rama approaches its music differently. When I ask them if they think people in the industry have a hard time figuring out what to do with them because their work is hard to classify, they immediately agree.
“I’m happy that people can’t place us or know what to do with us,” Taraka says. “I think if we were easily placeable, then what’s the point of what we’re doing? You’re not like breaking new ground? I think it’s necessary to do something genuine. Usually if people are genuine, there’s something original in it. I think original – the true essence of that word is being close to your origins. If you’re being genuine, if you’re being close to your origins, you’re going to be doing something special.”
Of course, the music industry doesn’t work on seniority. If anything, things get harder as you get older. But, style doesn’t count for everything. Does Prince Rama think that there are opportunities on which they’ve missed out because they’re women?
“We really don’t think of ourselves as women,” Taraka told me. “We think of ourselves as aliens.”
“I don’t really identify as ‘a woman’ I’m just in the industry,” Nimai adds. “We’re performers, we’re musicians, we’re artists.” However, they almost immediately begin talking about sexism they’ve faced, and times they’ve inspired young women.
“I think what’s really sweet is that some women will come up to us after we perform and be like, it’s really nice to see you guys up there. You ladies up there,” Nimai said. “I mean people are like, oh my god, you play drums? But you’re a girl! Or whenever we tour in Europe, they’re like, where’s the man so I can pay him. I’m like, honey, pay me. There’s no man.”
When I point out to her that that’s exactly the kind of sexism I’m talking about, she clarifies.
“But what I’m trying to get at is that’s other people’s perception, whatever. I don’t play into it. Like, I feel super grateful that we get to perform and do what we want to do. Like, to me, that’s just like what I love to do.”
“It’s just weird,” Taraka says. “Like do interviewers ask men, so what’s it like being a man in the music industry?“
What do you do all day at SXSW? I slept later than I have since I was a teenager, not because I was out especially late (the bars close at 2, so even your afterpartying is probably done by 4), but because of the stress of standing around at shows for 8 or 12 hours. And because drinking beer for 10 hours straight makes you feel bloated and drained at the same time, and more than ready to lie down for an equal amount of time. You eat tacos, text your friends to try and hang out, and then try to do a few organized things.
If you’re in a band, it can be largely the same. Car Seat’s punishing schedule meant they were basically always either setting up or tearing down their gear. The only real leisure I ever saw them engage in was checking out chambray shirts and sunglasses in an Urban Outfitters after a concert. More normal was when I saw Katz, the drummer, and the band’s guitar player, Ethan Ives, standing on a street corner in blazing sunlight several hours before their show at Spotify House, clutching their gear, worriedly texting, and looking lost. The first night of the festival, they had to run back to their hotel room after their last show to get the phone that one of them had accidentally left in their Lyft. None of their nights were especially late, they told me when I caught up with them on SXSW’s final afternoon.
“We don’t really party,” Katz said, sounding apologetic.
Prince Rama are a bit more cagey about their non-show activities, but any time I asked, they were always about to go eat a meal or go rest after a show. After their most late-night show (when they took the stage at midnight), I asked them what they were up to afterwards, and they made fun of me for it a few days later.
“You were like, ‘where’s the afterparty at!’” Nimai said, quoting me in a voice that made me sound like the world’s biggest bro douchebag. “When you’re performing you can’t really do that. We just went to bed.”
The wild enthusiasm of the first few days quickly wanes; by the festival’s final night, I walked past couples fighting and at least three women, crumpled onto curbs or with their foreheads pressed into chain link fences, openly weeping. According to The Austin Monitor, SXSW generates more than 250,000 pounds of trash, which costs the city of Austin $142,565 to clean up each night during festival.
For their last show, Car Seat Headrest played End of An Ear, a small record store far south of the main SXSW activities. The audience was small, as the show was actually inside the store—the audience drank from some free beers arranged next to the cash register in a pyramid. As it happened, the store didn’t have enough amps to play all of CSH’s instruments, so Will Toledo just sang, and didn’t play guitar as he usually does. He looked extra juvenile in this setting, under fluorescent light and close up. The whole band seemed young; it looked like this is where they should be in their careers, playing afternoon shows for hip parents and their small children in gigantic purple ear protection. But they’re already so much further.
After the show, I asked them how the festival went, but they just shrugged good-naturedly and said something positive but non-committal. They had other places to be.
All photos by Daniel Dorsa.
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