Danilo Queiros reports back from South By South West.2017
Words: Danilo Queiros | Photographs: Ted Buxton + Tourmaline Berg
During the year, “Dirty Sixth” Street is Austin’s college party hub, home to hundreds of stereotypical Texan bars frequented by local students. During SXSW, many of these venues are seized by brands like Apple Music, YouTube, JanSport and even the European Union. These brands curate lineups featuring bands and speakers on a varying spectrum of fame and speciality. Everyone is catered for. Neil deGrasse Tyson presented a talk hosted by National Geographic in a venue sandwiched between two ‘unofficial venues’ offering $1 drink specials to "ladies". These venues outnumber the official venues by a large margin, creating a sense of scale that is so massive, it’s certain to both excite and overwhelm you.
Everything is bigger in Texas, so it’s no surprise that the festival roared with a magnitude that overloads every sense. As we walked down Dirty Sixth, weaving between masses of people, we were drawn in by the delicious smells wafting from the food trucks. We sampled the tacos, the burgers and the healthy treats. Every meal was accompanied by the never-ending soundtrack of drumbeats and vocal melodies resonating out of the surrounding venues. As we moved down the street, we passed a few up-and-coming rappers blasting their mixtapes through boomboxes, performing live with a crew of friends who handed out free CDs. The eastern end of Dirty Sixth was a concoction of energy with three sets of buskers performing simultaneously, all featuring drummers competing for the attention of those walking by. While sitting on a balcony overlooking the madness, it all sank in: our ears were overloaded and our hearts were racing in anticipation for our shows. The amalgamation of these senses brought to life the surreality that engulfed us: South By South West.
“Keep Austin Weird!” is a city slogan you see all around town. Most people from the city appreciate diversity, preach individuality and propagate self-expression, something that I honestly didn’t expect from those in the heart of Texas. A taxi-driver told us that Austin is the place to go in Texas, if you don’t fit in in Texas. During the 60s and 70s, the city was an escape for hippies fighting the conservatism of the surrounding state. Those hippies helped shape Austin into what it is today. Still, this Texan rebellion doesn’t make their love for the state or States any weaker. The state’s outline is tattooed on many young Austinites, they fly giant American flags and they say “y’all” the same as any other Southerner. They’re proud of where they’re from and it’s not hard to see why. The city – with a population less than a million – lives off of music and the arts. Live venues vastly outnumber restaurants and have been instrumental in launching the careers of major acts such as Willie Nelson, Janis Joplin, Nelly and Gary Clarke Jnr. It's also the home of actors like Sandra Bullock, Matthew McConaughey and Owen Wilson.
Once you get to know Austin, you fall in love with its ‘weirdness’. It plays the perfect host to South By, as the festival purely accentuates the city’s core identity. With talks from top industry professionals in music, film and tech, the festival spotlights feature films and industry-shaking startups. It’s where Airbnb got its big break and so too did Girls, after a short film Lena Dunham presented in 2009. From VR flying machines to disposable body monitors that link-up to smartphone apps, innovation and excellence is displayed each year by young local and international entrepreneurs disrupting the status quo of their chosen fields. However, as fascinating as the talks we attended were, what we really came for was the music. The music festival showcases a variety of artists ranging from established touring acts promoting new music, to unknowns like us trying to break through and capture someone’s attention. There are over a thousand artists on the lineup, with a plethora of shows happening all the time.
From the day we were announced as an official performing artist, we had three months to organise funds, tickets, visas and maximise our impact at the festival. We raised the cash necessary to make it a possibility through the help of our fans in an Indiegogo campaign that exceeded our best expectations. Converse pitched in generously – they had taken us to the States to record before and continue to support our band where it counts. Somehow we made it. We booked our tickets, got our visas and travelled a total of 27 hours to get to Austin, with a 17-hour direct flight in the middle of it all. We were hosted by a young couple who gave all five of us a place to crash and so much more help than we could have ever asked for. After meeting them, we quickly became friends, sharing our favourite local music, stories and more.
On Wednesday 15 March, it was time to play our first show. We put on our new shoes, got dressed up and headed to the venue: Container Bar on Rainey Street. The show was presented by JanSport. The lineup was curated by Culture Collide, an organisation known for bringing in new quality international acts and so it was a full house. We were nervous, but this is what we’d come to do. There are no sound checks at South By, you have 15 minutes to set up and get your monitoring in order, it’s not easy when your set-up differs from the regular guitars, bass and drums format. We struggled with on-stage sound at the first show, but soldiered on as best we could, confident that the front-of-house sound was better than our on-stage experience. The crowd’s energy grew as we got more comfortable and allowed us to shake the nerves. Thankfully the subsequent write-ups around our performance were positive and our second show was added to various lists of shows to watch.
Between our two performances, we attended sets by some great artists. Australian, Alex Cameron started his set by throwing a Donald Trump piñata into the crowd, instructing them to do with it as they pleased. Needless to say, it was destroyed in seconds. Sylvan Esso promoted a new and vibrant album. A chance walk-in to a venue rewarded us with old, but newly-reformed favourites, The Drums and a fresh Texan ‘Thai-Funk’ band, Khruangbin, whose show was my pick of the festival and who’s music has since been on my daily playlist.
The week was exhausting, we worked as hard as we could: networking, attending talks and doing interviews with publications from around the world to maximise our reach. Our final show was on the closing day of the festival. The Roots & Friends were playing a few doors down. Coma Pony opened the night up with an instrumental performance they labelled "chill-wave", but pushed progressive and psych-rock elements. When it was our turn to play, things ran smoothly. We set up and got going, performing to members of our team from around the world and prospective partners we hope to work with moving forward. The show was a success and we’d achieved what we had come to.
It was a week well spent getting a taste of what we want from our lives: to be a part of a vibrant, diverse, and living music industry, surrounded by people as passionate about music and as driven by its creation as we are. Even through the uncertainty of changing tides in politics and music consumption, South By offered us exactly that!