It takes about 22 hours to drive from San Diego to Austin, Tex. On the way, you pass through rocky moonscapes and flat desert scrub, no-name towns and quaint tourist traps, nondescript gas stations and rest stops with signs warning of poisonous snakes. As adventurous as the trek might feel, though, it hardly compares to the churning jamboree that is South by Southwest, Austin's storied music festival and media conference.
Last week, I traveled to Austin in a four-door sedan with Craig Oliver, head of San Diego-based Volar Records, and writer / photographer Ryan Bradford. As soon as we reached the city at around 3:30 p.m. last Wednesday, we stopped by Trailer Space, a record store in the hip enclave of East Austin. A big cooler was sitting at the front, glistening with free beer; Oliver and Bradford both cracked open cans of Lone Star, the Texan hipster's version of Pabst Blue Ribbon. In short order, Orange County's Cosmonauts kicked off an enthralling set of droning garage-rock, and my five-day adventure had officially begun.
Later that day, I headed to the Austin Convention Center to check in. Along with my festival badge, I was handed a shoulder bag weighed down with several pounds of literature: A book-length events schedule, a pocket-sized schedule and two thick issues of the alt-weekly The Austin Chronicle, both containing sections devoted to SXSW. Running from Friday, March 9, through Sunday, March 18—the last six days devoted to music—SXSW officially played host to more than 2,000 bands performing on more than 90 stages.
As anybody who goes to the festival knows, the “official” stuff is just the start of it. During the week, the whole city essentially turns into a giant party space, with record labels, promoters, booking agencies and local businesses putting on a dizzying array of unofficial day parties, after-parties and secret shows (there's also a fair share of false rumors). Naturally, various characters also ply Sixth Street, the main drag downtown, to promote products, hawk music or generally just act weird.
With so many buzz-bands, tastemakers and industry players converging on the city, SXSW offers a look at the current landscape of the indie-music world. The festival reflected one particular development I've noticed in recent months. It could be that the livid protests of the Arab Spring and Occupy movements have had an effect on indie rock, or it could just be that people have gotten sick of laid-back micro-genres like “chillwave,” but it seems that more listeners and critics are taking an interest in darker sounds that tap into feelings of frustration and angst.
Last year, Pitchfork hailed Bon Iver's soft-rocking second album as the best record of 2011. So far this year, the taste-making website has awarded the coveted “Best New Music” label to Grimes, who played multiple shows at SXSW, for her ethereal electro-pop album Visions. But it's also given the honor to records by roaring indie-rock bands like Cloud Nothings and The Men, who both also performed at the festival. At the Elysium on Wednesday night, The Men's bruising performance would've made J Mascis' gray hair stand on end.
For me, SXSW also raised questions about how indie music is developing. In particular, it brought to mind the excellent 2011 book Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past, in which music journalist Simon Reynolds argues that music has become increasingly nostalgic in recent years.
On Friday, I spent most of the day at the Grand, a big pool hall in East Austin, for a joint showcase put on by Volar Records and Fullerton, Calif.-based label Burger Records. Of the roughly 30 bands on the bill, more than a few played the kind of retro-tinged garage-rock that supports Reynolds' observation that multitudes of fresh-faced musicians have gotten bogged down by “the sagging grey flesh of old ideas.”
As a modest crowd of concertgoers drank mini-pitchers of beer throughout the day, I perused Burger's display of cassette tapes and nodded my head to catchy bands like San Diego's Mrs. Magician and Riverside's Summer Twins. At the end of the night, Tucson quartet The Resonars taught me the true power of power-pop with their blistering, tightly wound gems. Still, bands started blending together, and I started pounding Diet Coke to stay conscious.
L.A. post-punks Cold Showers and Arizona psych-punks Destruction Unit, two bands that Oliver booked, offered a stark contrast. When San Diego's The Stalins of Sound delivered a set of mechanical, fist-pumping, vaguely tongue-in-cheek synth-punk, a dozen or so hipsters in the crowd kept a safe distance as they waited for the next band. But a husky punk rocker made a merry mosh pit of one during the band's set, jumping around and spilling beer all over the floor.
Around 12:45 a.m., Orange County's Cosmonauts—the same band from Trailer Space—rousted me from my garage-induced somnolence. Opening with a lengthy, one-chord drone-rock jam, they were one of the fiercest bands I'd seen all day. As drummer Jen Agnew brutalized the kit and bassist James Sanderson laid down a driving pulse, guitarists / vocalists Alex Ahmadi and Derek Cowart banged out chords relentlessly, with one of them only letting up to deliver scorching solos on a 12-string.
Of course, they had the trappings of a classic garage band—they looked young, they sang / shouted incoherently and their guitars were hiked up high on their chests like San Francisco garage luminaries Thee Oh Sees. But they didn't need to bow to indie-music trends to grab my attention. At no point did I hear the beat from The Ronettes' 1963 hit “Be My Baby,” which seems to have become the hallmark of any aspiring, retro-tinged indie-rock band.
Back in downtown Austin, I listened to a number of bands and artists that are using their influences and old sounds to help build the foundations for the future of indie music. On Thursday night, at the patio stage at Mohawk, a multilevel club on Red River Street, Philadelphia's The War on Drugs brought roots-rock to splendorous new heights, augmenting their arrangements with a pulsating bed of keyboards, sampler loops and effects-drenched trumpet and harmonica.
At Mohawk's indoor stage on Saturday night, L.A. beatmaker / sound-collage artist Matthewdavid had the flair of a seasoned guitar shredder as he worked a sampler, a laptop and a monome—a handy computer-interface device—to deliver deeply funky and wonderfully textured hip-hop beats and electro-funk grooves. As much as the guitar still holds sway over the music listener's imagination, beatmakers like Matthewdavid prove that samplers and computers can blow your mind in much the same way.
For many, of course, the music portion of SXSW isn't a high-minded showcase so much as a really awesome party. There are gallons of cheap beer and an endless array of gourmet food trucks, and party starters like Andrew W.K. and Wavves are always ready to get a huge mosh pit going.
Around 2 a.m. on Thursday night, the streets were carpeted with paper plates, plastic bottles, cigarette butts and other detritus from a day of festivities. The clubs were closing up and many revelers had started making their way home (or on to the next party), but a truck on Red River Street was still selling funnel cakes and nachos at a steady clip. As I sipped a bottle of water and rested my aching feet, the man running the funnel cake truck came out and started wiping the table in front of me, cleaning off a layer of nacho cheese and powdered sugar.
Surveying the street, the funnel-cake man smiled. There should be a chapter in the Bible about SXSW, he said. What a good read that would be, I thought, a section in the Bible to capture all the incredible excitement, great music and fond memories. He asked me my name and nodded approvingly at its biblical origins.
“Peter 2:2. Let the good times roll,” he said. “That's going to be a whole sermon.”