South by Southwest’s First-Timers – Members of 2014’s Rookie Class Talk About Their First SXSW | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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South by Southwest’s First-Timers – Members of 2014’s Rookie Class Talk About Their First SXSW

Featuring Arthur Beatrice, Casual Sex, Connan Mockasin, Future Islands, Glass Animals, Saintseneca, San Fermin, Vaadat Charigim, Woman’s Hour, and Yamantaka // Sonic Titan

Aug 26, 2014 SXSW 2014 Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern Bookmark and Share

“It’s been the most surreal thing, but in the best possible way,” Casual Sex drummer Chris McCrory says of his first South by Southwest. “Everything about it has been strange and new to us, but it’s been amazing.”

“It’s completely mental!” says Arthur Beatrice vocalist Ella Girardot, with a laugh. “I’ve never been to anything like this before.”

“I knew it was going to be hectic, but the level of hectic,” her bandmate, drummer Elliot Barnes, continues. “You can’t prepare yourself for it in any way.”

“Sixth Street feels like Mardi Gras, and every single place has a venue,” says Ellis Ludwig-Leone, composer for San Fermin. “It’s so unreal.”

“I wasn’t expecting it to be so raucous, and big, and exciting,” says Glass Animals drummer Joe Seaward. “All of my senses have been overloaded in a really cool way. There are a lot of sounds, there are a lot of people, there’s a lot of really delicious food.”

As any of the preceding quotes can attest, there’s nothing at all that can fully prepare a first-timer for the absolute madness that is SXSW. For five days in March downtown Austin, Texas turns into a throbbing mass of musicians and music lovers. (“It’s a real rammy,” as Casual Sex singer Sam Smith put it.) Tens of thousands pack into any and every space that can fit a few instruments to catch everyone from the no-names to the big names—2,200 artists this year, by SXSW’s official estimate, with hundreds more likely going uncounted. For any music fan with a high tolerance for crowds and little regard for sleep, it’s your dream festival.

We asked a few of this year’s newcomers to share their experiences as SXSW first-timers. (None of the artists we spoke to were in close proximity to this year’s awful tragedy in which an intoxicated driver drove through a crowd, killing four and injuring many others.) For emerging bands, SXSW has the power to push careers to the next level, and for international artists, there is no better opportunity to play your songs in front of so many U.S. journalists, industry-types, and music aficionados in one place.

“We’re here, basically, to start our way in the States,” explains Juval Haring, guitarist and singer for Tel Aviv-based shoegazers Vaadat Charigim. “When you’re in Israel, you’re so far away. You’re way out of everything. The whole conversation of music seems like a distant dream. But you come here, it’s very real and actual.”

“Hopefully, playing in America will mean we’ll eventually be able to release records there,” agrees Casual Sex’s Smith, who came to Texas from Glasgow, Scotland.

“We’re [eager to] play to some Americans for the first time,” says Seaward of the Oxford, U.K.-based electronic pop act Glass Animals. “For the most part it’s been received very well…. It was a culture shock, to start with.”

“We just want to play a series of shows that gets across to people that we’re very much a live band, and that the record sounds really different on stage,” says Arthur Beatrice’s Barnes, whose band hails from London.

“Part of it is meeting other artists, and that’s definitely one of the reasons we came. We love doing collaborations,” says Glass Animals vocalist Dave Bayley. “And we wanted to eat some really good barbecue.”

“In the past I was told you had to come here to get signed, or meet people, or get blah, blah, blah,” says New Zealand psych-rocker Connan Mockasin. “But for me, I think that would be a really stressful reason for doing shows. I want to do shows just to have fun and not have to impress anyone.”

In most cases, these artists are promoting their debut—or breakout—albums. (Several here haven’t even released a record yet.) Baltimore’s Future Islands are a deviation from the norm: they’re playing SXSW for the first time after eight years as a band, while spotlighting songs from their fourth full-length record.

“We always thought it was a better idea to go to all of the cities where all of the other bands had left and play headline shows there,” says singer Samuel T. Herring. “Rather than go to a place where you had to scrape to get a show, or to get people to see you.”

“We were already scraping, so no need to come to a place where we had to scrape even more,” Future Islands’ bassist William Cashion chimes in. “We heard tons of horror stories from other bands, and we didn’t want to put ourselves through hell.”

“But now that we’re here, we’re like, ‘Let’s blow people’s minds,’” Herring continues. “‘Let’s do what we’ve worked so hard for, and show people what we’ve been working on.’ I just want to play, and there’s lots of time to do that.”

There’s certainly no shortage of opportunities for bands to show off their work. Most parties and showcases pack as many artists as possible onto their billings. Set times are short, as is the average amount of time bands are given to load in to venues and set up on stage.

“It’s intense,” says San Fermin’s Ludwig-Leone, whose Brooklyn-based band played seven gigs at the festival. “We have eight members…we have a violin, two brass players, two singers. It’s a pretty big thing. It’s definitely a challenge getting it all up and running in time.”

“We had to engineer our set to have a more logistical flow,” says Saintseneca’s Zac Little, singer and multi-instrumentalist for the Columbus, Ohio group. “We switch instruments a lot. Normally, if we were playing a show at a club, we’d have an hour to sound check. But that’s not the case here.”

“There’s no way around the setup of the festival,” says Fiona Burgess, singer for the London-based Woman’s Hour. “It’s very come-and-go. You’ve got to be prepared to set up very quickly and have a quick turnaround. Because we were prepared for that, I think we did the best we could. With a bit more money we’d have more reliable equipment.”

The rapid changeover almost always leads to a few stressful moments for every band.

“Everything’s so manic,” says Arthur Beatrice’s Barnes. “When we were playing at Haven, the PAs cut out in classic South By fashion. I watched as the sound guy, quite a big dude, ran, knocking people out of the way, fell over a sofa onto his face, and then jumped up to stick [the cord] back in. It was almost a negative, but it all turned out quite fine.”

“Our laptop—which runs loops, gives me a drumming click, and sends MIDI to our light system—was in a backpack and an energy drink was thrown in the same bag just to go between two venues,” says Alaska B, percussionist, songwriter, and concept artist in the Canadian psych-rock collective Yamantaka // Sonic Titan. “But a large case fell over onto the bag and the energy drink sprung a leak. When I went to grab my laptop, the entire bag was filled with a sticky pool of liquid. We had to play a stripped-down set for three shows, and several songs actually needed to be cut.”

“We had a show we had to play at 2 p.m., and at 1:10 our van was still in the shop,” says San Fermin’s Ludwig-Leone, recounting their sole means of transportation breaking down mid-festival. “We were freaking out. With all of this panic, we finally get the van and drive to the venue. We get there just as the band before us is getting off, load up, play the show. It was really great, we have an awesome time. We immediately got way too drunk because we were so stressed out, and then [vocalist Rae Cassidy] went out and got a tattoo,” he laughs. “That was a day when everyone hit it really hard. Where else are you going to have that experience? That’s what South By is all about.”

Though all of the bands we spoke to made it through SXSW without any major problems, there are things they would do differently next time, now that they have this experience under their belts. One consistent complaint regarded the amount of equipment the musicians had to haul from their lodgings and between venues.

“The idea of lugging a keyboard blocks and blocks to the back of a venue just wasn’t something I was prepared for,” says Arthur Beatrice’s Barnes. “[Next time] I’d have less gear. We’d only play acoustic sets!”

“I’d bring a really, really big, muscle-bound guy with us whose nickname was Tiny,” jokes Casual Sex bassist Pete Masson. “It’d be his job to carry our gear around for us and look after it. We’d pay him to be bored while we went off and have fun.”

“We’ve got lots of blisters, and I’m not sure whether they’re from playing or from carrying gear around,” adds Casual Sex drummer McCrory.

When the bands weren’t busy playing shows, taking meetings, or nursing wounds, there was the city of Austin itself to take in. Many of the artists were quite taken by the Texan capital’s charms.

“We’re almost shocked by how nice the locals are here,” says Casual Sex guitarist Ed Wood. “A complete stranger picked us up on the street and drove us to our venue because she took pity on us walking up the street with our instruments.”

“We were in the blazing sun,” bandmate Smith adds.

“This woman pulls over and says, ‘You guys look miserable. Can I give you a lift? I’m driving to my yoga class,’” says drummer McCrory.

“I kept wondering what the city was like on a daily basis,” says Woman’s Hour’s Burgess, who was briefly able to slip away from the throng and check out some vintage and cowboy boot shops with her band. “It’s hard to say because everything was so centered on the music festival.”

When we asked the rookies whether they’d return another year, the answer was a near-unanimous “yes.” From a fan’s perspective, it’s almost impossible not to feel the same way. South by Southwest is an one-of-a-kind festival in a incredible city. Out of all the South By virgins we spoke to, Connan Mockasin summed up a first-timer’s experience the best.

“Years and years ago I was given a T-shirt which said ‘Keep Austin Weird,’ and I never knew what it meant,” Mockasin says, with a smile. “But now I’m starting to understand.”

[Note: This article first appeared in Under the Radar’s June/July print issue (Issue 50). So, yes, we know that SXSW was a little while ago now, but keep in mind this article first ran in print in late May.]


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