SXSW is a word that is on most musicians lips. Perhaps the biggest music industry event of the whole year? The coolest event a band could attend, especially a UK band! What better experience than travelling to Texas and playing more than one gig a day, hanging out with other bands from around the world in the sun. SXSW took place from 11th to 15th March and we’re thrilled to have first-hand accounts from two UK bands who ventured over there this year; - Brighton based garage rock outfit, and a familiar name to The Unsigned Guide – Leeds’ finest
Demob Happy’s drummer Tom Armstrong spills the beans.
We wrapped up our last SXSW rehearsal in the basement of the cafe where we practice on Monday night, went home for a few hours then met up at 3.30am to set off from Brighton. Cold and knackered, but excited for some Texan sun! We drove over to Heathrow and left the van in the long stay car park. Within 30 minutes and after an early scare with some missing luggage we were tearing our suitcases apart and swapping drum bits and pedal boards all over the place to try and get under the weight allowance. We were miles over with all our gear but somehow managed it in the end. Three movies, lots of free beer and some uncomfortable snoozes later we arrived in Austin tired, wired and ready to go.
First impressions were that everything was just so…American! Larger than life, colourful, expansive. The drive from the airport into Austin provided some of the more stereotypical Texas scenery you’d expect; the landscape, the motels, the dusty trailer parks, but as we rolled further into the city it became clear this was a modern, bustling and cultured town, albeit with that rough-around-the-edges Southern feel you’d want. We shacked up in our Airbnb, a cushy house in a suburban area a little north of town, equipped to our great delight with a porch and rocking sofa. We made an agreement with James from our label to try and keep the place nice and not have loads of people back at night when we were drunk. Then we set about exploring Austin, the festival…and accidentally totally breaking our agreement within the first night.
After a few days soaking up the sun, inhaling beer, eating endless breakfast tacos and Texas BBQ, watching shows, discovering the wonders of the American game Shuffle Board, making new buddies and hanging out with old friends, Thursday came and we had our first show. The venue was Doc’s Bar & Grill in So-Co or Southern Congress, a cool area south of the Red River which had a more relaxed vibe, seemed to be the place to get your cowboy boots and was home to the sleazy dive bar from Death Proof. It was an outdoor show in Doc’s yard and we were in at the deep end, melting on stage in the afternoon sun, but we went down well and it was a fittingly loud and sweaty start to our festival performances with an unexpected appearance from Green Day’s Mike Dirnt in the audience. Plus a great chance to play with our old Texan tour mates Purple who killed it and were dead set on showing us a good time.
On Friday, severe weather warnings rolled in meaning we had to combine our next show - an outdoor pit party for Fluffer Records, where the band perform on the floor in the centre of the audience - with the indoor show next door. This was set to be pretty weird with bands taking turns on the floor and on the stage while it stormed outside but ended up totally going off when we played and was as filthy and chaotic as we’d hoped - our guitarist Rennie freaking out the girls setting up on the stage for the next set by jumping up there from the floor and wigging out for our last track.
Saturday was our last and busiest day of SXSW with 4 shows to cram in all across the city and probably the closest we came to everything falling apart. The first few gigs went well, both outdoors (we were getting used to playing in the sun) and people were digging it even if we seemed to scare a few passers by while thrashing out. Then came the disaster at the British Music Embassy showcase when, following our mates Fizzy Blood’s great set, we plugged in in front of a packed room for all our pedals to be FRIED by the British voltage transformers we didn’t know were set up on the stage. After a mad dash to borrow new power-packs, batteries and some pedal botching we managed to get it together and played one of our rowdiest sets of the week. We then rushed off to our last show at Teller’s just off the madness of 6th Street. The Teller’s gig was arguably our best and we hammered out our set as heavy as we could before a swaying, sweaty crowd. Afterwards, despite some serious gig fatigue and some worrying gunshots getting popped into the air, we hit Austin, got our party on and celebrated an awesome week and our first band experience in America.
SXSW was good to us and we willingly and joyously let it suck all we had to give. Getting through the airport on no sleep and the flight home was probably the worst experience of all of our lives but it couldn’t have been more worth it in the end. The music industry can seem like a shadowy, contrived place at times but for that week under the Texas sun it felt like whether you were an artist or an A&R scout, a wristband holder or a booking agent, you were all there together for right reason. For the love of music. Real music.
Check out Demob Happy's video for Junk DNA:
Fizzy Blood’s Paul Howells shares his day to day diary.
14th March - Today we fly from Manchester to New York to Austin, Texas. They only had The Good Dinosaur playing on the plane for everyone to watch which is a terrible film, so most of us slept. When we got to Austin-Bergstrom we went outside, throwing off our coats and pretty much danced in a circle because it was the first time in living memory any of us was able to wear a t-shirt outside. After a delirious shuttle ride to our hotel, we went out to get wings and margaritas and then collapsed into our hotel beds ready for SXSW to begin.
15th March - A beautiful day; the sun was shining and not a cloud in the sky! When we woke up, the excitement was palpable. We didn’t waste much time at the hotel as we really wanted to go and explore Austin. Quickly we found out where all the free stuff was and we did what any band spending their first day at a music festival in America would do - we started drinking. Most of the first day was spent navigating 6th Street with multiple beer breaks along the way. At some point, I broke off from the group to get a tattoo and we reconvened at the artist lounge.
We were told to go down to the British Music Embassy to check out some bands at 8, which we did, although by this time we were well on our way to being the stereotypically smashed British tourists you see in Majorca and places like that where the all-inclusive holiday is king. We watched Get Inuit, who we’d shared the plane ride over with and then we went to the Hype Hotel to catch Hinds but we couldn’t get in because it was already full. It was outside the Hype Hotel that we made our first American friends and after wandering the streets of Austin (brown-bagged liquor in hand) for what seemed like forever, we made it to Cheer Up Charlie’s where The Moonlandingz were playing. They delivered a unique set and we decided to hang around and spend the rest of the night hanging out with everyone who was there. When we got back to the hotel, we found out Ciaran, who’d left earlier on account of his drunken state, had thrown up in a taxi on the way back and been charged $140. Typical!
16th March - We went to Applebee’s for breakfast nursing the worst hangover imaginable, I had steak and margaritas. Today’s proceedings were slightly more civilised and also more organised. We went for a beer with Martin Atkins of Public Image Ltd. And Killing Joke, after watching his talk at the convention centre where he ended by launching muffins at the audience. Most of the day’s events were a blur owing to a combination of the hangover and the fact that they were overshadowed by seeing Iggy Pop perform with Josh Homme, Troy Van Leeuwen, Dean Fertita, Matt Sweeney and Matt Helders. This is pretty much a band made up of personal influences of ours and what a show they put on! You could tell they were a close-knit bunch of pros at the top of their game. We all stood in awe for the duration of their 2 hour set and then decided to retire because the whole experience had been so overwhelming.
17th March - St. Patrick’s Day but the far-reaching hangover of the first night was still looming over our heads. Aside from a few more people wearing green than normal, this wasn’t the Irish festival of chug that everyone had told us it was gonna be over here. It didn’t matter though, because we spent most of the day in meetings anyway.
18th March - Our first performance. Instead of doing what we’d done every other day and heading into the city only to tire ourselves out, we decided to stay and lark about in the pool and the jacuzzi up until we had to leave for load in. It was super fun and I pretended to be a crab just because I could. When we arrived at BD Riley’s, our venue for the evening, the place was already filling up and it was a mad scramble to get the backline we’d rented from the loading area to the stage.
If I could sum up the following hour succinctly I would just say CHAAAAAAOOOOOOOOOS. We watched some bands playing there from other countries around the world before we were due to go on and dined on that sweet performance fuel known to the layperson as “lager”. I wish I could write about our set, but by the time we get going I just go into a place in my head that is how I imagine fish and lions function. I revert to a basic set of impulses and for the most part, it’s like the part of my brain that records my memory just shuts down. Suffice to say the warm welcome we received when we left the stage said it all. I was happy. Everyone was really bloody happy.
19th March - The excitement of this day started around 5pm when we took to the stage at the British Music Embassy. Everything broke; strings, pedals, amps, even the drum kit! We didn’t care because we were in America having the time of our lives, it was rock ‘n’ roll. The venue was packed once again and we were received by the crowd with open arms and whiskey. We saw Demob Happy play twice and they were visceral. Today was a day for meeting all the other UK bands with whom we’ve shared the touring circuit and the Twittersphere for so long but never had the chance to meet. There was a real sense of community and everyone wanted to see the festival out on a high. After the shows, we regrouped with the guys in Demob Happy and a few of the friends we’d made during the week and decided to make a night of it. After copious shots of tequila in Teller’s and walking the streets of Austin slowly realising that the clubs were all full to the brim with rappers and their entourages, we decided to slip away and take the party to a cool, quiet spot on the river. This was the culmination of our experiences and we celebrated a successful trip, taking in and savouring the last moments of what had been an intense and amazing week.
20th-21st March - We awoke, still not fully sober and said goodbye to the pool and the hotel. The journey back was long and punishing, taking us to Manchester via Chicago and London (every time running for our next plane because each one was late to arrive) but it was all worthwhile. We did what we came here to do. As we arrived in Leeds, completely spent in mind, body and soul, we all silently trudged through our familiar, narrow hallway to the living room, completely aware that we'd come back as a different beast; ready to take on the rest of the year.
Check out Fizzy Blood's video for I'm No Good: