Music: What to Hit

By Jonathan McJunkin

South by Southwest is not Woodstock. Then again, neither was Woodstock. Music festivals have always been conceptualized as amazing celebration of the art of music, culture, and general vibes of togetherness and pure feeling. South by Southwest—a music, film and technology bonanza held for a week every March in Austin, Texas—has a reputation as, or at least tries to market itself as, one of the last truly “authentic” (can you say that without scare quotes?) music festivals left. It’s supposed to be the place where new and/or unsigned but exciting talent “got discovered” or had their breakout performance. It helps in this reputation that the festival doesn’t have a specific site in the middle of a field or a large park—every venue in the city takes part either officially or unofficially, and there are shows in parking lots and basements for everyone and their cousin in central Texas that plays an instrument. It makes the city seem even more like a music lover’s Disneyland than it normally is. Last year, adolescent rap collective Odd Future was among the artists that got a major boost from the hype machine that is SXSW recaps. In reality, SXSW presents many of the systemic and show level annoyances that are just part of the music industry as a whole. Corporate sponsorship and advertising is absolutely inescapable—Doritos turned a building into a vending machine that doubled as a stage for Snoop Dogg—and many longtime observers of the festival have complained that the Official acts have become “too commercial.” SXSW also ramps up the annoyances of conperformances you macert-going to the nth degree. The crowds are absurd. The lines are so long that it’s literally impossible to get irnto some shows without showing up four hours before. Beer will be spilled on you, and though it’s often free, that comes with its own problems. The sheer scale of the thing is absolutely overwhelming—you have to accept that you will miss someone you really want to see, and that you just won’t know about most of the great shows that are happening. You really have to go with the flow to an almost radical extent, which was tough for me being the type of person who plans out my day in 15-minute increments sometimes. SXSW was also one of the best weeks of my life. For all the potential complaints about corporatization and crowds and fetishization of the “authentic buzzbands” that are its lifeblood, SXSW still manages to be a pretty magical place. It’s in Austin, for one, a beautiful city with more bats than people whose most famous resident was at one time a gender-queer homeless person (Rest in Peace Leslie, we miss you). And it is true that you can find out about some truly awesome new bands down there, which is really the whole point. When I look back on SXSW, the image I see isn’t a giant Doritos sign or a “Long Live Myspace” billboard. It’s a beatboxing violinist, a little girl in giant pink earmuffs dancing to hardcore at a patio bar, a six foot picture of a gentlemen in a handlebar moustache falling on stage. I’d like to share these and more with you in a rundown of some of my favorite bands that I heard for the first time at SXSW. BLACK ONASSIS A three-person band comes on stage and immediately launches into a wall-of-sound set with no words of introduction. There’s no singing, since all the vocals are samples, and they transition immediately from song to song. It’s heavy instrumentals with a lot of dance-y snyth and keyboard at the same time, and the dudes play so hard that by the end they’re dripping in sweat. A projection show of binary code, organic chemistry structures, microscope recordings and other trippy shit is a constant presence. At the end of the set, the band waves once and walks off. No talking, no encore. If this is your kind of show, Black Onassis is your kind of band. Founded in 2006 by Chris Karloff after departing from his band Kasabian, it took the band a while to find its sound. Last year they began what became their current model—creating instrumental tracks and sending them out to collaborators to contribute the vocal elements. Karloff has said the project is allowing him to make the music he’s always wanted to make. That music is intense and dense in the tradition of post-rock, yet strangely easy to dance to if you like dancing in really weird ways. Listen to this first: Brain, Innocence Bliss If you like: Blur, Kasabian, U2, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Tool, Joy Division Internet Presence: blackonassis.com, Myspace, Facebook, @blackonassis Their first album, which is currently untitled, drops EVENTUALLY. They are very mysterious. KISHI BASHI Kishi Bashi is the only act I saw twice, and his was the only CD I bought when I was down there. This won’t surprise those of you who came out to First Avenue on March 27 and saw him open for Of Montreal—he’s currently on tour with them, along with Lonely Dear and Springfest stars Deerhoof. I didn’t know what to expect when I saw him the first time on a small patio stage—the crowd couldn’t have been more than 20 people and here was this guy on stage, with a bowtie he hadn’t been able to figure out how to tie looped around his belt, his violin, and a bunch of foot pedals. I was blown away by the size of the sound he was able to create, and the ways in which he did it. He backed himself up by creating loops of beat boxing and distorted samples of his violin, and then used his powerfully gorgeous playing to build the melody. On top of that, he sings earnest lyrics—“I haven’t felt this alive in a long time”—with non-sentimental sincerity, and the effect of all of this at once is really something you have to see. I never would have thought that my favorite song performance at SXSW would be an 8 minute balled with string solo, but Manchester, his show closer, gave me goosebumps both times I heard it (the second time was opening for Of Montreal, and he does a pretty kick-ass jump joining in with Kevin Barnes and his not-so-merry band of awesome weirdos). Kishi Bashi also happens to be a really nice dude with a great sense of humor: one of the songs in his live repertoire is “Just the Tip,” which is about exactly what it sounds like. Listen to this first: Manchester (especially the live version), Bright Whites If you like: Andrew Bird, tUnE yArDs, Sufjan Stevens, Padma Newsome,Vanessa Mae Internet Presence: www.kishibashi.com, Bandcamp, Facebook, @Kishi_Bashi His first album, 151A is OUT NOW on his website and elsewhere 90 Seconds with Kishi Bashi TMW: How did you come across the style that you have now? It’s pretty unusual—the looping and the violins and the beat boxing. KB: I guess I played violin a lot, and for this album I kind of looked for a lot of what I’m good at. It’s different from a lot of other people. It’s like, violin, I’ve always played that. TMW: Have you always done similar things or had your style changed over time? KB: It came kind of by force. I had been forced to open up by myself—so I was like, what can I do to maximize the sound? So it did evolve to what it is; it’s a really recent thing for me. TMW: If you could work with anyone who would it be living or dead? KB: Living or dead? Hmm, there’s a lot of people. I don’t know, I kind of enjoy working by myself right now. TMW: Good answer. What’s your spirit animal? KB: My spirit animal? Um, wolf. I just made that up. CLOCK OPERA Unlike the other artists on this list, Clock Opera was making their second trip to SXSW, from their home base in London. Shortly into their set, one of the (there were several) large portraits of fancy gentlemen with strange facial hair that decorate the interior of the Mohawk fell off the wall and nearly hit their keyboard player. Undaunted by the pink-suited white-handlebar-mustached projectile, the band played on. Though Guy Connelly did a better job summing up their energetic sound than I could hope to, I’ll try to give you some idea. With Connelly’s vocals evoking the subtle emotional power of the likes of Arcade Fire’s Win Butler,
the band builds a strong danceable groove to support him and move the music forward. Their set was tight without being cold and mechanical, and there’s a lot of whimsy between the solid synth and drum rhythms, such as using cups and plates as percussion. If you like well-constructed and honest indie music (or beards), check these guys out. Listen to this first: White Noise, The Lost Buoys If you like: Phoenix, Arcade Fire, The Kooks, Interpol, Discovery Internet presence: www.clockopera.com, SoundCloud, Facebook, @clockopera Their first album, Ways To Forget, drops APRIL 23. 90 Seconds with Clock Opera lead singer Guy Connelly TMW: They’ve got awesome beard pictures around here…How would you describe Clock Opera in one sentence, if you had to. GC: That’s your job (laughs). I guess it’s an electronic live band with euphoric songs made up of intricate homemade songbooks. TMW: What would you say is your biggest influence? GC: We don’t sound like him, but Scott Walker’s [of The Walker Brother’s] a big influence on me, because of his voice and because of the way he’s gone throughout his whole life sort of never standing still. And he’s making his most experimental stuff now, on his own terms. Even though he started out with these mega-hits, he just totally got rid of that to find out what it was he wanted to do, which I think is quite a hard thing to do. TMW: This last one’s kind of weird—what’s your favorite animal? GC: Well I’m pretty keen on the armadillo. TMW: Nice. MONSIEUR PERINÉ Theirs is the show that most think of when they think of SXSW. We had just finished eating an amazing lunch at The Clay Pit (best Indian restaurant in existence), and as we walked outside we could hear flutes, classical guitar and Spanish vocals from the parking lot behind the Tequila Mockingbird. It was a beautiful day—like the rest of the festival, it was 80 and sunny with a slight breeze. Turning the corner, we found several wonderful things: free beer, parents dancing with their kids (this combo was more common than you might think), and Monsieur Periné. Their music could not have been more perfect for the atmosphere. An established band from Colombia, Monsieur Periné is their own sunny fusion of French Jazz Manouche with a variety of Latin American musical traditions, called “Suin a la Colombiana.” They achieve this with an eight-member crew of creative multi-instrumentalists. These instruments include “the spoon” and “the toothpick” along with a wide array of brass and wind elements. Their music just makes you feel good when you hear it, and is the perfect soundtrack for a spring day. They also have mad style—they consider this part of their overall artistic project—but the tops of them all is lead singer Catalina Garcia. Some have described her as a Spanish-speaking Zooey Deschanel, or something out of Triplets of Belleville, and her breezy voice and effortless stage presence add a lot to the band’s overall effect. Their shows at SXSW were the kickoff of their first, and brief, US tour, but for the sake of American ears I hope they come back soon. Listen to this first: La muerte, Swing romanticon If you like: Julieta Venegas, Fanny Lu, French Jazz, bolero, Tango Internet Presence: mperine.com, Myspace, Facebook, @monsieurperine Their most recent album, Tons Silence, is OUT NOW.