Who are you with?” My head is reeling, that’s who. Not a good answer.
“Oh man, I’m with Vice.”
The official looking fellow smiles and grabs two cases of Sparks, 48 cans of a sweet caffeinated malt beverage, 768 fluid ounces of a drink that makes (and–at 4 a.m. in some warehouse known as the Blue Genie way out in East Austin–is making) hipsters dance like maniacs, maybe buffoons.
“You must be James, the DJ?”
What? This guy must be kidding. James the DJ is none other than James F!@.$%^ Friedman, one of the hottest DJs in New York, a D.C.-born skinny fellow with short black hair. I, however, am an overweight guy with shaggy brown hair and a beard. And there is nothing Brooklyn about my accent. I’ve had three free beers here in Austin in four days, but tonight, I’m down my own road, Sparks and stuff down the hatch. I go with the James name because it’s funny.
“Oh yeah, man. DJ James, that’s me, all right.”
I smile stupidly and grab the cases and a nearby case of Pabst Blue Ribbon, heading out of the front door into the rain, hoping to catch a taxi downtown before the sun comes up in a few hours. The 20th South by Southwest Music Conference more or less ended hours ago, but this party–thrown by Vice, an infamously debauched worldwide empire of a record label, a clothing line and a flaccidly edgy magazine cloaking its scene infantilism in pretty pictures and high-gloss pages–will probably go on until the Sparks stop popping. Vice doesn’t excel in journalism or criticism, but the dudes throw killer parties.
And this party is South by Southwest in every way: A lineup of bands that’s hard to beat, an orgiastic vibe that’s hard to deny, and a bevy of circumstances seemingly designed to make you more tired than you knew you could be. Officially, 1,500 bands were scheduled for this year’s South by Southwest, which annually turns Austin’s Sixth Street and beyond into a massive block party, music pouring out of every bar with a floor big enough for some semblance of a stage. Playing here can be a very big deal, a stepping-stone on a viable career or a smart launching point for a new record. A majority of the American music press is in one city that is not New York for four days, along with scores of industry types, fans and fellow musicians. Nearly twenty North Carolina bands played Austin this year, composing one of the strongest geographic contingents at this year’s 96-hour-plus marathon.
But tonight–at this clamorous, ribald parting shot of a party–it’s Wolfmother’s show, completely. Wolfmother is an Australian trio that was one of the buzz bands at this year’s SXSW, and tonight their slinky Sabbath blues storms infinitely louder than the rainwater slapping down on the building’s tin walls. The ZZ Top cover band Tres Hombres pushes the party into the late night, most of the crowd sticking around to see if rumors of a Billy Gibbons guest spot are true (they’re not). And, in the next room on the dance floor, my doppelganger apparent–James Fucking Friedman–is making white kids in indie rock bands or with industry connections feel like they can dance (they can’t).
It’s fitting that one of my last South by Southwest memories involves prominent use of the word fucking, because, mostly, that is the vinyl siding to South by Southwest’s musical timber. And I mean that in every way. Friday night, walking up Red River Road from the festivals’ Sixth Street epicenter to my Eleventh Street hotel, I actually see two people fucking as hundreds more walk by, stopping and gawking for an instant, at least. The two are completely naked, on the hood of a dirty Ford Mustang, the car–Creak! Creak! Creak!–making its own pendulum music. That sounds strange, but–given the Sixth Street scene–it’s expected. People parade up and down the street, women in bras and too-tight jeans, dudes staring at everything more like it’s a Texas livery than a live music festival. It’s like the whole of Mardi Gras is in Austin, kids and tourists and adults gone wild. For four days in March, downtown Austin looks (and sounds) like sex.
But it’s not just carnal knowledge quests that the seven-letter gerund implies with SXSW. For those four days, the music industry becomes a conspicuous, conscious phallus, hoping to fertilize the thousands of ears that flock to Austin with their sounds and products. It’s a capitalist clusterfuck that happens to promote some of the most creative artists in the world. The official leg of SXSW programming begins at 8 p.m. every night and ends at 2 a.m., but the daytime hours are clogged with bustling parties sponsored by record labels, magazines, Web sites and a range of businesses from car manufacturers to shoe companies. Each party attempts to pack its schedule with the best bands. People come for the music and leave with bags and pockets full of promotional product. Former Wu-Tang emcee Ghostface Killah landed on the cover of the latest issue of New York’s Fader. In exchange, the Fader street team spends four days in Austin hanging giant Ghostface posters on light poles (handy promotion for his upcoming album), and Ghostface headlines the last slot of Fader‘s four-day, RSVP-only party (heady advertisement for Fader). Did you know that some people consider sex nothing more than assisted masturbation?
The bands get the metaphorical shaft, to boot. Just consider: Each band is one of at least 1,500 acts, a shot in the dark, a face in a crowd constantly vying with 60 other bands on 60 other stages for a sliver of attention. And they probably won’t get rich playing SXSW (some may get signed), and they won’t get a lot of playing time–25 to 40 minutes, at best.
“Too much music, too little time. Imagine that we came all the way to Texas to play for 40 minutes,” said a beyond-flustered Isobel Campbell at the end of the most pitiful set I saw this year, two days after the former Belle & Sebastian bandmates played a two-hour set at Stubb’s Bar-B-Q, one of Austin’s biggest clubs. You had to feel bad for Campbell, decked for Texas in short denim shorts, cowgirl boots and a big, silver eagle belt-buckle. She also happened to be very right.
But, somehow, this spectacle of sounds, spectators and sex works in a big way. I let OM–a San Francisco two-piece metal band–blow my mind by wrapping a simple melody into a huge drone, and Holy Fuck–a Canadian four-piece substituting an old 35mm film synchronizer for turntables–became my new favorite band. Originators of the ’60s and ’70s avant-garde scene like Tony Conrad, Rhys Chatham and Arnold Dreyblatt conducted metaphorical music classes in a Presbyterian church, and Wu-Tang, the Beastie Boys, the Flaming Lips and Gang of Four all made less-than-announced appearances.
Then again, unless you were in The Police, what’s four days of friction without the occasional orgasm?