South By Southwest (SXSW), the music industry festival behemoth in Austin, Texas where deals are made and bands are lapped by for gigs and the next stage of their careers, is well into announcing its hundreds of bands to play the festival in March.
In among them, is a healthy dose of Irish acts who were picked to play: 14 in total, ranging from the established to emerging:
Chris Hanna and Gemma Dunleavy aka UNKNWN have come out behind the shroud and were very much in focus at recent appearances in NYC and SXSW Festival. This short documentary by SixteenPixels follows the pair in America on that trip, ahead of their forthcoming EP on Champion Sounds Recordings, the preview of what I’ve heard has been really tasty.
If you weren’t already aware of the significance of South By SouthWest (SXSW), the shorthand goes like this: thousands of bands and artists at all levels in their careers come to Austin, Texas for a week in March after the tech industry has done its business the week before. They come to SXSW to be seen, to make deals, to spread the word about their music and to further their career.
In some cases, larger acts like Jay-Z, Kanye and Lady Gaga pick up the big cheques (sorry, checks, we are in America after all) and while there were a lot of mid-to-top level artists like St. Vincent, Damon Albarn, Cee Lo Green, Kendrick Lamar and err, Spandau Ballet in Austin last week, my focus, as it has been for the last six South Bys is on new music. Seeing an upcoming artist playing live for the first time is one of the main reasons I come here.
A bit of housekeeping: You can find out how the Irish got in with two pieces in print just published: Heathers and The Strypes at SXSW in Irish Independent’s Day and Night Mag last Friday. My interview with Hozier was in the Sunday Times Culture. He was blowing up at SXSW last week. Finally, there is a ton of daily updates from me to be found at Red Bull Ireland too.
Here are the 15 best sets I enjoyed in a sensory-overloading fatiguing but ultimately supremely rewarding SXSW.
American indie music’s best kept secret for the last ten odd years will be familiar to Irish audiences due to Foggy Notions bringing them to Dublin for a few times over that period. A timely reminder of the band’s live prowess was provided by the Baltimore band’s appearance on Late Night With Letterman a few weeks ago where singer Samuel T. Herring put in a towering magnetising PERFORMANCE of realness that included teary-eyed facial contortions, air-punching stage delivery, a voice that went from yearning wedding singer to a growling gutteral metal band craw, crab-like meme-friendly dancing and in ‘Seasons (Waiting On You)’, one of their most anthemic songs yet.
Their synth-pop music, especially new album Singles is pleasing, a career-best release from a live band at their best. In Cheer Up Charlie’s (formerly Club Deville) for the 4AD Showcase, the band codify all of these things into a lightning set.
Herring encourages crowd surfing and gives as much as he gets in terms of compliments. The set was such a feelgood masterclass, I hope performers were taking notes. A masterclass in music and showmanship.
2. Glass Animals
Some bands leave such a good impression you have to see them again. Of all the artists at SXSW, Oxford’s Glass Animals sound like the band most in waiting to hit a bigger level of popularity. They might be English but their alternative R&B music has a definite American swagger to it. Alt-J R&B, the journo part of my brain kept thinking.
Crucially, they already have songs that sound like people just need to hear to get on board with – ‘Gooey’, ‘Black Mambo’ and ‘Psylla” in particular. The two shows I caught, the band were meticulously prepared and their music intricately played. Their Harvest Records showcase set suffered from poor sound (as did everyone that night with the PA cutting out for every artist) but their last set of SXSW in Holy Mountain was a precursor of larger things to come.
Firstly, Sophie is a guy from the UK, not a girl at all. But there were other diverting things happening on stage during the Sophie set at The Hype Machine’s Hype Hotel that set my brain off the wall and my feet off the floor. Sophie’s electronic music is as modern as you can get: a unique tapestry that takes in threads of Rustie-style hyperactivity, zippy electro synthesizer lines, high-pitched female vocals and rap samples. Where Saint Pepsi and Cashmere Cat throw all of their influences in the mix, Sophie’s creates a symphonic digital experience that bounces off the walls in its own language. It’s a divisive sound that’s like listening to a kids TV theme song derailed by amphetamines.
The only long queue outside a venue during SXSW for me, occurred outside the Empire Automotive Garage, an actual car garage that had a reduced capacity that leant itself to such occurences. In the case of Kelela though, the line was warranted, the LA singer has teamed up with some of the most sonically inventive future music producers including Nguzunguzu, Jam City, Kingdom and Bok Bok.
Kelela’s voice on her own is honey-dripped, akin to Janet Jackson in tone. Those outsourced productions create stuttering bass-rattling synth jams for her voice to ride and it results in an atmospheric club music that transcends the plain surrounds. The music was suspended above our heads and encased us in laser-guided sonic comforts.
Jillian Banks’ performance at Haven for the Harvest Records showcase was one of the first of the week at South By. A series of excellent alternative R&B pop singles had already established Banks as one of the most exciting new artists around.
Like Kelela, she has outsourced beats from TEED, Sohn and Shlohmo. All the songs so far share a monochromatic sombre feel. Banks uses that vibe as a starting point to emote in full colour with her bellowing and sometimes wailing voice.
Most obvious from her set, was that Banks’ performance style has endearing. The nerves were clear but she was steely-eyed and gutsy in her delivery. There are relieving smiles after the first few songs as if a large hurdle has been crossed.
In songs like ‘Warm Water’, ‘Brain, ‘Waiting Game” and ‘Fall Over’, she has an embarrassment of great songs that people were already singing back at her and a new song from the forthcoming debut album was of the same calibre.
Photo: James Goulden. So, as an Irish music person who goes to gigs regularly, I’ve seen Hozier four times since his ascension into a global concern (read my interview with him in the Sunday Times from March 23rd). It’s been a startlingly rapid rise and one that has knocked lesser musicians into career oblivion.
The answer to whether Hozier’s move into mainstream acceptance was too soon was plain to see in at the Communion Records showcase in St David’s Historic Sanctuary. Mr Hozier-Byrne has stepped up his live game significantly. Before he was shy and gangly looking, in Austin he was commanding and charming. He lead his seven-piece band where he had fronted them before, and when the song required a solo performance he was able to keep focus.
The new songs reveal a deeper connection to Delta and Chicago blues with bottleneck swamp guitar and a “howling at your door” outlook. Hozier played six or so shows in Austin and was on the tip of many tongues. Local radio was playing Take Me To Church and there was a deserved buzz around him.
There’s a glimpse of what may come in St. David’s Historic Sanctuary as the seated crowd hung on every sweetly sung Bill Withers-esque syllable.
Last night was the first official night of SXSW Music and Capitol subsidiary Harvest Records put on an impressive night of their artist roster including Young & Sick, Arthur Beatrice, Glass Animals and The Preatures. Most of the crowd present were there for Jillian Banks’ and her brooding atmospheric R&B.
Her set was damn impressive. Banks managed to convey the intensity of her songs. You believe her performance, which was her first festival set ever. So you can feel her nervousness, her resolve, her belief, her relief when people react as she hopes and her growing strength and comfort as the set continued. Aside from ‘Warm Water’, the clear crowd favourite last night, ‘Brain’, the recent Shlohmo-produced single has a gut-punching wailing soulful force to it live. I’m excited for this girl’s future and debut album after last night.
Update: Damien Rice, Cian Nugent and Kid Karate added.
The music industry’s standard bacchanalia that is South By Southwest (SXSW), has announced its third round of bands to play and among them are a lot of the Irish acts confirmed to play the Austin festival during March.
International acts playing include Woman’s Hour, Chloe Howl, London Grammar, Dum Dum Girls, East India Youth, NONONO, Gardens & Villa, Ryan Hemsworth, Twin Shadow, Sharon Van Etten, Wave Racer, Young Fathers, Arthur Beatrice, Black Lips, EMA, Future Islands, Gary Numan, Prides, Royal Blood, Wolf Alice, Avi Buffalo, Vance Joy and thousands more.P Diddy is a featured speaker.
Here’s video proof of why Death Grips’ Boiler Room SXSW show was one of my best of the festival. Their 32 minute set was delivered from the middle of a warehouse and it was a gut punching thrilling set which featured giant pills, MC Ride goading and inciting the audience in his rapid lunatic style, Zach Hill playing live over Skype (at least it looked/felt like it was live) and Flatlander running the show behind two big iMacs. And those big goggles? We’ve already seen the footage of that with the ‘Lock Your Hands’ video. April 29th in Whelan’s (now sold out) is going to be something else.
In a post on Hypebot I read yesterday, Robin Davey lamented the current state of the SXSW music industry festival:
And this was the problem with SXSW, everything was too preplanned, every secret show careful scripted and sponsored, and no publicity opportunity missed.
The Boiler Room performance was announced while many were in Austin for the festival a couple of days before and despite Boiler Room getting Ray Ban on board to make this Warehouse gig happen (it also featured Lunice, Skream, Baauer, Mount Kimbie and RL Grime), Death Grips’ set still felt punk as fuck in the face of all the above. That’s just how they roll.
When I’m asked why I go to Austin for South By Southwest, the answer is basically: to see as many new bands as possible. The festival features over 2000 bands playing over 10 days so I try take in as much as I can. You can see/read myself, Una Mullally, Finian Murphy and 45 Sound’s SXSW coverage over at Red Bull Ireland including some video interviews and sessions.And pick up Day & Night on Friday for an interview from SXSW with Little Green Cars from myself. On with the good stuff…
This year was my fourth South By South West and before I left for Austin, I was apprehensive about the festival’s status as a relevant music event in its 26th year. Over 2,000 bands visit the Texas capital to try and advance their careers and I wondered why they bothered anymore? Was there actually worth in them playing? Any band who travel the large distance must have a profile, a buzz or are there to strike a deal on Texas soil to make it really worth their while. Bands that travel on blind faith and hope that something will happen for them are delusional and hopefully few and far between these days.
For me, SXSW is a festival that I go to for new music and the opportunity to gorge on it over five or six days. This year a a giant vending machine made the news, commercialism was rampant, Jay-Z playing a gig to credit card customers, Springsteen gave a (mighty) keynote speech while Kanye, Jack White and Skrillex all packed in venues. At the same time, you’ve got an art gallery playing host to a hippy-leaning label showcase, the Boiler Room broadcasting leftfield electronica from a backyard out of town, bands busking on the street and industry chasing the buzz for their own benefit. It’s contradictory, crass, nothing and everything all at once and that means that SXSW is just a pop-up macrocosm of the music industry as a whole.