SXSW: Aussies in Austin
One of the biggest music festivals in the world, South By Southwest has its fair share of Aussie bands on the bill. Others just turn up.
Cowboy boots, ten-gallon hats, rodeo belt buckles and western shirts. Crew cuts above red necks and big blonde hair-helmets towering over the finest plastic surgery Houston oil money can buy. Local wranglers spit tobacco on the saw-dusted floors and hassle the long-haired musicians playing in the corner: “Hey, you ladies come here often?”
Ah, Texas, where the homemade jalapeno wine can rot the shell off an armadillo and the main talk at the mesquite barbecue is about the calibre of each deer rifle in the gun rack and the size of the perfect boot knife.
So why would over three dozen Australian bands travel 30,000 kilometers round trip this March to the Lone Star State in an effort to put themselves on the international musical roadmap? South By Southwest, arguably the world’s premier music industry event that takes place each year in the decidedly non-international state of Texas.
South By Southwest started in 1987 as a music festival, the brainchild of the publishers and staffers of the Austin Chronicle newspaper. Originally founded to promote Austin music to the world, now the world’s musicians travel to Austin to promote themselves. South By Southwest now includes the SxSW Film Conference and Festival and the SxSW Interactive Conference, which for the first time this year sold more passes than the SxSW Music Conference and Festival.
Although Texas may seem like an odd place for it all to take place, the city of Austin is a perfect fit. For years now, Austin has been home to more original music nightclubs than any other city in the world. In a vast wasteland of cattle ranges, oil refineries and Republican-voting good ol’ boys, the city has distinguished itself as a music-centric, cultural mecca. Two centuries ago, the town’s colonial German and Mexican roots helped established beer, bordellos, tequila and accordions as cornerstones of the local economy. When Austin became the capitol of the Republic of Texas, an independent nation that existed from 1836 to 1846, money flowed in and the nightlife boomed. Free-flowing whiskey, working girls and unique music – an odd melding of ¾-time polkas, accordions and gut string guitars – were the precedents of what the city of 800,000 is today. The ubiquitous saloons around Sixth Street, which once provided comfort and distraction to ranch hands, caballeros, soldiers, politicians and their cattle baron patrons, are where bands now perform during South By Southwest. Colonel George Custard’s regiment spent their last days of rest and relaxation in these same dives before riding off to their final unhappy hunting ground.
Modern day Texas is, more or less, a part of the United States and Austin is still its capital and its biggest college party town. Every year in March, Australian bands and music industry types descend upon Austin like a swarm of locusts, joining well over 2000 other bands from around the world buzzing down the same migratory path. Most of the Australian bands perform at The Aussie BBQ, an event put on by Stagemothers and Sounds Australia (see sidebar). This year, the show featured 36 bands on three stages at a venue called Maggie Mae’s, which is housed in the same buildings that were favourite Austin watering holes as far back as the 1850s.
I went to Austin this year to find out what motivated these enterprising Australians to undertake such an epic journey and whether it had been worth the effort of marking Austin, Texas, on their road maps to international success. First I spoke with Tim Johnston, who made the trip with Vaudeville Smash, a band of Melbourne-based “yacht rockers” who created quite a buzz (and plenty of “WTF?”) while in Austin. Tim teaches technical production at RMIT in Melbourne and he’s a whizz-bang-how’s-your-voltage-this-morning studio engineer. I first met Tim in Melbourne a few years back, when we were handing each other studio batons during a tag-team album project. It was a nice surprise to bump into him on a jam-packed Austin street.
Contact Jonathan Burnside at www.jonathanburnside.com
Check out the bands above at:
A VAUDEVILLIAN SMASH
Jonathan Burnside: So what inspired you to come all the way across the world to attend South By Southwest Tim?
Tim Johnston: I’ve been working with Vaudeville Smash in the studio in Melbourne and when they asked me to come along to South By Southwest, I looked at the invitation as a chance to hang out with a bunch of talented and amusing guys at an incredibly vibrant and highly regarded music festival. South By Southwest not only has innumerable bands from around the world, it also attracts the representatives of record companies, promoters and publishers. It’s a great promotional and networking opportunity for bands and audio professionals alike. It also offers a different view into the music industry than you’d get from Australia: one where everything operates on a far larger and more professional level and where music is looked upon as a serious business.
JB: Besides sucking up food, air and beer, what was your exact role on the trip?
TJ: My role ended up being one of lending a hand in whatever way possible to make the whole experience for the band run as smoothly as possible. This meant driving the van to and from the gigs so the band didn’t have to worry about having a few drinks. I helped load the gear in and out and took photos and videos of performances. I gave instructions to the in-house FOH engineers and cued them on upcoming vocals, vocoder bits and instrumental solos. Yacht Rock may sound like a summer breeze, but it relies on seamless production.
JB: What were the highs and lows of the journey?
TJ: There were no real lows because we all worked together to keep things positive. Driving from LA to Austin in a minivan that barely fits eight people and luggage, even after serious Tetris-type packing, is certainly not for the faint of heart. It could be a recipe for disaster for many bands. Luckily this band is a tight-knit bunch of people and it turned out to be a hilarious trip through some absolutely spectacular country. But we did lose the lead singer in Las Vegas for a night. Eventually he resurfaced, although his wallet still hasn’t.
JB: Any advice you would offer to other Australians who might be planning to attend South By Southwest?
TJ: Triple-check the band’s equipment and all cartage arrangements. The shipping company we were using to get the gear to the US messed up on the paperwork so our back-line never left the Melbourne airport. We didn’t find this out until we arrived in Los Angeles and we experienced some high anxiety at that point. But, luckily, Austin is a music town so we were able to rent everything our show required there, even though it meant our guitarist had to sleep in the rental place’s parking lot all night to insure a spot at the front of the line when the shop opened. Apparently, there were a lot of other bands with the same problem!
BOAT PEOPLE IN AMERICA
I also caught up with Robin Waters, who was my very dedicated second engineer during the recording of Dan Sultan’s ARIA-winning album Get Out While You Can. Robin’s Brisbane-based band, The Boat People, had just played a smoking set at the Aussie BBQ, and I figured I’d hit him with some questions while he was still hot.
Jonathan Burnside: What inspired you to take the effort to get the band over to SXSW Robin?
Robin Waters: This is our fifth trip to the USA and our second to South By Southwest. We wanted to come back here to introduce the people we work with here to our new album, Dear Darkly. South By Southwest tied in well with that.
JB: What’s the major difference you’ve observed between Australia and the US, music business-wise?
RW: The sheer scale is much greater in the US – just the actual number of people involved. Generally people are very positive here and there is much less of a tall poppy syndrome than back home in Oz. But as a caveat, I’ve seen a lot of Australian bands coming over who have done well in Australia by sounding American or like a particular successful American act. Those bands aren’t going to do well in the US because they won’t stand out from what’s already here. It’s hard to sell ice to the Eskimos.
JB: If you were going to chart your trip as a profit and loss statement, what would the bottom line be?
RW: The trip itself would probably be a slight financial loss. But the film and TV syncs that we’ve picked up from all our trips would take us into profit territory. Some of the great government support programs that are available to Australian bands have really helped us as well. That’s definitely something American bands don’t receive!
I think the best result is that the trips have given us a better sense of what we need to do to make worthwhile music that stands out in the context of the whole world. It’s easy, as an Australian band, to get into the mentality of trying to live up to what people and the media in Australia are in the habit of looking for. But trying to give people what they are accustomed to not only limits the band creatively but also makes the band less interesting to anyone outside of the Australian environment.
JB: That’s a good point. You have to think internationally to be international. And that might not always make you a hero in your hometown. So how would you advise other bands considering taking the leap across the Pacific?
RW: As someone who makes music, it’s your responsibility to expand your horizons as much as possible. That means travelling, being inspired by new experiences and by meeting people who didn’t grow up with you and don’t hang out in the same inner-city clique as you. That said, I’m not sure I’d advise South By Southwest as your introduction to the US music business, if business is the sole criteria of your trip. Unless you’re doing well enough in Australia to have some serious buzz around your band, you should perhaps look into some other smaller festivals over here. CMJ Music Marathon in New York during October is a good first step, for instance.
But musically, all of these trips overseas have helped us obtain a better sense of who we are as well as giving us the confidence to follow through business-wise. We’ll continue to build this thing slowly – giving our music the opportunity to connect with people over here who are passionate enough about it to help us. And those we’ve met so far have been amazingly supportive and positive.
Sounds Australia is a national export initiative that aims to create a unified platform for Australian music at international music showcases and market events. It’s supported through a financial partnership between both Federal and State governments, along with music industry bodies such as APRA-AMCOS, PPCA and the Australian Music Industry Association (AMIN). To learn more about their efforts to bring Australian music to the world stage, check them out at: www.soundsaustralia.com.au.
After thanking Robin with a “nice talk, mate”, I left the Great Aussie BBQ and headed down Sixth Street, which, during South By Southwest, is closed off to traffic and is absolutely packed with music-goers. Through an open window of one of the smallish clubs that seem to line the street for miles, I saw a woman with multi-coloured hair smashing her kit like each drum was the captive head of a loser ex-boyfriend. That and the sign that read ‘Three Dollar Margaritas’ provided plenty incentive to get me through the door.
Drink in hand, I was basking in the noisy grunge/glam energy when the singer yelled out, “Thank you Austin! We’ve come all the way from Melbourne, Australia, to play for you and we’re having a blast!” I was surprised. The show wasn’t an official South By Southwest showcase, just one of the hundreds of events taking place each day and night free to the public – no wristband required. South By Southwest has taken on such a momentum that artists from around the globe head to Austin to take their places even without official showcase bookings. Every record store, dive bar, pizza joint, laundromat and pawn shop puts on sideshows on their retail floor or parking lot. I wondered whether this Aussie band had busked rather than BBQ’d their way to Austin.
After the show, I introduced myself to Melburnian siblings Kim and Pete Kicks, the drummer and guitarist/singer of Satellite Sky.
Jonathan Burnside: More Aussies! I had no idea where you were from when I wandered in. Your show wasn’t an official showcase. Does that mean you’ve come all this way on your own bat?
Pete Kicks: Yes. Being an independent band, we organised everything ourselves with no label, management or government support. We’d been over to the US before and made friends with the other bands we played with while we were here. They’ve been happy to lend us a hand and get these Austin shows, as well as dates in Arizona and Los Angeles.
JB: So you’re not ones just to fill out an application, lick a stamp and hope someone agrees to help you make your dreams come true?
Kim Kicks: We can make it to the post, but we’re not people who have the patience to wait for acceptance letters in the mail. The world is a big place and if you really believe in what you’re doing, don’t sit around waiting for someone else to approach you or fund you to come and play festivals like South By Southwest. We work, work and then we do more work. We go out there and make it happen for ourselves. We make sure our live show is at a level that will allow us to stand out from the crowd. The work pays off. Every venue we’ve played in The States has let us know we’re welcome back any time.
JB: What motivated you to do all this work to play at South By Southwest in particular?
KK: While some say size doesn’t matter, it really does in this instance. Almost everyone involved in the music industry in the US and most parts of the world are here representing. For us personally, the fact that all our shows were on Sixth Street definitely helped expose us to a wider audience. Most of the connections we made were quite random and involved people like yourself, who happened to be walking past the venue while we were playing and liked what they heard. As a band, it’s easy to get lost amongst the hundreds of other bands playing at that moment, so we were lucky that some of the stages we played opened onto Sixth Street and we were able to draw in crowds. Working with some good event promoters also helped. They were very supportive in creating a buzz around our shows.
JB: Having walked the walk, how would you advise intrepid Aussies considering such a move?
PK: I’d advise them to carry their passports when driving from L.A. to Austin. We didn’t. Unbeknownst to us, there was a US border control just outside of El Paso! We were detained at 7am in a small office in the middle of the desert until several phone calls were made verifying who we were. It was like some bad American movie. We were just wishing we weren’t the ones appearing in it.
JB: So what’s the tally? Do you believe the trip has paid off for you?
PK: Definitely. We’ve met awesome people and bands throughout the week. Several of the bands we played with have asked us to tour with them in the future and we’ve forged good working relationships. But it’s not really about an end result at the moment. We see it as a starting point for our band in the US. We received a really positive response from our shows and any time there’s an opportunity to play to crowds like in Austin, it reaffirms our desire to tour consistently and get our music out there. We’re definitely not going to sit on our arses waiting for someone else to do the work for us. And now we have several opportunities waiting that have since come our way as a result of playing at SxSW. It’s been well worth the work.
The Aussie BBQ claims to be the biggest Australian music festival outside of Australia. In 2003, two Melburnian music fans put together a South By Southwest showcase for some of their beloved Aussie bands and used an Australian-style BBQ as the theme. They’ve since grown into a collective called Stage Mothers that describes itself as being “a helping hand in showcasing Australian music to a global market.” Their Aussie BBQ shows are now mini festivals of Australian music around the world’s biggest music festivals. To date, Stage Mothers have showcased over two hundred Australian artists in four countries through Aussie BBQ shows. Their website is: www.stagemothers.com
ONE FOR THE ROAD
I said goodbye to Satellite Sky and limped off into the busy crowd. It had been a great week of music but rough at times. In an unsuccessful effort to pass myself off as local colour, I’d worn a pair of black cowboy boots on my first day of revelry in Austin. After a long afternoon session of listening and drinking, I crossed a cobblestone street with a friend who was by then literally and figuratively blind. His seeing eye dog bolted, now also blind having lapped up several Lone Star tallboys. I viciously twisted my ankle as the heel of my boot sank into a rut while trying to save my friend from a fall. As we hobbled to the corner, my friend (let’s call him John, because that’s his name), heard beats blasting from a boom box that belonged to a dozen Brooklyn rappers busting rhymes on the sidewalk. John promptly dropped his pants, showed them his third eye and yelled, “hip-hop sucks!” – an opinion I neither endorse nor agree with. The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You suddenly played in my head as everyone on the street glared at me as I tried to pull John’s pants up with one hand and grab for the drunken dog with the other. Ah, Texas! Well worth the trip.