I get a facebook message from Craig Oliver asking if I want to go to SXSW with him: a 22-hour drive from San Diego to Austin, both ways, to promote his label, Volar Records. We don’t have badges, don’t know where we’re staying, but says he’ll figure it out when we get there.
He sends me the message two days before we’re supposed to leave.
“What do you think?” I ask my wife, Jessica. “It’s kind of short notice and I know Craig, but I don’t KNOW know him. Plus, I got plenty of stuff I need to do.”
Jessica, newly-tanned from a week-long cruise—a Girls’ Trip but one I couldn’t afford anyway—looks at me with disbelief. “Things to do?” she says. “Like what?”
She has a right to be incredulous. I’ve spent our entire married life—about six months—unemployed.
I’ve gotten weird.
I justify not leaving the house so I can finish my Black Metal screenplay. I eat an abundance of apples and apple-flavored Nature Valley Bars to somehow compensate for my lack of exercise. Upon Jessica’s return from the cruise, she found all our reusable grocery bags in the fridge.
“You should go,” she says. “It’ll be a better opportunity than any listing posted on craigslist this week.”
This is her really nice way of saying: you need to get the fuck out of the house.
I’m 27, married and this is the first time I’ve been on tour. Really, I thought my window had closed. I spent my teens in a pop-punk band called The Flare whose claim to fame was playing the band in the made-for-TV Disney movie The Poof Point (I’m credited as “Ryan”). These factors do not add up to the romanticized sleeping-on-couches/playing-in-basements aspects of touring that I craved so much. Simply, there’s nothing punk about The Poof Point.
Our touring “band” is me, Oliver and Peter Holslin, music editor for the San Diego CityBeat. A car full of music-writers and musicians makes for a strange dynamic, like giving your assassin a ride to your execution.
Not that I’m really a music writer. In my 20s, I spent nearly three years writing about music for the numerous publications until I became burnt-out on it. At first, I found it fun to live vicariously through these bands I interviewed, sort of an extension of my own failed musical career. But there were only so many times I could listen to a band talk about our great-but-underappreciated scene. I hated rewarding mediocrity because it was “local.” I ran out of adjectives (writers should be allotted the word “blistering” once a year).
Before I leave, I send a few emails to some of my old contacts, telling them that I’m going to be at SXSW, seeing if they need coverage. Only one person gets back to me, telling that they already have someone down there. When Holslin asks who I’m providing coverage for, I say, “Oh, I have a couple places I could send it to…” and trail off.
Oliver and Holslin love music. It sounds like a really stupid claim, but I know tons of people that are into music that don’t really love it. I’ve recently recognized that quality in myself, and it’s utterly dismaying. I sit in the back seat and listen to them gush about local artists and I can’t think of an album I’ve bought in the last five years that would make my Desert Island list. It feels like the last time I was truly interested in something was the ’92 Barcelona Dream Team, and that was when I was eight. I spend my days listening to the punk I was into when I was 16: Hot Water Music, Jawbreaker, Refused, Samiam, etc.
I love Holslin’s enthusiasm, especially. His excitement about everything is earnest and sincere, almost to the point that, if you didn’t know he doesn’t drink or use drugs, you’d swear he were high. “Whoa man. This groove is… killer!” And he’ll often punctuate his enthusiasm with repeating the phrase, albeit in a cooler way: “This groove is total killage”. He’ll nod, then I’ll nod, because yes the groove is killer. He also doesn’t have a driver’s license, which he doesn’t tell us until his after he’s already started driving.
Soft Riot is a band from the UK that Oliver wants to sign to Volar Records. He plays a track called “Your Secret Light Shines At Night”. It’s a brooding, minimalist electronic track punctuated by horror organ (horrgan?). It’s hypnotic, terrifying and puts me in a trance as I-10 races under us.
It’s 3 AM and we’ve just spent the last half-hour talking about ghosts and aliens. Oliver and Holslin fall asleep. The music sends a chill down my arms. I’m sure West Texas is haunted and I’m ready for all the highway ghosts to show themselves.
We arrive at Trailer Space Records around 3:30 pm. I’ve had roughly 4 hours of sleep in the last 24 hours. The day is overcast and muggy. It’s my first time in Austin. The air holds me.
It’s only two minutes into Austin and we’re already drinking. A Burger Records showcase is going on at Trailer Space Records, where kids smoke openly inside and there are two massive tubs of icy Lone Stars that await us. Oliver immediately knows everyone there. I trail behind him like a quiet satellite, awkward and increasingly disheveled. Everyone talks music and I don’t have anything to add to the conversation—a sidekick with the occasional one-liner.
Burger Records is home to a slew of bands including Nobunny, The Oh Sees, and Jacuzzi Boys. They have (by my count) at least 4 all-day showcases happening during SXSW and might be the most important thing happening in punk rock right now—a grand presumption that I come to after my fourth free beer. One of Oliver’s “Rules of SXSW” is that you can only drink cheap beer to keep the stamina up (actually, the only rule). I watch The Cosmonauts play some hard-driving garage rock, the staple sound of Burger.
I take a picture of my Lone Star and text it to Jessica. I tell her we should move to Austin. She replies: “So free beer but no free abortions? I’ll think about it.” I find this hilarious and laugh out loud.
I get sidetracked into talking with a wiry fellow named 4AM, who got his name from the time-slot he used to begin his electronic music sets in Europe. He’s drunk and wishes they had a Lasik surgery that would let him read his cellphone better when he’s intoxicated.
Somehow it’s gotten dark and we leave Trailer Space to go downtown. Holslin heads off to get his official SXSW badge, given to him through the CityBeat. Oliver and I go to the Sacred Bones showcase at the Elysium to see Zola Jesus, Wymond Miles and The Men, but not before eating a sausage wrapped in a tortilla. They call that barbeque in Texas. We eat them in an ally adjacent to the Fiona Apple line that stretches around the block. A girl passing us looks at the line and says “We’re lucky we don’t get excited for popular things.”
This is what I tell Oliver outside the Elysium: “I don’t have a problem with music, I have a problem with how it’s written about. The example I think of is the last Kanye West album. Yes, It was good, but after the perfect scores given to it by Rolling Stone and Pitchfork, music writers had this obligation to become more elaborate in their praise. Because nobody is doing anyone a favor—music writers like music, sure, but they’re writing to get read. And in some cases, they use their vitriol or praise—
—they use their vitriol to build their own cult of self. You see this kind of local-god stuff in a lot alt-weeklies and radio-personalities. Cantankerous writers who emphasize their own agenda over the music they write about the worst thing to happen to whatever credibility music journalism has left. Anyway, so these writers are piling praise after praise on this Kanye West album so their take on it will stand out from the pool of other blogs. While it was a good album, it wasn’t nearly as great as everyone said it was. Everyone wanted their voice to be heard. In essence, it’s not that music has become boring, but it has become a victim to those who write about it.”
I don’t remember what Oliver said to prompt that.
You can’t buy beer in at Austin grocery stores after midnight. I don’t know why we’re looking for more; I have to walk around just to keep from falling asleep. We end up back near Trailer Space—a few kids hang out in the parking lot. There’s a bar around the corner and rapper Danny Brown is playing to about 50 people there. And we only came for the beer.
I wake up on a hardwood floor in a single-room apartment. It’s nearly 1 PM. I don’t sleep this well in beds. Oliver sleeps beside me a leather love seat too small for him. His body remains straight and he looks like a surf board.
The apartment belongs to Clarke Wilson, a member of Burger Records’ The Vomettes and Volar Records’ Cowabunga Babes. He’s very welcoming and has the soft features of a Shel Silverstein drawing. He buys us breakfast tacos which look surprisingly like burritos. I learn that that’s what they’re called in Austin.
Wilson also lives within walking distance to Spider House, a woodsy, sprawling indoor/outdoor coffee shop and bar that reminds me vaguely of an Ewok village. Oliver turns around and tells me that this is where Psyche Fest is going on. We pass four stages before entering an inconspicuous door that seems that it should be hidden by a bookcase. The room is dark; the stage is lit red. The air-conditioning and the coffee I drink make me feel good. Alive again.
LA band Cold Showers plays. Afterwards, Oliver asks me if I want a beer. I suppose it’s about that time.
When Jessica told me that she was going on a cruise, I bought David Foster Wallace’s collection of essays A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. In the titular essay, Foster Wallace spends a week on the exact same cruise that Jessica was going on. It’s a fantastic portrait of a mind that loves low culture but cannot connect to it without intellectualizing it. He spends pages breaking down the cruise’s brochure but throws a fit when a 9-year-old beats him at chess. Most of his problems with the cruise seem to come from his own neurosis.
I’m thinking about this essay when during a Mikal Cronin set featuring Ty Segal, who is absolutely killing it on guitar while ollying on a skateboard. Everybody looks mildly amused. Everybody crosses arms over their beer bellies. Everybody has beer bellies and concave shoulders from hunching over computers. They have spotty facial hair and unflattering, long hair that only accentuates their balding. All the girls have bangs. They all thumb the screens on their smartphones. These are the bloggers that control the fates of these bands.
Jesus, I think. Why can’t they just have fun?
Here’s a list of everything I eat on the trip:
– 2 In N Out Burgers/fries/sodas
– Egg/sausage burrito
– Bag of assorted chips (snack mix)
– Starbucks doubleshot
– Sausage rolled in tortilla (bbq)
– 2 bags of fritos
– 1 sausage/egg breakfast taco, 2 chorizo breakfast tacos
– 7 slices of pizza
– Pack of donettes
– Bag of mini Nutter Butters
– Shredded beef bbq sandwhich
– Huevos rancheros
That night, we go to see Thee Oh Sees at a genuine wood mill. The space is large and only a quarter filled. Signs everywhere tell you to not smoke, but a group in the parking lot has started a bonfire which, in addition to the playground climbing dome out here, makes it feel like a Mad Max movie. A fire marshal patrols the perimeter, anxiously eating trail mix out of a baggie. He seems to be hired by the show-organizers to cover their asses, but he looks like he’s in over his head. As a shirtless man fans the bonfire with a large piece of cardboard, he visually measures the distance between the fire and the wood-mill before walking away. He picks his battles; surely an intervention would cause an uprising of Lord of the Flies magnitude.
Fancy beer cools in orange, industrial hampers, free for the taking. We’re on our second or third when Oliver begins talking about girls.
Craig Oliver might be the most out-going person I’ve met in San Diego. He loves meeting people and making friends, but he never forces himself upon you. Shadowing him, I get the sense that he’s a superstar in Austin—taking and giving hugs to everyone, dishing out warm heeey buddys by the boatload.
But Oliver has a dark side, and Volar Records couldn’t be a more apt reflection of it. Volar has two taglines that exemplify this duality: “Community Not Competition” and “Give Me Your Weird.” Volar’s arguably most-famous bands, The Beaters and Ale Mania, are punk bands with slight garage-rock leanings, which gives lazy music writers the excuse to categorize Volar as a punk/garage label. Going through Volar’s catalog, however, I find that every band is considerably darker and meaner than anything Burger puts out. In my opinion, The Beater’s Fishage album could give anything put out by Steve Albini a run for its money. That doesn’t even count the gothic psych sound of Oliver’s own band, Spirit Photography.
Actually, we’re not talking about girls, we’re talking about the gym. It’s a casual topic I bring up during one of my drunken fits of body-anxiety and the fact that these Lone Stars are doing nothing for my unemployed physique.
“No, I’ve never joined a gym,” he says. “But there was a few years ago where I went through this break-up and I just began running. I wasn’t even that overweight. I would run like four miles a day. Not even for the exercise, just to keep me from going crazy. I lost like 20 pounds.” He goes on about close relationships that destruct once the prospect of commitment enters. He talks of just wanting somebody to watch movies and have breakfast with. We talk about parents. We talk about the dark shit that we’re attracted to—the music, the books we read. A disjointed conversation rooted in commitment and beer. We’re looking for what the other has: two different connections, but connections all the same.
We watch a band called the K-Holes destroy. We leave to meet up with Holslin at a funnel cake stand. He tells us that the Tom Morello secret performance turned out to be a bust. “It was a bust, man,” he says. “A major, total bust.”
The Volar/Burger showcase is an all-day event that takes place at The Grand, a pool hall in the center of a dilapidated strip mall. The façade looks suspiciously retro-future, or like the helmet that Shredder wore in the Ninja Turtle cartoons. The space is massive; the bands are tucked into the corner, next pinball machines (Tales from the Crypt, Addams Family) and in front of the glass exit, which makes taking decent pictures impossible.
Everyone has the disgruntled/tired look that comes partying from two days straight. I drink luke-warm coffee from the bar, anxious about a phone interview I’m about to have. It’s a marketing position for a company that sells Astroturf—the main responsibilities are spreading the brand’s image through social media and other campaigns. I’ve come up with a mock campaign to send along with my resume that I won’t get into detail here, but if “Turf Wars” ever becomes a thing, you’ll know where it came from.
I get the call. The interviewer asks me what my interests are. Specifically, she asks why I’m passionate about social media. It’s a tough question. I stutter and grasp for what I like about internet blogging, facebook, twitter, whatever. She stops me and says “I think there’s a poor connection.” I find a place where she can hear me and tell her that I like engaging with online communities.
The Stalins of Sound are a three-piece synth-punk band who plays to a drum machine. They wear black, quasi-Fascist uniforms and scream, but after two days of listening white-dudes-with-guitars-rock, the sound is incredibly refreshing. A drunk guy in a “Wasted Youth” shirt and an orange hat forms a one-man mosh pit, jumping and kicking on the slippery tile. He leaves once they are done.
Comfort returns as a country band with cute girls plays next.
With so many people paying attention to their smartphones, it’s very easy to cut in line everywhere you go. I learn this from my friend Nick, who doesn’t wait in line. I play along because these are the kind of places I’d rather die than wait in line for: dance clubs, sports bars and rooftop bars.
I’ve known Nick since high school and have seen him off and on since. He lives in Austin now and gets in touch after he knew I was coming to SXSW. He calls me around 9—Oliver’s pool hall showcase still has 5 hours left—and asks if I want to go downtown with him to 6th Street.
While we drive, he tells me that he moved to Austin to get away from a girl. He tells me of a marriage that didn’t work out. He moved to Austin to disconnect.
We push our way into a shitty dance club called Barcelona to meet up with a potential hookup for him. We end up doing shots of tequila, clearly breaking Oliver’s cheap beer rule. The girl Nick came to meet shuts him down. She’s not very attractive; Nick doesn’t seem all too upset.
6th Street is filled like Mardi Gras. Kids take their shirts off and challenge each other to fights while tourists take pictures.
We end up on the roof of a bar called either The Green Pig or Maggie Mae’s. The crowd here is considerably more attractive than at the rock shows, but in the kind of way that you’d see in Vegas or the Gaslamp, San Diego. Everything feels disingenuous. Bartenders keep their tips without offering change. Everyone grinds each other while a man with a shitty pork-pie hat butchers a rendition of Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” Every band I see on this main drag wears a hat of this variety, and they all look like terrible versions of Smashmouth. I have a feeling that this is why the majority of people come to SXSW: drinking, mostly. But also boring bands, skanky girls and side-boob.
He drops me off at a Wendys where I meet up with Oliver and Holslin. Holslin tells us all about how he ended up at a Norah Jones concert. “It was a weird, man. I’m not even a big fan. Someone in the audience asked her out on a date. What a dork.”
I can remember the first time I went in a mosh-pit. I was 15 years old and watching a melodic punk band called Ten Foot Pole. They were opening up for Millencolin on a Punk-O-Rama tour. A band called Osker opened up for them. I watched from the back as the crowd moved and pumped their fists in unison. I pushed my way through and was picked up and thrown to the other side as someone caught me. That was more than ten years ago.
I think about it as I watch Peter Case and Paul Collins from The Nerves play Burger’s Spider House Showcase. It’s our last night in town.
Before they go on, guys with sacks of foil-wrapped burgers launch them into a hungry crowd. Nothing could make more sense. Bill Murray walks onstage to announce the band. He asks the crowd if anyone would like some pretzels before claiming we are all in Burger Heaven. The crowd pushes to get a photo of him. It feels revelatory.
Case and Collins play classics I didn’t even know I loved: “Hanging on a Telephone,” “Don’t Wait Up for Me Tonight,” and “A Million Miles Away,” one of my dad’s favorite songs and seems laced with meaning. I text Jessica: #imissyou. Hashtag jokes are our thing. I get pushed further into the crowd as people go crazy for these power-pop legends. They run through a catalog of The Nerves, The Beat, the Plimsouls songs—they look like they’ve never played such an eager audience. A mosh pit doesn’t break out, but people are holding each other, dancing. This tent is hot, humid and for the first time it feels like there isn’t a disconnect between band and audience. People are not watching critically. There’s no over-analysis; nobody is holding their iphones up—this will not be a video on youtube anytime soon. This is the community that can only exist in music.
30 hours later, I wash the jambalaya out of my jeans.