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An Introduction to "NYNT Does SXSW 2006"

Pong at NYNT's Saturday Peacock party. Photo by Deb Pastor.

I didn’t go to South by Southwest to cover the festival for this site but to perform with my band Cause for Applause and showcase the bands on my new record label. Nonetheless I think the event in general and my experiences there are worthy of a little bit of ink (or pixels or webspace whatever you call the kind of dribble that ends up in online magazines such as this).


The Not-So-Good Old Days

I actually have quite a bit of prehistory with the festival. When I was a senior in high school I drove from Houston to check it out. I was in a little party-playing teen garage band and had no interest in the business – just wanted to check out some music. This was 1989 and SXSW was quite different. The event consisted of less than a quarter of the bands (345 to this year's 1,400) and the focus, as the name implied, was acts from the South and Southwest who were under-represented at bigger trade fair (well, that’s what these events are in essence, non?) – New York’s New Music Seminar. Almost everyone showcasing was either on an independent label or none at all. And we got in to see even the biggest of shows without a badge, or even a wristband. I think that all we wound up watching that year were Austin bands - which we mistakenly thought were cooler than Houston bands.

Official music biz debut - backyard anti-SXSW 1991. Anti-SXSW has come a long way - notice the Peavies and makeshift stage. Lyman Hardy topless, Greg Beets in white, and me in MC5 shirt

The next year I was at the University of Texas and a DJ on the college radio station – which wasn’t much of a station as KVRX and KOOP had not taken the air yet and we were exclusively available via cable and called KTSB (which was later rechristened KVRX). All of the DJ’s were required to donate hours to the fest. I wound up working the back door at my favorite venue, the only consistent game in town for undergroundy stuff at the time, the Cannibal Club. While I’m not sure if it was a legal job for an eighteen year-old, I’d been getting in free and drinking there for a few months so I doubt that anyone ever even thought twice about it. The next year I found myself working at the Ritz, a some-times punk venue that was typically closed. One of my favorite bands growing up – The Hickoids – who were incidentally one of the only ones that deserved the frequently misused label “cowpunk” – were playing a “hay show” inside. The infamous hay shows consisted a wall of roughly a dozen bales of hay which inevitably wound up all over the band and the audience by the end. I was already skeptical of the festival and playing an anti-event in a back yard with my punk band Cheezus (see the illustration to understand how lowbrow the anti could be back then). To make a long story short, I abandoned my post and woke up the next morning hung over and happy with no shortage of hay in my hair and on my person.

1994 Rave Booking anti-SXSW poster by Lindsey Kuhn

In the early-to-mid 1990s the festival got a bit too cocky and began booking a mixture of really clueless commercial stuff, cheesy contemporary white blues, jangly guitar pop, and an army of singer-songwriters. They'd shove uncomplimenary bands together and sometimes put popular underground bands in bad slots or in small and out-of-the-way places because they'd never heard of them. During "the grunge era" the divide between the festival's taste and the outside world became much greater and more apparent - particularly as quite a few varieties of indie rock were becoming big business. During this period the anti-festival grew substantially -- comprised of a small collection of events with names like "SXSW SUX." As the festival grew, for the most part, it ignored the little makeshift shows packed with obscure locals. By 1992 the anti-shows at The Cavity had most of the popular local underground groups. By1994, when Rave Booking put on a bill with many of the better heavy acts in the country - including arguably the most popular Austin rock band, Ed Hall, SXSW began viewing the anti-fest as a threat. The festival flipped - first trying to get Rave to join them and, when that didn't work, threatening them - but there wasn't much the festival could do as the artists were making more money and playing with bands they liked, the fans were happy because they didn't have to buy a wristband, and the industry folks with badges were just paying at the door and putting it on their expense accounts. Emo's employees were sneaking over to catch their favorite bands for a few minutes before heading back to their posts at SXSW. Not long after this point SXSW began doing a better job of keeping up and listening beyond their tiny 1980s Alejandro Escovedo-centric world.

As for me, I wound up playing the festival and anti-festival for almost every year for about a decade – including six different SXSW's with four different bands after I'd already split town. While a couple of the appearances were for industry purposes, most of the time, my bands just wanted to go down and party, eat and drink for free, see all of the pals from around the country, and check out everybody’s bands. As I pretty much quit music for a few years and went to grad school, 2006 was my first year to go since 2001.


Finally Working It? SXSW 2006

Handbill for NYNT events at SXSW

Attendance for me this year was a no-brainer. If I wanted to try to push the bands on my new label with practically no budget, and give this web site a bit of a proper launch, I could get more done in a week there than in a few months elsewhere. Three of the bands wound up deciding to make the trek and the drummer for one, Viva l’American Death Ray Music, wound up looking for a spot for a day party. Everything got a bit out of hand and we had two day parties and one of them grew to eleven bands because there were too many that I wanted to have play. The other was a more manageable six. And then there was the official showcase...

Of course, once I got there, my plans of trying to become a half-assed indie businessman didn’t quite work out the way I intended. For one, my band, Cause for Applause, was unable to find a drummer and finally got a local to sit in - once again, the hardest working drummer in showbiz - Jeff from Death Ray. So I spent afternoons trying to teach, rehearse, and prep him in the way of our rhythms and dynamics - a particular pain in the ass for drummers (why ‘d’ya think there’ve been at least five of them last time I counted). On Tuesday, the rhythm section of one of my artists, Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds, decided that they couldn’t make it down. So I also had to find a bassist and drummer for Kid, which wasn’t that difficult as he’s a legend, but another obstacle. I lucked out and got David from Cause for Applause and Austin's Lyman Hardy of Pong to fill in.

Next, I had to figure out how to assemble a backline for the shows so that there would be low turnover at the parties – just plug in and go. The rental companies were totally sold out way past Dallas and Houston even. Lucky for me I had no shortage of musician friends in Austin ready to loan or rent out there gear – but, after I arrived, it became more and more difficult to track down them and their gear, not everyone was able to follow through, and not everything was what it promised to be. So that took up a considerable amount of time and stress and was not resolved until Jason from Hopewell loaned me the final piece of equipment at 2 AM the night before the party to complete the backline puzzle.

So there wasn’t a whole lot of time to try to find what I was looking for – distributors, booking agents, press, radio, publicists, and other needs for the acts on my label, businesses to take out ads on the site, etc. Additionally, there were too many good things going on and damned if I was going to miss a rare performance by the likes of Roky Erickson just to talk to some lousy music business employee/entrepreneur/whatever. While only a couple things worked out in regards to business – interest from a booking agent for one of the artists, an English label for another, some press, etc., SXSW did, in retrospect, let people know that the bands are awesome and happening – and that New York Night Train exists.

In terms of the experience, it was more than worth it. SXSW is of course a huge corporate entity with no problem bending over for big business. On the other hand, most of the stuff there is for everybody else. While people whine that all the big draw shows like The Beastie Boys or whatever were too crowded to get in, I have no sympathy. They can just get an advance ticket and fly somewhere and stare adoringly at Morrissey from the front row – and save some money. To the festival’s credit, they've gotten much better bands of late. Craig Stewart, the head of Emperor Jones Records and a man of wide-ranging, obscure, and extremely good taste, is pretty much in charge of the team that selects the bands - so the bills are savvier and better than ever. Quite a chunk of the indie world’s best and the brightest were all over town – and the good news for folks with my taste is that many of those shows had even more room to stand than if you’d have seen them in your town on a given day of the week. I got to see at least a couple-dozen of my favorite bands – and almost all of 'em put on some of the best performances you’re likely to see. And I was also in heaven as someone who prefers the vaudeville of short-sets to the longer self-indulgent stuff. Chop. Chop. Austin starts living on New York time for one week – maybe New York’ll learn to as well.

Finally, I had too much drummer training, equipment locating, and other business to make many afternoon parties, but what I did see had changed drastically in the last five years – convincing me that the parties had once again become the most important entity for underground bands. There were stages all over town – in parking lots, in bars, in coffee houses –north side, south side, and east side – I even doubt the richies in the west were spared. A legendary south-side sports bar, Trophies, had three stages going simultaneously, - one inside, and two outside. BBQ everywhere. Free drinks flowing. Famous bands, unknown bands, everybody – everywhere, all the time. Hell for most folks – heaven for me.

So between the day and the night, the official and the unofficial, work and play, I’ll have to just lay it down and admit that, overall, I’m quite an advocate of the whole shebang. What follows are a few photos and descriptions of what I witnessed from the trenches as both a participant and a spectator. Here's to taking the chance that it doesn't bore you to death...


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© New York Night Train , 2006