Electric Balloon Tour: I’m All Austin The Supermarket
We roll into Austin pretty late, and go to our friends’ house to crash. Our friends are Zorch, an amazing psychedelic mathy/proggy band we play with whenever we come through Austin. They have a big art studio/show space which is being used as a venue for the festival, but since most people aren’t in town yet there’s room for sleeping. This cat holds court on an old car seat.
We sit around the kitchen table and shoot the shit for a while. Our host tells us that some friends from New York are staying across the street, so we walk over to say hi. I’m pretty exhausted and not feeling at all social, but it’s always nice to see some familiar faces, and interact with people I don’t sit in a van with all day. This is how South By Southwest is. You drive across the country to hang out with mostly the same crew you hang out with back home. All these other guys are going the whole hog, staying till Sunday, playing multiple shows every day. We are taking it relatively easy: two shows Wednesday, two Thursday, and then off to New Orleans.
We don’t have anything to do in the morning except play a radio session for KVRX. A low key day. We make a stop at Juiceland, one of our favorite Austin institutions. I have been known to poke fun at vegan hippie health people with their flaxseed and their kombucha and cruelty-free toilet paper and whatnot, but you really grow to appreciate these sorts of places after eating at one too many gas station fast food franchises. Everyone is always getting sick, and some fresh juice provides you with much-needed nutrients as well as the sense of righteousness that comes with doing something even slightly healthy. I get my favorite tour elixir: a shot of garlic, ginger, cayenne, and lemon. It has an immediately salubrious effect, and I go ahead and order a big old juice, too, even though it’s like fucking eight dollars, rationalizing it to myself by pointing out that I’d spend as much on a shitty lunch in Midtown back home. My juice hits the spot; no regrets. Krill has a session at the same place right before us, and we use the time to get our oil changed and tires rotated. While the car is in the shop, I walk down North Lamar on a mission. The mission has two phases. Phase one is to get a barbecue sandwich at Green Mesquite BBQ. I haven’t heard anything about the place, but I knew we wouldn’t have time to go to The Salt Lick a little outside of town, and I had seen Green Mesquite on the way, and I figured it would do.
I get chopped beef on a bun with pickles, onions, and sauce, and it hits the spot. Not the best barbecue ever, but better than you get in the city. I wish they’d step up their bun game little bit, as it is just this side of stale. But the meat and sauce are solid, and the whole sandwich works as a unit. This tour has been entirely too short on barbecue for my liking, but then again, we haven’t hit the Carolinas yet. That’s when it really goes down. One time I ate two meals of barbecue in a day. It was at Babe’s in Garden City, GA, in case you’re curious. I got a brisket plate and it was so good I got a pulled pork sandwich for the road. If you pass anywhere near Garden City and neglect to go to Babe’s you are just egregiously playing yourself.
The second phase of my mission is to look at music stores. I’m particularly curious about the pithily-named Cash America pawn shop. Pawn shops in New York kind of suck, especially for buying instruments. But I see a lot of guitars in the window here, and it looks like a place to check out. Like a lot of pawn shops most of the stock is low-budget Schecters and Ibanezes, first instruments people traded in when they bought a nice one. But one particular bass immediately catches my eye. I’ve never seen anything like it before, and I am the biggest gear nerd I know.
This is a “Sorina Telecaster Deluxe”. It inexplicably has a Gibson logo on the headstock, even though Gibson has nothing to do with the Telecaster. It has no distinctive design features that would connect it to either Fender or Gibson; more than anything, it looks like a cheap Alembic copy, right down to the brass nut. No way was this thing made in America. Japanese? I consult the internet, and find that no one appears to know anything about this brand. The only site dedicated to it is a never-updated WordPress blog. Between that and a few questions on Gibson forums, I hear various origin stories: Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam. Someone claims to have bought one new in 1985, which gives me a rough idea of time. When I plug it in, I am seriously tempted. The neck feels great: thick, like a P-bass, but also with a pretty steep taper that makes lower positions comfortable. The electronics are janky; it makes a lot of noise, and one of the knobs just emits a loud buzz when you touch it rather than having any discernible effect on the sound. But damn, under all that noise, the tone is amazing. It sounds like an Alembic, warm and round and focused, except an Alembic costs more than a decent-quality used car and this thing is only $120, marked down from $150. I really shouldn’t buy something on tour. We’d have to find a place to put it in the already-packed van, and I have no immediate need for another instrument, and I’d have to put some work into fixing up the electronics. I get a text telling me to come back to the shop, and put it back.
When I return I learn that the mechanic popped one of our tires during the rotation, which actually works out in our favor, because they waive the fee and throw in a replacement tire. Actually a really lucky break, except that we’ll have to go back the next day to get the new tire, using our spare in the meantime. We head back to the KVRX studio for our session, our gear conveniently already set up by Krill. They have an awesome huge soundstage, and videotape the whole thing. The set itself goes well. Getting videotaped and photographed whilst looking like hell’s compost is a major part of the tour experience. I can only be thankful there is no way to permanently document how we smell. Tonight, I will shower, so help me God.
The real highlight of Tuesday is at the end. We’ll be staying with Sandra and Steve, cool grownup people, friends of Julian’s parents. When you first start touring you want to stay at a party house with a keg so you and your friends can Get Down, but as you progress in your career you learn that no house beats a house inhabited by older people, where the fridge is full and all the toilets work and the people who live in the house have worked long enough to afford comfortable and stable couches. Sandra is in law school and Steve has a thriving business manufacturing fancy guitar straps. I bought one from him last time we were in Austin, back in 2012, and I’ve used it ever since. When we arrive, a magnificent spread of snacks awaits us: cheese, crackers, cured meats, pita chips, hummus, salsa. A cooler of Asahi and Sam Adams seasonal beers. A porch. Sandra and Steve are consummate hosts, and seem to enjoy having us as much as we enjoy staying over. Dinner is salmon and steak, cooked to perfection on a charcoal grill. We bring a bottle of wine. For dessert, Steve and Julian and I venture out to find some Amy’s Ice Cream. It is closed, but when we get back we tell everyone we got some and it was delicious. I assume they saw right through us, they’re no fools.
One of the big draws of Sandra and Steve’s house is the dogs. They have two, Possum and Sukyo. Possum is big and stoic and slow-moving, with the fluffiest coat I have ever encountered on a dog. He is wary of people because he’s a rescue dog and had the shit beat out of him for most of his early life. But he’s a gentle soul, and I spent some time with him on our last visit, and we’re buddies now. Look at this majestic beast. He is thinking deep thoughts.
Sukyo is the opposite: tiny and frantic and affectionate. She will get all up on you and lick your face, and her excitement about having new people in the house doesn’t seem to diminish over time. Whatever mood you’re in, there is the perfect dog for you to hang out with in this house.
We all get some quality dog time and eat entirely too much. We take showers and wash clothes and begin to feel vaguely human again. In the morning an amazing breakfast spread is waiting for us. Granola, yogurt, fresh fruit, bagels and lox with all the fixins. These people really take pride in doing it up for guests. They have basically the exact life I want when I’m that age. They are crazy for each other and doing shit they’re passionate about and have a porch. They play music and live in a good music town. We leave refreshed. We all benefit from being in that environment, if only for the night.
Before we go downtown into the thick of it for our shows, we have to go get our free tire from the auto shop. I go back to Cash America and buy that bass. An attentive reader may have noticed that the above picture was taken over by the van rather than in a store. As if to reinforce the rightness of my decision, everything in the store is on sale that day, and my whole purchase with tax comes out to $107. Chump change as far as buying an instrument goes. And look at this hilarious sticker:
The only thing this saucy Southern belle wants more than concealed carry in every state and a wall along the Mexican border is to do too many shots of Wild Turkey at Shitkicker Eli’s Goodtime Saloon and show off her magnificent corn-fed American gazongas to you and your big-belt-buckled buckaroos. I always find it funny when hyper-masculine rock bands use stylized images of sexy women in their merch. I imagine most hardcore Lynyrd Skynyrd fans look more like the Robertsons. But no one wants to look at that; I, the hypothetical Lynyrd Skynyrd fan, would rather envision a world in which this woman and I are brought together by our mutual love of the red, white, and blue. The sexiness is aspirational rather than descriptive. I feel like this sticker, coupled with the fact that the screws on this plastic cover are clearly not the original ones, tells me a lot about the previous owner. It is such an endearing touch. I know this thing is a fixer upper, but I’m happy with my decision. I can use it as a test case for teaching myself how to solder, and maybe even do a full setup on it. Being a luthier is a life pursuit I consider now and then, and it would be cool to take on a project in that area. I’m definitely not fucking with those pickups, though, they are perfect. And it turns out the whole thing is space-neutral in the van, I can just put it under the seat with the other guitars. No harm done.
It is now time to get into the thick of SXSW for our first show. I’m still not sure how I feel about the whole thing. On the one hand, there can be real tangible benefits to going there as a band. The first time we went, Anna and Felicia met Toro y Moi and they came to our show and ended up taking us on tour. It was our first real big legit tour, and the first time I actually considered that this might be something I would consider doing with my life long-term, and it only happened because we were in the right place at the right time doing the thing everyone is doing: schmoozing. On the other hand, nothing is guaranteed to happen, and there are so many shows it’s easy to get lost in the sauce, and a lot of bands bankrupt themselves to get there and back and are crushed when nothing comes of it. It’s sort of like attending college: you spend all this money and go to all this trouble so something might happen for you. And it’s a logistical nightmare: stopping traffic to load in and out on the too-crowded streets, parking a mile and a half away from the show and walking back, trying to find your way to your show when most of the major streets you need to get through downtown are closed and full of wasted people, nowhere to store all your gear because every band is on tour and has brought everything with them, so you end up leaving a bunch of it in the car a lot of the time, which I don’t know about you but if I were any manner of petty criminal in Austin during one of the biggest music festivals in the country I would be looking for vehicles with out of state plates and robbing that shit and I would do extremely well for myself. The van has been broken into enough times (three, once in Philly and twice in New York) that this is a nontrivial concern. But sometimes you just have to roll the dice, and tell yourself that your van looks too shitty to contain anything of value, and put it out of your mind long enough to play a show for some people you hope will like you and tell their friends and maybe be able to do something for you career-wise. For an event ostensibly about music, the whole thing is surprisingly insensitive to the needs of bands. Even the straightforward process of waiting in line to get your artist wristband is always a Kafkaesque ordeal, taking an hour and several phone calls and four different lines this time around. And God help you if you actually have to drive somewhere in the busy part of town where all the shows are, which you will, because you’re there to play shows, and that is where most of them will be. A quick Corporate Logo Density Analysis of South 6th street sets you straight: the music is the means rather than the end. But hating on SXSW is almost as obnoxious as drinking the Kool-Aid, especially once you’ve agreed to play it. It serves a purpose, and our label is doing a showcase that we should be a part of, and I accept it into my heart for the duration.
Our first set is the Exploding In Sound showcase at the Longbranch Inn. We are friends with a lot of the Exploding In Sound bands, so it’s good to hang. Palehound makes a particular impression, as always. I can’t tell if Ellen is a haunting vocalist who happens to play guitar, or an impeccable, ballsy guitar player who happens to sing. She’s also a great lyricist, wry and frank. The band does a great job supporting what was once a solo project. This is their first big tour, and I gave them my touring how-to guide to read as a sort of focus group. When they’re done, I’m curious to hear if it was useful. They’re basically the target audience for the book, being young and talented and relatively new to all this. I finally get the opportunity to meet Brian, the guy who runs our label. He has reserved some hotel rooms for his bands for the festival, and he’s giving us the keys to one for the night. He seems like a sweet and genuine dude, and he clearly digs us. It is good to have more people on the team.
As is standard for SXSW, we can’t hang out at the Longbranch for too long because we have another show. Our friend Tyler, who performs blisteringly aggro-fun electronic dance music as Meth Dad, set it up. We did his showcase a few years ago, in the parking lot of a Wendy’s by the interstate, powered by a generator in a school bus. At the time it was called South By South Wendy’s. The following year he tried to get Wendy’s corporate office to sponsor the showcase, which is actually not that crazy of an idea considering how much corporate money is floating around the festival (Subway gives out free Flatizzas outside the convention center, which goddamn if that is not the most unappealing name for a product in recent memory; I do not eat one). But instead of an endorsement he got a cease and desist, and changed the name to South Fry South Friendy’s. This year the show is at Chain Drive, Austin’s oldest gay bar, right in the middle of downtown. Downtown being, of course, the place you can’t drive around at all because so many major streets are closed. Google Maps is of no use here, nor is instruction from anyone already at the show, since they got there so much earlier when the traffic situation was different. You basically have to travel in an awkward spiral around your destination until you find ingress. At each closed street is a barricade manned by a surly guy in a reflective vest, and your ability to successfully play depends on your ability to convince him to let you through. The first one we reach angrily waves us away, not even allowing us a moment to explain our situation. We make a baroque pattern of turns to get to another. This guy seems a little friendlier and allows us to talk. I lean over and explain that we are a band, we have to play an official showcase, this is the only way in. He asks where. When I say “Chain Drive”, he gives me a knowing smile and a nod and lets us through. He knows all about that place. I am more than happy to allow some minor functionary of the festival to think I am gay in exchange for getting to my show. Throughout our journey we have been accompanied by a journalist from Red Bull. He has been trying to interview us, but it is simply impossible to conduct an interview while navigating chaotic festival downtown Austin on the fly. Imagine driving through Mardi Gras, in Times Square. To his credit, he is cool and rolls with it. He wanted a slice of life, and he got it: yelling conflicting sets of directions at each other in a smelly, crowded vehicle, running late, trying to both move quickly and avoid hazards. We are relieved to finally arrive.
Chain Drive is a pretty ideal spot for the showcase because it has two rooms. You can set up while the other band is playing, and maximize the amount of music in a given period of time. The owners seem genuinely happy to have us, a nice relief from the frazzled indifference you usually come up against at these things. They gave us a nice place to play and we brought them a nice big crowd of people buying drinks and everyone is pleased. I have noticed in my travels that bars run by older gay men tend to be extremely relaxed and welcoming places. The Iron Bear where we played last time around and the Kitty Kat Club in Minneapolis also come to mind.
We play our set, and it’s a blast, and we stick around to hang. Someone at the bar asks if Julian is my boyfriend. I say he’s my drummer, and that that is a comparably intimate arrangement, which gets a laugh. I wonder if the sheer amount of time we spend together makes us put out a couple-y vibe. We catch our friends/Felicia’s booooyfriend Zula, the first set I’ve seen with their new bass player. She is awesome, hitting that exact perfect spot behind the beat with a thick, dubby tone. I liked them before, but it’s groovier now. More bands we know are playing, but we have left our drums back at Longbranch for other people to use, and retrieving them is going to get harder rather than easier as the night wears on. Julian and I set out. We know there’s no way we’re getting back in there, the festival vibe is in full swing and we got lucky the first time getting past the barricade. We’ll go and get the drums and tell everyone else to meet us across the highway later, where it’s a little less restricted.
It is back at Longbranch that we hear about the crash. Some drunk guy drove the wrong way on a one way street, pursued by police, and plowed into a group of people waiting in line for a show. Two dead, 23 injured. Details are coming out bit by bit. By the morning, we will know that he was 21 years old, that he was a rapper scheduled to perform later that night, that the cops followed him because he avoided a DUI checkpoint, which he did because he had warrants out for his arrest behind some custody dispute back home. He has six children. The state of Texas is charging him with capital murder and seeking the death penalty.
Nobody comes out of this looking good. On the one hand, there is no excuse for driving drunk, ever. Especially with warrants out, in the busiest part of a major event with a huge police presence. Keep your fucking head down, for God’s sake, how do you honestly think this is going to play out in a way that is not terrible for you and others? He blew an astonishing .114, which I’m pretty sure would kill me outright. This is dispositive, and I’m not trying to say this man was not the primary party at fault. He was. But on the other hand, from the cop’s perspective, what do you think is going to happen if you initiate a high-speed chase through the most populous part of town in the middle of a festival? If the guy were going to stop and let you arrest him, he would have just gone through the checkpoint. But he’s clearly drunk, you can’t just let him go about his business. But then what endgame do you have in mind here that doesn’t involve bystanders getting hurt? Is there not some way to mitigate the inherent danger of the situation? I feel threatened by the police, and I don’t even have anything to hide most of the time. If they were chasing me and I had the chemically-assisted estimation that I might get away, I’d make a run for it too. And of course the state of Texas is just licking its lips in anticipation of killing another young black man. A man with six kids, who will now all grow up without a dad. Fuck me. A fun night has turned into a dark meditation on the meaning of justice. Time for bed.
After a restful sleep at Motel 6, we head downtown. A few of us go to the Artist Lounge in the convention center in search of free shit. I get two beers, a shot glass, a pen, a shirt, a guitar pick, a set of strings, and some earplugs. An acceptable but not amazing haul. One year I got a pretty nice backpack which I still use. At the last minute, a slot in a small showcase becomes available, and we all head back to the van to meet up. As I promised myself, I make a quick stop at Chi’Lantro. I get some kimchi fries, and Becca gets two tacos, and we split them.
These fries are out of control. Mexican and Korean are two of my favorite kinds of food, and the combination is spectacular. Bulgogi, kimchi, caramelized onions, two kinds of cheese, cilantro, a citrusy aioli type thing, sesame, and just perfectly-crispy fries soaking it all up. Every possible flavor exists in this messy little pile, perfectly balanced. Not pictured is the equally amazing pork taco, which I ate before I thought to document the experience. Yeah, I know, food trucks are obnoxious overpriced yupster bullshit and there are like thirty episodes of Portlandia making fun of people like me and our infatuation with them. Haters gon’ hate, I love Chi’Lantro and I don’t care who knows.
The showcase turns out to be the best SXSW stop yet. They have amazing cold brew coffee, of which we take extra for later. Delicious bloody marys. Snacks, including more bagels and lox. And best of all, free massages. I get this really intense thing involving a lot of pulling and bracing limbs against other limbs which I’m told later is Thai shiatsu. I feel much better. The show is associated with Utopia Fest, which we would be very fortunate to play someday. The guys running the showcase are very complimentary, so hopefully something comes of that. Next stop is the Father/Daughter Records showcase, where we are mesmerized by the sounds coming from the outdoor stage. It turns out to be Guerilla Toss, who we were supposed to play with back at the start of tour before the blizzard fucked up our plans to go to Boston. They are highly out there and I am into it. Imagine Kathleen Hanna singing for Lightning Bolt on some real bad acid. The drummer and I were once interns together at the now-defunct National Guitar Workshop, and briefly had a band together in late high school/early college times. I swear the guy was wearing the same Grateful Dead shirt he had back then, unless he got a new one of the same. It was good to see each other again, and hear what he’s up to now. Last time we were playing blues and ’70s rock. Apparently the band is all New England Conservatory alumni. I can imagine them all immediately spotting each other across a crowded room full of classical monomaniacs and jazz cats in porkpie hats.
We are playing inside, which is not the best setup. The place where the gear goes is the place where the audience goes. Classic festival illogistics. I get a nosebleed about fifteen seconds before it’s time to play, and have to do the entire set with a piece of paper towel shoved up my nose. Our friend Cindy takes a pretty horrifying picture (Cindy, if you’re reading this, I want that picture). But the show itself is fun, and we have the luxury of hanging out for a little while. I meet Jesse, the daughter of Father/Daughter. Our last show of the night will be the Western Vinyl showcase, where we go on at midnight, and will have to immediately drive overnight to New Orleans for an afternoon show. As the only non-driver, feeling guilty about my inability to pull my weight, I have pledged to stay awake and sit in the passenger seat and make sure the driver doesn’t pass out from exhaustion. I dread this ordeal, being already pretty exhausted from the standard exertions of tour, but I have to get it together for one more show. Don’t want to let Brian down.
Our show is at the Driskill, which I don’t know why I thought was a bar. It is actually an extremely fancy hotel, and several of the downstairs meeting rooms have been reserved for festival events. This is our “official” showcase for the festival, and the difference is night and day. There are people whose job it is to help us carry things, and a real live stage manager whose job it is to make the thing run smoothly, and deeply discounted valet parking. We end up being able to park right outside, a rare and ideal situation. For the first time, all this infrastructure is working for us rather than against us. I talk to the valet guys for a while, and they seem like they would be fun to have a beer with. We have some time to kill. I drink my requisite one beer for the show, taking it extremely easy in anticipation of the night’s drive. I think I feel myself beginning to get sick. But that’s more a constant state of being than cause for concern these days. I’m hoping it’s allergies rather than a cold, and will subside when we leave. Austin is allergy country.
I haven’t eaten a substantial meal in several hours, and venture outside to forage. I end up getting an exactly-average sandwich from Jimmy John’s across the street. I am not trying to engage with the wasted throng lining the streets, or stray too far from the show. It looks like someone dropped an alcohol bomb on the US and these are the survivors, dazed, wandering the streets of their desecrated home to assess the damage. We will have to form a new society here on South 6th street, establishing a currency of free T-shirts and branded guitar picks, choosing our leaders based on who is okay to drive. The ladies working the door eye my sandwich with great interest, and I make a run to get some for them too. They can’t leave, and it’s right across the street.
At midnight, the festival organizers have organized a moment of silence for the people killed in the crash. The room is silent, but we can hear the revelry from outside. Silence is relative, and no amount of human suffering is going to stop this party. You could probably have a mass shooting with hundreds of casualties and still be within earshot of some dubstep hours later. I feel pretty out of it for our set, but we get it done, and people like it. As soon as we’re offstage, it’s time to roll. We say our goodbyes and do our loading and settle in for a long, shitty journey. I haven’t gotten any work done all day, and will be catching up on emails and things most of the night. I will be pulling a full all-nighter for the first time since writing my undergrad thesis. But New Orleans, as always, is worth whatever adversity it takes to get there. A friend we met when he did sound for us our first time through lets us nap on his floor for the two or three hours we have to spare. I have just about exactly one full REM cycle, and then it’s back to the grustle.