South by Southwest (hereafter referred to as SXSW) is a colossal music conference held each March in Austin, Texas. Some twelve hundred acts of every conceivable genre perform in front of eight thousand registered attendees over the course of five days. There are panel discussions, film screenings, trade shows, softball tournaments, barbecues, after-parties, and other events without a name happening at all hours. It’s a given that no single attendant will be able to take in the conference in its entirely (indeed, this seems to be, perversely, part of the point), but judging from the schedule posted at the conference website, it’s also physically impossible for one to see all of one’s favorite bands, as so many are playing simultaneously in clubs throughout the city.
I have never made it to SXSW — either because I didn’t have enough money, or because I’d just started a job and didn’t want to create the sense that I’d be an unreliable worker, or because I’d been working at a job for three years and wanted to make sure that my employers really knew, without a doubt, that they could count on me, or because I was getting fat, or bald, or scared. I’ve always wanted to attend, though — each year, I submit myself to the punishment of reading the schedule of events online, finding that, at the same moment I am squinting through the darkness at a tiny monitor in my night pants, making my way through a bag of stale pretzel rods, LCD Soundsystem is just taking the stage at Elysium. Or, I’ll be editing a PowerPoint presentation at work while Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks discuss Smile. On the one hand, I am outrageously jealous of those lucky eight thousand attendees. SXSW is the ultimate adult nerd’s Disney World, where all one’s independently produced, limited edition, 180-gram red vinyl dreams come true in a single, sustained burst. Then again, there is the actual, physical component — waiting in a single club to see a single band at any other time of year, pressed against the sweat-slick nostalgic T-shirt of a young man with feral, Micky Dolenz hair, or, worse, a porkpie hat, is bad enough. But to travel hundreds of miles to do this again and again, end on end, night after night, seems like a freehand sketch of purgatory.
Maybe I feel this way, though, only because my life has largely been about not doing things, and then finding ways to make the things I don’t do ridiculous or undesirable in order to destroy their seductive power.
There is only one way to find out.
“I am going to create my own SXSW,” I tell my wife.
It is early in the morning. She is applying some sort of tannish cream to her calf. “What?”
“Remember how I was talking about that music conference in Austin — SXSW — and how I said I never wanted to go to a thing like that, but then I doubled back and admitted that I really did want to go?”
“Well, I thought about it a lot, and now I have this idea — are you ready?”
“SXSW OnDemand. You know how there’s cable OnDemand? How you go and pick what you want from a menu, and you can watch whatever show you want, whenever you want?”
She continues to apply the cream, slowly and deliberately. It smells like mint. “I guess so,” she says.
“This is like that, except that it will be a personalized music conference, because I will only go to the shows I want to, when I want to.”
“So you’re basically … Wait — what makes this different from just going to a bunch of shows?”
“I’m choosing the shows I want to go to, like from a menu.”
“But weren’t you going to go to these shows anyway?”
“You’re just being difficult.”
“I’m just trying to understand. Also, could you say ‘OnDemand’ one more time?” My wife spreads a dollop of the cream on her thigh. I retreat to the bathroom and furiously brush my teeth.
The San Francisco-based psych-folk apparatus Six Organs of Admittance consists of a stooped, thick man named Ben Chasny on guitar and one of the bald drones from THX 1138on drums. I am huddled in a tight semicircle with a group of exceedingly hirsute young men, all wearing corduroy sport coats, all staring intently at the stage. Chasny appears alone for the first portion of a set in which he stitches several of the songs from his latest Drag City album, School of the Flower, into a seamless composition. The first several minutes are discouraging — he seems uncomfortable, and this discomfort highlights a certain lack of technical finesse in his guitarmanship that’s intermittently evident on record. He’s not yet discovered the limitations of his manual dexterity (or perhaps he’s simply ignoring them), which is fine — limitations can be a powerful asset — but he often drifts beyond his means, and his explorations yield frequent, yawing hesitation between notes and a sense that he’s always trying to catch up to the vocal melody with fumbling hands.
Just as the audience’s attention starts to wane, though, Chasny creates a repeating loop out of a sweet, mournful passage with a delay pedal. He straps on a Telecaster while the THX 1138 drone takes a seat behind a tiny drum kit. On cue, the drone sets upon the kit with the furious precision he has been bred to wield, and Chasny triggers a distortion pedal that makes a sound like the churning of a school of hammerhead sharks. He and the drone ratchet up the tension in well-coordinated surges of noise, and then break down, letting the repeating guitar sample fill in the remaining, empty space. The guitar seems to buck and twist in Chasny’s grip — he’s bent over the instrument, trying to hold it down as if it were one of the hoverboards from Back to the Future Part II. This time, though, the lack of control is more powerful and purposeful — a deliberate attempt to see how far out of line he can get with the instrument without completely losing his way back into the song. Noise is often only noise. It should be employed only when it serves a greater purpose. Chasny’s marriage of somber, psychedelic folk with Sun Ra-style space noise adds a welcome dimensionality to a genre that seems already to have generated a host of sound-alike imitators.
Steve and I are driving up to see M. Ward perform at the Boston Museum of Fine Art.
“So it’s called SXSW OnDemand.”
Steve looks out on the road ahead, which is shakily illuminated by the remaining headlight on my Spartan Honda Civic. “Oh.”
“You don’t get it.”
“Just — can you explain it to me again?”
I am having a hard time selling the concept. No one seems to “get” it.
We park far from the museum, thinking we are parking close to the museum. We’re wandering around on some kind of campus. Trying to find our way to the show, we see two rail-thin young men carrying a vintage Juno 60 keyboard into a dorm building, while a woman wearing furry moon boots struggles with an armload of drums. I think to myself that I should be going to this show instead of M. Ward. That would be the SXSW thing to do — to stumble on some wild, untapped greatness, arching its back for the first time to a room of underwhelmed, bewildered freshmen. But we keep moving.
We are the last two people allowed into the theater. As we are herded into the last aisle by a well-mannered usher with an Amish chinbeard, it becomes immediately apparent that this is the worst possible venue for a show. In my tenth-grade Precalculus class, I sat directly in front of Paul Chen, a young man who, instead of copying down chalkboard equations, would draw detailed, realistic portraits of the back of my head and pass them forward to me for no discernible reason other than to suggest the dreadful, arid persistence of time in that classroom. I forgot about these portraits completely upon graduation from high school, but they return with ferocious clarity at the M. Ward concert, as I am forced to sit directly behind a woman whose head I now know, at the time of this writing, with a phrenologist’s precision. The theater, it seems, has been designed by the same people who brought you “The Very Tall Men Standing in the Front at All Public Events.” The seats in each row are only about four centimeters higher than the seats in front of them, so that my experience of M. Ward’s performance is profoundly hampered by the wispy, frizzled locks of the enormous, grotesque head in front of me.
M. Ward is almost the kind of antiseptic, baggily appointed singer-songwriter that you hear while testing the ripeness of avocadoes in a Whole Foods market, but it is unlikely that you’ll hear his music there because immediately beneath the sunny exterior of brightly plucked acoustic guitar strings and Ward’s warm, gruff vocals his songs percolate with death and darkness. I interviewed him shortly after the release of Transfiguration of Vincent, an album-length meditation on the death of a friend, which he described as, “A lot of questions about the relationship between love and death — what music can achieve in light of death and your love for someone else; songs of love and the lack of it, and loss. That’s mostly where this record is coming from — me trying to ask myself questions and then trying to answer them.” This tension — the constant questioning — is where the easy effervescence of his music quickens and changes state into something more durable.
He ambles on stage unassumingly in a plain white button-down shirt, looking, through the gauzy blur of the woman’s hair, like a cross between Benicio Del Toro and Cornelius from Planet of the Apes, albeit in the best way that such a combination is possible. Without uttering a word, he begins an instrumental piece that boils slowly into a hysterical flurry of loosely strummed chords. It looks as though he’s strumming without a pick, and part of the pleasure of watching him slam his hand repetitively against the strings is wondering how it’s possible that he hasn’t cut his whole forearm to shreds. There is something undeniably gripping about the instrumental — a breathless, wordless celebration of life, and when it ends he barely allows the crowd a chance to applaud before starting into “I’ll Be Yr Bird,” easily one of his most compelling compositions. As modest a plea for love as can be found in contemporary music, the narrator asks only that the addressee remembers, “I’m not the tiger you never had /I’m not the first in when you’ve got it bad / I’m not your second, I’m not your third, but I’ll be your bird.”
That I feel the rest of his set fails to fully live up to the massive power of these two songs may have more to do with the exhaustion of having to contort myself just to see past the head in front of me than anything Ward does or does not do. He leaves the stage with as little fanfare as he’d entered. After looping several layered guitar parts with a delay pedal (it seems this is suddenly the thing to do), he places his guitar on a stand, waves sheepishly at the audience, and shuffles backstage. He seems uninterested in calling attention to his music, which is tremendously refreshing. It’s as if he has too much respect for the songs themselves to acknowledge that he’s ever had anything to do with them.
Driving back after the show, Steve and I stop at an intersection next to a Volvo packed with drums and amplifiers. It is the woman we saw earlier, the one with the furry boots. Steve gestures wildly from the passenger seat, shouting, “Hey, you did an awesome job! You were really great!” but the woman trains her eyes on the road ahead, waiting out the excruciating moments until she can pull out ahead of us as fast as possible.
The next night, after looking over my SXSW OnDemand schedule, I elect to take some time off. This is, after all, central to the idea of OnDemand — one can choose not to attend, not to watch. Instead, I challenge my daughter to a tournament of Godzilla: Save the Earth. I select Jet Jaguar; she chooses Mothra. I hold an early lead over her, utilizing my Viper Jab and Mongoose Strike to catapult her through a sizeable industrial complex. She retaliates by holding down her R1/L1 buttons to transform into the Mothra Adult Form, taking me to task shortly thereafter with a rapid succession of Focused Wing Smacks.
I go alone on the last night of SXSW OnDemand to see Lungfish, a quixotic band of aging motorcycle enthusiasts from Baltimore who have been performing tight, minimal, lumbering punk rock since the late eighties. The lungfish is an animal capable of hibernating through the dry season by secreting a form of mucus through its pores that hardens into a makeshift cocoon. The band, too, is capable of enduring the most rigorously elemental, repetitive compositions, driving a single constellation of notes with such single-minded conviction that the slightest variation, when it comes, feels like the shifting of tectonic plates against your chest. Vocalist Daniel Higgs, with his wild beard and graying locks, resembles a four-hundred-year-old wizard in a suit coat. He holds the microphone like no one I have ever seen — by the tips of his tattoo-covered fingers, the way an alchemist holds a vial of potent, frothing magic. When he sings, he howls upward at the lighting fixtures, and when he’s not singing, he stomps around the stage, pounding his chin repeatedly against his chest as though attempting to reset a dislocated jaw. Several times during the set he stumbles and falls into the crowd, who devotedly lift him back up to the stage. It’s only intermittently clear that his falls are intentional, and everyone is a little nervous each time he goes down, only because, at his age, his body looks incredibly fragile.
I get in my car, shivering violently, before the show is half over. I don’t know why I’ve left early; Lungfish rarely tour, and they have been putting on a great show. I just found myself drifting ever closer to the door of the club, and then I was outside. It is so cold in New England that my tape player won’t work properly, so the mix I’m listening to is faint and warbly, as if it’s being broadcast from underwater. It’s a track from the new Aesop Rock EP — Aesop Rock, who is about to go onstage in the main room at Emo’s. Snow falls in plate-size flakes. The world is frozen and desolate, the opposite of Austin in every way. I don’t know what it is I’ve been trying to prove to myself. I have to concede, as my friends have already pointed out, that my plan doesn’t make any sense — it never has. I am here, and SXSW is elsewhere, and there are mountains and strip malls and electric fences between. I could go there if I really put my mind to it, I’m sure. But I don’t.