ustin, a city self-deemed as the live music capital of the world and which prides itself on the town’s motto to “Keep Austin Weird,” serves as host to one of the world’s largest and most unique music festivals around, South By Southwest (SXSW). Every year thousands of musicians make the cross-country (or, in some instances, cross-continental) trek with the same goal in mind — to be heard by someone that matters.
Among the masses at this year’s event (the music portion of which ran March 13-18) were several of Cincinnati’s hometown favorites, marking the largest turnout yet for Cincinnati-based bands at SXSW.
SXSW consists of a three-part set of conferences and festivals — interactive, film and music — that take place over the course of three weeks. Regardless of genre, the festivals are designed to cater to industries that are vigorously scouring for fresh talent. For this reason, the festival adopts a rigidly inclusive approach that makes access for both artists and fans extremely difficult. A countless number of artists apply every year, but only a relative few are accepted to be a part of the official SXSW lineup.
Some of the Greater Cincinnati bands that were fortunate enough to participate this year included The Sundresses, Walk the Moon, Ohio Knife, The Lions Rampant, Wussy, R. Ring, Pomegranates, The Seedy Seeds and Foxy Shazam.
This year was also the first in which Greater Cincinnati-area companies organized their own showcases in Austin. The partnership of local organizations and musicians led to the creation of the Midwest By Southwest (MWXSW) showcase and the DOWN day party and showcase, both of which proved instrumental in highlighting local talent and creating a distinct Cincinnati presence.
Networking It Out
MWXSW was presented by the All Night Party, a licensing and music service company, with additional help from local promotion companies like The Counter Rhythm Group. In Austin, they hosted a club showcase that featured The Seedy Seeds, The Lions Rampant, Wussy, Whiskey Daredevils of Cleveland, Ohio, and Oh My Me of Lexington, Ky., at Soho Lounge.
SXSW veterans The Sundresses also took the MWXSW stage on March 13, the first official day of the music festival. This year marked the ’Dresses’ fifth appearance at the fest. The Indie/Blues/Rock band (which consists of Brad Schnittger on drums, guitar and vocals; Mackenzie Place on trombone and bass; and Jeremy Springer, also on drums, guitar and vocals) has gained from both weaknesses and strengths an event like SXSW offers.
“It’s just awesome. It’s on a regional, national and international level. It’s a bunch of awesome musicians that come to an awesome town and enjoy it,” Place says.
“As far as making friends, though, and connections, it’s done that (for us) — it’s definitely worked. You meet people you wouldn’t meet in Cincinnati. You’re in the middle of all these great musicians and if they love you, they’ll say ‘Hey, come to my town,’ ” she continues.
However, the industry’s unrelenting quest for the next up and coming sensation can also serve as a road stop for bands that don’t quite fit the industry’s mold.
“(It’s) the flavor of the month, definitely,” Springer says. “It’s funny because everyone here is famous in their own town so they get here and everyone thinks (they’re the best), and rightfully so because to get here, period, is a difficult thing. You have to be of a certain amount of quality to play this festival. So all the musicians are walking around with their best clothes on and it’s a big fashion show and party.
“But you’re not going to get signed at SXSW. It’s just random and lucky, really,” Springer adds.
Despite the inherent frustrations, the experiences are always memorable, at least for The Sundresses.
“One time we gave a CD to the guy from Everclear, in 2006, but nothing ever happened. We saw him on the corner down here and were like, ‘Hey, we should totally give him one of our CDs,’ so we did,” Schnittger says.
“Yeah, that’s when we were young and dumb,” Springer adds.
“Yeah, like the guy from Everclear was going to help us out. It didn’t do anything,” Schnittger concludes.
Just Let It Happen
Among the bands showcased at MWXSW, the headliner, Wussy, was an instant SXSW buzz band after The Austin Chronicle named the group one of the Top 10 must-see acts of that night. Throughout the week Wussy continued to garner well-deserved critical acclaim, including being named one of the best bands in America in a Barnes and Noble review by longtime supporter Robert Christgau. The band also performed a live set for acclaimed Seattle radio station KEXP from the fest.
On March 15, the DOWN day party drew a soft crowd at the start, but gained momentum as the unofficial showcase rolled into the night. It was a joint effort between the local branch of the branding firm Landor and Cincinnati musician Jason Snell of The Chocolate Horse that hosted more than 15 bands from around the country, along with local artists like Pomegranates, Wussy, R. Ring, The Lions Rampant, James Leg (with local drummer Andy Jody) and Ohio Knife (Snell’s newest endeavor).
R. Ring, a new Greater Cincinnati-based duo comprised of Kelley Deal of The Breeders and Mike Montgomery of local bands thistle and Ampline, opened the DOWN as part of their SXSW debut. But Deal, who has attended the festival in years past with The Breeders, says she still prefers a more traditional type of festival.
“When I think ‘festival,’ I think like a main stage and over here’s a secondary stage … I’m used to it being in one kind of area, so it never feels like a festival here,” Deal said. “It always just feels like a gig. I hear about all these fabulous things going on and I’m not from here, so it seems like, ‘Yeah, I need to see this, but where is it?’ “
Nearly every bar and restaurant participate in the citywide event, along with other makeshift venues. The event is so big that it now spills over into pockets of other Austin neighborhoods. Although the official stats have yet to be released, it is expected that this year will hold the highest attendance numbers for SXSW since its creation in 1987.
The influx of thousands of people in one concentrated area is why Montgomery — a first time SXSW attendee — says it’s critical to remain focused and grounded amid the chaos.
“We have no expectations,” he says. “We’re here to have fun and play some shows. When I talk about feeling overwhelmed by the conference and bands, I feel like there’s something in the air with people thinking this is going to be an advantageous career move or something like that. So that’s what neither of us are excited about — that we’re going to get something — but it’s nice to see people doing stuff in different cities.”
Other bands, however, saw the overcrowded streets and masses of drifting people as an opportunity to perform. Cincinnati’s The Pinstripes, a six-member Reggae/Ska/Soul band, worked Austin into its touring schedule just to play on the streets of downtown Austin despite not officially being part of the festival.
“When we play shows and … hustle the best we can, it’s like, ‘Hey, we’re from Cincinnati. This is what we have to offer and what our city has to offer, and remember it,’ ” Pinstripe Leo Murcia says. “Remember that you had a good time and you moved your butt. We’re trying to shake butts, really. Trying to shake as many as possible.”
Even though the band experienced a surprisingly friendly run-in or two with the police for violating noise ordinances in public, it’s an opportunity the band would take full advantage of again.
“It’s tough to not go see (artists like) Jimmy Cliff (at SXSW), someone who we really admire and respect. This guy is such a direct influence on what we do, but we can ‘t see him. It sucks. It’s a bummer, but at the same time the really cool part about it is you go out on the street, play a house show, people are so open to it,” Murcia says. “People are open to us — people want it. If we can provide that for them, then that’s sweet. That’s the best part of SXSW and the music.”
South Bound and DOWN
Arguably, one of the most appealing features of the weeklong festival is the amount of free merchandise available. Sponsors and vendors entice crowds by giving away anything from food, alcohol and canvas totes to T-shirts, water bottles and sunglasses.
This year, Landor and Ohio Knife raised the bar on March 16 when they gave away 100 guitars to 100 people who happened to be in the right place at the right time. As an extension of the DOWN showcase, Ohio Knife surprised the crowds by playing an impromptu performance off of Sixth Street, the epicenter of the festival’s activities. They distributed the guitars during the performance, which spurred a frenzy. Two men even fought over the last free guitar and had to settle the dispute with an old fashion game of rock-paper-scissors.
Though a surprise to attendees, the plan had been brewing for months. In January, Snell formed Ohio Knife with Andrew Higley (who currently has time off touring Ben Folds) and Joe Suer, drummer in The Chocolate Horse with Snell. Snell then met with Landor to pitch the idea of documenting a new band’s experience at SXSW.
“It was all Landor,” Snell says. “I said, ‘Have you guys done this before?’ And they said ‘No, but let’s do something together, get out of town and make a little noise,’ and they were all about it. They really stepped up and it’s been awesome.”
In addition to providing a production team to document the band’s journey, Landor also crafted the idea to give away 100 guitars. As stated in the company’s press release, Landor aimed to create a moment of “guerilla inspiration” that empowered the people at SXSW to take charge of creating street culture and become a Rock star, even if only for five minutes. The company encouraged recipients to share videos of their creativity if they felt inspired by the freebie instruments.
“They said, ‘Let’s help each other out,’ and they had all of these great ideas to really blow it out of the water. It’s been a lot of fun,” Snell says.
As the recipients dispersed back into the festival Friday afternoon, one thing was definitely certain — those 100 lucky individuals won’t forget Cincinnati’s presence at this year’s SXSW.
Aside from the free stuff, thousands of artists share the same determination and drive to get their voices heard. And sometimes traveling hundreds of miles away from Cincinnati can serve as a reminder that there’s truly no place like home.
“Cincinnati bands share guitar players, share drummers, share equipment and help each other out a lot. It’s probably like that in every scene, but Cincinnati, especially,” Lions Rampant frontman Stuart MacKenzie says. “However, being in Austin, I’m seeing a bunch of bands that are similar to every band — bands in the same shoes as us, doing the same thing, which is comforting because (we’re) normally seen as a weird
“It’s nice to be around other weirdos.”