SXSW 2016 | 2015
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Ah, sweet relief! Our coverage of SXSW 2016 is very nearly in the books here at TGTF. I’ve now attended the music festival for 3 consecutive years, and each year for me has ended in a combination of heady exhilaration and overwhelming exhaustion. Over the course of those 3 years, I’ve learned that creating a positive and memorable experience depends largely on your level of preparedness. Flexibility is the key to making the most of your time at SXSW, and a little bit of advance planning can make switching gears on a moment’s notice much easier to accomplish. With that in mind, I’ve put together the following SXSW survival kit, a list of items that any punter worth his or her salt will need to make it through the week.
Light jacket or sweater – The weather in Austin during SXSW-season is notoriously temperamental. It could be sunny and blazing hot one day, cool and rainy the next. It could even be both in one day, if you’re really lucky! One thing you definitely DON’T want to deal with is an umbrella. Bring a rain hat instead, and a plastic bag to stash it in if it gets wet. Dress in layers, and have a sweater or jacket handy for when afternoon fades into evening.
Comfortable shoes – Wear shoes you know to be comfortable for long days of intense walking. Again, keep an eye on the weather forecast and choose accordingly, especially if the prediction is for rain. Style is secondary; nothing will ruin your day faster than soggy socks, blisters or sore feet. If you insist on a certain degree of fashion (and I speak from painful experience here), you might want to carry a spare plaster or two, just in case your footwear plan goes awry.
Bag – You obviously don’t want to schlep a huge and heavy bag all over Austin, but you’ll need a good-sized tote or messenger bag to carry your personal items, as well as the odd items you’ll invariably find yourself collecting through the course of the day. Bring a sturdy bag that you can carry comfortably and that you don’t mind getting dirty. Be aware that some venues may have bag restrictions or need to search your bag on entry.
Sunglasses – Outdoor gigs and long walks between venues in the bright Texas sunshine necessitate a good pair of sunnies. Also, they work in a pinch to disguise the dark circles under your eyes after the previous night’s shenanigans.
Suncream – I can’t emphasise this one enough. If I had a dollar for every sunburnt British or Irish musician I’ve met at SXSW over the past 3 years, I could probably finance my trip to Austin for 2017. If you’re spending any time outdoors, you’ll want some SPF on any exposed body parts, especially if you’re fair-skinned. [I met a Scottish woman at SXSW 2015 who actually wanted to go home red as a lobster. Don’t be that person. Your body will thank you for it, especially when laying down to sleep at night, and painlessly. – Ed.]
Earplugs – It took some pretty steady convincing on Mary’s part to sell me on the need for earplugs. I normally hate wearing them, as they (obviously) dampen the sound of the music and make conversation generally difficult. However, by the end of a long day of showcases, your ears will undoubtedly be tired from the constant barrage of noise. Even if you plan on seeing only acoustic-style shows, many of the showcases feature a variety of genres, and you never know when your favourite folkie might be preceded or followed by a considerably louder act. Added bonus: I’ve had some great conversations with fellow punters at SXSW, but wearing earplugs is a great excuse for not conversing, if you so choose.
Smartphone – Absolutely indispensable. You’ll need it for keeping in touch with your friends and business contacts throughout the festival, as well as for any social media sharing you might want to do. You can access maps and directions if you’re not familiar with your surroundings, find RSVP information for unofficial parties and shows, as well as keeping up with the latest official schedule information on the SXSW App. Keep it in a safe place, like a buttoned pocket, where you can access it on the run if you need to.
Camera – This seems like a no-brainer, but have a separate camera ready for photo opportunities. Don’t depend on your smartphone for pictures! Taking photos will quickly eat up both the storage and the battery on your phone, especially if you’re live Tweeting or otherwise sharing events on social media. Also keep in mind that most of the venues, with the exception of outdoor day parties, are low-light settings, which are difficult to photograph without flash and nearly impossible with smartphone cameras. (Do I need to remind you to keep your flash turned off when photographing artists on stage?) I’ve found it convenient to wear a small camera bag with a neck strap during gigs, so that I can have my hands free between photo opportunities but still get to my camera quickly when I need it. [SXSW is also a prime opportunity to take photos with the future stars of tomorrow. Enjoy a band’s performance? Be respectful, don’t be pushy and let them pack up first, then say hi and express your appreciation. Remember, the majority are far from home, they’ve worked hard to get to Austin and they’ll appreciate your effort. – Ed.]
Spare batteries, chargers and cords – There are often charging stations set up at different locations around the downtown area, but you never know where you’ll be when one of your devices runs out of power. Plan to recharge everything overnight and make sure your devices are fully charged before you set out each day, but also have extra power sources at the ready whenever you can. Keep a second charged camera battery in your camera bag and carry a mophie (Mary’s preference) or other spare smartphone battery pack—mine saved me more than once near the end of a 12-hour (or longer!) day at SXSW 2016. Don’t forget the connection cables!
Energy bars or other snacks – The food options at SXSW are as many and widely varied as the music options, and showcases and parties often include free refreshments. But you might find that you’re so busy running between shows that you aren’t able to partake in the provisions as much as you’d like. Take every possible opportunity to sample the local fare, but also keep a protein bar or other handy snack in your bag in case you need a quick nibble to keep your energy level up. A bottle of water is also a nice idea, but keep in mind that many venues won’t let you bring it inside, so you’ll have to drink it before you go in.
Even with a handy list like the one above, it’s practically inevitable that you’ll forget something or encounter a circumstance you hadn’t predicted. The trick to surviving those moments, I’ve found, is keeping your head and maintaining your sense of humour. An awkward moment in the present will translate to an interesting story to tell later on! (Just ask Ciaran Lavery, who wins our ‘prize’ for ‘suffering’ the most unforgettable pre-show incident at SXSW 2016.) If you need a helping hand, don’t be afraid to interact with your fellow festival-goers. Almost everyone at SXSW is in the same situation—far from the comforts of home, operating on precious little sleep, and loving every minute of the chaos.
See ya next year, Austin!
By Mary Chang
on Monday, 18th April 2016 at 6:00 pm
Manchester’s PINS released on Saturday on Record Store Day release a red 10″ single of their song ‘Trouble’. The Bella Union girl group appeared last month in Austin for SXSW 2016, wowing crowds with their dream-tinged, punk style music. The black and white presentation and aesthetic PINS have used in the past works well with the single’s dark, sinister sound and the words, “you’ve got yourself a sickness that just won’t leave”. Ouch. Watch the promo video for ‘Trouble’ below.
Want to read more about PINS on TGTF? Go here.
I’ve always had a fondness for stories with tidy endings, so it seems quite natural that I finished SXSW 2016 on Saturday night at the British Music Embassy, even if Mary and I were a bit delayed in getting there. After our dinner hour activities at the Hilton Austin’s Liberty Tavern (which you can read about right back here), we stopped for a quick drink across the street from Latitude 30 before heading over for the NME / UK Trade and Investment showcase. As often happens with when I’m with Mary, we ended up engaged in a rather interesting conversation with some industry acquaintances of hers, and we had trouble tearing ourselves away for the final evening of live shows.
As much as we might have liked to stay and chat, Mary and I both had other activities planned for the evening, and we made our way to Latitude 30 just in time to catch the first act on the showcase, groove rock brother act Lusts. In the brief snippet of what I saw and heard, their music was an interesting combination of heavy rhythms and hazy vocals, but it was really their insistent and compelling energy that left the strongest opening impression.
The next act originally scheduled on the showcase was rap collective Section Boyz, but a last minute substitution gave us instead Australian singer/songwriter Julia Jacklin. She facetiously introduced herself and her band as Section Boyz just to see if her audience were paying attention, but in truth, Jacklin’s warm folk rock couldn’t have been stylistically farther from the act she stepped in to replace. Jacklin’s music had more sonic impact than her diminutive appearance might suggest, and the lyrical substance of her track ‘Don’t Let the Kids Win’ particularly tugged at my heartstrings after she shared that she had written it for her little brother because she wanted him to think she was cool. Those small personal details can make a song seem much more special to a listener, and Jacklin certainly won herself a new fan in me that night.
Following Julia Jacklin was self-described “industrial spiritual” band Pumarosa, who I’d seen previously on the Tuesday night showcase at Hype Hotel. They had the same lengthy setup issues here at the British Music Embassy, but once they got started, they fairly shook the stage with a much more confident sounding set than what I’d heard from them earlier in the week. The lighting at Latitude 30 allowed me to get a better photo of frontwoman Isabel Munoz-Newsome’s unusual guitar technique (which you can see below), and I was thrilled to have another go at dancing to Pumarosa’s exotic hit song ‘Priestess’.
Next on the bill was an artist I’d been looking forward to seeing since our initial preview of this showcase, rock singer/songwriter Barns Courtney (pictured at top). After seeing him blaze through a spectacular set including his currently released tracks ‘Fire’ and ‘Glitter and Gold’, as well as the curiously-titled ‘Hobo Rocket’, I’m more convinced than ever that he has the potential to be a breakout superstar on the order of James Bay or Hozier if he plays his cards right. In the intermission between sets, I snagged Courtney for a quick back alley interview, which turned out to be quite possibly the most unforgettable conversation I had all week long.
I came back inside just in time to catch dance pop duo Formation, whose number had apparently multiplied ahead of their appearance at SXSW. Comprising brothers Will and Matt Ritson along with Jonny Tams, Sasha Lewis and Kai Akinde-Hummel, the band and their equipment fit on the small British Music Embassy stage with very little room to spare. But despite the close quarters on stage, the band played a beat-driven, movement-inspiring set list much to the liking of the late night dancers in the crowd.
Formation were followed on the docket by another Special Guest, who hadn’t been officially announced before the show but was rumoured to be American veterans-turned-newcomers on the music scene, PARTYBABY. I’d seen PARTYBABY along with Pumarosa on the Tuesday night Hype Hotel showcase, and I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed with the choice. PARTYBABY would certainly make an energetic closing act, I hadn’t found them engaging enough to stick around for twice. Fortunately, Mary arrived back at Latitude 30 just as they came on stage to set up, and we took the opportunity to make a final round of fond farewells to our friends at the British Music Embassy before officially bidding adieu to SXSW 2016.
Au revoir, Austin…until we meet again.
After the frenetic Friday of SXSW 2016, (which I spent here and here, in case you haven’t been reading along), Saturday dawned sunny, if a little chilly. I found myself running at a slightly slower pace. I had only two interviews scheduled for the day, both with exciting female singer/songwriters, and though I was glad for a later start to the day, I was eager to get moving by the time Mary and I arrived downtown.
Recent California-to-Iowa transplant Lissie was on the schedule for the SPIN Magazine day party at the Bud Light Factory at Brazos Hall, and I had a standing appointment for an interview with her after her set. The atmosphere at the venue was relaxed but energetic, as you might expect on a sunny Saturday afternoon. And Lissie’s mellow, mostly acoustic set fit perfectly with that vibe. She played a set of songs centered around her new album ‘My Wild West’, but to my delight, she also included her well-known cover of Kid Cudi’s ‘Pursuit of Happiness’. I hadn’t heard Lissie perform live before this, but after having reviewed ‘My Wild West’, I would say that her voice in person was every bit as rich and warm as it comes across on the record, and its raw power is only magnified by being in the same room.
The sound and lighting were both excellent at the Bud Light Factory, and aside from Lissie, the showcase promised high-energy performances from hip-hop artist Lizzo (who had been first on the afternoon docket), UK indie rockers Bloc Party and genre-bending alt-pop artist Santigold. In the end, though, I only saw Lissie’s set from in front of the stage. After she finished playing, I was escorted upstairs to the VIP area for our scheduled interview. This was Lissie’s final show of SXSW 2016, and she had other press commitments as well as ours, but I was happy to wait my turn. There were plenty of amusements to pass the time, and I took the opportunity to try out a cool virtual music making machine, as well as watching part of Bloc Party’s set on the venue’s closed circuit TV. After that bit of fun, I had this casual chat with Lissie about her new album and where it has led her, both personally and professionally.
After leaving the SPIN party, I took an hour or so of “personal time” to try something new at SXSW. On a bit of a whim, I headed to the ChiveTV pop-up party on the west side of downtown, where I heard country rock band Poor Man’s Change. I can be picky about country music; it isn’t always to my particular liking, but this Southern California quartet fit nicely with my genial Saturday afternoon mood, and I had a chance to chat with several friendly people while I took in the scene.
Following my short stopover at the ChiveTV party, I headed back east to meet up with Mary at the Hilton Austin hotel. We saw a few familiar faces and had a quick dinner ahead of Brighton singer/songwriter Holly Macve’s set at the hotel’s intimate Liberty Tavern. The audience here was captivated by Macve’s unique singing voice and dramatically stark song arrangements, and particularly in her cover of Patsy Cline classic ‘Crazy’ and her own haunting track ‘Sycamore Tree’. I had a chat with the fresh-faced and undeniably talented Macve after her set, and it was truly a pleasure for me to have the opportunity to speak with her at this exciting juncture of her career. Mary shares thoughts on the early evening showcase just below.
Mary: I wanted to note here that if a club atmosphere is not for you, and/or you’re keen on catching fresh – and free! – entertainment during SXSW, the festival offers up the Second Play Stages at several hotels in downtown Austin, plus the Hyatt Regency south of the Colorado River where I caught Demi Louise last year and Carrie saw Roo Panes on Wednesday during this year’s festival. Liberty Tavern, located at the Hilton on E. 4th Street, had 3 acts scheduled each night of SXSW 2016. We were present for Holly Macve’s set to start the dinner hour at 6, and while Carrie was speaking with her after her set, I also had a look-in on 18-year-old James TW, who will be having his debut London live appearance the 12th of May at Islington Academy 2 (tickets on sale now).
The young James – the “TW” in his act name refers to his double-barrelled surname Taylor-Watts – holds the distinction of being the youngest artist ever to sign to Island Records UK. Prior to coming out to Austin, he released the single ‘When You Love Someone’ in February, which has already charted on the Spotify Viral Top 50. With boy next door charm, his music is easy on the ears, bridging the gap between country/western / singer/songwriter and urban vocal stylings of today, his voice at times twangy and soulful. His debut EP ‘First Impressions’ (how appropriate to reference his first showcasing at SXSW) is scheduled for release this Friday.
Carrie: Following James TW’s set and my interview with Holly Macve, Mary and I met up again to plot our course for the final evening of SXSW 2016. You can read Mary’s Saturday night reviews here and here; my own Saturday night review will post soon.
My very last interview of SXSW 2016 was also one of the most memorable conversations I had during the week in Austin. Up-and-coming alt rocker Barns Courtney played a blinding set on the NME in association with UK Trade & Investment showcase at the British Music Embassy, and afterward I spirited him off into the alley outside for a chat. As it turned out, his fast and furious pace on the stage was matched by a quick wit and a ready sense of humour after the spotlights were off.
Courtney’s American accent rather took me by surprise, and when I asked him about it, he explained that he’s a British citizen, though he spent most of his youth in Seattle before moving back to England. His career is currently based in London, but he cited an eclectic mix of musical influences, including the White Stripes and Kanye West. That conversation led to discussion of Courtney’s own music, which he describes (very accurately, in my opinion) as “raw” and “percussive”.
Courtney’s early tracks ‘Fire’ and ‘Glitter and Gold’ have already gained traction on both sides of the pond, and he has tentative plans to record an album in the near future, having signed with Virgin EMI in the UK and Capitol Records in North America. He hopes to put out some new music in the EP format ahead of the full album, and I must admit that it struck me as funny that he described the EP approach as “old-fashioned”, but the success of his early individual tracks is nothing if not a testament to how quickly a single song can take flight in the digital music age.
SXSW was only the beginning of Courtney’s American tour, and he played an exhausting 10 shows during the week in Austin. Be sure to listen through to the end of the interview clip, where he describes losing his voice at one point, but miraculously managing to bring it back to life. Barns Courtney has a lengthy list of UK dates on the horizon; you can find details of those on his official Facebook.
Thanks to Jason for his assistance with setting up this interview.
Fresh-faced singer/songwriter Holly Macve played an intimate show at the Hilton Austin’s Liberty Tavern around dinnertime on the Saturday evening of SXSW 2016 after most of the day shows had ended but before the official night showcases were set to begin. Macve’s solo performance made the small Liberty Tavern stage look quite large, but her delicate vocals and exquisite songwriting quickly filled the space and captured the attention of everyone in attendance.
After Macve’s set was finished, I had the opportunity to sit down with her for a brief interview to follow up on our earlier Bands to Watch preview. I quickly discovered that Macve is as soft-spoken in person as she is on stage, as she related the Cinderella story of her signing to Simon Raymonde’s Bella Union Records last summer, as well as plans for her upcoming debut album, for which she has received funding from the PRS for Music Foundation.
Though she currently resides in Brighton, Macve’s family roots are in Ireland and she was brought up primarily in the north of England. She mentioned the country and folk music influences imparted to her by her parents, and how the authenticity of those songs translates into her own music. We also discussed some of the songs she performed at Liberty Tavern on the night, in particular a cover of classic country tune ‘Crazy’, made famous by Patsy Cline, and her own song ‘Sycamore Tree’, which she recorded for NPR’s South X Lullaby series.
Macve talked with me about having the opportunity to perform in several other unique places during her time in America, including the 35 Denton Festival in north Texas and Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion on the stormy Friday night of SXSW 2016. Following SXSW, Macve will play at Canadian Music Week in Toronto and at Brighton’s The Great Escape in May. Her first headline show in the UK will take place on the 9th of June at St. Pancras Old Church in London. A full list of Macve’s upcoming live dates can be found on her official Web site.
Thanks to Brid, Abbey, and Simon for their help coordinating this interview.
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