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SXSW 2014 Interview: Withered Hand

 
By on Monday, 24th March 2014 at 11:00 am
 

On the Wednesday evening of SXSW 2014, I stopped by the Force Field PR Showcase at Maggie Mae’s for a chat with Scottish troubadour Withered Hand, aka Dan Willson. In one of the few quiet interviews I had in Austin, I asked Willson about his latest album, ‘New Gods’, and found him to be very forthcoming about his songwriting and recording process, his stage moniker, and his reasons for continuing his career in music.

I found it very interesting indeed that Willson was able give such a thoughtful and philosophical interview just before going on stage and giving what turned out to be an upbeat and lively performance. I was delighted to hear several of my personal favorite tunes from ‘New Gods’, including ‘Black Tambourine’, ‘Horseshoe’, and ‘King of Hollywood’, and only mildly disappointed that Willson and his band didn’t play ‘Heart Heart’ after we discussed it during the interview. (Have a listen to it below and form your own opinion.)

 

SXSW 2014: the second half of Modern Outsider’s showcase at Parish Underground – 12th March 2014

 
By on Friday, 21st March 2014 at 3:30 pm
 

Rather conveniently, my next port of call at SXSW 2014 after the Astralwerks showcase at the upstairs Parish main performance space was mere steps away. Having seen Austin art rockers the Black and White Years earlier that afternoon at Empire Control Room, I arrived just in time after their performance to catch the remaining three bands on their label Modern Outsider’s showcase directly downstairs at the aptly named Parish Underground.

The first band I caught was Austin trio Mirror Travel, who I’d been looking forward to seeing for some time. Fusing elements of the grungiest garage with vocal stylings usually associated with a genre as far from garage as possible, dream pop, their sound is best described as creatively eclectic. Physically, they’re a powerhouse to be reckoned with, with the drumming of Tiffanie Lanmon driving the songs forward as frontwoman/guitarist Lauren Green and bassist Paul Brinkley providing those dreamy vocals.

There’s also not too distant whiff of psychedelia to the overall sound. I mean, come now, think about it. Doesn’t ‘Mirror Travel’ sound like a band to drop acid to? Their October 2013 EP even has a song on it called ‘Stoner’. The UK in particular I’d think would be particularly open to their sonic whims, and surprise! They’re bucking the trend of this two-woman singer/songwriter tide that seems to be washing over us now by having a male bassist in their band. I loved watching them.

I’ll preface my review of the next band by saying I’m probably going to be nailed to a cross for what amounts to a highly unpopular opinion of them. Black Pistol Fire are a Canadian rock duo who have since decamped to Austin; I’m not sure if they made the move to Texas on their own, or they just decided to be closer to their label, as Modern Outsider is based in Austin. Upon listening to tracks of theirs online when preparing for SXSW, I heard growly reminders of both Kings of Leon and the Black Keys, the latter also a potent rock / garage duo. I’m not the only one who heard this comparison to Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney: three years ago, Popmatters even called them “the greatest Black Keys tribute band ever”. I was actually quite keen on seeing what they would be like live to see if this was actually true.

On Wednesday night, the hype surrounding Black Pistol Fire must have been enormous, as the venue quickly became rammed and stayed that way for the entirety of the band’s set. It was so badly rammed for them that Carrie was texting me furiously from outside on 6th Street, saying she was stuck in a nonmoving queue and she couldn’t get in. The good: singer and guitar Kevin McKeown and drummer Eric Owen (who was wearing nothing but a pair of track shorts from the start of their set, I might add) are quite the exciting act to watch live, as their performance is loud and animated. At one point, I must have missed how he got up there, but the next thing I knew, McKeown was dangling from the upstairs balcony railing, legs flailing as he wailed on his guitar. You can’t make this stuff up, folks.

The bad: I have a real hard time taking seriously a band who has to pilfer songs from rock’s storied history for their live set. Maybe they have a good reason for doing this, like they didn’t have time to rehearse a full set of original songs for SXSW? I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. But as a Led Zeppelin fan, I don’t need to hear a cover of Willie Dixon’s ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’ at SXSW, I can queue that up on my record player anytime I want. I had similar feelings when covers of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Fortunate Son’ and Wreckless Eric’s ‘Whole Wide World’ were played, albeit with extended riffage as I watched the crowd go completely mental, fists raised as if a revolution had just begun. Maybe their album ‘Hush or Howl’, getting an exclusive Spotify preview next week will change my mind, but for some reason, their set just left me cold.

It should come as no surprise to regular readers of TGTF that the act I was most thrilled to see at this label showcase was the Crookes. We’ve been supporting their New Pop efforts since their single ‘Backstreet Lovers’ several years ago now, and it’s like I’ve grown up with them in a way. Arguably, the Crookes are the biggest UK success story from SXSW 2013, having signed to their first American record deal off the back of last year’s festival. Having always recorded and toured under their own terms, the fact that they got a record deal via SXSW without compromising their own principles is no small feat indeed.

When I found out weeks ago that Modern Outsider was giving them – an English band – the esteemed position of headlining their label’s showcase, it represented to me them coming quite a long way from their early beginning as a band thrown together in uni in Sheffield. Further validating was the crowd who had assembled to see them, many of whom were American like myself and who had been longtime supporters of the band. Similar to the feeling I got from watching Munich’s Claire earlier in the evening at the Parish main room, I’m sure the Crookes felt energised by the realisation that even thought they were far from home, hey, they really like us!

The set list was surprising to me. I expected ‘Outsiders’, with its ever melodic lyrics and the true voice of the album’s theme of ‘The Outsider’ as offered up by lyricist Daniel Hopewell, and ‘Marcy’, my guess for biggest hit from the new album, to both get airings. Nope. The evening’s set began like the one at Empire Control Room that afternoon with ‘Don’t Put Your Faith in Me’, probably the Crookes’ effort to emphasise straight out the gate to everyone listening that they had fully become a rock band and left the pop moniker behind. ‘Echolalia’, my favourite from their forthcoming third album ‘Soapbox’, was the bass epiphany I was waiting for, sounding fantastic.

However, they just couldn’t get away with not playing a couple of older numbers, such as the oft trotted out ‘Chorus of Fools’ with the ever melancholic words, “you and me were meant to be so damn blue”, and the rallying cry of ‘We don’t dance alone!” from ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’, both of which turned the place into a frantic disco. The energy felt the same, just like the odd nine times I’d previously see them play, but at the same time, something about them has changed. They’re no longer New Pop. Gone are the days of watching them in t-shirts and jeans. Enter the smart buttoned down shirts and dress trousers: ladies and gentlemen, the Crookes are all grown up.

And yes, if you were wondering, I lost another bet to Carrie. I still owe the woman some four beers for betting her they’d play ‘Maybe in the Dark’ instead of ‘Afterglow’. Damn it! (I can hear her laughing as she reads this.)

Don’t Put Your Faith in Me
Before the Night Falls
Chorus of Fools
Echolalia
Bear’s Blood
Backstreet Lovers
Howl
Sofie
Where Did Our Love Go?
Play Dumb
Afterglow

However, for me, the best moment of the night was yet to come. I had been celebrating my 5 years in music writing that day and after we’d packed up and said our goodbyes to the band, we were ready to leave. As I zipped up the England jacket I’d bought in Covent Garden on my first trip to England in 2006, I heard a deep English voice calling my full name from within the venue. I knew it wasn’t one of the Crookes; I would have recognized their voices anywhere. I turned around. It was Steve Lamacq. We’ve known each other for years thanks to the internet, but it wasn’t until this night that we finally met in person. Lammo was the reason I’d heard about the Crookes the first place, having played their early records on his BBC radio shows, which I subsequently fell in love with. It’s like everything had come full circle for me that night.

 

SXSW 2014: the first half of Astralwerks’ showcase at the Parish – 12th March 2014

 
By on Friday, 21st March 2014 at 1:00 pm
 

I always make a point of seeing at least one massive band at every SXSW, and this year I decided it was about bloody time that I made the time to see Brighton indie band the Kooks. One of our good friends back home absolutely adores them and while I am no Kooks scholar, I would be able to recognise a couple of their songs, so my argument was that I should probably go and see them before I die, just so I would know what my friend Kelly is on about. The Kooks were scheduled to have two official festival appearances, one Friday night at Stubb’s, but after an unfortunate and never to be forgotten setback of being turned away there last year despite being on the guestlist for the Joy Formidable and then being shut out of the 1975‘s appearance at Huw Stephens’ night at the British Music Embassy at SXSW 2013 after, I decided the earlier Kooks appearance at the Parish would be safer. I don’t know whether or not it was necessary, but myself and my best Canadian buddy Jordy queued over a half hour in advance to make sure we would be close to the front.

The Kooks were third, smack dab in the middle of Wednesday night’s line-up. We had no idea what to expect from the bands that were to come before the Brightonians. First up was Claire, a synth-led pop band from Munich. While the band is named for singer and frontwoman Josie-Claire Burkle, it is most definitely not a solo vehicle, with clearly talented musicians and producers Matthias Hauck, Nepomuk Heller and Florian Kiermaier as part of the band. However, if you didn’t know all this, it would look at least on the surface that Burkle fancied herself like a German Lykke Li, dressed in flowy black garb, having long hair that all too conveniently swung side to side, often hitting a drum with sticks similar to what the Swedish singer/songwriter gets up to in concert. Both this act and the American one to follow reminded me of very popular bands currently in existence, which I suppose says more about how the major label system works than anything else: when it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…and when it works, clone, clone, clone.

However, upon further listening to the live Claire experience, it’s impossible not to get drawn into the sheer catchiness of their synthpop songs and the amount of energy they themselves put into the performance, throwing their whole bodies into it. Burkle in particular seemed overwhelmed and nearly ready to cry at the end of the set, when the crowd assembled was responding so well to their music, the cheers were deafening, as if nearing riot stage. When non-music people ask me what the point of SXSW is, I give examples like this: when you’re watching a band that nearly no-one’s heard of get an absolutely amazing reception in a place so far from where they come from (in this case, Germany), you can’t help but feel your heart grow warm that it’s music that is a unifying presence, a uniting force that transcends all.

Parade of Lights had the unenviable task of following up such a scorching set from the Germans. A sentiment that echoed many times in my head all week that also rang true with the Los Angeles band: when is a keyboard truly necessary? What weirded me out most about Parade of Lights was that if I closed my eyes while they played, I could have sworn I was in a Bastille concert. I felt like I could have been in any top 40 disco in London. When I opened them and their frontman/guitarist Ryan Daly came into view, I could have sworn I was looking at Dan Smith.

There’s no denying that this indie synthpop genre thing is here to stay and there were hundreds upon hundreds of bands in Austin last week that could have been classed in this genre, but after a while, even your electro-loving editor gets battle fatigue. I have nothing bad to say about Parade of Lights – their songs are infectious and I can see having a good night out dancing to them, they’re clearly going to do well with the young kids watching MTV in their bedrooms late at night and I wish them well, as they look like they’re having the time of their lives onstage. But for me, it’s a case of “been there, done that, got anything new up your sleeve?” (The difference I found between them and Claire was that for the Germans, I actually felt like I wanted to jump up and down and dance, with Parade of Lights, not so much.)

By then, it was nearly 10 PM and time for the Kooks to play. I had watched as the crowd had thinned and rebuilt itself twice in between sets, people milling in and out of the venue. Yet another great thing about SXSW: you don’t like the next band or you’ve already seen them before? Leave your current club and go to any number of other ones nearby. By the time 10 neared, who was actually in the Parish were mostly diehard fans, probably a 70/30 ratio of girls to guys. It started to get claustrophobic. Again, I had never seen the Kooks ever at that point, but I had envisioned the fangirls getting territorial and yes, the claws were out and pushing and shoving became the norm. (Please. Seriously, if you want to see your favourite band, for the love of god, show up early and don’t be rude! I am always amazed by the number of fans – 99% invariably half-naked girls in heels – who think it’s their right to push and shove you out of the way so they can get down the front. We’d arrived there as the venue opened up at 8 and earned our places fair and square. So nyah.) After I was done shooting the band, I let a Kooks uberfan up in my spot so she could see better. Because those acts of kindness are what music fans should do for each other, yeah?

I took the above photo on my phone and it was picked up by Astralwerks,
who used it in this Storify post. Let’s just say I was chuffed!

What will probably surprise most people ahead of the Kooks’ new material out later this year, prefaced by new single ‘Down’ out on the 20th of April is that the Brighton band have turned…urban? (Something of note: it appeared recently as a Zane Lowe Hottest Record in the World on Radio 1.) They do not sound like the same band that put out 2011’s ‘Junk of the Heart (Happy)’, which could have been a Peter and Gordon staple in its winsome, pearly white-teethed innocence. So going into an r&b direction is quite a shock. It’s a risk also seen in ‘Around Town’, with a groovy bass line and powerful percussion anchoring the song more than any obvious melody, which seems stark contrast to band staple and happy-go-lucky ‘She Moves in Her Own Way’. I guess we’re going to have to wait and see how the new direction pans out for the Kooks, but for nearly an hour in that sweaty, packed Parish, I’d say no-one there cared about the future. For everyone else, it was all about being the same room with their heroes.

 

SXSW 2014 Interview: Owen Lloyd, James Thomas and Tom Warhurst of Longfellow

 
By on Friday, 21st March 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

London band Longfellow were a long way from home Thursday night when they played the BBC Introducing night curated by indie music champion Steve Lamacq. However, when Lammo comes calling, you answer. Playing their first-ever show in the States in front of a rammed Latitude 30 at the British Music Embassy must have been nerve-wracking, but I was so pleased that three of their band – singer Owen Lloyd, guitarist James Thomas and drummer Tom Warhurst – were on hand and willing to sit down with me to chat about coming over for SXSW 2014 and what it meant to them to be playing such a momentous night, how they got signed to indie label Fierce Panda and the stories behind some of their most anthemic songs to date. Listen below.

Many thanks to the guys for chatting with me after their set!

 

SXSW 2014 Interview: Bradley Carter of NO

 
By on Friday, 21st March 2014 at 11:00 am
 

As we hope you’ve already read, Mary and I spent the early part of our Wednesday of SXSW 2014 at the dark and hollow Empire Control Room for the iHeart Austin showcase (read Mary’s full recap here). Mary’s enthusiasm was still at full throttle, but by this point in the week, I was in desperate need of coffee and sunshine. We arrived early for the show, and luckily I was able to get a quick fix of both before the afternoon’s activities got underway.

I wasn’t familiar with any of the bands listed for the showcase, except of course for The Crookes, so I tried to go in with open ears and an open mind. This attitude helped me to discover two things: (1) the need for a set of earplugs, which I had to purchase in Austin because I didn’t own any, and (2) a new-to-me band based in Echo Park, California, called simply NO.

As I tweeted during their show, NO is a definite yes. This 6-piece band had a huge guitar sound, especially in the sparsely populated Control Room (this was a daytime show, and there was another gig going on outside), which necessitated the earplugs mentioned above. They reminded us a tiny bit of The National, in no small part due to the deep, menacing baritone of lead singer Bradley Hanan Carter, but also for their broodingly melancholic lyrics. Where The National are refined and restrained, NO are often more visceral and emotional, using their full array of instruments to greater dynamic and dramatic effect.

I was able to catch Carter after NO’s set for a very brief interview before he had to hurry off to their next engagement. The venue was incredibly noisy but we managed to get a quick soundbite about the band’s album, ‘El Prado’, which is out now on Arts and Crafts Records. Have a listen to the first track from the album, ‘Leave The Door Wide Open’, at the bottom of the page.

NO are Bradley Hanan Carter (vocals), Sean Daniel Stentz (bass), Reese Richardson (guitar), Ryan Lallier (guitar/keys), Simon Oscroft (guitar) and Michael Walker (drums). They are currently on tour in North America.

 

SXSW 2014: 103.1 iHeart Austin afternoon showcase at Empire Control Room plus Broken Hands at Rooftop on Sixth – 12th March 2014

 
By on Thursday, 20th March 2014 at 3:00 pm
 

Something that sets SXSW apart from all other festivals is just how much afternoon programming is available if you’re raring to go and wanting to catch music even before the noon hour. Even better, most of it is free, as long as your RSVP ahead of time. For music journos like us, it gave us more opportunities to catch bands that we might not otherwise see because of evening conflicts. The iHeart Austin showcase at Empire Control Room, sponsored by local Austin radio station 103.1, was perfect timing on Wednesday afternoon, as Wednesday is the day when things really ramp up – and all day long too – at SXSW.

After getting the run-around from security who sent us to different entrances and couldn’t agree on where the Control Room was at Empire (I thought only Great Escape bouncers were rude like that! ::snort::) and after I was refused entrance into a VIP area with fake grass (how tacky), we finally made our way into the correct location to catch an afternoon of bands inside. Unfortunately for you, our faithful readers, the lighting inside wasn’t great and a rotating series of strange coloured slides were projected onto to the bands as they played, so a lot of my photos didn’t come out great.

We arrived just in time for Austin band SPEAK, who I’d previously written about years ago when they covered Daft Punk. Synth pop bands are a dime a dozen these days, American or not. Honestly, after a while, they all start to blur together. but if you’re into this genre, SPEAK are a pretty poppy and agreeable proposition. They were given a slot shortly after noon, which meant unfortunately they had a pretty paltry audience.

Carrie seemed to think she could get through the festival without earplugs, but somehow I managed to convince her this wasn’t smart. However, I questioned my own wisdom when I met the booker of the Pabst Theater in Minneapolis and had to confirm the name of the next act. I swore they were called ‘Bats on the Move’. (No-one steal that name. That’s mine for whenever I start my own band.) Turns out they were actually Max and the Moon, a trio from Los Angeles. They released an EP, ‘Crazy’, a couple weeks ago and the title track is a good example of their pop-infused synth brand of rock.

The Black and White Years are another Austin band and another synth pop band, but rhythmically they’re art rocky, with bass lines popping everywhere. After the first two bands who were good but not terribly exciting to me, I felt like I’d finally been defibrillated. Their eccentricities didn’t go unnoticed, least of all by Talking Heads alum Jerry Harrison, who produced their first album. Frontman/guitarist Scott Butler even has a David Byrne-esque voice, sometimes yelp-y, sometimes percussive. I particularly liked his hand gestures to the bright ‘Up’, even if Carrie thought it was too gimmicky.

Then the line-up moved back to SoCal – specifically Echo Park – for a motley group called NO made up of a New Zealander, a South African, a Canadian and three Americans. Their singer, Kiwi Bradley Carter has a baritone voice ala Tom Smith of Editors or Matt Berninger of The National, and with grinding synths and sinister guitar lines, the band has a melancholic yet epic post-punk sound not dissimilar to White Lies. They’re already signed to Arts and Crafts label in Canada, which seems to indicate indie greatness is just around the corner. Expect their debut album ‘El Prado’ to drop later (at least on this side of the pond) this spring.

Carrie ran off to grab Carter of NO for a quick post-gig interview (stay tuned for that) right before a band on the afternoon bill that we actually knew of. The Crookes, who were making their triumphant and what I had always thought an impossible SXSW return by appearing at the festival 2 years in a row, would be offering up new tunes from their forthcoming album out in April ‘Soapbox’ (reviewed by me here) mixed in with old favourites from their back catalogue. It seems a little strange to be using the words ‘back catalogue’, seeing that the band have only been putting out music since 2009, but ‘Soapbox’ will mark their third release with London indie Fierce Panda (no small feat) and their second with local Austin indie Modern Outsider, who also serves as The Black and White Years’ label home.

They could have been tentative, starting out with a song everyone already knew; instead, they began with ‘Don’t Put Your Faith in Me’, one of the two most growly tracks on the new LP. A surprise later in the set was ‘Howl’, a more introspective number near the end of ‘Soapbox’ that I didn’t think would work all that well live but maybe in the live setting, it’ll act as the song to which you’d catch your breath after dancing so hard, the wind is knocked out of you. Not surprisingly, they ended with the terribly catchy pop opener to 2012’s ‘Hold Fast’, ‘Afterglow’, and I lost a drink bet with Carrie over whether or not they’d play that song. (I was sure the smart money was on ‘Maybe in the Dark’ but sadly, Lady Luck was not on my side.)

After a cheeky pint of cider and a quick fish and chips for dinner at our fave B.D. Riley’s Irish pub, I was off again to the Rooftop on Sixth to catch another band who was playing the rooftop bar. I got a definite case of deja vu, as my SXSW 2013 ended at that exact spot. I showed up to see Kent band Broken Hands, who I gathered fit the genre of space rock rather well. I am pleased to report that they did not disappoint after my writing of this Bands to Watch last month.

Because it was so windy that day, aluminum foil had been hung over the ‘windows’ behind the band, I guess so that the wind wouldn’t blow the bands over. This seemed rather fitting to me as the child of a NASA scientist, as for me it had the effect that we were on a spaceship with them. A pretty damn good rocking spaceship, with wigged out synths. Just enough wind passed through those ‘windows’ such that under any other circumstances, you might have confused singer Dale Norton and his gorgeous long flowing hair undulating in the breeze like he was in a Pantene commercial. (It’s really not fair as a woman when you see a man who has hair more beautiful than yours. It’s just not on, fellas.) Up to that point, I hadn’t done any serious headbanging in Austin – I was in charge of hard rock while we were in Austin – and I nearly got whiplash as I enjoyed myself far too much getting sucked into Broken Hands’ devastatingly severe live set. Good stuff.

 
 
 

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There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest music, gigs, and tours we love and think you should too.

We love music that has its heart on its sleeve, tells a story, swims around our head all day or makes us dance like no-one's watching.

TGTF is edited by Mary Chang, who is based in Washington, DC. She is joined by writers in England, America and Ireland. It began as a UK music blog by Phil Singer in 2005.

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