The first year I did SXSW, I was blackout wasted somewhere around 9pm. The rock star clichés bleed out in concentric rings from the music; the closer to it you are, the easier it is to indulge in some Peter Pan fantasy of the never-ending party without consequences. This is my first year completely chemically unaided. I’ll spare you the seedy confessional. Ever since I saw the wretchedly reformed English Beat give a speech about the joys of staying sober between their massacres of the songs I used to love, I realized that people really don’t care why you’re happier now that you don’t drink and use drugs. They’re not the ones with a problem, so who gives a shit?
But I certainly notice the carnage of that atmosphere on Day Three as I pass puke in the alleyway or accidentally kick some stray bottle. Litter is strewn through downtown like some form of carnival precipitation. Some guy is passed out in a municipal flower bed and it’s not even midnight. One guy tried to sell me ice in line for a show because, as he put it, “I need some drinking money”. Every March, there has to be some Columbian who gets a new mansion out of this, because everyone’s scrambling to keep the party going. Parties all day long, showcases at night, and the ever-important after-party invites require a level of stamina that usually comes in lines cut with a razor blade. There’s a hollowed-out, undead excess to it all that doesn’t feel particularly festive. Many of the eyes you meet look like wet meat and there’s a certain compulsion to be the last man standing. It’s a battle, partying. I’m sure just as many people are having healthy, well-moderated fun, but the massive clash of work, networking, and play that happens here in Austin definitely tends to err on the side of hard-working play.
Hometown: Tokyo JAPAN
Friday, March 17—8:00 p.m.—Zero Degrees—(405 E 7th St)
Polysics openly invite the Devo comparisons in their almost worshipful invocation of the band. So much so that their DJ played Devo before the band took to the stage in their matching orange mechanic jumpsuits and wraparound rectangle sunglasses. But their sound has a much heavier edge thick with Black Sabbath riffs that slam down on top of the disjointed circuitry of their singing. It’s like head-banging ping pong.
I have to be honest and say that I don’t know how much I enjoy listening to this and how much I might be seduced by the amusing spectacle of Japanese people dressed like Devo playing new wave metal. It’s one of the unfortunate side effects of music criticism, that you can sometimes be jadedly driven to the arcane in order to get your kicks. Polysics certainly put on a thrashing show, loud enough that I had to put my ear plugs in, but I’m not sure I could ever find a place or mood where I would pull this music out to listen to it for fun rather than using it to distinguish myself as “in-the-know”.
Hometown: New York NY
Friday, March 17—9:00 p.m.—Elysium (705 Red River St)
My Machine easily topped off the “best of” list for last year. On her fifth LP, Princess Superstar accumulated a fresh bag of sounds from her globetrotting stint with DJs Are Not Rockstars. All the Goldfrapp glam and electro sleaze got threaded into her latest persona, a larger-than-life replicant who takes over the world in a sci-fi concept record. She also returned her earliest releases, where she was still trying to make the New York Dolls have a sit down with Roxanne Shante. The stage incarnation of the album has a hilarious level of theatricality. The DJ and guitarist came on stage with Princess Superstar masks, implying that her cloning domination of the world had already begun. The video feeds show us a future where only the Superstar reigns supreme. She pulls off this celebrity-ego satire by playing in its extremes, playing whipping the audience with bondage gear, and claiming the space with a presence that looms skyscraper huge.
Technical difficulties repeatedly broke any spell that might have settled in over the crowd. I’ve DJ-ed at a benefit in this club before and the sound system has all the nuance of those car stereos that are designed specifically to vibrate your window glass with their bass lines so that other people know you spent a lot of money to have to learn sign language. The vocals never quite came through, so it was impossible to simply ride on the details of her swift, liquid flow. The bass throbbed uber alles. The video projections went cockeyed, losing some of the funny bits where Princess Superstar gave a community college course in the future instructing us all on why she should be cloned and turned into the only celebrity in the universe. No disagreements here. Despite the technical hobbling, it was still a sexy and provocative multimedia display from the world’s most beautiful and benevolent pop dictator.
Hometown: San Diego CA
Friday, March 17—9:00 p.m.—Oslo (301 W 6th St)
Remember when hip-hop sounded like a threat to the social order rather than the champion of its worst values? Nephilm Modulation Sessions are just the kind of revolutionary thinkers that you want to see take up music as their fomenting medium. Big Juss and Orko Eloheim rap with jarring speed, each verse faster and more dense, until it sounds like the words are crushing each other into a single point. They use jungle beats but never allow any one rhythm to get too comfortable; they constantly snap apart their own songs only to rebuild the pace again: dead slow, furious, and then back again. The effect is energetically unsettled; I found myself clenching my teeth and shifting as pockets of tension accumulated in my knees and elbows. Don’t let that scare you. NMS don’t want to inspire the passive, pillowed absorption of a pacifying groove. They aim to educate and intimidate, dropping political treatises within songs that sound like Apocalyptic wreckage, but you can’t help but feel drawn to the beats’ insistence that your body respond to the massive, frustrating, and decaying song structures. This is the continuation of Public Enemy’s necessary work, with more frenzied urgency and more tactile venom, inspired in large part by the peace, prosperity, and international goodwill of the Bush Junior years.
Hometown: New York NY
Friday, March 17—10:40 p.m.—Oslo (301 W 6th St)
Blockhead took to the stage and segued seamlessly from the music already playing in the bar into a set of downtempo soul, with beats that rarely got any faster than a slinky making its way downstairs. I can’t say that watching someone stare at their laptop while lackadaisically keeping time with a shoulder twitch makes for a riveting performance. Both the DJ and the gent manning the Mac treated the performance with palpable indifference. Of course, it’s also difficult to tell in such circumstances whether someone is actually bored (a distinct possibility) or “looking cool”, since hipness entails the obligation to pretend not to notice your poses. The music was satisfying to the point of edgelessness; I rarely got jolted out of that dazed zone where I go when my body becomes a bookmark that I can go back to when things get interesting.
He could have been downloading porn up there for as much as I could see; every once in awhile he would take a sip from his drink and stare into some I half expected him to take a few phone calls or leave to go to the bathroom. This seems another case of bad context. If I were in a group of people, sitting down and chatting, I would probably find the music pleasant to recede into during conversational lulls. Even dancing when the tempo shifted upward would have been fun, but my attention span has no tread left on it, and SXSW isn’t the kind of event where I could be that unselfconscious. Standing around watching two guys in a brightly lit corner groggily flicking a turntable and pushing buttons on a computer just didn’t cut it for me. This is one of those times where sobriety is an intellectual disadvantage.
Hometown: Paris FRANCE
Friday, March 17—11:30 p.m.—Oslo (301 W 6th St)
I’m glad to see a fresh infusion of European hip-hop over the last couple of years that doesn’t even pretend to draw from contemporary American sources. Fearless eclecticism dominates these imports, who draw much of their inspiration from difficult electronic music that moves in palsied spider rhythms. Since TTC sings in French, I have no idea if they’re extremely intelligent or demonstrably stupid, and in some ways I was thankful to not to have any distractions from their flow. Like NMS, their songs proceed in stop-start interruption: each time a beat unwinds, one of the emcees would reverse its course or make a skidding diagonal shift change that you couldn’t possibly respond to with your body without tearing ligaments. On the surface, TTC lack NMS’ sinister, demolishing edge; they wanted us to find our niche in the sound, moving their hands in the air to help us move along to their glitched stitches. I reveled in their impish stage presence and the way they would enthusiastically embrace one another’s vocal turns, managing to gracefully intertwine with at unsafe speeds. This is what Timbaland might sound like given a different tutelage, one steeped jungle and architectural electronica, where the ultimate shape and scope of the song is more important than the ease with which it is consumed.