South by Southwest on a Shoestring: A Diary

Ed Harcourt

Day Two: In Which I go To the Parties and Learn The Beautiful People are Not So Beautiful After All

The fun is in fact elsewhere: it’s at the private parties thrown by different television and label conglomerates, occasionally by print press entities like New Times, which owns several ‘independent’ entertainment weeklies across the U.S. I went to the MTV2 private party featuring the Feds, Ok Go, Ed Harcourt and Starsailor; I went to the New Times party featuring Departure Lounge, Sunshine Fix, and Neil Finn, and I went to the New West records party featuring Slobberbone and the Flatlanders. In all cases the word “party” meant: limited access (therefore smaller crowds); free drinks and snacks, and the possibility of rubbing elbows with minor glitterati.

For entrance in each of these parties I have only my friend and associate Kembrew McLeod to thank, who is in fact connected in a real way in the music business, and friendly enough to allow me to tag along. I find that having very little at stake is an advantage. There’s no reason on earth for me to be at the MTV2 party. I can’t even afford cable! That little pink laminated pass is a fairy godmother who turned my pumpkin into a night at the ball. So to speak.

And yes, I really do feel like Cinderella: I ogle cute boys and adorable vintage sundresses and avail myself of the free beer and snacks. Once I start to calm down and really pay attention, though, it is as if I have been suddenly jerked out of Cinderella and into a more modern fable — “pay no attention,” the Wizard of Oz tells Dorothy, “to the man behind the curtain.” In every slightly ramshakle Rock Ambition Goddess I start to see the enlarged pores and crow’s feet of a thirty-two-year-old smoker who tends to crash diet and binge to keep her figure. Many of the badges people are wearing carry names as obscure as the one on mine. It’s more than that, though: these people laugh nervously, seem to literally be looking over their shoulders anxiously. I watch one woman coat her open mouth with red lipstick. It was deep, stunning red next to her creamy skin, but then she wipes it off methodically with the same rhythmic, back-and-forth stroking she used to apply the color. Her long fingers go into her clutch purse and emerge with another tube of lipstick; again she opens wide and strokes and pouts. It’s sort of compulsive-seeming and anxious. At this time she was sitting with her back to the stage, turned into her circle of girlfriends, chattering on as if the noise from the stage were just a loud CD at a party or something.

Her compulsive preening doe not exactly broadcast self-assurance or even the ersatz confidence that sometimes comes with extreme wealth. And the fact that it isn’t the band she’s preening for (i.e., applying that lipstick while curled on the lip of the stage with creamy bosom exposed) suggests that the pretty boys up there aren’t exactly the ones to court in this context.

I submit that the real power isn’t so pretty, or so visible. In fact, as it turned out, most of the cute boys are in one of the four bands playing — and the main impression I got from the MTV2 party was that the bands were definitely not in charge. In order to explain what I mean, we’ll need the equivalent of an obnoxiously long footnote that I’ll call:

The Starsailor Digression

During my time at the ball I also converse with the pianist for the Manchester band Starsailor. His name is Barry. He has fairly close cut but apparently wiry red hair and similarly stocky but wiry frame. He introduced himself, or we met somehow, in the course of a complicated but predictable set of exchanges over a joint in the crowd during the OK Go set.

By all rights this should be a second digression, but let’s not complicate things. Part of the reason I end up meeting Barry is that I leave my table to go watch OK Go from closer up. OK Go are friends of friends from Chicago. My local friend (henceforth Local Friend) and several other friends still living in Chicago were at one point the band Victor Ship, which became Slobot, which became With Your Shield Or On It. All incarnations were marked by a similarly shambling sense of purpose and rotating cast of members. OK Go came to several of these shows, notably the Slobot shows, when by all appearances they were only one of several bottle-glasses, short pants wearing gangs of pale young men who played in a band together. I don’t know how OK Go got famous, but I seem to remember someone saying something about the radio show This American Life which airs on WBEZ Chicago and other stations on the NPR network. Perhaps they were commissioned briefly as “house band” for Ira’s little shop of (mundane) horrors? Whatever the particulars of the myth, they (that’s OK Go) are now playing at MTV2’s showcase of “What’s Next in Popular Music.”

They played an excellent set, clearly relaxed and confident, sun stunned a bit (the whole Austin affair was usually a bit flushed and sweaty, as you’d imagine given the climate), and enjoying themselves. After the play I speak with one of them (I forget which) and he remembers the name Slobot, but not the names of any of its members. (Local Friend finds this amusing. In fact, OK Go also do a kind of mock choreography, which is another thing they totally ripped off from Slobot. If anyone were really interested, I’d write a whole article about the ironic surreality of a real-life archetypal rock story: the stolen move, career. Like Hedwig and Tommy Gnosis. But none of the former members of Slobot, Victor Ship, or With Your Shield or On It seem to care much about what happened in those years, except for the recordings, and only one has gone off to California, those recordings in hand, to Make It somehow. )

At any rate, I had no idea this guy Barry was in Starsailor, except that he eventually told me when we were doing this “nice to meet you and where are you from?” kind of nonsense. The name rang a bell for me, but only because it had been hyped across SXSW from the beginning. In my promotional canvas bag was a complementary pin with the Starsailor logo. Flipping through the SXSW calendar of events I saw their name not once but three times. They’ve been on Top of the Pops (which still exists!) and their music was featured on last week’s Felicity (see link on WB website). I remembered their name, because it’s the name of a Tim Buckley album — a hard to find one, which is why I remember. And because all the former members of Slobot et. al., when I told them this story, remarked individually and without prompting, “Oh, they must like Tim Buckley.”

I realized what I had in front of me was a real live semi-story: something the folks at home might be interested to hear. An exclusive, even. An interview. I tried to think of something to ask without seeming to be an asshole. I had to get him to trust me. He was telling me for some reason that he’d bought an apartment (probably he used the word “flat” but I can’t be sure) back home in Manchester and I asked “you rented it or bought it” and he said “bought” and I said “the whole building?” and he said yes and I asked, “So did you make a whole lot of money at once, then?”

Part of the reason I asked this is because via the movie Money for Nothing, Kembrew McLeod and other forces at work in the culture had alerted me to the fact that artists swept into the corporate music system (and that’s a five-company monopoly) often start their careers with an enormous debt to the label, which has put up mucho dinero for such things as relentless hype in magazines and featured tracks on TV and several appearances at still-has-some-semblance-of-indie-creds SXSW.

To his enormous credit Barry answered the question with perfect grace and civility, explaining that in fact his band owed their record label, Capital, for expenses already incurred filming a video and being on tour in the United States. He then affirmed on the other hand that they were “doing quite well.” He offered as evidence his extremely “pissed” state (that’s snookered to us Yankees) but did hurl a churlish comment in the direction of the (admittedly greasy) catered snacks. In other words, he’s being fed, clothed, and liquored up by the label on credit, and that’s enough. He also confirms my Beatles-inspired supposition that although rock stars travel the world, they don’t see much of it. I get the idea that if I hang around, I can go back to some hotel and mess around and do cocaine or something. But I could be totally wrong about that and as it turns out, I didn’t quite have the guts to find out.

But the most interesting part of our exchange came when I couldn’t come up with another question to ask except the money question, which I had pretty much just blurted out anyway. It was quieter now, at dusk, because OK Go had already broken down their gear and Ed Harcourt was setting up. “What have you been reading?” I asked. “I don’t read,” he replies quickly. “I know it’s awful, and you could learn things. But I just get distracted.” I tell him that I do too, but that I have to read a lot because I’m a student, and a teacher. “A teacher?” His face lights up, and he tells me that he used to teach piano back in Manchester, and he really misses it. “Cos you get so attached, you know.” I do.

A roadie-like person (except better groomed) puts up a neon sign that reads Here Be Monsters. “Do you know what that means?” I ask Barry, thinking that he might not know since he never reads anything. But as it turns out I’m wrong, because Here Be Monsters is Ed Harcourt’s album. Starsailor and Ed Harcourt have been touring together (“supporting us,” says Barry) and Barry is a big fan.

[So, by the way, is Barry’s brother, who’s name I’ve sadly forgotten, but who introduces himself after he has brought me an enormous glass of ice water with a red straw. All during the time I hung out with them they were both enormously polite and courteous, and the brother would go fetch drinks and always bring me more water, and offer me seats and cigarettes, and so forth.]

I explain that Here Be Monsters is a reference to maps in olden times, like Renaissance Europe, which would mark “Here be Monsters” or somesuch at the end of the known world, which at that time for those people was Europe mostly, and the Middle East. This notion pleases Barry, and he grins generously. It feels kind of cool to be talking to a European. We take our leave and he asks if I’m staying to see them play. Of course I am.

Ok. Here’s the part where I have to say that I’m not sure if Starsailor are really that cool. Barry’s a really smooth keyboard player, and their rhythm is intent and flowing at the same time. It’s basically stoney, super emotive pop. Vocals high and soaringly feminine, very T.B.-ish but without Buckley’s gravelly, grinding soul. Lead singer James Walsh is preternaturally pretty, tousled and dimpled and just a little bit bad. Yikes. Favorite featured lyric is: “You know you’ve got your daddy’s eyes / Daddy was an alcoholic.” This song is actually a bit of an anthem for them, with building chords and a sort of extended outtro, and I think it’s actually revolting. Sorry.

I hang out a bit more with Barry after the set. I had felt really weird about hanging around waiting for him in the first place. It felt a little groupie-like. On the other hand, I thought that it would have been rude to just leave without saying thank you, or something like that. So I waited, and eventually we talked, and he was super-friendly and wanted me to stay, though we didn’t have a whole lot to say to each other. He gave me a free CD-sampler (another example of his generous and extremely civil nature) and offered me a place on the guest list for the Starsailor and Neil Finn show the next evening. I we did a sort of polite-hug-plus-airkiss thing goodbye with a weird sort of feeling, like that we were old friends who didn’t need a long goodbye because they’d just see each other tomorrow.

>> End of Starsailor Digression Part One