What if It’s Kanye?
South by Southwest is a thing that happens whether the residents of Austin, Texas want it to or not. It was probably a good idea when it started in 1987. Then it grew and grew, until it was known as the “most fun”. Then it grew too much and it was “over.” Then it started to become what it is today (really profitable). Now, it is an existential crisis for any artist or music industry professional dumb enough to willingly have their feet held to the Doritos Spicy Nacho Corporate Fire Experience. My band, Sick Feeling, put out our first full-length (Suburban Myth! In stores now!) on January 20, 2015, making us natural and obvious cannon fodder for SXSW in March. It’s 11 songs in 22 minutes, and we’re the sort of hardcore band that might have done well in the past by playing as many South by shows as humanly possible. I folded my arms, breathily explaining to band mates, friends, labelmates, press folks, and other people who try to love or help me that we aren’t doing this unless we get an offer to play Fader Fort. My thinking is that they won’t offer ’cause no one knows who we are, and we won’t go to Texas until South by is over, we’ll do a real tour, and bingo bango, no harm, no foul.
But we did get the offer, and I did jump at it, and my band was all in on it too, and we were excited, because we are good, and that’s a nice offer, and we did drive down to Texas, even though we only had two other shows booked for our five-day stay: It’s not a numbers game anymore, though. You don’t need to play 10 shows in five days, you just need to play the right shows. Everyone nods along. That’s true if your machine is big and real and turned on and turning out, but, by and large, the only thing you can do to keep from drowning unheard-of and unknown is play as much as fucking possible. It’s gotta be the right stuff, too. Have “buzz” going in, be booked at all the right places, play your cards exactly right, and maybe SXSW is going to help you. Aside from a few notable exceptions, nobody gets paid to play, even though every event is sponsored out the ass.
The band was given our time slot for a month or two beforehand to allow us to plan around other shows and yada yada yada. We got the 4:30 PM slot on Saturday, the last day. Great time, guaranteed fully full venue. A bursting venue. The kind of capacity that means, even with a crowd that large, everyone can’t walk out on you for playing the screaming music (Sick Feeling is a hardcore band, or a post hardcore band, depending which member of the band you ask). Over the years, Fader has done an amazing job of creating an aura unto itself surrounding their Austin Fader Fort. The first time I went, it went something like: War on Drugs, some really super-talented guy who I didn’t know yet who just wailed on a strat and sang nice songs and dressed well (Blood Orange), Action Bronson, The-motherfucking-Dream, and Kendrick. No one except The-Dream was really that famous yet. What if we were on one of those days this year? What the fuck does that mean for us, or what aggressive music is in 2015? Our friends in Trash Talk played it after being a no-bullshit full time band and destroying the world for years. My band is made up of vets who have played to huge crowds everywhere, and then me. I’ve never been in a band before. Not one that made it out of the garage, anyhow.
I asked anyone who works in music who I thought might know anything about the line up, including Fader Folk, and got basically nothing. Here are some of the questions:
“Did you solve Popcaan’s issues getting into the U.S.?”
“Have you been working a corrupt system tirelessly from the inside, and now it’s finally paid off, Gucci is free, and he’s playing Fader Fort first?”
“Does Fader have ins at the State Department or the DOJ—yes or no? I’m asking this privately as a friend, it’s all good, I’m just curious, shooting the shit you know? Casual…”
“Fine, what about Green Day?”
“…They were a cherished Bay Area band from the mid-’80s featuring members of Operation Iv… you know what nevermind; What about Sophie?”
The line up for our day comes out, I download fucking Snapchat, and screencap our chunk of the day, feeling more than a little embarrassed to be excited. As “not punk” or as much of a sellout as I think I am (I hope I’m not at all, but when did I get flexible? Am I “adult?” Is that term bullshit? Am I more or less full of shit than I was 10 years ago? Less, right? Definitely less…but am I lazy? Why don’t I work in politics towards positive change?) I am starting to feel skeevy about the whole thing. I feel really indulgent. I wonder if it’s all a hoax, not that we’re playing, they really want us to, but why? What’s their angle? They have an angle, right? (I’ve created a perfectly opaque ‘They’ in my head, and their whims and goals follow my petty paranoia like a shadow.)
I move on for a while when I see the line up for our day. We are right after the excellent Vince Staples, and two before Kevin Gates (Everybody’s sworn favorite). I like Kevin Gates’ music and humor so much I followed the Instagram account he made for his dog for like a week before I felt too fucking silly following an internet animal to keep it up. The dude right after us was someone I haven’t heard before, who I now really like, named Alex G. His music is quiet and delicate, pretty much the opposite of us, at least sonically. I felt bad at first before I realized he might be the break people needed before revving back up for Kevin Gates. I swear to god I thought about all of this, and now I cannot imagine why it had absolutely nothing to do with whether we were going to do a good job or not.
But something else stuck out way more than the three artists around our set. At the end of the night there was Hudson Mohawke, and then an blocked out spot. “Special guest.” Hudson Mohawke is a really popular electronic artist, who’s also known for being nice, being English, and doing more work with Mr. Kanye West than most of the small circle of people who get to work with Kanye West. So who does everyone think the special guest is? What did I say when I read that line up? I said the same thing everyone said when they read ‘Special Guest’ directly billed after Hudson Mohawke’s Fader Fort closing night set:
“It’s gotta be Kanye.”
Why Would Kanye Come?
Austin has a little over 900,000 residents as of 2014. During the music portion of the SXSW conference, that number spikes dramatically. It’s too many people for the size of the city even if it’s ‘just’ an extra 10,000 (I don’t feel like looking up the stats, I’m going to come clean here, it’s not that important, it’s just a lot of people). It turns a spacious Texan city into a claustrophobic space on par with a subway car at rush hour, except everyone’s drunk and nearing sunstroke. The event ate itself some time ago, when exactly that was, is a sorting hat of a question, a question that gets a subjective answer specific to a person who’s already the specific sort of person who had a reason to know about and go to SXSW at some point and time – their ‘when’ and ‘why’ are very telling – as is their nearly inevitable “…but it sucks now and you know it too but here’s my version of when why and how that happened”. By my estimation, it’s whatever year it stopped being an event that happened in Austin, but rather, a weather system that happened at its residents and infrastructure.
Was it the year DJs and solo artists began to outnumber bands? The electricity required for those acts, as opposed to a band, are greater, pushing the fuse box of every bar-turned-venue-just-for-the-week past their limits, and there were brown outs everywhere. It’s an annoying aside that older indie rock dudes hold a lot of the “when it was good it was good” cards in this story. (Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is as Dad as Fogerty or Foghat, with all due respect to all three acts, respectively, I like you guys). I stayed with my friend, an Austin local, that year. Early on in the week, he and his friends presumed to have a grip on all the shows and felt at peace bypassing the email sign ups for the shows that give the company your contact info and age, which is what they’re doing this for in the first place. Only it didn’t work that year. There weren’t many locals working the doors anywhere, and the ones that were, and were the sort of locals who would know the young buck ‘locals’, they had been paid well enough to politely decline their indigenous claim to show entry. It wasn’t a locals town during SXSW anymore.
Surely the city is financially dependent on the throngs and the sponsors and the what have you, for more than a few years running, i’d imagine. There’s no point in tolerating nonsense at that fever pitch of drunken entitled audacity if there wasn’t good money to show for it. Austin has become a convention city, and a frequent festival host in the wake of SXSW’s two decade plus run. The locals I spoke with this past year talked a lot about the changing face of the city, which always sucks, and has real life ramifications. If I’m hearing it from people that are statistically privileged, it’s cutting deeper for people that generally get pushed to being reported on by the liberal weekly cities like that used to nurture. But as far as that gripe goes I’m from the Bay Area, and live in New York, It could happen harder, faster, and in such a disorienting swing that everyone twirls 360, then says, “I told you so.” That doesn’t make it right or fair, though, does it?
Fader Fort has been at the same site long enough for the neighborhood to go from “dicey” (purely anecdotal aggregate, I personally wasn’t there) to prime lots awaiting new buildings for new residents. Quietly, I heard it said, 2014 would be the last year for Fader Fort to be held in its long standing location “down East 5th street a bit”. It sits on a really big plot of land that will be developed into what I’m told are high rise apartments. All that to the side for a moment, the Fader Fort has become its own destination festival within the frenetic scrum of Austin during SXSW. If you rsvp in time, it’s pretty much the best value free festival for new music and surprises, no bullshit. By Saturday, there’d been jump-on sets from Miley Cyrus and Future during the wink wink nudge nudge billing of “Mike Will and Friends,” along with what was apparently a great musical moment (sadly rare at South by, despite the massive amount of dedicated artists playing at any given moment during the week) when T-Pain played 42 fuckin’ songs and turned the whole place out. Big Sean brought out E-40, and I wasn’t there, and my Bay Area heart sank. Migos played. Who could top all that? Who can shoulder up with vets, pop stars, and all the young guns on the rise? Even when I got to Texas, and I still thought
“It’s gotta be Kanye.”
A lot of good new bands and rappers and singers played too—some hyped, some not. The line up is certainly out there for the googling. The thing is, there’s a delicate balance between big and small, and it’s very much on purpose and part of the Fader “thing.” It’s how we got placed where we got placed. I can see the thinking behind it but not even enough to really explain it back to anyone. I’ve done some booking and tour managing, but that line up is a sausage made differently than the ones i’ve seen made up close. Either way the part of me that’s excited is suddenly way louder than the part of my that side eyes corporate sponsorship. I fuckin’ love Vince Staples and Kevin Gates, and when is this going to happen again? Maybe never, right? Will this change everything? No way. My band mates are vets, and I’m going to keep calling them that. They practice intensely. I get to think these dumb thoughts because I’m so sure of them that the only thing to think about is me and a whole mess of shit I have zero control over.
It’s Not Gonna Be Kanye.
I write for a few places, I’m in a band, I’ve made a couple music videos for artists that are really great. I’m not an outsider, this might all be navel gazing.
The day before we play Danny (bass) and Alan (drums, like I said) are with me in a nook of the Fader Fort grounds exactly as far away from the stage as you can be, where they give you a free pair of shoes or twelve, depending on your station in life. It’s pouring rain. It hasn’t rained at South by in forever. No one has seen rain before. What do we even do? How will we ever go on? The whole front stage area of the “fort” is tented, so I’m actually happy. People can’t walk away when we start playing! What if they get wet? I hate getting wet. I’m talking with one of our label dudes, and someone who works somewhere has some information. (Hey, Page Six, it’s me, I have all the hot indie goss the Post reader needs and wants and I’m for sale, apparently).
“It was going to be Kanye, but now it’s definitely not Kanye”
The thing was, Kanye West had just signed his super lucrative deal with Adidas. At some point after booking Hudson Mohawk, it really looked like it was all going to go down. They were probably trying to broadcast that it might be Kanye West when the schedule came out like that. Why else would they fake it? They don’t need to fake it, the place is open until 10pm and full by 2pm every single day they throw it. The thing about that giant Adidas deal; why would you then go play in front of a gigantic Converse sign and a big ass picture of Chuck Taylors? Converse is owned by Nike, who you’ve been trashing for your own reasons, both in concert and in interviews. Why would you turn around and help a company they own sell the most successful sneaker of all time, simultaneously putting your future Adidas money in peril? Of course it’s not gonna be Kanye.
Kanye or Not, We’re Still Playing
I woke up fully clothed on a long sectional couch. My filthy tan imitation Jansport is always placed within arms distance the night before, no matter what condition I fall asleep in, because my first waking thought is “Did someone take it? Where’s my bag? Is the stuff in it? All the stuff?” 30 seconds into my day i’m hunched over the gaping zippered maw of my backpack doing a head count; Laptop I haven’t used in a week that I’ve been banging into every surface I encounter? Check. Weed? Where’s the fucking weed who took my weed. Ok. Ok. It’s there. Roll the weed? Wait, where’s my phone charger. Oh my phone is 15 feet away. Why is it over there? I plugged it in? I plugged it in! No one has made themselves known yet.
I’m in a big home, and there was a big party here last night. Was I at the party? I was! Other people I knew were there too. Right. I’m in Austin, Texas. They don’t have cabs here, even when they double the amount of people in the city. How’d I get home?
First and foremost, tour (for me) is about how good basic shit is that you have back home that’s less achievable when you’re traveling by 15 passenger van with a bunch of other grown-ups, sleeping on couches. Think of it like losing your phone, then having someone return it an hour later when you’re finally in the throes of panic and self-abuse that come hand in hand with losing your digital social flotation device. The relief that washes over you when you double back across two small cities to the bowling alley where left your dad’s bar mitzvah watch that you took off because you thought it would help you bowl a 200 because why try and go for 300? You always sell yourself short and striving for perfection might kill you, but also why did you take off the watch in the first place? The owner of Albany Bowl is wearing the nice-ish watch when you throw yourself through the doors of his establishment, and he chuckles as he gives it back to you. These two feelings are the same as a shower with someone else’s towel and a charged phone on tour. You’re just getting back something you always had and it feels so much better after the deprivation.
My phone is charged. I’m drinking strange seltzer from a glass bottle. I am not only showered, but my greasy long hair is up in a towel like my mom taught me how to do. This is peak tour comfort. Why do I feel so fucking insane? I’m still waiting for there to be other people. Now is the time to roll that joint. Right now.
I step gently in between crushed cans of local beer, letting myself wander three feet off the wooden deck into the pebbled driveway, before an invisible fence in my head makes me turn right back toward the house. I call my girlfriend. I post about the show. I try and get a jump on our guest list. I’ve had trouble getting into their self contained festival within a festival all week long. Missed Skepta, missed Miley. (How will I go on? How will I ever manage?) It’s way different the day you play the overworked, exasperated Fader staff tell me when I do make it in.
The gang wakes, and collects themselves in some unimportant order. Alan and Don, anyway, the guitar player and drummer. We grab the van, Alan always drives, Don is sitting shotgun this time, and I’m reading the pre-production email from Fader out loud:
The ONLY vehicle access point to the venue is at East 6th street & San Marcos. From East 6th street you will want to turn south on San Marcos. There is a road closure at this intersection, where there will be a police officer and an attendant named Chen stationed. Let them know that you are performing at FADER FORT and give them the code word: ELEPHANT
“That’s fucking tight!”
We pull down the side street that gets you to the drive in entrance behind the stage, it’s not quite raining yet. We cut down the side street and an old man I can only imagine is Mr. Chen runs up on the van waving his arms that we aren’t allowed to come this way. Alan rolls down the window in a rush and we all yell:
“Elephant! Elephant! Elephant!”
Upon hearing the magic word, Mr. Chen disappears as fast as he materialized, and we pull our van through the congealing slog of people already herding toward the venue.
To Be Continued…