Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Years

I'm a nervous wreck right now. Since moving to Austin a year or so ago, I've been doing everything possible to avoid getting a "day job." Many years ago in Colorado, in better times, I worked as an editor and a freelance writer and made almost enough money to call it a living. When the bar band I was playing bass in started getting well-paying ski town gigs, I was really living the dream... paying my expenses through writing and music. That was an awesome couple of months. Anyway, I got laid off from my editing job. Got a job at Circuit City; they went out of business. Got a job delivering sandwiches; showed up for work one day and there was a handwritten cardboard sign in the window saying that the government had seized the property for failure to pay back taxes. It seemed like life in Colorado was trending inexorably downwards. So we moved.

For a year or so I did everything I possibly could to avoid getting a "paycheck" kind of job down here. I played bass in an orchestra production of The Sound of Music. I did some mostly boring archival editing for rollingstone.com, which was nice work while it lasted. (And I got a credit for the rewrite I did of the Guided by Voices bio, which was exciting.) But mostly I've been a bum, baking and cooking and going to as many free shows as humanly possible. It's time for me to go to work now, but as a student of history my acute awareness of my own past makes me edgy. I don't respond well to outside control of my schedule and long, continuous periods of time in the presence of other people wears me down. I expect to do better in this new foray into the working world than my last few because I have a better attitude about it and I'm literally in a better place (Austin is so much better than Denver for me), but I still am prepared for my creativity and energy as a writer to go plunging downward. I'm less inclined to go out and seek beauty in the world when I'm tired and cranky.

I know I'm going to make myself go to shows and keep writing about Austin bands, though. I'm invested in it now. Despite my oddities and annoying traits I've been welcomed into a community here. I lived in a few cities and haven't found any other to be as welcoming. Perhaps I can only get along with music nerds. Either way, there's no place I'd rather be than in Austin 2010/2011. I could use some hope for the future at the moment, so rather than the knee-jerk "Best of 2010" year-end entry, here's some Austin music stuff I look forward to in 2011.

1Learning my history. There are a couple of really young local bands I like, but I have a clear bias towards experienced veterans. It has less to do with instrumental acumen than letting the idea of the band mature and develop. As in the case of La Snacks, nearly as old as The Midgetmen, not exactly tight but totally in control of their vision. Playing shows in Texas for a nearly a decade has to teach you something, particularly if you're still alive and sucking air as a band. La Snacks are representative of a lot of Austin bands in that they have their roots elsewhere in Texas (Beaumont) and continue to have links through their hometown, here and there. The more bands I talk to the more I realize that understanding music in Austin requires learning as well roots and family trees of bands in Houston, San Antonio, Denton, El Paso. The complex inner workings of Austin's music scene require for understanding consideration of a much wider and broader setting and timescale. Butcher Bear brought me a fistful of seven-inches and CD's from his (iN)Sect Records label a few weeks ago. Listening to the whole stack of it, from hardcore comp to the radical, theatrical four-track parodist Explosion Horse, I realized what I was experiencing was a museum exhibit of tastes. I didn't like every moment of every release, but I knew that a story was being told.

2. Booking more shows. I talk a lot about how bands should try and challenge their listeners with weird, interesting show lineups with lots of style juxtapositions. I'm going to do my best to put on some shows of my own in that spirit. Rather than focusing on picking bands that sound alike, I want local musicians to concentrate on figuring out which other acts take the jobs of booking and promoting seriously. We can all work together more closely and share the benefits. My first Big Western Flavor show is coming up during Free Week at Barbarella next Wednesday. You should come to it. I'm going to make homemade donuts.

3. New albums from The Gary, ZorchThe Eastern Sea, The Sour Notes, White Denim, many more. The greatest challenge facing most musicians here and everywhere else? Continuing to exist. Especially for young bands, entropy is a constant threat. There are plenty of players here willing to insist stubbornly otherwise, but keeping together a consistent lineup of musicians who benefit creatively from each other's presence is the surest -- and yet most seemingly difficult -- path to success. I'm always willing to listen to a band's second record with fresh ears, because nothing is harder than surviving your first one.

4. More music everywhere. Necessity drove us further and further off the beaten path to find bands to see this year, and I hope if we continue to go in that direction in 2011 this time it's by choice. House parties, record stores, co-op parties, parking lots, bridges... music is happening everywhere in Austin, not only during the festivals, and it's in unexpected places that you find unexpected bands.

5. METAL. Anna C. and I first noticed it happening at Fun Fun Fun Fest... we were first drifting, then walking briskly, then outright sprinting past the "indie" Orange Stage to get between the Blue Stage (hip-hop/dance) and the Black Stage (punk/metal). A few nights ago we went to Emo's to see Ume, Follow That Bird!, and Ringo Deathstarr. Local thrash outfit Powderburn were playing the other stage and we ended up watching and enjoying them way more than most of the standstill indoor bands. There's a reason metal and hardcore consistently maintain cult audiences no matter how in or out of style they are. Metal bands, even the shabbiest, know they're not supposed to stare at their feet and frown when they're rocking out. I've only dipped my toes into the metal and 'core scenes in Austin but what I've heard (Squidbucket, Eagle Claw, Markov) I've really liked. If we don't see more "indie rock" bands showing they care -- the way Pataphysics or A Giant Dog do -- we're just going to have to get black hair dye and Tool shirts and go to Red 7 all the time.

6. Continuing to not care about stupid expensive festivals. One of the best trends of 2010 that I would love to see repeated in 2011: local bands and promoters getting together to give fans really appealing alternatives during Those Festivals. Ditch the Fest Fest at Cheer Up Charlies was epic and in March the music got cooler the further away you got from the downtown area. I plan on spending even less time listening to pointless outsider "hype" music next year than I did this year. And so should you.

7. Seeing where music writing in Austin goes. I don't know if this one qualifies as something I'm "looking forward" to. I am more filled with morbid, self-interested anticipation. As matters stand right now, the nature and the function of the independent press in this city is not serving the needs of the creative community nor its potential audience. The handful of big-dollar local promoters exerts far too much control over the tone and the content of entertainment coverage in the local daily and weekly. Local music writers and bloggers alike are all engaged in a race upwards to see who can get into the flashiest and glitziest afterparties; hardly anyone save for few musician slash critics is much interested in seeing local music covered intelligently. However... it's almost too bad to continue the way it is. I hear too many horror stories from local bands about bloggers who scam their way onto guest lists only to completely ignore all but the headliners in their reports, writers who assert you'll have a good time at a local show when they haven't seen any of the bands in question and are only doing a favor for an L.A.-based "indie promoter" who got them in to see Sleigh Bells or whoever. It can't possibly get worse, can it? I hope to see soon, if not in the next year, some sort of new voice or voices. Not necessarily someone who thinks the same way as I do, but at least someone who has some sort of compassion for local bands and a willingness to view them as more than a stepping stone to fame and glamour. The press should work to discover exciting new music and put it in front of people, not merely promote those few bands that have the money to pay someone to make them do it. They have a college campus here in Austin, right? Somebody with an intact brain has to fall through the cracks of the journalism school once in a while.

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