Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tonight's the Night

If you're in a band in Austin, how do you measure success? Is it about how many paying customers you can draw to a show? Do you go by press clippings, in town or otherwise? For many it's being able to make enough money to not have to work a day job, although by that standard just about everybody who plays original music here is a failure. For the most dedicated, being able to tour a few times a year, not bankrupt themselves, and still have a job and a home to return to is as good as it gets. Though a disturbingly high number of well-intentioned folks seem to feel as if the value of their music is directly connected to how much money they spend on it. I shudder to imagine a music scene where the only bands that get access to a larger audience are the ones who can afford hundreds of hours of Professional Studio Time (or to build their own studios), the services of mercenary PR spammers, or to rent lasers and smoke machines to make up for the lack of internal interesting things to look at during their concerts. On my bad days I suspect we are already more than halfway there.

I try to speak to as many local musicians as I possibly can. It doesn't surprise me any more, but it might be counterintuitive to some that the level of fulfillment people feel coming from their bands has little if any relation to their material success. Some guys in touring bands with big draws are miserable, ungrateful, and hostile (but not all of them). Some bands playing for five people at the Carousel Lounge are deliriously happy to just be making noise with their friends. Universally would-be Austin rock stars are a persecuted class -- recognition commensurate to the degree of passion and effort put in is a distant lottery-ticket dream, and hardly anybody this side of Kanye West ever becomes as famous as they believe they deserve to be. But like Kanye, we all shape our own reality. Whether your band's accomplishments fill you with the swell of pride or the rising bile of bitterness is entirely in your own hands. If you set goals for yourself that you can reasonably achieve, pursue them with gusto, and return your e-mails in a relatively timely fashion, you have every right to feel great about your band even if nobody else likes it.

Which brings us to The Midgetmen. If nothing else in eight-plus years of life the disheveled guitar rock quartet has given the rest of us in Austin with neither trust funds nor the burning desire to spend months at a time in our lives sleeping on strangers' floors a sturdy template for defining and achieving success on our own terms. The single hardest thing for a band to do is simply keep existing, and improbably the Midgetmen have soldiered on for more than eight years -- practically a decade -- with the same lineup. Their commitment to continue making records and playing shows through all this time while untold thousands of other bands formed, squabbled, and acrimoniously dissolved in Austin is extraordinary. It's something you can't take away from them, and it's something you've got to admire no matter what you might think of their music.

A big element of the Midgetmen's longevity is their sincere engagement with Austin's local music scene, spearheaded by bassist/charmer Marc Perlman. "Marc is a persuasive man," Dave from The Gary writes me. "I'm still trying to figure out how he got us to agree to play that Neil Young tribute this weekend." This particular event, which gathers together eleven significant Austin acts at the Parish to pay homage to the Canadian master, is only the latest in a long-running series of creative efforts on the part of Marc and the Midgetmen to make their shows stand out in a music environment that is choked with alternatives.

"We discovered after the first couple of years that the novelty wears out," Marc says. "Our friends like the Midgetmen because they're our friends. [Booking] bands that we like that don't sound like us made our friends happy." I've been operating this blog since day one on the theory that the best way to improve your own band's situation is by paying as much attention as you can to other local bands. The Midgetmen have been putting this theory into practice for years before I even hit town! "I'm shocked that more bands don't network," Marc says. We both lament the antisocial (yet widespread) behavior of bands in Austin who book shows, arrive right before their set time, pack in, play, pack out, and leave without listening to or even talking to any of the other musicians on the bill. "Get there before all the bands play" and watch everybody.

Finding a stream of other interesting local bands kept the Midgetmen's fan base entertained for a few years, but not forever. After returns from the strategy began to diminish, Marc and the band "started looking for new projects." But this NY night isn't just a device to give established listeners a reason to come see the band again. It's also another step in the Midgetmen's continuing effort to get themselves and some of their favorite other Austin bands notice from area music fans who might not normally pay attention to any of them, or local music in general. The lineup, and the venue, have been worked out carefully to appeal to both younger fans who are followers of the Austin scene and older listeners who will be attending due to their devotion to Neil Young. "It was originally going to be four or five bands," Marc explains, but after rounding up some of the more obvious choices "we decided to reach out to really weird bands. Not obvious bar rock, bands that no one would expect to cover Neil Young." Of the eleven-strong roster, the bands that have me most curious to hear their Young interpretations are The Sour Notes, La Snacks, and The Distant Seconds... younger bands who are two or three degrees of influence removed from Neil and could take his songs in unexpected directions. When in Rome are an all-star collection of hardened vets who have formed especially for this show. "Trey from The Gary insisted on being involved because he loves 'Powderfinger'," Marc says. (Well, that answers Dave's question.)

For the Midgetmen, the experience of learning their songs for the show was enlightening. Music lovers for generations have marveled at Neil Young's ability to create songs that are unmistakably his own using the simplest chord changes imaginable, "the four chords that have been used forever" in Marc's words. "It will be interesting to find out from the other bands whether they've had the same experience. Having to learn a few Neil Young songs forced everyone in the band to learn how those things translate."

Marc and I hang out, drink beer, and chat for some time about the music press in Austin; most of what we have to say even I'm not brave enough to share for public consumption. Suffice it to say that neither of us thinks the quantity and quality of coverage granted to local music measures up to the talent on display here. When the papers here catch up to a band, it's usually six months after everyone else. For the Neil Young show, Marc says quite pointedly that he tried to get bands "outside of mainstream attention. That was calculated.... There are plenty of bands that the Chronicle hates that I love." He feels, as I do, that the problem for local bands in Austin is not the fans. "People want to see local bands, but they are busy;" they don't have time to do all the legwork and research it takes to find the best local acts and the newspapers and radio stations aren't presenting them with the best options. A regular contributor to the local music review site Austin Sound, Marc takes music journalism almost as seriously as I do. We're not optimistic about the state of the art form. "Every year there's 'Top 20 albums' lists on every blog, and 15 of them are the same!"

The Neil Young tribute curated and hosted by the Midgetmen takes place this Friday, 12/3, at the Parish. The full lineup from first to last: The Distant Seconds, Blue Kabuki, Through the Trees, When in Rome, Whiskey Priest, The Pons, The Sour Notes, The Midgetmen, The Gary, La Snacks, Smoke & Feathers. Seven bucks will get you in and doors are at 8.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Kicking and Screaming

As usual, it's only taken me a full year to figure out that this project will be more successful if I concentrate on giving the readers what they want instead of just doing everything my way. I hope you SOB's enjoy your show picks.

MONDAY Punk of no particular era with good songs and an elastic rhythm section, The Bad Lovers are playing at The Grand on Airport Boulevard. A lot of bands in Austin love blaming the venue when they don't sound good, but these guys were built for dives. If you can sound awesome in a concrete box like Trailer Space or The Parlor, you must be doing something right. Gritty, mordantly funny folk troubadour D.B. Rouse is playing at Flipnotics, too.

THURSDAY I'm not the biggest fan of The Hi-Tones, but I heard a great rumor about them I simply can't resist passing on. I was told that this same group of guys has been playing together for a few years under different names. They play until they get a bad review, then they change styles and pick a new name. Their current incarnation as an insincere mod-pop revival has apparently gotten positive enough feedback for them to stick to it. I don't know if this is true, but it certainly wouldn't surprise me given all I know about the "scene" here, where bands are often rewarded more for successfully emulating national trends than being creative. I saw the Hi-Tones play and thought it was monotonous. Anyway, go see them and make up your own mind. They're sharing a bill at the Continental with Megafauna, who are always worth seeing. They've got more than enough bizarre style shifts and weird time signatures to go around. Local rapper Zeale, a solid live performer with an impressively clear delivery, is at Parish. He's not really much for expanding on traditional hip-hop subject matter but he runs a party quite effectively. Follow That Bird! have grown a great deal from their no-fi origins. I think the word's already out on this trio but if you haven't seen them in a while, you might be surprised by how far Lauren Green's riffs and Tiffanie Lanmon's drumming have evolved after several months of steady gigging. They're at Red 7 with Milk Thistle.

FRIDAY The big show tonight is the Neil Young tribute at Parish. No fewer than 11 bands, most of which are good, are joining together for this blowout event organized by The Midgetmen. I really admire the effort that these guys are putting into finding new ways of connecting hardcore Austin music fans with underexposed local bands. They put a ton of thought into booking their shows and they really grasp the point I always am trying to make about bands in Austin taking it upon themselves to give listeners more than their money's worth. There's a lot more to say about this show, so I'm running a full story on it tomorrow, stay tuned. For now perhaps go listen to The Sour Notes, The Gary, and La Snacks, the absolute cream of the crop when it comes to Austin rock... I hope all of these bands win a ton of new fans this weekend. You should be among them, if you aren't already. Even if you don't know your Harvest from your Harvest Moon, I promise a good time. Also Friday we've got Royal Forest and The Lemurs for free at Lucky Lounge, a show so appealing I accidentally listed it last week. After seeing Royal Forest at Fun Fun Fun Fest I am rooting for their new name to become well-known enough that they will no longer have to put "formerly Loxsly" on all their show announcements. And talk about an embarrassment of riches! The Friday night indoor show at Emo's is pretty awesome, too: electro-dance to the edge of panic with Freshmillions and Zlam Dunk (CD release) plus the killer post-hardcore Markov and the trumpet-kissed, Kinsella-rock anthems of For Hours and Ours. Too much good stuff.

SATURDAY My dear friends World Racketeering Squad return to their favorite haunt, the Rockin' Tomato on South Lamar, celebrating the release of their latest EP Talking to the Radio with You Might Think We're Sharks in support. I've given WRS plenty of love; I am biased in their favor since few bands here love Brit-pop and science fiction with the same intensity as I do. But let me say something nice about the venue: The management at Rockin' Tomato cares more about making every show a great experience for the bands playing than most rock clubs in Austin. They're regularly making improvements to their soundboard and their stage setup, the staff is friendly and supportive, and the food is really good. All local bands should play there, if only for the opportunity to get some of their pizza and burgers for free.

SUNDAY Post-rock/art-pop/kitchen-sink act paperthreat jam for no cover at the One-2-One Bar, which is a new venue to me. It's on East 5th. Says here free pizza, which never hurts the cause any. I really like the diverse sounds of this band, who seem to just be coming into their own... they're powerful without being loud and dance-friendly without being repetitive. There are a lot of guitar bands in Austin trying to figure out how to bring their laptop beats up on stage without being clumsy about it. Most of them are failing, but paperthreat have it figured out. The fact that they have a real point of view in their songwriting helps a ton.

If you've got a recommendation for a show I passed over or are playing one yourself in the weeks to come, let me know!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

For Cold Weather: Try Extremely Low Bass Frequencies

All the shows Anna C. and I went to in the past week were heavy on electronic equipment and lower than usual on dudes with guitars. It could be mere chance. It could be that after Fun Fun Fun Fest we're a touch burned out on rock bands and ready to see what else Austin has to offer. Mostly, I think that it's because we're extremely poor and the shows we went to Monday, Wednesday, and Friday were ones we could get into for free.

Bubbleface, who we saw Monday at Cherrywood Coffeehouse, were not exactly what I was expecting. All I knew about the group before last week was relayed to me by Sean Padilla, who lives in the same house where Bubbleface practices. From Sean's descriptions I was expecting music more difficult and chaotic... perhaps I was getting his views on the band confused with his views on his roommates' housekeeping. Although they do feature two musicians generating howling static, Bubbleface are really quite propulsive, warm, and sort of cheerful. While the rest of the trio sends out boops and beeps in cycles, the drummer keeps a very solid dance beat on an electronic kit... at least until his lunch break is over. They scheduled this show during his work hours and still found a way to lend two songs to Sean's end-of-tour celebration. A guest poet hectored the audience from atop an amp stack for the second tune, throwing out some word jazz over the oscillating tones. Not a terrible idea in theory but at the show I found myself tuning the spoken word out and concentrating on the beats.

We encountered Sex Bruises at the House of Commons co-op on Friday. They were pure noise, one musician tweaking knobs to shift the equalization of howling feedback and a second one kneeling over an electric bass and two cymbals (no stands, just two cymbals lying on the floor) and hitting them all as hard and as fast as possible. You're either into that sort of thing or you aren't, but for my part I found it to be a nice break from all of the half-baked attempts at rock songwriting I endure from local bands. Bracing is the word, I suppose. For what it's worth it wasn't monotonous and they kept the "set" going for just about the right amount of time, twenty minutes or so... a small but pretty attentive crowd stood listening for the whole time. Yatagarasu was more interesting still, a solo computer musician who uses predominantly synth voices from old 8- and 16-bit video game systems and combines his overdriven, irregular beats with aggressive shouting and the agitated persona of a top-notch hardcore frontman. He began his set by playing and singing a rather sweet little number on an old out-of-tune piano, which was a clever way of wrong-footing the listener before the digital assault of the rest of his set. I'd see Yatagarasu again for sure, ideally at a club with some really brawny powered speakers.

Wednesday night, we got free turkey and free beer at the Beauty Bar... I've really turned around when it comes to my attitude about that place. Not having to pay for stuff has that effect on me. A three-pack of worthy producers played original sets. El Nou Man had good stage presence and a nice sense for keeping the audience hooked... a few times I drifted outside to see about getting more turkey and Anna pulled me back in because the bass kicks were demanding us to dance. The variety of source material in his tracks kept the music fun to listen to as well as dance to, from hyper-speed rap to Joni Mitchell! I've seen a spate of MPC musicians lately and Curdoroi is one of the few who uses live keyboards extensively while making his music. Layering simple but effective original melodies over his tracks, his set wasn't as continuously beat-happy but it was intriguing to watch and try and figure out which sounds were coming from what part of his setup.

Chili played third and as I knew from seeing him a few weeks previously at Exploded Drawing, we were in good hands. I am not as sophisticated a listener of electronic and experimental music as I am of rock, jazz, or pop but no matter what it is I am listening first and foremost for changes, for new things that surprise me and defy my expectations. Chili's compositions have a ton of different ideas in them, and they move very quickly... he's a bolt of energy back there doing enough button-pressing for two or three people and although I have no idea what triggers what, I can say that his music progresses and dime-turns faster and more satisfyingly than I feel most dance music is capable of doing. Sometimes I wonder watching solo laptop or MPC players if they would be better off playing in a band; Chili's stuff sounds like a band, so much is going on.

Anna and I spent Thanksgiving with Zorch and Thax Douglas, playing Monopoly, eating turkey, and listening to records. (Lots and lots of progressive rock, although the new M.I.A. and Black Keys LP's worked their way in somehow.) The Austin music scene is our adopted family so having Turkey Day dinner with our favorite local band and the only writer in town who goes to more local shows than I do was most satisfying. Zorch and Thax have recorded an album together, did you know? According to the boys it's the most disturbing thing they've ever been involved in making. That's both intimidating and enticing to me.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

No Holiday Tie-In Intended

I can't stand holidays. To me the implication of special days set aside to recognize our loved ones, our veterans, our greeting card industry is that it's perfectly OK to completely take those things for granted the rest of the year. And Halloween! Girls (and boys), why indulge your impulse to dress like streetwalkers only one day a year? Why can't we have Shamrock Shakes all year round, why? So I insist that it's an unrelated coincidence that tomorrow is Thanksgiving and I just happen to be filled with gratitude and goodwill towards men today as I post. There's no calendar correlation whatsoever.

Anyway. On Monday I got to participate in a pretty special show at the Cherrywood Coffeehouse. Sean Padilla, sometimes known as The Cocker Spaniels, was celebrating his intact return from a five-week guerilla tour of the right-hand half of our states united. Giddy from elation and exhaustion, it was tough to get a coherent sentence out of the man. He looked like he needed a three-day nap and I hope this weekend he gets one. But Sean refused to consider the tour completed until the last note of the very last show, and he was determined to make his return to Austin a triumphant one. He drove his custom-painted tour van right up in front of the stage at Cherrywood, set mic stand and amp right up on top of it, and rocked from there, jumping down to dance with the audience and cue up new backing tracks from his laptop. Said laptop was a gift from one of the hundreds of devoted fans the C. Spaniels rocked on the tour, granted in Milwaukee after Sean spilled water on his own computer. The power of music and friendship combined is terrifying indeed. It can move mountains, or at the very least, certainly vans.

Dancing enthusiastically to "The Overeducated Underclass" I looked around and saw that everybody rocking out with Sean was a fellow Austin musician. Many of those in attendance were members of bands I've written about, friends I've made through my blog that I've been able to introduce to the Cocker Spaniels' music and that of many other buried gems right here in our home city. After many long years, indeed a lifetime, of feeling isolated, ostracized, and irrelevant it was galvanizing indeed to see people dancing, singing along, and having a good time and perceive my own small role in assisting that to happen. I feel strongly like Sean deserves audiences like that wherever he goes and in Austin, at least, it was within my power to help give him one. If anything I write helps bands that I love to grow their audiences, I have a purpose.

I started doing Big Western Flavor for a selfish reason: When I moved to Austin I really wished there was a site that recommended local bands based on how good and original a live show they put on, as opposed to how slick-sounding the clips on their MySpace page were. I'm perturbed by the fact that the bookers and media outlets in Austin that have the most say in which local bands get wider attention pretty much don't listen to any local music, and they sure as hell never go to any local shows. By and large, the local rock bands who get the most support from Austin music promoters make blandly inoffensive, middle-of-the-road formula sludge that reflects none of Austin's diversity, spirit, or uniqueness. Radio programmers and music "journalists" here aren't in the business of challenging local audiences or fostering the development of creative artists. Their job is to make their readers and listeners feel good about themselves by reinforcing what they already know. Take comfort in the familiar! I guess it's not that different in other American cities, but I feel like given Austin's reputation it ought to be far better than it is now.

Seeing The Cocker Spaniels again made me think about my own approach to writing. Despite different backgrounds, Sean and I are very similar in the ways we think about music. We're obsessively attentive to detail and we hear every element. As such sometimes I see my own flaws amplified in Sean, and I hope he will forgive me for bringing up this weak point in order to make a larger argument. I don't think either of us realizes, most of the time, that nearly everyone else doesn't hear music as completely and as comprehensively as we do. For a lot of people it can be more a vague impression or a feeling than any sort of advanced structural analysis. To me the job of a music writer is to help serious listeners to evolve past that point -- to teach them how to start hearing all of the parts in the whole. That's why reducing reviews to a string of comparisons, or merely relating one's personal feelings, doesn't count as "criticism" in my estimation. The idea is to provoke new thought, not to do someone else's thinking for them.

A year or so into my Austin existence, I realize that I can't make everybody think the way I do. It's just not going to happen. I can't even get Anna C. to put her jacket and shoes away after we come home from a show, or get our roommate to clear his dirty dishes from his room. Grudgingly, I admit that I have to make allowances for the way most people think if I want to set and meet achievable goals for Big Western Flavor in its second year of life.

Here's what I want to do: I want to get bigger crowds at local shows for bands that deserve it. I want to introduce local musicians to a larger pool of good Austin bands, so they can book more diverse shows and make it more worthwhile for fans to show up at gigs, not just once or twice but regularly. I want to create more opportunities for musicians lately arrived in Texas -- so many people move to Austin expecting to find it a musical paradise and grow quickly bitter and jaded. It's not because the opportunities aren't there, it's just that the noise to signal ratio is overwhelming. I want hardcore music fans in Austin who spend all their money on digital downloads and concert tickets and yet never even consider going to local shows to get their heads out of their asses, stop reading Pitchfork, and start reading Big Western Flavor. I never want to hear the question "What kind of music do you like?" asked again unless the answer is a resounding "LOCAL MUSIC!" We all live our lives on iTunes shuffle nowadays; might as well rearrange our listening priorities around the community instead of the fickle whims of smug out-of-towners. It's bad enough having to give our city over to these overindulged airheads every March; I don't see why we have to bend over backwards trying to behave like them the whole year round. Animal Collective suck.

I didn't come up with those goals all at once. I started doing the blog, and doing it allowed me to meet a lot of Austin musicians. Talking to them and seeing what worked and didn't work made it gradually clear what possibilities existed for bands in Austin to take a less than ideal environment and reshape it by their own actions. Nobody's going to do it for us.

All right, so what do I need to do to help bands and fans in Austin help themselves? The first thing I have realized is that most people don't absorb information the way I do... If I read or hear one detail about an Austin band ten months ago, I still have it verbatim at my fingertips right this moment. I just don't forget stuff. If you tell me you have a show, you can have faith that I will remember when and where it is. I might not go to it, but I won't forget about it! So it doesn't necessarily occur to me that if I recommended a band back in say, April, and they're playing a show this weekend, my readers are not going to be able to go find the show listings, recognize that band's name, know where the venue is, know that the other bands playing are cool too, show up, and have a wonderful time. I don't know why you people are all so dense, but I guess if I have to I will start doing weekly show listings, which is something I have resisted for a long time because I personally don't find such things to be of any utility. See, I'm meeting you halfway!

I guess that is a very labored way of introducing a (sort of) new feature but if you know anything about me and my weird brain you know change is something I resist with fingernails dug into the floor, sometimes literally. Anyway, going to start doing this Mondays. Please continue sending me show announcements. I draw the line at posting fliers, though. Some of my bizarre Luddite idiosyncrasies I will defend to the death.

WEDNESDAY Exploded Drawing 2 featured performer Chili is at Beauty Bar. Now in Austin by way of Boston, Chris Palmer works the MPC with a bit of epic drone-rock influence seeping in under the booming beats. Free Lone Stars from 9-10. Instrumental rockers vanishedCLAN play Red 7; fans of the rhythm-focused, gradually burning San Diego style (Drive Like Jehu, Three Mile Pilot) should check them out. Band members told me the show I discovered them at was their worst ever and I still thought they were pretty good. They've had some time to evolve and have added butt-kicking bassist Giuseppe Ponti (Tofu Kozo, Boy + Kite), so I am eager to see them again.

FRIDAY Muchos Backflips! and The Baker Family are at Emo's; an interesting contrast. The former is a long-running "adventure rock" outfit, well steered by marvelous drummer Eric Brown (also of Squidbucket). They get heavy, in between trumpet solos and spooky melodic breaks. Austin has a whole scene of smart-heavy bands and along with Invincible Czars Muchos Backflips! are the flag-bearers. Poppier, bordering on twee, The Baker Family reformed in Austin after its eponymous couple (Stuart and Liz) picked up roots from North Carolina. They balance their electro-pop inclinations with a more rustic approach on ballads, and plus vocals in either case. I'm not knocked out by any of their songs on its own, but I'm impressed by the confident way they can shift gears.

SATURDAY The winsome tenor vocals, lovey-dovey lyrics, and power-pop power chords of Quiet Company led me to initially categorize them in that group of MOR crowd-pleasers I detest, but it has been difficult to persist in disliking them. Their latest EP, Songs for Staying In, shows a real restless push towards change... having worked out how to do the pop single thing, they're seeing what else is out there. Of course, they still have choruses to make the young girls swoon. They rock surprisingly hard live, also to their credit. They're always trying to find new ways of reaching out and engaging fans, and their show Saturday at the ND is their first Twitter show... those in attendance who check in can see their tweets up on a big screen. Good luck tweeting more prolifically than Paul Osbon, their brilliant and tireless manager. Alt-country standouts Guns of Navarone are on that bill as well.

There, that wasn't so bad. We'll do this again Monday!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Too Much Fun Interview: Nick Nack

I was worried that doing an amount of coverage commensurate to the value of three days' admission to Fun Fun Fun Fest would be a bad thing for the blog. After all, my mission statement here is to support Austin musicians, to listen to records and go to shows that other writers ignore entirely. If I'm spending the bulk of an entire month just talking about one big festival, am I abandoning what made BWF distinctive in the first place? I worry about these things. Other than taking way too much time to wrap up FFF and move on, I'm pretty happy with the way things turned out. The fest generated four really different stories about four extremely diverse -- and worthwhile -- local acts. And the increased attention I got from covering something on the beaten path for a change led to several more local musicians contacting me to pass the word about their bands. Success.

I owe him an apology for taking such a long time to write this, but Nick Nack was one of the most invigorating personalities I met in three days at Waterloo Park. He also worked harder than just about any other musician in attendance -- between his own set and backing up the League of Extraordinary Gz, Nick and his turntables were in action for two solid hours Saturday afternoon.

Nick Nack is a fixture when it comes to Austin hip-hop -- he's been spinning, producing, and community-building since the mid-90's. He founded GigaCrate.com, a wildly successful DJ-centric music download site. His Crowd Control records has offered releases by himself and others for fifteen years. More than anything, he's an amazing resource for musicians in Texas and worldwide -- he's like a one-man hub connecting talented people with the latest technology and the freshest beats.

While we're chatting in the artist tent he calls over his friend, turntablist and inventor JohnBeez, so he can explain more fully to me the brand new "fretless fader." A mixer that allows the DJ to crossfade and pitch with the same hand (I'm simplifying here), leaving the other free to scratch, the fretless fader is a good example of the constant evolution in technology that makes electronic/dance music so fascinating. Since the way the music is being made is constantly evolving, leading in the genre requires a lot of communication. The best DJ's and producers are always learning from other musicians, finding out what tools they use and what new ways of utilizing them they've created. It's quite a contrast from the world of guitar bands.

Although he's been active as a DJ and producer for nearly twenty years now, playing original compositions live is another new challenge for Nick Nack. The local electronic composer showcase Exploded Drawing, a few weeks before Fun Fun Fun, was his first original set. A phenomenon that's almost universal for rock bands kicked here as well -- Nick practiced his set many times and got it to what he felt was the perfect length, but when the energy of the real live performance kicked in, he flew through it too fast! "That's the roughest thing." For Exploded Drawing, "I did too many songs. I pared it down and did four today." He'd planned to divide his hour set evenly between originals and DJ stuff, but his four songs ended up taking barely 15 minutes! Figuring out how to do his original stuff live is another new challenge for a guy who seems to welcome them.

Nick recommends the forums on the Crowd Control website as a good place for Austin fans who are  new to the scene to begin forming connections, learning about events, and trading tips with other creative types. His list of recommended Austin bands has the wide breadth you would expect from a DJ: Ghostland Observatory, White White Lights, Grupo Fantasma, Brownout, Akote Soul, DJ Odeon, White Denim, Crew 54, L.A.X., Ocote Soul, DJ Mel, Peligrosa, Chick n' George, DJ Wise.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Too Much Fun: Sunday

Sunday at Fun Fun Fun Fest had a very different vibe from Saturday. I had only one interview scheduled, and spent a lot less time in the backstage area. If Saturday was about soaking up a little of everything, Sunday I changed my focus to watching entire sets by artists I was particularly interested in. Anna C. bought a ticket just for Sunday and we stayed together for most of the day. I tried not to make her walk as many miles around in circles as I did by myself on Saturday.

Crew 54, a hip-hop duo out of Killeen with a live backup band, did an excellent job of playing early with high energy. I liked their distorted bass sound and contained, funky horn solos. Austin's own Eagle Claw launched the Black Stage Sunday, instrumental metal with a digital-cable attention span. I always loved Metallica's "Orion"; imagine if they could self-edit! Over at the Yellow Stage, one of the real sleeper performances of the whole Fest was delivered by the local comedian/nerdcore rapper Terp2It. With bodyguards, a loopy hype man, and sneakily well-written rhymes and tracks, Terp brought all his personality to bear on the boxing ring stage, rhyming about and distributing snacks. At the peak of his set, he had half of his long black beard shaved off, then returned to rap about kitties and lead off the air sex competition after dark, hours later. Forget Monotonix -- that was the best beard-related performance of the weekend.

Although we self-identify as "indie" people we kept drifting back to the Black Stage all day -- the bands were more engaging and the people there were friendlier. Peelander-Z married Japanese garage rock to full-body GWAR-style audience engagement, filtered through a Saturday-morning-cartoon sensibility that was far too sugary for me. I'm mostly grumpy about bands that rely entirely on visual appeal, and this was one of them. Off! were a real pleasant surprise, a new band featuring some very experienced West Coast hardcore players. They killed it, bringing some newer rhythms and arrangement ideas to straightforward old-style songs. It was a nice combination of San Diego and L.A. styles. Enjoyed watching Keith Morris stalk the stage, talk about getting wasted all weekend, and mention his bandmates stage-diving during Bad Religion the night before. I appreciated that sort of enthusiasm from the heavy bands all Fest long.

I put Anna in front of Kylesa before their set started because I knew, although she did not, that the Georgia metal quintet features a woman guitarist and singer, Laura Pleasants. As I expected, she was pretty impatient waiting for the band to start... until she saw they had a tough, tattooed lady shredding leads. Everybody has their own biases! There are many other original qualities to Kylesa. They have two drummers, who sometimes play in unison, and sometimes play parts that interlock. Phillip Cope has an odd, reedy voice for metal. They emphasize changes over technical prowess. The always layered drumming, which occasionally expanded to include four band members pounding toms, kept them distinctive while not particularly melodic.

Only journalistic obligation kept me checking in at the Orange Stage, which was pretty weak all Sunday. Magic Kids and their winsome folk didn't really project much distance from the stage. Deakin presented an interminable stretch of whaling on a processed guitar while he and a confederate pushed laptop buttons. There's some mystery to his Eastern-tinged singing, but not in a bright-sunny, dust-covered midday environment. Toro y Moi demonstrated again the perils of the laptop artist hiring a drummer without giving them instructions to do anything beyond replicate the record's loops. Kaki King was one of the more interesting performers of the weekend of the "indie" designation, but seemed at a loss for what to do in the festival setting. King played a lot of strummy rockers and did little of the percussive fingerstyle playing that is her stock in trade. A band made up of a leaden drummer and a fellow using an EWI (electronic wind instrument) to make syn-bass noises didn't exactly support her with sensitivity.

Cults made absolutely no impression of any kind on me, although I stood in front of them for quite some time. My interview with Eagle Claw kept me occupied during the performance by Best Coast, quite by design. I caught their last one and a half songs and rather liked them, but Anna and Scott both said that they were only interesting for about one and a half songs. Polvo were a band I supported quite enthusiastically during the 90's; their album Exploded Drawing in particular. Sadly they did not live up to my memories as well as Cap'n Jazz did the day before. The sound mix was extremely poor, making them sound harsh and mushy. I also think their post-reunion drummer lacks the feel to play off the rolling, poking, tagging guitars the way their original percussionist did. Deerhunter were another real bore. I don't know their records very well but I listened to them for a while in preparation for the festival and found myself being drawn in. Live they didn't have anything approaching the same shifting, slow-developing quality. They were as drab as Interpol, thudding repeated drum parts and guitars and bass chopped at in sullen waves. The Hold Steady were more tedious still, unnecessary guitar players mildly slotting in the same old chords while a sub-Barenaked Ladies smartass vocalist bored us with his unoriginal opinions to the same two-note melody.

Pharaohe Monch, on the Blue Stage, was the out-of-town highlight of the whole festival for me. With a DJ and two talented backing singers, Monch commandingly combined hardcore rap with old-school soul. Each performer had their own personality and energy to bring to the show, and the MC at center stage had unforgettable charisma -- he doesn't beg for your attention, but he expects it. Multiple times during the show the  DJ stopped the record to extol the crowd to get more involved, to work as hard as the musicians on stage were working. They weren't going to let anybody waste their time. I was afraid to leave when Pharaohe Monch was on stage. He might have called me out. I was going to stay right there and wave a hand or two in the air, interview schedule be damned. Nortec Collective, earlier on the same stage, had the crowd entranced with a very different kind of stage presence. Two guys with iPads, a tuba/trumpet player, and an accordionist played an irresistible blend of house and mariachi. Wearing incompletely matching outfits that mixed traditional with club cool, the four musicians presented an unlikely united front line, producers with their modern tools dancing and smiling along with old-line acoustic players. Their setup allowed them to sample one tuba figure so a live trumpet solo could be played over it later. Ableton software is pretty amazing....

Every festival comes with its missed opportunities. Sunday I regretted not seeing Jean Grae and The Bronx in particular. I also kind of regret the way the night ended. Mastodon and The Descendents were playing head-to-head, and I really love both of those bands, for very different reasons. We decided to start out with the Descendents, since it was their first show in several years and maybe their last in Austin ever. Maybe it was being worn out from the whole weekend of rocking, maybe it was that I only really know Milo Goes to College of their albums well, maybe it was that they weren't in top form -- but I wasn't really moved. It didn't seem like the culmination of the greatest music festival ever. We went to go check out Mastodon.

I had heard rumors that Mastodon used backing tapes somewhat to help support their vocals, which are not their strong suit as musicians. On album, they use guest singers and production tricks quite effectively -- it's one of the reasons that they've attracted a lot of nontraditional metal listeners even though they are quite pointedly a metal band. At least at this show, they used outside help sparingly, just some keyboard patches to introduce some of the newer songs. The vocals were live and rough. That satisfied me. They're significantly more aggressive and purist "metal" on stage, faster and brawnier and way less arty. That's probably the safest way to go to keep most audiences happy. I would love to see them mount a full-on prog rock tour with a bunch of backing singers, guest musicians, keyboard players, and engineers, but my favorite band of all-time is Genesis. I'm crazy.

In summation, I had a pretty good time at Fun Fun Fun Fest. Getting all of the interviews, seeing all of the bands I wanted to, and writing about it within a relatively short span of time were all welcome challenges. I am not sure whether I want to do the whole thing again next year. I am more sure than ever that writing about local bands is the best use of my blog. You don't have to go to any festivals to see local bands. Indeed, while I was stressing out about making good stories out of the limited interview windows I had with all of these festival bands, I could have been going to more Austin shows and having more musicians over for the longer-form chats that have been the source of most of the best articles I've written. Festivals are all about a lot at once and as someone who tends to focus in on the smallest details, not the best fit for my personal reporting style.

But I applied to do it, was accepted, and I did the most I could. I'm glad to have emerged on the other end with my sanity and my hearing still intact. Got one more interview with Nick Nack coming up soon, and then I can finally close the book on Fun Fun Fun and get back to covering shows that nobody else covers. Or even attends.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Too Much Fun Interview: Royal Forest

Royal Forest are a band you can label right away. But be aware the label may not stick. They are delicate and melodic at first glance, all pretty vocals and power-ballad piano, but between the big showpiece moments in their songs are unexpected detours through rough territory. Live the band turns their backs a bit on the precisely arranged nature of their recordings, allowing chaos to enter in. They don't jam, precisely, but they are more willing than you would expect given the ambitious, tightly composed elements of their writing to let things unwind and see what happens. This mix of the planned and the unplanned makes their music interesting.

It seems appropriate that they've had a name change already in their career... it fits the shifting, castles-in-the-sand quality that I like most about them. "A little more sober" in the early afternoon than they might have been for an evening show, the quintet winds down its Saturday set with a patient, slow-burning cover of Neil Young's "Borrowed Tune" that summarizes their intent nicely. Some time later I meet up with Justin, Cody, Eric and Garrett in the artist tent.

As the band formerly known as Loxsly continues developing their identity as Royal Forest, they're working on bringing more of the uncertainty of their live shows to their recordings. In the studio up to this point, they've had really firm ideas, "philosophies," about what they want to accomplish on a recording. By contrast, they "don't have any idea" what they sound like live. For their next album, they're tracking "to tape, all in a room" for the first time. That could lead to a shift in sound from earlier efforts that were constructed part by part.

It also requires new working methods. Justin has set up a studio in remote Leakey, Texas, taking his equipment out to a place where Royal Forest find few distractions. Recording is "the only thing you can do in Leakey. It makes us work." Work will continue on the next record in the new year. The band hopes to have a few tracks from the Leakey sessions completed in time for the next major Austin music festival in March.

I never get tired of tour stories... it's funny how every band has different luck; how there's certain cities for everybody that click or don't click. Royal Forest love Columbus (although they understand that's "not the norm" for many touring bands), Brooklyn, Washington, D.C., and Tulsa (even though every time they go there they get food poisoning). They're not big fans of Olympia, Washington, where the meth-heads evidently set up on blankets right out in the street to celebrate the weekend. "Bands on the East Coast have it easy," they say. Coming from out west where cities are further apart, the tiniest flaw in a tour plan can make the difference between profit and catastrophe. A rented tour van with insufficient fuel efficiency led to cancellations on one jaunt, for which they blame The Lemurs, from whom the van was procured. Royal Forest are eager to jump-start their official band feud with The Lemurs.

Touring must be done, for a lot of reasons. "There are a lot of Austin bands that don't draw here that are more relevant out of town." And they echo the commonly-voiced sentiment that hometown fans and writers aren't interested in Austin bands until someone outside the community pays them attention. In town, they have learned to be selective. "We burned out on taking every show we can get." They love Mohawk, and the U.S. Art Authority is a favorite new venue -- "a little bit different than the usual." Favorite local bands: Frank Smith, The Great Nostalgic (who have recorded at Justin's Shine Studios), YellowFever, Oh No Oh My.

I hope to see Royal Forest playing more frequently in Austin, as their development as a live band seems to just be taking flight. Something I forget all the time, writing about as many brand new bands as I do, is that it takes years sometimes for a group of musicians to really gel into a proper band. Band name changes and tour disasters notwithstanding, Royal Forest have kept the flame alive.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Too Much Fun: Saturday

I overslept Saturday morning. Anna having been at work and unable to attend "Weird Al" festivities, we went out Friday night to get a her a weekend dose of music at a house party featuring Half Mile Fox Fur, Planets, and The Creamers. We saw 40-odd barely-legal kids shoved into a living room hardly bigger than our own. No stands being present, a microphone hung from a ceiling fan. The bottled-up kids got rowdy to the fast, loud, inaccurate music. It rocked pretty hard, possibly as hard as Fun Fun Fun Fest. Just wanted to remind you again that other music options are always present in Austin.

After some morning hand-wringing I was after all able to arrive at the park before any music even began, just a few minutes after twelve. Having announced my intention to cover principally local music to the authorities who approved my press credential, I felt obligated all three days to get to Fun Fun Fun promptly. Every Austin band that played was either first on its stage or damn near it. I ran in between stages Blue, Orange, and Black early Saturday to distribute my attention between Royal Forest, Butcher Bear and Charlie, Woven Bones, The League of Extraordinary Gz, Nick Nack, and Hatred Surge. All six acts were done before 2 PM Saturday.

Nick Nack combined original material and DJ stuff in his set and was employing brand new technology. It was only his second time playing original material live, after Exploded Drawing, and by his own admission he rushed through it. Knowing more now about the scene for electronic producers in Austin, I hope he gets a lot more chances to do his own stuff. Royal Forest split their very melodic, hopeful verses up with some engagingly loose instrumental rambles. I don't think they really know how to use their pedal steel. Hatred Surge were hardcore of appropriate volume and tastelessness level for the Black Stage environment, but I felt they weren't brutal enough for their name -- they sounded more like a mere dislike surge. League of Extraordinary Gz brought a live drummer, a mascot, and a whole lot of rappers to their early set time. Their song subjects are the usual -- being cool, smoking weed, where they're from -- but their local pride and their nice assortment of different rhyme styles are winning. I've seen Butcher Bear spin before and I've gotten used to seeing his red-costumed self all over the place, but this was my first time seeing him with his duo partner Charlie. Their set was kind of long on covers and short on melody, lacking the energy that many of the other Blue Stage acts had that day. I don't know if 1:30 in the afternoon is their peak performance time.

Woven Bones are a band I know a thing or two about, although I haven't completely formed an opinion of them. I saw them for a vanishingly short time in January. Their recordings while intriguing are deliberately obscure-sounding. A lot of local musicians I like have, to put it mildly, skeptical views of them. I wish for all these reasons that I'd been able to stay for every second of their set Saturday, because I was really enjoying what I was hearing the first several songs. Their songs have simple parts but the changes come quickly and there sure are hooks. The way the drums, guitar, and bass all kind of sit in a slightly different place rhythmically is soulful. I dislike that they only have one style, but I'm kind of at a loss for what other style they would do. I liked that they made an effort to look alive even though they surely deserved a bigger crowd.

After 2 it was time for me to go meet up with bands for interviews, which went off both days almost entirely without a hitch. For that I have a few managers and mostly the musicians themselves to thank for being totally on the ball and enthusiastic about the opportunity. Nick Nack, The League of Extraordinary Gz, Eagle Claw, and Royal Forest were all very welcoming towards me and I appreciate that a lot. Interviews aren't the most natural thing for me to do, but I need to do them, for Fun Fun Fun Fest and otherwise. Even I get tired of hearing only my own voice all of the time.

Because the Blue Stage was right by the artist tent, I saw at least a little of most of Saturday's hip-hop artists there. Devin the Dude was putting on a show appropriate to his reputation, and sadly it seems like Slick Rick's once-melodious voice has left him. Rick sounded hoarse and out of sorts. Female rappers Invincible and Dominique held it down but it was Big Freedia who made the biggest impression, maybe of the whole day. The transgender New Orleans sissy bounce queen was absolutely thunderous, from her vocal proclamations to the intensity level of the multi-ethnic ass-throwing that was taking place on stage. After dark, Delorean were one of my favorite rock bands of the whole weekend, although they fit on just fine on the dance stage. Their powerful drummer combined with live bass and balanced keyboards for a sound that's of-the-moment but doesn't sacrifice the importance of songs.

Most of the Orange alternatives I saw paled in comparison. Antlers really captivated me when I came across them, but sadly it was at the very end of their set. Wavves were predictably bland and off-key; the new trend of dysfunctional kids becoming famous through their laptops without ever having to learn how to play with or arrange for a rock band needs to stop, right now. Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti made no impression, and Os Mutantes were done in by questionable sound and an apathetic audience. Cap'n Jazz were a bright spot. I was always more a fan of their numerous splinter groups -- Promise Ring, American Football, Joan of Arc -- but it was nice to see the complete lineup of the band presenting a pretty dead-on impression of what they must have been like in their brief heyday. Including, of course, rambling pseudo-intellectual gibberish between songs from the inspired but insufferable Tim Kinsella. No one cares about what you think about the problems modern society faces with regard to pronouns, Tim. Please never change. Dirty Projectors seemed to me like intolerable noodling, and bigger fans of their work than I told me the sound for their set was awry as well. I am unmoved by MGMT on record and now having seen them live, I remain so. I give them some props for deliberately following up their hit debut with a super-weird album that has no singles and nobody likes. However, they would have to be at least one-tenth as good as Beck to keep adhering to his career path so closely, and I say that they are not. See also: Wavves.

I didn't spend a ton of time at the Black Stage Saturday, and looking back that's my biggest regret of the weekend. Sunday Anna C. and I kept heading back there and we never regretted it. Of the bands I did see Saturday, The Dwarves and The Vandals brought it loud. The Dwarves to me were a band whose record covers have been amusing me since the early 90's -- whose music I had never heard. That is no longer true. There was really no way that it was going to live up to the bizarreness standard of those LP's, but at least it was good, honest dirty fun. The Vandals only retain the drummer from their original lineup, but as long as there are fans left alive who know the words to their classic songs, you figure they will be touring. I liked the way the singer and bassist traded off at the end. Why not? Obviously the guys who are playing in the latter-day Vandals must be the biggest fans in the world of the band they're now in. The Black Stage had a constant theme of musicians and fans who were just as happy as hell to be there.

Finally, I couldn't resist the opportunity to see GWAR again. I've known of them since the very early 1990's, and it's pretty radical that their music and show haven't changed at all in 20 years. Their songs still consist of undifferentiated thrash riffs over which single phrases are shouted repetitively. Blood still spews from inanely fake-looking costumes and props; folks in the pit get messy. It's more pointless to criticize GWAR than possibly any other heavy metal band in history. They are exactly what they are, and still packing them in. Talent and creativity are great, but presentation? In presentation lies a career.

Too Much Fun Interview: League of Extraordinary Gz

Saturday morning. Fun Fun Fun Fest is just getting started for real. Food vendors are beginning to hum and the two distinct crowds that will huddle in front of the Black and Orange stages all day are filing in and sorting out. On the weekend the park never seemed very full until about five in the afternoon. That's to be expected, but disappointing nonetheless. From my perspective the most interesting performers were the ones who were most excited to be there, and they were all playing between 12 and 2 on Saturday and Sunday. This included all of the local bands invited to play the festival, other than the Austin Queen tribute band, Magnifico, who played first thing Friday evening.

Bringing a live drummer, a slick DJ, a hype lion, T-shirts, mixtapes, and a spectacle worthy of a headliner to the Blue Stage bright and early Saturday, The League of Extraordinary Gz set the bar high for Central Texas acts performing at Fun Fun Fun Fest. A supergroup formed from the personnel of smaller crews Dred Skott, Southbound, and Da C.O.D., the League have a variety of flow and beat styles that reflects their size and diversity. Heavier, leaner Dirty South tracks trade with melodic East Coast productions, and the live drums nod to the funked out L.A. style. They have as broad a selection of voices and rap styles as they do music, from rapid rants to thick Texas accents to commanding old-school cadences. On stage they keep the energy high, trading off featured performers and giving each rapper a chance to shine. Despite the variety they seem like a true crew, fans of each other's writing, shouting out on their favorite lines even when there's not enough microphones to go around for everybody. They had a lion mascot doing his best to get CD's to the most excited dancers in the crowd, and DJ Nick Nack dropped in a quick scratch showcase. Really nice set. You can check out some of the highlights on the Concealed Weapons 2 mixtape, available for free download at loegz.com.

Speaking later to Gz Tuk, Lowkey, Reggie, and Greezo, I learn a little bit more about the atmosphere surrounding hip-hop in Austin. I can see why they're not likely to take any opportunity to perform for granted. While Austin likes to consider itself an oasis of tolerance, a lot of music fans here might be surprised by how difficult it still is for hip-hop artists to earn the basic respect performers in other genres here take for granted. "We still in the South," the Gz tell me, and there are still clubs on 6th Street that it's hard for certain members of the League to even get into, just because of their race. In 2010. Think about that for a second.

After an incident at Spiro's in May of 2009, it's harder than ever for hip-hop acts to book shows in Austin. The League of Extraordinary Gz has formed, in part, out of response to that difficulty. The crew members are pragmatic about the situation, accepting that nowadays, it falls upon the group to convince clubs their shows aren't a risk. "A lot of hip-hop acts don't treat it like a profession." The League have combined forces to present a brand name to promoters that guarantees a different audience, one that brings with it safe, well-organized shows that are about bringing together fans of different backgrounds to enjoy live hip-hop. "We appreciate those spots" in Austin that will host hip-hop shows, including Aces Lounge, Club Crucial, and Lucky Lounge. Ultimately, booking bigger events in Austin has nothing to do with what genre you are -- "if your money's right," you can make it happen.

While their influences are all over the map, one consistent element in League of Extraordinary Gz songs is pride in Texas and Austin in particular. They rap proudly about being from the land of the Longhorns, and one chorus has the crowd shouting along, "AUSTIN! Where's that? TEXAS! Where's that? TEXAS!" In rap scenes where there isn't a long history of commercial successes, local MC's can sometimes be guilty of sounding like they'd rather be from somewhere else. The League of Gz are Austin to the core. Other area hip-hop they recommend: fellow Fun Fun Fun performers Crew 54, Poison Boyz, Das Lo.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Too Much Fun: Friday

This is the first year they've extended Fun Fun Fun Fest to a third day, Friday. I don't know whether this was a financially successful move or not. Discounted tickets for just Friday went on sale last week. It wasn't terribly crowded except for "Weird Al" Yankovic's customarily long set, and drew a smaller, less diverse, and overall much more sedate audience than Saturday and Sunday. For a first-time FFF attendee, it was nice to have the chance to get the lay of the land with a shorter, scaled-back schedule of events. It might have been nice to see the full character of the festival recognized with dance or hip-hop artists performing on Friday, but I don't know how rappers feel about "Weird Al." I also imagine that the added evening gave the organizers to book some slightly bigger comedians and give them later sets without breaking up the flow of the music stages during the weekend.

Magnifico, Queen tribute from right here in Austin, kicked off the whole thing to a sparse but receptive crowd. Tribute bands are a funny thing: They can be technically perfect, they can dress and even look exactly like the original, use effects processors to get precisely the same sounds, and it's not fun except for hardcore fans. It's the ones that have their own personality, their own life as a band that tend to be the most fun to watch for general listeners. Magnifico have their own vibe, with a balding Freddy Mercury who subs in magnificent curly mutton chops for rock hair, a lady bass player, and a game guitarist who also does a pretty fair David Bowie impression for "Under Pressure." They're musically tight but rough enough to have some character and the singer really does have the voice... and the presence... and the three-quarter mic stand thingy.

Todd Barry was funny and soundcheck interruptions from the other side of the stage though annoying allowed you to focus right in on what Barry does best, which is get cooler and quieter when irritated rather than screaming and yelling like the weak Chris Hardwick did a little later. Hardwick was all shouting and gay and redneck jokes. Super. The Apples in Stereo are a band I got really excited about when first listening to the first song on their second album, "Seems So." Got even more into them when the second song on that record, "What's the #," played. That was pretty much my peak excitement moment for the Apples in Stereo. Although they've continued making records, and evolved after their own fashion by adding several more synthesizer players, they've never really escaped past the basic song structures of Fun Trick Noisemaker and Tone Soul Evolution. It hasn't really worked for me since that unintentionally creepy video they made with the Powerpuff Girls. Tuning in and out during their set, I couldn't help but think of the Austin band School of Liars, whose leader looks and sounds like he could be head Apple Robert Schneider's little brother. Just in the year I've been in Austin I've seen School of Liars grow and evolve more than the Apples in Stereo have since, what's that say here, 1997?

"Weird Al" Yankovic hasn't needed to vary his approach all that much since 1979. He has changed either very little or not at all, depending on how highly you value a mustache. But that he's still a significant concert draw and a genuine celebrity even after all this time speaks to how appealing a formula he has. He's a good enough musician to make parodies in a hundred different styles even as trends shift beneath him. Studying all of these popular songs so closely has taught him lyric structure back and forth -- his songs can be deeply stupid, but they almost always develop a story across the verses, set up and pay off hooks, and match the tone of the music to the subject. His band is terrific (and has been with him forever). Al can write a song like "Dare to Be Stupid" that's not a Devo parody so much as it is a tribute so dead-on that the real Devo should have performed it with him.

Past the fact that he's a great musician and an entertainer, "Weird Al" has a charisma that's all his own. The awkward, the misshapen, the socially inept flock to his banner. He's not been so much consistently popular as he comes in and out of style on waves, returning triumphantly every time pop trends get so ridiculous that they barely need parody lyrics to be laugh-out-loud funny. From "White and Nerdy" to "Fat" to "Jungle Cruise Ride," his stories keep coming back to the point of view of outsiders. Yankovic's success is a gentle reminder to a legion of fans that being uncool can be awesome.

Since nothing moves nerds quite like exhaustive details, the "Weird Al" concert experience is a video-heavy parade of costume changes and prop jokes. Even having seen the videos for "Smells Like Nirvana," "Amish Paradise," "Fat," all many times, seeing the jokes repeated on stage is largely still funny. It's the humor of recognition, not surprise, but the funniest thing about "Weird Al" is that he's recognized by millions. Live he capitalizes on that with a benignly self-serving constant stream of video clips recapping every bit of high and low pop culture that has tipped a cap to Al. He could probably stand to update a lot of this material. Multiple clips from UHF are not necessary, great as it is. We all watch that movie several times a year, right? Not just me? And it's funny how some of the big-time fake celebrity interviews don't seem so far-fetched any more. "Weird Al" is bigger than Celine Dion now, right? Jessica Simpson would totally do a movie with him! He's gotten Aaron Paul and Olivia Wilde for one of the funnier new video bits in his show, a trailer for a fake biopic called Weird.

It's pointless to criticize "Weird Al" Yankovic for being mass-audience. Or to go into too much depth about how in the YouTube era his songs have gotten a lot more topical and reactionary, and a lot less timelessly silly: "Craigslist," "I Bought on eBay." So what if it's the same bits every song, every tour, for as long as they get laughs. There's always a new generation arriving ready to love Al Yankovic, one popular musician guaranteed never to be too cool for anybody.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Too Much Fun Interview: Eagle Claw

Mighty four-man New Wave of American Heavy Metal outfit Eagle Claw were the last Austin band I interviewed at Fun Fun Fun Fest. By that time I was a little bit punch-drunk from having had little to eat besides complimentary energy bars for three days. I was also coming directly from a Pharaohe Monch set. Suffice it to say I wasn't at the top of my game, and I wasn't about to take comprehensive interview notes. I definitely called them Woodgrain at least once. Thanks to the guys from the band, Bart, Matt, Michael, and Luther, for being easy to talk to and super cool.

What I like most about Eagle Claw's music is the way they work each part for just as long as they need to, then move on to the next idea. Staying interesting playing instrumental metal is all about creating dramatic changes and keeping them coming quickly. By switching between groove-oriented passages and guitar-driven, melody-focused sections, Eagle Claw show different sides of their classic and current influences. Like the best current metal acts sharing the Black Stage with them (High on Fire, Kylesa, Mastodon) they shift back and forth between time periods pretty freely and care less about tradition than pure rocking.

Talking to the band I learn that they write collaboratively and the effort to keep part lengths trim and efficient is a group one. It's out of respect for the riffs that that Eagle Claw try to keep from overusing any one of them. They'll practice doing a section for 20 bars for a few months, then inevitably someone will get bored and suggest cutting to eight, or six, or four. They'll try that and if it feels better shorter, that's how it will end up being played. Muscle memory is a big part of what makes the band work. Once the part is written and edited down for max efficiency, that's how it's performed.

Every rock band I spoke to at Fun Fun Fun touched upon the importance of touring, but Eagle Claw put in it a perspective I hadn't really considered for a while. The way they see it, the "humbling" experience of playing somewhere where no one knows who you are and absolutely no one cares is an essential part of getting a band tough and hungry enough to do what it takes to succeed. They talked about playing a show for six people in Oklahoma and selling $100 worth of merch that night, because they rocked those six people so hard. Having some nights on the road where they made no money at all must have been necessary preparation for that.

Throughout the weekend, I noticed a big difference in the atmosphere around the metal/punk/hardcore Black Stage and that surrounding the hipster/indie Orange Stage. The bands and the fans at the Black Stage, across the board, just seemed way more grateful to be there. I shared this observation with the Eagle Claw boys and they knew just what I was saying. "The Black Stage is where it's at."

Eagle Claw's favorite Austin bands: Pack of Wolves, Tia Carrera, and Woodgrain. Drummer Bart has worn a Woodgrain shirt every show Eagle Claw has played. You can next see them in Austin Friday, November 19th at Red 7 -- it's a free show, and Pack of Wolves and my friends in the radical Squidbucket are playing too. Find out more about the Claw at eagleclawhurts.com -- web site name drawn from actual audience feedback.

Too Much Fun Preamble: Well, How Did I Get Here?

I have no fewer than seven posts about Fun Fun Fun Fest to write over the next few days. In addition to act-by-act accounts of all the music I saw over the three days, I have stories about the four very different Austin artists I interviewed Saturday and Sunday. As I usually do before beginning massive projects, I took all of Monday off to decide about whether I cared about offending anybody.

Most of the time, I cleverly give my strong opinions on local bands that are too obscure for anyone to care what I think. If I do my thing on all the national bands I saw this weekend, all with followings, people are inevitably going to get mad. I've already stepped afoul of one of the finest musical opinions in Austin. Robert, the rock-authority leader of the great La Snacks and one of the few people allowed in the backstage area at the FFF Fest I didn't feel way too uncool to hang out with, loved The Hold Steady. Anna C. and I hated The Hold Steady. So there you have it.

As I was coming back into the paying-customer area after my get-together Sunday with the fine gentlemen of Eagle Claw, I ran into a maybe-not-even-twentysomething who recognized me. He was just outside the fence trying to peer over into the mystical Narnia of Backstage, a land I'm sure he imagined in visions of freely flowing champagne and frolicking starlets. It's more like tangled equipment cables, the same beer you can buy outside, and lots of little clots of people who know each other already chatting quietly or sitting and staring. Not so dramatic. I thought briefly about giving the young man my media wristband, since all I really had planned for the rest of the night was half a bratwurst (and holding my breath until Anna relented and let me see a few songs from Mastodon). I thought better of it. They have serial numbers on those things, and in the unlikely event this young enthusiast attempted to hog-tie Bethany Cosentino I'd just as soon not have that come back around on me. So I told him to start a blog instead. Pretty proud of this.

Most of my friends in Austin are writers or musicians or both. I'd want to know, if I were them -- upon finding out that Western Homes got free a three-day pass to Fun Fun Fun Fest, two tote bags, a couple of tacos, and to shake hands with "Weird Al" Yankovic -- how that could me next year.

Musicians? I don't want to name names when it comes to how each local band that played got booked at the Fest. I heard at least a little of every Austin band, and not a single one of them didn't deserve to be there. There were plenty of out-of-town acts worse than the least interesting local band. But I talk to a lot of musicians in Austin who want to know how to play at specifically this festival. They think, often, that they deserve it based solely on their talent and that the festival will instantly confer upon them the recognition they feel they deserve.

They may not know that every local band plays earlier than two in the afternoon, hours before the bulk of the crowd shows up. They may not know that by getting to this point, many of the bands have already gotten to the level where they're playing to much larger audiences nights in Austin and outside of town. Austin is so competitive, especially when it comes to rock bands, that by the time you're "big enough" to play Fun Fun Fun, you may already be so well-known that it doesn't matter. Oh, and "big enough" does not mean you're making any money. It probably means that you're just able to break even when you go on the road... when absolutely everything goes right. And your reward for that is getting to tour so much that you can't hold a day job and your spine becomes permanently curved from sleeping sitting up. Be careful what you wish for.

So, here are a few ways you can get booked at Fun Fun Fun. You can be friends with someone who books it, from your old hometown before you moved to Austin or from your job. You can tour like a maniac until finally some writers from outside Austin pay attention to you, assuming your style fits into the narrow confines of what's hip right this minute. If you're not a rock musician, you have more options. Being completely unique helps, whether you're a folk-rock orchestra or a wrestling nerdcore rapper. If festival performers GWAR, Monotonix, and Peelander-Z have taught us anything, it's that a strong visual performance can render musical originality and/or competence totally moot. In hip-hop and dance music, community-building is paramount -- Nick Nack and Butcher Bear are ubiquitous presences in Austin dance and the League of Extraordinary Gz formed out of several smaller crews to use strength of numbers to force open doors of opportunity for local hip-hop. No band this year was booked just for having great music. Every act from the smallest on up had demonstrated its ability to draw and entertain an audience. If you can figure out to do that, your band can play Fun Fun Fun Fest, easy. The chicken or the egg....

What about writers? That's a simpler question. Allen Chen and Paige Maguire of the Austinist decide which bloggers get credentials for Fun Fun Fun Fest, and I appreciate very much being included among them. I haven't met Allen or Paige; I probably should have this weekend but I suck at socializing. Every moment I was at the festival I was conscious of the honor it was to be selected as a representative of the media. I pitched that my coverage would focus on the experience for local bands, with a secondary emphasis on my outsider's take on all these out-of-town acts I would normally never see. I adhered to the intent of my pitch obsessively. I probably didn't eat enough and I certainly inhaled more dust than is healthy for humans while hustling around trying to see every band that interested me.

Even during the other big yearly Austin music festivals, I only see local bands if I can help it. Remember what I said about being unique? Whether you're a musician or a blogger, you need to have a simple pitch for what sets you apart. As I've developed Big Western Flavor to the extent that I can get into things for free, I've learned how to make it about more than just making fun of bands I don't like. I have a mission statement now. With the way music listening habits have changed in the past 10 years, everyone's tastes are set to shuffle. People are more receptive to new ideas in music now than ever before... look at the throngs dancing to Nortec Collective, or the stunningly high amount of listeners willing to sit through an entire set by Deakin. I think the best way to develop your critical thinking skills as a music listener and a musician is by focusing on local music; on developing artists who are in close to the same situation as you and are readily accessible when you have questions or comments.

You didn't need an all-access pass to meet amazing musicians at Fun Fun Fun Fest. Sam and Zac from Zorch, Giuseppe from Tofu Kozo/Boy + Kite, Justin from Sissy Face, Will and Dani from Megafauna, Reed from World Racketeering Squad... there were plenty of awesome Austin players out on the main grounds with the regular people. If you'd been to their shows you would know who they were.

It's better to participate in a scene than observe one passively! Music writing in the past few years has trended into many, many people all discussing the same very few bands, and from the evidence offered by the mostly smelly Orange Stage groupthink kicked in a long time ago. I would rather spend my time in tiny clubs with cheap beer rocking out to musicians who know me by sight and are grateful for every face in attendance than worry about getting into whatever's at Stubb's this week. I wish more musicians here felt the same way because then, man, we'd really have a scene.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Incest and Peppermints

Local Music Is Sexy
Mohawk, 11/4

I wish I had time to go in-depth with all of the bands I saw last night at the Austinist's FFF Fest kickoff party at Mohawk. Unfortunately, I have to get out of here soon so I can be on time for the beginning of the festival proper. I'm going to move quickly, and I apologize if I leave something out. Also sorry to Weird Weeds, Dana Falconberry, Sleep Good, and Bill Baird -- I wasn't able to be in enough places at once last night. I'll give them further consideration soon.

Again quickly: Since I'm writing about higher-profile events than I ever have before, a lot of people are coming here for the first time. I want to reiterate that although I'm sharply critical of a lot of bands, it's not because I enjoy dumping on people's dreams. I'm not rubbing my palms gleefully together thinking about taking revenge for all the bad music I've been forced to listen to. Not at all. It eats me up when I get e-mails from crestfallen musicians that I've given negative reviews. I lose sleep over it. I really don't want to make enemies. I don't know if my readers understand that as negative, obsessive, and perfectionist as I can be about others' music, I am a hundred times more brutal when it comes to my own self-assessments. I hold myself to an impossibly high standard when it comes to my writing. I wish I could make myself more diplomatic, but it's not in me. I really want to like everyone's bands. I want everyone who isn't in a band to start one. But I've been serious about journalism my whole life and to me delivering anything other than the 100% unvarnished truth as I see it is a betrayal of my calling. The choice for me is between writing the truth and not writing at all. And too much positive comes of my writing to quit.

All right then. Hundred Visions were not so great when I saw them a year ago under the name Corto Maltese; I'm happy to say that I liked them a lot better last night. They've gone from having songs with no parts to having songs that have one strong part apiece, and it's a lot easier to go from one to two or more than it is from zero to one. One song with off-beat hi-hat swipes and cowbell actually found me tapping my feet a little, imagine! They need to play out more often -- and maybe hold off on the Fugazi covers until they have some material strong enough to keep pace with them. Sneering, fuzz-everything trio Rayon Beach were monotonous but ever-so-trendy; it boosted my faith in local tastes that a bigger crowd gathered inside during their outdoor set to watch Amasa Gana's group drone experiment. That four-piece was a nice example of conditioned listening. At first it seemed like they were hardly doing anything but by concentrating closely for an extended period of time you began to hear the minimal variations in sound produced by their slight nudges of guitar knobs and barely-there violin bowing. After a time I felt like I was listening to them listen, and I enjoyed the natural change in consciousness.

Watch Out for Rockets, as I've written before, have promising melodic sensibility but just no variation in rhythms to go along with it. Sally Crewe and The Sudden Moves exhibited a similar lack of developed songwriting, except with a lady singer. Markov on the other hand were a jolt of energy that the outside lineup needed sorely. It breaks my heart that nobody else in the crowd seemed to know what to do when a hardcore band is laying wheels. Put down your beers and bang your heads, children! Finally, TV Torso were a freaking revelation. Their records are so artfully mixed and EQ'd that I always felt listening to them like the production wasn't confident in the quality of the songs and felt the need to dress them up with extraneous details. But as a live band they're physical, varied, and captivating; Anna liked them as much or more than I did and Anna hates four-guy two-guitar bands. She even thought they were awesome when their guitars were out of tune, since it made them sound more like Guided by Voices. You feel their drumming in your gut and I really like the way the rhythm section and guitarists trade off driving vs. swinging so they're not all pounding the same beat at once.

Oh yeah, why the weird post title? Six of the evening's bands were connected in a single family tree. TV Torso and Bill Baird are ex-Sound Team, Weird Weeds' drummer played with Baird and their bassist with Dana Falconberry, Sleep Good's bassist also played with Baird, TV Torso's guest second guitarist is also the leader of Hundred Visions. I'm not saying it necessarily made the music bad, but there's a reason many local musicians are skeptical of if not outright hostile towards the Austinist.

During a lull in the evening's activities I went for a stroll down Red River and to my shock and delight discovered that Opposite Day were playing a no-cover show at Headhunters. Their fluid, witty, and virtuoso playing was the exact thing I needed in the midst of a long string of soundalike in-crowders at Mohawk. I may not see another band at the festival all weekend rock as hard.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Ghost Dance

Red Leaves, paperthreat
Ghost Room, 11/3

I write mostly about bands in their first year of existence. That's partly by choice. I quite enjoy being the first person ever to write seriously about a new band, and it puzzles me why few other music bloggers feel the same way. There's also an economic factor in play. Anna and I are poor and we couldn't make live music such a big part of our lives paying $15 or more covers three nights a week. When we decided last summer that we were getting the heck out of Boulder, finding a new home where worthwhile cheap and free shows took place was paramount in our thoughts. We nailed it.

Red Leaves have really gotten their stuff together since the first time we saw them. For a band with a pronounced Sonic Youth resemblance, they really know the value of laying back. While their drummer is a constant blur of motion, guitar and bass parts are stripped down. They play off of one another instead of piling on the layers. This puts particular emphasis on the band being very together rhythmically. They weren't always, but a few weeks ago at Ditch the Fest Fest I felt I was seeing them really click for the first time. While drummer Dorian Colbert holds everything together and then some, Marcos Lujan plays spare, intermittent bass pulses. David Lujan strikes suggestive chords in the spaces left by the bass, and Singer Mayberry adds very delicate single-line figures on guitar and second bass. The way they divide up the measure instead of all attacking at once makes them powerful without being loud, and it leaves a lot of room for their vocals to be clearly heard. David and Singer both have great voices for a noisy rock band -- not technically perfect, but memorable and capable of ringing right out over the guitars and drums. His impassioned approach contrasts well with her cooler, sweeter tones, and when they harmonize it's lovely. They've really perfected their basic sound and I look forward to hearing what wrinkles they will come up for it as they get ready to make an album. Their EP Trouble in the City of Water is a great teaser.

As for the unusual, cerebral paperthreat, I could go on for some time about what makes them excel and I will. But Anna C. got right to the main idea as we were walking back to our car at the end of the show: "If they got their songs a little tighter, they could be famous." I agree. The Threat's coalition of electronic dance beats; jazzy chords, horns, and guitar tone; and pop vocals will inevitably draw some lofty comparisons. I hear Tortoise, TV On the Radio, and (that universally acclaimed five-piece British band that no critic can mention by name without immediately losing their credibility). But as always it's not the band's influences that matter but what they choose to do with them, and what you need to know most about paperthreat as a live band is that at certain points during their show Wednesday night people ran, not walked, to the dance floor. They bring a ton of instruments on stage and they can play all of them really well, but at no point does it seem like any of the musicians are showing off. I really like the divide between their main singer's more traditionally pretty lead vocals and the gruff, quirky ones delivered by their guitar player. They also present different approaches lyrically, with more political, universal stories sharing time with quite personal ones. The paperthreat drummer keeps together with the looped elements of their songs without ever seeming enslaved to a click, and their bassist easily switches to keys, laptop, trumpet, and guitar without losing his cool or the timing of his dance moves.

There are a lot of exquisitely trained, technically adept players in Austin, but often as they gain the ability to play more difficult material they lose the ability to form a primal connection with an audience. What sticks out most about paperthreat isn't their jazz chops or their mastery of multiple instruments or their ability to use computer technology correctly. It's that their songs make people dance and they have warm, obvious hooks you can keep returning to. Bassist Rene tells me that clubs in town have a hard time figuring out what other acts they should book with paperthreat. That's a great sign! That's what you should want clubs telling you, lest you end up playing with the same two other bands every three weeks for the rest of your foreshortened career. Venues usually end up letting Rene pick the other bands himself, and he simply selects musicians he wants to see. Yes! Exactly! That's how I want to see more bands operating.

There's a notable free event tonight at Mohawk that I will be attending. It's Local Music Is Sexy presented by the Austinist and the acts I am most excited about seeing there are Markov, Weird Weeds, Dana Falconberry, and Sleep Good. There are also a few bands on the lineup I have encountered before and not enjoyed. That's not a bad thing. After all these raves lately I am beginning to feel like I'm losing my edge. Anyhow, I'll see you downtown.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Hell Is Other Robots

Quick notes from a music-filled Halloween in the best city I can afford to live in!

Anna and I keep attending A Giant Dog shows. The band themselves is a reliably sweaty, sexy good time, but beyond that they're one of the most successful in Austin when it comes to extending their brand beyond the time they themselves are on stage. I don't think I've ever been to one of their shows and not discovered another new band on the bill that I like. They play out constantly but they remain a solid draw because it's not the same show every time out. Talking to the band members I have learned how important writing new songs and finding new bands to play with is to them at all times. Sunday at the Parlor they were joined by The Bad Lovers, who have been on my short list for a while. Four-guy bands with two guitars, bass, and drums are about as remarkable as burnt orange shirts in Austin, but not all of them are made equally. Good songs, fine lead and backing vocals, and a great rhythm section set the Lovers apart from the crowd. I get asking people asking me all the time where all the good local punk bands are. Here is one. I especially like how the guitar players give the bassist and drummer space to be awesome, both in terms of their volume level and their arrangements. At a tiny venue with an overworked PA like the Parlor, there's no cheating. A band has to really know what they're doing to sound good, and the Bad Lovers sounded terrific. They were loud enough that you could feel it, but not so much that the bass and vocals were completely inaudible.

Dikes of Holland value loudness above all else, as I wrote after first encountering them at one of the Casual Victim Pile release shows some months back. They have developed more in the way of individual parts since the last we saw them, and although they still don't exactly have any memorable songs, I watched their whole set yesterday and felt entertained. They juggle lead vocals and instrument assignments in a quick, no-fuss way and the contrast between four different singers definitely makes them more interesting, although they're always hollering over pretty much the same beat. They really got into the spirit of the holiday, with detailed costumes for every band member. During one song their token female member, who was dressed as a pregnant nun, gave birth to a hamburger. Then she picked up a bass and played on what to me was the highlight of their set -- it was the first time I'd seen anybody in Dikes of Holland play any instrument with the slightest hint of restraint.

The Dull Drums of Tulsa were also on the bill. Their name has it absolutely right -- exact same rhythm on every song. More or less the same riff doubled by their guitarist and bassist, too. Get that weak stuff out of Austin! It might play in Oklahoma, but not here.

After a break we next made our way to Stubb's for the Invincible Czars Number of the Beast show. Shaolin Death Squad warmed up with a heroically faithful clutch of Mr. Bungle covers. Anything Mike Patton is good by me, and the SDS is populated by top-notch musicians across the board, but this performance left me utterly cold. Coloring within the lines when you do covers is never cool, even when it's one of the oddest bands of all time. The most amusing element of the set was watching the bandmembers without their bondage masks and makeup later in the evening. Terrifying on stage, they look like such normal guys when they're just bobbing up and down in the audience! It would have been far more interesting to watch them take on the music of a band they weren't so overtly influenced by.

The Czars and Iron Maiden made for a more creative, challenging, something's-got-to-give combination. The always-game Leila Henley admitted on stage she didn't know the album well but it allowed her vocal, flute, and sax performances to come from a different place entirely. Wearing costumes appropriate for the song subjects -- cowboy, preacher, Indian, rasta -- and frequently pushing the band out of its admirably broad comfort zone, Invincible Czars' Number was an end-to-end treat. I like how everyone but the drummer took a lead vocal, and loved watching scary-talented violinist Phil Davidson give singing, tambourine, and keys the old college try. Highlights included a darkwave, 80's disco-flecked "Children of the Damned," "Number of the Beast" performed as a medley with "The Saints Go Marching In" (leading to the unforgettable Josh Robins punchline "Oh, well, I want to be in that number... the number of the beast!") and "22 Acacia Avenue" done as a mash-up of several different blaxploitation and cop show themes (think wah-wah). As a send-off for departing bassist Adam Kahan, it couldn't have gone much better. By the way, who knew Adam had such a great singing voice? Phil and keyboardist Bill Petersen, not so much, but at least they were having fun.