Last week, while in the thick of SXSW, I wrote that the sprawling Austin, Texas music festival can be a hard experience to quantify. With so many bands and so many venues, it’s nearly impossible to step back and get a big-picture look at what’s going on. But with the dust finally settling from last week, it’s becoming easier to pinpoint which bands made the strongest impressions — and a quick scan over the media coverage of the festival shows that Minnesotan bands are getting more ink than ever this year.
Today, especially, familiar names are popping up on nearly every major music publication. From Doomtree’s flattering feature in Rolling Stone to Poliça’s 7.6 score on Pitchfork to both Howler and Night Moves’ inclusion in MTV’s 15 favorite bands from SXSW, it seems that quite a few Minnesotan acts made a splash at their respective gigs last week.
While down in Austin, I had a chance to catch up with a few of the more high-profile acts from the homeland to ask them about their thoughts on the festival as a whole, and specifically why bands make the decision (and, often, the sacrifice) to journey down to Texas each March.
“Maybe I shouldn’t be this honest,” says Channy Leaneagh of Poliça, reclining on a couch after the band’s 10th and final SXSW gig. “But to be honest, the main goal for me was performing for some music business people that we knew were going to be here and meet with. That was what it was for me. It’s also about selling records for us, because we put this record out ourselves, pretty much, with Totally Gross National Product, so it was about selling records and getting our name out there, bit it was also, for me, a good chunk of it was just playing for the man,” she says, laughing.
Over the past few years, it’s become widely understood that the music industry is shifting away from major labels and toward empowering independent labels and artists. But members of bands like Polica, Howler, and Night Moves have found that it’s still possible to “get signed” or gain support from an infrastructure of booking agents and promoters by making a good impression at a place like SXSW.
Drew Christopherson of Poliça; photo by Ben Clark
“I think a lot of people are turned off by the whole fact that some so-and-so from such-and-such might be at your show and you’ve got to try and impress them, but then again that’s the reality of it,” says Poliça drummer Drew Christopherson. “When that so-and-so does come to your show, you’re like wow, that person is here right now, let’s do this. At the same time, you can also sort of let that go and just sort of join the whole wave of it all. There’s a weird energy in the air here. I just kind of like being part of the rigmarole of all these bands that are all working really hard trying to be on their grind, and everyone’s kind of on their grind together.”
For P.O.S., who has traveled down to SXSW countless times to perform with Doomtree and Marijuana Deathsquads, as a solo artist, and as a member of the Gayngs collective, he’s found that performing at the festival can lead to noticeable boosts from within the industry — even if the musicians themselves can’t see it at the time. “I find it to be a semi-rewarding pain in the butt,” he says, smirking. “I feel like the things that happen that are benefits of SXSW are not the things that performers like me notice. I think booking agents and publicists and things like that, they all notice things that happen because they bring people out to see us play.”
Martin Dosh, who is currently touring with Andrew Bird and has performed at SXSW several times, says that the festival provides a great networking opportunity for bands of all sizes. “I think, ideally, if you’re an up-and-comer, you want to be here for the whole thing and just do as many shows as possible,” he says. “You wind up meeting lots of people,and for me, the best thing is seeing lots of bands you’ve never seen before or never heard of. It just broadens your horizons as a musician, and for me I’ve always said this, but my favorite thing in the world is to see a band I’ve never heard of and have my mind blown. It’s one thing to go see a band you love and have your mind blown, but just some random band playing in a parking lot or outside of a Chucky Cheese or something — that’s the coolest thing for me.”
Jeremy Ylvisaker performing with Andrew Bird; photo by Ben Clark
Dosh’s Cloak Ox and Andrew Bird bandmate Jeremy Ylvisaker recognizes how difficult it can be for a new band to make an impact. “There’s a desperation about it that’s a little painful sometimes,” he says. “I’m with Marty there, thinking that I really want my mind blown by somebody I’ve never heard. But it’s just so hard, with the throw-and-go — it’s hard to get a sound, even. So I don’t know, it’s tough. But I do think it’s entertaining — it’s like a state fair for hipsters.”
“Overall, it’s nice to run into people. It’s nice to see folks,” says Bob Mould, who was able to reconnect with industry professionals from throughout his career at this year’s festival. “Running into Matthew from Nada Surf or Lenny Kaye, who I’ve played shows with, to someone like Jim Fouratt, who used to book Husker Du at the Peppermint Lounge in ‘83 when no one else would take a chance — to see all the people that I’ve worked with for the longest time, and the fact that we get to hang out and still have a career in this thing — that, to me, is the fun part.”
Mould says the best advice he can give to a young band thinking about heading down to SXSW is to flesh out a plan of attack early on. “I mean, you really have to start thinking about it a year ahead of time if you really want to make an impression. You can’t just pick up in February and go, oh my gosh! We’re going to play at Gate 27 at the airport at 3 p.m. on Sunday when everybody’s leaving. That might be a good spot, but you know what I’m saying — you gotta really plan ahead for this, because there’s thousands of bands here, and everyone is trying to be heard. And I think that’s the beauty of music, is we all want our message to be heard, but it’s pretty cloudy when you get here. There’s a lot of stuff going on. Honestly, start thinking about next year’s South By. Start making plans and start making connections. Think about how you would want to be seen and start with that.”
More photos: Minnesota artists and notable national acts at SXSW
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