SXSW Source Worship

The biggest independent music industry festival in the world, South by Southwest was founded in 1987 by Roland Swenson, managing director of the festival’s parent company, SXSW Inc. The festival was created as a way to give exposure to deserving underground bands and was characterized by its edgy rebellion against the mainstream and championing of independent music. A recent article about SXSW in the March 14, 2008 edition of The Wall Street Journal (“Heavy Meddle: Music Festival Limits the Party”), describes the changes the festival has undergone in the last 22 years. That first festival in 1987 obtained 700 attendees, and this year had 24,000, along with 1600 performing acts. The festival has tapped into the golden corporate pipeline with sponsorships from the likes of Dell Inc. and Citigroup Inc., worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Vultural corporations have taken advantage of SXSW in recent years, organizing private parties set up on the fringe of the festival without being sanctioned, cashing in on massive branding opportunities. They also compete with SXSW for attendees and corporate dollars.

SXSW is also a place of “favorites” showcases (Motorhead, Cat Power), special-treat reunions of classic bands (New York Dolls, Blue Cheer) and artists trying to revamp their music career (Billy Idol). At its heart, though, Swenson has done a fine job keeping SXSW’s focus on the championing of underground music. He has been a stickler for celebrating the original intention of the festival. Of those 1600 bands that played this year, I recognized the names of maybe 7-8�and SLUG Editor Angela Brown recognized close to 40�That is a wide swathe of bands we’d never seen on a single sticker, top five list, record label ad, press release or CD coming through the SLUG offices.

In the original, pure tradition of SXSW, the tradition that Swenson began and unabashedly continues, Angela and I purposely saw some new bands we’d heard of but hadn’t seen, and a couple that we had never heard of at all. Below are brief descriptions of six of our favorite, newly discovered bands, and the fact that three have “black” in their name is purely a coincidence. Or is it?

Black Moth Super Rainbow
Black Moth Super Rainbow is so smooth, and so gorgeous, and so psychedelic in a Sesame Street, brightly colored sort of way, with just the right amount of woebegone sadness, that I could barely stand it. Their drummer was one of the best I’ve ever seen; she played with a creative, individual, convincing style that was smooth and precise, like a metronome, with just the right amount of phrasing and accenting. She wasn’t playing the drums, she was making the drums speak. I bought their album and put their song on my myspace profile promptly after getting home.

Black Mountain
I liked Black Mountain a lot although maybe half of their material was hit-or-miss. They were like Dead Meadow meets The Warlocks: stoner, with tons of psychedelia, beautiful, delicate female vocals and wavery organ. It was simple, had a firm groove and was very hypnotic. It complemented the smell of marijuana in the air.

Black Tusk
Black Tusk, from Savannah, Georgia, was one of the few bands we saw that was a complete gamble; we went based on their SXSW schedule description alone. I was utterly un-disappointed. They were massively heavy and brutal; like a mess of sound with huge amounts of anger and torture behind it. There was actually something incredibly disturbing about them, and I don’t easily get disturbed. It’s almost like the energy that I imagine old black metal bands must have channeled. The bassist was covered in tattoos and looked like he would kill you with precious little provocation. The lead singer had broken his hand so there was a fill-in guitarist, leaving the singer free to thrash around on the stage, like a broken marionette when he careened back and forth, radiating waves of jagged pain. He also had better hair than I do.

Genghis Tron
Brooklyn-based Genghis Tron is like hardcore meets electronic, but not in any way you’ve heard before. It is scathing, belligerent, wounded hardcore-metal riffs with Atari-esque electronic sounds (also think Tron) colliding in beautiful harmonies and solid songwriting. Basically, they sound like their name—the brutality of a dictatorship mixed with 80s computer-movie sounds. It wasn’t gimmicky, though; it was really sincere. They had intricate, unusual designs on their merch. Genghis Tron has toured with Gaza, so you know they’re cool.

Although ManMan have played SLC’s Kilby Ct. several times, neither Angela nor I had witnessed their live show previously. Turns out, this was one of the best sets I’d seen at SXSW this year besides Motorhead; they were a cross between Goblin, Gogol Bordello and Tortoise. If you’ve seen them, you’ll understand exactly what I mean. Electronica, weird timings, lots of xylophone-playing, lots of falsetto singing with harmonies, lots of white paint on faces, excellent musicianship and passion. It sounds like they could be pretentious, but they weren’t; they sounded like they were connected to their instruments by tangible umbilical cords.

The two-piece, Nadja, from The End Records, exhale dirgey, multilayered instrumental drone rock that was elegantly atmospheric and had nothing resembling what you might call a “groove.” It got under my skin, then covered said skin with a sweet darkness, like liquid rock candy, until I was completely sandwiched in their sighing, peaceful sound.

We saw many other noteworthy shows by more well-known artists—Blue Cheer, Jarboe, Motorhead, X, Fucked Up with Kieth Morris (Circle Jerks, Black Flag) as a guest vocalist, The Aggrolites, Sasquatch, a seminar with Ice Cube and another with Mick Jones (The Clash, Big Audio Dynamite) and Tony James (Generation X, Sigue Sigue), and much more. To read more about these shows and others, please see the official SLUG Messes with Texas SXSW Blog 2008 at under “Festival Coverage” (click the poster on the left wall).