Tuesday, March 24, 2009
SXSW 2009: A Day w/ Fair To Midland
“Good evening. We are cattle on the South By Southwest Auction Block.” – Darroh Sudderth, lead vocalist of Fair To Midland, on stage at Saturday night’s SXSW show on the roof deck at Maggie Mae’s in downtown Austin, TX
I had the pleasure of spending this past Thursday with Serjical Strike recording artists Fair To Midland to chronicle what it’s like to be a band at Austin, TX mega-festival South By Southwest. Over the course of the day, we had a lot of fun, but I was also enlightened as to how the artists feel during an event described in one word by bassist Jon Dicken as “hectic”.
While the music fans in attendance may feel taken advantage of because of the exorbitant prices they have to shell out ($180 for non-Austin residents) to see “over 1800 bands from around the world” (most of which are bands that barely fill their own local venues), the bands themselves are looked upon by event organizers as nothing more than show ponies. They’re shuffled in and out of clubs and restaurants with little to no regard for all the time, money, and energy these entertainers sacrifice just to be here, let alone try and give the showgoers their money’s worth. Over the course of my day here, I’ll bear witness to many examples of the bands being taken for granted (especially when considering how much this huge musical jubilee makes in revenue for the city). For the people on hand, they may never realize what’s going on in the strange back alleys of Austin for their audio enjoyment.
11:20am - I'm out the door and on my way downtown. Traffic is insane, unusually packed for this time of day on a Thursday. While Austin isn't exactly known for its smooth traffic flow, today's particular version of congestion is especially nerve-racking when there are so many out-of-towners that have descended on Austin like wolves in the Spanish Sahara (wink). I head over to my buddy John's house where the band has crashed for the night. We puff a smoke, load into the van, and start the trudge through the swamps of cars all fighting their way to the same place.
11:45am - FTM frontman Darroh Sudderth, sitting in the far back seat of the van, relieves himself into an empty water bottle while stopped at a busy stop light on South Congress Ave. There are about 75 people within 10 yards of our vehicle. Living the rock and roll dream...
1:35pm - We all finally arrive in downtown Austin, and, of course, it's a giant clusterfcuk. It appears as though 30 million people have decided to show up for this year’s festivities. All of the parking areas are either full or don’t accommodate our trailer. We end up having to park about 18 blocks away (for those familiar with Austin, we parked off the I-35 service road near the exit for Riverside) and start hoofing it to the convention center for the guys to check in.
Guitarist Cliff Campbell: “It’s nice to see that they work so hard to make it as painless as possible for the bands to come down here and play. Where the hell are we supposed to park a van with a trailer in the middle of a downtown area when there are so many people here? You’d think they’d actually care to help out the bands.” One would think…
2:15pm - I am sweating like crazy. We walk what feels like 10 miles before we finally make it to the check in desk. Everyone (except me, much to my chagrin) picks up their wristband and we convene outside. Dicken and I decide we want to grab a bite for lunch while the rest of the guys opt to head back to the van for some rest. So, with everyone else making that hellacious trek back, Jon and I hit up Roppolo's Pizza on 6th for some quick grub. We chat for a little bit about the SXSW experience for a band. Asked to describe the event from the perspective of an artist, he responds, “Exhausting.” He goes on to tell me about how his favorite part of the week is when they’ve finished playing. “After we’re done, we can just walk around, meet people, and catch up with old friends from the road. The whole process isn’t very band-friendly considering how many bands come in for it. The only reason I’d ever want to play South By, is if we had a record to showcase for the fans. Other than that, we’re just showcasing ourselves to all the industry people. It’s not very well laid out for either the fans or the bands. I much prefer big outdoor festivals like Coachella.”
3:15pm - After we eat we decide to walk over to The Chuggin Monkey for an afternoon cocktail to get a head start for the rest of the night. This will ultimately prove to be a bad decision...While walking down to the bar, we run into Troy Zeigler, drummer for Serj Tankian's backing band FCC. He and Jon know each other from FTM's days touring with Serj. Troy is a really cool, down-to-earth guy who tells us about how he's currently on tour drumming for Juliette Lewis' new band, how much fun they're having, and how he’s “super excited” (sarcastically) to be playing 6 shows this week. I’m noticing a recurring theme among the opinions of the performers gathered here.
3:30pm - We get to The Chuggin Monkey and snag a seat on the back patio. Two Jager shots serve as a nice booster shot for a long day of drinking. We then chat for a while about what we’ve been listening to lately, and then catch up about how the writing process is coming along for the next Fair To Midland album. According to Jon, this record will be a lot darker than the previous release, and has been a much different writing style for the band. He lets me know that they'll be playing three new songs at this afternoon's showcase. (...at least that was the intent...)
4:00 - Jon gets a call from Cliff that it's time to load in at Maggie Mae's, the venue for the Affliction Clothing Party they're playing this afternoon, so we walk a block over and around to the back alley. While waiting, Darroh decides to take a leak behind a dumpster in the alleyway. Looking down at the ground, he notices a cell phone on the ground sitting only about 6 inches away from the shower. “Hey, somebody left their phone on the ground back here,” he turns and says to Jon and me. When he looks back, a hand emerges from the darkness behind the receptacle and grabs the phone. Darroh leaps what appears to be about 3 feet in the air right as a face pops out to say, “Jesus loves you”. Keep Austin Weird, indeed.
4:15 – As we’re loading the equipment into the club’s back room, we find pro skateboarder Mike Vallely (who fronts opening act Revolution Mother as a side venture) punching himself in the back room before their set. Either he's getting pumped up, or trying to dull the pain of being here. “Rev Mutha”, as their fans have dubbed them, put on an entertaining set that reminds me of a hybrid of ZZ Top, Motorhead, and Pantera. Vallely is a crowd pleaser, and guitarist Jason Hampton at one point even tight-rope walks down the arm rail next to the stage while dishing out a blistering solo. Not exactly the type of band that I envisioned on the same bill as Fair To Midland, but paired with my cold, canned Budweiser they feel just right.
5:10 – FTM takes the stage about 40 minutes later than originally slated. As I’m told by the event coordinator, all the early bands went over their time limit, and she’s freaking out because there is still one band after Fair To Midland left to play. This poses a bit of a problem…
The boys launch right into the set with probably the heaviest song they’ve ever written. It’s called “Rikki Tikki Tavi”, and basically sounds like a parody of their early “Carbon Copy” era sound. Sudderth commands the eager crowd to “Listen to me”, before erupting into a spinning, stomping, flailing maniac, while Campbell and Dicken crunch and soar over drummer Brett Stowers heavy thump. The song gets the crowd into motion as people begin to rush in from other rooms to catch a glimpse of what is causing all the commotion. Right as the Gibson Room begins to fill to the brim and the crowd starts buzzing, the intro to old fan favorite “Walls of Jericho” gets everyone ready to rumble. The opening stutter lick brings everyone in closer to the stage, and pianist Matt Langley provides a soothing ambient underlay. After the frenzied whiplash ending of “Walls”, the groove of new song “Musical Chairs” is a welcome reprieve. The song sounds much like the natural evolution of tracks such as “Tall Tales Taste Like Sour Grapes” from the band’s previous full length release “Fables From A Mayfly: What I Tell You Three Times Is True”. It is a very polished mature sound, while still having a distinct “FTM” twist to it. (The song is actually so new, Sudderth explains, that the song doesn’t even have completed lyrics. At this stage, it’s mostly ad-libbed.) “Chairs” sounds like exactly the type of song that could catapult the band to the big stages (or at least better parking spaces). A super “hooky” chorus melody makes the song fun to sing along to, while the instrumentals are funky enough to keep your head moving. Look forward to hearing this one everywhere soon.
5:30 – That’s right. It’s only 5:30 (a mere 20 minutes after taking the stage), and the event coordinator leans up to Campbell and notifies him that they will need to exit the stage to allow time for the last band to set up and play before the venue gets taken over by SXSW shows at 6:00. Dicken turns around from re-tuning his bass to see that his singer has left the scene, and the crowd is reacting with thunderous boos. Campbell takes to the mic to speak to the crowd. “They’re kicking us off since all the other bands went too long. Yeah, let ‘em know how that makes you feel!” he says, to which the crowd responds with obscenity-laced outbursts of displeasure. He then goads them by exclaiming, “They’re probably just doing this to us since we’re from Texas!” followed by the crowd screaming at the venue workers while the band breaks down their equipment. After the show, Jon looks at me and says, “You know what? I was feelin’ kinda tired after the second song anyway. Now I can spend the rest of the night actually having a good time.”
I ask Darroh how it feels to be removed mid-set:
“Yeah, that’s about right. We’re like worms on a hook out there. At least they didn’t use the old Vaudeville-style cane to yank us off.” It’s tough to muster up any positivity at this point.
6:10 – After getting all the crates and crates of gear moved outside and ready to load up into the van, Cliff heads off on a mission to bring back the van. 20 or so minutes later, Cliff returns to the loading zone sans van. The van was allegedly parked illegally and was towed away. I ask the guys how they feel about the situation:
Matt: “We parked where they told us to park, and now its load out time and the damn van is not where we left it. Austin, TX would like to welcome all bands to SXSW with open arms.”
Brett: “Actually, I gotta tell ya, I feel pretty good about it. I was really…I came down here with the mindset that I need to “work”, maybe “haul some gear”, maybe “work off some of this gut”, you know…And now it looks like I’m gonna get to accomplish that. So, I feel pretty alright about it.”
Darroh: “I think it’s super sweet.”
Me: “How about that 15 minute set?”
Darroh: “I think it’s super sweet.”
7:45 – Cliff finally returns with the van, and we get everything all loaded up. As Cliff heads off to find another (legal) place to park, we all decide to walk over to the Spaghetti Warehouse on 4th street since it’s the only please within a reasonable walking distance that shouldn’t be packed to the max with tourists. After all, there are an estimated 150,000 people that come from all over the globe for the largest interactive multimedia festival in the world. They’re bound to want to eat somewhere more “local” than SpagHouse…
9:15 – When we finish eating, everyone decides that the Tori Amos show over at La Zona Rosa is where they’re gonna head. However, since I don’t have a wristband, I can’t get in. Dicken turns to me and says, “Dude, It’s not 1996. I don’t care about going to see Tori Amos. I’m with you.” So Jon and I decide to meander over and go meet up with some of his old tour buddies at some bars on 6th.
9:40 – Our first stop is a semi-swanky Polynesian-themed cocktail bar called Malaia to meet up with the guys from Shreveport, LA band Tyler Read, with whom Fair To Midland toured with opening for Chevelle back in the fall of ’07. They’ve just finished watching the 8:00 show of fellow Louisiana alterna-punk outfit Meriwether. We all kick back a few drinks and relax despite how uptight the bar feels. We decide to venture elsewhere for a more accommodating venue.
10:30 – We mosey over to The Jackalope to meet up with Josh Johnson, the singer from Tyler Read, and say hello. We run into Steve Bergeron, the guitar player from Meriwether, and the dude is hilarious. He shakes my hand, then leans in and says, “I feel like I’m walking on the moon,” to which I reply, “You probably are.” These are the good times of SXSW. Josh, Jon, and I chat for a bit about music videos (Tyler Read just recently shot a video for “Baby’s Got A Temper”), and how people want to see the band in the video. After all, people buy the record to hear the music, but they buy tickets to the show to see a performance. This is a topic Darroh and I would discuss again at dinner before their show on Saturday night relating to his onstage antics. He often gets stressed before a show worrying about whether or not things will go as planned, and if the crowd will be “into” their performance. When I tell him that people don’t care about the sound as much as they want to be entertained, he retorts, “Yeah, that’s why there is so much pressure.”
“All these people are here to be entertained. I understand that people focus more on the singer when they watch a band, so it’s on my shoulders to make sure they get to see what they came to see. The hardest part is that the things that I do onstage for our fans wreak havoc on my body. Sometimes I wonder how long I’ll be able to keep this up. My back hurts all the time. After some shows [like the one they play on Saturday night] I can barely walk because my hips and legs are jacked up. Most nights when the show is over I feel like hell, but I go out there anyway because I appreciate everyone that supports us and I feel like I owe it to them to keep going. I want people to enjoy the show, but I also want to be able to walk upright when I’m 40.”
11:40 – Jon and decide to check up with everybody else to see what they’re doing. We head out on a manhunt to try and find Darroh over at Emo’s. Across the street from Emo’s, we see a street musician playing very complex beats on some plastic and metal buckets and bowls. Even artists with no actual instruments are trying to be discovered at South By. This guy totally rocks, so while Jon ventures inside to find Darroh, I grab a seat on the sidewalk and watch this apparently homeless Buddy Rich.
12:05 – Jon comes back outside, but couldn’t find Darroh through the masses of people inside. Every venue is a madhouse. We decide to walk back over to Maggie Mae’s where our aforementioned buddy John (the one whose house the band was staying at) was working as a bartender. So John, Jon, and Jonathan (me) are hanging out in the small pub side at Maggie’s and sipping some whiskey. [That sounds like the beginning of a shitty joke.] John (who is working despite having been partying all day and all the night before) decides that my drink needs more punch. He grabs the Jack Daniel’s bottle and aims it toward my glass. Just in the nick of time, I was able to pull it away (at this point, I’ve been drinking for about 10 hours and I’m definitely feeling it). So, the spout of the bottle is now pointed at the girl next me and John proceeds to pour about a shot and a half of whiskey directly on her back. She turns to me and says, “What the fuck did you do that for?!”
I think every single person in this whole city is drunk. It’s been a long day.
12:40 – Cliff, Brett, and Matt call to tell us that they’re ready to start walking back to the van. We finish our drinks, and start walking over to The Parish to meet up with everybody. On the journey to find the van, Jon starts feeling the effects of the day’s libations and starts to get a little “choked up”…Right in front of a cop car. But apparently, cops don’t care if all 100,000 SXSW patrons are drunk.
As we’re walking, we notice a young woman passed out on the steps of a downtown building. Seeing this as a fitting image of the average SXSW partygoer, I decide to stop and snap of photo. But, not before Darroh sits down next to her, puts his arm around her and smiles big for the camera. These guys are nothing if not gentlemen…
As Brett and I are capturing this moment of intimacy, 3 ladies walk by and see him sitting there with the girl and all say, “Wow. You’re a great friend for staying with her.” This is probably the first time all day that he’s been shown appreciation.
While we walk, I’m asking the guys how they felt overall with the days events, and if they felt it was generally representative of the SXSW experience. Darroh says to me, “We’re treated like inventory with a short shelf life. We do this all for our fans, but, unfortunately, they’re priced out from being able to afford to come see these shows. We’re basically tap dancing chimps for the industry choads. But, then again, beggars can’t be choosers. If we don’t play these kind of events, we can’t get ourselves such a widespread audience. Most people that see us play at these shows would never like us. But, maybe there’s one or two that do and then it’s worth it. I just wish it wasn’t so much about whoring ourselves out for the suits, and more about the bands that work so hard to come here only to be treated like they should feel lucky to even be here.”
“Other than that, I just want a Prilosec.”
I guess that’s what SXSW does to you.