Talking SXSW with Spank Rock, HAIM, The Drums, and Others

In the middle of the madness and mayhem of Austin’s SXSW is the core of what runs this festival: the musicians. Often lost behind free drink lines and giant Dorito Ads these artists travel from all over the globe just to have a chance to perform. The majority of them don’t get paid and some aren’t even booked to play on a stage but the allure of a chance to get seen and heard is enough to warrant long travel and an exhausting week.

It became quickly apparent that within the community of musicians at SXSW there are two camps. The veterans, those who have played the festival more than once and were no longer jaded to the double edged sword that SXSW has become, but still grateful to have a chance to come back. And the newcomers, those who were at the festival for the first time whose excitement and exhilaration still pulsed through them and who were nothing but thrilled just to be there.

The Veterans:
Spank Rock
When we knocked on the door where Naeem Juwan aka MC Spank Rock was staying, it became quickly apparent that everyone in the house including Naeem was sleeping. We felt horrible to have woken everyone up but were told it was fine. Naeem had a long day of interviews and shows ahead of him and we were just the beginning. Naeem came out in his sweatpants and hoodie and laid down on the couch diagonally across from us. This was Spank Rock’s fourth year performing at SXSW. A true veteran, he’s experienced the transformation of both the festival and the feeling of performing:

“The first time no one cares and no one knows who you are and if you do something that grabs someone’s attention it’s very exciting. It’s fun because every experience is new and magical. And the second time around no matter what you do you’re in this world of criticism and competition. The musicians that make the festival the festival, they don’t get much out of it. SXSW looks so good because it’s all based on marketing.”

Despite his qualms with the corporatism of the festival he is grateful to be back. It isn’t all bad he explains “Sometimes you get to see a show that’s magical, like last night Andrew WK, that was magical, so it’s a love hate relationship.”

The Drums
We met The Drums in a parking lot outside of Lustre Pearl, the venue they were about to play. There is no quiet space in downtown Austin during SXSW so much so that even the parking lot deemed too loud to conduct an interview in. We ended up going across the street to sit on the stoop of “The Palm School”, an all white concrete building close to the entrance of interstate I-35. Something about singer Johnny Peirce and synth player Jacob Graham, the two founding members of The Drums, made us instantly comfortable.

Johnny and Jacob have known each other since childhood and are now, not only in a widely successful band together, but live down the street from each other in the East Village. “We’ve lived strangely identical lives” Johnny told us. They both grew up in a strict religious household, their brothers have the same name, they both bought their first synth at the same time, and were both listening to Kraftwerk in a time when everyone else around them was listening to Nirvana. “When you meet someone like that you kind of have to hold on to it.”

Both Johnny and Jacob gave a similar account as Spank Rock did when talking about the festival. “SXSW has outgrown itself and they need to learn how to deal with that. They don’t take care of their artists. Like they literally push you out onto the street as soon as your set is done.” It blew my mind when they told us that, but at the same time made sense to the feeling I had been getting in the last day or so. The truth is each year the festival keeps getting larger but the city that holds it remains the same size creating overflow in the streets and venues that can’t hold the amount of people who come out to see bands play. “You feel like cattle” Johnny stated, and as someone who nearly cried in a bathroom from the overwhelming anxiety of being out on the streets I completely concur.

Elizabeth and The Catapult
This was Elizabeth Ziman’s third year playing SXSW. Her story was one of the success stories you hear about that keep bands coming back to Austin every March. Her first year performing at the festival she was discovered by Verve records and signed soon after (she is no longer signed to Verve). “Two years ago I got signed, Last year I had the whole, ‘get interviewed and get free shit thing’, and this year I’m playing this one really nice show and then am just hanging around and going to all of my friends shows.” Elizabeth was more content and happy to just be able to be in Austin and have a chance to see her friends play than be affected by the insanity that is SXSW. She did however inform us of the lack of sound checks "I’ve been at SXSW for a couple of years now and I’ve played gigs where I can’t hear myself at all. I’m playing in this church this year so I think it will be really nice though.But you just show up knowing what you’re in for, wear a ridiculous outfit, and have fun."

New Comers:
HAIM
HAIM is a sister trio consisting of three hilarious and talented ladies Alana, Danielle, and Este Haim from Los Angeles plus a drummer Dash Hutton. We were lucky enough to be able to go thrifting with the girls at this awesome vintage boutique located across the river away from the Downtown crowd called Feathers. It couldn’t have been a more perfect place to get to know the three of them.

"So many bands have come out of New York and we really feel that there is finally this great community of people who are coming out of LA” Alana, the youngest of the three sisters, told us. “All of our bros are out here; Harriet, White Arrows, Milo Green, Superhumanoids. We all want to get to the same point, and when we get to that point then we can tour together.” Este, the eldest, exclaimed and then added, “We need more girl bands though. We love our dudes, but we need more ladies.”

Radiation City
Radiation City was formed by Lizzy Ellison and Cameron Spies after meeting about four years ago while Cameron, a Portland native, was living in San Francisco. He was about to move back to Portland in order to start a band with Lizzy, when at a show in West Oakland he ran into a childhood friend who was coincidentally playing the same show with Radiation City’s now drummer Randy Bemrose the duo quickly became a trio. The rest of the band, which includes bassist Matt Rafferty and singer/keyboardist Patti King, came together organically over the next year or so. “We have the luxury of getting along really well” Lizzy stated. “It’s been like the best relationship ever. No break ups or anything.”

Despite being Radiation City’s first time performing at SXSW the band came to the festival fully prepared for the craziness they were about to face. “It’s kind of everything I’ve anticipated just from stories I’ve heard. It’s pretty similar to CMJ which we had just performed at last October, except ten times bigger and ten times more insane.” Lizzy told us. “But I really enjoy playing and really enjoy meeting the people who are throwing the events, because I think behind all the drunkeness and ridiculousness there are really good people throwing really great shows and supporting really amazing bands.”

Illustrate
A week before the festival Josh Board aka Illustrate set up a fundraising show/event at Franklin Park in Brooklyn in order to help him make it to Austin.

When he finally got to Austin alongside his friend and hype man Nick Spinale, he had no idea what he was in for. The initial reaction was a whole lot of excitement and just as equal shock. “Everything I see out here is really amazing!” he exclaimed, “I feel like a small ass fish in an overpopulated pond. I feel so lucky to be here, Just the fact that I have an artists badge, I’m like Yeahhh Motherfucker! The most love I got was on the street and that shit was beautiful.” he told us. The harsh reality of an overcrowded festival hit smaller showcases hard. People tended to show up more for the drink specials and free swag than for the acts that were playing, which lended to lukewarm audiences. But for Josh it provided a much needed push forward. “Maybe we weren’t quite ready this year, but I’m so glad we did it because next year we’re going hard."