SXSW festival has been taking place in hundreds of venues throughout Austin, Texas over the past week. Below, NME’s writers on the ground there offer their best new discoveries. Pick up this week’s issue of NME to read our full review of the new music mecca.
Matt Wilkinson, New Music Editor
US newcomers Seratones are still so small that they’re only able to play the places everybody else shuns here at SXSW. Places like restaurants, for showcases put on by companies called things like Copyright Alliance, supporting terrible bands like Plain White T’s. It’s a long way from Austin’s premier venues like Hotel Vegas and Mohawk, where you can spend hours drinking free beer and taking in a jaw dropping stream of amazing acts: Iceage, Destruction Unit, Merchandise, Girl Band, Thee Oh Sees…the list literally goes into the hundreds.
The absolute nadir of terrible venues has to be Amped though, which is where Seratones blew me into next week a few days ago. The band are a pretty mesmeric mix of Dick Dale guitars and early White Stripes intensity, headed up by tiny, afro’d frontwoman AJ. She’ll get endless comparisons to Mavis Staples due to her voice when she really belts it out (incredible), Sister Rosetta Tharpe because of the way she hold and plays her guitar (again, incredible) and probably the movie South Pacific because of the way she moves and coos in certain bits of songs.
The band only signed to Fat Possum a couple of weeks ago – and have done zilch in the way of promotion yet. They only came to SXSW on a whim, just to play a few gigs and hang out with their new label who are all in town, which is probably why there were just 14 people watching them. The other 50 or so at the back of the bar had their minds elsewhere – checking out the women’s wrestling on TV. It obviously irked AJ somewhat, because at one point she decided to let rip, climbing up onto the bar and taking matters into her own hands. It’s probably the best off-the-cuff performance I’ve ever seen at SXSW:
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Elsewhere, fiesty Brooklyn outsiders Sunflower Bean proved themselves to be a much more gnarly prospect live than on record, recalling Black Sabbath and Tame Impala in places. They’ve got an unbelievable girl-boy front duo who share vocals and look incredible together – Julia, who’s got that same dead-eyed stare that made Alice Glass so striking, and who plays bass like an absolute demon, and Nick, who looks like MGMT’s Andrew VanWyngarden mixed with Bobby Gillespie in his Screamadelica days. He’s dipped all of their equipment – guitars, bass, amps, the lot – in industrial paint in a nod, I’d guess, to Warhol and John Squire, and it pays off: aesthetically, they’re the coolest band here.
Just as importantly they’ve got oodles of tunes too, many of them not yet recorded, and an undeniable chemistry onstage – along with drummer Jacob, they’re able to tap into that same place Pond and King Gizzard get to when they really rock out.
My other key tip for the week are Sheer Mag, who are probably the biggest indie industry buzz here (aside from Hinds – still yet to sign a deal, the Spanish band played a whopping 16 gigs over the course of the week). Their self titled EP was essential listening last year, fusing intricate AC/DC riffs with the kind of simple glam stomp that Marc Bolan invented glam with. What makes Sheer Mag really stand out, though, is that bands like them are ten a penny in the states – dirty garage rock, played by guys who look closer to Creedence than The Dead Boys. But as a live act they were simply streets ahead of all the competition I saw, thanks to a tight-as-hell line up backing a could-be-iconic frontwoman, Tina Halladay. She’ll be called the new Beth Ditto/Janis Joplin for sure, but she’s totally got her own thing going on, and overall the band seem to me to be the next in line of great US garage acts – following on from Merchandise and Parquet Courts.
Rhian Daly, Assistant Reviews Editor
Standing in the rain watching bands is something that you wouldn’t immediately associate with Austin, Texas but when LA’s Wand played at Waterloo Records’ outdoor stage it felt more like being at Glastonbury (albeit in a car park) than SXSW. Their battering ram riffs almost made you forget you were being soaked to the bone and songs from their second album ‘Golem’ sounded even more crushingly brilliant live.
White Reaper, meanwhile, provided some lighter relief. Their debut EP is feel-good, Ramones-indebted power-punk and their set at Cheer Up Charlie’s was more of the same. Too often bands look like they’d rather be anywhere but on stage, but the Louisville quartet couldn’t have been having more fun. Keyboardist Ryan Hater must have spent at least 75 percent of the set thrashing around the stage and their between-song banter was adorably goofy.
Their friends Hinds might be the band of the moment but The Parrots gave their Madrid counterparts a run for their money, playing nearly as many shows as them and bringing just as much infectious energy. Like a less intimidating Black Lips, they rattled through ramshackle garage-rock gems before frontman Diego Garcia finished the set from the crowd, gathering a horde of new fans around him as he leaped off stage.
Elsewhere Tweens were a bolt of poppy punk fun, Austin’s own OBN III’s caused chaos as they aired new songs that sound even more riotous and vital than their previous stuff and Chicago’s Modern Vices showed that, given time, they could be just as exhilarating as the likes of Twin Peaks and The Orwells. The best band of the week by far for me, though, was New York’s Sunflower Bean, who make honking, hypnotic psych that should see them absolutely blow up very soon.
April Clare Welsh, writer
For a first time SXSW-er like myself, the staggering scope this festival covers has blown my mind. It’s a leviathan. I landed on Monday afternoon and was lucky enough to catch Metz thrashing and burning through a supercharged hardcore set, followed by the confident, catchy musical storytelling of an ever-personable Courtney Barnett. This was bizarrely met with Elijah Wood DJing next door, as he spun soul and rare groove to a sea of iPhones pointed in his direction.
Stumbling across LA trash-punks Corners was a pleasant surprise, as was the 60s-inspired melodic finesse of super laid-back Chicagoans J Fernandez. Stripped-back and laid-bare, Angel Olsen wrung every drop of emotion from her voice which left a 1am crowd totally spellbound and silent while PC Music’s SOPHIE let off hypercolour bass bangers downstairs.
As others have written, Sunflower Bean proved to be one of the most fervent, exciting New York guitar bands currently making waves, and they are so tight live. Later on that evening, I pulled up a pew in the meditative environs of Central Presbyterian Church for Chicago-based post-Americana guitarist Ryley Walker – a welcome break from the insanity outside.
Thursday saw Aussie indie wonders and a personal favourite of mine, Twerps, charm a packed-out, sweat-drenched crowd at Mohawk, followed by Long Beach rapper Vince Staples who had his audience spitting his bars along with him. I turned up at Hotel Vegas literally just in time to catch ‘Damaged Goods’ by Gang of Four – serendipity in action.
With the sunshine well and truly gone and the torrential rain churning up the dirt into mud, outside venues like Mohawk started to resemble Glastonbury and Friday felt more like a test of endurance than any other day. But psych-rock heavy hitters Wand spun a wet crowd into a trance-like state so, even as the heavens opened, nobody seemed to care. Made up of members from Veronica Falls and Mazes, Ultimate Painting represented the UK with their Byrds-ian jangle and masterful 60s pop-esque songwriting and their on-stage chat was well-received. Then I headed downtown to watch the Copenhagen-born mad capped DJ HVAD take the roof off gay sports bar The Iron Bear, turning out his twisted, hyperactive bass-heavy Punjabi infused bangers – complete with gongs, and lots and lots of dancing.
Jonathan Garrett, writer
It’s true – SXSW 2015 ended in a colossal washout, with the pouring rain on Friday and Saturday making the waits to get into the marquee venues damn-near intolerable. Fortunately, there was enough time to take in a healthy sampling of the newbie acts on offer at this year’s fest before the worst of the weather settled in. Here are a few of my most notable discoveries:
Spring King: Featured on the Transgressive Records showcase, this four-piece dispensed rambunctious and infectious post-punk in the vein of early Futureheads. Bonus points for pulling it off with a singing drummer.
All Tvvins: The New Order-enamored trio paid homage with precision while also throwing some Killers-sized stadium ambitions into the mix. There’s little room for error in what they’re aiming for and it wasn’t lost on them for a second.
Dear Boy: A classically-inclined brit-pop band from Los Angeles of all places, Dear Boy split the difference between Suede and Manic Street Preachers. It was unexpectedly refreshing to hear songs with a flair for the dramatic (and melodramatic) in the heart of Texas.
Winter: Also hailing from Los Angeles, Winter are a shoegazey indie pop quartet who just released their debut album via Lollipop Records. Despite the dulcet melodies, there’s a genuine heartbreak lurking just beneath the surface.
Finally, deserving of special mention here are last year’s SXSW darlings Bully, who returned to enjoy much larger venues and rapt audiences throughout. Following a jam-packed year that saw them get signed, tour nationally, and record their debut album, the band turned in a spate of impressively confident performances – Alicia Bognanno delivering her kiss-off anthems with rare, righteous fury. It was further proof that in spite of all the bellyaching about SXSW being more about stunt celebrity cameos and the headliners at Fader Fort, the fest can and occasionally still does live up to its stated mission of shining a light on the best undiscovered talent.