Erstellt am: 26. 4. 2012 - 17:18 Uhr
Stories from the road
Sionski plays keyboard in the Austro-British Indie-Synth-Rock band BENSH, based between Cardiff, Vienna and Innsbruck.
I'm sat here in bed, in tropical Wales, UK. I sleep in a small room. It's too cold in winters, too hot in summers, too unpredictable between seasons. Those fine soldiers of culture at FM4 asked us to write an account of our visit to SXSW; and a month later I'm sat here with big words to write and even bigger events to recount and I have no idea where to start, how to begin, where to finish. I've consulted ghosts of great writers past with little success. Kerouac's cooking up a potato curry, Baudelaire's at the monster truck grand prix while Joyce watches some Jennifer Aniston marathon with three pissed-off Bronte sisters. Gogol told me to avoid name-dropping, but that's all he had to offer.
Then, like a bad massage, it hits me - there's no way of recounting all the wonders of our visit to Texas, not with the same living exuberance and insanity of the experiences themselves. So don't panic - 'let it wash over you' I tell myself. And actually, I think that's what I told myself back in Austin. And that's what I'd tell anyone headed over for SXSW 2013:
Let it wash over you.
Austin’s East Sixth Street is one of the coolest streets you could end up on. I felt it treaded the line between SXSW's Austin and the Austin locals saw every other day of the year. It was littered with crumbling bar conversions, ageing mission-style buildings housing families and art galleries, dusty trailer parks adorned with food caravans and Christmas light canopies. We were being housed further down the street in a great apartment complex. It was holiday season and the days were filled with the bilingual banter of hyperactive Mexican kids running around the communal pool.
We arranged for accommodation in Austin via Facebook. Amidst preparations for our trip, we found a post on our wall by Beaten Track Studios, sending us a friendly advance-welcome to their town and an invitation to record for free in their mobile studio. Beaten Track turned out to be the brainchild of a bunch of young music enthusiasts with entrepreneurial minds who had moved to Austin from different corners of the US. Griffin Kelp, Matt Stamp and photographer Jordan Bellamy soon found out that the city lived up to its reputation as "live music capital of the world" and decided to start a communal studio project to capture the city's amazing alternative music scene. The studio itself is an old trailer, transformed into a mobile recording space with the help of friends, local artists and equipment-donors. A lovely idea, a great communal project, and clearly a labour of love. After some correspondence, it transpired that these fellas were open to accommodating us on our stay.
I'd heard the guys got a crate of beer for us prior to our arrival. Somewhere along the line we gleaned that they probably suspected another boozed-up, drug-fuelled band to come and tear up their apartment. I think their worries vanished when Benji waltzed in, gleefully declaring that he'd found some hibiscus tea in one of the food parks on the night of our arrival.
I've never met such a great bunch of guys. Once it had been established that we weren't going to shit on their cooker in a heroin/coke-frenzy - that we were a band who preferred performing to partying any time of day, we realised that we were among kin when it came to taste, outlook and humour. This is when the experience shifts to beautiful: you mark your success not by the amount of business cards or tweets you accrue, but by the number of faces you'll not forget. Thoughts of these guys still bring me out in a contagion of goofy smiles and fond memories.
Our continued thanks to Matt Stamp, Griffin Kelp, Jordan Bellamy and drop-in neighbours Robert Kelly, Brady Johnson, Brent Bellamy and the wonderful Jose for their amazing hospitality, be sure to check out the Beaten Track Studio project.
As FM4-correspondent Christian Lehner, our Godfather and humble guide to the US explains, SXSW is a great place for busking. Hundreds take to the streets to perform and promote themselves all day every day, so it's a daunting undertaking at the best of times. We'd long-established that we wanted to get in on the action, but there were two problems. The first was that every busker we'd seen was an acoustic musician of sorts, while we'd need electricity to power up. Secondly, the moment you amplify live music on the streets of Austin without permission you're a filthy criminal, subject to a moderate fine, maybe even the death sentence if you were killing anyone softly.
So it wasn't without risk that we set up outside the Austin Convention Center, plugging in to their external socket to "borrow" power. We saw ourselves as the Robin Hoods of Texas, taking back what the conquistadors stole from Native American tribes in 1519 (thanks Wikipedia, saved my sorry ass again.) The first night we performed on the streets of Austin, we met with rapturous applause from passing audiences, who hugged, danced and tweeted us. I've never been tweeted so forcefully in all my life.
The next day we performed at The Deseo Centro Lounge for one of our SXSW showcases. We had a blast. Not least because of an amazing Korean BBQ stall around the corner. If you’re ever in Austin, try those burgers. Seriously. Our guitarist Sevo swears by them - a tear falls down his cheek every time he remembers those beauties. Typically, the burger joint also doubled up as some kind of unofficial press-meet-up-hot-spot during the festival: countless stories and business cards were traded to the sizzle of spicy fries under the clear sky after many a sweaty and chaotic gig.
It was a real microcosm of the festival right there. For us it meant meeting some friends from the road, like NY legend Jack Duncan, who we met at our last visit to New York a few months earlier during a spontaneous jam in Brooklyn. People like Jack are part of the big indie dream. You travel, make music, meet the most colourful and spirited people, then meet them again somewhere down the line. And so it went. After music, food and a catch-up we decided to return to the Convention Center for one more guerrilla show in Austin.
We finished setting up around 1am. The city center was buzzing with activity as the festival was in full flow. We started performing, courtesy of the Convention Center's external power source. There was competition from a Party Bus doing its rounds of the block and stylish pedicabs with onboard jukeboxes pounding techno and Stevie Wonder classics. We turned ourselves up to full volume and went at it. I kept casting nervous glances at police cars racing by. At one point, two stationary patrol cars were posted a few hundred yards away from us. Rob, one of our new-found Texan friends captured a few casual seconds of our set on the street. Note the police lights in the background...
Guerilla gigging in front of the Austin Convention Center, circa 2am. Video by Robert Kelly
Those blue and green lights flashed constantly for more than twenty minutes, giving many doped-up freethinkers even more reason to jive to our tunes. It couldn’t last forever. Eventually, we caught the eyes and ears of two police officers and three Texas state troopers who started walking towards us, slitting their throats with their fingertips.
As a Brit, I've learned that the best way for me to survive in the States is to play the Hugh Grant card. And I've never played that card so strongly in all my life. These officers were my Andie MacDowells for the night. We welcomed them with smiles, handshakes and our famous European charms, all working a treat. These were great guys, it must be said. We joked that the CCTV camera would make for a free music video, they proclaimed their enjoyment of our music and rounded off the encounter with a photo, to the background shouts of "LET THEM PLAY! LET THEM PLAY!"
The only time you can rely on public support is when the police are involved...
That night we fought the law and the law was really accommodating.
This weird and wonderful episode was rounded off by one final chance meeting. As we packed in our gear one of the spectators walked up to us and introduced herself as D.R. Glenn. Turned out that D.R. was not only digging synth solos but she was also an official festival driver. With almost 2000 bands on the official festival bill, people like D.R. make sure that acts get to their showcase venues and promo-dates in time. With the aforementioned pedicabs, party-buses, party-mobs, Harakiri-buskers and guerrilla-gigging Europeans cluttering the streets, you need serious skills, nerves of steel and, most of all, a big heart and bigger sense of humour. Maybe that’s why D.R., having just witnessed our epic police shut-down, decided to give us her number. ‘If you need a ride, give me a call, boys'. During our stay, she also offered some fine advice on sex, fried chicken and passport acquisition (possibly via sex and fried chicken...).
Love Bus and Vegas
In one of our interviews, we were asked what advice we'd give to others trying to make a success out of their SXSW visit. I said "just ask". We flew to the States/Canada with two shows booked. We returned from our journey having played 12 shows in 15 days. Two of our favourite Austin
shows came off the back of just asking.
The first show was for Washington DC's Listen Local First. They're a great company - specialising in establishing collaborations between local artists and businesses to facilitate the development of both. They parked their colourful 70s love bus on Fifth and Brazos as we established that we were a band looking for a stage and they were a bus putting on live music. We returned a few hours later to perform a few cycles of our set to an
amazingly receptive street audience. A wave of press came our way on the back of that show, notably a piece in Chicago's Pulitzer-prized paper, The Sun Times. Massive thanks to Chris Naoum and Gordon Daniels from LLF for making it happen. We’d love to see more of this stuff back home. If you have a mobile PA, let us know, let’s
bring some of this to the streets of Europe...
The second was on Friday, 16th March. We were setting up for our 11pm slot on the Brooklyn Vegan stage at the legendary Hotel Vegas on East Sixth Street. Hours earlier, our intrepid Benji had knocked on their gates and asked if they had any available slots. To our astonishment we were given a prime time slot on the busiest night of the festival on the coolest stage going. We invited the guys from the apartment, who brought with them a hoard of friends, who brought with them some of the best dance moves I've ever seen. Our friend Rob Kelly performed a set before us, and our wonderful self-appointed spiritual mentor, D.R Glenn came to the rescue with a ride to / from the venue. We received storms of cheering from a crowd who were complete strangers three days ago. As I smiled at our new friends, excited and already dancing to the twang of guitar tuning, I realised this would be one of the best shows the band would play…
Sevo stamped a hole in the stage. Benjamin made an unholy shipwreck of his guitar. I physically abused my keyboards for forty minutes. It's a glorious moment when confidence and experience fuses with intense adrenaline levels during a live performance. But it's beyond glorious when there's an audience there who appreciates it. I'll never forget that show, nor will I forget the people who made it for us.
A huge thanks and shout out to Griffin, Matt and Jordan, to Jose! To Brady Johnson and his justified hatred of Houston, to the legendary Bob Makela and his Barstool Poetry collective (check it out, it'll be huge), to Beaten Track Records, the lovely Kacy Crowley and Will Knaack, to the wonderful Jack Duncan, to D.R and Victor Glenn for the rides, to Brent Bellamy, to Chris and Gordon at Listen Local First DC, to FM4’s own Christian Lehner and Santi from the Bayerischer Rundfunk for finding us in scattered clubs and at random street corners, to Big Wayne, to Mac from New & Used on 6th (sorry for stealing your extension cable), to the knife-throwing man down the road (thanks for offering a gig right next to the knife-target – maybe next year) and Austin Police Department for digging Hugh Grant. Can’t wait for SXSW 2013.