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SXSW 2014: the first half of Astralwerks’ showcase at the Parish – 12th March 2014

 
By on Friday, 21st March 2014 at 1:00 pm
 

I always make a point of seeing at least one massive band at every SXSW, and this year I decided it was about bloody time that I made the time to see Brighton indie band the Kooks. One of our good friends back home absolutely adores them and while I am no Kooks scholar, I would be able to recognise a couple of their songs, so my argument was that I should probably go and see them before I die, just so I would know what my friend Kelly is on about. The Kooks were scheduled to have two official festival appearances, one Friday night at Stubb’s, but after an unfortunate and never to be forgotten setback of being turned away there last year despite being on the guestlist for the Joy Formidable and then being shut out of the 1975‘s appearance at Huw Stephens’ night at the British Music Embassy at SXSW 2013 after, I decided the earlier Kooks appearance at the Parish would be safer. I don’t know whether or not it was necessary, but myself and my best Canadian buddy Jordy queued over a half hour in advance to make sure we would be close to the front.

The Kooks were third, smack dab in the middle of Wednesday night’s line-up. We had no idea what to expect from the bands that were to come before the Brightonians. First up was Claire, a synth-led pop band from Munich. While the band is named for singer and frontwoman Josie-Claire Burkle, it is most definitely not a solo vehicle, with clearly talented musicians and producers Matthias Hauck, Nepomuk Heller and Florian Kiermaier as part of the band. However, if you didn’t know all this, it would look at least on the surface that Burkle fancied herself like a German Lykke Li, dressed in flowy black garb, having long hair that all too conveniently swung side to side, often hitting a drum with sticks similar to what the Swedish singer/songwriter gets up to in concert. Both this act and the American one to follow reminded me of very popular bands currently in existence, which I suppose says more about how the major label system works than anything else: when it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…and when it works, clone, clone, clone.

However, upon further listening to the live Claire experience, it’s impossible not to get drawn into the sheer catchiness of their synthpop songs and the amount of energy they themselves put into the performance, throwing their whole bodies into it. Burkle in particular seemed overwhelmed and nearly ready to cry at the end of the set, when the crowd assembled was responding so well to their music, the cheers were deafening, as if nearing riot stage. When non-music people ask me what the point of SXSW is, I give examples like this: when you’re watching a band that nearly no-one’s heard of get an absolutely amazing reception in a place so far from where they come from (in this case, Germany), you can’t help but feel your heart grow warm that it’s music that is a unifying presence, a uniting force that transcends all.

Parade of Lights had the unenviable task of following up such a scorching set from the Germans. A sentiment that echoed many times in my head all week that also rang true with the Los Angeles band: when is a keyboard truly necessary? What weirded me out most about Parade of Lights was that if I closed my eyes while they played, I could have sworn I was in a Bastille concert. I felt like I could have been in any top 40 disco in London. When I opened them and their frontman/guitarist Ryan Daly came into view, I could have sworn I was looking at Dan Smith.

There’s no denying that this indie synthpop genre thing is here to stay and there were hundreds upon hundreds of bands in Austin last week that could have been classed in this genre, but after a while, even your electro-loving editor gets battle fatigue. I have nothing bad to say about Parade of Lights – their songs are infectious and I can see having a good night out dancing to them, they’re clearly going to do well with the young kids watching MTV in their bedrooms late at night and I wish them well, as they look like they’re having the time of their lives onstage. But for me, it’s a case of “been there, done that, got anything new up your sleeve?” (The difference I found between them and Claire was that for the Germans, I actually felt like I wanted to jump up and down and dance, with Parade of Lights, not so much.)

By then, it was nearly 10 PM and time for the Kooks to play. I had watched as the crowd had thinned and rebuilt itself twice in between sets, people milling in and out of the venue. Yet another great thing about SXSW: you don’t like the next band or you’ve already seen them before? Leave your current club and go to any number of other ones nearby. By the time 10 neared, who was actually in the Parish were mostly diehard fans, probably a 70/30 ratio of girls to guys. It started to get claustrophobic. Again, I had never seen the Kooks ever at that point, but I had envisioned the fangirls getting territorial and yes, the claws were out and pushing and shoving became the norm. (Please. Seriously, if you want to see your favourite band, for the love of god, show up early and don’t be rude! I am always amazed by the number of fans – 99% invariably half-naked girls in heels – who think it’s their right to push and shove you out of the way so they can get down the front. We’d arrived there as the venue opened up at 8 and earned our places fair and square. So nyah.) After I was done shooting the band, I let a Kooks uberfan up in my spot so she could see better. Because those acts of kindness are what music fans should do for each other, yeah?

I took the above photo on my phone and it was picked up by Astralwerks,
who used it in a Storify post. Let’s just say I was chuffed!

What will probably surprise most people ahead of the Kooks’ new material out later this year, prefaced by new single ‘Down’ out on the 20th of April is that the Brighton band have turned…urban? (Something of note: it appeared recently as a Zane Lowe Hottest Record in the World on Radio 1.) They do not sound like the same band that put out 2011’s ‘Junk of the Heart (Happy)’, which could have been a Peter and Gordon staple in its winsome, pearly white-teethed innocence. So going into an r&b direction is quite a shock. It’s a risk also seen in ‘Around Town’, with a groovy bass line and powerful percussion anchoring the song more than any obvious melody, which seems stark contrast to band staple and happy-go-lucky ‘She Moves in Her Own Way’. I guess we’re going to have to wait and see how the new direction pans out for the Kooks, but for nearly an hour in that sweaty, packed Parish, I’d say no-one there cared about the future. For everyone else, it was all about being the same room with their heroes.

 

SXSW 2014 Interview: Bradley Carter of NO

 
By on Friday, 21st March 2014 at 11:00 am
 

As we hope you’ve already read, Mary and I spent the early part of our Wednesday of SXSW 2014 at the dark and hollow Empire Control Room for the iHeart Austin showcase (read Mary’s full recap here). Mary’s enthusiasm was still at full throttle, but by this point in the week, I was in desperate need of coffee and sunshine. We arrived early for the show, and luckily I was able to get a quick fix of both before the afternoon’s activities got underway.

I wasn’t familiar with any of the bands listed for the showcase, except of course for The Crookes, so I tried to go in with open ears and an open mind. This attitude helped me to discover two things: (1) the need for a set of earplugs, which I had to purchase in Austin because I didn’t own any, and (2) a new-to-me band based in Echo Park, California, called simply NO.

As I tweeted during their show, NO is a definite yes. This 6-piece band had a huge guitar sound, especially in the sparsely populated Control Room (this was a daytime show, and there was another gig going on outside), which necessitated the earplugs mentioned above. They reminded us a tiny bit of The National, in no small part due to the deep, menacing baritone of lead singer Bradley Hanan Carter, but also for their broodingly melancholic lyrics. Where The National are refined and restrained, NO are often more visceral and emotional, using their full array of instruments to greater dynamic and dramatic effect.

I was able to catch Carter after NO’s set for a very brief interview before he had to hurry off to their next engagement. The venue was incredibly noisy but we managed to get a quick soundbite about the band’s album, ‘El Prado’, which is out now on Arts and Crafts Records. Have a listen to the first track from the album, ‘Leave The Door Wide Open’, at the bottom of the page.

NO are Bradley Hanan Carter (vocals), Sean Daniel Stentz (bass), Reese Richardson (guitar), Ryan Lallier (guitar/keys), Simon Oscroft (guitar) and Michael Walker (drums). They are currently on tour in North America.

 

SXSW 2014: 103.1 iHeart Austin afternoon showcase at Empire Control Room plus Broken Hands at Rooftop on Sixth – 12th March 2014

 
By on Thursday, 20th March 2014 at 3:00 pm
 

Something that sets SXSW apart from all other festivals is just how much afternoon programming is available if you’re raring to go and wanting to catch music even before the noon hour. Even better, most of it is free, as long as your RSVP ahead of time. For music journos like us, it gave us more opportunities to catch bands that we might not otherwise see because of evening conflicts. The iHeart Austin showcase at Empire Control Room, sponsored by local Austin radio station 103.1, was perfect timing on Wednesday afternoon, as Wednesday is the day when things really ramp up – and all day long too – at SXSW.

After getting the run-around from security who sent us to different entrances and couldn’t agree on where the Control Room was at Empire (I thought only Great Escape bouncers were rude like that! ::snort::) and after I was refused entrance into a VIP area with fake grass (how tacky), we finally made our way into the correct location to catch an afternoon of bands inside. Unfortunately for you, our faithful readers, the lighting inside wasn’t great and a rotating series of strange coloured slides were projected onto to the bands as they played, so a lot of my photos didn’t come out great.

We arrived just in time for Austin band SPEAK, who I’d previously written about years ago when they covered Daft Punk. Synth pop bands are a dime a dozen these days, American or not. Honestly, after a while, they all start to blur together. but if you’re into this genre, SPEAK are a pretty poppy and agreeable proposition. They were given a slot shortly after noon, which meant unfortunately they had a pretty paltry audience.

Carrie seemed to think she could get through the festival without earplugs, but somehow I managed to convince her this wasn’t smart. However, I questioned my own wisdom when I met the booker of the Pabst Theater in Minneapolis and had to confirm the name of the next act. I swore they were called ‘Bats on the Move’. (No-one steal that name. That’s mine for whenever I start my own band.) Turns out they were actually Max and the Moon, a trio from Los Angeles. They released an EP, ‘Crazy’, a couple weeks ago and the title track is a good example of their pop-infused synth brand of rock.

The Black and White Years are another Austin band and another synth pop band, but rhythmically they’re art rocky, with bass lines popping everywhere. After the first two bands who were good but not terribly exciting to me, I felt like I’d finally been defibrillated. Their eccentricities didn’t go unnoticed, least of all by Talking Heads alum Jerry Harrison, who produced their first album. Frontman/guitarist Scott Butler even has a David Byrne-esque voice, sometimes yelp-y, sometimes percussive. I particularly liked his hand gestures to the bright ‘Up’, even if Carrie thought it was too gimmicky.

Then the line-up moved back to SoCal – specifically Echo Park – for a motley group called NO made up of a New Zealander, a South African, a Canadian and three Americans. Their singer, Kiwi Bradley Carter has a baritone voice ala Tom Smith of Editors or Matt Berninger of The National, and with grinding synths and sinister guitar lines, the band has a melancholic yet epic post-punk sound not dissimilar to White Lies. They’re already signed to Arts and Crafts label in Canada, which seems to indicate indie greatness is just around the corner. Expect their debut album ‘El Prado’ to drop later (at least on this side of the pond) this spring.

Carrie ran off to grab Carter of NO for a quick post-gig interview (stay tuned for that) right before a band on the afternoon bill that we actually knew of. The Crookes, who were making their triumphant and what I had always thought an impossible SXSW return by appearing at the festival 2 years in a row, would be offering up new tunes from their forthcoming album out in April ‘Soapbox’ (reviewed by me here) mixed in with old favourites from their back catalogue. It seems a little strange to be using the words ‘back catalogue’, seeing that the band have only been putting out music since 2009, but ‘Soapbox’ will mark their third release with London indie Fierce Panda (no small feat) and their second with local Austin indie Modern Outsider, who also serves as The Black and White Years’ label home.

They could have been tentative, starting out with a song everyone already knew; instead, they began with ‘Don’t Put Your Faith in Me’, one of the two most growly tracks on the new LP. A surprise later in the set was ‘Howl’, a more introspective number near the end of ‘Soapbox’ that I didn’t think would work all that well live but maybe in the live setting, it’ll act as the song to which you’d catch your breath after dancing so hard, the wind is knocked out of you. Not surprisingly, they ended with the terribly catchy pop opener to 2012’s ‘Hold Fast’, ‘Afterglow’, and I lost a drink bet with Carrie over whether or not they’d play that song. (I was sure the smart money was on ‘Maybe in the Dark’ but sadly, Lady Luck was not on my side.)

After a cheeky pint of cider and a quick fish and chips for dinner at our fave B.D. Riley’s Irish pub, I was off again to the Rooftop on Sixth to catch another band who was playing the rooftop bar. I got a definite case of deja vu, as my SXSW 2013 ended at that exact spot. I showed up to see Kent band Broken Hands, who I gathered fit the genre of space rock rather well. I am pleased to report that they did not disappoint after my writing of this Bands to Watch last month.

Because it was so windy that day, aluminum foil had been hung over the ‘windows’ behind the band, I guess so that the wind wouldn’t blow the bands over. This seemed rather fitting to me as the child of a NASA scientist, as for me it had the effect that we were on a spaceship with them. A pretty damn good rocking spaceship, with wigged out synths. Just enough wind passed through those ‘windows’ such that under any other circumstances, you might have confused singer Dale Norton and his gorgeous long flowing hair undulating in the breeze like he was in a Pantene commercial. (It’s really not fair as a woman when you see a man who has hair more beautiful than yours. It’s just not on, fellas.) Up to that point, I hadn’t done any serious headbanging in Austin – I was in charge of hard rock while we were in Austin – and I nearly got whiplash as I enjoyed myself far too much getting sucked into Broken Hands’ devastatingly severe live set. Good stuff.

 

SXSW 2014: Amy Cook, Falls and The Carper Family: folkies at Stephen F’s Bar – 11th March 2014

 
By on Wednesday, 19th March 2014 at 3:00 pm
 

The great thing that you don’t realise about SXSW unless you actually witness it firsthand is the wide variety of venues there are in Austin during the festival. So from a rammed, stifling, claustrophobic Latitude 30 for the first half of my Tuesday night, I headed over to far more relaxed digs. It’s amazing to me that after 3 years in a row of covering this festival, I’m still finding new and exciting places to see bands play.

Stephen F’s Bar is on the topmost floor of the very swish InterContinental Stephen F. Austin Hotel on Congress Avenue. It’s not a far walk at all from bustling and mental 6th Street, yet it feels like a world away on any night the festival is running. Having been there now, I would highly recommend it if you need a quiet oasis from all the late night craziness, for getting a drink at their well-appointed bar will surely make you feel human again. (For you historical buffs out there, Austin is known as the ‘father of Texas’ and that is why the capital city of the state is named after him.)

After my interview with Prides at Latitude 30, I arrived in the midst of Amy Cook’s set. As a local Austinite, I guess you can forgive her for all the audience heckling she was doing. To her credit though, she thanked punters throughout the set and asked us to give ourselves a round of applause for hanging in there to watch her. You see, Stephen F’s Bar is a ‘seated’ venue, with benches and various types of poufy, leather cushioned loungers, so you could be easily forgiven if you had one too many G&Ts that night if you fell asleep to the strumming of a guitar. The three acts I caught there were all folk acts, including Cook. An established singer/songwriter in her own right, she and her throaty voice, accompanied by her backing guitarist, felt right in the confines of the hotel bar.

Cook was followed by Australian folk duo Falls, who have now begun their conquest of America, having recently signed a record deal with Verve Music Group of Universal Records and uprooted from their home in Sydney and decamped to Los Angeles to make it here in America. I don’t think I will ever tire of hearing the harmonies of Melinda Kirwin and Simon Rudston-Brown; some things are just meant to be, and I think the two of them were meant to be musical partners for life. ‘Home’ seemed to be the most heartfelt track of the evening, as even though Austin is not Falls’ home, the locals and SXSW punters made them feel like they were there. Also tearjerking was Kirwin’s dedication of their cover of Neil Young’s ‘Heart of Gold’ to a friend who had been following them around for moral support all over the East Coast of America who they’d learned had had a particularly trying day trying to get home to Australia.

This was Falls’ triumphant return to SXSW after appearing last year, and the many fans they picked up at last year’s festival also returned in droves to see one of their festival favourites perform. It’s really heart-warming when you see a band interacting with their fans, knowing each and every one of them by name. It may seem impossible to achieve, given the fast pace of life these days, but Falls proved that it is possible to do and they will never forget the people who welcomed them into their hearts when they were unknown Aussies in Austin.

The Carper Family rounded out the evening at Stephen F’s. I was a little disappointed to learn the three women on stage weren’t actually related. The Austin band is named for Melissa Carper, who plays upright bass alongside Beth Chrisman (fiddle) and Jenn Miori (guitar), and despite not sharing the same bloodline, they sound like they could have been separated at birth. With tinges of bluegrass and country in their songs while also maintaining their own originality, they bridge the distance between the traditional and modern. This isn’t my kind of music at all – we joked all week while we were in Austin that I usually palm off the singer/songwriters on Carrie! – but as we don’t have 100 versions of ourselves, the other benefit of SXSW is that we could each go see bands that we could recommend (or not recommend) to the other and our friends.

My night ended surrounded by friends old and new, with the clarity and support they afforded me to hit the rest of SXSW hard.

 

SXSW 2014: the first half of Huw Stephens’ night at Latitude 30 – 11th March 2014

 
By on Wednesday, 19th March 2014 at 1:00 pm
 

The British Music Embassy at its Latitude 30 home has been hit (2012) and miss (2013) for me in past years of SXSW. Luckily, this year‘s line-up was made all the better by the bevy of BBC Radio presenters who flocked to Austin this year, including Phil Taggart who emceed Creative Belfast (read Carrie’s review and see my photos from Monday night here); Steve Lamacq, who made his triumphant return to SXSW after a 6-year absence, and the two that were players in Tuesday night’s programming at Latitude 30.

The cuddly Welsh teddy bear we all know as Huw Stephens has been curating a night at the British Music Embassy for I don’t know how long, but you can trust that he always chooses a good line-up. I was luckily present for the first three acts on Tuesday night. Sweet Baboo, aka fellow Welshman Stephen Black, was up first in solo form. I’m really quite glad I got to see him play with a full band in Glasgow’s King Tut’s last year, as I had a reference point in which to compare and contrast Tuesday night’s performance with. If you listen to Sweet Baboo records, the feeling you come away with is one of fragility; when Black performs live with a full band, there is fragility but also chaos. Black’s solo set felt somewhere in between those two extremes, with him being his usual self-deprecating self, cracking jokes while bemoaning his lack of band (“if you heard this one with the full band, it’d sound like Prince”). While EP title track ‘Motorhome’ and ‘Cate’s Song’ are gentle numbers that work well in solo confines, my personal favourite from 2013’s ‘Ships’, the brilliantly incisive yet poppy ‘If I Died…’ didn’t really work without a full band.

Next up were London’s next great hope for alt-rock, Wolf Alice. In her Doc Martens and sparkly tights, Ellie Rowsell held court, guitar in hand in front of an all too excited crowd at the British Music Embassy. I don’t know if I was just surrounded by Brits who had come over to cheer on Wolf Alice or these were new converts, but the screams were deafening. This seemed to be the week I would be taking the unpopular opinion, which included my stance on Wolf Alice: it seems to me that Rowsell’s ‘sweet’ voice is at odds with the harder edge of their band’s songs and would be more appropriate for the folk genre in which she started, and on songs like ‘She’, she seems to be stretching the Justine Frischmann and Courtney Love comparisons. But I’m thinking their fortunes have already been made. I mean, just think about it: the only other female-fronted massive rock band is Paramore, and they’re American. Maybe it’s time for a British rocker girl to take away Hayley’s sceptre?

I had no idea my world was about to be rocked by the third band on the line-up, Prides. I had already been impressed by early MGMT-sounding ‘Out of the Blue’ and more recent ‘The Seeds You Sow’. But I was not prepared for the synth / guitar / percussion powerhouse that was in front of my eyes. It should have come as no surprise that this New Wave lover once dubbed years ago as “the sucker for the synth” by Steve Lamacq himself absolutely fell in love with these Glaswegians. Just WOW.

The coloured lighting in Latitude 30 complemented the band’s sound as well, fitting the carnival / party / happy atmosphere their music created. I can’t wait to hear what they come up with next. It was great to chat with them after, as they were clearly running on the adrenaline of playing a packed venue and having such a great reception in a town that they’d never played in before. (Listen to my interview with the band here.)

But it was still quite early in the evening. It was time to me to jet off to another venue a few blocks away.

 

SXSW 2014: Creative Belfast night at Latitude 30 – 10th March 2014

 
By on Tuesday, 18th March 2014 at 3:00 pm
 

Photos by editor Mary Chang

When I arrived in Austin on the Sunday prior to the start of the SXSW 2014, I was already gleefully anticipating the Creative Belfast showcase at the British Music Embassy on the Monday night. Though the Music portion of SXSW didn’t officially begin until Tuesday, the Northern Irish event was a sort of transition show that included music as well as Film and Interactive components from the week before.  The names and faces of the non-musicians were mostly unfamiliar to me, but the lovely sound of Northern Irish accents filling the room kept a smile on my face throughout the evening.

If you’ve read my past writing, you’ll know that some of my favorite musicians are from Northern Ireland, and a few of them were on hand for the event at Latitude 30, the downtown Austin club that was overtaken by the British Music Embassy for the week.  The master of ceremonies for the evening was none other than BBC Radio 1 presenter Phil Taggart, and on the docket were Belfast-based acts UNKNWN, Wonder Villains, and Rams’ Pocket Radio. Unfortunately, Mary and I missed UNKNWN’s set, but don’t fret, because he became known to us later in the week.  We were lucky enough to see and interview both of the other acts; click here for Wonder Villains and here for Rams’ Pocket Radio.

The exuberant Wonder Villains played a bright and lively set to match their attire for the evening, despite the rain coming down outside. Their newest single, ‘Marshall’, was an instant hit; in fact it was featured on the PA system at the British Music Embassy throughout the week.  But it was an older tune, ‘Zola,’ that really got the crowd moving, especially after lead singer Eimear Coyle’s explanation that it was inspired by Italian footballer Gianfranco Zola.  The band’s upbeat tunes can probably be best described as pure fun, and their colorful outfits were equally fun to photograph.

Decidedly more difficult to photograph was Rams’ Pocket Radio, whose emphatic stage movements were tricky to catch on camera.  His darker and more dramatic sound was enhanced by the full complement of talented Northern Irish musicians he brought with him to Austin:  Sabrina Rodgers on violin, Thomas Camblin on drums, Adam Booth on bass, and Travis Gilbert on guitar. (Stay tuned for a feature on Gilbert’s band, Travis is a Tourist, in the Tuesday recap.)  Rams’ Pocket Radio’s set list was comprised of several tracks from his album, ‘Béton’, most notably the eponymous and inevitable ‘Dieter Rams Has Got The Pocket Radios’ and new single ‘Love Is A Bitter Thing’.

After some quick chat in the rain outside Latitude 30, Mary and I headed off to the Clive Bar to see Welsh rockers The Joy Formidable.  You can read Mary’s recap of Monday’s events, including that gig, by clicking here.

 
 
 

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