SXSW Music Diary: Hudson Mohawke, United Fruit, and Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
With its Tech and Film strands already in full flow by the time our plane touched the tarmac, this past Tuesday marked the beginning of South By Southwest’s multi-genre gig rollercoaster. An exhaustive five day marathon where the action largely takes place at night, the 2015 edition boasts in excess of 2,000 bands hailing from over 50 territories round the world. Topics ranging through the dark art of securing radioplay to the changing model for indie labels are exploded in conference form by day, meaning that the last thing any self-respecting band, punter or delegate is allowed to do is step off the treadmill for five minutes to collect themselves. We report back on some of our highlights so far.
Bags dumped, registration sorted and an obligatory Philly cheesesteak dribbling down the t-shirt, our first port of call (via a queue that snakes both ways around the block) is Red River Street’s Mohawk for a showcase helmed by the increasingly in demand Hudson Mohawke (in collaboration with Scottish institutions for the advancement of electronic music, LuckyMe and Numbers). London-based prodigy Redinho offers a welcome spin on neon-lit future funk; his spacey, effected vocals conjuring the likes of George Clinton and Zapp at their most delirious. Winding down his set with the woozy, warm and RnB inflected Playing With Fire is as exemplary a note as any for the burgeoning producer to drop the mic on.
Warming up for the main event, The Blessings’ Martyn Flyn and Dominic Flannigan usher in fellow LuckyMe founder Ross ‘HudMo’ Birchard, who gets stuck into a high energy 30 minute set that still manages to reflect the creative distance he’s travelled so far. Naturally teasing out a call and response rapport with his crowd, the 300 or so bodies who made it in are treated to a whistlestop tour of Butter and a revealing snapshot of longawaited sequel Lantern. With his inspired twist on a track from The Bug's Angels & Devils ringing in our skulls as we take a taxi back to our base for the week, the night ends on a prescient slogan that anybody in Austin this week will appreciate at some desperate hour or another: “We out here trying to function.” Easier said than done.
It’s an early rise on our first full day as we check in with boundary-pushing Glasgow rap posse Hector Bizerk to film a session at the University of Texas. Building on the established backbone of Louie and Audrey’s rhythmic flow, the band (now a fourpiece) are already gathering momentum with their debut American gigs. They play us a reworked rendition of Skin & Bone on the University’s concrete courtyard, a reminder in itself that Louie’s observations of life in Scotland can transcend any perceived cultural barriers to provide an honesty and humour that a vast festival of this scale can certainly use more of.
Up on 7th Street’s Paramount Theatre, the festival’s Film strand offers a premiere of HBO’s forthcoming Kurt Cobain biopic, titled Montage of Heck (after a chaotic 4-track mixtape of dialogue samples, skits, demos, monologues and influences that he distributed to friends in 1988). “Some of you have been waiting over 20 years for this,” says director Brett Morgen by way of introduction to his intimate yet expansive 132 minute portrayal of Cobain’s 27 years, made with the full participation of the iconoclastic songwriter’s estate.
In the last decade, where we’ve seen brutally frank diaries, an exhaustive anthology of Nirvana’s recordings and the hell freezing over moment where their songs finally became available for commercial purposes, there’s a question over whether we’ve perhaps already seen too much behind the curtain, or if there’s any new way to service the band’s legacy whilst remaining within the realms of good taste. A labour of love for Morgen over the course of 8 years, this investigative take draws out the paradoxes of an exceptional man both plagued by and driven forward by a chronic stomach condition he’d had since childhood.
We see Cobain the wayward youth and punk rock disciple transform – through a series of alternately inspired and frustrated journal entries, littered with illustrations brought to vivid animated life – into a man who wanted to retreat to the comforts of family without letting go of his ideals. Cobain himself provides the levity throughout as we see home video glimmers of his humour, whether as a child playing house, or in his moustachioned portrayal of a caterwauling Chris Cornell in front of the bathroom mirror. Ultimately, Morgen takes the duty of care one would expect of a lifer fan, interspersing unseen early rehearsals and career-charting concert footage of the band at its most volcanic. Mercifully, there’s no tabloid slant here to an ending the world’s already too aware of, just a poignant eulogy that simply lays out the facts. It doesn’t hurt to hear Scentless Apprentice played at full bore in the cinema either.
On the way back into the scrum, we briefly detour by Latitude 30, rammed to the gunnells for sun-drenched indie kids Gengahr as they warm up one of the BBC’s Introducing showcases. But Montage of Heck has us on the hunt for something a bit more furious, and its been a while since we caught Glasgow boys United Fruit, so why not do it in a Texan salloon? We arrive at the Karma Lounge to find the band weathering unusual circumstances – tasked with following a spandex-clad South Korean hair-metal group named Victim Mentality and soundchecking during a bar brawl. Rising to the challenge, their set unfurls at a calculated pace, playing an equal measure of tracks from Faultlines and their as yet unreleased second LP. The quartet still play with the youthful abandon of glory day Trail of Dead, while its rhythm section performs with all the agility of Touch & Go cultists Girls Against Boys. As finales go, any given band out here would do well to beat the ever-explosive Red Letter.
We end night two at an inconspicuous coffee house called The Hideout, where a pair of sets from instrumental Japanese mathcore quartet LITE and 30-legged Milwaukee ensemble Group of the Altos (propelled by Volcano Choir's Daniel Spack) make for a contrasting double bill. Both groups are relative veterans (having each formed in 2003), and on the strength of tonight’s showing you’d hope they’re finding the kind of breaks that SxSW has been fabled for. The former’s progressive leanings and vibrant guitar work ably stand up to the likes of Battles or Don Caballero, whereas Altos find the patience to endure recurring technical problems and somehow squeeze onto the back room auditorium’s stage to deliver a courageous set, at times ecstatic, that fluidly traverses certain tropes of post-rock and soul. Their rider might cost a bomb, but you hope a few of the right promoters are paying due attention here.