SXSW Music Diary: Viet Cong, Courtney Barnett, and The Twilight Sad's South By advice

Feature by Dave Kerr | 21 Mar 2015

Day three of our time at SXSW Music conference starts with a sobering reminder that there’s absolutely no bloody way we’re going to see half the bands we’d like to out here. Having already spent too many hours queuing for gigs we ultimately didn’t get into over the first few nights, it’s time for fresh tactics. So we take a bus down to Cedar Street Courtyard and settle in for a four band bill which would be difficult to beat on any night of the week.


"Continue on" seems to be the enduring mantra for Calgary’s post-punk bruisers Viet Cong as terrible Def Leppard gags rain down like confetti – nursing a broken arm, drummer Mike Wallace visibly battles through agony for what transpires to be one of the most engaging live shows we’ve seen out here so far. Grimacing his way through the sublime Continental Shelf, which in its own right appears equal parts Bauhaus to Talking Heads, he’s mercifully joined by METZ drummer Hayden Menzies to mount an unforgettable turn at their bludgeoning 11 minute epic, Death. A ballsy move for a half hour set that ultimately pays off.

By now the earplugs are wedged in as fellow Canucks METZ return to reiterate their unwaning love for an overdriven guitar. With their second album on the horizon, they’re understandably keen to show us what they’ve been up to during the five minutes they weren’t on tour in the last three years. So we hear new track Way of Life – essentially more of the same pulverising riffage we’ve come to expect from the indefatigable trio. Ramping it up on the first track from their eponymous debut, it’s all a short sharp reminder of why they're a vital force in latter day punk rock. 

Fellow Sub Popper Kyle ‘King Tuff’ Thomas – sometime frontman of J Mascis' stoner metal outfit, Witch – brings his sentimental good-time garage rock out to play next, fans throw socks onstage and generally surrender to its woozy charms. After the heavy Canadian combo that preceded his set kicked everybody's ass, the lighter mood of Tuff’s trio is almost a welcome respite. If somebody could just explain why the man has a badger's carcass on his shoulder. 

Finally, it’s Courtney Barnett’s time to shine in more ways than one – stepping on stage just days before her debut album drops, there’s a sense that all eyes are on her own unique repurposing of slacker rock tropes. Tonight we’re treated to a healthy stew of material from 2013 double EP, A Sea of Split Peas – Out of the Woodwork and Avant Gardener (jokingly announced as “the hit single”) are already greeted like old friends, but it’s Pedestrian at Best that threatens to raise the roof and – ironically enough – our expectations of the force she might become.

After setting fire to our tonsils with a jalapeño hot dog from a street vendor, we take in a few bars from veteran Minneapolis hip-hop collective Doomtree, who count Rhymesayers firebrand P.O.S. and alumni of soft rock supergroup Gayngs and inspired mash-up project Wugazi in their number. Previewing their third LP All Hands to a respectable showing at Karma Lounge, they bring an easy chemistry and clarity that's often hard to find in a group with more than two MCs. They make it all look effortless with seven.  


Having made the pilgrimage to Austin at various points in the last decade, The Twilight Sad's James Graham discusses their history with SXSW...

You've been out to SxSW several times now – in which ways are you looking forward to the experience, and what would The Twilight Sad ultimately hope to gain from playing the showcase in 2015?
We love Austin and we have a lot of friends there so seeing them and being in town is the first thing we look forward to when play SXSW. Most of the music industry has some sort of presence at the festival so you never know who's going to be at one of your gigs. When we play the gigs it's always about making an impression on the crowd; they are seeing so many bands in one day and you want them going home thinking about your gig. I don't think about who is in the crowd when we play; it's about playing a gig and knowing that you have 30-40mins to make sure you play your best to leave an impression.

It's up to the people that are working our music to make sure they get the right people down to our shows (i.e the label, our booking agents and management). First and foremost, we want the crowd to enjoy our gigs and maybe win over some people that have never heard of the band before. After that, you hope the right person is in the crowd that could help the band progress, with a lot of things in the industry it’s about being in the right place at the right time.

What benefits has playing the festival had for the band in the past in terms of establishing itself internationally?
I think it has helped the band play some festivals as the promoter has been in the crowd and enjoyed the set. There is such a big media presence at the festival so the band has been written about a lot which helps you reach people that you wouldn't normally. We were able to play and record sessions that we wouldn't have normally been able to do, if we weren't at the festival, which again exposes your music to new people. For me, all I am thinking about is making an impression on people and playing to the best of our ability.

What advice would you offer to some of your peers from home who are out here for the first time?
First of all, I'd say enjoy yourself but also remember why you are there. It's a great opportunity that a lot of other bands and artists would bite your hand off for. It's hectic and you don't always get the best soundcheck or get to soundcheck at all, so don't worry if everything is not perfect on stage; that's part of the fun: a no nonsense get on stage and show me what you've got kind of thing.

The food is great in Austin so make sure you sample some of that. Margaritas...drink lots of margaritas. Remember sun tan lotion as well; it’s pretty hot. You'll be easy to recognise if you don't bring it, you'll be walking around like a Scottish Rock Lobster. Also, take some hipster repellant.

Given your established history with the city, what comes to mind when you think of Austin, Texas?
Friends, music, food, drink, warm weather. Pretty much four of my favourite things (I like warm weather but it doesn't like me).

Finally, where can people see you play in the remaining time you’re here?
Friday 20th March, 11pm Flower Booking Showcase – Red 7, 611 E. Seventh Austin TX 

James Graham on his favourite south by southwest haunts...

Favourite place to go for a drink: The Mohawk on Red River Street.

Best place for something to eat: Franklin's for BBQ (you have to queue up from 8am to get a table in the afternoon, or order take out two months in advance). El Chilli or El Tacorrido for Mexican food.

Best venue to watch a band: The Mohawk or Latitude 30 (known as the British Music Embassy).


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