SxSW Music Diary: CHVRCHES, KLOE & Earl Sweatshirt
CHVRCHES take time out to talk about returning to Austin, KLOE reflects on her first Austin experience, 2 Chainz liights up a rooftop party, and the enigmatic Earl Sweatshirt continues to struggle to find himself in a show at Moody Theater.
Iain Cook, Martin Doherty, and Lauren Mayberry of CHVRCHES are waiting for The Skinny in the lobby of the W Hotel looking patient, gentle, and perfectly at ease. It's 11:15 a.m. and most of the bands up this early are the undiscovered acts, many of whom have paid several hundreds of dollars to get a barely promoted half hour slot in a sticky 6th street bar, hoping to be discovered.
This is the second of at least three interviews for CHVRCHES this morning, and they've already played a gig – a 10 a.m. 'acoustic' session for about 500 people in one of the hotel's conference rooms, a benefit for the Make A Wish Foundation. Mayberry – a former writer at this parrish – is quick to assure us that even she is human, though "I forgot some of the words," she says, and they all laugh it off.
CHVRCHES are enjoying the kind of schedule reserved for Sx's returning champions: they had a DJ set at the conference's opening night party at Maggie Mae's, and their first proper gig was through MTV's Live in Austin, a coveted spot without any of the worries attendant to most Sx gigs – incompetent audio techs, indifferent promoters, and so on – and tonight they'll be playing the high-profile Spotify House.
Of course, they are literally champions here: they won the Inaugural Grulke Prize (for Developing Non-US Act) after their appearance here in 2013. This was an important springboard, they say, and helped them avoid the trap of hard work with no payoff. They've seen many bands follow a predictable trajectory: "Play, oversaturate, burn out, break up," Cook says. "Hard work," Doherty adds, can become an empty invocation. "I know it from experience," he says, "I've worked as hard as I could work and not felt like I was getting anywhere."
So how does a synth-driven pop act take off and maintain independence? This trio found their own perfect formula by deciding not to play out at first – they wrote music and released it online, resorting to "The old school tour-tour-tour-tour-tour," only when they knew they were ready. And it paid off. About a week and a half after their 2013 appearance in Austin, someone called Doherty to tell him that he's won. "I was like, you can win South-by?" he says, as if still bemused. Cook is equally mystified; there was a buzz, he reflects, "but how do you capitalise on anything as ephemeral as a 'buzz'?"
These three are aware, now, that other bands, particularly Glasgow bands with pop appeal, look to them as trailblazers; but they warn that simply showing up to SxSW won’t guarantee success. "You bring the heat to South-by, and then you expand on it," Doherty says. "You can't come completely unknown and then emerge from that, because the competition is insane."
And we're drawn next to the buzz around KLOË, the 19 year-old Glaswegian who emerged with her single Touch last year, earned a contract with Columbia Records, and followed up with her debut EP Teenage Craze in early February. She's part of a long lineup at The Yard today, a Green Flash Brewing-sponsored yard party just east of the Interstate-35.
It's a hazy, muggy St. Patrick's Day, and while Austinites don't make a point of observing this high holy day of deracinated Irishness, we find kinsmen in the Brooklyn-based horn-funk band Lucky Chops. They're playing a mashup of Survivor's Eye of the Tiger and Can’t Stop by the Red Hot Chili Peppers when we arrive – they get creaky knees flexing with their brass-driven danceable tunes, with a bari sax, trumpet, trombone, tenor sax, and tuba player snarling and prancing around the stage. Their raucous covers of corny dancy hits and venerable funk classics charm, but in this backyard barbecue setting, without a singer, and without much original material, they might sound to some like nothing more than the best of the bands that play the megachurch lawn fetes so popular in this state.
Next up is Declan McKenna, a young Brit styled after Jake Bugg, softspoken and polite, apologising for his extemporising as he plays around with loops. The performance is earnest but lacklustre, the material inoffensive but forgettable, yet there are moments of surprising maturity in songs like Brazil, and he poses for pictures with plenty of fans, all identified by under-21 bracelets. There's a seriousness beneath his diffidence, and one senses that his sets in Austin could be a crucial stage in his development.
The crowd has unfortunately thinned by the time KLOË takes the stage, around 4:30pm. This is only the beginning of her struggles – the sound tech forgets to turn on her in-ear monitors, the mic cuts out, and she ends up rushing off stage on the verge of tears. It’s a rough set to be sure – her backing band lacks energy and the audio problems distract her.
"That wasn’t really me," she says after the set, sharing a fag and politely acknowledging the people who come to wish her well, thrilled by the show that so disappointed her. KLOË is swamped by fans – some who knew her before and some who discovered her today. Two even drove from Houston to see her. "They’re so savvy these days," she says of her young fans, as if she isn’t still a teenager herself. "They all want to be the first ones. They all like really cool music too."
One fan has KLOË as her phone case – and "that makes it all worthwhile." She encourages fans to see her at night, when she has lights, containment, and a few beers under her belt – which she’s technically not allowed to have here in the Land of the Free. Sx has not been particularly kind to her: now with two rough shows behind her, she says again and again that she prefers writing, unless she can put on a show that she knows will be good – and that just isn’t the case for most bands at Sx, which has made her "hate touring."
She forms an interesting contrast with CHVRCHES: fighting the ‘stigma’ attached to Scottish bands, she says, she feels "like everybody is riding the coattails of CHVRCHES success," at least in the US, but at the same time she rejects the 'plan' laid out for pop bands coming from the UK and hoping to make it in the US. She has another show Friday night – and she’s looking forward to this one. Sx’s been a disappointment for her, but there’s something about KLOË that’s irrepressible. "Actually," she says, "fuck it, I’ll come back."
Hours later an Austin cop in a cowboy gives us grief over getting into the at-capacity Spotify House. We're here for CHVRCHES, who slay for a crowd that surprises them with their savvy. "How many of you have seen us before?" Mayberry asks. Hundreds of hands are raised. "I was expecting like eight people."
Most here certainly know CHVRCHES’ music, but they charm plenty of new fans as well. Mayberry’s wail occasionally reminds one of Amy Lee, of Evanescence, though her Glaswegian accent is just barely noticeable enough, on certain lines, to reinforce the band’s subtle exoticism, at least for this American audience. Cook and Doherty show off a formidable sense of rhythmic layering while Mayberry departs on tangents in between songs, including one beginning with an observation about the heat, making passing reference to her agita from eating guacamole too early, and ending with a fan tossing a foil-wrapped taco to her feet. She doesn’t eat it, cting her suspicion of its chorizo content.
Things really pop off when Mayberry takes to the electronic drums on Empty Threat, and later Gun, winning us all over with her unaffected engagement with the audience. All of this, sustained by Cook and Doherty’s hard-earned pop-canniness elevate CHVRCHES above other electro-pop acts and subgenres like synthwave, carving out a space in the pop galaxy. They close with two huge, ‘danceable’ songs – Clearest Blue and The Mother We Share.
After a taco break, we head downtown again for another C3 party, this one hosted at the top of a parking ramp on 6th and Colorado, and headlined by 2 Chainz. We're convinced after only one song that anyone who has not witnessed 2 Chainz whip up a crowd on the 6th floor of a parking garage has missed out on an essential slice of 21st century America, but at the same time it's clear that 2 Chainz is not a rapper: he is a hypeman peddling the illusion of personality. He maligns women and flaunts a meretricious materialism over cement-buzzing bass designed for rattling Denalis, without once dropping a bar worth repeating. Of course it’s infectious; the air is redolent of weed and rosemary from free Indian Paintbrushes; and everyone knows this is the place to be in Austin on Thursday night.
What a contrast, then, is Earl Sweatshirt, playing the Moody Theater at 1:20 a.m. We do have to wait for him - and as his DJ nods with unjustifiable enthusiasm to unremarkable tracks, we wonder when we can collectively abandon the tradition of DJs ‘opening’ for rappers. Opening acts have to earn their spot in every other genre, and tour with the hope of leading their own the next year. But most hip-hop opening acts offer nothing – they’re "laptop to aux cord," as KLOË said earlier in the day, and Earl’s is a prime example.
But plenty here are rabid for the rapper. One is so eager to sing along with Earl that he can’t quite get the timing on the chorus. ‘Yo, who homie is this?’ Earl asks, before telling the man to shut up and getting on with his song. It’s a rare moment of humanity in a set that is – typically for Chef Sweaty – depersonalised.
Earl sits down on his infamous couch and pulls treacly ropes of pure poetry out of himself – but the extended biopsy that is I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside, has become less interesting a year after that challenging album's release. It's not that we want him to return to Doris or the adolescent bile that made him famous – we just want him to finish growing up, and the ‘new shit’ he marches out toward the end of his hour is interesting but sounds unfinished.
(I Be) Outside is the one that makes us sit up. He raps about his unresolved relationship with drugs, his unstable relationship with fans, and promises a new direction: "I figured I just slept on all my other styles," he says, declaring in the chorus that ‘I be outside, aye, I be outside.' The line, delivered over a trappy beat unusual for Sweaty, repudiates his last album sonically and lyrically.
Though the last twenty minutes see an increase in energy, he closes with another 'new' song, the incoherent and frankly boring Hell, before throwing up deuces, slouching off stage, and ignoring generous chants for an encore. This is what the enfant terrible of American hip-hop looks like grown up and into some awkward face-scruff. Pound-for-pound, Earl can outrap his Odd Future collaborator, Tyler – but this wasn't the night he proved it.