It's hard to remember sometimes how crazy SXSW week can be. For those of you dying to know what we've been stumbling into, here it is:
Friday: Odd open bar staffed by tech guys who are kings of the party for the first time ever. Then heading to the east side to see the bands at the party sponsored by one of the dozen vodka companies in town this week. Line was too long. So I went to the emptiest bar in town. Cramer joined me and we scoped some lines, abandoned some lines, recharged at Takoba, then went back to the vodka party. Saw "The Generationals"--fun pop with a drummer that looked exactly like Zizek. Saw dozens of people splayed on the tiny lawn at Fair Market. I knew three of the bartenders. Long night.
Saturday: Wandering downtown early. Saw Billy Crystal being interviewed at Samsung's spot and was surprised by how excited I became. He did a little bit of Fernando. Met Jeff and Stacy at a party for the documentary about The Residents. They had weird animal-lady dancer-contortionists. Then we headed to the Four Seasons and got to watch a Men in Blazers live podcast. They interviewed NFL players that are famous but we were all more excited for Rog and Davo. Then Paige and I met Ashley at her event. We then ended up at a...well...Republican fundraiser with lots of powerful dudes. One of them got us into Pandora's private party. Mark Ronson spun songs he produced. Rand Paul was there. Members of Congress were there. There were more DC stops after that.
Sunday: Back downtown and Darren and I watched an interview with Diane Ladd (Wild at Heart!, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Chinatown!, Touched by an Angel!) and Danielle Brooks (Taystee from OINTB). We rocked some Samsung VR and some Google cardboard. Then went into the Funny of Die spot, which was oddly empty considering Michael Showalter was there. It seems like anything more than a block west of Congress and north of 6th is just empty this year. Then lunch with Ashley at El Chile where she had queso for the FIRST time. The. First. Time. Then a poorly placed networking/food/drink thing at the Domain. Yup, the mall. Then Victoria came into town! Wait, this is Monday. What did I do Sunday? I did something Sunday but evidently it's lost forever. So, back to Monday, Victoria and I went BACK to Funny or Die where we got in and saw Tig Notaro and Hannibal Burress. Awesomely awesome. Probably one of the biggest highlights. Then we bounced around a bit and ended up at an interactive party where Hank Shocklee was spinning. This was cool. This was also sad.
Tuesday: Spotify House all day with Paige and Victoria! Verite. BORNS. Ryn Weaver. Gorgon City. Then we retreated and ate a kebab before ending the night at Cheer Up Charlies. We took a pedicab all the way to Rainey Street just to realize that was stupid, so we left. This was the longest day yet the shortest recap. Maybe I'm just tired.
Wednesday: Lunch at Sawyers. Aperol. No line for Steve Aoki at the old Emos. His set was at 2pm, which totally baffled everyone and I think that's why no one was there. Also, the old Emo's! Both Aoki and Lil' Debbie (the act before him, yes, named after pre-packaged pastry) yelled at the crowd because no one was dancing. In their defense it was early and they were probably hungover. Also, they were kinda bouncing, which is as good as you get at SXSW. Then, Hype Hotel. If you don't have a wristband, then walk to the front door and they'll give you one. Don't wait in the line. At least that was yesterday. Hype Hotel serves Taco Bell but the bands are great. Alvvays. Then in an hour we stopped by Vegas, La Perla, and saw some dirty rap at The Eastern. The last rapper we saw was a woman who was very angry and wore a crop top that showed off her bullet wound. She was pretty good. Then I went home and died.
Thursday! Sister left town and I took the day mostly easy. We went to the French Legation and heard an angry French jam band that kept stopping their set to yell at the audience and tell us that Paris sucked. I ate a terrine, which is French meatloaf. Then Paige and I picked up our Spin badges and met Alvvays at El Pelons. In the bar I realized that the NCAA basketball tournament had started. I had completely missed the brackets even being announced. This disturbed me. Then I went home before the sunset.
Friday: We made it to Stubbs by 11:30 for easy access to Spin's party. They've been having parties for years. In college I scaled a fence to get in--even though I had an invite. Within Stubbs we were greeted by a series of intersecting lines that from the sky probably looked like the Nazca hummingbird. We heard someone admit they didn't know what they were waiting for. Here's what they were waiting for: the thinnest (free) breakfast taco imaginable (it was basically three matchbooks); a chance to win a free pain of sunglasses or a t-shirt; or free alcohol. The free alcohol was Titos, Hamms, and flavored Steel Reserve Malt Liquor (berry or lemonade). Somehow we never saw anyone vomit. I'm sure they waited until we got home. Here's who we saw: Viet Cong, Metz, Kate Boy, Screaming Females, Earl Sweatshirt, Will Butler, Twin Shadow, Courtney Barnett, Run the Jewels. Also, there was a flash flood watch and everyone got miserable until Jeff brought us ponchos. Coutney Barnett and Run the Jewels were amazing. RTJ were by far the highlights. Then, we took a surged uber home and I passed out for an hour until my sister came BACK into town. We resuscitated, but I don't know how, and went to the Hype Hotel where Dan was bar tending. We saw Seinabo Sei (awesome Sweedish soul), Years and Years (brit pop by kids from Hogwarts), and Rae Sremmurd (yup). Rae Sremmurd and RTJ were light years better than Earl because both those groups weren't afraid to have fun and turn it into a ridiculous party. Rae Sremmurd packed the stage (Mike Will, god knows who else) and danced in front of guys holding giant cardboard cut outs of their heads.
Saturday: Back downtown by noon. We had three choices: 1. Wait in line for Rachael Ray's extravaganza of food and pop music. 2. Wait in line because it looked like we could get into Cheer Ups to see John Legend and whoever John Legend brought to town. 3. Wait in line at the Mohawk for the Fun Fun Fun Fest 10th Anniversary. We chose Mohawk and stayed in the back room for: The Outfit (Texas rap--the lead singer made jokes and came out with a Confederate Flag draped over his shoulders); Lust for Youth (who brought back old fashioned Euro disinterest); Orthy (I have no memories of this); and Roger Sellers (my sister's fave and a guy like Dan Deacon who loops his own voice and drums and plays it all over a light show--he was great. We left Mohawk and Bill Murray showed up an hour later. Victoria and I ate a burger then went to Trailer Space, where we saw bands that came from Tennessee to play in a moldy record store for 15 people. Then I took a micro-nap in Stacy's car and pounded coffee at her house. We saw Coma in Algiers play at a theater on Springdale next to the Austin Eastciders Brewery...Cidery? Another micro nap. Then back to Hype Hotel with Jeff and Stacy where there was actually a line! We saw Tei Shi (very nice and shimmery) then met Paige outside a taco truck. We went into Liberty and a band was playing and I hated them because they were musicians playing music at a music venue. Sometime around 1am, I hit the wall, came home, and died.
Sunday: Spent most of the day in a vegetative state. Goodbye SXSW. You killed me. You were great. One day I'll listen to music again.
It's hard to explain SXSW to people who've never come here. That sounds like bragging, and maybe it is bragging to a certain extent. Yet this city's relationship to the festival and the 100k+ people streaming through the bars, panels, shows, movies, events, lines etc, is complicated and often openly hostile. Friday night I was at my first event--an open bar, of course--and heard someone say: "Wow, Austin isn't crowded and belligerent after all."
Last year I dove into the festival more than I had for years. I've been back in Texas for five years now, and previous SXSW's have seen me spend a day wandering, maybe just a night show somewhere with friends, or even missing the whole thing. Last year was different--not only did I have Spring Break off but I was also making money for the first time in a few years. So I stalked the appropriate twitter accounts, I listened to rumors, I wore comfortable shoes, and I did just about every damn thing imaginable.
We got into the Spin party at Stubbs even though we hadn't RSVPd. I don't remember hardly paying for a meal or a beverage all week. I saw each band I wanted to see--Schoolboy Q was as creepy as I hoped, Warpaint was loud and joyous, Dum Dum Girls was pleasantly synth and blunted. I even saw enough Future Islands to realize that I maybe don't understand anymore why some bands are so hyped.
Empire Control Room, Stubbs, Spotify, Pandora, the great thing across the street from Fader (which is the best trap in the world because it sucks in thousands of people out of the other venues), VIP at Childish Gambino--it was on.
Then I stood in line for two hours and got a wristband to see Jay Z and Kanye at the Austin Music Hall. The Music Hall holds about 3,000 people and is basically just a glorified gymnasium with better speakers. Even the worst seat there would be a $300 ticket at a normal Jay Z show. Yes, I waited in line for another 3 hours AND I missed the first 45 minutes of the show because the venue was at capacity, but I don't care. It was the greatest concert I've ever seen. The crowd could have been told they were about to flood the place with poison gas and we would have died singing 99 Problems. Jay and Kanye were right on top of us. Every song was a hit. They seemed revitalized playing such a small venue. At one point Kanye appeared at the top of a pillar right in front of the balcony--about ten feet from my face--and he tore through the set, floating on fog and pink lasers.
Afterwards, still not believing what had happened, I started to make my long walk back to my car on the east side--about two miles away. I stopped at Frank, the old, old Alamo Drafthouse on Colorado, for a drink. Like a good festival-goer I pulled out my phone, ready to write tweets and status updates about how I'd just seen something better than anything any one else I knew had seen. All of Twitter was talking about the festival, of course. You know where this going.
A guy running from the police drove through a barricade and into a crowd of people standing in front of Mohawk. Four dead. Dozens injured and traumatized. I scrolled back an hour in my timeline and saw the tweets all change from "OMG FREE BEER AHHH SXSW WOOOO" to confusion, then shock, then fear. News was still rolling in as I sat at the bar, refreshing my account, exploring the tragedy from just a few blocks away. I looked around. Everyone else in the bar was happy. The bartender checked on me and I said "Did you hear about the accident?" She said no, and then I ruined her night. I needed to tell her. I couldn't not tell her. She called over the bar back and had me tell him. We looked at my twitter for a few minutes--all feeling the same punch in the gut. Red River. Mohawk. Cheer Up Charlies. These weren't anonymous places to us. All three of us, locals, had stood in those exact spots. I had been there that morning and most other days of the festival. The three of us shared some quiet grief. "I don't know," the bartender said. "Do you want another drink?"
I walked up sixth street to get to the east side and my car. The drunken faces had all changed from fun to scary. You could see the dead eyes and the unsteady bones as people paraded up and down sixth. I thought back on every open bar, on every drunk person I saw at noon, one pm, two pm. I remember thinking that Sixth was as crowded at 7pm as it was on a normal Saturday at 1 am. I remember people walking on top the jersey barriers protecting Cesar Chavez's bike lane from the cars going 30mph. I remembered the drunk women holding the heels. The red-faced men picking fights with their friends, their girlfriends, anyone.
This year there are supposedly fewer open bars, but that's hard to believe. Last night I saw those zombies on sixth. I saw a giant man step back on a waitresses ankle and barely move as she screamed, shoved him off her foot, then limped away cursing. I saw a woman kicked out of a private event with her dress on sideways. I follow Twitter accounts devoted to steering people to the open bars with the shortest lines. Every app, every start up, every fledgling music publication thinks their way to success runs through Titos vodka. And it's only day three.
Austin has a drinking problem and it's never more clear than during this Festival.
It's the complaint we're all making. We clutch our devices and mutter phrases like "but [Insert Social Networking Site] is so stupid, why do I love it" or "yup, first thing in the morning, just in case" or "and they sat next to each and didn't look up from their screens."
It's true. It's a problem. We're being hammered thin as glass, but what really makes us mad is that we're the ones holding the hammer. I'm a teacher. I see kids trying to multi-task--convinced that they work better if they're flying a spaceship, or listening to Drake, or texting while listening, reading, or talking to their friends. They're so confident that us old people are just freaking out for no reason. And then they ask their friend to repeat what they said because they were, like, so totally on snapchat just then.
Is there anything to be done? Probably. Could parents take away electronic devices and weather the screams of withdrawal? I guess. Would we better human beings on some level if an EMP sent us back to the 1890's? Who cares that would be terrible!
So we live with what we've become and try to make the most of it. Everyone has different techniques--reading, going for walks without earbuds, locking the phones away on date nights, whatever works.
I've been doing two things recently that have not made me more productive of a writer but that have helped calm me down at the end of the day.
One: When I get in my car I don't go to my podcast of choice--lately it's Men in Blazers or WTF. Instead, I dial up old KMFA on the radio dial and listen to classical music and enjoy that I have a 15 minute commute in Austin. I like the music, but more than that I like not having a voice, narrative, or complaint in my brain. It's scary. It's weird. I have to resist the urge to keep listening to Marc Maron's interview with Carrot Top. It's basically Louis CK's bit about using our phones in our cars to drive away the sadness.
Two: God this sounds pretentious but I've been trying to watch more old movies. My girlfriend left her Hulu account logged-in and I've been tearing through the Criterion Collection like a hipster through...actually, I'll take that back, one does not tear through 47 Ronin, or Bulldog Drummond, or 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, or basically anything in this series. I love it. They're slow. They're old. They're set before computers were a thing. And while watching I only check my phone twice or so. Sigh. That's an accomplishment. That social network really is stupid.
Well, here's my first post. I'm starting this site because I've had quite a few things published online in the past few years and I wanted to bring them all together. I also hope to be writing pretty steadily about things happening in my life. I won't be updating this every day, but I promise that whatever I write here I'll at least try to make interesting.
The home page will have links to my most recent stuff, and the "My Writing" page will contain links to everything.
Let me know what you think. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on twitter.com/richardzsantos