It's lunchtime in the Plains, and it's already been a big morning for The Dodos. Last night, they played The Conservatory in Norman, Okla., and early this morning they began a 10-hour drive to Marfa, Texas, for a show in a ballroom. While they were sleeping, Pitchfork Media—the Web site that's partially built or dismantled the careers of several indie rock bands in the last decade—added The Dodos second album, Visiter, to its semi-sacrosanct "Best New Music" section. "One of the most welcoming (and welcome) records of 2008 so far," Ian Cohen wrote in closing.
That sentence set off a morning of congratulations, press releases and business confirmations. The Dodos were added to the three-day Pitchfork Festival in Chicago and to August's Oya Festival in Norway. Heading southwest to Marfa, drummer Logan Kroeber explains that he is still waiting on a deluge of text messages from friends waking up back in the band's hometown of San Francisco.
The band should be ecstatic. But this afternoon, The Dodos—Kroeber and guitarist Meric Long—are exhausted. This is their second trip to Texas in as many weeks, and last week's Lone Star stand included eight shows in five days in Austin during South by Southwest. Long and Kroeber show signs of the customary post-SXSW sickness: mild head colds and whole-body fatigue.
In fact, The Dodos were drained before they got to Austin. They had hustled into town from Juarez, Mexico, where they finished a three-day mini-tour with San Fran friends Thee Oh Sees. In Austin, The Dodos unloaded at their first gig—a showcase for their new record label, Frenchkiss—just 30 minutes before they hit the stage at midnight Wednesday. They played at 2:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. Thursday, at 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. Friday, and at 4 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Saturday. With the official conference over, they played one last show Sunday in Austin.
"We were so frickin' tired and delirious and out of our brains. At first, we did not want to play the show at all," says Long, forcing a tired laugh. "But the deliriousness actually made it a nice way to end the week. ... Now we're all just recovering."
Between shows, there were interviews, a meeting with the band's new European record label, and a massive 20-member performance with Williamsport, Pa./ Williamsburg, N.Y., band Akron/Family. That show ended with a few hundred people singing the words "circle triangle square" in the streets of Austin at 2 a.m. Friday night. The Dodos were there, singing and playing drums.
"You just keep on going. I found actually that drinking beer and eating lots of beef is really the only way I got through it," says Long. "The relationship between beer and beef just complement each other really well. Every time I started to feel tired, I would just go find a pork or beef sandwich and drink a beer, and I would be ready to go back."
That strategy didn't work so well for Kroeber, whose powerful drumming is like a 5K for the upper body: "I got totally dehydrated. It was hot as hell, and we played outside. I was sick and sweating up a storm," he says of one of their Friday performances. "I went pale, and everybody said I looked like a ghost. I screwed myself over."
But while South by Southwest wore The Dodos thin, it helped put the buzz behind Visiter into high gear. The Pitchfork coronation was only the exclamation mark punctuating a stream of buzz that's grown since The Dodos arrived in Austin. Since March 12, the first day of the festival, more than 100 music blogs have written about The Dodos. Seeing the band for the first time, one writer called their songs "melodic mini-masterpieces." They broke into The New York Times, with writer Jon Pareles describing the band's "manic propulsion with hard-strummed acoustic guitar and plinking toy piano."
The band's reputation had been building into Texas. After Texas, it skyrocketed. Of course, this was the point.
"If you play the cool shows in Texas ... you can come out as the darlings of the festival," says Kip Kouri, the band's publicist and owner of New York publicity firm Tell All Your Friends. Kouri laughs when asked if he's an expert at the SXSW buzz cycle, though he ultimately agrees. "It goes from there. Now they're going to be the people to see, and that bleeds into getting all of the festivals for the summer."
But Kouri says that playing SXSW, as it stands now, isn't for everyone. It exists mostly as a form of validation for bands already well on their way. Bands without a substantial push going into the festival, he says, would be better served by going elsewhere during the second week of March. The festival is more about writers, labels and other industry-types negating or affirming buzz than it is about building something from close to nothing. Magazines and music blogs host day parties separate from the official conference, and they stock their stages with the bands they already like and they know their audience will want to see.
A four-day party presented by The Fader and Levi's, for instance, included performances by Thurston Moore, Lou Reed, Moby, My Morning Jacket, 2 Live Crew, David Banner and N.E.R.D. A joint party thrown by Paste and Stereogum offered Destroyer, Nada Surf, The Weakerthans and two dozen other familiar names. American Songwriter's day party hosted proven (but not necessarily American) songwriters like The Dodos, James McMurtry and Broken Social Scene's Jason Collett. Pitchfork's day party was like a live installation of its Best New Music and Recommended lists.
These parties make it easy to see the bands people are talking about without having to look very hard for something new. Another New York Times critic, Ben Sisario, gave the 33 bands he saw in Austin pithy four-word critiques on his personal blog (charmicarmicat.blogspot.com): Most of those bands, from relative upstarts Bon Iver and A Place to Bury Strangers to major-label acts Motörhead and My Morning Jacket, are established. Unlike the hundreds of upstarts who cobble together house shows and coffee shop gigs to make it to Austin, they're not looking for a big break in Texas. Kouri says the days of those big breaks for unknowns are over, anyway.
"No one is going to bother seeing a little band if the press isn't writing about them beforehand. I do tend to tell my little bands not to go to Texas," Kouri says. "It's not ideal for the little bands. Move to New York. Get a buzz. Do it then."
Just be sure to drink plenty of water.
The Dodos play Bull City Headquarters with new Fat Cat Records artist Silje Nes Friday, March 28, at 9 p.m. Megafaun headlines.