Traveling can be frustrating: Visiting any place is great, but I want to know what it’s like to live there, and that’s pretty tough to do without spending time with locals. It seems almost an impossible task at SXSW, as daily life in Austin gets masked by layers of bands, filmmakers, industry types and reams of other visitors. But I think I got lucky enough today to catch a glimpse of the real town, or at least its underground art world.
It came at a twisted Renaissance-styled day festival called “Woolworth’s Harsh Realm,” held by local art collective Monofonus Press. Apparently these artists erected the amazing art structures on the premises (including a 20-foot tall dragon’s head complete with a mouth that would periodically open and close) just for today’s activities. The festival hosted a few visiting bands—including the omnipresent Mae Shi and Eat Skull—but many were local, and the crowd seemed to be too.
It was enough to make me think I had walked into the Austin of Richard Linklater films, and no sooner had that thought occurred to me than I was informed that the band I was currently digging, Diagonals, featured the keyboard playing of Wiley Wiggins, star of Linklater’s Waking Life and Dazed and Confused. That was cool enough, but the band was great too—a lurching mix of chugging rock and spacey psych. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think they’ve played much outside of Austin. Like me, I think these guys need to get out of town more.
My experience at Monofonus was bookended by seeing two distinctly foreign bands elsewhere. Earlier in the afternoon, having hit Bird's Barbershop to see King Khan and the Shrines deliver an enjoyably predictable set of post-James Brown cheerleading, I decided to stick around for the next group, Cut Off Your Hands, solely based on the fact that they are from New Zealand, a country with a remarkable ratio of great indie rock bands per capita. Bad decision: COYH are a sub-Strokes/Jet band of pretty boys whose grooming seems to take priority over their songwriting. Let’s hope the close-up they’re ready for never comes along.
On the other end of the spectrum geographically and musically were Pre, the awesome London post-punk quartet whose spazz-core blast Epic Fits was one of last year’s overlooked gems. Simultaneously chaotic and tight, Pre are basically one big, hypnotic spasm, like a four-cornered rubber band perpetually snapping and vibrating. If you judge by how many cameras were clicking, the highlight of the set came when singer Akiko Matsuura took off her shirt to reveal the band’s name spelled in duct tape over her breasts. But the real peak was her mid-song shriek in response to being handed a can of Sparks—an oddly apt metaphor for Pre’s channeling of adrenaline into music and vice versa. (Too bad their equally great brother band Male Bonding couldn’t find a SXSW slot. Maybe next year).
My night ended with two out-of-town bands whose mangling of American roots music could make them honorary Texans. Ohio’s Psychedelic Horseshit filled the Siltbreeze showcase at Soho’s with a stumbling mash of repetitive garage and collapsing rockabilly, all tied together by the singer’s bratty snarl. The band’s loose charm can also be its downfall, and at least half the set kinda lagged. But the rest hit hard, and a few rebellious touches—the drummer wearing a homemade “Wavves Suck” t-shirt; the singer telling a club guy they were going to do only one more 30-second song, then dragging out the piece until the dude returned to yell at them—left an excellent aftertaste.
Much better were The Oh Sees, the Bay-area band led by John Dwyer, late of noise-blues outfit Coachwhips. In that previous band, Dwyer buried garage and rockabilly tunes under layers of harsh fuzz (tough not to wonder how the band might fare today, now that super-lo-fi is suddenly hip again). Dwyer later made bedroom ditties under the name OCS, which slowly morphed into the Oh Sees, as his affinity for pumped-up garage re-emerged, this time with out as much distortion on top. Last year’s The Master’s Bedroom was the best distillation yet of Dwyer’s new phase, and tonight he unleashed the best songs from that disc in excellent fashion. Dwyer plays like a contortionist, twisting his spine, leaning on his guitar, and nearly swallowing the mic whole. His four bandmates (including one dude who just stood against the back wall in shades, hitting a tambourine) were all impressive, but the Oh Sees are still the Dwyer show, and still one of the best shows around.