When it comes to musical performance, there seems to be a thin line between showmanship and gimmickry. I prefer bands who play great music with their heads down, but even with my favorite groups whose unique stage acts approach gimmickry—Wolf Eyes, Boredoms, Prurient, etc.–the difference is that I could close my eyes and still enjoy them. But by the fourth day of SXSW, even though I had heard more great sound than I could imagine, I started to crave something novel to see, too.
My taste for gimmickry was whetted by an early afternoon trip to Austin’s Museum of Natural and Artificial Ephemerata, a makeshift gallery of weirdness housed in an unassuming private residence. Their “Impermanent Collection” of celebrity memorabilia includes a bundled up rag in a plastic bag labeled “Wayne Coyne’s Snot with Feathers.” Such earnest goofiness got me in the right mood for Portland slop-rockers Eat Skull, tripping through a distinctly un-athletic set at the Music Gym.
Shirtless frontman Rob Enbom, who introduced the band by saying “We’re Fifteen, from Berkeley,” bantered like a lobotomized stand-up comic–his mouth agape, his eyes sunken, his wit dehydratingly dry. “Does anyone have a poem they’d like to share about the streets?” he said early on. “Because I don’t.” Later, maybe to contradict his primitive chest tattoo that read “Life Sux,” he proclaimed, “People coming together to get stuff done–that’s what I like about life.” Enbom ended his band’s plodding, engagingly weary set by roping them into a torturous cover of Green Day’s “When I Come Around,” which he prodded back to life every time the band tried to kill it into silence.
The day’s next gimmick was less goofy, but even more genius. Someone at Myopenbar.com had the brilliant idea to take an empty gravel-covered space near the highway, set up a four small stages in a semi-circle, and put a band on each, calling it "Four Square Punk." The chosen participants—These Are Powers, DD/MM/YYYY, Pterodactyl, and Ponytai—alternated songs in a kind of communal battle of the bands where everyone gets a ribbon. I really couldn’t find anything not to love about all four groups: TAP’s cruching, beat-heavy disco-noise might’ve been a bit tedious all together, but it sounded great when followed/preceded by DD/MM/YYYY’s mathy instrument-trading blare, Pterodactyl’s muscular start-stop rock, and Ponytail’s super-happy workouts. The spirit of the bands, who often left their respective stages to watch their comrades play, was far from competitive. But Ponytail were still the MVP’s, their music sounding even sharper and brighter as the sun set on the overpass behind them.
A darker kind of gimmickry arose after sundown, in the form of Providence, R.I., art-metal trio White Mice. Playing at the Independent as part of the Load Records showcase, the band donned their trademark outfits of handmade mouse masks and blood-splattered lab coats. They spewed out thick, loud blasts of violent noise. This is the kind of gimmickry I can always get behind: a totally unique stage look accompanied by music that’s no easy trick–30 minutes of pulverizing sound somewhere between the chill of death metal and the adrenaline of hardcore punk. One of the mice (not sure if it was Mouseferatu, Eronymouse, or Anonymouse) ended the set by running into the crowd and wrestling the first sap willing to take it. But this show was much more about mayhem of the musical variety.
My SXSW experience concluded with the current world champions of indie-rock gimmickry, Monotonix. The first time I saw this hirsute Israeli trio, I thought their jump-into-the-crowd antics were lame, a cheap way to hide average garage-rock by forcing the audience to react whether they enjoyed the music or not. But in the expansive Mohawk club, whose rafters and balconies provided frontman Ami Shalev with multiple opportunities to climb and leap, I finally got it.
Monotonix’s “songs” (if you can call music that falls apart whenever the drums get passed around the audience “songs”) aren’t the point. They’re just a fun excuse to get the band’s high-flying carnival act into rock clubs. Tonight, despite some lengthy technical problems that resulted in a way-too-long drum solo, Monotonix’s physical feats were constantly engaging, highlighted by drummer Haggai Fershtman surfing the crowd with his drumkit in tow, and capped off by Shalev leading everyone out into the street, climbing a traffic sign to lead them in one last sloppy chant. The fact that the band was just as entertaining outside with no music at all is telling, and it’s hard to say when Monotonix’s act will finally wear thin. But I still laugh at MTV’s reruns of “Jackass,” and I have a feeling audiences will still howl at Monotonix as long as they keep launching themselves into them.