After 48 hours of working on Austin time I appear to have developed some form of virtual jetlag as my body attempts to align my unusual sleep pattern with the grey London daylight that is trickling through the windows. So it is with a somewhat foggy head that I open the daily schedule and plunge once more into its myriad virtual delights.
The day begins on a delightfully macabre note with two excellent entries to the SXSW Shorts film festival – Stuffed, directed by Theo Rhys, is a darkly comic mini-musical on the topic of human taxidermy, while Julian Terry‘s Don’t Peek‘s haunted Nintendo will have you thinking twice before loading up another game of Animal Crossing. Both are reviewed in more detail in our SXSW Shorts round-up.
Highlights from the day’s talks include an interview with musician turned actor Andrew Bird and director Noah Hawley, who recently worked together on an episode of Fargo in which Bird plays a 1950’s undertaker. Asked how the idea of casting Bird, who had little prior acting experience, came about Hawley drew parallels with his more practised craft: “Your music is nostalgic for a time that never really existed,” making it a perfect match for Fargo‘s twist on the past.
This intriguing insight into the creative process is followed by an inspirational conversation between Sony CEO Jon Platt and legendary singer-songwriter Carole King on the subject of inclusive leadership. The pair have worked together over many years and the warmth between them is obvious throughout as they trade anecdotes and nuggets of wisdom from careers spanning decades in the music industry.
The day’s musical festivities begin with the Music From Ireland showcase, with musical styles from tender-hearted folk to roof raising hip hop taking place within what appears to be some kind of giant carnival tent. Amongst the highlights are Dundalk’s Just Mustard, whose atmospheric post-punk sound deploys repetitive phrases and the tried and tested loud-quiet dynamic with freshness and subtlety, throwing in elements of trip hop and occasional blasts of noise to keep us on our toes. Their set is presented in moody black and white, but Dubliners Pillow Queens are swathed in blue light as they unleash a set of slow-build radio-ready alt-folk-rock, propelled along by some proper big swelling choruses and the fantastic vocals of Sarah Corcoran.
A quick virtual hop across the Irish sea bring us to the latest of the British Music Embassy‘s extensive programme of shows, opened by the playful lyricism of singer-songwriter Matilda Mann and topped off by Black Country, New Road whose majestic, expansive sound pushes at the seams of the time limits imposed by the showcase format. The klezmer explosions of ‘Opus’ sound extra punchy tonight, surely prompting an international knees-up amongst everyone tuning in across the globe, while ‘Track X’ is delivered deadpan, the contrast bringing even more feeling to the track. After a meagre handful of songs it’s over, leaving us hungry for more than today’s arrangements can provide us with.
As the clock strikes midnight we continue our virtual tour of The British Isles with the FOCUS Wales showcase, which is opened by Joyzine favourites Adwaith whose brand of Welsh language alt-rock and indie pop has been winning them fans from far and wide, and today’s impassioned performance in front of a poignantly empty Theatr Clwd will no doubt win them more (read our SXSW interview with the band here). We’re also treated to Campfire Social‘s bouncy country-tinged indie rock, Rosehip Teahouse‘s charming guitar pop and the catchy twee-pop of The School, augmented by trumpet and violin. Special mention also goes out to MC Benji Wild for the line “I’m a cowabungalist, I’m a junglist.”
We continue into the night with The Close Encounter Club, for whom this online showcase malarkey is old hat – they’ve been broadcasting video performances across the internet for ages now and the experience shows in the trippy retro sci-fi presentation and their decision not to cram their hour with too many artists, allowing headliners Sorry a full 30 minute set. They repay this investment of time in full with a perfectly pitched set of delicate post-punk, with some lovely tom-tom work on the drums and just the right amount of reverb on the guitars. Along the way they throw in some tasty morsels of psych, a little rockabilly shuffle and a blast or two of rasping sax, along with boy-girl vocals that flick between knife-tongued duelling and off-kilter almost harmonies, joined by a spectral choir rendition of ‘What a Wonderful World’ during set highlight ‘As The Sun Sets’.
My next close encounter is with my bed, and I wake the next day, still in my SXSW time-lapse haze, ready to be lulled into another dimension entirely by Anna B Savage on the British Music Embassy stage. I’d been intrigued by ‘A Common Tern’, the first single from her recent LP, and her set fully delivers on the promise of that track (even though it’s not played today itself). The raw, sparse guitar and playful, confessional lyrics are matched by an onstage openness – after wondering whether anyone is watching and proclaiming this festival performance a “bucket-list moment”, she confides that she is “absolutely shitting it”. There’s no reason for nerves though as Savage’s deep, rich voice guides us through a truly stunning set. (Read our SXSW interview with Anna here)
We’ve been fans of East London label Damnably Records‘ ability to discover phenomenal East Asian alt-rock bands for some years now, and their showcase was perhaps the one I’d been most looking forward to this week. They do not disappoint.
Until now I hadn’t been entirely sold on South Korean skate punks Drinking Boys and Girls Choir, but tonight any apprehension is blown away with a rapid-fire set bursting with kinetic energy. Flicking seamlessly between cute boy-girl power pop vocals, sprightly pogo punk and moments of shouty chaos, their set is further enlivened by a restless camera that flies around the band, zooming in and out, distorting the dimensions of the tiny concrete box in which they are performing. After ten minutes of that, I’m 100% convinced.
They are followed by Hazy Sour Cherry from Japan, who mix nimble trebly indie guitars with rock and roll torch songs and a touch of 60s girl group glitter to concoct a delightfully twee confection. Then it’s the turn of Say Sue Me – the South Korean quartet have been one of the label’s success stories and have grown immeasurably since I first saw them four years ago at the 100 Club. Their dreamy vintage indie sound just gets better every time I see them, managing somehow to be both understated and soaring all at once, and their set, performed from a plant filled living room, brings out the interplay between the metronomic bass and rhythm guitar, the surfy twang of Choi Su Mi’s six string and the emotion concealed within her gentle, measured vocal.
Next up are one of the newer additions to the Damnably stable, Indonesia’s Grrrl Gang, who play the sort of radio friendly grunge pop that you could easily envisage soundtracking your favourite teen movie (I’m voting Empire Records), packed with key changes, jump cuts and bass lines like a Joy Division LP played at 45rpm. The showcase is completed by Otoboke Beaver from Kyoto, Japan. Regular readers will know that the quartet, with their furious light-speed art-punk sound, synchronised head shakes and eviscerating lyrics are one of my absolute favourites, and tonight they show why. Watching them onscreen it’s like a small child has got hold of the tv remote and is mashing all the buttons as enough notes, beats and musical styles for an entire album are pummelled into every demonic two minute blast, but somehow it all holds together and the effect is utterly breathtaking.
After a few moments having a sit down in a quiet room to regain my bearings after Otoboke Beaver’s sonic assault, it’s on to the Park The Van Records showcase and Sacramento trio Best Move. Their lush synth strings and twinkling piano provide a cooling glass of milk after the ghost chilli assault of their predecessors, their country-fringed indie sound coming across like a stubble-free Grandaddy or Mercury Rev with the sun peaking through a gap in the curtains.
The evening is rounded off with another trip to Glenny G’s backyard barbeque for the Sounds Australia showcase, and tonight’s highlight is provided by singer-songwriter Indigo Sparke. I’d been switched on to her haunting folk sound by Joyzine’s Paul F Cook (read his review of her recent album here), and am not disappointed as she transports us from the bedroom where she sits cross-legged with her guitar, to an unsettling dreamworld full of unspeakable things hidden in dark corners and macabre tales of blood and broken ribs, with only Sparke’s fairy dust guitar and ethereal vocal to guide us by the hand.
The final day of the SXSW online marathon begins with fascinating documentary Under The Volcano; telling the tale of George Martin’s AIR Studio in Montserrat through a combination of archive footage and talking heads that range from music icons from the 70s and 80s like Mark Knopfler and Duran Duran to the locals who worked at the studio as cooks, housekeepers and even Sting’s windsurfing teacher. It’s an engrossing watch that brings the hedonism of one of the music industry’s most excessive periods to life through a largely sympathetic lens.
Bringing the music right up to date I join the Tiny Desk showcase, which begins with the quirky but heartfelt indie-folk of Steady Holiday. She’s obviously having a lot of fun with the format, playing with her dog at her feet in front of a roaring fire as she opens the blinds to reveal her bandmates on the porch and receives set-list instructions from a googly-eyed printer – we’re with her every step of the way with a wry smile on our faces. Later in the showcase hip hop trio Clipping. take the promoter’s title 100% literally perfoming with miniature mics, decks and laptops.
Lowering the curtain on my SXSW online experience is Indian label Pagal Haina, who present us with two excellent acts from the subcontinent. First up is Rounak Maiti, who lulls us with gentle electro-indie tunes set to a lo-fi click beat and long church organ-like keyboard chords as his fragile voice mixes with the birds flocking outside his window. The final performance of my festival comes from The F16s‘ living room, their summery indie pop is full of bright guitars, seaside organ and twinkling glockenspiel. It’s a relaxed and cheerful way to end what has been a most unusual but ultimately satisfying festival experience.
SXSW 2022 has been announced for 11th-20th March – get all the latest details at sxsw.com
Review by Paul Maps
British Music Embassy photography by Thomas Jackson at Tyne Sight Photographic
Music from Ireland picture taken from video footage by Tiny Ark
FOCUS Wales photograph by Steve Davies at Film Cafe & FOCUS Wales
Close Encounter Club photograph by Katie Willoughby
Park The Van photograph by Raoul Ortega
Sounds Australia and Pagal Haina images taken from live footage by the promoters