On a normal night, Club DeVille crawls with University of Texas college students looking to get lucky. This Thursday afternoon in March, it's crawling with badges. Traditionally, "badges" refers to law enforcement officers, but during South By Southwest (SXSW) it's a symbol of significance and privilege. SXSW, the music festival and conference in its 18th year, issues registrants a badge -- an ID hung from a lanyard. It gets holders access to the conference, the trade show and, most importantly, all but the most crowded showcases. Plus, the badge often gets the holder into afternoon parties like this one. Typically, badges have some connection to the music industry, so bands want to play for badges.
Today's party is for New West Records, the home of the Drive-By Truckers, Delbert McClinton and Vic Chesnutt, among others. New West acts the Old 97's, Jon Dee Graham and the Flatlanders play under a tent off to one side while badges drink free beer, eat free food, and catch up with other badges, all in the name of doing business. Exactly what "business" is in this context is vague, though. Certainly talking to Charles Driebe -- the Georgia-based manager of the subdudes and the Blind Boys of Alabama -- is business, particularly when both acts would be at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival a month and half later. But is meeting someone you've only dealt with on the phone and through email "business"? Is talking to the Truckers' guitarist Mike Cooley about his new baby "business"?
In the middle of all this, a tall young man underfed enough to play punk rock music comes up. "Hi, I'm Will's friend. Here." He has a CD in a white cardboard sleeve with an ornate gold and black drawing of a nursing baby Jesus. It's attractive, but the only writing on it is "PSR DVD Vol.1." By handing it to someone in the media he and his band -- Gorch Fock, it turns out -- might be one step closer to "making it." He's doing business.
"WE JUST WANT TO JAM," Gary Mader smiles, spending St. Patrick's Day in Finn McCool's in Mid-City. The guitarist is going to SXSW with Outlaw Order, a reconfiguration of the local metal band Eyehategod with singer Mike Williams, drummer Joe Lacaze, guitarist Brian Patton and Mader, who has been on bass with Eyehategod for the past two years. Bassist Justin Grisoli is new to the group, which is playing a showcase with bands on the Los Angeles-based Southern Lord Records, the label that put out Outlaw Order's seven-inch record Legalize Crime. With songs like "Byproduct of a Wrecked Society" and "D.B.S.E. (Double Barrel Solves Everything)," Outlaw Order is harsher and more aggressive than Eyehategod, but fans and metal reviewers still notice the slow, doomed, grinding sound that became the blueprint for stoner rock.
Because metal is underground music even more than punk, neither Mader nor Williams have serious hopes of having a badge sign them to a major label deal that'll make them rich. "If we can make a few contacts, that would be great," Williams says while eyeing the Irish buffet being set up in the corner.
SUSAN COWSILL HAS VERY SPECIFIC GOALS. She and husband/drummer Russ Broussard have studio time booked at Dockside Studios near Lafayette. They have some money from the German record label Blue Rose, but they need more to finish recording. While they hope to find a label that will come through with the money, they also plan to generate a few additional bucks. They spend the Wednesday night before leaving for Austin burning copies of their five-song demo. In Atlanta, they sold 10 discs at 20 bucks each.
"It is a collector's edition," Cowsill laughs, "so therefore, you've got to pay the extra dollars. Bourbon Street taught me a few things. Bourbon Street is about getting the money."
In 2002, Cowsill played covers on Bourbon Street with Broussard and guitarist Chris Knotts, who is still a part of her band. As the Bonoffs, they worked at the Old Opera House, where she was not above requesting -- and getting -- tips from patrons who wanted to go past the stage to the bathroom, and that's just a recent chapter in a colorful musical career. Cowsill was 8 during the heyday of the Cowsills, the family pop band on which The Partridge Family was modeled. She spent the better part of the last 10 years in the Continental Drifters, before leaving with Broussard after tensions between Cowsill, then-husband Peter Holsapple and the rest of the band came to a head on the Better Day tour in 2001. After a year in the Bonoffs, she asked former Cowboy Mouth bassist Rob Savoy to join the band and work on her own music. "We're a new band," she says. "We're looking for a label, a manager, an agent -- the works."
Austin is a good place to look. SXSW is what Supagroup's Chris Lee calls "spring break for the music industry." Much of the industry is here specifically to combine business with pleasure. Some now have so many meetings with other badges, they hardly have time for the bands. "These days we don't have as much time as we used to," says Nan Warshaw of the Chicago-based Bloodshot Records. "We're working and it's not like the early days when we'd stay out all night seeing bands and partying."
In those years, Austin offered cheap food, beer and lodging in a laidback setting. Although New Orleans can match much of that, events like the short-lived LMNOP music conference and the ongoing Cutting Edge Music Business Conference don't yet have the reputation that makes it possible to deliver the same number of bands, fans or badges. SXSW may have grown larger, more corporate and more expensive, but like Jazz Fest, its event status makes it a must for most attendees. It has a proven track record for doing business.
AT 5:30 P.M. THURSDAY, COWSILL IS setting up for her second show of the day, having already played for a half-hour in the record store Cheapo's. Continental Drifters fans and curiosity seekers gather to watch the set at Jovita's, a popular Mexican restaurant.
The band is a little subdued, possibly because Chris Knotts is nervous about following pickers the caliber of BR-549's Chuck Mead and Chris Scruggs. At a table at the back of Jovita's, a number of badges, mainly writers, scribble notes and drink Tecate. Mixed in with fans and badges are families that have come for dinner. A black-haired waitress, tattoos sneaking out from under her tank top, works her ways through the crowd with trays of burritos, beans and rice.
About four songs into Cowsill's half-hour set, she performs a new song, "Talking Shit Around Town." The badges stop speculating about the Yankees' pitching staff and reach for their notepads. At one table, a mother, father, grandpa in a tan guayabera and a couple of teenage kids applaud politely.
DURING SXSW, THE AUSTIN CONVENTION CENTER is the site of a series of music industry panels, but interest in these events has diminished as the number of parties at places such as Cafe DeVille and Jovita's has grown. This year, a three-page party list circulated on the Internet, letting recipients know who the hosts were, who was playing, what was free and what people had to do to get in. These events are unofficial, not sponsored by SXSW.
Official SXSW music showcases start at 8 or 9 p.m., with bands usually playing 45-minute sets in downtown clubs. This year, 1,279 bands are performing at 60 venues over the long weekend. The unifying theme in a night's lineup is sometimes stylistic, made up of singer-songwriters or rockabilly bands. Other showcases focus on individual labels, publishing groups and booking agencies.
This year, Basin Street Records has its first showcase. "I got the idea last year at SXSW," label president Mark Samuels says. "Jon Cleary went over to perform, and when I was at that one, I realized I had to get some artists there for exposure." This year he has Henry Butler, Kermit Ruffins and Theresa Andersson, who has the unenviable task of playing at 8 p.m., an hour when badges are frequently dining or resting up after an afternoon of networking.
The Basin Street showcase is at Cedar Street Courtyard, a narrow open-air venue. Bands have played to 15 people at this time of night, but Andersson has more than a hundred. Rather than mill around in the back noncommittally -- customary badge behavior -- they're crowded near the front of the stage. The narrowness of the venue serves Andersson well, creating an intimacy that allows the warmth in her vocals and her smile to dominate the room. When she finishes with her original "Break Up," the hint of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" in the arrangement comes to the fore and her band sounds like a big, physical rock 'n' roll band.
Samuels laid the groundwork for SXSW by sending out copies of Andersson's Shine, Jon Cleary's Pin Your Spin and Butler's Homeland to the media a month and a half ahead of their release dates. In his 48 hours in Austin, he meets with Michael Nieves, who pitches Basin Street music for movies, and dines with a few dozen people who try to place music in media ranging from commercials to video games. It's also his first time meeting Carrie Lombardi and Ashley Matthews at Madison House, a public relations firm used by Basin Street.
Samuels' biggest score, however, comes purely by chance. "Jordan Burger of the Agency Group stumbled into Theresa Andersson's showcase after hearing it two blocks away," Samuels says. The Agency Group books artists such as George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic, Lee "Scratch" Perry, the Dirtbombs and New Orleans' Quintron and Miss Pussycat. "Two days later, she was signed. I don't expect her back in New Orleans until the fall," Samuels says.
AN HOUR AFTER ANDERSSON'S SET, Cowsill's band is onstage at the Vibe, a venue on 6th Street, the center of Austin club life and SXSW. The Vibe has changed names a few times, none better than the one before it, and it houses a big-screen TV, daiquiri machines and, out back, a stage and a semi-covered open area spacious enough to make the 75 or so people there look like a private gathering. The P.A. and light show are also large -- and there's even a smoke machine.
Cowsill checks her mic and guitar, and the sound coming from her monitors is near-deafening. "I figured I could flow two ways with this," Cowsill later recalls. "I could go over to the guy and quietly go, 'We're not this kind of band. Bring our shit down. We're not heavy metal.'" Instead, she chooses to make the best of it and soldier on. "I'm really glad we did," she says, "because we got some really bitchin' photographs with all the lights and smoke."
The set that seemed small at Jovita's comes to life at the Vibe. Rob Savoy's bass is far more prominent, giving the set an insistent groove, and Knotts' guitar, largely absent from the previous set, is tasteful and melodic. The larger sound still leaves a lot of room for Cowsill's voice, which is really an impressive instrument. Singing "Nanny's Song," one she wrote after visiting Broussard's dying grandmother, Cowsill seems to hit the notes-between-notes, the subtle tones that are so emotionally complex. It's a gift she shares with Lucinda Williams, and it makes the simple chorus, "I don't want to leave this earth," beautiful and powerful without being depressing.
"I heard somebody I didn't know talking to somebody I didn't know saying the song is the talk of SXSW," Cowsill recalls with a laugh.
WHILE COWSILL IS ONSTAGE at the Vibe, Supagroup is playing to a one-in/one-out crowd at Room 710 a few blocks away on Red River Street. Red River is the punky end of SXSW, anchored by Emo's, Austin's pre-eminent punk and underground rock club. The street has been Supagroup's home at SXSW for the past three years. In years past, the band played to full houses, but with the exception of a night when Nick Royale of the Hellacopters studied the band from the soundboard, there has been a notable lack of badges at the shows. Not this year. "It was hard to tell who were industry weasels there because of all the badges," guitarist Benji Lee says.
SXSW has been good for Supagroup. When VH-1's reality show Bands on the Run was in the planning stages in 2000, the producers interviewed Supagroup in Austin, considering them for one of the bands. More significantly, SXSW gave the band national exposure. "Months and even years later," singer Chris Lee explains, "I'd be trying to book the band and have the guy I'm talking to say he saw us at SXSW. It really helped build our live reputation."
Now that Supagroup has a label, radio airplay and a video, it has a new set of priorities. "Chris had a meeting with the program director of Fuse (a video channel) over some shots of tequila," Benji explains. "They watched the bats fly out from under the bridge together from the bar at the Four Seasons. There was a lot of good little networking going on."
More than anything else, this year the members of Supagroup are spending time with Foodchain, their Los Angeles-based label. "It's good for them to know what we're up to," Chris explains, "and it's good to know they haven't forgotten about us." They discuss business including possible involvement with ESPN's X-Games. "Mostly it was me hanging out with the president of the label and these guys (motioning to bassist Leif Swift) getting wasted," Benji says, "but hanging out with our label is business, even if we were getting shitfaced." This includes a dinner in a private room in Austin's Ruth's Chris Steak House, which devolves into a food fight, with chunks of T-bone and sirloin flying through the air.
Not everything goes so smoothly. Cracking up with laughter, Benji recalls: "We went to the Sanctuary party and Julia from Uranium, the Fuse TV metal show -- for some reason we got in a big fight and I started going, 'You know what was great? When you hosted Voodoo (music festival) and nobody cared because nobody knew who you were in the first place, and because your voice is so blown from partying. Remember that? That was awesome!' She picked the fight, hanging with our old managers who managed Slayer, and she said, 'And who the f--k are you?' So I did some bad business there."
FOR HUNDREDS OF BADGES AND thousands of the badgeless, SXSW Friday afternoon on South Congress is defined by the Bloodshot Records barbecue in the backyard of the Yard Dog Folk Art Gallery. When the label was smaller, the barbecue was an intimate gathering of fans and media, but 10 years later, the crowd fills the yard hip to haunch and spills into the adjacent alley. "There was a point where we could gauge the success of the party by the number of kegs we went through," Bloodshot's Warshaw says. "This year we went through 24. The year before we went through 21 and thought it couldn't get bigger than that."
The barbecue -- Warshaw says it was the first SXSW afternoon party -- began in 1995. "We couldn't get any bands in (SXSW) so we set up our own gig at the Yard Dog with the Old 97's and the Waco Brothers," Warshaw says. The show was and is open to the public. Starting before noon, acts like Jon Rauhouse's Steel Guitar Rodeo, Dollar Store and Graham Parker play half-hour sets. A little after 6 p.m., Dan Baird, formerly of the Georgia Satellites, hustles in from a recent gig at the nearby Continental Club, guitar strapped to his back. His band, the Yayhoos, closes the party with a sweaty, Southern boogie version of Abba's "Dancing Queen."
Meanwhile, around the corner from the Yard Dog, Houston's Allen Oldies Band is playing on the sidewalk in front of Rue's Antiques. With members dressed in tuxedos and black suits, the band plays '60s party favorites including Tommy Roe's "Sweet Pea" and the Swingin' Medallions' "Double Shot of My Baby's Love." The sight itself is puzzling, even for SXSW, a band in suits performing in the middle of the day on the sidewalk. Leader Allen Hill's red, curly hair needs a cut, and his white running shoes don't really work with the tux. They help, though, when he runs in circles until he falls down during "Dizzy." He also sings "Snoopy vs. the Red Baron" from a children's book.
Not surprisingly, Hill can hold a crowd. Cowsill, Broussard and Savoy are here, standing curbside. Hill throws a disposable camera to someone in front of him and has his picture taken with a couple of dancers. The band is playing "Sugar Shack," and one by one, people run up to have their photo taken. After a father takes his infant up for the photo-op, Cowsill runs to hug Hill and pose. Because a few years have passed since the Cowsills' heyday -- "Hair," the group's biggest hit, was in 1969 -- nobody, Hill included, recognizes the dark-haired woman with blonde streaks. "Oldies forever!" he shouts.
After another 10 minutes, Savoy takes off, and Cowsill and Broussard walk to the Continental Club for another industry party. Once inside the door, she and Broussard fall in with friends immediately at the bar. The room is thick with badges and musicians. Patterson Hood from the Drive-By Truckers walks in, having just sat on an SXSW panel at the convention center. "We had to name three songs that influenced us," he says. "I picked 'Hello, It's Me' by Todd Rundgren, 'Freddie's Dead' by Curtis Mayfield and 'Bastards of Young' by the Replacements."
A casual observer looking from across the room might think Cowsill is just catching up with an old pal. In fact, she's in conversation with a booking agent. Leaving the bar for a moment, Cowsill says excitedly under her breath, "I'm doing business!" Business, when conducted in a bar, doesn't look like business at all.
LIKE JAZZ FEST, SXSW CAN BE frustrating in that no one can be everywhere at once. Saturday afternoon, Mojo Nixon is hosting a yearly afternoon show at the Continental Club, this year jokingly billed as "Mojo's Last Show Ever," and the night before in Houston, people were in tears fearing the billing was true. At the same time, there is an invitation-only show on the patio behind Las Manitas, a Mexican restaurant, in advance of Por Vida, a benefit album for Austin guitarist and songwriter Alejandro Escovedo, who is suffering from Hepatitis C. In the audience are half the music writers in America, all pretending they don't notice Joan Baez and Kris Kristofferson sitting along the wall.
At the same time, Susan Cowsill is performing solo at the Duck & Goose, something she hates to do. "Thank God I only had to do one song," she says. While there, she runs into producer Terry Manning, who also sang on Big Star's albums. "He co-owns a studio in the Bahamas," Cowsill explains, so she gave him a copy of her demo. "I was giving my demo to everybody." This is standard SXSW practice, along with collecting business cards. "We came home with 35 cards," Broussard says. "I had to run to Home Depot to get something to keep them in."
In this case, there's no clear purpose to giving Manning a demo because they're not really looking for a producer, particularly with their limited budget. Still, a lot of business at SXSW operates on the "nothing ventured, nothing gained" theory. "Back in New Orleans after SXSW, we got a call from him when we got home and he wants to cover one of my songs," Cowsill says with the bemused tone of someone surprised by the call back in the first place.
WHILE COWSILL IS NETWORKING, Outlaw Order is still driving into Austin. Because it played the night before in New Orleans with Southern Lord label mates Place of Skulls and Graves at Sea, the band's first SXSW will be less than 24 hours long. Its showcase is in the Blender Balcony at the Ritz, essentially the balcony of a large club, and booking metal there is sadistic. The bands who can be counted on to bring the biggest, heaviest amps have to lug them up a narrow flight of stairs to one of the few second-floor venues.
Outlaw Order, it turns out, almost missed SXSW entirely. "It looked like we weren't going to be able to go because we couldn't get a ride," Gary Mader says. Fortunately, label owner Greg Anderson flew to New Orleans for the Lounge Lizards show. When he heard about the situation, he rented a van and drove with the band to Austin. Outlaw Order did its business on the way, making a deal with Anderson to release a full-length album early next year.
"We talked to him before about doing a full-length," Mader says. "I think once everybody got to know him and we actually had a sit-down talk -- how much we're going to get to record, the business aspects of it -- after that everybody was cool with what he had going."
IT'S SATURDAY NIGHT, THE LAST NIGHT OF SXSW. Cowsill and Broussard have put the rest of their band to bed and are finally ready to quit doing business. "We had gotten up at 9 in the morning and got home at 3 every night. We went to every party we were supposed to go to, talked to every person we were supposed to talk to, handed out CDs -- we were done," Cowsill says.
They plan to see Los Lobos at Stubb's, a large outdoor venue behind a barbecue restaurant, but along the way they stop at the Cactus Cafe to see a friend, Mark Lipsitz, who works at Bar/None Records. They're sitting at the bar talking over the loud music when Lipsitz leans over and says, "I'll be perfectly honest with you guys. "
Cowsill turns to Broussard. "Lean in," she says. "I think we're doing something."
"I'll be perfectly honest with you," Lipsitz continues. "I don't have a lot of money. We run a pretty tight ship at Bar/None. If y'all are looking for $15,000, for big bucks, I'm not your guy. But if you're just trying to make a record and need $7,000, I'm your guy."
The numbers couldn't have added up better. "What's funny about that is that the budget he (Broussard) made up for our do-it-yourself record is $12,000, and we have $5,000," Cowsill recalls. "Last day, last hour of our big SXSW."
A BALCONY, NO MATTER HOW IT IS renovated, is not ready for really loud, heavy music. Probably nothing is. People leaning against the back wall have fingers or toilet paper in their ears. A tub of tepid, funky water that is supposed to cool beer is vibrating. Downstairs, actress Minnie Driver is playing torch singer, and it's hard to imagine the blare and pounding isn't audible during her set. In this almost all-male scene, the macho thing to do is get as close to the amps or speakers as possible -- even if it means running headlong into the arms of deafness.
Outlaw Order sets up in a corner. Not surprisingly, the audience is conspicuously light on badges. One badge in a professional skirt is standing at the top of the stairs with a finger in her left ear, waiting to meet someone and leave.
Mader later assesses his first SXSW audience. "It seemed like a lot of rock fans. There was one guy who's from Columbia (Records), but he knows everybody from Eyehategod so it's not like he was there to check out Outlaw Order. Although he liked us." For Outlaw Order and most bands, SXSW is for building reputations. "It's networking, y'know," Mader says. "And when you're not conscious of it, that's better."
IT'S MAY 14, ALMOST EXACTLY TWO months after SXSW, and Susan Cowsill is in the studio. Her demo CDs all sold in Austin, netting the band an additional $790. They also left SXSW with two offers -- "one offer-ette," she corrects. In addition to Bar/None, a Texas label is interested. "We had breakfast with them before leaving town," Russ Broussard says. As of yet, nothing has been signed with either label. "In this industry, no one turns around that quick," Cowsill says.
Outlaw Order played the Dixie Taverne last week. Next month, Eyehategod is touring, playing its way to New York City and back. Outlaw Order plans to be in the studio in the fall and on the road in a year.
Supagroup is playing Saturday night at One-Eyed Jacks and has a song, "What's Your Problem?" in regular rotation on KKND-FM. The band is talking to a number of booking agencies. And Gorch Fock? The guy with the cryptic DVD? It turns out "PSR" is short for Perverted Son Records. Perverted Son is an Austin label specializing it artsy, psychedelic metal and metallic, psychedelic art music. The DVD has videos of bands named Migas, Tia Carrera (not the actress) and Gorch Folk, whose instrumental "Shirts Vs. Skins" is defined by a heavy riff and distorted trombone. The tall blonde guy got his band some press. He did business.
- Donn Young
- Susan Cowsill (pictured with guitarist Chris Knotts at Carrollton Station) went to SXSW this year with an agenda. "We're a new band," she says. "We're looking for a label, a manager, an agent -- the works."
- Outlaw Order put out its first single this year. Few metal bands go to SXSW expecting to find a major label deal. "If we can make a few contacts, that would be great," says singer Mike Williams.
- Kimball Packard
- Henry Butler plays to the Cedar Street Courtyard at Basin Street Records' first SXSW showcase. Before going to Austin, label president Mark Samuels sent copies of Butler's Homeland, Theresa Andersson's Shine and Jon Cleary's Pin Your Spin to the media.
- Supagroup's Benji Lee at Red-Eyed Fly in Austin in 2002. In past years, there has been a notable lack of badges at Supagroup's shows. Not this time. "It was hard to tell who were industry weasels there because of all the badges," Lee says.
- Donn Young
- Susan Cowsill with Russ Broussard, Chris Knotts and Rob Savoy. At SXSW, Cowsill and Broussard did business nonstop: "We had gotten up at 9 in the morning and got home at 3 every night. We went to every party we were supposed to go to, talked to every person we were supposed to talk to, handed out CDs."