The music of Valerie Kuenhe, with her band Dream Zoo, struck me as something pretty radical – music you wouldn’t throw on before a party or a football game. It is music that’s seemingly sporadic and wild and comical, walking a strange line of free jazz and classical. Dream Zoo is not your typical punk rock, Brooklyn four piece. So I decided to meet up with her, naturally, to test the waters; to find the wheres and whys and whats of her music. With callous fingers and a spunky character, Kuenhe described her rich passion for her music to the Knocks squad over coffee.
Knocks: Tell me about your operation here at Café Orwell.
Valerie Kuehne: Let me preface this by talking about how the operation started and has grown in the past year and a half. I was working behind the counter, brewing coffee, and asked the owner about hosting a weekly music series. For the first year, I was only doing shows on Friday night. I called it the Friday Night Super Coda. It was an experiment: an expression of my attraction to music that is not genre-affiliated whatsoever. I'm interested in the ways people present themselves as performers and the communication that transpires between musicians on stage. To me, neither performance nor musicianship can really be attributed to any genre. So I would bring these acts together on a given Friday night and I'd examine how far I could push the audience's attention span by presenting radically different breeds of music. I'd bill a free jazz ensemble with a singer-songwriter; I would have a surf rock band and a sound sculptor. The idea was to bring them all together and surprise people into realizing: "Wow, I would never go out to hear this type of music, but this is a good performance."
So I did this for about a year and it was generally successful. I mean there were a few nights which were not, but this happens when you experiment. Then in January, the Cafe got their liquor license, so I started curating events more frequently. At this point, the original experiment has evolved. I'm no longer seeking a 'welcome chaos' so much as I am an environment that reacts against the all-powerful NYC 'scene.' It's amazing how intimately connected so much of the music to come out of this city is. Yet musicians never hear each other due to strange circumstances and insular social circles. I’m trying to bring people together that aren’t necessarily in the same scene but whose music I think is really intimately connected. The shows are connected on less abstract levels than my first experimental operation.
K: Are the bands mostly like your band, Dream Zoo? I would call it Free Jazz but I’m not very educated...
VK: I book free jazz occasionally, but I'm more interested in improvisation. You might say that most modern improvised music extends back to jazz idioms or even free jazz idioms. But at this point a lot of improvisation isn’t jazz at all. Dream Zoo, for example, is more closely affiliated with classical music. But I suppose eventually it's just chords or lack thereof and response or lack thereof....
K: That’s a good segue into your music. I’m more of a punk rock kind of guy. Your music is very… experimental, very sporadic, maybe even with some humor in there. But you say you’re classically trained. I’m interested because I have no experience in this, but your four piece band, Dream Zoo, do you guys get together and just kind of jam or is there a pre-written thing you follow?
VK: With this particular project [Dream Zoo] it’s a spoof on classical lieder from the late 19th and early 20th century. It’s a dream narrative. Literally, I had a dream and woke up the next morning and wrote it out. From there, I broke it down to specific songs and changed around a few elements in silly ways. So, yes, I actually write songs. I would say I have skeletons of songs. I would have chords written for the cello, and then lyrics and a melody to go along with it.
I had the song cycle pulled together a bit over a year ago. Since then, I’ve gone through a lot of different incarnations of players. I worked with a violinist, Storm Garner. For a spell it was just her and I. Then I decided I wanted the music to be more fully orchestrated. I started bringing in more musicians. Currently, Dream Zoo is myself on cello and vocals, Lucio Menegon on guitar, Jeff Young on violin, and Sean Ali on bass.
I don’t notate anything, but if I want a line to be specific for another musician, I’ll play them out on my cello or sing them. Sometimes the musicians will work out the parts themselves. But a big part of the project are these gaping sections of conceptualized improvisation. For example, there's a point at which the violin is screeching away as a result of me telling Jeff to act like a chicken. There are several passages like this, I'll say, "In this section you are on a plane and it is crashing." The overarching spirit of the project is quite thematic.
K: So when you play that live, what do you tell the audience, or do you just go right into it?
VK: I’m very silent in this project. I want it to be this incongruous thing that’s simply there. That, and I’m terrible with banter. So when I first started presenting it, I would try and talk but it just wasn’t… I feel like it works better if I just kind of get up on stage and we have this procession that we do- the music starts, it ends, and I stay silent the whole time… unless I’m actually singing. The songs can't handle interjection from some remote creator. They stand alone and should be experienced in a very personal way. If someone wants an explanation they can approach me after hearing the Zoo start to finish.
K: When I first heard your music, I found it, not necessarily shocking, but interesting. It’s not something I listen to everyday. Go into this whole personifying/chicken acting/thematic thing a little bit more.
VK: It's essential that these sections happen for the sake of the narrative. The conceptualized parts are also the more extended sections of improvisation. The audience gets to go for a trip. In my mind they offer the greatest beauty and comedy to be found in the song cycle, providing impetus for the rest of the narrative to unfold. I directed the band to improvise off of these dream sequences emotionally, but also quite literally. The guitarist actually simulates a plane kind of landing and falling. It’s really accurate. It sounds like a plane.
K: When you guys play, are there any points where the audience might not be understanding the music?
VK: I feel like when we first started performing, there was a little bit of a gap between my intentions and what I was actually presenting. I wasn't quite aware of how theatrical the song cycle actually was. But the more I played – and especially now that I’m working with such a receptive and understanding group of musicians – I feel like the last four or five shows people have really laughed and really gotten into it. I mean this is not the kind of music you hear in a bar, but still.
K: So, what is the motivation behind your music?
VK: I’m the kind of person that’s just really engaged with process over product almost all of the time. I play music because I would go absolutely insane and probably kill myself if there wasn’t music in my life. It’s kind of a necessity for me, to continue creating and experiencing that mode of communication.
The inspiration for this project was kind of two-fold. I have all these memories of going to the Kennedy Center with my parents when I was little and being really struck with the lack of humor. The orchestra would do something really funny and I would find myself laughing out loud while everybody turns and shushes me [points a bold finger, contextualizing]. Which is really stunning and telling of the state of concert hall music in this country right now. That’s obviously NOT what the composer meant. The composer clearly meant this to be funny and have people actually respond to it.
So there was that, and also the fact that I had this dream. They always say that it’s impossible to communicate dreams and have the person you're communicating it to actually enjoy hearing about it. I’m definitely in love with my dreams. So I thought about a way to put them in a context that would interest people.
K: What are your thoughts on improvisition? You’ve mentioned it before, and I’ve spoken with a lot of other bands about this idea that sometimes you can improv too much. Sometimes you go over the edge into pleasing yourself more than the audience.
VK: It’s interesting that you mention that. One of the aspects that inspired me to kind of follow through with this project was having all these experiences improvising with different people. Listening to a lot of free improvisation and experimental music, I would have exactly that reaction where I was like – we call it masturbating over chord changes - “This is going on forever.” The improvised moment is so interesting to me. I thought, “Well, how can I take that and put it into some sort of structured context so that it actually signifies something and means something opposed to being just this long winded thing.” The improvised sections in my music are very controlled. That way it comes out as something that makes sense during this crazy moment.
K: What is the recording process like?
VK: It was all recorded live. We wouldn't be able to document it otherwise. There are too many vocal cues coupled with very specific instrumental responses. It would have been incredibly confusing to track everything separately. Also, there's such a dynamic communication between the four of us: it had to be live. And frankly, apart from some electronic music, all music should be recorded live. At least more often than not.
K: Back to what you are doing here at Cafe Orwell: do you bring in bands in that are similar to your style – the free jazz and classical types?
VK: I wouldn't say exclusively. I've had a lot of groups in here that are extremely performance based and unclassifiable in many a sense. The unclassifiable sense is more and more the ideal I seek. I want magic. I want to be flummoxed. And I want to enjoy. I believe this desire is universal. But yes, some of these musicians would also fit well into a classical context. I've had a wonderful group of new music composers and performers, The Red Light New Music Collective, on stage several times. And I curated a show for the Del Sol String Quartet, probably the most important group of chamber musicians actively performing right now. Their humanity and musical intelligence is stunning. They are from the Bay Area but everyone should check them out. And like I said, jazz has grown to include so much more than the sum of it's parts. It's outgrown itself in a marvelous way.
K: I imagine it’s mostly low-key shows?
VK: For the most part. I want to keep my events intimate and welcoming. I'll charge a cover on occasion, but I'm more interested in having people walk in off the street, stopped by a surprising series of events. We are a cafe, so I want the people working over coffee to be able to stay and not feel uninvited. I pass around a hat under the auspices of a five dollar suggested donation. Pay what it's worth to you. And it's worth it to those who come out and stay.
Café Orwell averages about four shows a week, always on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Next Wednesday is a special show with Montreal improvisor Solomiya Moroz and Dominic Lash, a British bassist. Also on the bill is Brian Questa, who does a classically rooted solo bass improvisation set, and Carlo Costa, Joachim Badenhorst, Pascal Niggenkemper, a great trio that plays some composed, some improvised music. Valerie Kuhne will be involved in the show as well.
Check out more of the music and list of shows at Cafe Orwell below:
Underground radicals, The Courtesy Tier, were friendly enough to emerge from the depths of their recording den to answer a few questions on free-wheeling improv, the blues and their excitement over their new album: Resolution. The album will put Tier on a new map when it breaks ground Next Thursday at Pianos. Here is the duo: guitarist Omer Leibovitz and drummer Layton Weedeman of The Courtesy Tier.
Interview by Sam Houghton
Knocks: for me, music began with the Stones. I remember hearing “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” for the first time. It totally blew me away. After that, I looked for what they had listened to and found Howlin Wolf and Muddy Waters and then all these great bands on down the line… Jimmy Read, Bo Diddley and here I am listening to you, the Courtesy Tier. So I guess my question for you is, what is your core influence: That one song or band, and the branches off of that?
Layton: If you were to ask me that a couple of years ago, my answer would be totally different. But lately, and I think Omer would agree, I would immediately go to Nirvana. That’s the reason I started playing drums. As far as my influence goes, when I’m hitting the drums, I’m thinking of Dave Grohl.
Omer: It all started out as Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin… all the time. And then it was like, well, where did they get this stuff from and going back to all the old blues and getting records from my dad. Then I went to Berkley and met Layton, and Layton introduced me to jazz. At that point, it was like going backwards from Zeppelin, Howlin Wolf, Son House, all that, and building back up to the Jazz stuff and studying guys like Miles Davis really, really heavily. And after getting burned out on that, I went back to the Teenage stuff – playing Nirvana with Layton.
Lately I’ve been diggin into the past of that stuff, going from Nirvana to the Pixies, from the Pixies to the shoegazey stuff.
Layton: …The Pink Floyd and Zeppelin stuff for me too. It was always on in the house because my dad would listens to them constantly. He’d either be playing his records or it would be on the radio. It was inevitable that it would rub off on me. I knew I loved it at the time, but I think when I first started playing drums… well I started hanging out with a certain group of kids who were skating and smoking cigarettes. We started listening to Hendrix and it was like: “Whoa, this is cool.” I remember one specific night coming home after hanging out with those kids and going up to my dad and asking him: “Have you ever heard of Jimi Hendrix.” He just laughed at me.
Omer: (Mocking voice) “I think he’s this new indie guy.”
Knocks: I think about this point all the time: Most people in our generation know who Jimi Hendrix is. There are a lot of theories you can take. Some people are trying to create a new sound, but what’s the point of reinventing the wheel. What are your thoughts on that?
Layton: I don’t really think about it that way. I know what excites me, and there are definitely new sounds that excite me. When we play together and we come up with a new riff or a vibe or something, it brings that kind of feeling, like: “This is exciting, lets stay here.”
Omer: We came to the conclusion that if you want to come up with something cool and new, the last thing you want to do is sit down and think about what people want to hear. I’ve been listening to the Stones a lot lately, and I realized that the Stones just sound like a blues band… but they don’t. It’s not because they sought out to make something different. It’s because they sought out to make exactly what they were hearing, but their personalities were just different.
We really like things that are accessible, so we’re gonna try and recreate and we hope that we’re weird enough that no matter how much we try to replicate something, it’s gonna sound a little tweaked.
The Stones are a perfect example. They’re trying to imitate, but it’s Keith Fucking Richards. That guy is never going to be normal.
Knocks: Or Mick Jagger for that matter… They compliment each other well, I guess. Talk about that: What is your bond like? How does your friendship affect your music?
Layton: It’s uncanny.
Omer: Last night we had a guest appearance from a good friend of ours – an amazing bass player. It was awesome, but it really made me notice the fact that we do some erratic things when we play. Things are always changing: verses are dropping; random things just happen; we get spaced out. With just Layton, the two of us have played together for so long. We trust each other in this way where if one of us is gonna go somewhere new, we respect each other’s musicality to not question it. We just think: “This guy knows what he’s doing. Usually when he chooses stuff it comes out good. If he’s gonna go there, I’m just gonna follow him.” There’s never a musical break down where we are kind of pulling apart from each other, basically fighting over the measures.
Layton: That’s exactly right. I’ve always felt like in other bands, especially if they don’t know each other very well, they stick with what they know and what works. But they will always reach a point in the song where everyone will be playing that same role and there will be no more mesh. Everyone’s kind of just standing their ground the whole time, being careful, and some will even take it a step further and say: “Well, I don’t trust what he’s doing anyways.” They might be stubborn and just stick to their role instead of lending a helping hand.
Omer: With us it’s great. We just listened back to the Brookly Bowl recording and realized on our last song – in the middle where it’s somewhat improvised – I don’t know why, but we’re rocking out real hard and all of a sudden I just decided to go to zero volume. If it was a band of people that didn’t trust each other and I did that, the band would keep blowing and be like: “What’s he doing? This is not what we do.” But with Layton, he hears it. I dropped down and he knew exactly what I was doing and “bam,” we were able to create. I guess the idea of having songs that you play every time live, but creating completely new moments or completely new, you know, emotions… that keeps people interested.
So what’s going on in your mind when you’re up on stage?
Layton: Lately, nothing at all. I really try and not think. If it is a thought, it’s about being relaxed and keeping my ears fully open.
Omer: If you’re thinking, you’re working. Something is wrong.
Layton: And that’s what allows me to try and be completely open-minded. It allows me to be right there – if, say, Omer decides to drop out or vice versa. At the same show, my stick broke at the end of a song. I couldn’t just end the song. It was the end of the set. So I just went fucking berserk smacking cymbals with my palm. Omer was right there going nuts on his guitar.
Omer: We are trained heavily in improvisation. We put in such small pieces of improv. there’s no room for it to be boring. We leave ourselves with only two moments in the whole set to improvise. It keeps it exciting for the people watching it, but it’s also exciting for us because you have that perfect blend. You have something written: I’m not just jerking off in their face but, instead, giving a taste of unexpectedness or mystery so our fans are like: “Ok, I’ve seen these guys ten times, but every time they give me something else a little different.”
Knocks: I don’t really like jam bands. There’s a few I like, but there’s a fine line where it becomes, exactly, jerking off in my face? Are you guys playing for other people, or are you going nuts off in your own head? I guess what I’m asking is how do you find the balance between the two: having fun while pleasing the audience?
Layton: If anyone was gonna ask if we have a jam band influence, I would say yes. We go in that direction in songs like “Friend” or “Cold” for like two minutes. The song was written with a riff and it was driving. Driving is the most important thing. Once that driving force is gone or we lose interest, then we gotta move somewhere else. With “Friend” and “Cold,” they were written with this riff with a driving force, but after verse, chorus, verse, there’s a moment we can experiment with it a little bit. Basically, we try to keep it driving so that we never get too fluffy.
Omer: We’re reeling each other in without being afraid of each other. It goes back to the trust thing. We can be like “Alright yo, that sucks. Lets not do that.” Or, “That guitar part is too much.” Doing the record, I get excited and start experimenting. But having someone there that you trust as an objective listener to be like: “Alright, that is fun, and that is cool, but you’re jerking off at this point. Take it back a notch,” that is amazing.
Layton: The trust thing, that’s the biggest and hardest thing, but once you get over it, it’s the best. There are a lot of bands out there that don’t do that with each other. They’re afraid to hurt each other’s feelings. They’re afraid to be like: “Bro, I love you but that part is shit.” That was huge for us.
Omer: A lot of bands fight. They really, really need a specific producer that’s the one that can play that role.
But going back to the original question: the idea of getting on stage is strange as it is, but why would I get on stage and do it for myself? I’m on a stage, obviously, and I should remember that and do it for other people and understand that they don’t want me to jerk off in their face.
Layton: There was a point when I was heavily influence by the Mars Volta. Their first record totally just blew me away because they encompassed a classic 70s rock sound, like Zeppelin and Pink Floyd combined. Plus the drummer was insane and I was totally into it. One of the guys in the band said something that I really liked answering the same question. He said something to the extent of if we really like it, than other people should like it also.
("Hey Bee" off Resolution)
Knocks: This is a hard one for me to ask but it is something that interests me. Not many bands are making money these days. What’s the draw for you? Is money part of it?
Omer: After you’ve been doing it since you were ten? Let me put it this way: If I worked in a mail room or shipping, I’m still gonna have to call up Layton after work and play just for that therapy and creative outlet.
As a business and a band, having reachable goals is important. You know, nothing big. Somebody could put us on the road year round, then we could make just enough money to pay our rent and play year round. We would probably make less money than we do now with a real job, but the idea of it is appealing because we get to play year round.
The other motivation is I’m always retaining albums really fast, consistently buying and listening to them. It’s because each record gives me a piece of what I want to hear on our album, like the guitar or the voice, but I’m never getting all of it. I do when it’s a band we all love, but I’m consistently searching for that next one, that next great band. That’s the motivation: making that record that we both want to hear. “Lets do that.”
Knocks: So what’s the new album like? Do you have all the songs?
Layton: We’re really excited. No one really knows about it. We haven’t really told anyone. We did 13 original songs.
Knocks: What’s your favorite on the album?
Layton: All of them. The recording process is so great, and laying all the tracks down. The first week was just drums, and it was like: “Wow, we got really awesome drum sounds.” Then we did guitars and it was like: “Wow, I was not expecting that. That sounds incredible.” Then we did some other instrumentation that we don’t normally do live, and it was like: “Man, that just totally opened a new door.” And now we’re doing vocals… and it’s turning into what I really was hoping for. It’s happening.
Omer: We’re doing it, again, all by ourselves. At home. Engineering it and everything. I mean it’s a really good fucking album. But the idea, we didn’t do what a lot of people do with a kick starter page and beg for $5,000 and go into the studio and demo 10 songs and put out an album. We sat down with just Layton for two weeks on drums. We were able to have that time to do three takes of a song and then go back and say, “Yeah, that snare sucks. Lets detune the drums or move them around…” It let us be very meticulous.
Knocks: Let me interrupt for a minute. Dylan said that Blond on Blond sounds most like what he heard in his head. Do you think that is a talent you just have?
Layton: Honestly, I think it’s just experience and listening to all these albums, like Omer was saying. I listen to a ton of hip-hop and a ton of indie stuff and a ton of weird sound stuff, so I guess when we did Map and Marker, it was so impulsive. We had just formed a band and we were excited about making a record. So whatever drums we had, or guitars we had live, it was just like “GO! Lets get this.” It was one or two takes. Now we’re here, and we’re taking our time with it. One example is the snare drum. I had a really tight snare. We would be writing new songs and this ring my snare had would be really annoying. So I put some duct tape on the drum and took out the ring. So when you say it’s a talent, I think it’s just going and really hearing what you think would fit better.
Omer: I think it depends on who you are too and what your role is. If you have the money for a producer, that’s the job of the producer. When you listen to the drums on a great record, you realize every song has a different drum sound. There are subconscious things that keep the listener going from the beginning to the end of the record. We don’t realize that the producer has made sure the band has pulled the curtains, changed the scene, and brought you into a new environment. He is being very meticulous about that. We were meticulous about having a completely different snare sound for every song, or a completely different guitar sound for every song.
Going back to the original question – the idea of hearing it in your head – I think that some people do have that skill. I think that we all have that to an extent and it depends on who you are and whether you have the knowledge to execute on that. Or, it’s about finding the perfect match with a producer - Bob Johnston for Blond on Blond - that can create that album for you.
We both know what we want to hear on an album, but mostly we knew how we wanted to make the album. From the beginning, we knew we wanted to make a certain type of album where we approached it taking our time on certain things, but we’re also play with space a lot. So it’s a combination of knowing and leaving enough unknown.
Layton: We didn’t dwell on mistakes like we did in the past. I’d fuck up on the bridge or something and do a weird fill, but the feel was there. We’ll say: “Lets just keep it.” As we finish and ad more tracks, it becomes something.
Knocks: Is that philosophy you just came up with or where did that idea come from?
Omer: I really love engineering. I have studied it a lot and I work at studios. As an engineer, and reading about a lot of engineering, it was mostly an adopted philosophy of the moment of the producers I was into at the moment – Bob Johnston, Daniel Lanois – guys like that who talk about leaving space, or leaving holes and things like that. So for our record, we would keep telling each other to leave holes, leave holes, all the way until the end because every time there’s a hole, you’ll fill it with something different in the end. A little improvisation.
WAMFEST, the Words and Music Festival, brings The Fiery Furnaces and Josh Ritter to Fairleigh Dickinson University next week!
Fairleigh Dickinson University’s WAMFEST 2011 is here! The eclectic and prestigious lineup features novelists, producers, singer/songwriters, critics, rock stars and more for five completely original performances.
The events kick off Tuesday, April 26th with twangy rocker Alejandro Escovedo, legendary producer and musician Tony Visconti and author/music critic/radio deejay Dave Marsh. All three performers have been heavy-hitters in the music world for decades now. Escovedo changed the punk scene in California before moving back to Texas and embracing his country rock roots, collaborating with musicians like Ryan Adams and Calexico. Tony Visconti has risen to his own superstar status as a producer and musician, having played a massive and important role in the careers of idols like David Bowie, The Stooges and The Moody Blues. In addition to his highly acclaimed, popular books documenting the life of Bruce Springsteen, Dave Marsh continues to write influential articles on music, literature, anti censorship and more. Their performance begins at 5 p.m. in Hartman Lounge.
Brother/sister indie pop duo The Fiery Furnaces (pictured right) bring their progressive songs to The Bottle Hill Room on Friday, April 29th at 5 p.m. Their thoughtful lyrics highlight the connection between poetry and music while still rockin’ the catchy melodies and synthesizers.
Three wildly important writers from The New Yorker, Ben Greenman, Nancy Franklin and Alex Ross, join us Monday, May 2nd at 2 p.m. in Lenfell. Greenman writes everything from short stories to music journalism to novels about funk and musicals about Britney Spears. As one of the world’s most influential television critics, Nancy Franklin combines a critical eye with a sharp, humorous style to give her take on TV and society, while one of the world’s most influential music critics Alex Ross reviews the modern classical scene and examines the history of music.
Thursday, May 5th brings Josh Ritter (pictured right) and Wesley Stace/John Wesley Harding, two celebrated singer/songwriters and novelists, back together after their stellar AWP performance in February. Ritter continues to craft beautiful folk/rock songs while gearing up for the release of his first book, Bright’s Passages, due out this June. Harding, a man truly dedicated to celebrating the connection between music and literature, will be reading an excerpt from his above-mentioned novel, Charles Jessold, Considered a Murderer. Check out The New York Times' very positive, enthusiastic review of the book and learn more about Harding’s projects on NPR. The two will be performing together in Hartman Lounge at 2:30 p.m.
This year’s WAMFEST concludes on May 7th with a performance by Owen, brought to us by The Musicians’ Guild. Growing up in a musical household and finding fame through family band Cap’n Jazz, Mike Kinsella moved on to solo project Owen in which he composes all the music, plays all the instruments and writes all the lyrics. Combining catchy vocal riffs with detailed, impressive guitar lines and multi-layered instrumentation, Owen finds a sweet mix of upbeat pop and pretty folk with a touch of rock. His lyrics not only reference multiple literary greats, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Raymond Carver, but are also thoughtful, beautiful poetry on their own.
Saturday, March 19
“All good things must come to an end.” Those are lyrics from a Boston Blues band called the Generators. Nothing original or life changing in the words, but fitting for the SXSW dream. The idea was for the disorganized nation of underground bands to come together for showcases promoting their talents, and hopefully, in a chance that they might be spotted by someone important in the music world, be signed to a label. Simple. But as everything that grows and grows and grows, the potential becomes too much and soon everyone wants a piece of the action.
I have a friend who fishes down on Cape Cod. He works as a carpenter during the day and fishes all night during the summer season. He’s a classic addict… barely sleeps. He has a secret spot out beyond the main harbor that very few people know. He will stand there until sunrise, throwing out his line snagging fish after fish. He’s thinking about starting a tourist business taking out-of-towners fishing. But there is a snag in the operation. In order for the business to be successful, he would have to charter tourists over to his favorite spot and let them catch the fish. As a result, his spot would no longer become his spot, but an over-polluted disaster with angry fisherman crisscrossing lines and killing all the fish and the peaceful sanctuary. So, my fisherman buddy prefers to not tell anyone and sit on his lines himself. He’s a lonely dude, but a proud lonely dude.
I’m not saying that underground bands are comparable to fish, but someone spilled the beans to a different breed here in Austin. SXSW has now become a booming industry… just another festival. Kanye West and Jack White, for example, performed as a way of promoting their signed artists. White brought his new record store on wheels operation, Third Man Rolling Records, playing two songs Thursday just before newly acquired Seasick Steve took the mike. West performed on Saturday night for his G.O.O.D. Music label with Jay-Z and fellow label mates. Wednesday night Duran Duran played. The bands that get all the attention are bands like the Strokes who perform in front of 22,000 and incite riots, which is swell and good, but what about the smaller, unsigned bands flocking in, springing their bank accounts and maxing out credit cards just to get there? They’ve been thrown to the outdoor venues and house parties way out on the outskirts on the East side of town. Point is South By is no longer what it claims to be as the launch pad for young bands. It is a Mardi Gras with music, a Woodstock in the city. It’s great fun, but not what it claims.
By Saturday, I had realized this and spent some time out there slumming with a couple locals. Essentially, this is where the real parties are – maybe they don’t have the free Sparkz, or Honest Tea or Sailor Jerry Promotional gimmicks, but you’ll be able to sit down and have a beer with the band, and the music will always have the raw, experimental quality that we live for here at Knocks.
The Buffalo Killers played a show again, way out on East 6th. They play jam bandy rock with a slight twist of heavy metal, enough so that they appeal to that crowd. Behind their stage, a half-pipe was in use outside, with another out-door stage blasting dark, heavy metal. The scene was filled with skater punks, naturally, there for the good tunes and skating. Later in the afternoon, Austin born locals the Strange Boys were playing outside in the East Side Drive Venue in front of a heavy crowd. Most people there didn’t know much of the band’s catalogue but heard they were cool and sat around smoking cigarettes. It might have been the dead heat of the day or the multiple repetition of late nights and heavy boozing, but the crowd of young hipsters looked tired. I was, but Ryan Sambol is a great musician, bringing out a slide for a number I didn’t recognize, wailing like a true Texas bluesman, like Stevie walking the tightrope. “Be Brave” was flawless, a great number that a few in the crowd worked up the energy to pipe in for.
The rest of the day was great fun but uneventful, maybe lost from my memory. While SXSW has sold out, it is still an incredible time. I will probably be there next year. It seems like it has become our generation’s Woodstock. Over 2,000 bands played official sho?wcases. There were probably thousands more there unofficially. The streets are absolutely packed. Next year, come February, I will send out applications for rough necks who are up for total coverage of the national event. I will be looking for honest folk with thick skin and a taste for finding the truth. We will travel in packs with large canteens and big notebooks, searching for the best of the underplayed out on the eastern outskirts of Austin.
Friday, March 18
Let me just begin by saying that things happen slowly in Austin, Texas. If you’ve been here you would understand when I say that the majority of the city’s inhabitants are not the speedy, over-zealous types. They are mostly the status-quo accepting folk who say, with a laugh and a slow nod of the head: “Yup… this little music thingy down here is a big deal, alright.” But while big deals are big deals, they do little, if anything, to adjust their schedules in the slightest. In an extremely basic way, I have some sort of weird respect for this humble attitude towards life. Mostly though I am amazed that I can coexist in the same world with such a different breed of people. For example, Texans will hop a bus right smack-dab through the middle of horrible SXSW traffic just to grab a couple groceries on the other side of town, and not even think twice about it the next day. Riding a bus anywhere in Austin, never mind through traffic, is simply outrageous. It’s slower than Cecil Fielder in his heyday. Cowboys will amble up into the bus and stand there for minutes emptying change into the fair-dispenser, drop a nickel on the floor, pick it up, drop it in the machine, and three minutes later, the bus will be out of the stop and moving slowly down the road… only to stop for a cripple in a wheelchair, the driver lowering a ramp, securing the scooter in with all kinds of seat belts and accessories, and twelve minutes later pull onto the road again… only for the driver to, mid-route, out-of-the-goddamn-blue, pull over, unhinge his seat-belt, amble out slowly to some shack over a hill where he can no-doubt squat down to take a shit. Perhaps I’ve been brainwashed by capitalist scum, but I have strong faith that there are more important things out there than staring through a smeared window at a flat and dry landscape.
Who are these people of Austin? Do they work? Do they snack on horse-tranquilizers with their huevos and coffee? Are their nerve ends so completely depleted by the desert sun that they suffer from paralysis of the mind? Or are there other, more complicated issues tugging the strings? These are all important questions for understanding the overall conscious of SXSW. But the most important and horrifying question to ask is who is in charge here. Are the same people who crawl carelessly through the main strip of town the same people running this massive operation? According the Austin Chronicle, the SXSW festival has increased by 30 to 40 percent in each of the last two years. These are staggering numbers. Already a bustling metropolitan of 1.7 million, Austin busts at the seems as 80,000 to 100,000 musicians, managers, label reps, and eager fans transcend on the streets of downtown, in a concentrated area of about 10 square blocks by Thursday. Hordes of people jam-pack 6th street from one sidewalk to the other with little space for much of anything but elbows and shoulders. All the bars are packed, many with a thick line out the door where IDs are checked. More are expected for the weekend festivities.
This is all going through my mind while I sit in the lobby of the Hampton Inn just after dusk as the young dude behind the desk informs me in a reassuring but shaky voice that he is sorry the hotel is over-booked and that he is sure we will be reimbursed for the full amount of our reservation. Oh good. Thank Jesus my money will be safe in the Priceline.com database while I lie on the concrete and try to get some shut-eye while a bunch of wild and drunk teenagers fight for taxis and howl with the full Worm Moon. Sounds like peaceful rest.
Not surprisingly, we are not the only other casualties to Mr. Hampton’s mistake. There’s a young musician from Minnesota who flew in today and sits on hold with Orbitz, and another couple who look blankly at screaming cars shooting across the overpass outside. In the Thursday morning edition to the Austin Chronicle, the author also mentioned the cities lack of foresight and its scramble to fill in another 400 to 500 guests into hotel rooms at the last minute. Who knows how badly the city will have to scramble on Friday, all meaningless to the dude on the other end of the phone line sitting in India while my girlfriend screams at him: “I’m glad you are reimbursing me, but what about another hotel room? Am I supposed to sleep in the street?” What about another hotel room indeed Mr. Priceline man?
“We are sorry, but we cannot find any other hotels.”
“But we had a reservation… Doesn’t that mean anything?”
It is then that young ‘un behind the Hampton desk pipes in that there is room at the Budget Lodge just down the street. A couple minutes later we’re sprinting towards the front desk only to find out that they too have just filled their last room. It is the last hotel in Austin, a hotel infamous for sex-offenders and a double homicide a couple years back. Regardless of its criminal record, it is over-booked.
Before we get too crazy with the Texas hazing, I will say that there is a young crowd in Austin that seems like they would fit in well with our fine Brooklyn culture. They shop at vintage stores, recycle, set up coops, garden, eat locally grown grub, enjoy real, live music excessively, and indulge in micro-brews. They do not take the slow-ass bus but ride bikes. And while the majority of Texas is a massive desert of red during elections, Austin is bluer than Dolly Parton’s mesmerizing eyes. It seems to be the safe haven for all the hippies of Texas, flocking from Dallas, Houston and San Antonio looking for free vibes and good cheer. A large number come for the Universities and end up staying. As a result, there’s a positive buzz to the city – it’s young and progressing.
One of these so-called liberal Austin troubadours goes by the name of Benjamin Palmer. Benjamin lives in a house with other like-minded folk where they keep it mellow when it’s yellow and power their house with solar panels. He graduated from St. Edward’s University a few years back where he won the presidential award for his dedication to the community. He runs marathons, heads a coop promoting local farms, bottles his own mead, drinks Herba Mates, and at 5’6,” 140, he can dead lift a small house – all while working part time for a marketing company aimed at promoting local businesses.
If it were not for Benjamin Palmer, I would not be writing this right now, but instead would probably be locked in some basement speaking gibberish, eating scraps and being marauded by a horde of hooded gimps. That or dead, trampled by the thousands upon thousands of feet still punishing the mean streets in the early morning of SXSW… or just really tired. Turns out Benjamin uses Couch Surfer and let us camp on his couch for the remainder of the festivities. I’m not sure who to thank for southern hospitality, but I am happy knowing that there’s a place in the country where people do actually care about one another.
Needless to say, I did not catch much music on Friday, just a quick set from Rhode Island native Deer Tick before “Checking-In” to our hotel.
I cannot speak for the other couple or the singer from Minnesota, but I am safe now. No reports or missing people have been broadcasted at this point in time that I am aware of. Friday has come to a dramatic close, which leaves Saturday for a day of revenge on the music listening.