Austin is a city brimming with tech investment, yuppie luxuries, hipster havens, Southern charm, healthy eats, and cultural attractions — but it’s probably most famous for its mighty SXSW Music Conference. My first time at the annual music-industry extravaganza involved quite a mix of emotions: excitement, anticipation, confusion, anxiety. With so much going on, the sense of wonderment and worry comes from that nagging feeling that you’re missing out on something great just around the corner. I was lucky enough to go with a seasoned veteran, aka Handstand Steph, who helped direct me to venues and parties filled with great new bands. This may not be as easy a task as you’d think. See, SXSW has quickly grown into a corporate free-for-all, where a stage resembling a giant Doritos bag is the main attraction, and where A-list celebrities woo even the snobbiest of music fans and insiders. Do Justin Timberlake and Prince really need to be there? More importantly, does every media outlet need to report on it? What happened to SXSW being purely an outlet for unsigned bands and music discovery?
Fortunately, there are still plenty of small bands just trying to get some attention, or at least a bit of a crowd to engage. I ended up discovering a few bands myself, like Karneef and the Life, from Montreal, Canada, and Baths from Los Angeles. Karneef and the Life are one of those bands you relish to discover at a music festival. This truly motley crew makes funky indie music that features elements of jazz, scrappy new wave rock, and even hip-hop. The lead singer (Karneef) seemed oblivious to the crowd and to his band. Their zaniness seemed the furthest thing from trendy. On the other end of the spectrum, Baths, a true one-man band, combines leftfield indie-tronica with elements of eclectic R&B for a dancey, euphoric experience.
The highlight for me, though, was Toronto band Metz’s performance at the Mohawk for the House of Vans party. Metz immediately commanded the stage with raw power and urgent passion, a powerful concoction that made the hot Austin afternoon even stickier and sweatier. Metz were trying to blow the house down — and it was only 2 p.m. Their punk rock is infused with leftfield noise, grunge pretensions, and post-punk angularity. As their label Sub Pop describes them, “It’s a return to everything that’s good about loud, ecstatic live music; a frantic nod to Nation of Ulysses, Shellac, The Pixies, The Jesus Lizard, and Public Image Ltd. at their most vicious, while still carving out some heavy new business. They play the instruments, the amps, and the room.” Metz are a band that manage to toe the line between experimental noise and punk rock. That DIY sensibility seems somewhat at odds in the digital Disneyland of SXSW, yet Metz manage to sound refreshing and familiar all at once.