Austin’s culture already distinguishes itself from the region around it but every year I visit for South By Southwest —this March marked my fourth trip— it quickly becomes apparent that South By institutes its own replacement hierarchy, economy and rule of law. Performing artists, VIPs and badge- and wristband-holders form the bourgeois that keeps the market bubbling while the corporate sponsors and venue owners rake in their marketing data, brand impressions and alcohol sales. Meanwhile tens of thousands of plebians flood the streets in search of unofficial fun and scraps from the tables of the major showcases.
Hotel rates skyrocket after the new year, the closer to downtown the more expensive. Leave a day early and your badge or Fader Fort wristband is suddenly worth something to someone, and if you find parking within three miles of the convention center for less than $30 then it’s certainly worth tweeting home about. But the ultimate form of capital during South By is the social kind: “I know a guy.”
That’s how I scored a room to crash for a few days but it wouldn’t much help in slipping into venues, so I chose my battles carefully this year, going early to everything and avoiding the mega-showcases. Not exactly the coolest strategy, but it paid off, and after making the second night of Oklahoma festivities at the Buffalo Lounge I found myself waiting outside the gates of the French Legation Museum Thursday morning, ready to spend seven hours at the Pitchfork day party.
Sorry if the folks at Pitchfork skewered your favorite album but they know a thing or two about efficiency. With stages at opposite ends of a closed-in courtyard, bands alternated between 30-minute sets that began as soon as the one at the opposite stage ended, and if it weren’t for a no-show by new Top Dawg Entertainment signee Isaiah Rashad, they would’ve cleared through 12 acts in seven hours. It was a nice mix of sounds too, everything from Future Island’s literary, snarly new wave to Kelela’s lithe voice tiptoeing around jagged, warped R&B.
Two performances stuck out to me. First was the terrific five-piece Eagulls, whose fixation with loud and rude but melodic and guitar-oriented rock suggested an alternate form of history where the Flaming Lips came of age in the UK. Frontman George Mitchell doesn’t sing so much as groan, moan and shriek, which suits the general state of mind he describes in songs like “Possessed” and “Soulless Youth.” If you’re looking for post-punk with good lyrics then look no further.
But the best show at the Pitchfork day party by a mile was Lunice, the talented young Canadian producer whose work as half of TNGHT earned him work on one of the most-talked about songs on last year’s most celebrated hip-hop record, Kanye West’s Yeezus. Lunice trafficks in only the dirtiest rap verses from the hardest-hitting, most menacing voices: the Young Jeezys, Rick Rosses and Waka Flockas. There’s rarely anything smooth about what he does. It’s jagged, mean-mugging trap beats adapted for dancefloors and amplified by almost comic sound effects (the dark horn riff from “Blood on the Leaves” is a prime example).