SXSW DAY 5: KING TUFF, GUANTANAMO BAYWATCH, HELIOTROPES, BELIEFS, ROKY ERICKSON, GAL PALS, JACUZZI BOYS, HOTT MT, MMOSS, TEENAGE BURRITOS, PEACH KELLI POP, THE YOLKS, NIGHTMARE BOYZZZ, PHARAOHS
“My name is Queen Ashi Dala, and I want to do a public service announcement right now. You may have seen on Facebook that Wayne Coyne would be appearing on stage with us tonight. I want to make it known that Wayne Coyne is actually waiting in line right now for Justin Timberlake tickets.”
Goddam it. Saturday had been that kind of day: great music, but a lot of confusion and unplanned gaps in the schedule. Though accident, or my own poor planning, I missed a lot of great bands, perhaps in part so that I could see bands I already know and already like. Are L.A. RECORD writers truly impartial? Well, I try to be, even though the line between “I like these people” and “I like these people’s musical ideas” isn’t really a line at all, but more of a big fuzzy question mark. Add alcohol and stir, as Buddy Cole would say.
Certainly I’ve said unkind things about friends’ bands, even sometimes pissed them off. But hey, you always hurt the ones you love, right? I go way back with a lot of people in this town. I go way back with the people of Fullerton, too, which is why I was convinced that I could just show up at Burgermania II at Hotel Vegas two minutes after Roky Erickson was scheduled to play and that the Burger Records guys would be there to greet me, like valets, and just escort me in like I was the mayor of rock journalism.
But of course the Burger guys were far too busy to do that, and of course the line was all the way around the corner. So I wound up watching Roky Erickson from behind the stage, using a couple stacks of L.A. RECORD bundles as a makeshift step-ladder so I could see over the fence. Man, did the bouncers hate that, but fuck ‘em, they don’t own the sidewalks of Austin.
So I couldn’t see Roky’s face most of the time, but what I heard was heartening. I’m one of the hugest fans of Roky Erickson, preferring much of his solo material with the Aliens and Explosions even to his more famous tracks with the 13th Floor Elevators. He had been incapacitated by his severe mental health issues for decades, but with the help of his brother (as chronicled in the 2005 documentary) it seemed like Roky by the mid-aughts had gotten back to a good place, emotionally and musically.
But in recent-recent years, I’ve gone to see Roky Erickson a couple times, and he was not in good shape—you might say the same about me based on my outfits at the time…
But when I saw Roky play in 2011 and 2012, I didn’t get the impression that he was enjoying himself or even was really “performance ready.” He was forgetting lyrics, and was confused by his guitar, and was relying a lot on prompts from his son, Jegar, who had seemingly replaced Roky’s band with his own weird Hollywood-via-Detroit-style garage rock band. Last year I opined that maybe we were exploiting him: “He’s a sad, confused old man, and he doesn’t seem to want to be up there for our amusement. Am I supporting a singer I love, or am I a freak show patron torturing an old man at the end of his life?”
But at Burgermania II, the old Roky was back, at least in the way that Brian Wilson is back. Roky’s voice was classic, commanding and in control. He remembered his lyrics. It was a fucking rock show, not a freak show.
courtesy of Burger Records
I’m not sure who the backing band was, but I don’t think it was Jegar Erickson’s band anymore, because this band was well-suited to Roky, and Jeger’s Hollywood-via-Detroit horror-themed garage band had never really matched his father’s more pyramid-meets-the-eye psychedelia. Jeger was on stage, but off to the back, only lending the occasional harmonica solo or backup vocal while some tough lookin’ white dudes laid down the groove. And I do mean “groove,” as this show produced the best live version of “You’re Gonna Miss Me” I have ever witnessed, more 1970 than 1966, the drums all tight and in-the-pocket, the energy fit to burst.
courtesy of Burger Records
I could see guys from Cumstain and Apache boogieing in the crowd, and felt a little lonely watching by myself from behind a fence. So I eventually waited in the huge long line like a normal person (saw Summer Twins briefly through a door, I think) and got in just in time to see Tim & Eric’s Awesome Show, Great Job! star James Quall introducing Nightmare Boyzzz in the voice of Freddy Krueger (Apparently Freddy Krueger is English).
Live, I think Nightmare Boyzzz work better than they do on the recordings I’ve heard, where there is a slight bit of King Tuff/”Teenage Kicks” damage and, dare I say it, maybe even a little Social Distortion. On today’s bill they sounded far more 70s (a theme for the evening?) than that. I’m talking punk inflection, but enough muscle that if you weren’t paying rapt attention, you almost might have thought it was stoner metal.
And then I had a conversation with an attractive young woman who sat down on the couch next to me in the outdoor merch tent: she’d come all the way from Leeds to see Nobunny.
“Oh really? Well, you know, I interviewed him once…”
She made fun of me for typing on a laptop (a Dell no less!) while great bands were playing right in front of me. Then she left, and I typed up Day 3 while a drunk, passed-out person snoozed on the couch next to me. Pharaohs were on stage, but they were getting upstaged by an attractive older butch lesbian, who was totally grabbing at her girlfriend’s boobs hardcore right in front of everybody in the merch tent. Now, even just typing that makes me feel like a 13 year old boy, but that’s objectively what this journalist witnessed, as did everybody: all eyes, of all ages and genders, were fixed on this beautiful kerfluffle of love. It proves that old adage my grandfather once told me: it’s hard for even the most lewd-and-crude rock band to beat the entertainment value of two women making out.
Being a staunch sober Glenn Gould-style celibate myself, I turned my attentions back to the ‘Rama, where I was lucky enough to catch the set of Gal Pals, a drummer/guitarist duo with female harmonies that almost evoked a two-woman Mo-Dettes, if indeed the Mo-Dettes had had a singer with that kind of deep vibrato. Singer Lauren Marie Mikus voice definitely evoked something of those confused days when punk and New Wave were just beginning to shove themselves full-force into the American consciousness, but I still can’t pinpoint the best comparison. It’s something akin to Lena Lovich, or Human Sexual Response, or maybe the Serpentor/Frankenstein combination of multiple copies of these women—but with more depth, and more vibrato. Someday the altos are going to take over the world.
Outside, the Yolks were rocking out in that back-to-basics way where it’s hard to describe what was so good, other than to describe the effect on the crowd—massive dancing, super smiles, sweat, people tumbling over each other, all for a band from Chicago that doesn’t even have a Facebook page (I had to tumble three times over the Facebook page of a French band before giving in and texting Sean from Burger to find out who the fuck the Yolks are). Producer Jack Endino said in the movie Hype! that some bands have a shtick to entertain you, and then “some bands get up there, and they rock.” And while Jack Endino is kind of wrong about that, the Yolks almost proved it tonight.
There’s no denying the effect that the Yolks had on me and on the audience. It’s not something you can put on paper. I hate to say that, because it sounds like a copout, and because this is on paper, or at least the modern equivalent. But in theory, the Yolks’ nothing-new-under-the-sun approach to loud three-chord rock should have been merely good, with maybe a keyboard twist. Yet I couldn’t stop pointing my eyes and ears at the stage. If they’re taking drugs, I want to know what.
Teenage Burritos were pretty captivating, too—whereas Peach Kelli Pop had played earlier and had a smiley, ironically-sunny sound (and I don’t mean the band was smiley, I mean the music made me smile), there was something about Teenage Burritos’ girl-group sound that was a little richer, which let them catch some of lingering Yolks’ audience and hold them in their musical clutches for the duration.
In the past year or so since Teenage Burritos have even existed, these guys (with the drummer from Christmas Island, Lucy Wehrly) have changed members a couple times; their new single on Volar Records sounds icy and detached, a far cry from their earlier, delightfully sloppier selves. There’s something far, far away about singer/bassist Kirsten Gundel, definitely far from the smiles of Peach Kelli Pop (though Wehrly behind her seems to enjoy a good smile or three every song). But live there was still a warm familiar surf-sense to the guitars and cadence of these songs.
The vintage sound here seems somehow lifted a bit from the mid-80s, where a certain kind of brightness that was never precious or trite percolated out of bands as diverse as the Dead Milkmen, R.E.M., and the Descendents. I’m not saying Teenage Burritos sounded like any of those bands, but there were times when a snippet of guitar here reminded me of a bass line there, and that driving drum sound definitely kept people’s hands pounding on the stage.
It was all I could do to peel myself out of that crowd and duck back into one of the inside stages, where MMOSS was all hair and dankness and thickness, filling every crevice of the room with rock.
It wasn’t a “sheen” of sound so much as thick bar of sound, like you’d see in a big fat bar graph on a projection in an office somewhere. Though this bar did eventually fall off the chart and shatter into shards of psychedelic rock indistinguishable from something the Buzzcocks would do at the end of a show.
A year ago, MMOSS’ blend of psychedelia probably would have sounded a lot more like 1966. But today they revealed a deep veer towards 1972 by way of Germany—and if you don’t believe me, some dude captured the whole finale on YouTube. Take a gander; doesn’t it sound like Malcolm Mooney or Damo Suzuki should be singing over this track?
And there were more captivating bands to come: Pangea, White Mystery, Hector’s Pets, Gap Dream. But I didn’t catch nary a one. Ya see, I just had to get to downtown and the Manimal Records showcase and catch Heloise!
Heloise & the Savoir Faire put out what I think is my favorite album of 2013, an album of catch 80s disco dance stuff with plastic soul and John Hughes heart, and I’d been looking forward for weeks to seeing Heloise play at SXSW, because she’s from New York and rarely ventures out west. It was wild that she was on the Manimal showcase, and kind of weird, because she’s not actually on that label, and…
…and I’d made a mistake. Heloise was NOT performing.
Heliotropes was what I’d actually read on the goddam invite. And because my mind is on a par with a brain-injured, meth-addled ex-football player after he’s washed down a Xanax bar with one too many vodka lychees, I hauled ass and walked for a mile only to stumble into a room and review a band I didn’t come to see.
Luckily Heliotropes were pretty darn good, especially considering I didn’t think I’d be in the mood for yet more guitar psych after missing my favorite electro hotness. At their best, this combo has the kind of brutal hard psych that hasn’t been around since the early 90s—the press is fond of comparing them to the Seattle bands of that era, but I think there’s just as much of the Alt-90’s Brit poppers’ approach to psychedelia, e.g. the Stone Roses’ “Love Spreads,” e.g. Supergrass’ I Should Coco, or the more bombastic work of the shoe gazing bands (and hey, let’s throw in the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Siva” for good measure).
The venue was a little sparsely populated and dark, and I don’t know that I loved the sound as much as I might have in a normal venue that wasn’t just slumming as a rock club for SXSW, but they had the right idea—they had harmonies, too, though I preferred the songs where no one was singing and the band just kind of shimmered and shined. Even at their worst, they sounded like a really good shoegaze band. Somehow I didn’t catch their cover of Roky Erickson’s “I Walked with a Zombie,” which was a big single for them in the recent past, so maybe they didn’t play it. But to be honest, I’m glad didn’t hear it: I much prefer this band to stick to hard-hitting death dirges. The farther from cute these guys stray, the better.
By comparison, Beliefs was far more shoegaze. And they weren’t ashamed, though they too were more on the visceral side of early 90s guitar attack rock.
I guess they’re Canadian, and it’s to Manimal’s credit that they’ve started getting such a good eye for the hard loud rock bands, though I think I would have preferred a palate-cleanser between Heliotrope and Beliefs. Not that Beliefs was bad—no, no, no, no (no)! Singer Jesse Crowe kicked her amp to make it feed back even more, like a fucking pirate kicking open a chest of gold. They made me forget for a moment all the cool stuff I was missing back at Burgermania…
And so, hey, why the fuck not go all the way back to Burgermania, amiright? YOLO!
Realizing I had time to kill before HOTT MT, I did what any idiot would do and drove once again to Hotel Vegas, like a bat out of Vice City through crowded streets. I nearly killed about two dozen musical maniacs stumbling poorly across intersections, but got there in time to see Jacuzzi Boys, who were livin’ it up with a whole lot of noise.
I felt like it might have been a lousy time slot for them, what with Nobunny wrapping it up in the next room somewhere and all these other acts having drained a lot of energy from the crowd, but then again the crowd wasn’t snoozing, and these boys had them jumpin’ around at least a little bit with their garage rockin’ jangle. I have mixed emotions about these guys, who sound a lot like a lot of other bands who also have the jangle, but whereas the Strange Boys have their baby voices, and the Allah-Las have the teenaged strangeness, and the Growlers have the Morrissey-meets-Morrison vocal delivery, etc, the Jacuzzi Boys always seem to be just a B plus and not quite an A.
They did have that great surf beat, though which prepped me for Guantanamo Baywatch back outside on the big stage. At last, a band I’d waited all year to see at SXSW that I was actually gonna get to see!
Never heard of them? This trio is weird, good weird, like, I dunno, the Godz were weird (who you also don’t know, but take it from me, they were from the mid-sixties and they were weeeeeeeeeeird). I mean, Guantanamo Baywatch are ostensibly a surf band, but in the same way that the Jam was a mod band, the Nighthawks were a ska band, Mudd was a rockabilly band…
Let me riff on this for a second, because I like talking about surf music, which second to doo-wop was probably the first and greatest truly teenaged rock phenomenon. It’s a music that started in high school halls, man! The principle behind the original surf music was basically marching band drummers who were used to rat-a-tat-tatting on just one snare. Put ‘em in front of a full drum kit, and they’d do brutal snare fills, then punctuate an important musical thought by standing up and whacking the fuck out of their one non-high had cymbal (they didn’t have fancy “crash” cymbals yet, so this was necessary, and twice as punk rock as it sounds). Those tight drums would then be paired with reverb-drenched guitar pickings stolen (usually shakily and with great self-consciousness) from flamenco and Lebanese rock and Link Wray. On top of that, you might have a couple other dudes on bass and rhythm who were half glee club, half car club, and between their largely instrumental sets, they’d occasionally do a vocal number that sounded like if the Beach Boys had a cold and were all Mike Loves.
It was a wonderful, very playful, very distinct sound, one that had a huge “second wave” in the 90s with bands like the Untamed Youth, Phantom Surfers, and Bomboras. But aside from Bombón and a very few others, most young “surf” bands of 2013 are described as “surfy” if they occasionally open chords brightly using a Fender Twin amp. It’s such a common shorthand that even I find myself doing what I just did above, describing Teenage Burritos as “surfy” when I know goddam well that Eddie and the Showmen would consider them complete hodads!
Guantanamo Baywatch is different, though, because they intend to play legit surf music, right up to but not exceeding a healthy “I don’t give a shit” threshold. They know what decade this is, even if they know what things used to sound like in decades past. They may not be virtuosos of the Bird Dance Beat, but they fall quite nicely into the punk rock tradition of bands like the Trashmen, or garage revival pioneers the Gories, where the good times and the raw renegade Rambo energy are far more important than always hitting the authentic augmented 7th—you know, because while surf music invented the heavy metal virtuoso guitarist (Dick Dale, Eddie Bertrand, etc.) it also invented the aspirational modern rock band, i.e. a handful of young people who drink too much beer and spend more time putting out singles than practicing scales, who play as many gigs as their crummy jobs or college courses or high school spring break will allow, who travel around in a shitty beat up van (or, better still, hearse), trying to get on bills opening for bigger bands with better singers, who overcome road fatigue with alcohol-fueled antics, who will play for you and play for you and PLAY FOR YOU until you like them!!! Before surf bands, it was all Roy Orbison and Ray Charles. After surf bands, it was okay to be a band. And the template looked a lot like what most of these bands at Burgermania II would call their lives.
And so suddenly it’s SXSW 2013, and Guantanamo Baywatch singer/bassist Chevelle Wiseman onstage looks nervous, like she’s seeing the same long, drunken line of tour vans from the Tornadoes to King Tuff that’s cruising down the primordial 290 in my brain. She looked like she was worried she didn’t belong up there amongst it all. Chevelle, if somehow I was psychic and that was your mindset, rest assured– you were one of the best things all evening. You were not shaky and you did play a pretty tight set, and people did love it. And yes, people did trip out on your knee tattoo…
And then somehow I weaseled my way into the over-capacity room where King Tuff was wrapping things up. It’s hard, what with the long-standing fame and the make-up and the hat and the aw-shucks interviews, to remember how good this guy really is, but there was no room for mistaking it tonight—this man and this great, great band fucking throws down. Unlike with some shows I’ve seen, tonight the mix was hot enough that you could really hear those guitar noodles, wild enough to be a “solo” but restrained enough that this was on the punk/Sweet side and not really what you’d call metal, though I saw headbangers and devil horns galore.
And then I made a race with the devil to go see HOTT MT and Wayne Coyne, only to discover that Wayne’s Justin Timberlake jones meant he wouldn’t be attending. This would be my last band of the entire week of SXSW 2013—was it going to be a downer?
Well, I was ready to pass out at this point, and the HOTT MT looked as tired as I felt—when you scan through the photos on my iphone, you’ll see more than a few where their eyes betray the utter fatigue that must have been pulling at their bones like lead weights.
But despite the lack of their Okie mentor, and even though it was like 1:55 a.m., and even though they looked tired as fuck, these kids refused to say die! No one was going to walk away thinking about Wayne Coyne, if they could help it. They tore into their songs, rocking hard on the fast ones, pulling out the emotional stops on the slow ones (which were grander, and fewer, than what I’d seen before). They had the crowd eating out of their hands, calling out their names, carrying them around…
And then right at the mark where 1:59 becomes 2 a.m., the music stopped, and the band was over. And SXSW was over. I still had a DJ gig the next day, a wrap-up show to attend, etc., but the unofficial official SXSW 5 day extravaganza was finally over for 2013! It was over.
It was over, and I’d never seen Wayne Coyne, never seen Heloise, never seen Nobunny or Shannon & the Clams or the Grand Ole Echo showcase or Gay Bi Gay Gay or the dozens of acts there just hadn’t been time to see.
I never got the feeling I’d been cheated. But at that moment, all I could think about was a bite to eat and a bed.