SXSW: 17 hours with an indie band
A day at SXSW is a day on the job for Titus Andronicus.
For the thousands of people who attend the South by Southwest Music Festival every year whether they splurge for a badge or a wristband or opt to stick to free events the routine is familiar: Wake up, hop from show to show, partake of free food and beer, crash, and do it all over again the next day.
But for the nearly 2,000 performing bands, the landscape looks a little different. They sashay hurriedly across Austin, many playing multiple gigs a day, contending with setting up and taking down equipment, fighting with traffic to get from place to place, squeezing in interviews and meetings and networking with industry personalities.
What's it like being a buzzed, up-and-coming band at SXSW, one of those groups that gets blog love and critical praise?
To find out, I spent from morning to night — or, technically, morning to morning — with just such a band, New Jersey's Titus Andronicus. The lo-fi rock band formed in 2005 and played its first SXSW last year. It's touring behind sophomore album "The Monitor," an epic hourlong concept album that centers on the Civil War and has received positive reviews from Pitchfork and Spin and a write-up in Rolling Stone. The band members arrived Wednesday night in Austin, at the tail end of a two-week tour playing exclusively independent record stores to celebrate the album's release. Sunday, they'll kick off a more traditional five-week tour with a show in El Paso.
This year, despite planning to trim their hectic festival schedule of 2009, they're playing even more shows — eight total — with plenty of meetings and press interviews scheduled, too. I was with them on a day with three shows and three interviews as well as a meeting with representatives of Beggars Group, the British record company that owns their label, XL Recordings.
Follow along as the young quintet storms Austin and faces down a challenging day that would look unusual to most — but that, for four days every March, is a reality for thousands of performing SXSW musicians.
9:55 a.m. Thursday
We begin in the parking lot of a Best Western in North Austin, where bass guitarist Ian Graetzer is alone in the early morning chill, making a valiant attempt to clear out the more offensive particles of trash that collect in the van of a touring indie rock band. I tell Graetzer that his hotel — situated off a freeway on-ramp — is a particularly glamorous place to stay, every bit indicative of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. "Yeah, it seems like this is definitely where the hustle and bustle is," he quips. The band generally doesn't get to stay in hotels — Beggars Group is footing the bill for the in-store tour — and the members will soon return to sleeping on the floors with hosts they find through open calls on the band blog. "It's like having a sleepover with friends every night," Graetzer says, "only your friend is some stranger."
The band barrels south down Interstate 35 for a meeting with label reps at Güero's Taco Bar. Since he's driving, Graetzer gets to choose the music — they call this policy "driver's delight" — but he defers to Patrick Stickles (lead vocals, guitar), who opts for North Carolina punk band Spider Bags. All five members of the band were on time this morning, reasonably bright-eyed after an unusual seven hours of sleep. The touring van, half seats and half cargo area where thousands of dollars' worth of gear is densely piled, has the expected appearance of a lived-in space, with a case of Miller High Life on the floorboards and books strewn about. Amy Klein (guitar, electric violin) suggests passing the time by doing mad libs, and the band shows all the maturity you'd expect from five twentysomethings — within minutes, drummer Eric Harm is asking his bandmates how to spell "diarrhea."
Clad, appropriately, in a faded Abraham Lincoln T-shirt, Stickles is standing outside Güero's as Graetzer wanders off to phone their label reps, who are nowhere to be seen. The restaurant isn't open yet. Stickles, a wry wit constantly ready with a one-liner, tells me to take note. "You'll see a lot of this — all of us standing around and doing jack while we wait for Ian to tell us what to do," he says. "Ian is pretty much the boss around here. He's a master of logistics. Write that down."
Having found XL Recordings Senior Vice President of A&R Kris Chen and two of his colleagues, the band members are seated in Güero's, discussing the success of their in-store tour and prospects for a late summer tour. Chen, a former Austinite who once worked at Waterloo Records, enjoys an easy, joking rapport with the group, as Klein urges everyone to try the green salsa — "I'm not sure what's in it, but I think some kind of crack."
The band tears into five songs off "The Monitor" for a sizable crowd in the parking lot of Waterloo Records, officially concluding its tour of in-stores. After a warm introduction by Waterloo owner John Kunz, Stickles bounces around as he shreds and Klein beams with obvious joy.
Band publicist Sonya Kolowrat, a friendly and efficient personality whom Stickles praises throughout the day, marvels at the surgical precision with which Titus Andronicus disconnects the gear and tightly packs it in the van, calling it "van Tetris." After a low-key signing, the musicians depart Waterloo Records for their second performance, a 3:20 p.m. show at the Consequence of Sound day party at Republic Live at Fifth and Lavaca streets.
SXSW is nothing if not defined by scuttled plans, and today's no different. Because of delays from the party's organizers, the members of Titus Andronicus twiddle their thumbs for an hour before finally taking the stage. To pass the time, Stickles chain-smokes outside, Graetzer occupies himself with his iPhone, and Klein, Harm and David Robbins (keyboard, guitar) lounge inside under Republic Live's elaborate lights. They squeeze in two interviews, one for Billboard.com and one for Metro New York. Klein, who works a day job in New York City investigating police misconduct, notes how different her life is now. "This is as far as you can get from working in a cubicle," she sighs happily during the downtime. Despite the hang-ups, the musicians are animated and enthused when they eventually play, with Klein sporting a rapturous look, as if she expects to be swept up into heaven at any moment. They play the same songs as at Waterloo. "Was anybody here also at the performance at Waterloo?" Stickles asks the audience, receiving no response. "No? OK, good, because we're going to play exactly the same set."
Stickles wanders away from the rest of the band for an interview at Halcyon Coffee with Dan DeLuca of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Press has become a part of his life since the release of "The Monitor," with two to three interviews a day for the past month. As front man, he fields most questions, with his answers honed to a fine science. Each interview is nearly identical. "You've already heard me answer every question I've been asked in this album cycle, even though you've only seen two interviews," he confesses over coffee. "That's fine, though. I'm just happy people have stopped asking us questions about our name. That was maddening. Just Google it." Still, with each interviewer, Stickles is friendly and articulate and reliable for a quip — he's something of a journalist's dream.
After a half-hour of fighting with the snarled traffic of downtown Austin, Titus Andronicus arrives at the Beauty Bar Annex, on Sabine Street overlooking Waller Creek, and with typical haste unloads the gear for the band's Rolling Stone-sponsored nighttime showcase. Admittedly, it took driving illegally the wrong way down a one-way street to get here — but no one ever made an omelet without breaking a few eggs. Staring out the window on Congress Avenue on the way here, Robbins reflected on the lack of imagination in most articles about Titus Andronicus — they're rarely written without a Springsteen comparison. "If you play guitars and are from New Jersey and are mildly anthemic, you will get compared to Bruce Springsteen," he says with a sigh.
Stickles is buried in the mosh pit at a performance by Toronto hard-core punk band (Expletive) Up at the Levi's Fader Fort. Like many SXSW bands, Titus Andronicus is frequently too busy playing shows to actually watch its peers, but the members of (Expletive) Up are friends, so the band hoofed it over from Sabine. When (Expletive) Up lead singer Damian Abraham, shirtless and sweaty as he screams at the top of his lungs, jumps offstage, Stickles is there, grinning ear to ear. In that moment, he's not a member of a buzzed indie rock band or a Pitchfork darling or even a SXSW performing artist — he's a fan, just like everybody else.
Everybody is crowded around a taco truck on Fifth Street east of Interstate 35, dining on the sidewalk with Peter Hale, the massive 6-foot-8-inch drummer of folk rock band Here We Go Magic, whom the band ran into after leaving the Levi's Fader Fort. As they gab, Harm briefly apologizes to me for being "boring," saying some people expect the band's lifestyle to be more dramatic than it is. "We're just dudes. People always ask us about partying or drinking, which we don't even talk about and only sing about in a few songs," he says. "People do things like ask us if we have good hangover cures or something. But I have less than one hangover a month."
The band members don't stick together when they return to the Beauty Bar Annex — these five people spend hours a day together playing and on the road, so it only makes sense that they steal time away from one another when they can. Graetzer, Harm and Robbins chat with members of indie folk band Deer Tick as Klein retreats to a nearby hotel to nap in the lobby. She fails in that quest — two people recognize and talk to her and a third tries to network with her, which is essentially SXSW in a nutshell.
Titus Andronicus takes the stage for its third and final performance of the day, ripping into material old and new before attempting to take advantage of its expanded time slot to play the full version of "A More Perfect Union," the opening track off "The Monitor" and a nine-minute beast of a song with several changes. The band is cut off by the sound man 45 seconds from the end. A frustrated Stickles later stands outside on the patio, taking the transgression in stride but calling it disrespectful and making a few choice comments about sponsor Rolling Stone that he requests be off the record.
After catching an ebullient set by dance-worthy pop rock act Free Energy and lounging on the venue's patio in the cool night air, Stickles and Harm make a cameo onstage during the set by headliner Deer Tick, singing, playing tambourine and spraying Silly String all over the audience. Even as Klein and Robbins nurse colds, smiles abound.
The band has piled into the van to return to the Best Western. Graetzer puts everybody's name in a hat to decide who gets to sleep in the solo hotel room. Klein asks me what my favorite sandwich is, convinced that the answer offers keen insight into a personality. Riffing on the question, members of the band offer up "ice cream sandwich," "knuckle sandwich," and "sandwich between two ladies with me as the meat."
The five players of Titus Andronicus step out of the van and stride toward the hotel lobby, bound for their rooms and with three interviews — four, counting the 17 hours they spent with me — and three shows under their belts, each ready for sleep. Stickles shoots me a salute, and handshakes are exchanged.
I reflect that this is actually the quietest day of SXSW I've experienced — festivalgoers are mostly trying to be in a million places at once and frequently failing. But for a performing artist with an itinerary and commitments, there's no question about what's next.
For all the passion of playing and all the stereotypes of hard partying and hard living that surround musicians, the key word for the day was "professional." For a hardworking band at SXSW, being a musician is a job. For Titus Andronicus, a band with aspirations of growing its audience and being the best rock band it can, it's a career — one where the musicians do the best they can, and the audience makes the judgment.
"My job is to be a liaison between the world of civilians and the world of fun," Stickles says. "And it's up to them to decide how good we are at it."
- Formed: Spring 2005, Glenn Rock, N.J.
- The sound: Anthemic, guitar-heavy rock that mixes energetic blue-collar delivery with songwriting that tackles social issues and incorporates frequent literary and historical references.
- Albums: 'The Airing of Grievances' (2008); 'The Monitor' (2010)
- Age: 24
- Instrument: Bass guitar
- Member since: Spring 2005 (founding member)
- Personality: Calm, collected and even vaguely suave.
- Fun fact: Has something of an addiction to coconut water.
- Age: 24
- Instrument: Lead vocals and guitar
- Member since: Spring 2005 (founding member)
- Personality: Sardonic yet friendly.
- Fun fact: Has something of an addiction to soda.
- Age: 24
- Member since: Autumn 2007
- Instrument: Drums
- Personality: Fun-loving and easygoing.
- Fun fact: Studied audio engineering in college.
- Age: 26
- Member since: Winter 2010
- Instrument: Keyboard and guitar
- Personality: Quiet and thoughtful.
- Fun fact: Was scouted by professional baseball recruiters in high school.
- Age: 24
- Member since: Winter 2010
- Instrument: Guitar and electric violin
- Personality: Sweet, outgoing and humorous.
- Fun fact: Speaks fluent Japanese.