Words: Cecilia Doreng-Stearns
Photos: Stephanie Kimberly
Although SXSW has for the past many years been the hotbed of innovative and progressive music, it has typically consisted of live bands, singer-songwriters, hip-hop artists, and anyone with a guitar, a bit of talent, and a thirst for the stage. However, the past few years have seen a marked shift in the constitution of this weeklong conference that takes place in Austin, Texas every March. Where there used to be guitars, there are turntables; where there used to be wailing choruses, there are vocal samples; where there used to be bands, there are DJs.
This is not to say that the entire event has undergone a fundamental transformation, but the influx of electronic music has without a doubt shifted into high gear. It’s not really all that surprising when you consider the overarching state of not only electronic music but also of music in general in the United States. For many rock and pop stars, it is fade into the background or adapt to the new era, for they are quickly being replaced by the superstar DJ with his heavy bassline, soaring vocals, and thrilling drops.
SXSW has never been a place for pop stars however, and neither is it a place for large-scale commercial electronic artists. The week is a journey of discovery; a moment in time where the playing field is leveled – artists, industry folk, and fans are all able to mingle and learn from one another. It is a time for artists, both those who are already firmly established and those on the rise, to demonstrate their worth and to communicate their vision.
While the means of communication might be different – laptops, MIDI controllers and CDJs as opposed to drum kits, guitars, and microphones – the end result is the same. The rising stars of the (mostly) American and bass-centric electronic music industry remind us what it is to be surprised by the construction of a truly amazing set and to be moved by the crowd’s response to the drop of a perfect beat. In this way, although the medium had adapted to reflect the progression of technology and creativity in music, the producers and DJs who present their work at these showcases are no different than the bands that do the same.
One of the primary reasons anyone comes to SXSW, industry related or not, is for pure, unadulterated fun. Those wild rock & roll parties that where you don’t recall chugging whiskey from the bottle (but there are photos to prove it) are still there in full force, albeit with a different soundtrack. The leaders of the pack have become the DJs, who fearlessly rip into soundsystems and thereby eardrums, spinning the crowd into a frenzy. Jackmaster, Jacques Greene, and Lazer Sword did just this at the Icee Hot event, which took place at the end of the week. So too did the artists at the Boiler Room party (including Hudson Mohawke, Lunice, Machinedrum, Jackmaster b2b OneMan, and Nick Hook), which was thrown at a rented residential house, in true rock & roll style. Hanging out on the rooftop deck of the house or sweating on the makeshift kitchen dancefloor, the overwhelming sensation was one of being at the best highschool party you’d ever been to, only with massively talented artists instead of a boombox. Photek and Grenier (DJ G) also brought the fun at Kingdom on Wednesday night, leaning more in the direction of techno and house as opposed to the bass oriented sounds that otherwise dominated the week.
Even in the area of pop and R&B, the electronic influence could be felt. While The-Dream’s primary tools are his voice and talent for composition (and maybe his sex appeal), the underlying links to electronic music could still be heard and felt in every bar. It was therefore not so far an aural journey from his performance at Fader Fort to those of Sepalcure and Salva who performed later the same night. The sounds of Sepalcure, the joint project of Travis Stewart (Machinedrum) and Praveen Sharma (Braille), have always appeared to float over and into the heads and hearts of the audience, finding that place within us that responds to pure soul. Their particular flavor of electronic composition that drips with sentiment was enhanced even further by the atmosphere of SXSW, namely the openness of the crowd and the utter lack of pretense in the air.
An outsider walking into the club Barcelona on Thursday night at around 1AM could easily have mistaken the circumstance for a riot. Every hand was in the air, every brow was covered in sweat, and every body was pressed up against the others surrounding it, while the hard-hitting sounds of Machinedrum’s jungle heavy set came hurling out of the literal wall of subwoofers in the basement venue. Parallels could be drawn to 1970’s UK punk and 1980’s American East Coast rap shows, as the audience threw themselves body and soul into the energy of the sound.
Machinedrum himself was no exception, sweat running down his face as he lobbed beats at the multitude of ecstatic faces and threw his hands up with every drop. It is precisely this sort of energy that transcends genre and instrument; that is the very foundation and purpose of SXSW.
SXSW has never been about bands, or singer songwriters, or hip-hop artists – not really. It’s about providing an environment where the brightest rising stars can show how brilliantly they shine. It’s about innovation and creation; about evolution of sound and education of the ear; about discovering that incredible artist you’d never heard of before, who stays in your consciousness for years to come.
While the trend has seemed to shift irrevocably in the direction of electronic music, the essence of the event itself has remained the same. Whether it be UK punk, bluegrass, southern rap, Scandinavian pop, or the deepest of house, we’re all listening out for the same thing: a beat to dance to.