The Bright Light Social Hour are currently in the process of recording their sophomore album which is expected to be complete by next summer. In the video below, they tell me about the equipment on loan from a fisherman that they’re using to build their personal studio in Austin, as well as how they intend to get any work done in the studio, given a hectic summer schedule that has them playing at major festivals such as Summer Camp, Wakarusa, All Good, FloydFest, Lollapalooza, and more.
When I caught up with them at The Hangout Fest in Gulf Shores Alabama I could tell the band had been inspired by Canadian culture on trips north during their extensive two-year tour. Throughout their 2:30 p.m. set on Saturday the members of Bright Light Social Hour frequently announced the festival’s name using the long “u” that Canadians’ accents are characterized by. When we recorded an into for the video below (that was ultimately omitted), the band collectively greeted viewers from “The Hang Ooot!”
Later on stage, bassist and vocalist Jack O’Brien shouted to the audience during their set, “If you were Canadian, we’d be at The Hang Ooot!”
When I asked him about the Canadian music scene, he said he was most amazed by the contrast of what’s popular there as compared to in The United States.
“It’s different. I was really surprised to see that what’s really big in Canada is really different from what’s big down here. We haven’t heard of some of Canada’s biggest bands and they haven’t heard of a lot of our biggest bands. I was really surprised by that. They seem to be more careful listeners. I think we just have so many big publicity companies jamming so much music and pop culture down our throats here. I think they’re a little backed off on that, so they seem to be more proactive about seeking their music out.”
Guitarist and vocalist Curtis Roush chimed in, “And maybe something about having to burrow in their homes for six months out of the year. There’s a real appreciation when bands come up and play for them that maybe we in The States take a little more for granted.”
Watch the video below for the full interview and read on for the band’s responses to three questions about the music that has come to inspire the sound of their band today.
What’s the first album you ever bought for yourself or was given by someone else?
- JACK O’BRIEN (bass/vocals): Boyz II Men, Cooleyhighharmony
- JO MIRASOLE (drums): The first album I ever had given to me was in 6th grade. There was a game I really liked called Jet Grind Radio. It had a bunch of really good Japanese music. My aunt worked at a design firm and got one of her co-workers to design a CD for me with a printed label and a cover in a jewel case for my birthday.
- CURTIS ROUSH (guitar/vocals): I had a cassette tape of Ace of Base I think I purchased from a local music store.
- SHREDD (keys/vocals): I remember getting a Doors record when I was a kid but at the time that I got it I didn’t know who The Doors were. So my aunt took it back and bought me an ACDC record. (all laugh) I regret not keeping The Doors record, but at the same time ACDC are pretty fucking awesome.
What’s the first concert you attended?
- ROUSH: My mom took me to go see Aerosmith when I was in 6th grade.
- MOJO: That must have been cool, then, to see everything come full circle and to play on the same stage as them at a festival [at Festival d'été de Québec in Québec City].
- ROUSH: I wanted to tell them that but they were unavailable for comment.
- SHREDD: My first show was a big festival in Austin. The only three bands I remember are Godzilla Motor Company, Orgy, and The Offspring. I was 13, so it was the coolest thing in the world since I had never been to a show before.
- O’BRIEN: I think the earliest show I saw was Bonnie Raitt at Antones, the famous blues club in Austin.
- MIRASOLE: The first show I went to go see that I picked was Finch and Underoath playing together. It blew my mind. I’d never heard a live sound system before and I didn’t know you could feel music and not just use your ears. I was so depressed for two weeks after it because we didn’t own any subwoofers at all in any of our cars or our house.
- SHREDD: Was that at Emo’s Outdoor [in Austin]?
- MIRASOLE: Yeah- it was!
When you look back to your formative years, what album did you constantly listen to and run ragged from listening so much?
- O’BRIEN: Mine was Red Hot Chili Peppers – One Hot Minute. That was what really got me into bass and grooves. I asked my dad for an electric bass and he got me a violin. So I learned to play it, but it wasn’t as cool. The next Christmas I asked for an electric bass again and he got me an electric guitar. So I learned that, too. And then finally when I was 13, somebody left a bass at my house and I finally got started on it.
- ROUSH: Pretty much every year since 8th grade I’ll go through a few weeks of just being totally obsessed with Dark Side Of The Moon. I just have to listen to it every day or every couple of days. That’s stayed with me. I probably love it just as much now- maybe more- than when I first heard it.
- SHREDD: I don’t feel like I started listening to good music until I was in high school and that was old hardcore stuff. I think the record I listened to the most was probably Hopesfall – No Wings To Speak Of.
- MIRASOLE: For me, the first record by The Strokes, Is This It, was the first record that I heard that didn’t have really awesome musicians on it. It taught me that you didn’t have to play a thousand notes a minute to make good music. I think that’s probably the most important lesson I ever learned as a kid.
A few blocks down the road from The Yard Dog, funk music from an outdoor stage filled the air on the surrounding streets. It was The Soul Rebels performing at a day showcase titled “The Morning After Party”. Dressed semi-uniformly in camouflage pants and shorts, the eight-piece brass band kept an active audience who couldn’t stop moving along with them.
An advance RSVP was required to get in, but the event was otherwise totally free. Durable cloth bracelets comparable to what you’d receive at a three-day festival were attached to the wrists of approved party-goers. In keeping with the event’s theme, bloody marys, screwdrivers, and mimosas completed the three-item menu of drinks available behind the bar.
The Lone Below closed out the party with the last performance of the day. Their music was reminiscent of Mumford and Sons’ modern vintage pop sound, but with a greater focus on stripped down harmonized vocals. The sophisticated three-piece folk band from New York was accompanied by a drummer and upright bass player for this, their 13th or 14th (they really couldn’t remember) show of the week. Ailed by sore throats and a general lack of sleep, the band polled the audience for the highest number of shows seen in the week to discover who was as equally wearied.
Later, still hanging out in the SoCo District, I found myself at Freddie’s Place for dinner to interview the second Indiana band of the day. Sitting at a table on the outdoor patio surrounded by families out for an evening meal, it became apparent that this was an establishment that had managed to escape the clutches of SXSW tourism- a haven for the locals, if you will. When, Not If (formerly of Muncie, but now also locals to Austin) stood on a decorative, hand-painted stage that overlooked Freddie’s sprawling patio playing acoustic music with their guitars.
Travis Deardorff, vocalist and lead guitarist, explains, “We started When, Not If with just the two of us playing acoustic guitars. We’re back to that point now. Band members have come and gone. We’ve had horns, keys, and now we’re back to the roots of a couple of acoustic guitars.”
Vocalist and rhythm guitarist Steve Hopkins adds, “Our bass player Grady Ray is still in Muncie but he should be heading this way eventually.”
It’s not been an easy transition, either. Hopkins recalls the fan base they had built in Muncie and the familiar faces they were guaranteed to see at every show. Taking up root in a new city has forced the pair to work hard at cultivating a following in their new home city.
“In a lot of ways it’s a grass roots movement,” says Hopkins. “We’re trying to make two or three fans at a time. We enjoy the challenge and know it’s an uphill battle, but we’re ready for it. We’re excited about the opportunity.”
Based on their experience through that transition When, Not If encourages aspiring bands to follow their ambitions wherever it may take them.
Deardorff concludes, “Stay the course. Don’t stray. It’s tough when only your girlfriends and the other band’s girlfriends are watching you. You just gotta stay true to yourself and stay true to the music.”
We spent another hour reminiscing with the band about Indiana and the local music scene, as well as making comparisons between The Hoosier State and the friendly, musical mecca of Austin. Another hour later, we traveled downtown with Deardorff to check in on the rambunctious night time activities of Sixth Street. Having trouble differentiating between the endless venues and countless bands inside of them, we took a gamble on a bar called Friends and paid the unavoidable $10 cover.
The lesson I learned was twofold:
- Without a badge or wristband, it is not fiscally smart to barhop on Friday and Saturday night at SXSW. Pick a spot, pay your dues, and stay for the long haul.
- Do not arbitrarily wander into an event and expect the odds to be in your favor. I lost the bet at Friends and found myself in the middle of a Canadian showcase with a punk rock band named “Single Mothers” fronted by a man missing his front teeth. Do your research, consult your Twitter feed, and make an informed decision before blowing your money on an obscure show you know nothing about.
Stay tuned for the conclusion of SXSW 2013!
I wanted to connect with as many Indiana bands as I could while in Austin for SXSW. It was completely by chance that my interviews with the two Hoosier bands I had made arrangements with both fell on Friday and both were located in the SoCo (south Congress) District.
As described in my opening article of this series, Welcome To Austin, The SoCo District is characterized by food truck lots, street vendors, whimsical shops filled with handmade art, and posh dining. It has the same air as Broad Ripple in the daytime- a bohemian village grounded in art and flair.
I had lunch at a vegan truck where I tweeted, I have no idea what this means, but I’m going to eat it anyway.
The Yard Dog was a block down the street from the food truck lot- an art gallery with a large back patio that has been hosting a SXSW day party for years. A small tent covered the stage and a piece of the patio, which was great because the sun was shining and the day was warm. Shout out to the savvy kids who we bought lemonade from on a side street for $0.25 per cup.
I met up with Adam Turla of Bloomington-bred Murder By Death and asked a few questions about their notorious Kickstarter campaign that was one of the first and most successful music campaigns in Kickstarter’s history.
AS YOU WISH: Kickstarter Covers is the result of one of the high-pledge options from the Kickstarter campaign- 15 covers of songs submitted by contributors to the fund.
MOJO: You offered fans a lot of really intimate, exclusive gifts in exchange for donations to your Kickstarter fund, which was a huge success. From a business perspective, did you give any thought to making sure that what you spent in time and money was less than what you would be bringing in from donations? Because in the end, this has to be profitable for you, right?
ADAM: It worked our perfectly in that I didn’t do any stupid price points or anything, but I had no idea how much time it would take. I ran myself ragged doing fulfillment for the orders. I had no idea how many emails I would get of people asking me, “Hey would you be willing to do this?” or “Can I get this and this?” It’s like a fever or mania as you’re watching that number climb up, so you’re like “Whatever, yes! Cool. I’ll take care of you!” It was a stressful but exciting time.
MOJO: How long did it take you to fulfill everything?
ADAM: Some of it is continual and is still going. For example, we have a book club that about 115 people signed up to get a book a month for the year. So as soon as we get home from South By, I have to package up 115 orders, throw them in the back of my car, and take them to the Post Office. I’m on very familiar terms with the gentlemen at our post office.
MOJO: Right, and you actually flooded your post office with the initial mailings- something like 5,000 packages?
ADAM: Yes, they said there was a delay of about a week because they just could not process them fast enough. I know all those guys [at the post office] because I’ve been in there so many times over the past year. We’ve always done our own mail order, so I’ve spent a lot of time in the back sorting orders with them.
MOJO: Do you have any cool stories from any of the experiences you’ve had in keeping up your end of the Kickstarter deals with your fans?
ADAM: Oh, yeah. We played a wedding. We surprised the bride in upstate New York. Sara [Balliet, cello] and I flew in and serenaded her with a few songs that the fiancé-at-the-time had pledged for us to come surprise her with. They turned out to be these amazing, just really cool, people; we’ve hung out with them a few times since then at shows in their area.
There was some really moving stuff- people coming back from Afghanistan injured who’s husband or wife wanted us to do something special for them. There are some really beautiful gifts that have been bought by our fans for their loved ones. That was the stuff that we didn’t expect. I’m picturing “Oh, we’re just trying to get our music out to people.” And then there were actually some seriously beautiful acts of generosity that we just happened to be a part of.
MOJO: What do you miss about your home in good ole’ Indiana when you’re on the road?
ADAM: I really miss just being in one place. I have a great front porch. There are all sorts of birds and rabbits and deer that wander around in the yard. It’s a great place to just read a book and not tour or not be rushing from one place to another.
Ironically, that’s about the time that Josh, Adam’s tour manager, waved at us from behind camera to signal that our time was up and rush off for Murder By Death’s performance out back. We all shook hands, thanked each other, and then accidentally lingered into a sidebar conversation about running into people from Indiana while in Austin. Josh and Adam swiftly exited out the back door for set change and sound check.
My Thursday night at SXSW was slated to go down at the Vevo TV hip hop showcase where I would be watching and interviewing The Chicharones. Before the sun set, however, I enjoyed a lengthy resting period at Halcyon, a unique coffee shop on the corner of Lavaca and 4th Street. The spacious, trendy business specializes in not just coffee, but also booze and tobacco and boasts “all your legal vices under one roof”.
The Vevo TV Showcase was just across Lavaca Street from Halcyon in a relatively small building that stood alone with no neighboring structures. A large, fenced-in patio had been stocked with plenty of activities for party-goers: painted black picnic tables with neon markers for doodling, a padded bleacher-style lounging area for resting, corn hole for entertainment, and a special art gallery curated by Indie Walls.
I spoke briefly with Ari Grazi of Indie Walls who told me about the collection on display by AV ONE. Outside, a wall acted as the medium to a piece of evolving art that the artist started on Tuesday.
The Vevo Building is one small part of the SXSW phenomena that Austin experiences every year. Venues, businesses, and other establishments crop up (often literally overnight) in spaces that are otherwise unoccupied for 11 out of 12 months. Arriving to the showcase moments after the doors opened, I watched event staff struggle with the suspension of a promotional banner before duct taping it to the wall. The room was sparsely decorated (with an even sparser drink selection), save for an elaborate conglomeration of faux TVs juxtaposed atop the back of the bar with the Vevo logo beaming from inside each of them.
The evening’s bill was long and many great artists took the stage before the night’s headliners. A series of regional up-and-comers rotated in an out of 20 minute sets, the most notable of which was a smooth emcee from Houston named Dustin-Prestige.
Karma Jonze of the 1987 Music Group gave the night’s first truly engaging performance, doing more than just rapping on stage. Her rambunctious and lively set was drenched in messages of female power and even contained obligatory audience participation (“Don’t just give it to them!” she scolded her DJ as she stopped the music and instructed the crowd for call-and-response with “Austin” and “Texas”).
Toronto-based electro hip hop group Ain’t No Love became my favorite performance of the night and remains one of the best discoveries of my week at SXSW. Striking a balance between intelligent electro productions, fiercely bold vocals, and acute emcees delivering lyrics with a purpose- Ain’t No Love deserves all the love they received.
The Chicharones gave a rare performance with an unmasked DJ, who dropped a quick scratch set during sound check and riled up the audience while they waited. The Vevo Control Room had started to fill by the time they took their turn and a thick crowd wrapped around the front of the stage to get close to their mile-a-minute, no-bullshit rapping. Be sure to read my interview with SXSW experts The Chicharones.
Austin-based tripped out husband-and-wife duo Riders Against The Storm performed with a full band and did their best to rock the house at The Vevo TV Showcase. Rooted in funk, steeped in soul, and topped with a dash of hip hop- RAS are true disciples of the study of music and its healing properties. Things got uncomfortable, though, when the group became displeased with the quality of their sound. The drummer repeatedly threw his arms in the air and shook his head, resulting in a lengthy lecture from leading lady Tiger Lily and multiple song start-overs- all of which were blamed on the sound man’s incompetence.
Boots Riley had been in the building all night, checking into the main room every so often until he and The Coup went on stage for an unannounced set. Talib Kweli followed; sharply contrasting the full band set that preceded him.
Later, riding Austin Capital Metro Bus 484 home for the night, my conversation about SXSW with a woman on her way home from work was interrupted by a sizable group of drunk young men singing some sort of celebratory song in a different language. They had the full attention of the jam-packed bus.
“I didn’t know there was a 484 showcase tonight!” my friend joked out loud.
Everyone was smiling and some people were clapping; nobody was visibly annoyed or rude to the obnoxious cohorts having a good time with each other. It was yet another incredible example of the approachability that Austin residents amicability uphold- the perfect ending to my second night SXSW.
Thursday began at The Dizzy Rooster on 6th Street as part of The Take Off Tour 2013. The bar was not packed at all, but a small crowd had assembled in front of the stage where Minnesota’s Heatbox was set up to perform his one man band show. His management team enthusiastically greeted us at the door and coerced me to sign up for the mailing list in exchange for a free CD of his newest material, Get Some Love.
It had been nearly three years since I first saw Heatbox at Summercamp 2010 and while I was secretly hoping to hear him bust out my best memory of that set, “I Need A Jack and Coke”, it was great to hear fresh music from his unique one-man-band. Seamlessly transitioning from bebop and groove to quirky sound effects-laden hip hop with little more than a loop machine and his mouth, Heatbox entertains on multiple fronts.
He closed with a hilarious new song called “Ladies Room” that graphically explains how he was banned from a mall for using one; it’s raunchy hip hop pop at it’s best.
The Tumbleweed Wanderers at Jackolope
After a quick check of my Twitter stream flooded with SXSW tweets, I took action on a recommendation from Jambase who were hosting a party a few doors down the street at The Jackalope. By the time we got there a soulful rock and roll band dusted in 60’s psychedelia called The Tumbleweed Wanderers were performing.
The Jackalope’s stage was rather small and its dance floor even smaller, tucked in the far corner of the room and largely obstructed by a central bar serving both sides of the same expansive room. The free alcohol thing you hear so much about at SXSW isn’t a lie, although I found it to be far less frequent than originally expected (see opening article, “Welcome to Austin”, about having no expectations). The Jackalope was serving free beer though, and it was a pale ale nonetheless. We stayed for two rounds and finished out The Tumbleweed Wanderers’ set before moving outside to explore more of 6th Street.
Here’s a fun video the band made while they were in Austin. After watching it, see my opening article (linked above) for a protip on catching a cab in Austin during SXSW.
One of my favorite things to do at SXSW was to wander 6th Street during the day with no specific objective. It’s a little less chaotic, several hundred fewer people are out, and the crowd is much less drunk during the day, so navigating the streets is significantly more relaxing and enjoyable. Soaking up the hot Texas sun while watching street performers became a regular pastime during my stay in Austin.
Over the course of the week, I managed to find all of the following performing along 6th Street:
- Charly & Margaux (Brooklyn) – this eye-catching pair of string composers returned to Austin for their second year at SXSW armed with a game plan to get their music into the hands of festival goers. Their tactics included an afternoon street performance, mobile iPad listening parties, and the creating of a wall mural, all of which can be seen in the video below.
- Kao=S (Japan) – a Japanese rock band (the first I’ve ever seen!) performing with authentic homeland instruments called Tsugaru-Syamisen and Shakuhachi. These instruments, paired with an acoustic guitar and the liquid movement of professional sword performer and actress Kaori Kawabuchi, captured the curious attention of many who passed by the street corner on which they were performing. (Seen here: https://vine.co/v/bdO7MVAr9FB – be sure to unmute it!)
- Although not a day performance, this band of percussionists marching down 6th Street on Saturday night was one of the biggest crowd draws I saw all week. The troop attracted so many lively fans following them down that street that the blob of people could be seen and heard from blocks away. (Seen here: https://vine.co/v/bdl1TmQmidU)
- Muncie’s own When, Not If looking like the Midwestern hippies that they are, playing acoustic tunes on the corner of busy Congress Avenue in downtown Austin. (seen here: vine.co/v/bdg2vYTTDPt)
- This guy, juggling knives while balancing on a rolling platform: https://vine.co/v/bdhhPb9ZLmq
- The Ugly Club
For a recap of my first day at SXSW, check out Partying with Sonos & Falling in Love With Oregon
The best piece of advice given to me before arriving at SXSW was simply to have no expectations. Don’t expect get anywhere (literally or figuratively) quickly. Don’t expect to get into high profile events. Don’t expect to get into secret shows. Don’t expect to see certain landmarks. Don’t expect to meet famous people. The event is an entirely different beast when it comes to music festivals and the best way to experience it is simply “to go” and let whatever happens happen.
Before delving into specific events of SXSW 2013, I’d like to share a few perceptions about the great city of Austin.
The people of Austin are friendly. Strangers are happy to strike up a conversation with neighbors in a restaurant or with people standing next to them in a crowd waiting for a show to start. If the strangers react positively, the conversation will transition from small to talk actual discussion. During SXSW, that discussion usually turns to hometowns, which is how I found out that most people who live in Austin are not originally from the city. By the end of my adventures there I had concluded that everyone at SXSW is a local, yet no one is a true local. And most of them have transplanted less than a year ago. Indeed, people are moving to the city at an astonishing rate.
Austin is a cultural melding pot- both for its reputation as the live music capital of the world and for its University of Texas, one of the nation’s most populous campuses. Its vibes are similar to Bloomington’s: diverse, open-minded, accepting, and inherently cool.
Not only are the people friendly to other people in Austin, they’re also thoughtful to man’s best friend. Most restaurants have outdoor patio seating and nearly all of those patios allow four-legged friends to join their owners as they dine out. Some business have dog hitching posts outside while others, like the newly opened Bangers in the Rainey Street District, have installed holding pens for dogs that lets the “kids” play with each other (sans leash) while mom and dad eat dinner and sip on brews. To some people this may seem insignificant, but to dog-lovers this is an appealing aspect of life in Austin.
The pace of Austin is comparable to Indianapolis; a little big city, if you will. Its skyline is dotted with a few notable skyscrapers and beautiful historic architecture while managing to stay modest and reserved at the same time. Unlike the flatlands of southern Texas, Austin’s streets are characterized by many hills and it’s almost as if the city’s famous downtown district sits inside of a bowl. Nearly every street is lined with a bike trail, as it’s one of Austin residents’ most favored modes of transportation.
6th Street’s popular strip of bars and shops serves as the hub of activity for SXSW, causing street shut-downs for multiple blocks. Pedestrians crowd the sidewalks and fill the road as they walk from venue to venue taking in free shows from bands too many to count. The general area is reminiscent of Indy’s own downtown nightlife, as it’s a popular year-round destination for students of the university looking to get drunk on the weekends. But the bars also play a significant role in Austin’s reputation for live music, even when it’s not SXSW season. Every afternoon they open their doors to the city’s aspiring local talent and boast live music almost every day and night of the week.
Further east, on the other side of the always-jammed highway 35, lays the seedier side of 6th Street. Imagine combining The Alley Cat or Sinking Ship’s rugged patrons with The Mousetrap’s free spirits and placing them in a dive bar on Indy’s East side and you’ll get a feel for Austin’s rocky East 6th. These bars rarely, if ever, have live music with the exception of during SXSW.
South of the river one will find the Soco District characterized food truck lots, street vendors, whimsical shops filled with handmade art, and posh dining. It has the same air as Broad Ripple in the daytime- a bohemian village grounded in art and flair.
South By Southwest
First of all, if you want to fit in, you’ll stop calling the festival by its full name and shorten it to just “South By” as soon as you touch down in Austin.
Second of all, if you want to see more than half of the sets and shows on your agenda you’ll have a better transportation plan than just walking. Shows are concentrated in the downtown district of Austin, but stretch blocks upon blocks to the east and south of the hub of activity. One could walk in any direction from 6th Street for an hour and still stumble into backyard house concerts and block parties. Leave the car at home, use the bus to get to your general destination, and hope you can catch a cab to get home at night. Pedicabs (small carts for 2-3 people pulled and driven by bicycles) are everywhere and best used for a quick transport of 10-15 blocks, give or take. If you have a bike and can get it to the festival, it’s the fastest and most economical mode of transportation.
SXSW is different for everyone and the details of one’s experience will vary depending on whether you’re a local who knows about private parties, a musician who’s playing five gigs in three days, a member of the music industry listening to panels at the convention center during the day and networking in bars at night, or a general fan of music who’s just there to catch some free shows. You get out of it what you put into it.
In the blog posts that follow, I’ll detail my own adventures in a great city of Austin over the course of seven days. Here’s a video preview of what’s to come: