March 22 2011 04:31 PM

Traveling to South by Southwest with Maren Parusel

Maren Parusel performs at Maggie Mae's
Photo by Candice Eley Photography

Hordes of beer-soaked festival-goers clogged Sixth Street last Saturday as artists performed in every bar along the main drag in Austin, Texas—it was a typically insane night at South by Southwest. Sounds of rock bands collided with hip-hop beats and street performances. People waited in line at venues offering buzz bands or free alcohol. Pizza shops were selling slices at a steady clip, the smell of bratwurst wafted from so many food stands and the streets were littered with paper plates, napkins and cigarette butts.

At Maggie Mae’s, an upstairs venue near the corner of Sixth and Trinity streets, San Diego pop-rocker Maren Parusel powered through a half-hour set—her band’s second performance that day. Parusel and her bandmates were wired. They hadn’t eaten for hours and were getting tipsy on beers. They wouldn’t get home until well past 3 a.m. that night but had to rise early the next morning to do a radio interview with Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone.

“I’m feeling really hyped,” Parusel said. “You have that energy when you don’t eat for four days and you keep going, going, going, going, going, going, going, going, going, going. You get that adrenaline rush.”

“It’s like the fifth wind,” bassist Kyle McGee added.

I rode to Austin with Parusel and Co. in a 15-seat tour van. We drove out on Tuesday night, leaving directly from Soda Bar after the band played a show. We arrived in Austin at around 3 a.m. Thursday, only to get up six hours later to head over to Klub Krucial for the morning load-in for their first show. And on Sunday, after the band played their fifth show in four days, we packed every inch of the tour van with amps, instruments and luggage and headed back to San Diego. Thus is South by Southwest’s unrelenting grind.

Every year, this sprawling music, film and media festival overwhelms downtown Austin and spreads across the city. Record labels, publicity companies and magazines flock to the city to set up official showcases and unofficial day parties. Meanwhile, touring bands drop by house parties across the city. More than 2,000 bands made the journey this year—the list ranged from obscure acts to huge names like The Strokes and Big Boi. Most bands played at venues no larger than a 300-capacity bar, and lines stretched down the block. Festival-goers with badges could skip ahead of everyone else at the nightly showcases, but some people simply hopped fences, climbed trees or hung around back doors to take in the music.

I spent all day Thursday wandering up and down Sixth Street, catching glimpses or full sets of more than a dozen bands. That’s the beauty of SXSW: Everywhere you go, you find somebody playing music. That night, I headed to the official Pitchfork showcase, an intimate affair in the beautiful, expansive Central Presbyterian Church. The taste-making music website put together a tantalizing lineup themed around solo artists who make the music of full ensembles.

Glasser, a solo project-turned-experimental group headed by vocalist / songwriter Cameron Mesirow, played ethereal electro-pop with electronic drums, MIDI-enabled guitar and stunning vocals. With the help of a bassist and two sax players, Tune-Yards mastermind Merrill Garbus used a spare set up—a loop pedal, a few microphones, drums and her wild, far-ranging voice—to create elaborate, exciting funk jams with hints of Fela Kuti.

The highlight of the night, though, was James Blake, a young, visionary electronic-music producer from the U.K. Playing tracks from his recently released debut full-length, Blake sounded like the missing link between R. Kelly, dubstep pioneer Burial and minimalist composer Steve Reich (if you can imagine that). Over delicate downtempo beats and sublime synths, he sang melodic vocal phrases that underwent subtle textural changes as he repeated them—he’d add a dollop of echo, bend the pitch upwards or put on a robotic vocoder effect. He appeared painfully shy, rarely looking up from his two synths or uttering anything other than “Thank you,” but every so often, he’d deploy a gut-busting subsonic bass line more suited for a nightclub than a quiet church.

On Friday, Parusel and the band woke up early to load in at the Aquarium on 6th, where they played a day show with fellow San Diego bands Gun Runner, The Hot Moon and The Black Heart Procession. It was a quintessential SXSW setup: No sound check (in fact, the bar was having trouble finding a sound guy that morning), 30-minute sets, strict scheduling.

Playing the festival can be a slog. Conditions aren’t always ideal: To cut down on luggage, Gun Runner, The Hot Moon and The Black Heart Procession borrowed equipment from Parusel’s band. And there are always logistical screw-ups: On Thursday, members of The Black Heart Procession discovered that their hotel had sold their reserved rooms—even though Mario Escovedo, the head of Requiemme Management and Booking, a local agency that works with the band, had already paid for them. (Later that night, I met a DJ from L.A. who also lost the hotel room he’d paid for.)

But for some musicians, the hassles  don’t take away from the festival’s allure.

“It is hell,” says Gun Runner guitarist Tommy Graf, “but it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.”

In addition to music fans, South by Southwest attracts scores of journalists, publicists, booking agents and label executives looking for hip new sounds. Buzz from newspapers, magazines and blogs has the potential to launch a band to stardom. But where can you find the next hot band within the incomprehensible mess that is Sixth Street? A tastemaker would be wise to walk beneath the Interstate 35 overpass and head away from downtown. There’ll be more local hipsters (you can tell that from the preponderance of fixed-gear bikes), more underground bars (one is a refurbished house; another is a big dirt lot) and hip day parties like Pitchfork’s #OFFLINE and The FADER Fort.

On Saturday afternoon, I checked out a party put on by Solid Gold, an L.A.-based booking agency that works with a number of local bands. Heavy Hawaii churned out their sun-baked psych-pop, brother duo Writer delivered a smoldering set with folksy guitars and pounding drums and TV Girl got a little dance party going with their brisk indie pop.

One of the biggest draws was Canada’s Dirty Beaches, the solo project of Alex Zhang Hungtai. With his slicked-back hair, white T-shirt and black jeans, Hungtai looked the part of a ’50s crooner—but his ghastly mutters and howls were more akin to Suicide singer Alan Vega. He combed his hair back, took requests and stood up on a big amp in front of the stage to play his guitar. As he plucked out dissonant riffs over droning loops, he had all the charisma of a charming-yet-psychotic boyfriend who just got out of the slammer on a homicide conviction.

The biggest hit at the festival was Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All—OFWGKTA, for short—a crew of young rappers from Los Angeles who spit rhymes full of nihilistic violence, toilet humor and misogyny. Reviews described wild scenes at their shows—OFWGKTA members stage diving from rooftops and violently whipping water bottles at the audience—and they delivered at the Mess With Texas stage at the East Side Drive-In, a big open field of dirt. They barked profanities, jumped around, leaped from the stage’s tall frame into the frenzied crowd. And the audience joined in the free-for-all. People were stage diving. A girl jumped on stage and started bumping and grinding. Clouds of dust were kicked into the air. The performance was as entertaining as a hardcore show, a horror movie and an episode of Jackass combined.

After the show, I waded with the crowd back to Maggie Mae’s. It was past 10 p.m., and the night was just getting started. Heavy bass and green lasers emitted from a stage on Seventh Street. On the other side of the street, a crowd watched as a hippie with a giant beard blew into a didgeridoo to the accompaniment of a drummer. I was covered in dirt from OFWGKTA’s set and was glad to finally sit down when I reached the bar.

Parusel and her band delivered a blistering set. Her songs can be more pop than rock, but for this tour, the group cranked up their amps and threw down driving power pop. They were tight and polished—even though it was hard to hear Parusel’s vocals because of the bar’s less-than-ideal PA system. They were fun. They were romantic. They were refreshing. They still had one more show to go, but it felt like the cap of a long week.

On Sunday, we packed up the tour van and hit the road for the daylong drive through the arid, dry Southwest. This was the band’s second trip to SXSW as a unit, and they had plenty of highlights to talk about. They’d played bigger venues and got some buzz—the interview with Dave Marsh was broadcast over Sirius radio.
They didn’t feel too much pressure (“I try not to have high expectations,” Parusel said), but it still felt like a step up—one move closer, perhaps, to doing this kind of thing full-time.

“Obviously, South by Southwest is one of the biggest music festivals in the world, so it’s kind of an honor to be playing here,” she said. “It’s pretty cool if you can be part of something big like that and just try to kind of wiggle yourself through life.”   

Check out CityBeat’s music blog, Check 1, Check 2, to read more dispatches from South by Southwest.