What It's Like to Play at SXSW

In which one of Sweet's editors takes us backstage at one of the world's biggest music festivals.

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Starting a band is exciting. You get together with your friends—in a basement, an attic, a garage—and you start making noise. You decide whether or not you like the sound of the C chord after that G chord, and whether or not the pre-chorus should repeat, and soon enough you've got an album's worth of songs on your hands. And you like them enough that you want people to hear them.

One thing you get to know very well while on tour: motel parking lots.

So, you get in a van and you drive around the country, playing your music for as many people as you can. Quantity is the key here: you want to get your songs out there. Maybe someone with some influence will hear your music, and you'll suddenly find yourself rapidly ascending to music Shangri-La, where Thom Yorke is DJing, Stevie Nicks is doing tarot card readings, and Marvin Gaye is handing out mojitos. So goes the logic that moves bands to drive down to Austin, Texas, to perform at South by Southwest, the annual festival that brings the entire music industry to town for one week of nonstop talent scouting, show-going, and day drinking. Who knows what could happen?

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Caveman performs on stage at The Hype Hotel during SXSW 2012.

I've played SXSW many times over the years—first as the singer of my band The End of the World, and then as the drummer of Caveman. Caveman's third record is out this June, and they'll be at SXSW this year; I'll be there, too, but as a member of the press, having left the band in the fall. (Amicably. And now that I'm no longer an active member, I can officially, impartially state that Caveman is the best band in the business. I am, of course, totally impartial.)

If you want to go to all those fun SXSW parties, you're going to need to wear wristbands like it's your job.

This being my first time treating SXSW as a spectator sport, it's got me reminiscing. The festival tends to trigger a complicated mix of emotions for most musicians, not unlike the feeling of hosting a party: there's the excitement of seeing old friends and making merry for one week straight, but there's also the knowledge that you can't fully cut loose—you're on the clock, and you need to make sure you don't waste your time down there. What that means for a lot of bands, including Caveman, is you play as many shows as humanly possible. (One year, Caveman played so many shows over the course of four days that it became a national news story.)

This backhouse is just one of the many unconventional spaces a band may find itself in at SXSW.

You play shows in bars, restaurants, backyards, Airstream trailers, hotels, warehouses, and museums. You play shows early in the morning and late at night. Everything about SXSW is nonstop: from bed to show to interview to show to party to secret Kanye gig. Every after-party has an after-party. It never ends.

Sorting through the band merchandise is a classic way to kill time before a show.

And while the festival's popularity has grown exponentially by the year, the streets certainly haven't gotten any wider. Entire city blocks turn into de facto mosh pits. British novelist Martin Amis has a great line about Los Angeles in his 1984 novel Money: "The only way to get across the road," he writes, "is to be born there"; in Austin during SXSW, the only way to secure a parking spot for your van is to build it there. So as a band rushing from one venue to the next, you have to get creative. (I'll never forget the time our manager wrote himself into the history books by sweet-talking a cop into letting us drive down a blocked road, making us the only band in the history of SXSW allowed to pull up right in front of a club on 6th St. Here's to you, Peter Fairman.)

The crowded streets of SXSW.

That all said, the sheer number of people in town means that anything could happen at any given moment. You might find yourself at a warehouse party six miles outside of town at 4 a.m. earnestly telling local hero Luke Wilson that "just about everything you do rages!" You may walk into a party offering free tacos and discover your new favorite band. Or you might get a text from an old friend telling you he's got an extra ticket for the Prince and A Tribe Called Quest show.

The view from behind the drum kit.

Whether or not it makes big waves in your career, you're going to have fun. You're also going to be more tired than you've ever been, and at the end of the week you may need to throw out all of the clothing you brought with you. You simply have to surrender to the sweat, the crowds, and the dehydration.

Now that I think about it, SXSW itself is a pretty handy metaphor for what life in a working band is like: loud, thrilling, sweaty, sleepless, maddening, almost entirely out of control—and, all told, a pretty great way to spend your time.

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