Year of the Elephant

Dead guys, psychedelic pop, and no sober opinions at South by Southwest 1998

Austin's an odd town. The hills are pretty and the water pure, but the skyscrapers are lined with neon and the food sucks if you can't subsist on barbecue or Tex-Mex. Like a lot of Texans, the hometown folks spend an awful lot of time reminding everyone how great their town is. Provincial boosterism turns up on billboards ("City of Ideas"; "Live Music Capital of the World"); on Hollywood-style sidewalk stars honoring Sam Houston, Gene Autry, and Tom Landry; and in the slap-happy Austin Chronicle, a whipped weekly with writers who could get work tongue-bathing local acts in BAM or Two Live if they relocated. The Austin American-Statesman is a touch more sober.

Wait, scratch that -- sober's the wrong word for a rock critic at SXSW. Try reasonable.

The Statesman's semireasonable Michael Corcoran, who handicaps a set of picks for each night of the conference, gave S.F.'s P.E.E. 4-to-1 odds on a great Thursday show at a Sixth Street frat bar called Bob Popular. (Not the best odds, sure, but the same night Sonic Youth only got 5-to-2.) Corcoran's the big man in town, but his endorsement didn't mean much: Bob Popular, where five different kinds of Jell-O shots are only a dollar a pop, was anything but. Nevertheless, P.E.E. persisted, and the band played like it wanted to be liked. The set started with three of the group's most hummable gems, "IHOP," from Now, More Charm and More Tender, and "I Can't Wait 'Til I Get Rickets" and "The Misguided Self-Punishers," from the just released second record The Roaring Mechanism. Some people equate P.E.E.'s shifting time signatures and pop sensibility with calculators and Heavy Vegetable, the dead Encinitas band that P.E.E. toasted on its last record. I say that the quartet is cramming 2-1/2-minute songs with as many distinct parts as Built to Spill gets into seven-minute opuses. That means the band's crafting a sound that no other act has right now. (Another whipped booster? Hey, when in Austin wipe the barbecue off your face.)

Unfortunately, most of those zippered guitar parts and catchy vocal hooks were pretty much executed in vain. The sound was atrocious. (Call me crazy, but it might have had something to do with the fucking brick wall running through the middle of the room.) "Forget this," I thought. "There's plenty of music pouring out of every bar on Sixth Street and if I want to see P.E.E. play with a really terrible sound system, I can go see them at the Chameleon. I'm set when I figure out where to get that kind of Jell-O shot variety in San Francisco."

The speaker's freakish energy and perky bounce were almost alarming at a crack-of-dawn 11 a.m. on Friday. Her name was Kip Kirby, and she was at the front of a sparsely populated convention-center meeting room ostensibly to teach musicians how to talk about themselves. "You are interesting," she said. "You do have a story to tell." Kirby was a former television reporter, so the emphatic head nods and her use of undocumented facts (good interviews are "7 percent content and 93 percent delivery") were not especially surprising. It really seemed like just another boring panel until a small, thin man in a black suit raised his hand. "On the other end," he said with a blank expression, "from the point of view of the interviewer, do you think it's maybe OK to threaten someone with a switchblade to get them to open up?" While the rest of the room burst into nervous laughter, Kirby answered the question with an anecdote about Kevin Costner. The man nodded and left the room with a video-camera-toting accomplice.

I smelled a prank. Sure enough, the man, Fred Armisen, was up to art. The Chicago drummer, who used to be in Trenchmouth and has an outfit he calls Fred Armisen y Su Mensaje de Caracas, was in town to sit in with the Waco Brothers. He'd already taped rock crit Dave Marsh exploding at head Waco Jon Langford for recording a song for Budweiser (the jingle went "Yuck/ Bud Light/ The hillbilly weiss beer"). Armisen asked Marsh to repeat the tirade "with a little more emotion," so he could capture the entire rant. Later in the weekend at a session on media consolidation he asked the panelists if they thought "it would be a good idea to market music or bands on Internet sites that peddle child pornography." On the last day he pretended to be a German musician with limited language skills. I missed his accent, but Mekons singer Sally Timms, who'd been helping him with the videotaping, testified that it was "really mental."

A dispatch from the front: Cornelius, the Japanese pop star (aka Keigo Oyamada) who collages genres like a Beck possessed, is hyped for all the right reasons -- he's a gifted player, a brilliant arranger, and a hell of a performer. In Japan, the singer is known for wildly inventive live shows where martial artists hop around in ape costumes, where lights and video are equals to music, where he's broadcast a live radio signal inside a venue so the attendant teeny-boppers could get an extra accompanying track on their Walkmans. Inside the Electric Lounge on Friday night, the staging was scaled back to matching red-and-white stripeds and black shades for the band, a pair of strobes, a stage-right screen for synced video progressions of brightly colored psychedelic cartoons, and a four-piece band that manufactured more sugar than a cane plantation.

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