Year of the Elephant

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

Racy Racine wore fishnet stockings with cowboy boots, dyed red her 43-year-old scalp, and dreamed of working in the music business instead of cabbing the 6,000-some-odd registrants between the Austin airport, their hotels, and the 37 sanctioned clubs that hosted more than 800 bands at the 13th annual South by Southwest music festival. "I'd like to be in A&R," she said with a Texas twang. "How do you get one of those jobs?"

Racy Racine didn't really care about any particular record label -- she just wanted to work in the biz. She said she used to volunteer for SXSW, maybe back when her main occupations were couch surfing and hanging out with a coterie of South Austin-based singer/songwriters that included, most notably, Townes Van Zandt.

Racy Racine -- who is, among many other things, a grandmother -- spends a lot of time in her cab. She's spruced it up with a swath of fake white fur across the dash, some decorative Christmas lights across the top of the windshield, and a set of mini wind chimes dangling from the rearview mirror.

Racy Racine obviously has pronounced taste and a visible aesthetic. Who would she sign if she were at a record label and given the power to contract any unsigned musician? She paused and the chimes tinkled as she turned a broad corner. "Probably Blaze Foley," she said.

Blaze Foley -- a once tireless and broke singer/songwriter with a drinking problem -- christened her "Racy" Racine. Blaze Foley died in the late 1980s.

South by Southwest used to be a place where record labels scouted bands; now the majors see it as a vehicle to pony around their new signees so the press and competitors can admire their nice new teeth. Among both the major-label colts and still indie fillies, the most exciting thing about the conference was that, for the first time in years, all of the bands didn't sound the same. Instead, microgenres of groups ran their own races. As the record companies figure out that slash-and-burn one-hit-wonder-making doesn't pay off in the long run, they'll make some Columbus-style discoveries. This year, post-grunge and what I guess has to be called post-electronica, though it's not clear whether electronica did or didn't happen, we're experiencing a musical downtime, what Brit crit Simon Reynolds called in 1990 "that gap when an old musical order is dis-established but nothing stable has taken its place."

Out of that instability, three bands from the past-forward collective known as Elephant 6 -- the Apples in Stereo, the Olivia Tremor Control, and the Minders -- played three separate but equal shows that proved there's no time like a downtime. Call it the year of the Elephant. At Liberty Lunch, a cavernous venue whose best attribute is that you can hose down the concrete floors at night's end, the Apples bounced through songs from last year's charming Tone Soul Evolution and a couple of covers (one by the Beach Boys, one by an obscure '60s garage band called the Creation). At the end of the set the lovably nerdish Robert Schneider strapped on a two-string piece of shit for about 30 seconds before raising the axe above his head and smacking it against the stage. The sturdy piece of plastic re-fused to crack, even after several wallops. Finally the neck snapped and Schneider approached the mike before shrugging offstage. "Um, thanks for coming, guys," he said.

Schneider and friends were also on hand for the Olivias the following night (also in the audience: Cornelius [more on him later] and Janeane Garofalo.) The trumpet and the trombone were unmiked but audible over the Byrdsian guitars; the Apples, who sat in on a bevy of percussion instruments during one song, were not. The Olivias supposedly have a new quiver of psychedelic pop tunes written at their Athens, Ga., flophouse, but only a few got played. Instead, it was the usual suspects from Dusk at Cubist Castle and a couple of old ones trotted out from the California Demise EP. As Reynolds said, that gap -- for him filled by Throwing Muses and Daydream Nation, for us by a nice guy breaking a guitar and a stage full of grinning weirdos -- is an exhilarating moment.

Nick Lowe -- the renowned Elvis Costello producer and one-time pub-rocker -- delivered a Thursday-morning keynote speech with a wit that could have dried out a hangover. Lowe didn't have much of a point -- he basically spent 10 minutes explaining how nervous he was and five minutes saying that after 20 years in the music business he's stopped really caring about bad bands -- which was a good thing because it gave him more time to play a few songs on his acoustic guitar. In the spirit of self-promotion that seems de rigueur at SXSW, Lowe sang two cuts off his new record, Dig My Mood, and then cut out with the tune Costello made famous for him, back in a time when narcissistic classic-rock behemoths ruled the road. Lowe's light treatment of "Peace, Love & Understanding" sounded wilted and beautiful, like a cut orchid a day out of water, and consistent with his apparent newfound grace. Lowe figures he can ease up on the music industry he once loathed. "Today's musicians have their own Supertramps and REO Speedwagons to contend with," he said. "I declare the bars open."

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.

Beginning with "New Music Machine" and running, no soaring, through "Count Five or Six," "Free Fall," and three more cuts from the Matador rerelease of Fantasma, already a multiplatinum hit in Japan, Cornelius and his band out-Bloodied My Bloody Valentine, hit every tricky three-part Beach Boy harmony, yanked samples and Aphex Twin-style beats out of a stand full of chords and electronics, and ripped Cheap Trick-ish riffs off of a creamy flying V guitar. Did I mention the part where he did "Love Me Tender" on theremin? If you believe in reincarnation, you might want to think of Cornelius as a new Os Mutantes, the Brazilian band that matched a worldly pastiche of psychedelia with a localized bossa nova beat in the late 1960s. Both the inventiveness and the outright joy that comes from imitating and often usurping your musical heroes come through on every cut. The impending phenomenon that is Cornelius suggests that England will no longer be the only country that can take good American ideas, run with them, and make us Americans hear what we do in an entirely new way. God save Japan.

Later (read: drunker) Friday night at the Continental Club -- a dive-lover's dive a few doors down from a boutique called Just Guns -- Austin's Asylum Street Spankers impressively quieted the "vicious corporate fucks making deals in the back room." (There was just a bit of posturing in that remark: I saw more grinning souses than corporate fucks.) The Spankers, a 10-piece folk orchestra, demand silence because they eschew "demon eee-lec-tricity." The shtick doesn't stop there. A fat man in overalls and a trucker cap plays a plastic slide whistle on a song about UFOs; a crew-cut tough guy in Ray-Bans hums a kazoo on a song about weed; the whole band sings backup on songs about a crazy bomber and Lee Harvey Oswald. ("Back, and to the left," and heads snap.) Novelty, yes, but the musicianship -- courtesy of, among others, the stellar clarinetist and an impassioned American steel player -- proved that there is a deep appreciation at root. Wink.

The man to watch was unwatched, mostly. Bill Stanten, otherwise known as Birddog, played a thinly attended midday Saturday set with his ever-expanding band on the straw-covered back lot of the Yard Dog Gallery, a wonderful folk art shop where you can buy paintings by Mekon/Waco Brother Langford and dioramas of Django Reinhardt by artist Suzie Millions. At last year's SXSW, Birddog was just a nervous guy picking his way through a couple of well-crafted songs. This year, after a 7-inch produced by Portland folkie Elliott Smith and the excellent short album The Trackhouse, the Valley, the Liquor Store Drive-Thru, the young Kentuckian was accompanied by a sleepy three-piece. (At one point, Stanten dropped his guitar. "What do you expect, it's 2:30 in the afternoon?") Stanten's new songs are thematically consistent with his older work, still based on long narratives and loaded images. "And the air is full of something surely dying," he announced on an older song. "The pistol that I gave you is lying on the floor," he sang on another. Imagine Gram Parsons in all of his glorious pedal-steel twang, or a rural Elliott Smith singing about killer girls and country life instead of drinking St. Ides and walking in between parked cars. Imagine, but wait. Birddog will tour a couple of East Coast dates with Smith, and he has a publishing deal with the same person who signed Beck and Mary Lou Lord, but he's apparently having label problems; a new record isn't coming out on Bong Load as scheduled.

On Saturday night at the University of Texas Ballroom, where the chandeliers are made of wrought iron and you can look out the window and see the tower from which ex-Marine Charles Whitman picked off pedestrians with a rifle in 1966, I got slayed by the country chanteuse, guitar player, and deceptively complex moralizer known as Iris DeMent. The blood on my face? DeMent ripped out my heart, and it was the only thing I could find to wipe the tears off my cheeks.

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