South by Southwest Was Embarrassing for Arizona -- But Who Cares?

It's a sunny Saturday afternoon, and a quintessentially South by Southwest scene is unfolding at a concert outside Austin's Waterloo Records. Eager day drinkers clamor to get into a fenced-off parking lot in this recently re-developed section of the city's main drag, where the old "Keep Austin Weird" mantra has been compromised a bit to allow for the presence of Whole Foods and Anthropologie.

This crowd isn't music industry types looking to see Odd Future, the Los Angeles rap collective that made the biggest splash at the festival, or any of the other 2,000-something up-and-coming bands invited to showcase. Instead, this is a crowd of mostly credential-less local yokels seeing veteran alt-rock outfit Meat Puppets. It's exactly what you'd expect to see at so-called "day parties" like this — a bunch of random people out to score some free beer and see a show, enjoying the scraps of the Southby bounty.

The band opens with a song called "Up on the Sun," a bizarre mixture of psychedelic, country, and punk. Not coincidentally, New Times took the name of our music blog from this song and the group's album of the same name. It's a record that's obscure but influential — critically beloved neo-psychedelicists Animal Collective actually asked the Puppets to perform the album in its entirety at a festival in May.

Chances are that few people here would understand why this song or band would be important to anyone in Phoenix. As the emcee makes clear after the set, this band is part of "the Waterloo Records family," fully integrated into and adopted by the Austin music scene. Never mind that this band was spawned in Phoenix and did their most important work there before singer/guitarist Curt Kirkwood split town in 1995 — the Puppets are an Austin band now, so labeled by the fest's official materials.

As Arizona's SxSW snubs go, this one is slight and totally unintentional. There was much worse during the weeklong festival. For starters, the entire state of Arizona had only four bands playing official showcases. For perspective, consider that my colleagues at our company's papers in Dallas and Minneapolis told me 20 or so acts came from each of their respective cities. Sure, SxSW is just a big industry circle-jerk that no one should care about and just because a band plays the festival doesn't mean they're important and blah, blah, blah. Imperfect though it may be, however, our state's Southby roster is probably the best available barometer of how our music scene is doing in any particular year.

Sadly, the most attention anything Arizona-related received during this year's festival came from a contentious panel hosted by The Sound Strike, a group that's urging musicians to boycott our state because of SB 1070, the dumb immigration law blocked by courts before it could take effect. Southby's organizers allowed The Sound Strike to pick all the panelists and fully control the dialogue, so a crowd mostly made up of people from Arizona's music industry had to politely listen to long lectures about the history of racism in America before a very short question-and-answer period. The first speaker to address the panel was an editor at Tucson Weekly who nearly broke down into tears as she begged the group "not to abandon us." Other Arizonans who stood up to speak followed the same line — pleading for help instead of a boycott. The group's response? This tweet: "haters got schooled @Sxsw."

There was even a sad but revealing moment at the Saturday showcase by standout local band Kinch. After singer Andrew Junker introduced his band as hailing from Phoenix, Arizona, someone in the crowd hooted out joyfully.

"Wow. Arizona pride — you don't get much of that!" he said.

"Arizona sucks!" yelled out a heckling bearded hipster with thick glasses. The guy then explained that he was a Phoenix native who'd moved to Austin. Double ouch.

Our state took enough lumps that I was feeling pretty shitty about everything related to Arizona music when I caught up with Puppets singer Curt Kirkwood on Sunday afternoon.

My point to him: Phoenix and Austin aren't really so different.

Don't laugh: They're both large capital cities of conservative Western states. The Phoenix metro area has more than twice the population of Austin, and they're home to two of the three largest universities in the nation. Yet Austin is the "live-music capital of the world," while the few Phoenix bands deemed worthy of this event are getting heckled by people originally from Phoenix.

Why doesn't Tempe have even a tenth as much live music as you'll find in Austin, where the tract of legitimate venues stretches for miles and miles before petering out into an area where bands play in the parking lots of auto body shops in broad daylight? How can Austin be so damned fun and funky all the time? Is there any way Phoenix could glom on to some of that mojo?

Turns out Kirkwood was the perfect man to talk me off the ledge. His band has knocked around both "scenes" and has managed to make ends meet while maintaining credibility and an impressive level of "indie" fame for nearly 30 years. That background gives him an interesting perspective. And from his perspective, Arizona is awesome. Or at least as awesome as anywhere else.

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17 comments
Brazenbeat
Brazenbeat

Alot of this of which this article is speaking of began when the local music venues like "LONG WONG's" in Tempe,az. and "the MASON JAR" were closed.Since the mid 1990s there was a unspoken idea to rid Phoenix and the surrounding cities of it's burgeoning nightclubs one at a time until they were non-existent,replaced with brand new condiminiums or parking lots for Arizona State.We all noticed it when it was happening,but thought that other clubs would spring up to take the old one's places,but that didn't happen.Local bands started falling apart,some bands imploded,some of the night clubs closed caused by the shrinking audiences after this domino started falling.Other clubs closed because of money problems,some because of sheer stupidity in their business practices(you know who you are).Maybe the fact that there was a slow effort NOT to embrace local bands until they moved away to more receptive cities that love live bands and live music,or maybe by lack of interest in music by locals.Whichever the case,the city now needs a new injection of live music energy to help form a foundation to rebuild what was once a city that was on the cusp of becoming the next "Seattle" or "L.A." as far as new music was concerned in the early 1990s.We could do it if everyone was onboard with the idea to actually help each other,instead of trying to be the #1. band-it takes believing in local talented bands by regular people again and it takes some good old fashioned "Elbow Grease",but it could happen again.Alot of people feel taken advantage of,scammed,and just plain untrusting of local musicians.It will take a little healing and alot of regaining the faith of the people to make Phoenix,Arizona, a strong local music city again.My hope is that I will see it happen again in my lifetime.

Cheezboy .....Out!

Deefreee
Deefreee

Very reaffirming... im still glad that Marvin Jizmar is leaving Arizona. Only a complete doink-of-an-a$$hole would write this article, in my opinion.

How can you even begin to compare Austin and Phoenix in terms of a music scene?? Like you said, Phoenix is twice the size and therein lies the pseudo-problem - we're too spread out, and coupled with the fact that people dont have much expendable income leads to alternative situations to bar shows... yea, you probably wont see Marvin at a house show any time soon. Try comparing apples to apples, buddy. Phoenix is much more akin to Houston, and I for one believe that our musical and cultural output is MUCH more vibrant than anything coming out of that city. And if you actually asked musicians in Austin - local musicians, not 'made-men' like Kirkwood, though i love his take in the article - and they'll tell you its a shite situation because of the rep of the city.... on the other hand.... any and all phoenix musicians/artisans i know personally enjoy creating within the sunny, inexpensive, supportive, laid-back vibe of our city and scene.

Its a shame that in your short stay you havent really caught on to this, but i do believe another good riddance is in order here. We will stay and continue to thrive artistically and work hard and strive and sacrifice just as artists do in most other cities... except now without you telling us that we're worthless. Have fun dogging all the blue-hairs in Florida... I hope you get your ass kicked by some gramma you've slandered :)

Mark Mason
Mark Mason

I left Arizona because I don't like the summer heat, I left because of the politics. I didn't leave because of the music scene. I enjoyed What Laura Says, Kinch, Mergence, The Hay Market Squares, and all the other bands that I just don't have time to list. I was blessed to be able to listen to and play music in Arizona. It is the best thing the state has going for it.

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JimmyCrackCorn
JimmyCrackCorn

I dig the Meat Puppets, they persevered and made their name when making your name was about hard playing and hard drinking, not tweeting and making blips in your notebook PC.

Davidconnorsands
Davidconnorsands

So does this mean that Kirkwood got through to you Martin, about how it is silly to crap on our scene for acting like the proverbial scorpion it is? He makes some good points about bar culture in town, especially when you consider that last call used to be 12:30 until 2003. Also, considering that you can usually only find 1 native Arizonan for every 10 interlopers, the people who were born here and care about this place like it is truly their home are far out numbered by people who aren't impassioned to advocate for the unique parts of the culture. And when you take out the awful racists assholes who are natives from the cool art people you're left with a sliver of culture that is trying to break up an iceburg with hammer. I agree with Kirkwood, a lot of times I could give a crap about going to shows and would rather go camping, or smoke some herb in the desert (cause i am a native, thats what we do). But I do love GOOD music, art and alternative culture, the scene is what it is, its what makes it unique, and apparently you have the damnedest time accepting it. Your critiques are witty, smart and obviously well thought, but your heart is completely in the wrong place Martin. Stop worrying about "not" being pitch fork, stop worrying about the scene being good enough, and maybe you'll enjoy being part of the Arizonan music community. One thing Kirkwood forgot to mention is that Arizona is typically a place where people who are outsiders come to start over, get a second chance. Our scene is part of that. So, if and when you're willing to come around, their will still be a slice of it that will even accept you.

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Jackson
Jackson

Whole Foods is originally from Austin.

ZonieReport
ZonieReport

Amen. Thanks for a great column, Martin.

I have been listening to the Meat Puppets, off and on, since high school. I'm now 32. That's how great and lasting their stuff is. At the risk of sounding snobbish and out-of-touch, I challenge any of the hipster bands out there to do something with real staying power that isn't predictable pappy crap.

On the issue of the music scene, yes, I agree to some extent with Curt. In general, the whole concept of Phoenix is designed around the 1950s-era idea of backyard suburban bliss. Rarely do Phoenicians venture out, and for that reason, there aren't a helluva lot of places where local bands can gig out and gain traction. I am working on something to address this Downtown, but even that is only a single project.

I disagree with him in regards to Phoenix being just as good as any other city in producing musical success stories/scenes. These other cities support their local arts and culture scenes more than we do. The really successful one have a historic track record of doing so. Look at Nashville. Artists flock to that sort of vibe. We don't believe in arts funding, or funding education for that matter. And we don't believe in having a "vibe," either. That's why everyone loves to move here – then leave for cities with a vibe (i.e., Curt Kirkwood). Although I am a second-generation Phoenician, I can't say I blame them.

It would be interesting to see a New Times story that surveys movers and shakers in other "hip" music markets to gauge their opinion on what makes their scenes tick, and how to build an effective scene from the ground up. I, for one, would read that story with gusto.

Loosecannonsbluesband
Loosecannonsbluesband

Interesting that there was no mention about the amounts of money bands (and their members) are getting paid in Austin vs. Phoenix/Tucson.

The amount of money venues are willing to pay local musicians is directly relational to the success of a "scene".

If venues are paying most bands less than minimum wage to perform (which they are in Phoenix), there will be no incentive on the band's part to improve, promote, or even have the extra money to pay their bills (thus the day job which takes all the time away from the music).

The union here says for a musician playing in a 300 or less person limit venue, the industry standard pay should be about $85.00 per player per night.

If we're getting less than $50.00 each per night, I don't hold out much hope for the Phoenix scene.

Keep your day job!

Connor
Connor

Great interview. However, I'm kind of embarrassed that the Music Editor in our fair city can't find any joy in HIS OWN STATE. Whisperlights, Tobie Milford, Courtney Marie Andrews, Boys and Frogs, Kinch, Black Carl, Dry River Yacht Club, Andrew Jackson Jihad, JD Stooks, the Haymarket Squares, Captain Squeegee, 2 Tone Lizard Kings, Calexico, Sergio Mendoza Y La Orkesta, Fatigo (and its several side projects), What Laura Says, Underground Cities, St. Ranger. But I guess those bands don't mean anything to you...

Patron Anejo
Patron Anejo

Damn fine interview....Curt Kirkwood is and always will be the bomb. The more Phoenix and Arizona get snubbed by mindless trend followebars, the more likely we will be to develop a music scene that is truly unique, devoid of the toxic influence of mass pop psychology. Devo came from Akron, OH, Black Sabbath from Birmingham, UK and R.E.M from Athens, GA. Were any of them known as happening music scenes before they emerged? I for one am tired of my town being dumped on by people who only pretend to know the score. Eff them......

Phoenix New Times
Phoenix New Times

A fair point, but since I'm from Akron, Ohio I have to note that, yes, Akron was a totally happening music scene when Devo emerged. Check out the Stiff Records Akron compilation -- the city was so respected that a label in England pressed a record with a bunch of Akron bands on it.

 

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