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.
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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.
First, he says, it's hard to compare Phoenix with any bar-centric city. Just because you can't see the bands at licensed music venues doesn't mean there aren't kids making music all over the city.
"It's not a bar culture, Phoenix. It's not a bar culture like Minneapolis or Dallas, where people go out to bars. They don't do that in Phoenix — they hang out in their backyards and drink beers and smoke weed," he says. "It's boring as fuck if you're a teenager, in a way — so we played guitars and stayed up all night and slept all day and who gives a fuck."
Second, Kirkwood points out that just because Phoenicians aren't out front advocating for themselves doesn't mean they're lacking pride. It's all about knowing your strengths — take that dude heckling Kinch out for a hike or two and see what he says.
"There's no reason to champion Phoenix culture like Texans: 'Yeah, yeah, Texas!' Arizona has never done that; we've never had that identity as a state. But, I mean, I love Arizona. There's no question I prefer Arizona. I'm seriously into the desert, and I know large parts of Arizona like the back of my hand," he says. "We used to camp out all over and four-wheel and hike and hunt a lot and fish — I grew up enjoying Arizona for what it's really good for, which is that."
Besides, what good is a scene, anyway? Sure, Nirvana was part of a "scene" in Seattle — but would Kurt Cobain's genius have failed to manifest itself without a bunch of other bands around?
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"Seattle spawned a good number of really popular bands in the early '90s — that's kind of a fluke. That happens now and then," he says. "Some cities have really healthy scenes — Minneapolis does, Dallas does — and that's good, but they're spawning something really unique once in every blue moon, like every place else. So Phoenix doesn't have a vibrant scene necessarily. But it has cliques of people, which makes it good, and made it good for me. And I still work that way in Austin . . . I don't need that kind of support; I don't feel any real kinship with a lot of musicians."
And, really, who cares whether a bunch of bands from a city can ape a popular sound and image? In the grand scheme of things, does it matter who can win favor with herd-mentality tastemakers? Will anyone remember that in 25 years? Will the Animal Collective of the late 2030s be asking these bands to come back and play one of their records in its entirety at a big festival?
In our search for the Holy Grail of music lovers — seeing the next Nirvana before anyone else knows who they are — people in Phoenix are playing the same long-odds lottery as everyone else. So just ante up.
"What comes out of Phoenix comes out about as regularly as it comes out of anyplace else, in terms of a real gem," he says. "Roy Orbison is from Lubbock, Texas. Why Lubbock? Well, even Lubbock will crap out a really cool musician now and then. You just never know. It's not like you're going to get great stuff like it grows on trees. It's art — you only have a Monet once in a while."