Wicked Wit of the South by Southwest

More than 800 bands performed last week in Austin at the 12th annual South by Southwest music conference. I caught almost 30 of them between Wednesday and Saturday, but the most engaging performance I saw at the music industry’s biggest party wasn’t in a club. Although Chicago drummer Fred Armisen played seven times with various Jon Langford combos (filling in for regular percussionist Steve Goulding) and with his girlfriend, Sally Timms, his finest moments came during the dull parade of daytime panel discussions.

Most of the people who make the schlepp to Texas each year are there to check out new bands, meet their peers, and drink, and not necessarily in that order. The erratically attended panels are meant to educate neophytes (“Generating the Right Publicity”) and to prompt dutiful discussion of hot issues, which this year included media consolidation and the future of electronica. Occasionally they’re entertaining, but often the speakers are either too earnest or too savvy to be truly informative. In reality, the convention center where the panels take place operates a bit like a roller rink–most of the action happens on the perimeter, where agents and talent buyers, band managers and A and R scouts, and publicists and journalists play hide and seek for a couple hours between breakfast and their first beer.

Armisen came to Chicago from New York in 1988 and cofounded the now defunct Trenchmouth; besides playing with Timms he currently leads the salsa band Fred Armisen y Su Mensaje de Caracas and plays behind the Blue Man Group. Still, he’s long been thought by fans, friends, and acquaintances to be in the wrong branch of the entertainment business. A longtime amateur prankster with the poker face of a pro, he now seems to have taken a more formal interest in comedy. He’d been borrowing a friend’s video camera to make a “mockumentary,” and when he learned he’d be going to Austin, he decided to get his own equipment.

At an exceedingly dry panel called “The Future of Publishing,” as Timms taped, Armisen stood up in the audience and deadpanned, “I feel like we’ve been waiting here a long time and you have the microphones set up…do you think you could sing a song for us?” At the panel on media consolidation he asked if it was a good idea to market a band on Web sites that purveyed child pornography. And following a shouting match between Langford and writer Dave Marsh on the topic of allowing music to be used in commercials, Armisen said, “Yes, I didn’t get that entire exchange on camera. Could you do it again from the top, this time with more emotion?”

Armisen also appropriated the name tag of Knitting Factory owner Michael Dorf to dispense advice in one of the conference’s “mentor” sessions, and posed as “Fred from SoundScan,” who didn’t realize his panel had been canceled. While not everything he did or said qualifies as astute criticism of the music industry, as a whole his performance went a long way toward putting the SXSW circle jerk in perspective. Armisen plans to submit the edited video to the film portion of next year’s festival.

On the music front, there were several terrific performances by both veterans and newcomers: Sonic Youth previewed its forthcoming album, A Thousand Leaves, with a packed Thursday evening performance at a smallish venue. Alternating between shimmery dreamscapes and violent eruptions, the quartet traded its recent experiments with pop for the more textural approach it began with 16 years ago. And Wednesday night power popster Tommy Keene played a bunch of songs from his new Isolation Party (Matador); none would have sounded out of place on his 1984 classic Places That Are Gone.

New York singer Eszter Balint, better known for her role in the Jim Jarmusch film Stranger Than Paradise (she’s the Hungarian cousin who loves Screamin’ Jay Hawkins), performed with a fascinating band that included Curlew guitarist Chris Cochrane and new-music percussionist Christine Bard. Her offerings ranged from off-kilter cabaret and torch songs to hypnotic pop tunes, but her cozy voice–like a less laconic Hope Sandoval–and charming stage presence held the gig together. Her debut album is due later this year on D’Arcy and James Iha’s Scratchie label.

Amsterdam sampling whiz Elisabeth Esselink is Solex, and her American debut on Thursday, with a live guitarist and drummer, sounded even better than her brand-new Matador album, Solex vs. the Hitmeister. Esselink’s vocals betray a debt to Bjork, but her instrumentation stakes its own territory with creeping, catchy beats, guitar arpeggios, and a rich collage of samples. Making his U.S. debut on the same bill was Japanese star Cornelius (aka Keigo Oyamada), who with three identically dressed compatriots played tunes from his recent Matador LP, Fantasma, leaping from breezy guitar pop to drum ‘n’ bass to hard rock to Beach Boys-like mini symphonies, accompanied by furiously paced, perfectly choreographed video collages. Among the highlights was his theremin version of “Love Me Tender,” played as Elvis Presley serenaded a swooning girl on-screen.

Chicagoans made a strong showing at the conference. Although I missed Liquid Soul, who reportedly brought down the house, I did catch a late-night performance by the Handsome Family, whose wry humor and dark, insinuating melodies sent a coffeehouse full of weary badge wearers into melancholy rapture. A series of “unofficial” daytime parties hosted by Schubas, Bloodshot Records, and Sugar Free Records at a local gallery provided a refreshing backyard antidote to the ongoing schmoozathon. Langford, Chris Mills, and (in one of the weekend’s nicer surprises) the Black Family reminded a few hundred people why they were in this business to begin with.


Mars Williams plays his final gig with the Vandermark 5 Monday at the Note. He’s leaving to concentrate on Liquid Soul, whose second album, Make Some Noise, comes out May 5 on Ark 21. His replacement is Dave Rempis. Williams does play on the V5’s second album, Target or Flag, due May 19 from Atavistic.

Checkered Past, the label run by former Bloodshot honcho Eric Babcock, will reissue Souled American’s hard-to-find last two albums, which were released previously on tiny German indie Moll. Frozen comes out May 12, Notes Campfire in early 1999.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Fred Armisen photo by Frank Swider.