What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood
For Laura Burhenn, singer/songwriter and frontwoman for The Mynabirds, SXSW helped get her former band, Georgie James, signed to Saddle Creek Records. Before Austin, they'd already done a lot of work on their own, including touring with 4AD band Camera Obscura, playing the "other" important industry festival, CMJ, and self-releasing a couple recordings.
"We were doing pretty well for ourselves and getting some attention," Burhenn said of her former band, "but we hadn't found a home for our record. It wasn't until Saddle Creek saw us play live that they were able to say 'yes' to putting our record out. I think that's true for a lot of labels. It's one thing to make a good record, but most labels want to make sure you can do something special live and in the flesh."
Now with The Mynabirds, Burhenn finds herself in Austin again, this time working pre-promotion for the band's April 27 debut on Saddle Creek. But more importantly for Burhenn, SXSW is a chance to see old friends, get a break from the gray Omaha winter and enjoy some "killer burritos," while trying to forget how much the whole thing is going to cost. "This is one instance I'm incredibly grateful for day jobs that helped me save a little along the way over the years," she said. "Now's the time. Why not go for what you love with every ounce of time, energy, and money you have? If not now, when? And yes, really do ask yourself that very question."
Eli Mardock of Eagle Seagull was more matter-of-fact about SXSW. His band's long-awaited album, The Year of the How-To Book, finally comes out on [PIAS] Recordings this spring. For him and the band, SXSW is just another day at the office. "We're getting in and out as quickly as possible," he said. "There are loads of bands/friends I'd love to see, but it just doesn't make sense for us to hang around this year. It's all work and no play for us, I'm afraid."
Eagle Seagull's SXSW intro was in 2008. "I'm not sure it really helped our band/career much, but it was the show that finalized our first major record deal," Mardock said. "I don't think (SXSW) is important. It's beneficial for a handful of bands. But to most, it's a fairly costly undertaking without much return (in terms of money, press, exposure). We're playing it this year because there will be a lot of European press there (Our second album is dropping this month in Europe). It's a good opportunity for them to see us live. Hopefully we'll impress and gain some additional press before the release and our April tour."
The "European press" also was a draw for Thunder Power, who is headed to SXSW for the first time. "It's a very good place to network with people in the music industry," said rhythm guitarist/bassist Will Simons. "It gives us a chance to talk to booking agents, which we don't have and which could really help us out. And there's a British journalist who wants to do an interview with us. We have an EP coming out in England."
Simons said Thunder Power's American label, Slumber Party Records, helped get them invited to SXSW without having to enroll through sonicbids.com -- a process that got them invited to last year's CMJ festival. In the end, all of the festival experiences -- including the North by 35 Festival they're playing in Denton, Texas, prior to SXSW -- help build a strong musical resume.
"SXSW seems like one of those steps that feels right for a band to take," Simons said, adding that Thunder Power's invitation to record a Daytrotter session (which has become an indie music rite of passage) probably helped them get accepted at CMJ. "Even if you don't get a feature in Rolling Stone out of this, it could make things easier in the future, like booking shows in bigger cities outside of Omaha. We're taking everything we've done so far and are taking it to the next level."
UUVVWWZ frontwoman Teal Gardner called the road to South by Southwest a "well-trodden path." Having never performed there, she said the band jumped at a chance to play the Saddle Creek Records showcase (along with five other SXSW gigs they're slated to play throughout the festival's five days).
"Having as much as possible as a band is extremely integral to all of it," Gardner said. "The benefit of being together as a band, traveling in a van and relying on each other is important to us."
And then there's the variety of bands that she'll get to check out while she's there. Though Nebraska is recognized as a regular tour stop for most bands, Gardner said a lot of important acts simply bypass the state. "It's a chance to stick my head down in the fish tank and look around," she said. "SXSW has more to do with getting some good experiences under your belt, and meeting and seeing different bands. It's a cornerstone experience to go through. I don't know what it's going to be like, but afterward, I want to have something to talk about."
Trust me, Teal, you will. And so will I. But if you don't want to wait for the report in the next issue of The Reader, track my daily SXSW updates at lazy-i.com or follow my tweets at twitter.com/tim_mcmahan starting March 18.
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