South By Southwest—the annual, multi-week music / film / digital confab in Austin, Texas—was one of the first big-name coronavirus cancellations of 2020. When word came down that, after 30+ years, the show was kaput, that’s when I realized, Wow, this COVID-19 thing must be serious. Why?
Because organizers would never ever in a million years cancel SXSW—that giant media industry dollar-eating hole in the sands of Texas.
For most non-Texans, South By Southwest is Austin. Bars, shops, companies, restaurants—it’s a scene in service of one mega-event (or at least that’s what us tourists see). It’s like killing the golden goose x100 million.
So yeah, shocking news, and I wish my Austin friends the best. This is a terrible calamity.
Naturally it made me think back to the first and best time I visited SXSW, when I was most impressed and had the most fun. Because, for me, I always have the best time hanging out with friends in a city different from the one we are from.
Especially if it’s 1996:
Craw, Primitive (aka Sheilbound), The Frans, and Throckmorton (featuring Neil Chastain) hit the road from Cleveland, Ohio with our Washington, DC pals, Edsel, to participate in up-and-coming music festival South By Southwest in Austin, Texas.
Special appearances by:
Jim Clevo, English Cathy, the Cleveland Music Group, Scene Magazine, Microsoft’s John Kurtzer, Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic, Dale Cunningham of Glazed Baby and Astoveboat, ivet, some dude from Denmark, and more.
I think my most vivid memories besides the music, which I’ll get to in a moment, from my first Texas trip were:
- The “Welcome to Texas—Concealed Firearms Permitted. Carry with Pride!” sign. In the airport. Geezus. As a Rust Belt commie, I had never considered bragging about concealed carry even if it was allowed in Cuyahoga County (at the time it certainly wasn’t). I mean, doesn’t that defeat the point? And at the airport?! Very bold. Very Texas. In Ohio guns meant gang warfare and drug violence. It was a relief when I finally got into Austin and saw most establishments said NO GUNS INSIDE. Still, major culture shock moment for me.
- Another shock: watching Brainiac, also Ohioans, pose in designer underwear in various empty lots and construction sites in downtown Austin for what they said was a SPIN photo shoot. Did these photos ever come out? 24 years later and I can still see the bones of these pale indie rockers protruding from their Calvins. Not sexy at all but that was the aesthetic at that time (heroin chic, Kate Moss, etc.).
- People will wait 2+ hours in line for BBQ. This is pointless because….
- You can live off of free food and drink at SXSW.
- It’s possible to get so wasted—from all the aforementioned free booze—that you can drink yourself sober. This is the grossest feeling you can have in the daytime. So better to get going REALLY early so you can go for round two in the afternoon…
- A great way to accomplish this goal is to eat fruity pebbles soaked in vodka at the Amphetamine Reptile Records (“AmRep”) breakfast “buffet” with label boss, Tom Hazelmyer, at 7am. Ask me how I know.
Even for a wannabe degenerate drunk like me, this scene was a little sad. Fortunately about two days into the fest all these really cool musicians—many of them my close friends—arrived from our hometown of Cleveland.
Somehow, while shooting the above video and juggling drinks, smokes and bulky ’90s-era electronics, I even took some photos! Anastasia Pantsios also shot some—this is the first time I’ve dug them out of my archive.
(And, yes, these were the kind of photographs you had to use 35mm film to capture, then develop them yourself in a darkroom full of nasty chemicals, and then hang to dry… oh how time and tech has passed.)
Isaac Edward, Jacob Edwards, Michael Shumaker
Primitive were, like, the new band on the scene at the time. These guys later became Sheilbound. Too bad they didn’t record any of their early jams, like the one you hear in this video. This is rare to hear, rarer to see, as even the band doesn’t have any recordings. I later was long term roomies with Mike Shumaker, and we even had a studio—The Invisible City. That’s a good story for another time.
Jacob Edwards started Jakprints, a successful screenprinting business. I think he got turned on to the possibilities of silkscreening on this very trip as the showcase—at Emo’s—was hosted by artist Lindsey Kuhn, who impressed us all with his crafty prints. Isaac is a private pilot now—”Private Pilot” was one of their Primitive songs! Self-fulfilling prophecy.
I am probably biased, but I think Primitive’s music holds up really well.
Joe McTighe, Dave McClelland, Rockie Brockway, Zak Dieringer, Will Scharf
I will always be forever indebted to Craw, not least for their unapologetically claustrophobic and foreboding music, but also for the opportunity to watch artists, up close as a regular showgoer, develop over the years from college jamming to impressive standard-setters. There’s no one else like them.
Ed Caner, Tim E. Pevec, Neil Chastain
Throckmorton lasted a short time but made a huge mark, at least with me. Ed, Tim, and Neil (regular drummer was Jeff Harmon) took unhinged violin jamming and set it over smart tunes. Throckmorton bridged the jam band / grunge band gap in the best possible way. I wish I knew who their tour bassist was! If you know, please contact me.
Sohrab Habibion, Geoff Sanoff, Steve Raskin, Steve Albert
Edsel was a very special band—one of the few in the wake of Nirvana who took the loud/soft formula and evolved it without destroying it. That’s because they had such amazing tunes. This was around the time of Techniques Of Speed Hypnosis which is an all-time classic for me.
Derek Lashua, Brett Lashua, Greg Golya, Mandy Lasko
Oh crap—no photos of these guys in the archive! The Frans were really, uh, frantastic and in the musiculturally combative mid-’90s, none of my friends like them, but I thought they were just brilliant. They anticipated the sound the Cardigans later took to the top of the charts.