This week, 1000’s of bands, journalists, publicists, record label reps and hungry music fans will head to Austin, Texas for South By Southwest. Soundcheck producer Michael Katzif will be down there bringing you a small taste of the festival each day with blog posts, photos, and more.
Follow the action here on the Soundcheck Web site and on Soundcheck's Tumblr page. And be sure to follow on Instagram at instagram.com/soundcheckradio and Twitter: @Soundcheck, @mikekatzif as well as WNYC's social media editor @julesdwit.
Part conference with countless panels for the industry, part live music free-for-all, South By Southwest is a chaotic four days of bands in overcrowded bars and repurposed bike shops, needlessly long lines and endless floor tom line-checks, and free Shiner Bock. But there’s no other festival like it.
This year’s largest headliners (and likely most difficult to tickets to score) are mostly rock veterans like Green Day, Dave Grohl’s Sound City Players, The Flaming Lips, Cafe Tacvba, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. And yet with each passing year, it’s a fair argument to say SXSW has become increasingly corporate -- helloooo Doritos Jacked stage! -- with larger and larger megastars dropping in to soak up media exposure. (Don’t be surprised if the persistent rumors of surprise Justin Timberlake and Daft Punk shows materialize, in the way that Kanye West and Jay-Z showstopper sets have in recent years.)
To me though, it’s easy to ignore that aspect of South By Southwest. The festival still represents one of the best places to sample new music from a variety of genres -- not just indie rock but hip hop, metal, African, country and Latin alternative -- and discover new favorites to share. And it tends to set the tone for what artists we’ll be talking about the rest of the year.
Still, with so much competing for your ears and eyeballs, it can be difficult to know where to go and what to see. For the past two weeks I've been curating Soundcheck's Spotify playlist of more than 150 favorites worth checking out this year at SXSW. But I've also got a few few worth highlighting that I'm especially eager to see in Austin.
YEAH YEAH YEAHS
There's no shortage of star power at SXSW, but one of the most promising amongst the big time headliners is Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The band is about to drop Mosquito, its first album since 2009's It's Blitz. And if the superb first single, "Sacrilege" is any indication of where things are heading, YYYs are once again evolving its trademark sound. The electro-punk and pop sheen of past albums has been more or less muted, in favor of an almost dream pop-meets-classic rock that highlights Karen O's soaring voice, fiery guitar riffs, and a powerful gospel choir climax. With just one appearance this week -- where they're sure to debut new material -- this is one set to see.
A standout at last fall’s CMJ Music Marathon, New York rapper Le1f looks to be one of the breakthrough hip hop artists at SXSW -- the way Danny Brown, Kendrick Lamar and Shabazz Palaces have the last few years. Le1f is already pretty popular -- the video for his single "Wut" has over a million views, and he's known in the LGBTQ community for being both out and outspoken. The rapper, producer and dancer -- interestingly, he earned a dance degree from Wesleyan University -- has a stellar new mixtape Fly Zone, which mixes edgy dance-rap and experimental fever dream electronic-infused tracks that showcase an idiosyncratic wordplay and rapidfire delivery. Coupled with ambitious production, it all meshes together to create something both accessible and avant garde. It will be exciting to watch where Le1f goes from here.
After awhile, it's easy to get ear fatigue and numb from the assault of noisy punk bands on bad PA's. So it can be a comforting palette cleanser to drop by a set from an already-favorite artist and know it's sure to be great. For me, that band is bound to be Telekinesis. Michael Benjamin Lerner sings, plays drums and practically every instrument as Telekinesis and his upcoming third album, Dormarion, was recorded over two weeks and produced by Spoon's Jim Eno. The result is a huge step forward. Mixing his fuzzed-out power pop withfizzy synth pop -- like on the album's first single "Ghosts And Creatures" -- Telekinesis' impossibly catchy hooks, beefy guitar distortion and singable choruses will you want to pump your fists in the air.
FIVE MORE BANDS PLAYING SXSW YOU SHOULD KNOW:
Low Wishes, the second album from Dallas indie pop band Air Review, is an emotional and immersive record documenting the rigors of everyday life. In songs like "America's Son," vocalist Douglas Hale’s deeply introspective lyrics are rife with themes of shattered dreams and disillusioned hearts, all amplified by music of piercing beauty. (Listen to "America's Son")
There's plenty of glitzy, female-fronted, 80s-esque synth pop acts to choose from at SXSW -- from Charli XCX to HAIM to Austra -- but one of the more intriguing is Glasgow's CHVCHES (pronounced "churches"). The work of singer Lauren Mayberry and producer-muscians Iain Cook and Martin Doherty, CHVCHES finds a happy medium between mainstream dance pop (ala Robyn) and more experiemental production (ala The Knife). With an EP coming later this month, this band's blend of electro-pop will absolutely be filling large dance halls later this year. (Listen to "Revover")
Fronted by Rishi Dhir (formerly of The High Dials), Canadian indie rock band Elephant Stone somehow finds common ground between Elliott Smith, George Harrison and The Stone Roses while incorporating elements of traditional Indian music including the sitar, tabla, and dilruba. With stirring melodies, droning guitars, and lyrics with tinge of melancholy, this band is has a unique, yet loveably familiar sound. (Listen to "Heavy Moon")
The music of Brooklyn's Empress Of is a beautiful and blissful mess of glittery synths , junky drum machines, and vocals echoing into the cosmos. Like Grimes or Beach House, Empress Of's forthcoming EP Systems is all about mood and swirling harmonies that will fill the club. (Listen to "Don't Tell Me")
This year has no shortage of brash punk bands and grimey hardcore bangers -- from returning bands like Cloud Nothings and Wavves to up-and-comers like Parquet Courts and Metz. But the raucous pop punk of Scottish trio Paws has a way with an infectious hook and some thrashy guitars that'll surely win you over. (Listen to "Sore Tummy")