New York duo LEYA were scheduled to start their set at noon at the Hotel Vegas Annex, some moody, experimental, and neoclassical sounds to begin my fifth day of music at this year’s annual South By Southwest festival here in Austin, Texas. Meanwhile, post punk band Russian Baths, quirky Chicago lo-fi act Dehd, and Italian shoegazers Rev RevRev were all waiting in the wings to play after. Cans of beer were ready to be cracked open. Swag was ready to be procured. Music was ready to be heard. Meanwhile, I was some 20 miles up north in Round Rock, Texas, screaming into my car, shaking my fist at the heavens, and kicking at a child seat that refused to be removed. An hour earlier, I had left my 3-year old son at home with his aunts and then driven over to my mom’s house to deliver my 5-year old son to spend the afternoon with her. I was only running a couple of minutes behind but felt like I could swap over the car seat from my vehicle to my mom’s in no time, having become somewhat of a pro at that sort of thing ever since becoming a father almost 6 years ago.
Things did not go as smoothly as I hoped.
Somebody, I really have absolutely no idea who and I swear it wasn’t me, secured the car seat in the back in such a way as to never be removed. The seatbelt from my car had been somehow jammed underneath the metal bars within the child seat that basically make up the structural integrity of the whole thing, and there was no getting it out. I pushed. I pulled. I took a screwdriver to it. I used a hammer. I used a knife. I examined YouTube videos to find some kind of clue. I tried to twist and turn the seat around to get better leverage, but that belt was there to stay. And to make it all so much worse, my car’s seatbelt tightened and tightened, becoming so taut that I couldn’t re-secure the seat either. There was no getting it out and there was no setting it up. And I lost my cool. Fuming and profanity and rage, punches thrown at car seats and screaming into the void, until I finally had to admit defeat. My mom told me that she and my son would just stay at the house and that I should go on. By then it was already noon.
So yeah, I missed LEYA.
This is SXSW with kids.
In some capacity or another, I’ve been doing the whole SXSW thing since I moved to Austin way back in 1997, attending in-store performances or free parties and whatnot. And I’ve never felt the need to pay for the full experience, passing overthe expensive badges and wristbands forthe ever steady increase of day parties and free shows around the city. It’s been great. From catching performances from bands like The Go! Team or The Helio Sequence inside a packed and probably fire code violating Waterloo Records to seeing Black Mountain or The Breeders on an outdoor stage at Waterloo Park downtown, my early forays into the circus that is SXSW were fun and plentiful, growing even more so once I started taking the whole week off from work to go out and explore. And admittedly to party too.
With nowhere to be, I went everywhere. And as the festival grew and grew, with more and more events, shows, and parties to find (as well as more and more people, bullshit, and corporate sponsorship in tow), I was never left wanting for free music or free food or free beer…or free useless, promotional swag of course. I could end up anywhere seeing anything, and I did:
– Catching pre-notoriety sets from bands like Best Coast, S U R V I V E, and Cloud Nothings in a makeshift performance space in an alleyway/empty field in East Austin drinking a frozen cocktail out of a coconut.
– Downing free Red Bull and vodka in a downtown parking lot in the freezing cold watching DJ Jazzy Jeff and Mos Def.
– Meeting David Cross in a gas station buying an 18-pack of Tecate.
– Having a friend sneak my wife and me into official showcases ahead of all the badge/wristband people.
– Witnessing what may have been the best and most entertaining back to back to back performances I have ever seen (Fucked Up followed by Andrew WK followed by GWAR).
– Getting shitfaced drunk in the middle of the day in the parking lot at Waterloo Records with one of my best friends (he was skipping work) and watching a set by Hunx and His Punx.
– Unknowingly standing between Tyler the Creator and Syd the Kid until they joined fellow Odd Future members Mellowhype on stage.
– Drinking all day long at Spiderhouse watching a slew of psych rock bands and realizing that if need be I could just walk home.
– Eating breakfast tacos for every meal.
– Watching a bunch of bands perform at a day party at a nursery in East Austin, plants and shrubs and flowers surrounding everyone.
– Going to a random house party that was supposed to have bands playing but getting there way too early and feeling awkward as I drank a beer from their fridge, eyes on me, the house’s residents wondering just who the hell I was.
– Drinking way too many free beers at the now defunct Club De Ville with my wife and then wandering aimlessly around town.
– Going out night after night to see Harlem or Questlove or Salem or GZA or Har Mar Superstar, and drinking too much beer, and not having to worry about it.
– Watching my wife vomit outside the old Emo’s and being ready to explain to the police that it was because she was pregnant and not because she’s a drunk.
– Just coming home to sleep.
This was SXSW before having kids.
But it’s 2019 now, and I do have kids, and so maneuvering my way around this city-wide carnival is a little more challenging than it used to be. And not just because I’m old and tired.
Wednesday provided me with absolutely too many options to try and take in. With only a realistic time table of 5 to 6 hours to check any and everything out, certain things were going to have to be cut. Granted, it’s like this everyday at SXSW. There’s just too much going on. When talking to first timers, my only real piece of advice is to resign yourself to the fact that you are going to miss something amazing. It’s inevitable, but you can find solace in the other fact that you are also going to see something amazing.
So, with only so much time and only so many parking spaces available in Austin, I had to forego seeing local shoegaze act Blushing at the Historic Scoot Inn whilst gorging myself on mudbugs at the venue’s scheduled crawfish boil that day. I also had to skip out on dozens of different bands from all over the world over at Spiderhouse, and probably a hundred other equally awesome events taking place throughout the city. And that sucks, BUT I did get to catch Japanese pop band CHAI’s delightfully fun and silly performance on the indoor stage at Mohawk. Their set included matching outfits, an A cappella rendition of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” and plenty of band/audience call and response. And I did get to see the UK’s ultra-hyped and uncategorizable band Black Midi play next door at Cheer Up Charlie’s, an enthralling mix of noise, post punk, math rock, and so much more. So, missed something awesome, saw something awesome. It all evens out, I guess.
Far from awesome was the traffic on the freeway trying to make my way back north to pick up a child. I even bailed early, walking out to my car shortly after 4 o’clock in the vain hope that I could beat Austin rush hour.
PRO TIP: You cannot beat Austin rush hour. Austin rush hour beats you. Every time.
After about an hour and a half, I finally made it to my mom’s house to pick up my 3-year old, tense and cranky but thankful that my wife was picking up my older son from school, as there was just no way I could do both. I mean, there was a way I could pick up both, but it would have involved me leaving even earlier or not going out at all.
Come on man.
My oldest son was born in the spring of 2013. Obviously, my life has been much different ever since. Going out became really, really hard. There was a time when I went to concerts with the fervent reliability of an obsessed groupie, disposable income and drinks and jams and late weeknights. Also, my wife and I used to go the movies maybe two or three times a month. And we went out to eat. Or we went to parties. Or to bars. And on and on and on, these things we gradually lessen or give up because we’ve got to watch the baby, or because we’re exhausted, or because we don’t want to pay for a sitter, but mainly because we just want to be at home with our kid. That’s the big one. Priorities change I guess. BUT, the desire for grownup things and fun never completely subsides, and the healthy thing to do is to partake every now and again.
So, with fewer bars, concerts, movies, and restaurants on my agenda, I carved out a little me-time to coincide with my city’s annual bacchanalia, using my vacation days for music and alcohol, as well as occasional jaunts around town with my wife when her work schedule allows it. She wants (needs) to have fun too, and with someone needed to watch our son, we decided to take turns in the evening. We both got one night out while the other stayed home to be the parent. And so, my wife would go to people and celebrity watch with her friends downtown or attend a party with Elijah Wood as deejay, and the following night I would attend some kind of free party with a million-garage rock or psychedelic bands to melt my face off. It worked out pretty well.
And then we had another baby in 2016.
And we moved out to the suburbs.
And just like that, night shows weren’t really a thing anymore.
Mondays and Tuesdays at SXSW are generally my most relaxed days, even with my affinity for cramming in as much as I possibly can. Despite the numerous parties and shows that go on that first weekend, and the film stuff, and the interactive stuff, most of the music part of the festival does not really kick into high gear until Wednesday. And honestly that probably makes Monday and Tuesday my favorites. Crowds are more manageable, parking is available, energy is still high, and the city hasn’t devolved into complete chaos yet. It’s perfect.
Mornings are still a little hectic though. Or, it’s not so much that they’re hectic as they’re just normal mornings of getting kids off to school or daycare or Grandma’s house. Once all of that is out of the way, then vacation mode can begin in earnest, and the beer and music flow.
But you gotta watch that beer.
On Monday, I hit up the annual Strange Brew party at Hotel Vegas in east Austin, a 2PM to 2AM melee of psych, punk, and garage rock, and usually a show that clues me on to some excellent artists I may have otherwise been unfamiliar with. Performances from a couple of UK bands were the winners for me that day, with some raucous, stoner garage rock from Table Scraps and some weird and funky, proggy noise rock from the young 5-piece group Squid. Another thing that tends to happen at these Monday Strange Brew parties is that I inevitably make a friend. Every year I end up spending an hour or two with some random dude shooting the proverbial shit about anything and everything. This year it was a tall, skinny waiter from Chili’s whose plan was to get just drunk enough that they’d send him home when he went in to work later that evening. Last year it was a high school football coach and history teacher from a small town near Dallas who spoke glowingly about his students and looked exactly like Clay Matthews. And so on and so on. Generally speaking, I don’t feel like I’m just some super approachable dude as I’m usually just hanging back, beer or cigarette in hand, focused on the music or jotting down notes in a journal. But approachable I must be, and I’m good with that I guess. It makes me feel like more of a social creature than I probably am, and this year, Chili’s waiter guy even bought me a Lone Star.
But then it was time to leave, a long drive ahead and children to procure and all that. And this is why you gotta watch that beer. Even if you’ve only had a couple, the smell can still be there, and as it turns out, picking up a kid from school or daycare with alcohol on your breath is generally frowned upon. So, gum or mint it up, and stay hydrated, and make sure you use the porta potty before getting on the road. While heading back north on Monday, I didn’t have any gum and was in drastic need of a restroom. Thankfully, my wife had left work just a few minutes early and was able to pick up both boys, and so sent me on a dinner mission instead. So, I got to stop and hurriedly pee at a Wendy’s before heading home with a big bag of junk and fast food. Relief.
Tuesday was still chill, spending some time in the morning with my youngest until my mother-in-law showed up to watch him for the rest of the day. From there, I split my time between parties at Cheer Up Charlie’s and Mohawk on Red River downtown. I caught shows from artists like indie rock group Disq, Swedish pop duo Morabeza Tobacco (performing their first ever live show), Montreal synth pop band Sorry Girls, the always entertaining D.C. punk band Priests, legendary New Zealand jangle pop group The Chills, Philadelphia shoegaze act Nothing, and more. And I probably drank a little too much having been given the okay to stay out later than normal (6PM!!!), my wonderful wife attending to the kids.
But then it was home to baths and homework and bedtime. And to letting that buzz drift away.
Here is a list of artists I really wanted to see this year, and had every intention of seeing, yet missed for whatever reason (there are many):
– The aforementioned LEYA (because of that goddamn car seat)
– Montreal pop artist Munya
– Blushing and a crawfish boil (mythirdmissed crawfish boil that week)
– Thee Oh Sees (or whatever iteration of their name they’re using these days) who literally played every single night
– Be Forest
– Jonathan Bree
– Frankie and The Witch Fingers
– Anemone (multiple times)
– Mike Krol
– Alice Phoebe Lou
– Blood Cultures
– Odonis Odonis
– Japanese punk band Otoboke Beaver (I’m really upset about this one)
– Ian Brown (of Stone Roses fame)
– Drab Majesty (I have wanted and failed to see these guys four times over the last three years. I’m beginning to think it’s just not supposed to happen.)
There are a lot more, but you get the idea.
For my birthday in 2016, my wife got me a weekend pass to attend the Levitation Music Festival held out at the Carson Creek Ranch just outside of Austin. I was crazy excited about the fest, artists like Slowdive, Royal Trux, King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard, and Brian Wilson appearing on the docket with a veritable lineup of bands and music seemingly geared specifically towards me. And then the day before the festival was to start, the clouds began to darken, the wind began to pick up, and the judgement call was made last minute to cancel the whole event due to inclement weather. Torrential rains, lightning, hail, and 80-MPH wind gusts were in the forecast, all things that don’t pair well with an outdoor music festival. I was shocked. I was devastated. I had a 3-day weekend ahead of me with shit all to do. But ultimately, it was the right call, as the ranch did end up sustaining some flooding and wind damage, and the lightning was intense. Levitation though, has never quite been the same ever since.
But those same organizers do throw a SXSW event every year, and I make it a point to attend.
So, on Thursday, I found myself at Hotel Vegas once again for Levitation’s day party and showcase. Before going in, I made my way to East Austin a little early to hit up local brewery Lazarus which is just down the street from the venue. They had their own party going on, so I sat outside in the sunshine drinking good beer (the Amandus Belgian Strong Golden Ale to be exact) and listening to the pop rock sounds of Spanish band Yawners. Soon after, my wife escaped the shackles of her job for a little while and joined me at Levitation. Excellent sets from local psych folk artist Jess Williamson, funky Congolese post punk band KOKOKO!, and another from the sweethearts in CHAI followed. But my favorite performance of the day by far was Australian punk rock act Amyl & The Sniffers, whose set was filled to the brim with raucous, snotty energy and frenetic, sneering jams. That’s the stuff alright.
A short while later I found myself once again in Austin traffic ever so slowly making my way back up north to suburban sprawl and parenthood.
My weeks at SXSW are never just music and beer and child rearing. This city provides an absolute bounty of different things to do on a normal day, multiplied by a thousand when theyearly proverbial circus is in town. So, aside from day parties and showcases, I’ll inevitably end up at a screening, or an art installation, or an exhibit, pop-up market, brewery, or fair. In the past I’ve ventured out of the city limits to spend an afternoon at Jester King Brewery for a new beer release, and I’ve shopped different people’s crafts and wares at a temporary flea market, and I’ve ogled actual Batmobiles at a DC Comics pop-up, and I’ve ended up taking tickets and serving pints of Guinness to a bunch of drunks at some pub’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration.
2019 offered up some extracurricular activities as well. Mondo Gallery has long held openings that coincide with the festival, and this year’s event was a showing of graphic artist Greg Ruth’s Twin Peaksinspired prints. As my SXSW vacation did not technically start until my work day ended on that first Saturday, a co-worker and I took a long lunch to visit the gallery and meet the artist. And the prints were amazing. Just beautiful, mesmerizing stuff.
Naturally I came home with one.
Later Saturday evening I met up with an old friend from out of town for a quick dinner and drinks before he and his wife headed out to watch Kacey Musgraves perform at Stubb’s. On the way to Oddwood Ales in East Austin to find my friend, I drove past a crawfish boil at a local bar called Haymaker, which coincidentally was where I almost suggested for us to meet. This would end up being the first crawfish boil I missed out on that week.
The following day, my wife and I took the kids to an art installation, a light themed interactive event that found us all wading through a neon ball pit, moving our bodies to cast different light patterns on the wall, and screaming into a microphone to light up a room in various phases. It was neat, and it was kind of difficult to convince the boys we had to eventually leave. Shortly thereafter we found ourselves at Whitestone Brewing in the Cedar Park suburb for good craft beer and another crawfish boil. It was not to be though, as they were already sold out of crawfish by the time we got there, thus making it the second boil I missed for the week.
Hunger for mud bugs unsatiated, we returned home to do whatever it is families of four do on Sundays.
The closing Saturday at SXSW used to be a virtual free-for-all for me. Years ago, the now inoperative “Mess With Texas” party would be the kind of all-day affair I could lose myself in. Their lineups were always phenomenal, this being the event that gave me that aforementionedFucked Up, Andrew W.K., and GWAR show all in one sitting, and you generally can’t beat a day in the park in Austin in March. Or I’d spend the whole day listening to music at Spiderhouse, or Emo’s, or whatever cordoned off area of the city was presently being used for a performance space. Long days, late nights, and probably more fun than I ever deserved.
Once I had kids though, Saturday mellowed out a lot. With both my wife and I at home, we’d try to find some kind of kid-friendly event to go to (we still do). This meant going to the final day of Waterloo Records’ instore performances (now held out in the parking lot) or something like the annual South By San José party put on by the hip, boutique Hotel San José in South Austin. We look for open spaces with live music in the air, arts and crafts, vendors, ice cream, and typically someplace where I can still get a beer. And these events are fun, my boys’ first concerts that they’ll never remember, most notably my oldest son getting to see hip-hop duo Mobb Deep in 2014.
But they usually don’t last too long. I understand. It’s hard to convince a 4-year old to hang out in a parking lot all afternoon…ice cream or no.
So more recently, my closing Saturdays have been even more low key, with only a couple of artists to see here or there. This year though, I first had to endure the trials and tribulations of another kid’s birthday party. Being a parent can be rewarding and amazing in so many ways, witnessing the world in a whole new light through your child’s eyes, but then a weekend’s worth of other kids’ birthday parties comes along, smacks you in the face, and brings everything crashing back down to earth. I would rather do anything than go to another kid’s birthday party: clean the house, yardwork, late hours at the office, exercise, change the nastiest of dirty diapers, water torture, whatever. That may sound meanspirited or awful or heartless, but I can assure you, the other kid’s birthday party is far worse. They are the bane of my existence. So, after spending a morning at an indoor playground surrounded by screams and chaos and runny noses, I somehow managed to convince my family to go back out to Lazarus Brewing for their last day of parties and see somewhat abbreviated sets from UK band THYLA and Japan’s DYGL. I could have stayed there the rest of the afternoon, drinking craft beer and listening to music in the shady patio area, but the kids were more content to eat pizza at Via 313 next door, and honestly, I think so was my wife.
We loaded the car and headed home soon after.
It’s my hope that in the years to come my boys will get more of a taste for this kind of thing, happy to spend some days off from school hanging out with their dad among a great sea of artists, promoters, hipsters, teenagers, drunks, stoners, and aging music fanatics like me.
When I was a sophomore in college, my roommate and I were sitting in our living room on the final day of our Spring Break, bemoaning the fact that we had to go back to class the following morning. Neither one of us was really feeling it, so we came up with an idea. As Spring Break can fall on a different week depending on the university or independent school district you’re in, we reasoned that it was still Spring Break somewhere in the country, and thus used that as justification for skipping our classes. So we did. For the whole next week. And we dubbed it simply enough, “Second Spring Break,” a brilliant or moronic concept depending on who you speak to.
Anyway, it’s been 20 years since I last got to enjoy a “Second Spring Break,” but it kind of happened this year. For some reason or another, the Austin school district’s break did not fall on the same week as SXSW, which aside from creating even more of a traffic issue during the festival, also lead me to have to take a few extra days off from work to watch my sons. So I found myself floating around in a perennial haze, that “Second Spring Break” feeling, but with no music to see, and delaying the inevitable encroaching SXSW comedown.
Every now and then, I get to see one last show on Sunday. In years past, that has meant a slew of experimental drone bands at a pizza parlor, punk rock tribute acts at the old Emo’s, or a family friendly performance from “Japanese action comic punk” band Peelander Z at a park by a duck pond. This year, with my sister in town to visit, my wife and I were able to venture out one last time, my boys more than happy to spend an afternoon with their aunt and cousins. We ended up at an all-day party at a place on the eastside called Big Easy Bar & Grill, a New Orleans transplant run by a couple of Hurricane Katrina refugees. A dive bar aesthetic with old Mardi Gras paraphernalia on the walls and a total sweetheart manning the counter, the venue had a homey feel with great food and cold beer…
I finally got to have some crawfish, the good folks at Big Easy hosting a boil out in their back, grassy patio area. And with a belly full of crustaceans, potatoes, and sausage, I enjoyed a couple of loud and intimate sets from proggy Chinese duo Gong GongGong, Chinese post punk band David Boring and New York goth-tinged group Cindy Cane.
Heading back north one last time for the week, the pangs of melancholy slowly settled in, that bittersweet feeling as vacation time concludes and the real world rises once more.
And then there’s that comedown.
A few days later I sat at my desk at work, staring at pixels and nothingness, fighting the urge to research upcoming shows and events as I didso many days prior to SXSW. I looked at the pictures I took, read the notes I’d taken, sampled more of the bands I saw or missed, and perused over my blog posts (yeah, I’m a music blogger I guess). The circus had left town. Traffic had returned to normal, still terrible. The regular epidemic of cold and flu that descends upon Austin every year after the festival was in full swing. The local naysayers and contrarians who bemoan the fest every year went on naysaying and being contrarian, but about something else. And my usual days of work and parenthood went back into effect. Man, that return to reality and the everyday to and fro kind of sucks.
But I’ll be back at it again next year (hopefully) and every year after that (again, hopefully). And maybe when they’re just a little bit older, my boys will be out there with me, and I won’t owe eternal gratitude to Mimi and Grammy and Aunt Jenn and Aunt Suzy and Aunt Kiki and so on. As for now though, I wouldn’t be able to do this fun and crazy thing without any of them, and I appreciate and love them all for it.
SXSW has become this regular, annual vacation like thing for me, even at 40 with a couple of kids. Here’s to that never stopping.
Oh, and I ended up having to cut out the seatbelt in my car in order to remove the car seat. Damn it.
“From a bunker somewhere in Central Texas, Thomas Williams lives with his wife, two sons, and increasingly neurotic dog. He loves music, horror movies, and beer, and he tries to get out from time to time. For even more shenanigans, visit heavenisanincubator.