photo diary: Bellows
In a special Photo Diary series, we’ve teamed up with Topshelf Records to post a selection of words + photos from some Topshelf artists that attended SXSW. This photo diary comes to you courtesy of Bellows.
Bellows has been a band since 2010 and has somehow managed to never tour down to South by Southwest until this year. I think at first this was just a symptom of our touring style - we booked very slapdash tours through DoDIY and connections from friends, and basically only played house show type shows for our first four or five years of touring. Then after we moved into a slightly more industry-centric show vibe, there was a sense from peers that this festival was a lot of hoopla. I remember Mike Caridi from LVL UP telling me a horror story about carrying an amp and guitar like 5 blocks through super crowded streets because there was nowhere nearer to the venue that the band could load from. Others felt like the complicated restrictive artist contract was too heavy with legal threats to play in good conscience.
In the back of my mind, though, I felt like it didn't make sense to be curmudgeonly about the festival without having been there -- so many bands go to Austin and have a great time, and it also just felt like I wasn't entitled to having a judgment on the festival until I'd been there at least once. When Topshelf asked us to play their showcases it was a pretty ideal scenario - I'd wanted to tour in March on our new album anyway and it seemed like a good opportunity to play and meet people I'd been corresponding with on email for a long time.
Our actual experience at the festival was very chaotic and possibly not indicative of what the festival is really like. One reason for this is that we came into Austin for our first SXSW showcase and left the city right afterward for some non-SXSW shows, and then came back a few days later for more SXSW stuff. A lot of the photos I took are of our trip out of Austin when we went up to Dallas and Denton for some non-SXSW shows and sessions. The rest of the photos are either of my friend Paul North's house in Austin where we stayed while we were at the festival and had a BBQ, a hike I took with my friends Elise and Tonii from the band Oceanator, or of our last day at the festival where we played the Topshelf Friend Oasis at Pearl St. Coop. At the end of the festival I felt like I was glad I'd done it and was glad to meet and spend time with friends at the Topshelf showcases, but that I felt like the atmosphere at the festival as a whole was celebrating a relationship to music that felt really alien to me.
I was trying articulate to my bandmate Frank, after we'd spent some time at the festival, why I felt so weird while I was there. Frank used to run a venue in Asheville and has generally spent more time on the show-booking side of things than I have. He loved the festival and had a great time bouncing from show to show and seeing tons of music. Seeing how positive and excited he was about the festival made me consider why I felt so differently from everybody else there -- was I just being sour on it for no reason? Or am I anti-social? Just a hater? After some soul-searching, I landed on what I think the issue I was having was. Every conversation I had with music people while I was at SXSW seemed to be structured around a FOMO type of thinking -- "did you see X band at Mohawk?" "you guys are on tour with X band?? That's awesome, I know them from X thing!" "X band sold out how many nights at Bowery Ballroom??" etc. The type of relationships people were forming seemed to be about asserting connections between the complex webs of friend-groups within regional music scenes, and putting faces to music-industry-monetary-connections people had formed through email. Everybody seemed so concerned with meeting every other person who was there, and establishing a kind of commodified relationship-rapport that, after I was around it for just a few hours, felt like a weird substitute for being interested in the music & art these people were making. I was joking with my friends that I felt like we could easily have just walked down Red River Street and told all the people we had conversations with "We're Bellows! We just played that showcase at Cheer Up Charlie's!" and it would have had essentially the same effect as playing the set. I was joking that it would be a funny performance art piece to just see how far a band could get by just walking around the venue-neighborhood and name-dropping a lot about supposed festival showcases they'd been on, like whether a band could potentially make just as many career inroads by saying they'd done cool industry power-move stuff they hadn't actually done to enough industry people as the countless real bands who actually play a ton of festivals when they're in Austin actually do?
I get that this is a negative way to think about the festival, and I don't actually think the whole thing is just for schmoozers who don't care about music. But I do think that SXSW is mostly made for people who are interested in the breadth of music rather than specific artists. I think the festival works best for a kind of music A&R person mentality, about interest in genres -- like, here are all the best examples of bedroom pop and lo-fi -- rather than, like, "here's my favorite band and I love these specific songs by them". Having been working in music for almost 10 years, I find the mentality that SXSW makes you have, that you're one of 10 billion bands and you're all essentially the same band, vying for the same peanuts of attention from the same media overlords, really toxic and antithetical to the mindset I need to have to feel positive about being a working artist. To feel okay as a working artist, at least for me, I think on some level involves believing that your work has a special and specific reason to exist outside of the value of "indie rock" or "lo-fi" as a monolithic whole. When I think about "indie rock" in general, it strikes me a regressive, old-fashioned and dull genre kept alive by nostalgic companies mostly for the purpose of selling IPA beers. But when I think about a specific album I've had an intense, private relationship with, like Sufjan Stevens' Carrie and Lowell for instance, it’s obvious to me why this music should exist. It's speaking directly to me, to private experiences in my life that are validated and articulated by beautiful cosmic art. Like, what else is life for then that?
Broad listening, in the way SXSW sells it to you, suggests that you're somehow out of the loop if you haven't engaged with the whole of culture. The subtext of broad listening is anxious and corporately focused: you need to consume every example of indie rock and lo fi in tiny minute long fragments, and bend your listening to accommodate the tiny attention span of the blogosphere, constantly turning your attention to the next band on the conveyor belt. The best moments I had at SXSW were moments when I had a second to actually sit down and talk to a friend in music for longer than two seconds, or to hear a band that was worth listening to for longer than a couple songs. Though the anxious summer-camp vibe at the festival can be cool for voracious listeners who want to be sure they haven't missed out on a single hype band, it can feel a little alienating for people who prefer to listen to music in focused, attentive ways. But knowing that there were still a few of us at the festival, despite the throngs of broad listeners and beer buyers, was nice to hold in the back of my mind anyhow.