12 Can't-Miss Austin Bands at SXSW
Hip-hop, roots rock, pop, shoegaze, and more to keep your ears ringing
By The Music Staff,
12:05AM, Thu. Mar. 7, 2019
Want to hear the music that Austinites are buzzing about right now, before they bust out of the Live Music Capital's confines? Our music staff has a dozen acts looking to impress out-of-towners and locals alike.
"My parents introduced me to the Clash and the Ramones and stuff like that," begins Rhys Woodruff, 23, drummer/singer of 5-year-old power punks Borzoi, his tale dovetailing nicely with those of bandmates Taylor Browne, bass, and guitarist/vocalist Zach Wood. "Then I went to college and was hanging out with Taylor and Zach. In one week, I was shown the Fall, the Birthday Party, Mission of Burma, and the Urinals. I didn't know these bands existed.
"But we also really like pop music," he adds.
"We used to be just noise," offers Browne, 26. "Then we all got really obsessed with David Bowie's Low. That record is really pop, but it's like, 'Fuck! How much can you do within this framework?'"
"Or early Brian Eno records," interjects Wood, 28, also the bassist for Leche.
"Then we'd listen to James Brown records," says Browne. "This got us wondering how you can have this angry, Birthday Party-style punk, but with a really centered kind of pop rhythm. That's what we love."
All that's audible in Borzoi. Unleashed last fall on Matador Records maven Gerard Cosloy's homegrown 12XU Records, debut full-length A Prayer for War remains a hostile, violent affair. Two preceding singles and EP Surrender the Farm didn't capture the trio's hyperkinetic live assault. It took rising local producer Ian Rundell (Spray Paint, Xetas, Exhalants) to imprint Borzoi's post-punk mosh onto tape.
The underlying funk germinated when Browne and Woodruff met in Fairview, and once the trio's jams and art-punk listening sessions started cohering toward what we now know as Borzoi – named for a breed of Russian wolfhound on a T-shirt owned by Wood – their racket crafted an opposition to the modern psychedelia so beloved by millennial Austin.
"This is how you should progress in any form of art," says Woodruff. "You should react to what's come before, and like or dislike it, then build on that. Which is what's unfortunate about this country – people don't do that.
"They just find a sound and stick with it. We don't know who the fuck we are, but we know we don't want to be that." – Tim Stegall
Sat. 16, Hotel Vegas @ Volstead, 12:15am
Friends since middle school, Austin natives Zeale (Valin Zamarron) and Phranchyze (J.J. Shaw) count hip-hop collaborations going back some 15 years. Occasionally serving as the other's hype man and rap battle partner, the MCs never officially paired up before Blackillac – which almost didn't happen.
Last year, Zeale moved to L.A. to push his music, while Phranchyze – now with a wife, two kids, and a mortgage – considered passing the mic for good. That is, until another day-one friend, Gary Clark Jr., called.
"Gary had two sold-out shows at the Paramount Theatre," Zeale remembers. "Afterward, he was like, 'Yo, come to the hotel,' and he started playing us beats. For two or three hours, we were freestyling with Gary to these beats. I was like, 'Damn dude, this is what you do on the tour bus?'"
Phranchyze wasn't surprised that his former Austin High classmate is a top-shelf beatmaker.
"I rap, but I love blues, I love metal, I love punk," he says. "I like everything. That holds true for a lot of Austin cats. Gary is a literal guitar hero, but at the same time, his production from a hip-hop perspective is so tight and so crisp."
An honorary member of the crew, Clark Jr. frequently jumps onstage with Blackillac to lace a hook behind syrupy vocals. An EP produced by the blues titan sits ready to drop at just the right moment, and although the Clark Jr. connection may amplify the audience, Blackillac hinges on the interplay of Zeale and Phranchyze: the former a fast-rapping, festival-ready natural and the latter spitting curveballs packed with NBA minutiae and blunted one-liners.
"Blackillac is like a Southern black family dinner: Everybody's welcome," affirms Zeale. "It's just a warm, Southern, eccentric vibe." – Thomas Fawcett
Sat. 16, Belmont, 9:45pm
Austin seems like an unlikely location for the latest shoegaze revival, but its current wave of guitar bands combining Eighties pop with Sixties psych crashes to shore with the earsplitting shimmer of the original Nineties flood. Fronted by San Antonio native Nicolas Nadeau, Single Lash stands at the forefront of this Lone Star dream via third LP (and first for local label Holodeck), Providence.
Joined by Marcus Rubio on bass, Rudy Smith-Villarreal on drums, and guitarist Neil Lord, the band has already shared its glistening crunch and savvy songcraft on local stages with inspirations including Killing Joke, Modern English, and Clan of Xymox. That's a long way from the group's humble beginnings. Nadeau began playing guitar in 2009 while attending the Rhode Island School of Design.
"I was seriously bummed out," he explains about picking up the axe at age 19. "There was a missing piece in my life. I had songs running in my head, and no idea how to do anything with them. I was this really sullen, angry dude. The first time I strung my guitar, I strung it backwards so the low E was at the bottom, but I kept banging away at it until I could do it."
Nadeau formed the band immediately after becoming a musician.
"Single Lash was my first and basically only project," he confirms. "So if you go back and listen to everything, it's a pretty clear illustration of my personal evolution."
A decade later, the genial bandleader shows little sign of lingering angst but still draws on positive purgation.
"Life is inherently sad and dark. You don't have to force it," says Nadeau. "That just means you recognize the beauty in the inherent sadness of reality, and then hopefully you can transmit that into something cathartic." – Michael Toland
Thu. 14, Hotel Vegas @ Volstead, 11:55pm
In the beginning, Michelle Soto's melodies were trapped in her head.
"I had no experience with electric instruments," the Blushing guitarist/songwriter explains of her 2015 mindset. "What was so frustrating was that I had these songs I wanted to write, but I had all these barriers to actually make this music: 'I'm not good at guitar, I can't sing.'"
Then, she approached longtime friend and classically trained singer Christina Carmona. Blushing thus began as an acoustic duo, but the early living room sessions yielded more Indigo Girls and less the celestial, Cocteau Twins-infused shoegaze they pummel now. Carmona picked up bass, and in 2016 they added their husbands to the lineup. Jake Soto's years of drumming in hardcore bands and Noe Carmona's expertise on guitar rounded out the quartet's thundering wall of sound.
The band found an early supporter in Cheer Up Charlies booker Trish Connelly, who booked Blushing's first gig in 2017. They quickly became omnipresent locally, churning out two EPs while their debut LP, recorded and produced by Ringo Deathstarr's Elliott Frazier, is due later this year. Blushing's name now appears constantly on Austin bills, their live sets an intensified version of the studio work.
"I grew up playing the piano and violin," says Carmona. "When I plugged the bass into the amp, I was like, 'Whoa, this is so much power!' We wanted to play into that."
Blushing's tactile sound blossoms from a juxtaposition of gutsiness: Carmona's break from the rigidity of classical training and Soto's innate composing from an untrained background. The former admires the latter's intuitive approach.
"When you don't have a whole lot of knowledge in a subject, you're not afraid to make mistakes," Carmona says. "You don't know what the mistakes are, so you don't limit yourself." – Libby Webster
Thu. 14, 720 Club Patio, 12:45am
Traveling last summer, Shirley Zhu found two international connects to her songwriting as Fuvk. A visit to Bratislava, Slovakia, marked her first IRL meeting with Z Tapes founder Filip Zemčík, who distributes Zhu's lo-fi bedroom pop. The label's reach includes all-cassette hideout Waltz in Tokyo.
"The store was tucked away in a little residential neighborhood, and I was like, 'Hey, there's my tape,'" recalls Zhu of her Japan stop. "This little old man at the cash register showed me a picture of my cassette on his bookshelf at home."
The intimate encounter embodies Zhu's niche reach, quite impressive considering Fuvk's first live sets occurred a year ago. The name sourced from a friend's typo in 2016 long stood as the recent UT master's grad's only musical identifier. The 23-year-old says half her reason for namelessness was "not wanting to be pretentious like, 'Music, lyrics, and composition written by Shirley Zhu.'
"The other half was insecurity," she continues. "I didn't want what I look like or my personality to reflect poorly on the music. [Anonymity] allows you to be vulnerable to strangers, but not to people you know."
Chatting after a workday in data analysis for gaming giant Electronic Arts, and a Sofar Sounds set the night before, Zhu says release from two back-to-back long-term relationships prompted the project's recent spike in live activity. New EP Golden Girl emerged Feb. 28, and now the singer/guitarist endeavors her first SXSW with Brandon Torio on keys and Thomas Neupert on electronic drums.
"My last relationship was that scenario where you just shut in and waste away together or something," says Zhu. "When that ended, I really needed to do some shit and be productive. Getting out there and playing shows was the logical next step." – Rachel Rascoe
Sat. 16, CU29, 9pm
Five years passed before Western Youth followed up its debut EP with last fall's eponymous long-player. The wait produced one of 2018's best local platters. Credit the addition of veteran songwriter Graham Weber, who combined with group principal Taylor Williams to craft material worthy of the sextet's hard-driving roots & roll.
"There were a lot of fits and starts," admits Williams of cutting the LP. "With Graham coming on board though, it was a completely different dynamic – just having that other voice in the room."
"I just didn't want to fuck up the band, because I loved these guys," laughs Weber, sitting with his co-conspirator outside the Hard Luck Lounge. "I drove around the country by myself for a lot of years, and I just wanted to make something else. The nice thing about the big band [is] there are six brains working, and it's the most fun I've had."
Intended as a one-off collaboration with the band backing Weber on an EP, the two songwriters found a natural chemistry in their distinctive styles. Weber details narratives, while Williams hooks into anthems. Combined with scene veterans, including the addition of Heartless Bastards guitarist Mark Nathan, Western Youth taps into the kind of rollicking road show of the Band or Tom Petty.
"We're a cast of misfits," nods Williams. "It's a big band, and we move a lot of air. Everybody's playing off of each other really well and it feels different now than it ever has."
"The more we play together, the more comfortable we are to go off and see where it goes," adds Weber. "It's a band built for a big stage, but if we can get in front of crowd, I think we can convert them." – Doug Freeman
Sat. 16, Cooper’s BBQ, 12mid
Something funny happened on the way to this side project. It overtook the parent band.
Austin punk's most charismatically spastic frontman Mike Wiebe – whose energy level remains too off-the-charts to be contained by Riverboat Gamblers, Ghost Knife, High Tension Wires, stand-up comedy, or the most hilarious feed on Twitter – needed yet another outlet in 2015. He hooked up with Rise Against guitarist Zach Blair, a friend of 20 years who served time in Gwar and Nineties Dallas punk-pop sensations Hagfish, to create Drakulas, along with fellow Gamblers Rob Marchant on bass and Ian Walling on drums. Auxiliary member Daniel Fried of Bad Sports/Radioactivity/etc., provides keyboards and other needed instrumentation.
"He's one of the handful of people I know who can exclusively write 'musician' on his tax returns," smirks Wiebe of Blair over coffee one cloudy afternoon at a Riverside hot spot. "He fills in for some of the guys in the Gamblers sometimes."
Songs they wrote heavily reference Van Nuys' venerable punk goofballs the Dickies. They also came from another world: a late Seventies/early Eighties, comic-bookish New York that Wiebe imagined as an 8-year-old growing up Texan.
"It's like a mash-up of the opening to Welcome Back, Kotter; The Warriors; and Taxi Driver," he chuckles.
Factor in a fascination with porn's golden age, vampires, street gangs, and art movements and slang that only exist in Wiebe's unlocked imagination. This fuels Drakulas' highly theatrical stage shows, 2015 Red Scare EP Owowowowowowow, and the following year's Dirtnap Records full-length Raw Wave. It also drives the group's forthcoming sophomore LP, scheduled for this fall on a to-be-disclosed label.
"I have these very specific rules," Wiebe explains. "Like I can't reference anything modern. It's nice to have these limitations to write on. It makes it more creative." – Tim Stegall
Wed. 13, Bungalow, 9pm
"Night glitter" became the term for twilight lightning bugs, or fireflies, twinkling around the river near John Michael Schoepf and his daughter's home before it became the name of his band with LouLou Ghelichkhani, the singer for Thievery Corporation with Parisian roots. Together, the multi-instrumentalist and the frontwoman create music largely through improvisation. Credit their dreamy, psych-gaze atmospherics, and relaxed sound to the duo spending as much time playing with post-production effects as recording.
"We're make-believe scientists experimenting with drum machines and a lot of vintage equipment," emails Ghelichkhani. "We have a single coming out this month and a goal of early summer for the full-length [debut]."
Arguably the most recognizable collaborator with Thievery Corporation, Ghelichkhani's airy French vocals (one of three languages she speaks) enhanced the lounge-y acid jazz and dub of the Washington, D.C., act founded in 1996. The Persian singer planted roots in Austin six years ago, fertilizing another capital's musical soil with the psychedelic folk sounds of Bone, Fur and Feathers in 2013 and playing Austin's beloved Psych Fest in 2014.
That project developed in collaboration with local cottage industry Adrian Quesada. Known for work with Grupo Fantasma, Ocote Soul Sounds, and the Best New Austin Band at last month's Austin Music Awards, Black Pumas, Quesada crossed paths with Thievery Corporation wherein he worked with the Buenos Aires-born singer and collaborator Natalia Clavier. Eventually, he helped produce the now defunct BF&F.
Cut to 2018, and the producer oversaw Schoepf adding guitar, bass, and twang vox to the synths, Farfisa, an electronic organ manned by Ghelichkhani in siren vocal mode. Live, she and Schoepf are joined by a drummer and guitarist.
"I am fired up about our first Night Glitter tours starting in May," writes Ghelichkani. – Christina Garcia
Tue. 12, Mohawk Outdoor, 9pm
The Reputations waste no time. Straight off the November release of their sophomore album Electric Power, the rocking local quintet has already begun recording its third LP.
"We've been in Memphis for about two weeks and we've been taking our time," phones in bassist/vocalist Justin Smith. "This album has more dynamics of yacht rock, electric piano, and tender moments filled in, not just an in-your-face record like our previous albums."
Product of a Phil Spector covers set at Barracuda in 2015, the locals coined the term "powersoul" to describe their 2017 debut Begging for More, which combined garage-pop with heavy-sweat soul informed by the incarcerated producer's seminal "Wall of Sound." A year later, the group traveled to Memphis to record Electric Power.
"Recording Begging for More was really laid-back in the woods of Huntsville with no time constraints," recounts Smith. "For Electric, we wanted to get out of Austin and experience that cabin fever of everyone sleeping in a tight Airbnb together and not being able to relax."
Produced by Big Star's Jody Stephens at Ardent Studios, the same space where the famous drummer's band recorded its albums, Electric Power draws from the same vein of Seventies jangle rock. Grounded by dynamite frontwoman Rockyanne Bullwinkel, Smith's squalling, strut-soul registers, and guiding wisdom from Seth Gibbs (their longtime collaborator and friend), the album boasts bad-boy guitar bravado on gentle caresser "Shake Me Baby" and twang boogie on shuffler "Neighborhood." On the eve of the release party at Hotel Vegas, Gibbs passed away from cancer at 36.
"Getting in a van with people I love and playing songs that I love was the best way to cope," admits Smith on having to tour immediately after Gibbs' passing. "He made me recognize the songwriter in myself, and I still hear his voice in the studio. He's still very much with us." – Alejandra Ramirez
Fri. 15, Friends, 1am
Harry Edohoukwa has a serious first-date question: "Are you a lyric person or a beats person?" For the 25-year-old rapper and singer, whether your brain gravitates toward pulse or prose says a lot about who you are.
"My girlfriend's a 'beats person,'" the Dallas native concedes. "But the first time I hear a song, I don't even hear the beat. I listen to what they're saying and how they're saying it."
Raised on Jamaican smooth stylist Beres Hammond and Afro-reggae messenger Lucky Dube – who, he notes, "used music as a tool, even if to say a simple thing like 'I love you'" – Edohoukwa later turned to Kanye, Kudi, and Frank Ocean, all bold lyricists. Those disparate influences inform the Austinite's singles: tuneful, ultra-modern deliveries that prove effective whether he's hyped or brooding. The island-accented "Mrs Mrs" details messing up a relationship, while new stream "Mad Max" focuses on "being okay with being crazy."
To the chagrin of his academic-minded Nigerian parents, Edohoukwa ditched pre-law and a track scholarship at Texas A&M University-Commerce to study business at Texas State, on the premise it'd help him navigate the music industry. Watching him perform today – expressive, swaggering, oozing star power – it's hard to imagine bookers weren't always blowing up the rapper's inbox.
"I just wanted a stage," confesses the MC, who routinely rented out venues over the last five years to promote his own performances, which find him linked to bassist/musical director Claudio Ramirez. Finally, he's getting looks, including opening slots for Duckworth and marquee placement on shows promoted by KUTX's hip-hop tastemakers The Breaks.
Making a name for himself is particularly meaningful for a kid who grew up sharing a forename with a popular boy wizard, and with a surname that's often mangled. (It's pronounced "Eed-oh-kwa.")
"People have been asking me how to say it all my life," he admits. "It's alright. Soon everyone will know how to say it." – Kevin Curtin
Wed. 13, Sheraton Backyard, TBA; Sat. 16, Barracuda, TBA
Neil Lord stays busy. Find him playing guitar and keys with Jess Williamson, Single Lash, Thousand Foot Whale Claw, and Long Shadow Duo. Even so, his productivity laser focuses on personal project Future Museums, an emotive journey into ambient environments with a decidedly un-ambient, fivepiece live show.
"With recording, I'm headed in a very straight-up ambient, New Age direction," he affirms. "But with the live band, I want it to be memorable. We're trying to embody Seventies psychedelia, Krautrock, and Western European influences from the Sixties and Seventies."
Like many of his Holodeck Records peers, Lord combines darkwave, ambient, and prog rock into moody, atmospheric compositions that might sneak onto a "Music for Zenning Out" playlist. They also have the potential to spiral into a deep, dark hole. It's music for both quiet mornings and dark evenings, meditation and contemplation. 2018's Rosewater Ceremony and its sequel, Rosewater Ceremony Part II: Guardian of Solitude, weave Eno-esque soundscapes of loss and rebirth, holding an emotional resonance unusual for ambient tunes.
"Those were recorded during the 2016 election and simultaneously with a breakup, so I was really creatively charged in different directions," says Lord. "I felt in control in a way that I hadn't been before, and it was the first time I was truly composing on synthesizer."
Revealing a forthcoming release on prolific ambient tape label Aural Canyon at Future Museums' SXSW showcase at the Hideout, the project also preps another fall release from Holodeck. In addition to their official festival show, Lord helms a de facto house band for the year six iteration of a secret all-day party in Dripping Springs.
"That first year, we set up deep in the woods, pulling our amps up with ropes to hang them from the trees," reveals Lord. "We played soft, ambient music all day while people just wandered around this 25-acre ranch." – Dan Gentile
Fri. 15, the Hideout, 1am
Born and raised in Bastrop, rapper Deezie Brown launched a fleet of winter/summer jams last February on Judith, a reference to the biblical widow who wins over then beheads Holofernes. Riding top down in Lamborghinis across spacious but bleak terrain, the chilly song cycle dotted the charms, pitfalls, and potholes of the mainstream. Seductive tracks like "I Fell in Love in a Two-Seater" and "Sheepskin/Shayne" offer paradise, and perdition, depending on the angle.
"I really wanted to tell a story about the industry and how you can become confused on what they display as success," explains Brown.
The MC (Devin to his mom) freezes sunshine tracks into arctic odysseys like Kid Cudi's Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin' while stitching together narratives that evoke a cinematic sense of place akin to Blade Runner or Mandy. Rooted in psychological seasons, Judith reflects gains and losses in Brown's own life. After the Bastrop fire torched most of his possessions, from his hard drive down to his shoes, the birth of his daughter inspired him to double-down on hip-hop.
"So now, on this next album, I can do what I want. Now I can make the music that's coming from my soul, from my heart, and from my home," he says.
That album is the more organic, less steely Hydrate, produced by former NBA star Chris Bosh. Even while recording Judith at Spitshine Studios on Burnet Road, Brown prepared for Hydrate by building up his home studio, where he now records on his days off from a six-days-a-week, 10-hours-a-day job as a postal worker. One of the studio's first fruits, a collaborative EP by Brown and Bosh, drops after SXSW.
"I'm not that artist that chases the bling and Lamborghinis," admits the Texan. "That ain't the life for me. I don't want any of this stuff. I'm going to go find happiness. So that's what I'm doing right now." – Rick Weaver
Wed. 13, Sheraton Backyard, TBA