Where's the Party?
Once upon a time, pretty much every Austin band you'd heard of had gotten their start playing at parties. It was a litmus test, an audition before the audition. It was the way you found out whether you were ready to go on a real stage, to face an actual audience.
"I saw the Texas Instruments first at parties," recalls South by Southwest creative director and local party veteran Brent Grulke. "I saw the Butthole Surfers first at parties. Scratch Acid, Zeitgeist/the Reivers, the Wild Seeds. That's just the tip of the iceberg."
Indeed, the living rooms of Austin's starving artists, students, and other bohemian types used to be the breeding ground for far more than just roaches -- they were where future iron butterflies first emerged from their larval stage. What is it that's so cool about seeing bands at a party?
"Parties kind of close off your audience -- people there tend to be of a like mind," muses Craig Stewart of Emperor Jones and formerly Trance Syndicate, who saw many of the bands in the Trance stable play at parties during that label's early Nineties existence. "Starfish played at parties, Windsor For the Derby would only play parties for a long time. It's more fun [for the bands]. You know you're not getting paid, so there's nothing to lose!"
It was in the final days of the Electric Lounge that I first began to wonder what had happened to the live band party. Not that long ago, bands would have learned their trade in front of a sliding glass door leading to the beer before even trying to get a gig at an "entry level" club like the Lounge. Now, with the Lounge closing and Bates Motel having given up the ghost earlier this year, Austin seems to be running out of band training grounds, clubs with a punk/DIY ethic like the Bates or long-departeds like the Cavity or Cannibal Club. In many cases, these clubs were the closest thing to the vital party experience a band could find -- often with the little- or no-pay element intact as well. There's still venerable old Emo's, the new Red Eyed Fly, and the tiny Purgatory, but if we were to lose even one more of these live music venues, well, Austin would be a sorry place for the young, loud, and snotty yearning to breathe free.
So where are the parties? Have they become a thing of the past, swallowed up and spit out by an ever larger, less friendly Austin, or is it merely the case -- as many people questioned posited -- that I'm out of touch with the scene? Have Austinites tired of having the cops appear at their doors and decided to call it a day?
I decided the only way to find out was to do the same thing one does any time they're looking for a party -- ask around. I began querying people pretty much everywhere my daily routine took me. Since I still live in the West Campus area, much of my research centered on that region. At Oat Willie's, none of the employees I spoke to had been to a band party any time recently, though a fortyish woman on her way out the door informed me that she had recently been to a bash at her East Riverside digs and that 50 Mission Crush had played. The cops hadn't even showed, she affirmed, though the evening "didn't make the neighbors like me any better."
There was hope!
Asking around local clubs didn't do much to boost that hope, however. At the Hole in the Wall, someone mentioned that the Chronicle's Marc Savlov had had bands at a recent house party (thanks for the invite, Marc!), but no one I spoke to in the sparse crowd at Emo's had attended a "band party" of late, and even Casino el Camino's namesake owner, who would appear to see all and know all, said he hadn't been to one in a long, long while. Still, I had been talking mostly to folks my own age or older, so I decided I needed to talk to the under-30 crowd, moving up the street to Purgatory, where the lethargic bartender served a pathetic three customers, muttering something about that being enough Misfits for one night as she fiddled with the club's stereo.
"How's the Purg doing these days?" I asked, looking around at the bleak surroundings (this was a weekday, I should mention). "Are you guys getting by?"
The bartender put her hand up and held her thumb and forefinger very, very close together. That's no good. All the more reason to continue my quest. As I started to leave, a heavily tattooed old punk spoke up.
"Sure there's still parties with bands," he exclaimed. "You just need to ask the early-20 crusties and punk kids. They'll tell you."
As tempting as the delicious irony was, I didn't accost any crusties on the street. I did, however, find a girl at Lovejoy's who I knew to be well under 25.
"Um, I went to one on New Year's Eve," she said.
Yeah, well, any band without a proper gig will do anything to play on New Year's Eve. Besides, that was almost half a year ago. Still, I guess that counted as a "hit." Back in my neighborhood, I continued to concentrate on the young. "What about spinning? Does that count as live music?" asked a minor shuffling through magazines at Fringeware. I decided it didn't, yet here was another element contributing to the dearth of band parties I hadn't previously considered. Leaving aside the current popularity of non-band-oriented music like techno and hip-hop, having a turntablist at your party has several advantages over a band; you don't have to deal with tons of equipment or worry as much about the fuse box blowing, and most importantly, if you want the guy to turn down, all you have to do is reach for a single knob.
Later, a thunderous party at my next-door neighbor's house (populated mostly by early-twentysomethings) proved another disappointment; all the sounds involved emanated from loud, drunken conversations or a CD player in the back yard. The neighbors were happy to see me when I stuck my head in the door ("See, I told you it wasn't him that called the cops!"), but no one I asked had been to a band party in months -- and drum circles don't count, either. Saddest of all, my 20-year-old roommate says he hasn't seen a band at a party in the entire year and a half he's been in Austin.
So there are band parties out there, if in far less frequency than in years past. What there isn't at this point in time, it would appear, is a significant live band party culture. The general opinion I found is that while some lucky folks either work at or stumble into finding just the right neighborhood where they feel comfortable holding a big live music extravaganza and not ending up in the pokey, most folks have just grown too frustrated with the speed at which Austin's finest seem to find their way into the mix. Both afternoon parties I attended during SXSW -- the Fuck by Fuck You punkfest at an Eastside screen printing facility and the blowout at Sixteen Deluxe's rehearsal space in the middle of nowhere -- ended with visits from Austin's boys in blue. So did the last band party I myself was involved in two years ago, wherein my then-roomate's band Altamont 69 put on a punk show in the back yard.
Actually, in that last case, the police arrived at 9:30pm and simply stayed to make sure that the band was going to quit, as we promised, at 10pm. After a while, it became obvious that the police had remained not to intimidate us, but because they really didn't have anything better to do; they spent their half-hour at our home engaging in chatter with the guests and hung out long enough after the band was finished to inquire if they had any club gigs coming up! As far as Savlov's abovementioned bash, it turns out he was smart enough to make the party a benefit for a worthy charity, so when the cops showed and found that out, they turned a deaf ear to further complaints. Maybe that's a clue to getting things back on track; perhaps some pre-emptive education is what's needed to bring back what was once an integral part of Austin's night life.
In the interest of discovering what goes into making a police-interruption-free band party, I asked Phi Kappa Psi's David Rodriguez what sort of procedure the fraternity went through in preparation for their recent party featuring the Toadies, an event that drew some 1,500 people. His answers aren't all completely relevant to someone throwing a backyard bash, but they do give insight into the benefits of planning ahead. At the very least, they should address the question you asked yourself all through college: "How come the cops swarm on my place like vultures every time I crank the stereo, but those damn frat rats can pack half the planet in without getting busted?" For those of you who guessed that they pay off the cops, you're right -- in a way.
"It's a very simple formula," says Rodriguez. "Get a band that costs like $500, $600, $700, some beer, and some hired peace officers. Any agency, whether it's Precinct 5 or AISD, is ready to do it. People think that a place like South Park Meadows or the Austin Music Hall is so structured and that what they do can't be done anywhere else. But the same cops that work there work at our parties, the same catering company that works there works at our parties. It's the same formula, it's just toned down."
So anyone can put on their own Lollapalooza if they're so inclined -- and have the time and money necessary, since you still have to add to the above a city noise permit for playing after 10pm, a caterer with a liquor license to take care of your friends' imbibing needs, and, for an event the size of the Toadies show, a street closure requiring the signatures of all the neighbors on your street.
"Even if someone is a flat-out butt about it," says Rodriguez, "there's an appeals process where you can say, 'Look, 60% of the people here said it was okay...'"
Rodriguez's breakdown of planning his fraternity parties give you a sense of how organized a party planner should be, even if you're only talking a party involving two kegs, about 100 people, and your roommate's band that hasn't decided on a name yet. The primary consideration here -- the single most important issue involved -- is "neighbors." Unfortunately, Melissa Alexander at the city's Public Works Department says that short of a street closure situation, there's no official status to any agreement you get from your neighbors about festive gatherings; you just have to believe that if they say they won't call the cops on you, they mean it. APD district representative Juan Suarez agrees, offering that your best bet for an interruption-free party is to "invite your neighbors, or send them food. That'll placate 'em." Doing both couldn't hurt, and we're not talking about the inedible canned food you take with you to the Bob Marley Fest, either! Suarez also concurs with my theory that band parties are currently in a slump.
"I'd have to agree with you on that," he says. "We used to have a lot more calls, you know, garage bands, people in the back yard having a party."
Suarez doesn't indicate that there's any reason a well-planned shindig shouldn't be able to go on these days, as long as you follow a few simple rules. First, the city's sound ordinance says that amplified music between 10pm-7am requires a permit. Take note: 10:30pm is the shut-off time listed officially in the ordinance, but just about any policeman or city official you talk to will say it's 10pm even. Regardless, you look in the city pages of the phone book under permits and you'll find who to call about getting a permit. Suarez says the price is minimal -- around $10 -- but warns that you should deal with getting one well in advance, pointing out that you'll have to go to the same place that issues the building permits, and "it just depends on how busy they are."
Keep in mind that if you don't plan to have music extending past 10pm, you don't need a permit. Other than the likelihood that fewer people are trying to sleep, however, the only real difference in what the police are going to tell you when they show up day or night is that after 10pm, if you don't have a permit, you're going to get a ticket right off the bat. Otherwise, Suarez explains, the story is the same: The first time the police knock at the door, they'll ask for voluntary compliance, then if they have to come back, they're going to issue a citation. For my money, you're still better off planning your gig for a nice Saturday afternoon.
Despite everything you've always felt deep down, Suarez sticks hard and fast to the line that police will not visit your soiree unless there is a complaint filed. Public Works' Alexander supports him, offering a compelling story that an APD sergeant recently told her of a party near the police station that was so loud the cops could hardly hear themselves think, but nobody called them to complain so they left it alone (you'd think one of the officers could've run out to a pay phone ... ). Making nice with the neighbors really is your only hope, as the city's decibel limits are no longer the key to enforcing the sound ordinance. Says Suarez:
"Because of all the injunctions the Sixth Street clubowners have filed against the city, unless things have changed in the last two weeks, we're not using the sound meters anymore. We're going by the state law, and all the state law says is if a person is offended by the music, then you have a legitimate complaint. If they're offended by the lyrics, by the sound, by the bass, by the volume, it doesn't matter."
If you bought your own sound meter to bolster your case against the police, well, sorry. That was a bad investment. Finally, Suarez gives out the secret to keeping things cool:
"The thing that inevitably starts all this is blocked driveways," he declares. "When someone can't access their own driveway because of the way some guy visiting you parked his car, that's gonna start the whole thing, because, you know, you can always tell where the party is by the way the cars are parked!"
It's a good point, and one that, conjoined with bribing the neighbors, is the closest thing to a guarantee that your band can enjoy the occasional display of their talents in front of a batch of buddies around the barbecue grill. Like it or not, once the police show, even if they're nice about it, it's time to haul everyone inside and break out the Christopher Cross albums, Nerf darts, and anything else q-u-i-e-t that you can find to entertain your guests.
Not that there seems to be much entertaining going around Austin these days -- not with live music, there isn't. I did a lot of wandering around without finding a single band party to check out, and that's very sad, made more so because the bands are out there, in greater numbers than ever, and the living rooms are certainly still out there as well. Now's the time to see if we can go back to the days when we really did some living in them. Today's young bands will definitely thank you tomorrow.