Faster Than Sound: Falling Into Levitation

With a new autumn time slot, Levitation finds footing as a Downtown “gaggle of bands,” Angel Olsen chimes in on new album All Mirrors, and more music events

The Black Angels at Levitation 2018 (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Speaking on next week's lineup of some 35 separate shows, Levitation organizer Johnny Sarkis makes a clarification right off the bat:

"We don't use the 'F' word. It's not a festival. We just call it Levitation."

The promoter lands on "a gaggle of bands" to describe the individually ticketed sprawl Nov. 7-10. Most shows aren't sold out yet, with entry ranging $15-48. The genre-spanning lineup, offering four-day passes at $395, leads with John Cale, Angel Olsen, High on Fire, and the Flaming Lips.

Eleven years after launching as Austin Psych Fest, the annual event hops from April to the fall spot formerly held by Fun Fun Fun Fest and later Sound on Sound. In its second year on the Downtown club circuit – continuing residencies at Barracuda, Cheer Up Charlies, Empire Garage, Hotel Vegas, Mohawk, and Stubb's – the event expands into Central Presbyterian Church, Elysium, and Symphony Square. Sarkis, who helped run both lost fests, says the decision was made with former SOS promoter Margin Walker Presents.

Where nostalgic Austinites miss the previous mass gatherings, Sarkis, who runs Levitation with booker Rob Fitzpatrick and Black Angels members Christian Bland and Alex Maas, recalls the $12 beers, parking fees, and a traumatic history of weather cancellations: "I think the window for indie companies going out in a field and doing what we did is basically closed," he says. "Passionate as we all are, it feels more like a glorified vanity project than a business model."

The move to cooler temps bought more time to build a web of co-presented shows, and each collaboration is different. Jack White imprint Third Man Records matches Damo Suzuki Network with an array of Detroit-connected talent, while L.A. label/management company Sargent House assembles Deafheaven and a group of women powerhouses in Chelsea Wolfe, Lingua Ignota, Ioanna Gika, and the Stefanie Mannaerts-led Brutus.

Meanwhile, Volcom Garden hosts daily free acts, including local Holodeck Records' Saturday choices (Lou Rebecca, Grivo, Curved Light, and a Troller DJ set). Symphony Square hosts Maas, Money Chicha, and Annabelle Chairlegs, aligned with the Creek Show art installation. Finally, for $5 entry, Cheer Up Charlies serves up daily curation, including Richmond, Va., indies Camp Howard and L.A. post-punks All Your Sisters.

Angel Olsen (Photo by Cameron McCool)

Levitation Q&A: Angel Olsen

It's Monday morning in Saxapahaw, N.C., and Angel Olsen sips coffee in the green room ahead of her first show touring brazen new album All Mirrors. After months of rehearsal, an expanded band matches her fifth LP's orchestral complexity, headed to Stubb's Nov. 7 with Devendra Banhart and Vagabon.

Austin Chronicle: Did your solo tour last year influence the album?

Angel Olsen: By revisiting my old work, I saw I didn't have to have everything in this specific structure of a band. A lot of these newer songs aren't typical ABAB – like verse-chorus-verse vibes. I needed to do that, because I was focused on being a rock & roll band, and my writing was changing.

That rock background didn't work on these [new] songs. It needed to be more meandering and textural. I used to write that way, because it actually took me two years to feel comfortable on rhythm guitar. Now, I feel like if I don't play it, something might happen [laughs]. Like I just, like, can't let anyone else play rhythm.

AC: That's somewhat full circle, because you've talked about avoiding the folk "girl with guitar" stereotype.

AO: When I first began releasing songs, people wrote about women artists sounding like Joan Baez or Karen Dalton. If you played folksy or sang in a certain register, you were either this or that. It's been a long time since I've been called "girl with a guitar," but I had to start somewhere.

AC: You're nearing the end of a huge wave of album press for All Mirrors, which is about perceptions. Do you feel like people understood this album?

AO: I think so. Honestly, it's all about labeling. The very fact that I worked with John Congleton, for some people, creates interest. For others, it's like, "Oh no, it's overproduced now." People just assume instead of listening. I find that to be rude.

It's a weird record, and it was difficult to mix. It's really loud and really quiet. We had to get seven different test pressings done because the needle would bounce off of the record. I made a joke to [my label], like, "Wow, at least you'll know what to do when you have another dynamic record, but good luck finding another dynamic record as dynamic as mine."

AC: You bought a house in Asheville before making this record. What was that like?

AO: Looking at my place and seeing that it protects me, I realize that what I'm doing is real. Because sometimes I'm walking around like, "I don't know what it is that I do." I don't think of myself as Angel Olsen. Then I'll run into someone who likes my music, and I'm like, "Oh yeah, I write songs."

I'd been kind of ignoring that. I'd say to my whole team, "Will people come to that show?" I've just always been skeptical, and I suppose that's what keeps me from stopping. But, it's good to take a moment and be like, "I have done enough work to help people. In return, they're giving me this gift of a place to live." It's a nice feeling to [have] toward my audience.

Second Time's the Charm

Reaching 2-year-old status, a duo of local gatherings hopes to establish annual presence on the musical calendar. The Texas Record Label Bazaar sets up shop this Saturday at ABGB from 3-7pm. To follow, on Tuesday, Nov. 12, the Austin Blues Society hosts its second awards show at Antone's.

In 2017, when Chip Adams of Modern Outsider Records relaunched the Austin Record Label Flea Market, a small turnout showed a sad decline in local industry. Next time around, he opened the invitation to independent labels from around the state. Efforts continue this weekend with around 25 outlets toting vinyl, CDs, and other merch.

In fact, alongside local hubs Keeled Scales and Nine Mile, Adams has discovered new labels through the bazaar, such as Fort Worth's vinyl-focused Dreamy Life Records.

"One goal is to show music fans that Texas has creative record labels with amazing rosters," he says. "On the flip side, it's to share ideas between labels."

For over 40 years, visual artist Deborah Vanko supported her husband Lightning Red's blues rock via promotions and even sometimes running the sound board. After her spouse's passing, Vanko joined the Austin Blues Society to continue behind-the-scenes work. Last year, she launched the group's first-ever awards ceremony to lift up the historic genre. Nov. 12, Best Band goes to the Eastside Blues Syndicate, and the lifetime achievement choice is W.C. Clark. Vanko first heard Best Artist winner Oscar Ornelas' soulful saxophone and piano chops during the society's monthly jams at Skylark Lounge. All three winners perform.

"Seeing we're going through so much pain in our culture, blues is really relevant," explains Vanko. "It addresses both the pleasure and pain of the world."

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Levitation 2019, Johnny Sarkis, Angel Olsen, Sound on Sound, Fun Fun Fun Fest, Texas Record Label Bazaar, Austin Blues Society

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