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Maybe Mars at SXSW

Photos by Kira Simon-Kennedy.

There’s so much to do at SXSW that it can be overwhelming, and a lot of the time I was just wandering from venue to venue, seeing what was going on. There are shows at bars, shows in tents, shows in fields, shows at houses, and impromptu concerts in the streets. Too many of the events had cover charges, and the free events were more often than not totally consumed by mobs of concert-goers. But the few events I did manage to get into were awesome.

One of my favorite shows there was Videohippos, a fun, weird punk band from Baltimore’s amazing Wham City collective (known for it’s colorful array of different bands and artists). The set was of super-high energy, despite some technical difficulties, and throughout the show Wham City colleague (and personal favorite) Blue Leader was there putting on acid-warped visuals through dual projectors. They churned through the set and, though I didn’t feel like dancing before the show, I ended up dancing anyways.

Big A Little A, a percussion-intensive band from Brooklyn, followed Videohippos with an equally powerful set. The three-piece consisted of two drummers (further assisted by a drum machine), so the tent was filled with raucous, thundering drumming from all directions. It was intense, the fury of the rhythms they produced. I ended up missing the end of the set to go try and catch a PK14 show, which ended up falling through, and instead wandered to the other side of Austin to a much-talked about late-night party.

The word was that the legendary Andrew WK was headlining this late-night party at 3AM. It was being held at the 21st Street Co-Op, which I believe is a cooperative funded by the University of Texas, acting both as communal housing and a show venue. The bill was quite impressive. Most notable was Pattern is Movement, an incredibly talented two-piece from Philadelphia who put on an absolutely amazing show. Their set put the entire room – which was packed shoulder-to-shoulder – into a blissful trance.

The next day I caught The Very Best, the African-influenced mixtape collaboration between Radioclit and Esau Mwamwaya at Mad Decent/IHEARTCOMIX/Jelly’s Carniville, which was essentially a three-day carnival dance party. All three days featured top-notch DJs and dance acts. I only caught the last day to see the Very Best and Major Lazer. The Very Best put on an electric show, transforming familiar indie dance hits into wonderful African jams.

They were followed by Major Lazer, the Jamaican/dancehall-influenced collaboration between producers Diplo and Switch (Ed. note: Switch was not at SXSW). Diplo mixed their tracks as the infamous Skerrit Bwoy rallied the audience with his rowdy stage feats. The live reenacting of some of the more outrageous stunts of Major Lazer’s “Pon De Floor” made the show. After some time, though, Skerrit Bwoy’s antics lost their charm and all the tracks started to sound the same, as Major Lazer’s set bled into Diplo’s set.

Afterward, I went to what I thought to be one of the highlights of the festival: The Maybe Mars Showcase. I haven’t had much exposure to China’s music scene other than big names like Carsick Cars and PK14, so I didn’t really know what to expect with the other bands showcased, including Xiao He, White, Snapline, and AV Okubo. Unfortunately, I managed to miss Carsick Cars, who I was most looking forward to seeing, and PK14 during both of the showcases, but I managed to catch some of the other bands.

The foursome AV Okubo, who I saw twice over  the course of SXSW, delivers an impressive, raw blast of sound. Wall-shaking punk distortion and tight rhythms mix with some shouts thrown in for good measure. Their bassist is especially a lot of fun; at the end of their second show – in the spirit of punk rock – he smashed his bass on the stage, which is something I hadn’t seen at a show in really long time.

Xiao He had a relatively tame set, where he just sat and operated a loop pedal and layered guitar riffs. I didn’t find it very engaging. His recorded work doesn’t translate well to a very energetic live set.

Snapline (pictured at the top), who I had heard little about before, was perhaps the best surprise of the showcase, and of SXSW in general. The three unassuming members came on, looking quite reserved, so I thought the set would be laid-back and relaxing. But when the drum machine started spurting its rhythms, the lead singer jolted with startling amounts of energy that really brought the whole performance to life. The other two members quietly supported him, swapping instruments between tracks, offering a tempered balance to his wild, flailing dancing. The sound was far from what I expected; the trio delivered awesome weird grooves that at times verged on the edge of noise music. A passerby might have thought they were some new up-and-coming band from Brooklyn, so fresh was their sound. Definitely one of my favorite bands of SXSW.

Unfortunately, the Maybe Mars shows were sparsely attended. The second show had a bigger audience, and some people were really enthusiastic about the bands. A lot of people who were familiar with the Chinese music scene had brought their friends along to show them what it was like and I overheard some impressed concert-goers. But, in general, the crowd that gathered around the stage was thin, and the other people in the bar seemed unfazed by the performances.

I spoke with one of the Maybe Mars people there who had organized the event and he explained the situation to me. The way he arranged the lineup was so that the biggest, most well-known acts (Carsick Cars and PK14) were on first, to draw people in, and then hope that they would stay to see the other bands. I had mistakenly assumed that Carsick Cars and PK14 would be headlining (that is, playing last) because they were so big, so I always thought it would be alright to come later and still catch them. Before I had gotten to the show there might have been a bigger crowd, which then lost interest and left after the two better-known bands had finished.

Overall, I had mixed feelings about the Maybe Mars showcase. I wish I could have seen Carsick Cars and PK14, but, of the bands I managed to catch, I was moderately impressed. The impression I had of the Chinese music scene was that it was stuck with rock and punk and hadn’t really advanced much beyond that, and AV Okubo reinforced that idea. I found it to be relatively simple punk-rock derived stuff, that was really straightforward and lacked uniqueness. Xiao He was interesting conceptually, but I think in practice it isn’t engaging enough to be something I could really get into. Still, I think he’s moving in a good direction. His use of electronics and traditional acoustic instruments has a lot of potential to turn into something really fresh and new for the scene. I was really impressed by Snapline. I thought they were way ahead of the curve. They seem to be going where other Chinese bands aren’t yet ready to go, exploring unfamiliar sonic territory. They aren’t afraid to make weird-sounding stuff that probably turns some people off at first. Their music is challenging and therefore rewarding when you learn to appreciate it.

This first SXSW experience was only a peek at what the festival had to offer. I didn’t see as many bands as I would have liked to, since there was just so much that I didn’t know where to begin. But the acts that I managed to catch were all great, and just being immersed in that temporary city of 24/7 music appreciation was an amazing thing to behold.

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