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Upstairs at Rudyard's on a weeknight is as good a place as any to hatch a sweeping manifesto, and that's just what local indie rocker Chris Kahlich (a member of Bright Men of Learning) is doing. "South By Southwest's selection of Houston indie rock bands could be much improved," he says. "Just about everyone I know got denials. It got to be a running joke on the scene -- a band would get a denial in the mail and go, 'Yeah, Clutch City, baby!'"
And he's right. While Houston's overall presence at SXSW has been vastly enhanced in recent years, thanks to the couple of dozen rappers and DJs Matt Sonzala takes up there every year, our rock scene is still lagging as far behind as ever.
A few years ago, Houston's participation at SXSW was at an all-time low. In 2003, we had only seven acts on the bill (Clouseaux, Mando Saenz, Greg Wood, Swarm of Angels, Rusted Shut, Hayes Carll and Arthur Yoria), which was about a quarter of Dallas/Fort Worth's representation and less than 10 percent of Austin's.
The next year, Sonzala got to work early, made some phone calls, built some business relationships and worked his ass off for months. The end result was a bevy of showcases of Houston (and Dallas and Austin) rap that resulted in worldwide exposure. What's more, he has done so every year since, and now Texas rap gets to bask in the spotlight of the national and international media in Austin every year.
Kahlich was inspired by Sonzala's accomplishments, so much so that he is going to work now on next year's SXSW, or the one after that if need be. "It's just wrong that bands like Spain Colored Orange, Scattered Pages and Bring Back the Guns don't have official showcases there," he says.
Wait a minute -- even bands with new albums and national label affiliations like S.C.O. and Scattered Pages didn't make it? Surely bands with as much forward momentum as those two must not have bothered to apply. Not so, says Scattered Pages bassist Brandon Hancock. "We really thought we had a fightin' chance of getting in this year," he says. "But when we got the rejection letter we weren't surprised."
Kahlich is not gonna take it anymore. "I'm going to jump into the possibility of bringing a qualitative cross section of Houston indie music up there, from bands like Spain Colored Orange to the noise/metal scene. And I am starting right away -- I am looking for whatever sponsors want to get involved. I want to have a showcase up there."
Back in 2003, I talked to SXSW's creative director Brent Grulke about the shortfall of Houston bands in Austin. One way to aid in getting in, he said, was to make a habit of playing shows in Austin in general. That's one way to build up the kind of informal networking -- call it nepotism if you must -- that always ensures that more bands at SXSW come from Austin than anywhere else.
Grulke also cited Houston's mostly nonexistent indie rock business, one that pales in comparison to those of Austin and Dallas. "I don't get many calls from very many Houston labels that say they'd like to be involved," he said. "That's a big part of it. If there's not a business infrastructure, we just get a press kit from a band and we listen to it and grade it, but that might not be a very good measure of where an artist really is."
Houston bands have not really defined themselves in Austin. Right now, the image of the Bayou City that prevails in Austin is that we churn out two things in quantity -- rappers and bands that range from strange to downright freaky. To them, we are the city of Scarface and Jandek, Chamillionaire and Rusted Shut, U.G.K. and Jana Hunter, Paul Wall and Indian Jewelry. Austin tends to ignore all that lies between those two poles.
Grulke said that he saw Houston's scene as "amorphous." On the other hand, he saw Dallas as a hotbed of "professional bands and labels," and Austin as "the bohemian place where you make music for love and not money."
Maybe somebody in Houston will start a label, Kahlich hopes, but failing that, he hopes to find a sponsor or three or four here. He says a local company like St. Arnold's brewery would be ideal. They are cool. They make beer. They have long supported the Houston music scene. It would be relatively cheap for them to do. They could use the national and regional boost their company would receive at an event like South By Southwest.
"I'll write proposals, make phone calls, fire off letters, whatever I have to do," Kahlich says. "If all of this doesn't take this year, then I will have laid the groundwork for next year."
It's a worthy plan, but even if it doesn't get off the ground, that shouldn't stop Houston bands from getting their asses up there. Quite simply, there is no good excuse to not go to Austin during SXSW, rejection letter or no. Get up there and play two day parties a day for four days. People will stumble into your band, and some of those people might both dig your sound and have the clout to take it places. (Hell, my dad even stumbled into one of Spain Colored Orange's unsanctioned shows.) And even if nothing breaks for you, it's a great chance to take the pulse of the culture.
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