763 MP3s and Nothing On

Paul Ford heard more SXSW acts than anyone else, without leaving New York

It's probably safe to say that nobody's SXSW experience this year was as comprehensive as that of Paul Ford, an editor at Harper's and blogger for www.themorningnews.org. And here's the thing — Ford never left New York City.

Instead, he downloaded the SXSW 2008 Torrent File, which included single MP3s from 763 of the bands that went to Austin (just under half the SXSW '08 total). Then he listened to every single one, wrote a six-word review and assigned each a rating. Here are a few Houston examples:

The JonBenet, "Black Lion": "One admires such remarkably vigorous stupidity." (Two stars)

Fatal Flying Guilloteens, "Reveal the Rats": "Should people from Houston sound British?" (One star)

Chingo Bling, "Do It": "Chingo's shit here is utterly ridiculous." (Four stars)

As did many others, Wack's mind boggled at this towering achievement, so we had to talk to this guy.

Wack: So your piece is the talk of my little [rock critic] world.

Paul Ford: (Laughs.) I, uh, you know, I guess that's good.

W: So you didn't even go to SXSW?

PF: Not at all. If anything, I would have gone to the tech one because I'm a big nerd. I'm not cool enough for the music one, so I just downloaded the file. So obviously you went down there. How was it?

W: It was great. I saw one band early and they were so incredibly good I went and saw them two more times.

PF: Who were they?

W: Monotonix. Israeli garage-punk.

PF: Hmmm. They didn't have an MP3. I would have remembered.

W: Probably so, but their recordings don't do them justice. I've never seen a live show as feral and crazed as theirs. They never use the stage, and they move the drummer during the show, so you have no choice but to get deeply involved.

PF: That's interesting. Do they sing in Hebrew or English?

W: You can't even tell at the show.

PF: That's great. That's everything it's supposed to be. Interesting. That's right up my alley. That's cool.

W: So what about this piece of yours?

PF: Basically I was asked to review an MP3 or two, and I said I had this big idea. The truth is, the A's — I did it in alphabetical order — and the A's were pretty bad, and I was about ready to kill myself. And then I started to find one or two songs which completely redeemed everything, and it was like, all right, it's worth it. You find something like that and you realize it's a worthy endeavor.

W: Exactly. What was your process with this thing — like eight hours a day for six days?

PF: I'd be working, take a little break, listen to a couple songs, and then write them directly into iTunes in the comment field. And there were a couple of days where I stayed late. I'd keep plowing through it, I could see how many I had left. And there were a number of nights where I stayed until three or four in the morning, and then I would take it home, and there were two, two-and-half weekends completely given over to it. So altogether it was 48 hours spread over a couple of weeks, and as long as you kept going at it steadily it wasn't that bad. And not that it was ever suffering — I was listening to music.

W: Right. So there was never a point like about halfway through where you just thought, "Oh my God."

PF: You know as well as I do when you work on deadline, you're just like, "Oooh, okay, I better do this." So I was constantly telling people stuff like, "We'll have dinner next week." Everybody thought I was an idiot, but it was really fun. That's the thing. People have been very nice about this piece, except I did hurt a lot of feelings. But at the same time, it's like what did I do? I sat in a room and listened to music and wrote five or six words about the songs for a couple of weeks.

 
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