The early word on South by Southwest 2015 was that the music/technology/film conference and festival was scaling back this year, with a significant reduction in permitted events, global mega-brands as sponsors, and parties headlined by top mainstream acts. And while all of that was true, the week seemed to afford as many opportunities as ever to see a wide variety of emerging indie talent from around the world. If this is the scaled-down SXSW, then its future is safe for indie bands and fans alike.
This mixtape collects a dozen of our favorite artists that we saw in Austin this year, a musically and geographically varied group that you'll want to keep an eye on in 2015. Most of these artists are likely to hit the San Francisco Bay Area this year, and you'll definitely want to check them out!
About the bands:
J Fernandez - “Cosmic Was”
From: Chicago, Illinois
Is Justin Fernandez destined to be one of those great, under-appreciated art-pop geniuses? Stumbling upon his set at the Mohawk purely by chance, I was blown away by his ability to fit psychy sounds and offbeat rhythms into a pop framework. Fans of Robyn Hitchcock and Television Personalities, dig into Fernandez's three EPs.
Torres - “Strange Hellos”
From: Brooklyn, New York
Torres was the first band we caught at South by Southwest, and Mackenzie Scott's performance left a strong impression that stuck around throughout the week. Scott's commanding voice and direct lyrics are a powerful presence, soaring over dense, knotty instrumental accompaniments.
Girl Band - “Lawman”
From: Dublin, Ireland
Noise-rock with a punk intensity, Girl Band is a monster of a live band. Singer Dara Kiely floats somewhere between distressed and unhinged, while the guitar and bass create strange noises that often sound something like the inside of a jet engine. That being said, the group's music remains remarkably melodic even while it pummels.
Makthaverskan - “Witness”
From: Gothenburg, Sweden
Landing squarely in the middle of some punk/post-punk/jangle-pop Venn diagram, Makthaverskan's best weapon is Maja Milner's operatic vocals, which supercharge the emotional weight of songs about heartbreak and loss. And despite what that might sound like, the band's live performances also manage be to extremely fun and full of energy. Highly recommended.
Alvvays - “Party Police”
From: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
It almost feels unfair to lump Alvvays in with the rest of these bands, given the buzz that the quintent amassed around the release of their self-titled LP last year. But the fact that Alvvays was playing a zillion shows in Austin during the week made it feel like the band's true arrival as indie pop's emerging stars. Few bands, I suspect, could sound equally great in a cavernous warehouse and on a patio, but they managed to do just that.
Shamir - “On the Regular”
From: Las Vegas, Nevada
Seeing Shamir Bailey onstage at Stubb's, one would be forgiven for already assuming that the singer is a bona fide pop star. Armed with an addictive array of dance-pop ear worms and a unique vocal range, it's only a matter of time before Shamir blows up. That time might be fast approaching, with a debut album arriving on XL Recordings in May.
Death Valley Girls - “Gettin' Hard”
From: Los Angeles, California
For a group often labeled as "garage-punk," Death Valley Girls' set at the Hotel Vegas felt significantly psych-inspired as well, with fuzzed-out, primitive jams that were downright entrancing. The band's debut LP, Street Venom, came out last year, along with a 7" on Lolipop Records shortly thereafter.
Mitski - “I Don't Smoke”
From: Brooklyn, New York
2014's Bury Me at Makeout Creek is actually Mitski's third album, a collection of downer noise-pop that is full of catchy melodies and despondent lyrics. On stage, the singer-songwriter is fittingly powerful and vulnerable--the final song I saw was a raw, solo vocal performance that bordered on devastating. A reissue of Makeout Creek is forthcoming on Don Giovanni Records, which should continue to bring this musician well-deserved acclaim.
Natalie Prass - “Why Don't You Believe In Me”
From: Nashville, Tennessee
Much of the praise for Natalie Prass understandably focused around the album's lush horn and string arrangements, but Prass' performances in Austin with a three-piece band allowed her quiet, tender vocals to shine. On stage, the singer described one of her tracks self-effacingly as a "Disney princess" song, but there's real emotion, not manufactured sentiment, in her earnest compositions.
Ultimate Painting - “Central Park Blues”
From: London, United Kingdom
Ultimate Painting unites the talents of Jack Cooper and James Hoare from UK indie-pop gems Mazes and Veronica Falls. Instead of sounding like some mish-mash of those bands, though, the duo seem more interested in crafting stripped-down, jangly cuts in the spirit of the Velvets and Television. Trouble in Mind Records only puts out quality, and this one's no different.
Wand - “Self Hypnosis in 3 Days”
From: Los Angeles, California
Wand's Cory Thomas Hanson has built quite a resume in recent years, playing with Mikal Cronin, Meatbodies, and together PANGEA. His band's set at the Hotel Vegas felt decidedly heavier than any of those bands, boasting some serious guitar shredding to boot. The group's new LP Golem just arrived on In the Red, making it well worth checking out.
Bully - “Milkman”
From: Nashville, Tennesse
This Nashville quartet delivers immediate, riff-driven tunes that call to mind everything from The Replacements to Seattle grunge. That sound is likely to carry through to the band's forthcoming debut album, which was recorded at Steve Albini's Electrical Audio studio (where bandleader Alicia Bognanno used to intern).