SxSW 2015: A Day With The Twilight Sad
It isn’t a new idea, plenty of people have followed a band for a day, but it is something I have wanted to do for a while now. The last time The Twilight Sad was in town in support of We Were Promised Jetpacks, I had some time to chat with James, lead vocals, and Chris Patin, the tour manager, about following the band for a day during SxSW. You see, Chris is a friend of the program; he is in The Calm Blue Sea. James and I oddly ended up standing next to each other at several day parties in previous SxSW’s and we have had friendly conversations about tea, food, travel, normal human stuff. Seemed like a good fit. What follows is an account of the day, followed by a ton of pics. As a bonus, I got to see several other bands, some pretty damn good ones, including Torres and Ringo Deathstarr (more on them later).
So, let’s start with the cast and crew, I got the complete roster from Chris to make sure I had it all correct.
James Graham – Vocals
Andy MacFarlane – Guitar
Mark Devine – Drums
Johnny Docherty – Bass (Bass keys)
Brendan Smith – Synch Stuff
Andy Bush – Sound Guy
Chris Patin Tour Manager
Raymond Black and John Paul Mason – The MGMT
James, Andy and Mark compose the constant core of the band. You may be aware of the previous band members and their projects or touring duties. #ChuhVerches. I don’t think I have seen the band twice with the same exact lineup year over year. But I imagine it keeps things fresh, especially on the road.
I met the band at Cheer Up for the 11:30 load-in. Tour Manager (n.) – logistics management, Sherpa, chauffer, keeper of the drink tickets (the venue perk that is short supply during SxSW). Chris and Andy B. check with the house about back line, audio set up, and afterwards Andy B. starts futzing with the board to set up James’ in-ear monitors that allow James to manically march back and forth and into the crowd on occasion in isolation. While it seems to be a point of contention with some sound guys, the IEMs were handled with aplomb at all the venues I visited. The band huddled at a table cracking jokes while Devine had the sense to take advantage of the East Side King’s trailer. Set lists are negotiated and pared down to meet the time allotted, two per sheet of paper, TTS is environmentally conscious (or just nearly out of paper).
James starts a vocal warm-up. He finds his mental place while the gents make loud noises through stage monitors. Devine puts on his drumming Adidas. Bad cable, good cable, check, find it, set it. Go. The morning had started lovingly overcast but just as our fair-skinned friends hit the stage, the sun erupted, mainly on James front and center. I do love seeing bands that say “can we turn down the lights” in broad daylight. You miss things otherwise – wry smiles, elusive taps on keys, a broken something, and while I don’t get completely lost in the music, I do get to be lost behind the shutter. Light is my friend, but poor James, the dude was a sweat factory. I bought him a beer and handed him a small towel to apologize for the Texas sun’s rude behavior. I questioned his ability to go into the performance state three times in one day. It seemed so taxing, but it is what it is. I take in Torres for a moment, neck flex a topic of conversation while sharing photos.
The tour bus/van thing got a parking ticket; SxSW permits weren’t the right permits for the hill on 9th St. We planned to leave the van there and walk over the British Music Embassy. I was thankful for the ticket as it meant packing up and a cruise through traffic. CELEBRITY SIGHTING! I helped John Paul with recalling Sandra Bernhardt’s name. MacFarlane walked and beat us over there, Chris’s circuitous route while long was easy-wheeling. The whole process starts again. Lather-rinse-repeat is yard sale-carry-stack; stage managers at all venues did a decent job of getting everyone situated. Load-in done, we had time to break away. Two priorities; beverage, rooftop. The Handlebar fit the bill and being just a couple blocks away from the fray of Sixth felt like an escape. I caught up on the losing Longhorns and we discussed the Red Gorilla Festivities we were witnessing. Andy B. was amused by the sound guy that stared at a tub of bamboo plants. I took a photo. I recall laughing quite bit with John Paul, movie references abound. I appeased further trivia inquiries and voiced dislike of Houston’s burbs, Idiocracy.
Back at the venue, Andy, Johnny, Chris and Devine (Where’s ‘Duhvann’ is a common Scottish phrase, evidently) were lounging in the alley already. Some dude with two ladies proceeded to smoke some of the rankest dank upwind as an EMS mule rolled by. MacFarlane, for all his serious look with the bald head and military jacket just likes to laugh. I can’t recall exactly what struck us funny, perhaps it was Chris seductively licking the set list to split the paper or the apropos Ben Sherman underwear waist band sighting given the British Music Embassy’s sponsorship. A coin is flipped to figure out which of the songs would get cut from the set list. At times, I would lose the cognitive fortitude to decode the accent and feel like I was watching a movie without subtitles making goose moments distance a little bit and get the candid photos.
Once inside, the band was once again graced by tons of light. Soundcheck goes the same, and by that I mean same notes, same chords, same songs to test the channels. The smallish stage pushed James up to the sub box riser and his performance style, detached yet engrossing, becomes something new when floating slightly above the plane of the stage. The band behind casually moves through the set, unburdened as James acts as the conduit to the crowd, most of which on hand specifically to see the band with several familiar faces from Cheer Up. The band has a loyal following at SxSW, Scottish or otherwise, and the Scots I talked to mocked themselves for following a Scottish band at SxSW. For any of you that followed the band that day that are reading, the band noticed. They are appreciative, though they did snark that Austin is a long way to travel for a show.
We had quick turn to make to the Emo’s load-in, which was already pushed back from the originally requested time coinciding with the start of set at BME. Devine was “attacked” by a ladybug. Traffic cooperated as I left downtown, gladly expelled from the growing madness. Reunited with the band, we watched the Juggalo nation take care of hauling in much of the gear, Emo’s staff killing with kindness as SxSW video teams descended on the band while standing on the loading dock. It is here that we learned of John Paul’s obsession with crack. Not really, but he hammed it up pretty good for the video cameras. I’ll be looking for that video as it features Brendan and John Paul at their best. JP hopes it is B-Roll due to subject matter, but the pole mounted Tribble-covered microphone hints otherwise. I felt a bit like a band-member at this point. Throwing jabs in, hanging out, comfortable. I actually left my camera alone for a good period of time forgetting I was “working”.
Taco More time. James and Brendan took their time discovering salsas, ordering tacos, taking recommendations from this local. The SxSW film crew interrupts us to get a final sign-off from James for the interrogation he and Bernard completed in the artist lounge at Emo’s before walking over. Bistek, Pastor, Pollo. Chris was gliding over the keyboard on his Mac as we talked about food while eating food, ordering more food and Mexican Cokes. Parting ways after dinner, the band went to Chris’s house where they were habitating for the week to clean up from the day’s earlier sweats. Chris set up the merch table and I took in a couple forgettable bands and chatted with The Twilight Sad fans gathering again. A particularly nice couple bought me a beer after I helped with beverage selection – tip of the cap. When the band returned, the van in one piece despite Brendan’s best efforts, they made their way back to the merch table and were greeted and questioned by fans yet again. …and yet again, I would be graced by good light because they are recording the set for broadcast. Lucky.
The band leaves the audience to get ready, staging gear and then sound-checking. James is the last one backstage engaged in a quiet conversation with Raymond before a last bit of vocal warm up. He glances back and says something like ‘it is time to go be happy, whatever that means’, as a sarcastic Scottish smile crosses his face. I didn’t ask about it after the show. I didn’t want to dig. But it is strange, the concept that a band with this intensity would have to be friendly, have banter, but such is the nature of SxSW. Before the last song of the day, the crowd was thanked deeply and said to be fooking brrilliant as only a Scotsmen can say it.
Post set, the band decompresses momentarily, stacking gear as the team Emo’s sweeps the stage of any evidence of the performance. Everything will make its way to the van as Andy B. does the inverse Jena as Wavves starts their set. We finish with one more round of jokes outside and a few brief hellos and goodbyes for other friends in attendance.
…long day at the office.