I first started going to South By Southwest (SXSW) in 1999, just as a music fan. To find a collection of some of the most exciting new independent music collected all in one place, set in one of the coolest cities around was a dream come true.
Garage punk, rock n' roll, alternative country and americana, killer thrift stores, to die for bbq and all around nice folks made up those first few years of my annual excursions to Austin, TX. I was lucky enough to have friends living there so I crashed on their floor. I slept like a log despite the uncomfortable conditions because we'd been out rockin' and drinkin' till the wee hours of the morning, and that kind of activity can only lead to a slumber so deep, no amount of cat hair or hard floors could keep me from the rest I so badly needed.
Breakfast was always at the Magnolia Cafe, recharging the batteries with a steaming plate of Huevos Rancheros and a Bloody Mary chaser, then we were ready to hit the free afternoon parties and BBQs that made so much of the early days at SXSW memorable.
Fast forward a few years. Gearhead was already an established record label, hosting our own afternoon parties at cool places like South Austin Speed Shop (now owned by the infamous Jesse James), put on by our good friend and Gearhead enthusiast Mike Adair (he now lives in Washington and owns Electric Boogaloo Tattoo) and putting on night time showcases that became the talk of the town.
Gearhead found and signed a number of bands during those years, most notably Japanese bands Gitogito Hustler, Electric Eel Shock and The Spunks. It was a festival that brought bands from all over the world and was created with the intent of connecting artists and labels. The creators achieved that goal so admirably that the festival became the "go to" place for bands hoping to take that next step in their dreams of becoming rock stars.
I fondly remember when I discovered Gitogito Hustler. I was rushing from an afternoon party back to my hotel to get dolled up for the Gearhead showcase that night. It was 2004, at the height of success for the label. We had a killer showcase planned (The Turbo A.C.'s, "Demons", Dragons, The Lashes, Riverboat Gamblers and The Wildhearts, (you can read more about it here), and had been chosen by the Austin Chronicle as a "must see" event that night. People were already lining up outside of Emo's for our showcase which featured the infamous Wildhearts in their debut performance at SXSW. I had spent the afternoon ushering the band around to various interviews, the most notable of which was a chat with Spin Magazine editor Doug Brod. I was smitten. He was so charming and enthusiastic and had a genuine appreciationfor the garage rock Gearhead was championing. Needless to say, my head was all abuzz as I made a beeline through the back alley ways to the hotel. But cutting through the din and the hazy BBQ smoke filling the air was a sound so exciting, I stopped dead in my tracks and listened for a moment or two before deciding I had to see who the band was that was making that glorious noise.
There they were, four diminutive dollies, all dressed in matching plaid bondage pants, rockin' out like there was no tomorrow. I wrote about this moment in the liner notes of their debut full-length Love and Roll. I still remember how awestruck I was. Despite the fact that they spoke no English, I was able to get across how much I loved what they were doing. With the help of their then tour-manager, Hajime (who's own band The Spunks would also later be signed to Gearhead), we exchanged information with a promise of further exploring the possiblility of working together.
Fast forward a few more years to 2007. SXSW had changed so much from those early days. Gone was the preferential treatment of getting to choose what venue and day I wanted to host the Gearhead showcase. The streets were filled with movie cameras from national TV shows. Hip hop artists and limousines clogged the streets, all posing for pictures with anyone who thought they might be someone. There had been some drama earlier, with someone getting shot I think, so the streets were cordoned off with plastic yellow crime scene tape.
I knew right then, that would be my last trip to Austin for SXSW. It had reached the mainstream media, and it was now time to find a new path to tapping into the interesting, but unknown music bubbling underneath the glitz and glamour. I started hosting the Gearhead® Showcases at the annual Lady Luck Tattoo Convention in Reno, NV, but that's food for another story.
SXSW continues to thrive today, but it is such a different world. It's like watching the Grammies, where I know it's about the music industry, but such a foreign world from the one I live in that it holds little interest for me. I've never been interested in following trends. I can watch with mild amusement and detachment as things evolve, and be grateful that I got to experience it in it's infancy, when it was raw, exciting, passionate, and sometimes a little chaotic, but so real.
The music industry continues to evolve, just like the custom car industry and all the other niche areas that have started to attract national attention. It's the nature of life. I love being at the beginning of things and am excited for what might be right around the corner.
Rock 'n' Roll/Automotive Journalist, Influencer, Editor and Publisher of Gearhead Magazine,