Since we have no budget to attend SXSW, each year we try to ask one act to send us their tour diary of the event in Austin, Texas. This year Chicago act Sunjacket stepped up to the plate as they performed four shows at this year’s event. They just released their debut LP Mantra earlier this year, their literate atmospheric sound comes replete with sensitive vocals and electronica flourishes. listen to their music below.
Here’s Carl, Bryan and Jeff from Sunjacket’s SXSW tour diary:
WED, MARCH 15 – CARL
>You wake up slurring your words at 6:30 am in a hotel bed in Texarkana after two hours of sleep. You peel a soggy waffle from the continental breakfast waffle maker and smother it with strawberries and chocolate chips. You are temporarily rejuvenated. You find yourself in heavy traffic a few hours from Austin, and another band from Chicago (who you’re surprised you haven’t already met) pulls up alongside you to exchange band names (Bassel and the Supernaturals) and set times (Friday; Palm Door; 8pm). You reach Austin after six and a half hours. You stop briefly at your Airbnb to drop off gear you won’t need for your first show.
You pull up to Spider House, which has live music blaring from what seems like seven different directions, and just as a couple of your bandmates head in to find out what the deal is, you’re informed via email that your credit card has been used fraudulently three times today. You park in the alley behind the venue and in the midst of all the commotion, you attempt to talk on the phone with a credit card company rep. “Can you tell me your mother’s maiden name?” Six metal dudes shotgun beers just outside the van. “Did you pay for a room at a Best Western Plus in Arizona last night?” Another band has been added to the lineup last-minute, so your set has been pushed a half hour. “Did you make a $48.17 purchase at Handi Stop #54 in Houston?” The newly added band seems to have disappeared, so your set time is back to whatever’s on the schedule.
Looking Type #3 that your van has been in the alley too long and “has to go.” You park a half-mile away in a residential neighborhood and get back just in time to chug a small cup of beer and load on to one of the smallest stages you’ve ever played. You write the setlist on your hand, do a quick line check, and start playing. Your entire upper body is positioned behind a PA main, but you still manage to catch glimpses of people milling in and out of the room, sometimes stopping to film your band on their phones. You have fun. You get cut off after five songs. You rush your gear offstage. Clock’s ticking. You’re asked if you have any merch. Your bandmate runs and grabs the van and sells a record and a t-shirt to a couple women in the alley behind the venue. You shuffle your gear back outside while trying to catch you’re new friends’ set. “We’re Minihorse,” they announce. You played with them last night at a pizza place in Conway, AR. You make a mental note to mention their song “Drink You Dry” in this blog post—it’s been stuck in your head all day.
You ride the “performance high” over to the Austin Convention Center to pick up your artist wristbands. You eat some mediocre Mexican food. You indulge in a little ice cream (your bandmates are real “cream boys”). You stop back at the Airbnb to drop off the van. You’re wiped, but you’re in Austin during SXSW. You can sleep later.
You hop into a Fasten (Austin doesn’t have Uber or Lyft anymore) and head downtown. “6th and Red River,” you say. You get out of the car and immediately enter what seems like half street party, half war zone. You make your way through the crowd to a YouTube-sponsored show where Solange is set to play. The lines are too long, though, so you head over to The Main (renamed “Eno’s” for three nights) for the second night of Spoon’s residency. A band called Cotton Mather is playing, and you notice Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke nodding along next to you in the crowd. Special guest !!! plays next. You’re on two hours of sleep, so you don’t really dance, but you dance in your mind. You’re a good mind dancer. Spoon takes the stage just after 1 am. You’re blinded by the poorly angled backlighting, but you enjoy the set nonetheless. Two hours later, you lay down in bed and hot thoughts swirl around in your sleepy head.
THURS, MARCH 15 – CARL
It’s your off-day. You eat your first meal at 4:30pm. You walk in and out of some shows around the South Congress area. You don’t remember much about it other than Kweku Collins, White Denim, Future Islands, and food trucks. Good times.
FRI, MARCH 17 – BRYAN
You’ve gotta pee and you hear the water running; someone’s already in the bathroom. Yesterday was your day off, which made last night your party night, which makes this morning a headache. You slept through your caffeine window, so there’s tension wrapping around the back of your head, sorta like the snake that was wrapping around that snake-dude’s upper body last night. You smile about that. You remember him showing it off in a gas station parking lot while you waited for food truck chicken and waffles (and then ice cream).
Your first show today is at 1pm outside of The Tiniest Bar in Texas as part of The Best Lil’ Big Fest. You’ve got an hour to rinse off, get dressed, pack the van, grab coffee and a hot sandwich from the convenience store, and head to the venue to load in. You check the weather, then draft up a Facebook post in your head while you shower. You’re showering! Austin’s cloudy today, and your music pairs well with clouds. It’ll be good.
You pull out of the convenience store lot and hit play on the vocal warm-up too soon after eating a hot turkey sandwich. You’re moving through the warm-up and watching parts of Austin go by: burger joints; gas stations; bike shops; the river; new development—lots of new development. You get to the venue, make a temporary parking spot in a tow zone, and head in to get details. “You can load in and stage your gear on this ramp.” You do that. There’s a band called Dawg Yawp doing line checks on stage with synthesizers, a sampler, a sitar (a sitar!), and you’re relieved their instrumentation might indicate there’ll be enough inputs. You’re in a band that has to plug a lot of things into a lot of inputs, which always takes some time (and humility). At SXSW, there’s a shortage of both time and inputs for newer, lesser known bands (like yours).
There aren’t enough inputs, or some of them are broken. The engineers are kind and apologetic. There’s an abrasive low-frequency hum in the wedges and your oscillating anxiety is amplifying. You try to start the set, but your mic isn’t plugged in at the board. The hum comes back. They swap out their DI box with the extra you brought. Hum’s gone. You start again. Your set gets better towards the end. Didn’t feel great overall, but someone buys a t-shirt, so it must have sounded okay. You get your gear back into the van, then decide to relax and enjoy the beer tickets (payment) you didn’t use before the set. Slow Caves is playing. You realize they’re on Old Flame Records. You text Rob at Old Flame and tell them they sound great. Your band in college used to be on Old Flame.
You get a text from Dylan at CHIRP Radio. “Hey man, wanna come to my hotel room to do the interview in a quiet spot?” Dylan’s hotel room might be the quietest spot in Austin. You and your bandmates drink some water and talk about your new record, Mantra. “What’s next for the band?” The conversation gets philosophical at times, which is fun. You and your bandmates chuckle and wrap it up. Time to eat again.
>You’re feeling euphoric sitting on a patio in a t-shirt, eating BBQ. There’s snow on the ground in Chicago right now. You tell yourself to take it easy on the BBQ—you don’t wanna feel too full for the showcase later.
You ate too much BBQ. A woman is waving your van on to a barricaded Trinity Street, and you park outside of Tellers where Greenbelt Touring is hosting its showcase. Maybe you’re just dehydrated? You haven’t had a lot of water today. You carry your gear upstairs and your body is yelling—joining in the chorus of madness where SXSW clashes head-on with St. Patrick’s Day, 6th Street, and Friday Night—all live and unedited. Your stomach expands and you go for a walk, nursing your fourth (or fifth) cup of water. The city is bloated too, but it’s exciting.
You feel bad for Small Houses. They’re a thoughtful, folk two-piece whose acoustic set is being strangled by whatever rock band is downstairs. They finish their last song and you climb over three band’s-worth of gear to grab the stuff you need to move on stage. They have enough inputs. You have a rare four minutes to “chill” before the set starts.
You’re two songs into the SXSW showcase you’ve been anticipating for weeks. People filter in and out of the room, and some seem to be into it. “What’s the name of that song?” someone yells out after “Not Enough.” They’re paying attention. They film with their phones and you can’t help but think about how you’re sort of on two stages, being watched here and somewhere else simultaneously. Your monitor is crackling like crazy. The show goes well, but you’re never able to fully sink in—the bustle of the festival has your mind wandering. You meet with a few new fans after the show. The woman who heard you for the first time two days ago at Spider House—the one who bought merch from the van in the alley—she came to see you again. She brought a friend. This is awesome.
You catch Grubby Little Hands’ set. Their songs are unique and vibey and have a catchy familiarity to them. That crackling monitor starts smoking during one of their songs and you notice that unmistakable, electrical burning smell throughout the bar. It’s done for. You’re a little sore as you stack gear into the van for the last time and you climb inside. You’re sitting there, watching the now-muffled masses of people shuffling around, checking their phones, getting into arguments, laughing, shooting promo videos. An Austin police officer guides the van back out through the traffic barricades. Of course, the gas tank is empty. You feel melancholy about leaving the city. You’ve only been here 48 hours. You wish you could stay, at least through the weekend.
POST-SXSW / GENERAL TOURING MUSINGS – JEFF
It’s interesting how you can get a feel for a place even as you’re only passing through. Wichita is big and open but feels terminally empty. Cincinnati feels smaller, tighter, and is surprisingly vibrant. New York is New York, and it’s never been my speed. I find the sheer scale of it exhausting. Philadelphia is cooler — cozier but still gritty. The neighborhood we play there in December reminds us of our hometown if only viewed through a different lens. That blend of new and familiar is striking, and it makes me want to experience Philadelphia in more depth, on my own time. It’s a refreshing feeling, especially for someone who had neither the time nor resources to travel the country until recently. I’ve lived in Chicago for more than ten years and I love it, complicated though it is. But I’ve always had my eyes set on other cities, too.
Austin is uniquely Austin, though it somehow reminds me of a bunch of other places at once. I’ve been here before, briefly, and this new visit reinforces much of what I’d experienced the first time around. The city feels like a sort of oasis — striking when viewed from a distance, but then, once you’re inside, breezy and casual enough to make you forget what’s surrounding you. The people are bold, beautiful, and inescapably alien to me. I’m not talking about the slogan-ready, “Keep Austin Weird” stuff, at least not so bluntly. But there is a carefree, “fuck it” kind of vibe that seems to undergird everything here, a vibe I can’t fully understand or embrace. I’d picked up on this my first time through town, too, though I’d been younger then and the realization hadn’t been so stark. This week, as a buttoned-down dude playing buttoned-down art rock on a tight schedule, the feeling sinks in and makes me feel every bit a tourist.
We play our first show on Wednesday at the tiny Spider House Cafe, and afterwards I talk with a couple new fans who have graciously retreated to the alley behind the venue to buy merch from our van. As we flip through records and t-shirts, one of them asks about our album cover — a photo of a thermal blanket hovering eerily over the concrete and water of Chicago’s northside lakefront. I tell her where the picture was taken and she realizes she’s been there. She visited Chicago recently, for the first time, and she says it was a cooler spot than she’d anticipated. I gather the city has piqued her interest, and that she’ll eventually want to return for a closer look. I tell her that I know the feeling.
On Friday, we play our showcase at Tellers. Between sets, I strike up a conversation with a Philadelphia native there to see the excellent Philly band Grubby Little Hands. I mention how much I like his town, and how the music scene there seems to be thriving. For real: over the past year or two, seemingly every other buzz band to break onto the scene has come from Philadelphia. “We make music because we hate living there,” he says. “But we also make music because we love living there.” It’s poetic and sounds good enough, but I still find the explanation confounding. I realize that, of course, I don’t have a nuanced view of Philly or any other place we’ve visited. The little slices we see of these towns are fragmentary, subjective, and the opinions we form are probably often unfair. Wichita might seem dead, but we could have been there on the wrong night. Philadelphia might seem cool as hell, but you could just as easily hate it if you lived there.
I still want to get back to Philadelphia soon. Same with Cincinnati and all the other unknown towns we have yet to visit. I look forward to going back to Austin, too, for a third time, though I know by now that I’ll likely never make it weird enough to claim a piece of the place for myself.