Each spring, hundreds of bands flock to South by Southwest (SXSW), the much-anticipated annual music and media festival held in Austin. The festival, which gets started today, and is celebrating its 25th season this year. Acts from around the globe — Ireland, Japan, Germany, Australia, New Jersey — perform on more than 80 stages in what has become a media frenzy and a vast audio smorgasbord. Devouring the scene is a devout mob of friends, family, supporters, bloggers, critics and A&R representatives.
The bands that come to Austin may have a couple of one-off singles, a debut album, some mix tapes, and perhaps a few dozen live shows under their belt. If they deliver a kickass performance, they may get a shot at the title: to sell records, get signed to a label, and possibly get a song featured in a commercial, movie, or video game.
Will this be the year for WJ & the Sweet Sacrifice or The Beatings to hit the big time? We caught up with Billy Ferrara (aka Billy Alpha) of WJ & The Sweet Sacrifice and Tony Skalicky of The Beatings to find out what’s in store.
Tell us about the band. Who is the WJ & the Sweet Sacrifice, and do they do?
We are a bunch of friends who love getting out once in a bit and raising some hell together. The band is way more collaborative then the name suggests. We try hard to write, and work together. Tom Barret is our drummer, Erin Connors our lead guitar player/key player. Mike Moebius plays bass and does all of our recording and producing. I sing and play guitar, and Lysa Opfer, our newest member, plays keys/harps/tambourines/backing vocals.
WJ & the Sweet Sacrifice is a country/blues band from Jersey City. What’s the deal, why so much heartbreak?
I started the band as almost a knee-jerk reaction to some previous bands I had played in. I was bassist in the Ankles, which was a bombastic guitar rock band, and played in the Alphamales. The Alphamales worked harder at being abrasive and loud than we did on songwriting, so when we hit the skids and everyone moved on to different things, Erin and myself started writing these sappy country songs in our living rooms together. I tried to say something with the words and sing a little more…instead of all the “yeahs” and “come ons” of the past. The interesting thing about WJSS is that when we added a full line-up of people with different influences to the group those sad country songs grew into loud rock songs. Our upcoming record Hot and Haunted has been influenced as much by Black Sabbath as Cash and Parsons.
As for all the heartbreak … I spent most of my 20s being dumped and working mind-numbing jobs. People love to hear about that stuff.
Billy Alpha is the story of dead end jobs and dead end romances. What role has Jersey City played in your songwriting?
Jersey City has really influenced my songwriting. Before living here I never had any inclination to come here — ever; it was a shadowy place across the river. Now it seems like I can’t leave. This city is like a weird middle ground: its dangerous and seedy but also rich and trendy, it has this ramshackle music scene and a thriving art scene, but you sort of got to seek it out, got to be a little in the know. So this city has become the backdrop to a lot of my songs. I’ll name-check bartenders, streets, friends and places. I really try to connect my songs to this place. I moved here in my early 20s and sort of grew up here emotionally and musically. Like a lot of us drawn to this place, this city has been through a lot. Luckily in my case it was mostly awesome stuff: I’ve met great dudes and awesome girls, fell in love, and had 1,000 or so beers. What else do you need from a city?
You have a punk rock pedigree. What’s the link between the Misfits and Merle Haggard?
I could write an essay on this. My father told me once that kids singing doo-wop on the corner in the Bronx in the ‘60s were a lot like kids throwing guitars on, playing three chords and singing punk rock — you’re young, you’re mad or in love, and you got something to say. Same goes for country and punk. They deal with the same blue collar /middle class issues. You know, your heart’s broken and you got nowhere to turn, so you find solace in your friends and some beer … or you just found the hottest girl ever and she hates your guts ‘cause you’re a fuck-up with a shitty job and you wear lame clothes. There’s a great line from a song on Whiskeytown’s Faithless Street, “I started this damn country band, cause punk rock is to hard to sing.” That line inspired me a bit. Also, Danzig’s little heart yearns as much as Haggard’s in those Misfits songs, and both guys like fighting. Country music can be deceptively aggressive, and I’ve shed many a tear to Black Flag’s Damaged.
Danzig croons, Springsteen too. What’s the deal with New Jersey? Why do we inspire the soul of poets?
Its got to be something to do with that Pulaski Skyway. It’s like this giant old dinosaur made of rust and iron that rises out of the ground and towers over the landscape. It has hardly any shoulder, people fly on it, and if there is an accident traffic piles up for hours. Next time you’re on that thing think about what would happen to it if an earthquake hit. It would crumble. The thing about the Pulaski is you don’t have to drive on it, there are lots of ways around it, but people here choose to take that Skyway every single day.
Why do you want to perform at SXSW?
We have no real aspirations to be discovered at some BBQ and end up on the cover of Rolling Stone, but we do have aspirations to get free beer and hot dogs at said BBQ and end up meeting some people, having fun, and learning something about ourselves along the way. It’s going to be a blast. We are lovers of music and fun and SXSW has tons of both.
How many times have you performed before at SXSW?
I went down with the ankles in ‘04. I remember very little.
Lots of people read about SXSW, but they do not know what happens. Describe a typical day for a band during the showcase.
It depends on what you want to get out of it I guess. The opportunities to see great music are obviously everywhere, whether you have a SXSW badge or not. Besides all of the official shows, there are an inconceivable amount of BBQs and parties that you can just roll into, grab a beer and a hot dog and chill at. If you are so inclined you can network like crazy, or you can drink your face off and scream out the car window (this is mostly what the Ankles did). WJSS are playing four shows as of now, and are trying to get a radio spot, and some more things going. We’re going to focus on playing the best rock music we can; fortunately for us we are at our best when we are a little tipsy. I hope our typical day goes like this: wake up, eat continental breakfast, go for a swim, have a few beers, rock, dinner, beers, rock, see some metal, go to sleep … repeat.
What have you gotten out of the festival in the past?
Juice, clout, and the envy of my peers … about a 100 free records, and some stories i am not allowed to repeat.
What do you hope to get out of the festival now?
Mostly the same stuff as before, but we also want to give the band a shot in the arm — prove that we can do this, and do it well.
Why see live music when you can watch a band from the comfort of your own home on YouTube?
Nothing replaces seeing a band you love killing it on stage. I had hardly heard of High On Fire when we went to see them at the Knitting Factory all those years back, but they blew my mind so hard, I have loved them ever since. How sick was it when the bass player wrapped his bloody finger in duct tape so they could continue playing? You can’t appreciate that unless you’re there; that’s a visceral experience that needs to be seen in person. YouTube can never compete with hearing about some awesome show, buying the tickets weeks in advance, and then talking about how awesome its going to be for weeks, then going to the show and freaking out for 45 minutes, buying a shirt then talking about it to your friends the next day. Look how happy that Rye Coalition reunion made people … people were ecstatic. You could watch those dudes on YouTube all day, and never come close to that feeling of witnessing awesome rock. Some of my favorite people ever I have met at shows, and some of my fondest memories involve some cheap beers, good friends, and loud guitars.
If I remember clearly, you almost drove your truck into oncoming traffic on our way home from that show. That was then, this is now. I am old, and standing hurts my back. I saw Charlotte Gainsbourg last fall, and all I wanted was a chair to sit in. What do you expect from the audience during one of your shows?
To have at least as many drinks as Erin — beyond that it is up to them.
I get claustrophobic outside. What is it like to drive cross-county in a tiny vehicle jammed next to one another for thirty hours, and then play a show?
It sucks, then its awesome.
Who are The Beatings? What do you do in the band?
The Beatings are Erin Dalbec (bass, vocals), Dennis Grabowski (drums), Cameron Keiber (aka Eldridge Rodriguez) (guitarist, vocals), Greg Lyon (guitar, keyboards), and myself. I am a co-guitarist, co-singer, co-songwriter. We all share in the songwriting.
The Beatings are from Boston, but you live in Jersey City. You’ve described your affiliation as a long-distance relationship. What’s the deal?
A little Beatings history: Cameron and I grew up together just outside of NYC. He went to college in western Massachusetts, I went to school in upstate New York, and after school was over, we both moved to Boston for a change of scenery. The Beatings had already been around for a year or so before I joined in 1999 or 2000. I forget which year. Shortly thereafter we formed our label and released three albums. Then in 2004 I moved back to NYC, to help run my father’s business and because I fancied myself a New Yorker. Since that move I’ve stayed active in the band, shooting up to Boston to rehearse, write, etc. It’s a lot of travel, but it’s worth it: we’ve released three more records since then, done a few tours, not to mention adding several artists to the label. I know the highways of Connecticut quite well. I enjoy sleeping on sofas.
When did you relocate to Jersey City? Has the city played a role in your songwriting?
I relocated here in 2007, chasing after my wife-to-be and moving my print shop out of NYC. The city has definitely affected my songwriting style. I used to get drunk and ride the subways of Manhattan until 3 am, writing lyrics as I went along. Now I take the Light Rail to work or ride my bike. I seem to get the same amount done.
How many times have you performed at SXSW?
This is our first appearance in Austin while SXSW is happening; we are headlining Midriff Records’ first ever Day Party at Momo’s.
What about logistics? How are you guys getting down there — bus, van, car, train or plane? What is life like on the road?
We’re doing both this time out. A few brave souls have volunteered to drive a van with our stuff down to the festival. I myself am taking a plane. I think most of us are flying in for this one. Generally speaking, however, life on the road is an acquired taste. We’ve been around the country a few times, and it can be exhilarating, seeing the states, performing for people you don’t know, meeting new people, seeing how far you can drive with your eyes closed and an umbrella holding the steering wheel in place. We’ve made friends touring that we’ve stayed in touch with for the last ten years. But you see the inside of a van quite a bit. There is sleep deprivation. It can be lonely. But I wouldn’t trade the tours we’ve done for anything in the world. And even so, The Beatings have done our fair share of traveling, but up against a touring monster like These United States (who will be playing our Day Party) we’re pikers.
What is it like to play at this festival as opposed to a regular show?
A regular show has the thrill of being on stage, usually, in an intimate environment. You can meet the people before and after a drink a beer together. A festival is totally different; it’s an all day experience. There are shows going on everywhere. You have the potential to play for an exponentially larger crowd than you ever have before. Mostly everyone is in great spirits and rooting for you.
What about as a fan? What’s the experience like in the crowd?
This will be my first experience at SXSW, and I can’t wait. I don’t know what I am going to do first. I’m going to wear a helmet, though, so if my head explodes, I don’t take anyone else down with me.
What does the band hope to get from the festival this year?
This year, we’re hoping to do what we try to do every year, regardless of location: bring our music, and the roster of Midriff Records, to more people than the previous year. The Beatings and Midriff are really two sides of the same coin. We formed Midriff in 2002 to release our first album, Italiano, and we’ve been growing it in fits and starts ever since. At first, it was a smokescreen to promote our first EP. Like any band, we called clubs, tried to book tours, get write-ups, etc., all on our own. We weren’t on a label and had an insanely devoted friend as a manager. But back in 2001, booking agents, writers, newspapers, radio people, none of them wanted to talk directly to a band. But if you said you were on a label, you had a slightly higher response rate. So that’s what we did, and eventually, like Frankenstein’s monster, Midriff started roaming around the countryside under its own power. We learned all the things a label needed to do — distribution, publicity, booking, management, etc. — with The Beatings as the lab rat, before we took on another band in the roster. If someone had told us in 2003 we’d be putting on an all-day showcase in Austin someday, that person would have been pointed at and mocked mercilessly. Possibly given a wedgie.
Sarah Palin has taken a page out of your playbook. She has created a separate Facebook account to comment on her official account. What else do The Beatings and Momma Grizzly have in common?
Like Sarah Palin, we believe that Sarah Palin should run for President in 2012. We feel it would be, at the very least, a spectacle. We’re big fans of political comedies.
When I was a kid, if I wanted to hear a band, I listened to a cassette or record. I listened to WSOU or WPRB. Where do you learn about new bands?
Back in the old days, I had the MIT station WMBR’s “Breakfast of Champions.” There was no reason to listen to anything else. Now that I don’t live in Boston anymore and am not quite in that mindset, I try to listen to KEXP’s NYC broadcast in the mornings. When I do I always wonder why I don’t more often. I try to keep up with blogs, but that’s a lot of work! Nowadays I usually wait for my friends or my brother to tell me to listen to something, and it usually pays off. In that respect, I am very lazy. Fortunately, I am not responsible for finding new artists for the label. Better minds than mine handle that.
What about WFMU, do you listen to them?
I catch Tom Scharpling as often as I can. So I guess it’s not really about the music. Is that wrong? Do I have to move back to New York now?
I listened to your complete discography on your band website. What is The Beatings relationship to new media and technologies? How is band using new media and technologies?
The Beatings officially welcome our technological overlords. Without social networking, digital media, etc., a DIY outfit like ours would be nowhere. The best example of how we’re using new tech: we have a digital download store on our site. It’s a dream come true, to be able to sell directly to our fans without any middleman. And of course, we keep everyone updated via Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace. It’s a lot to stay on top of, but it’s a great asset to have real-time contact with the people who enjoy your work. It beats the carrier pigeon system we had in 1999.
So then what is the purpose of the live show?
To seal the commitment with your audience. You have a relationship via CDs, MP3s, websites, or what have you, and at some point, you gotta make some face time.
Record companies sold records. Bands played live, and used to make the most money touring. This model is obsolete. What do you do now, and what is your major source of revenue?
Right now, our major source of revenue is our website, where we sell our CDs and digital albums directly to our audience. Selling CDs at live shows is still important, but touring just doesn’t pay like it used to, if it ever did. Nothing can replace the connection that touring allows you to make with your audience, but from a financial standpoint, it’s tough to make ends meet doing it.
The Black Keys have gotten a lot of flack from fans because their song will be featured in a Twilight movie. What are your thoughts about using music for commercial purposes?
Speaking strictly for myself, I have no objections to it, provided it’s not used as the soundtrack for a remake of Triumph of the Will or something. I didn’t always think this way, but nowadays, music piracy is rampant. There are people who feel downloading music for free is an entitlement or right that’s been earned once they’ve sat down at a computer. I think it’s these same people who also feel entitled to dictate to a band what they can and can’t do with said stolen music. True fans are happy to see you succeed.
If your music could be featured in a film or video game, what would it be, and why?
Personally, my dream film/video project featuring the Beatings’ music would involve the Incredible Hulk, the Millennium Falcon, or Don Corleone. Perhaps some combination of the three.
Patrick Carney of the Black Keys said his band’s mission “was and still is to be able to pay our rent playing music.” What is your mission?
I can’t disagree with the guy. But as we’ve also been running a label for 10 years, our scope is considerably broader. We’re on a mission, perhaps in the realm of obsession, to get the music we love out to people who haven’t heard it yet. And that’s not just the music of The Beatings. That goes for all the artists on our roster, and some artists who aren’t on our roster. Look at our Austin lineup. There are artists that are not on our label, that we would have no financial interest in promoting. They’re just bands we love, great friends and like-minded participants in an under-the-radar community of independent musicians. The blogs do a good job of getting new music out, but logistically, they can only bring to light a small percentage of what’s out there. Popular radio does even less. I’m not saying we’re the missing piece of the puzzle, but we’re certainly trying to do our part. It still hasn’t paid the rent, however. Maybe next year.
Boston has a huge music tradition. Aerosmith, The Cars, Mission of Burma, Pixies, SSD, and Slapshot all hail from Boston. Dinosaur Jr. and Modern Lovers were a stones throw away. Which band has more of direct influence on The Beatings?
Perhaps I can narrow this down by saying that The Beatings will not be covering “Dude Looks Like a Lady” in this lifetime. The Pixies and Modern Lovers, obviously, are beloved in our band, but there’s more disparate influences among the five of us than you might think, and it’s what makes our songwriting relationship work so well. I do wish I had thought up saying “Giggy-giggy-gow”, though.
Original post may be found here.