You’re forgiven if you haven’t yet heard of Alabama Shakes. After all, they don’t have a song on the radio, they haven’t made any music videos, and they don’t even have an album in stores for you to buy (yet). However, what they do have is a TON of internet buzz, as their soulful, southern roots rock sound has propelled them from the club circuit in the deep South into a place where they’re on the verge of entering the national consciousness. “Did you see Alabama Shakes yet?,” is a question that’s on everyone’s lips in Austin this week for the 2012 SXSW Music Festival, and we were lucky enough to be able to snag some time to sit down with Shakes lead singer Brittany Howard and drummer Steve Johnson the other afternoon.
When people reminisce about the 2012 South By Southwest Music Festival, there will be two things that stand out above the rest: Bruce Springsteen‘s epic keynote speech/concert, and last night’s Shady 2.0 Showcase, headlined by 50 Cent. Sadly, we weren’t able to attend the former, but we did manage to score a highly coveted ticket to the latter. Fiddy and the whole Shady Records family were celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the release of Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ last night, even though the record won’t officially turn 10 until February of next year. Whatever the Shady squad lacks in calendar savvy, they MORE than make up for with their ability to throw a massive party.
Austin had been buzzing all day with rumors that the head honcho of Shady Records, Eminem, would show up to support his protégé 50 Cent as he performed his landmark, six-times platinum debut LP front-to-back. The rumors proved to be true, as Eminem made an unannounced appearance at the Austin Music Hall during “Patiently Waiting,” the second song on Get Rich and the second song to be played last night. The audience had already gone bonkers when Fitty emerged from the shadows —wearing a camouflage bullet proof vest, natch— just a few minutes earlier, but when Em hit the stage ensconced in a grey hoodie, we honestly thought the roof might come off the place. As the two traded verses while the classic Eminem-produced beat pulsated through the speakers, the energy level in the building was truly something to behold.
Rock stars are not exactly known for their punctuality. So imagine our surprise when Tom Chaplin and Jesse Quin of Keane showed up at the Moonshine Cafe in Austin yesterday a full 20 minutes ahead of their scheduled arrival time yesterday morning. They were both bright-eyed and bushytailed and anxious to discuss their upcoming LP, Strangeland, which will be out in May.
Keane made a huge splash in both their native England and the United States back in 2004 with their debut LP, Hopes And Fears, which went platinum here Stateside and moved almost 3 million units across the pond. The band has continued to have success in the intervening years, but with Strangeland, they’re looking to recapture the success they had with American audiences in the middle portion of the last decade. “It’s a record that should do really well in America,” Tom theorized with us. We asked him to elaborate, and he obliged.
“It’s kind of widescreen, that’s the way we thought about when we playing it back to ourselves. The first single, ‘Silenced By The Night,’ has kind of got flavors of Bruce Springsteen and a sort of big, epic American sound.”
“It’s direct, as well,” Jesse chipped in. “Americans like directness, they don’t like bullsh*t, do they?”
Speaking for us, as a nation, we think not! Before we let the guys leave, we gave them a gentle ribbing about the fact that their band’s name is on every single hotel key here at the Hilton this weekend. “Do you think this will get me into Bruce Springsteen’s hotel room?”, Tom jested. To find out what Tom would do (and what Jesse thinks he should be wearing) if they did, in fact, gain access to the luxury suite of The Boss, watch our video below!
Diane Birch‘s 2009 album, Bible Belt, was one of the most promising debut LPs to emerge in the last five years. Her voice and songwriting style eschews the kind of tawdry, disposable fluff that tends to get traction on Top 40 radio, and instead hearkens back to the confessional singer-songwriter style of legends like Carole King and Laura Nyro. Aside from her 2010 digital-only cover album The Velveteen Age, she’s been holed up in the studio for the last few years working on her sophomore record. So when we heard that she would be road testing songs from her forthcoming LP (due out summer-ish) at an intimate showcase show during Day Three of the 2012 South By Southwest Music Festival, we dropped our previous plans and made our way over to the Intercontinental Hotel.
It turned out to be an awesome decision.
Birch played seven songs in her roughly 40 minute set, all of which were new to our ears. Whereas her work on Bible Belt alternated between torch songs and jaunty melodies, her new material was considerably more layered and widescreen in its sound. Take her first single, “Speak A Little Louder” (which premiered on Idolator yesterday), for example: She layers reverbed vocals over a bed of warm, atmospheric synths, creating a mood that we saw RCRD Label describe perfectly as “vintage chill.” Over the last few years, she seems to have spent considerable time and effort honing her songwriting craft, particularly when it comes to penning choruses that instantly get stuck in your brain. Birch even proved capable of writing anthemic melodies; the last song of her set last night contained a refrain that promised “We’re superstars tonight.” Considering the way the crowd reacted to her set, that line is certainly prophetic of Birch’s future in 2012.
During that time, she told us a little bit about her new record (“Benny Blanco produced pretty much the whole album, I did some with Darkchild and Greg Kurstin, and I have a great song (‘Gold’) that’s one of the singles that I wrote with Bruno Mars“) and what factors play in her decision to perform her new single, “Love U Betta,” in its radio-friendly form or it’s raunchier, unedited style. “Usually it’s not my decision,” Neon explained. “Usually someone is going, ‘You have to keep this clean, Neon, or there’s gonna be trouble.’ And I’m like, ‘Okayyyyyy!’” She also spent some time wandering the streets of Austin with our ace photographer, Jen Marigliano, for this very special SXSW edition of Music Seen.
DJ Spooky, aka That Subliminal Kid, is a man of many talents: World class DJ, multimedia artist, writer, and technology entrepreneur. Now you can add Music Supervisor to that list, too, as Paul D. Miller (his real name) is currently hard at work putting together the score for the upcoming VH1 Rock Docs documentary film, Downloaded. We got a chance to speak to him just before midnight last night at a party celebrating the film’s upcoming release, which was also attended by the likes of Ed Sheeran (check out our interview with him!), comedian Reggie Watts, actor/director Alex Winter, multi-gazillionaire investor Sean Parker, and more. We asked him about his thoughts on Napster, what he thinks of the explosion of popularity of DJs here in America, and much more.
VH1: You’re working on putting together the score for the film Downloaded. What was it that drew you to this project?
DJ Spooky: Alex [Winter] is somebody who digs in the crates. He’s always checking out different styles. He got in touch and told me how he had a lot of my music at different times in my career. We just got along. We did a quick interview/discussion, and it just seemed like there was good energy, good dynamics, but above all, a good flow of information.
Were you a Napster user back in the day? Being a recording artist and an avid digger, I can only imagine that your relationship to such a controversial product must have been complicated.
Most of the stuff that I was really interested in was the idea of the “archive” and the “exchange.” And when I say “exchange,” I mean this networked system that somehow enabled so many people to really begin to understand how deep the networks were. Napster, to me, was one of those seminal moments where the extreme volume of information that everyone has about music was able to come alive.
Napster is no longer a living, breathing product, but thanks to some breakthroughs in both technology and record label innovation, streaming services like Spotify now exist. As an artist, what’s your view on streaming versus physical media?
As an avid record collector, the thing that comes to mind is scarcity. Records have made a comeback and have become collector’s items. Vinyl versus digital files? To me, the greatest selling album all time is the blank CD. You can put anything you want on it, but vinyl had this artwork, all sorts of beautiful graphic design, things that are difficult to replicate in digital files. Actually, I believe apps have taken over the role of diminishing vinyl in the culture.
Now, that’s not to slag on Adele or anything that she’s accomplished, but Fiona Apple’s music has never been the kind of easy listening fare that you can throw on the stereo on Sunday morning while you’re making breakfast. The origins of Fiona’s music emanate from a raw, primal place deep within her soul, and when she delivers her work on stage, it’s as if she’s attempting to physically expel all of the physical and mental suffering that she’s experienced: Her body writhes and contorts as she’s singing, her hands tugging at her clothing in an almost unconscious fashion, almost as if she’s possessed. She projects the state of her psyche, past and present, in every song that she sings in such a pure, unfiltered fashion that is impossible to take your eyes off her.
She took the stage at Stubb’s for last night’s NPR Showcase just a few minutes before 8:00 p.m. and launched into “Fast As You Can,” her first single from her 1999 masterwork When The Pawn…. Most performers take a song or two to get into the groove, but Fiona came out of the gate swinging, delivering the song in a raspy fashion that Jules Winfield would describe as “great vengeance and FURIOUS anger.” She then proceeded to growl her way through “You’re All I Need” “On The Bound” before breaking everyone’s heart with an emotive version of “Paper Bag”, in which she confesses “I know I’m a mess he don’t wanna clean up.”
Ed Sheeran is a 21 year-old singer-songwriter who, over the course of the last nine months or so, went from being an aspiring musician to a household name in his native England. His grippingly dark single, “The A Team”, debuted at #3 on the UK charts last June and it’s been a rocket ride for the fresh-faced troubadour ever since. His first full length album, +, is currently available as an import, but will be on shelves and in the iTunes store here in the U.S. soon. We caught up with him last night at the W Hotel here in Austin, where he performed a spirited and energetic set as part of the the VH1 Rock Docs party at the SXSW Music Festival.
VH1: Is this your first trip to SXSW?
Ed Sheeran: This is my first time anywhere other than New York or LA. Not only is it my first Texas show, it’s my first middle America show I guess. It’s been going great. I just did my first gig and I’m really looking forward to this one. I’m lovin’ it, it’s a crazy vibe out here.
How many shows are you playing this weekend? Seven. It’s cool. My one addiction is to live shows, and I love getting out there and doing ‘em.
So, the song that really broke you in the U.K. and will be your first single over here in the States is “The A Team.” The subject matter of the song is very dark, lyrically, but also incredibly compelling. What was it about this song that resonated so well with audiences? The whole kind of ethos around it is that it encompasses pain and suffering. I know that that sounds really deep, but with enough dance tracks on the radio, sometimes people need a little bit of raw, real stuff. It’s sort of the same thing as The Police and their song “Roxanne”. People can’t necessarily relate to it 100%, but they can relate to the feeling of it.
We’ve noticed the same thing, too. With the proliferation of dance music on the airwaves, do you feel like there will be a counter-movement where fans will be drawn to more “authentic” music, the kind of stuff that you excel at? In every single generation, when there’s been a really big seller, there’s always been singer-songwriters. Before me, there was James Morrison. Before him, James Blunt. Before him, it was Damien Rice and before that, it was David Gray. It just goes back so, yeah, you’re always going to get the kind of raw, acoustic singer who comes out at the time where everything else seems to be headed in another direction. It always cuts through, there will always be troubadours.
It’s an overcast Day Two for VH1 down here at the 2012 South By Southwest Festival, but we’re not complaining. Every minute that the sun isn’t shining is a minute where we don’t mind being inside, nerding out listening to some of the most influential and interesting people who operate in the music world.
Case in point, today’s panel discussion about the new VH1 Rock Doc Downloaded. We mozied our way over to the Austin Convention Center to watch Downloaded director Alex Winter moderate a discussion with the two co-founders of Napster, Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker. This full length documentary film will premiere on VH1 later this year — the only footage screened today was a five-minute long teaser clip — but Fanning and Parker had a lot to say about their invention, their company, the effect that it had on the music business, and companies —like Spotify and iTunes— that were launched in their wake.
In particular, the always controversial Sean Parker made a couple of statements during the panel discussion that made the audience gasp and will certainly get tongues wagging. Here’s a sample of his five most controversial quotes.
“There’s definitely some sort of dissent brewing between record labels, publishing companies and artists [about the compensation they get from streaming services] … Spotify is returning a HUGE amount of money [to the record labels]. If we continue growing at our current rate in terms of subscriptions and downloads, we’ll overtake iTunes in terms of contributions to the recorded music business in under two years.” —Sean Parker throws down the gauntlet that Spotify will drive more revenue for the record industry than iTunes
“Even the iTunes store, to this day, is SO SLOW [compared to Napster]. I’m amazed. It’s like this embedded website within their client that when you click buy [makes spinning motion with his hands].”—Sean Parker on Apple’s laziness with regards to improving the iTunes Store
“In some sense, YouTube is much more liable [than Napster]. If you’re hosting the content, you’re liable, potentially, for direct infringement. We had to be sued for the much more esoteric contributory, vicarious copyright infringement … The funny thing about YouTube is that all of the user-generated content was accounting for such a small fraction of [their traffic]. In reality, it was a smokescreen. They had all this UGC, tons of it, and they were able to make a case in the various lawsuits against YouTube that that was the bulk of their content. When, in actuality, the traffic was largely being generated by SNL clips and other copyrighted content.” —Sean Parker on the injustice and inconsistency of the United States legal system
“Suddenly, [Napter] was taken over by lawyers. Our CEO was literally an attorney. Not to begrudge our CEO at the time, but one of our important lessons learned is that your CEO should never be an attorney. It became like a law firm.” —Sean Parker on how NOT to run a business that depends on creativity and innovation
“The record business was terrified of it. And there wasn’t even room for conversation. These guys were such dinosaurs that they were just for the first time waking up to the idea of digital media. They hadn’t even considered the implications of what was coming … [But during our meetings with the major labels], they were grinf*cking the sh*t out of us.” —Sean Parker on the record industry’s reaction to Napster
And one bonus quote for you after the jump! Read more…
We landed at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport yesterday afternoon around 2 p.m. Central time or so, but the bumper-to-bumper traffic on Interstate 35 as we entered downtown Austin reminded us more than a little of rush hour in Los Angeles. It’s no surprise that the infrastructure of this college town is stretched to its limits during the annual South By Southwest Festival, as upwards of 50,000 people temporarily relocate to Austin from wherever they normally call home during this ten night extravaganza. After having their run of the town for the last few days, technology companies began ceding ground to the music industry yesterday as the Music portion of SXSW began in earnest.
When we finally got settled yesterday afternoon and picked up our badge from the cavernous Austin Convention Center, we made our way over to the Warner Sound Showcase at La Zona Rosa, located at the far east end of 4th Street. The showcase wasn’t set to start until 7:30, but when we strolled up at 7:00 or so, there were already hundreds of people lined up in the street hoping to see the likes of Neon Hitch, Theophilus London and Santigold.
After a dubstep-heavy DJ set from Alex English (Note: NOT the same Alex English that was the highest-scoring player in the NBA during the 1980s), Neon Hitch took the stage promptly at 8:30 p.m. Flanked by two shirtless dudes with tribal paint on their faces and drums around their waist, Neon Hitch opened her three-song set with “Bad Dog”, an electro stomper in which she declares “You know I’m yours so rip my clothes off.” Well, truth be told, she wasn’t exactly wearing a ton of clothes to begin with, but nonetheless, she succeeded to whip the crowd into an early frenzy with her provocative attire and compelling stage presence. She proceeded to belt out the hook to “Ass Back Home”, her hit with Gym Class Heroes, before closing her too-brief set with her current single, “Love U Betta.” She curiously refrained from dropping the f-bomb that appears in her unedited version of this song in front of the live audience, but the crowd didn’t seem to mind.