Austin prides itself on being weird and this week has proved to be no exception. For instance, on a bus ride from our hotel to Sixth Street, we witnessed a marriage proposal of an older couple who had met the day before on a park bench. The announcement was awkward, more so for us tourists, as the crowd uncomfortably received the news and clapped.
"(Austin) seems to have a lot of quirky personality that's celebrated. People are glad that people are weird," says Stuart MacKenzie, frontman for Cincy's Lions Rampant.
This music town is incredibly accepting and filled with a plethora of motley characters as a result. Whether they're artistic, tattooed, pierced, young or old, few truly stand out among the masses in a city whose motto is "Keep Austin Weird."
The same goes for musicians, which makes South By Southwest such an anticipated event. The likelihood that a struggling no-name band will be picked up by a label is about one in a million. For that reason, the festival is geared toward the industry — not just the fans — which makes for outrageous ticket prices and can make access difficult. But every musician here, regardless of genre, is longing for the same result — to be recognized by someone that matters.
"The downside is that it's super corporate and I've heard that the technology portion is actually bigger than the music conference. It use to be a place where you'd come to get signed and now it seems like a place signed bands go to get more buzz. If you don't have crazy promotion, no one is going to come and check your band out. It's all about the buzz bands," MacKenzie says.
This is the first time The Lions are participating in SXSW, but MacKenzie is no stranger to music festivals. Over the years, his band has performed at CMJ and Forecastle, among others. But the exclusivity of this event doesn't seem to deter the band's morale.
"This whole process has lit a fire, creatively. When I see bands in Cincinnati, most of the people making music I already know, so it's refreshing to see people from different cities doing the same thing you are, so that's exciting," MacKenzie says. "I feel like I need to step up my game now because everyone is doing what I'm doing and it makes you want to record and promote. It gives you a glimpse that's in reach."
The group played their first SXSW gig on Tuesday at the Midwest by Southwest showcase with other Cincinnati bands. They'll play two more showcases before making the trek back home.
The Lions' newest member, bassist Richard Sherman, who has played only a handful of live shows with the band, says he's grateful for the experience.
"I feel like my batteries are charged up and when I get back, Stu and I are going to record a ton … it's good old baptism by fire. You come out of it stronger," Sherman says.
Thousands of miles from Cincinnati, MacKenzie says the SXSW experience is also a reminder that there truly is no place like home.
"Cincinnati bands share guitar players, share drummers, share equipment and help each other out a lot. It's probably like that in every scene, but Cincinnati, especially," MacKenzie says. "However, being in Austin, I'm seeing a bunch of bands that are similar to every band — bands in the same shoes as us, doing the same thing, which is comforting because (we're) normally seen as a weird … It's nice to be around other weirdos."