Street Chant’s Billie Rogers has just walked up, drink in hand, and interrupted my impromptu interview with Thom Powers of the Naked and Famous. Both musicians have just finished 20-minute sets with their respective bands at the New Zealand party at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. Powers has been signing autographs and posing for photos with fans who have sneaked into the artists’ area behind the tent, in a mid-city park.
“Ah, an interview,” says Rogers as she politely butts in. “Hello, I’m Billie from Street Chant – I’m trying to talk to my man Thom, but he’s busy.” No problem. I wanted to interview someone from Street Chant, anyway. The three-piece had just impressed a wined-up crowd of 200 at the showcase with their sharp, cheery punk numbers. (For the last one, their single Scream Walk, they claimed, “This one was No 1 in New Zealand for three years.”) So, I ask Rogers, what does Street Chant want to get out of South by Southwest?
“We want to get on an American label,” she says, before adding, “but I don’t know, f—, who cares? We’ll see. We just want to have fun.”
“To be honest,” Powers chimes in, “we were just looking forward to eating ribs and listening to Pantera in Texas.” Rogers nods in agreement. Then, Powers adds excitedly, “How the f— is this: David [Beadle, the band’s bass player] was going, ‘Look, we’ve got to listen to Pantera when we’re in Texas!’ We get to the restaurant and there’s the singer from Pantera. And David goes [waves hands, points frantically] – and started shaking and for five hours he was, like, nervy, shaking, proper shaking! It was a life-changing event for him.”
“Waaaah!” says Rogers. “We saw Foo Fighters.” If they’re not your bog-standard wide-eyed Kiwi music fans transplanted into a world of rock’n’roll excitement, they sure do a good impression. The truth is, however, that Powers and Rogers are themselves perhaps on the verge of international rock-star status.
The Naked and Famous in particular, although long a success in New Zealand, are just breaking big into Europe and the US. Their debut album, Passive Me, Aggressive You, was released worldwide on March 14 and immediately made an impact, hitting No 25 in the UK album charts in late March and ranking in the top 10 “alternative” albums downloaded on iTunes in the US, the UK and several other countries in Europe.
In February, influential UK music magazine NME awarded the band the Philip Hall Radar Award for up-and-coming acts, and last year they got a nod in the BBC’s taste-setting Sound of 2011 poll. In the US, their songs have appeared on such popular TV shows as The Vampire Diaries, Chuck and Gossip Girl.
Here at SXSW – a week-long multi-venue festival that features 2000 bands and attracts tens of thousands of fans and music-industry types every year – they are among the most buzzed-about acts. The 25-year-old festival is a must-do on the indie circuit. Nine Kiwi acts are here this year, and many of them – including Brooke Fraser, Liam Finn and the Naked and Famous – will go on to US tours that are crucial to establishing themselves in this huge diverse market. The Naked and Famous will play eight shows in four days. The schedule is gruelling and often mildly shambolic, with no time for soundchecks, quick turnovers between sets and some less-than-ideal venues.
“It’s not a pleasant experience from behind the scenes,” says Powers, “but as far as the buzz goes, that takes it all away.” He professes he’s still blown away by the band’s success. “I feel so detached from the whole experience. I don’t know how to make it happen, so when it happens it’s truly out of our hands. I just don’t know what to do with it.”
Two nights later, King Kapisi is on a small stage in front of about 40 people in a downtown Austin bar. It’s his 38th birthday. Last night, he got a bit drunk, fell down some stairs, spilt beer over himself and threw up. Everyone here knows this, because Kapisi – no stickler for discretion – has just announced it in one of his many mid-set digressions. The crowd love the proud Samoan-Kiwi’s disarming humour, and they also dig his tunes, which range from dubstep to reggae. At the end of his set, Kapisi’s wife and DJ, Teremoana Rapley, hands out free DVDs while Kapisi, dressed in a Mt Albert Grammar basketball shirt, chats with audience members. Unlike the Naked and Famous, the veteran rapper can’t realistically hope for any hype or big record deals or bookings for major festivals.
“I’m just a big advocate for getting off your arse, earning some money, paying for yourself to get to these types of things.” Kapisi came to Austin hoping to secure a distribution deal. That looks like it will become a reality, he says, and he also secured a slot at a hip-hop festival in Connecticut. Among the crowd at Kapisi’s gig are the New Zealand Music Commission’s Gary Fortune and Alan Holt. They were instrumental in helping the Kiwi acts get to Austin, and they organised the New Zealand party on the opening day.
Fortune says Kiwi bands are increasingly looking to the US, rather than the UK, for new opportunities – a point reflected in the fact that 45 Kiwi bands applied to come to SXSW this year (about 12,000 bands in total apply every year). He reckons US college audiences especially are in tune with New Zealand music.
“They’re open to listening to new music,” says Fortune of the Americans. “It’s not until you start poking in and around the world that you realise the UK is a very hard market. They’re very loyal, city-centric. In America, you can get these little successes, and that’s the hardest bit for the people back home to see, because you don’t see it. They’re chipping away at college radio. We’ve had in the last couple of years more singles jumping around in air-play charts in the US than I think we’ve ever had.”
Again, that’s especially true for the Naked and Famous. Cary Caldwell, a Christchurch native who is one of the senior planners for SXSW and spends five months a year in Austin, says the band are “on a real roll at the moment. There are people that have invested a lot of time and probably quite a bit of money in making this work. Of course, it helps if the act themselves are extremely talented, which they are.”
The band’s future is bright, Caldwell says. “They’re a great band, they’ve got a couple of excellent singles. They’re great live. Everything about them is doing extremely well.” About 400 people are crammed into the backyard space at Lustre Pearl, a calculatedly ramshackle bar that serves pricey drinks in a hip part of town. Clothing label Dickie’s has sponsored a high-profile day-party here featuring some of the most talked-about emerging bands from around the world. It’s 4.30pm and the Naked and Famous are nearing the end of their bouncy set of electropop.
“Thank you for coming and joining us in this sweaty pit today,” says singer Alisa Xayalith to delighted screams as the thermometer touches 30°C. “I don’t know why the f— I decided to wear black.” Laughter follows, and there are scattered calls for Young Blood, the band’s catchy breakthrough single. Then, in an uncharacteristic lapse, keyboardist Aaron Short plays a bum note. There’s a moment of confusion and the rest of the band looks over at him, laughing. Short soon corrects himself, plinking out the distinctive opening riff for Young Blood, and this time Lustre Pearl’s perspiring masses are up jumping, their shouts moshing in a high-pitched cacophony of approval. To the five young Aucklanders on stage, it must sound very much like three warm words: Welcome to America.