This was Los Angeles four-piece Hand's third trek to the festival in the past three years and by far the grandest. With a new van and a new album Synesthesia due to come out in April on Kill Rock Stars, the guys were feeling really good about this year. So good that they foolishly agreed to let me embed with them for the week.
It's the maiden voyage of their white, gleaming, newly purchased van and the guys are smitten with it. It has air conditioning! You can actually hear each other talk while it's moving! It won't cost them $1300 in gas money just to get there, like it did the first time they ventured to Austin.
The 10 freeway stretches out like a shimmering ribbon in the desert and for the next day and a half there's very little to do except tell stories and listen to music. Autre Ne Veut, Kendrick Lamar, and Genesis get heavy play. Serious topics are discussed: looking up the age of consent in Texas, the art of remixing, how often Billy Idol frequents the dispensary where guitarist Ryan Sweeney works (very often).
Also: how to modify the engine to get better gas mileage, the art of seduction — “Toro Y Moi's latest album is my new boning music,” bassist Alex Staniloff confides. But when it comes to their album, the guys become serious. “This album is self-produced, self-engineered, and self-recorded,” lead singer Geoff Halliday explains “It's all us.”
Drummer, Sean Hess leans over and quietly adds: “I'm proud of the things we haven't done. We've turned down big labels and a lot of opportunities that just weren't right.”
After a day and a half of driving, Austin appears over the hill like a beacon of promise in the warm Texas evening. There's just enough time to eat some dinner before rushing off to their first gig hosted by Entrourage star Adrian Grenier's record label The Wreckroom. Walls festooned with lascivious cowgirls, the show is in a tiny bar called the Bourbon Girl off of the main drag. Like most shows at SXSW, it doesn't start on time partly because Grenier shows up late and partly because the second band decides to sound check for 45 minutes. (Pro-tip: if you sound check for longer than your set, you're doing it wrong.)
Finally Grenier shows up in a hoodie and Hands take the stage around ten. Hands' biggest challenge for this festival is to get the audience to dance even though no one has heard their album yet. With microphone pressed in hand, dressed in his finest Iams cat food t-shirt, Halliday is bouncing around with the energy of a spark leaping out of a bonfire. By the third song the crush of people in front of the stage has turned into a dance floor. Ladies with long hair turn into whirling dervishes.
One girl in a black dress and pink ballet flats start dancing seductively to the delight of the patrons. All goes well until an elderly man thinks it a good idea to set his wallet on fire and put it under her dress. (Fortunately, he's a magician and it's a joke wallet.) The 30-minute set closed with their single, “The Game is Changing Us.”
The next morning the festival begins in earnest, and so does the craziness. Three shows are lined up for the day and two interviews. The band goes from playing in the back yard of a bar, to taking pictures in an auto shop parking lot, to playing the parking lot of a closed down bar on a giant Red Bull stage, to the top of a fancy restaurant with hard wood floors and candle light.
All day is: load in, load out, play a show, talk about your feelings, run here, run there, and smile boys, smile. It's enough to drive a person mad. The crowd varies from shoeless, unwashed drunks at the Red Bull Stage, to well manicured vested hipsters at the White Iris Record party, and bleary eyed sound engineers in the early morning at the Terrorbird Day Party.
So perhaps it's unsurprising when, while the guys are smoking outside after their final show, a man wobbles up to them high out of his mind and offers to “kill” Sweeney. Sweeney just looks at him exhausted and says “OK,” at which point the man pulls out a red marker and draws a thick red line across Sweeney's neck.
Red Bull invites the band to their super secret after party at midnight. And so, with the promise of an open bar, we hop on a party bus with the words Elegant painted on the side. The bus takes us to a barn deep on the west side of town that is strung with lights and thrumming with dance music.
Everyone proceeds to get shitfaced. A burger truck is parked in the corner, and folks eat their weight in cheeseburgers and fries. In the field next to the liquor-soaked barn are softly lit antique trailers filled with colorful pillows and mattresses. (They're quickly dubbed “sex trailers.”) By 2:30 am the place is packed, and the fabled return shuttles are nowhere in sight.
So we hop aboard someone else's van and convince the driver, who as it turns out used to play soccer for Kansas City, to take us back downtown. A couple sloppy bribes and many drunken promises later, we are in our own, temporary, warm beds.