AUSTIN, TEXAS -- It's hard to tell the music biz big-wigs from the British rock stars and college kids on spring break, all in T-shirts and shorts, all in hot pursuit of barbecue, Shiner beer and entree to clubs featuring the nation's top rock music acts. One week a year, this laid-back college town that mixes old-style Texas charm with sleek dot.com offices becomes the epicenter of the music industry.
As the South by Southwest Music Conference (SXSW) winds down Saturday, a different fresh-faced, cutting-edge Minnesota band seems to be right down every humid, teeming, littered street.
There's never been a bigger presence of bands from the other end of Interstate 35 at this showcase event, making for major buzz about Minnesota music in Austin's club scene.
What started 26 years ago as a local event in 12 clubs attended by 200 people is now the nation's premier rock music festival, with 100 clubs drawing 15,000 of rock's most ardent followers. What they are hearing in club after club is an indie-spiked sound from far north.
"It's a little crazy, but it's really exciting," Poliça drummer Drew Christopherson said after his band's first showcase on opening night in a 6th Street bar. His band hung out there with young members of Night Moves, fellow Minnesotans who used SXSW to formally announce a deal with famed London-reared indie label Domino (home to Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand).
"We're running into a lot of people from Minnesota, which is cool," said Christopherson. "There definitely seems to be a sort of groundswell of us here."
SXSW has been a place where bands with local followings go to try to break into the national music scene. That's worked most notably for Minneapolis' Tapes 'n Tapes, which made a big splash at SXSW in 2006. The band was written up in the New York Times, got a record contract and toured the world.
But it's been many years since Minnesota bands enjoyed anything close to the hype greeting them this year.
Duluth's Trampled by Turtles performed at a Sony Music showcase and the "Austin City Limits" TV series' brunch Thursday. By the time the fest wraps Saturday night, Poliça will have played eight shows, including National Public Radio's shindig Thursday and an opening slot for Lionel Richie at the Billboard magazine party Wednesday. Never mind the question everyone had over why the "Say You, Say Me" hitmaker is playing the hipster-heavy SXSW.
"Minneapolis has always had a great scene," said Kris Gillespie, president of Domino Recording's U.S. division, who traveled to Minneapolis last summer to sign Night Moves. "The big difference now is that a young band like them in Middle America can make a record with their own equipment that sounds as good as anything else," Gillespie said. Both Poliça and Howler got attention for self-made recordings.
Following his gig in the parking lot outside Austin's largest record store, Howler's singer/guitarist Jordan Gatesmith sighed over the one downside of his band being a big part of the biggest year ever for Minnesotans at SXSW, which started six years before he was born.
"I can't get into most of the bars," Gatesmith said, "so I'm mostly just seeing my band this week."
Many of the very young Minnesota groups, backed by small, independent labels, leveraged music blogger and public radio support to crash SXSW in a big way this year. Howler performed five times this week -- on pace with Poliça, Night Moves and Now, Now. All are hoping the Minnesota-heavy SXSW buzz will help propel them to major record deals.
More established Minnesota bands also were there, with Doomtree, Astronautalis and Trampled by Turtles making repeat SXSW appearances. Hard as it is for any state's contingent to stand out among the more than 10,000 acts packing Austin, Minnesota's is hard to miss.
'Enormous' state presence
"As I'm studying up on all the bands and events here, I'm blown away by the enormous Minnesota presence," said SXSW first-timer Harry Chalmiers, president of the hip, fledgling St. Paul-based McNally Smith College of Music. "I can tell you the number of [Twin Cities] bands greatly outnumbers the number of Boston bands, and probably most other cities. They're everywhere you look," said the former vice president of Boston's Berklee College of Music.
SXSW, Chalmiers said, "is where the innovators and tastemakers behind the new music economy converge, so a forward-thinking organization like ours needs to be there."
He had plenty of company as a wedge of Minnesota music businesses arrived in Austin to host day parties or nighttime showcases. The McKnight Foundation-backed "new classical" label Innova Recordings, the music nonprofit Rock the Cause, the Institute of Production and Recording, the Hello Booking agency and even the ol' Cabooze nightclub were there along with party hosts First Avenue, Red House Records, City Pages and Vita.mn.
"It's a great way of getting your name out there, and having people come to you instead of us having to run around town to network," said First Ave talent booker Sonia Grover, who hosted Brother Ali, Doomtree and others at a party Friday. "We also like showing off the Minnesota bands to the rest of the world, but some of them don't even need our help."
Going into the week, some press attention for the new bands included a "Bands to Watch at SXSW" plug by Paste magazine for Minnesota's Now, Now, another college-age indie-pop trio that's newly signed to a label run by Death Cab for Cutie's guitarist. Poliça made the NPR music department's similar list. Then there's Howler, which recently hit the cover of England's famed NME magazine as a band to watch and already has a sizable U.K. following thanks to its deal with London's Rough Trade Records.
Outside of Austin's Waterloo Records shop, Patrick Healey of London-based Rockschool Ltd. watched Gatesmith during Howler's set. His reaction: "That singer would be a pop star even if he were a gardener. He's a natural."
But the buzz for Gatesmith and Howler at SXSW also came from closer to home.
"Whether they like it or not, they're representing the Twin Cities music scene to the world," said Ralm Ricarte, a University of Minnesota grad student who trekked to SXSW for spring break and caught the same Howler set. "I'd say we're being well-represented."
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 Twitter: @ChrisRstrib