AUSTIN, TEXAS – The free beer and promotional cocktails were already flowing by 1 p.m. at South by Southwest’s typical blur of parties Thursday, but Twin Cities pop/rock band Hippo Campus brought only water to the stage. Not that it had any choice.
“We couldn’t really afford to play a messy set anyway,” said guitarist Nathan Stocker, who — like his three bandmates — has yet to turn 21, but came to Austin with a buzz big enough to make them a band for the ages.
Hippo Campus is part of a bumper crop of young Minnesota musicians in Texas this week for the 29th annual South by Southwest Music Conference, the five-day mega-fest that serves as a new-car show for the music industry.
It takes a certain youthful exuberance just to withstand SXSW, but these budding music makers might have youth as a selling point, too. Most sharpened their talent at Twin Cities performing arts high schools and used social media to build a strong following. And they didn’t even need to leave town to land industry support.
One of the hot newcomers, rapper Allan Kingdom, is a 21-year-old Woodbury High School graduate who generated impressive listenership via YouTube and Bandcamp.com even before his 19th birthday. He took the stage Friday afternoon at the end of the Midwest Showcase, co-sponsored by Minneapolis nightclub First Avenue, riding a wave of attention from a guest spot on Kanye West’s new single, “All Day.”
“I think it’s pretty clear we’re musicians who want to do this for the rest of our lives and not just kids messing around,” said Kingdom (aka Allan Kyariga).
He praised his schooling at St. Paul’s Creative Arts Secondary School as a good step up. “It’s nice to have high schools that recognize music as a profession, not a hobby.”
New ways to get noticed
St. Paul rapper Dem Atlas (Joshua Evans Turner) made his SXSW debut Thursday not as a performer but rather as a speaker on an industry panel at the Austin Convention Center celebrating the 20th anniversary of Rhymesayers Entertainment. The Minneapolis hip-hop record label already put the 22-year-old MC in front of 80 or so packed clubs and theaters last year as opener for its flagship act, Atmosphere.
“I didn’t even have any physical copies of my [EPs] yet, but it got out there on Bandcamp and SoundCloud and got noticed,” he told the audience — a story that’s increasingly true of young acts.
Before the appearance, though, he said that “performing live is still the most important thing an artist can do, and [SXSW] is a good test for that.” He credited his young Minnesotan peers (and friends) in Austin this week for following that model.
“It’s a good scene to come up in as a live performer,” he said of the Twin Cities.
As for Hippo Campus, the band of 19- to 20-year-old suburbanites — most of them recent graduates of the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists and still living with their parents — just signed a record deal last month with New York label Grand Jury. This summer, they will get to open for indie heroes My Morning Jacket and Top 40 rockers Walk the Moon at major amphitheaters.
“It’s amazing how tight they already are,” said Collin Walzak, producer at Los Angeles’ prestigious public music station KCRW, who caught wind of the band via music blogs and magazines such as England’s NME. “They have such a long road ahead, you can’t help but wonder and hope how much better they might be even just five years now.”
A strong foundation
As she helped prepare for the Midwest Showcase, First Avenue talent booker Sonia Grover talked like a proud den mother of the three young acts she has seen play to strong audience reaction back home.
“Not only are they all really, really good as performers, but they have strong support already from smart managers and other people who can help them out,” Grover said.
Hippo Campus has the management team from two successful Minnesota acts, Trampled by Turtles and Lizzo, in its corner.
Dem Atlas is getting the usual careful build up from Rhymesayers, which is waiting for the right hype-generating window to release the rapper’s full-length debut.
Allan Kingdom is especially flush with supporters, including his manager Plain Pat (a producer with Kid Cudi and a cohort of Kanye’s) and Doc McKinney, who has produced for Drake and the Weeknd, and steered the debut of another Kingdom project, the nationally touted electronic quartet the Stand4rd.
Said Grover, “I bet even Allan and his handlers don’t really know what comes next, the way things have gone for him lately.”
Kingdom at least seemed to recognize what was immediately in front of him, even if it was his first time at SXSW.
“It seems like the crowds can be so different from one gig to the next, I’m going to have to really read them and try to connect with the vibe at each show,” he said.
He, too, didn’t expect to partake much in the free swill at the parties, even though he came of drinking age in January.
“Too busy,” he said simply.