This week, more than 2,000 bands will perform live as part of the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas — and each will hope to stand out somehow. It's one thing to play SXSW, but another to generate excitement.
For the NPR Music team, attending SXSW means sifting and winnowing through hundreds upon hundreds of songs for weeks in advance, in an effort to better anticipate the festival's highlights. Each year, writer and editor Stephen Thompson assembles a mix called The Austin 100 — a 100-song playlist highlighting new discoveries from SXSW — and in 2012 that meant listening to more than 1,300 songs.
In an interview for weekends on All Things Considered, NPR's Guy Raz asked Thompson to distill that 1,300-song bundle down to just four discoveries — songs by artists he'd never heard before the process began.
* Now, Now, "Dead Oaks" (from Threads)
A young trio from Minneapolis, Now, Now is led by two women (Cacie Dalager and Jess Abbott) with a remarkably sophisticated ear for irresistibly infectious pop-rock.
* Kishi Bashi, "Bright Whites" (from 151a)
A Kickstarter-funded solo project for a performer named K Ishibashi (a touring member of the band Of Montreal), Kishi Bashi plays homemade toy-box pop with Beatles-esque harmonies and a sense of grandeur.
* Chic Gamine, "Closer" (from City City)
A throwback to girl-group soul with a touch of Francophile pop, Chic Gamine features four Canadian women who take turns singing lead vocals. A Juno winner in its home country, the band sounds poised for a U.S. breakout.
* Silverbus, "Those Forgotten" (from Orange)
SXSW always offers a chance to indulge in something head-clearingly loud and grand, and the Taiwanese band Silverbus fits that bill. (See also: Deafheaven, The Calm Blue Sea.) With big guitars that get bigger as the songs progress, it's instrumental music that makes listeners want to shout along.
Visit npr.org/sxsw for NPR Music's full coverage of SXSW, including live broadcasts, videos, photos, podcasts and more from the festival.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And it's time now for music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAD OAKS)
NOW, NOW: (Singing) I can't feel your bones but I can see them. And I can't call you up without a reason.
RAZ: This is a band called Now, Now, and they're one of about 2,000 bands playing this week's South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas. Some of them are already well known. This band, well, they're just looking for their big break. Stephen Thompson of NPR Music stumbled across Now, Now's music while preparing for NPR's coverage of the festival. Stephen is with me in the studio. Good to have you. Welcome.
STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Great to be here.
RAZ: I want to ask you about this band because I love that song. You have - I understand you've been working on this huge project called The Austin 100. It's online at nprmusic.org. You spent the past, what, few weeks sifting through thousands of bands who are going to be playing at South by Southwest, and you've got a list of just 100. So what are you listening for?
THOMPSON: Yeah. Well, I mean, I've gone through about 1,300 bands...
THOMPSON: ...trying to find the right 100 for this playlist with a focus on music discovery. There are certainly artists playing South by Southwest that we've all heard of, but trying to find my own sort of new favorite band.
RAZ: So tell me about this band, Now, Now. Why'd you pick them?
THOMPSON: I just love them. You know, sometimes you're just going through and you're just listening for a spark, something that just jumps out. And what I love about this band, it's a young band from Minneapolis. It's led by two women. But there's this incredible kind of sophistication to the sound and a real sparkle.
RAZ: And a delicacy to her voice.
THOMPSON: Kind of reminds me a little bit of a group called Tegan and Sara.
RAZ: Oh, yeah. I know them. Yeah.
THOMPSON: You know, where's there's a little bit of a kind of spiky smartness to this pop sound.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAD OAKS")
NOW, NOW: (Singing) Oh oh oh oh oh I've been up and oh oh I don't sleep enough and oh oh I know we don't talk as much but I can hear your voice on the phone when you're up all alone in your room.
RAZ: Again, the band is called Now, Now, and that track is called "Dead Oaks." Stephen Thompson from NPR Music is in the studio with me talking about South by Southwest, which begins next week. Stephen, another one of your finds is a band called Kishi Bashi. I'm not sure if that's a band or person. What's the story?
THOMPSON: It's basically a guy named K. Ishibashi who performs as a - sometimes as a member of the group Of Montreal...
THOMPSON: ...which is kind of this...
RAZ: From Athens, Georgia.
THOMPSON: From Athens, Georgia.
RAZ: They've been on the program.
THOMPSON: Yeah. And this kind of circus of pop music.
THOMPSON: And this particular project, the guy funded it entirely on Kickstarter.
THOMPSON: And it's very much his own thing. There's no real input from the outside world. And it's - I sort of describe it as like toy box pop. There are lots of little whirligigs jumping out, but then there are these beautiful kind of Beatles-esque harmonies in the chorus. And I was enormously, enormously taken with it. It's very, very sweet.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRIGHT WHITES")
KISHI BASHI: (Singing) Well, you know, I'll have to see if all the stars aligned we could've solved the mystery. It's a partial fantasy. We're living in a land that went astray from history, prehistory. Yeah.
RAZ: It's so uplifting. The song is called "Bright Whites." The album isn't out until April, but he - of course, he's going to be playing at the South by Southwest Music Festival which kicks off in Austin, Texas this week. Part of the fun of South by Southwest is of course to see bands on their way up and then to be able to brag about all these huge bands you saw when they were like playing to 15 people.
THOMPSON: It's really all about vanity.
RAZ: Right. It's all about vanity. Do you have any stories about some bands like that that you've seen in past years?
THOMPSON: Well, you know, a few years ago, I wandered into a, kind a daytime party curated by Rachael Ray.
RAZ: The chef, the TV chef.
THOMPSON: Right. And I walk in, and the first band on the bill at this party is a group called Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes.
(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLING)
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOME")
JADE CASTRINOS: (Singing) Alabama, Arkansas, I do love my ma and pa not the way that I do love you.
ALEX EBERT: (Singing) Well, holey moley, me oh my, you're the apple of my eye. Girl, I've never loved one like you.
THOMPSON: You know, it's 10 people, and the two lead singers are sort of singing into each other's faces.
RAZ: Such a beautiful song.
THOMPSON: And I burst into tears.
RAZ: Oh, God.
THOMPSON: And now, you know, that record has sold a ton of copies. It's in every commercial, on every TV show.
RAZ: I still cry when I hear it.
THOMPSON: It's a wonderful, wonderful song.
RAZ: Beautiful song.
THOMPSON: And just hearing it live for the first time. You don't necessarily always have an instant reaction to something you love, but that was something where it was instantaneous.
THOMPSON: And I was able to brag, you know, starting about a month later.
RAZ: And then in 2008, NPR booked a pretty awesome lineup, right?
THOMPSON: Yeah. We had put together this party during the day, and we curated it ourselves. And the bands on the bill were like Vampire Weekend, Bon Iver...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
THOMPSON: Now, unfortunately, Adele had to drop out because of visa issues.
RAZ: Oh, man.
THOMPSON: But, you know - so we always sort of try to pride ourselves on being a step ahead, if at all humanly possible.
RAZ: So, Stephen, who is somebody you plan to see this year that you will be bragging about to me when you come back from South by Southwest? And I am sitting here in Washington, D.C. cursing your name for getting to go.
THOMPSON: Like a sucker.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
THOMPSON: If we could predict these things, we'd be record label executives, I guess.
THOMPSON: But there's a group from Canada that I was quite taken with, kind of somewhat in the spirit of Adele, called Chic Gamine.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLOSER")
CHIC GAMINE: (Singing) I just want to be closer. All right. Just a little closer. That's fine. Why can't I feel? Oh, oh. Oh, whoa, whoa, whoa. And all the signs that stand in our way...
RAZ: It's sort of French-Canadian girl group soul that's very, very sweet. There are four women in the group. They all are capable of singing lead, so there's just this flurry of voices kind of swooping in and out. And it's just enormously kind of hand-clappy fun, and I could see it hugely taking off. They're already big in Canada but totally unknown here.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLOSER")
CHIC GAMINE: (Singing) And little girls they never can see. Skin's not as thick as they'd like it to be. Oh, yeah.
RAZ: There is a Phil Spector revival...
RAZ: ...going on right now. That's a French-Canadian band, Chic Gamine. The song is called "Closer." Stephen, South by Southwest, it's an international festival, bands obviously coming from all over the world. Give me another pick outside the U.S. Actually, give me a pick outside of North America.
THOMPSON: All right. A group from Taipei, Taiwan called Silverbus.
RAZ: Ah. OK.
THOMPSON: Every year at South by Southwest, I try to see at least one band that plays music that is just bigger than the biggest thing I've ever heard.
RAZ: Soundwise, like a big, huge...
THOMPSON: Yeah, something huge and stormy and majestic. There's a group I saw last year called The Calm Blue Sea, which is, you know, just this epic instrumental guitar rock. And this band may be even louder than that. And, you know, I love the idea of instrumental music that you want to shout along to even though there are no words.
And this really had that for me. The song that we're going to play is called "Those Forgotten," and it just build and build and build and build until you think it can't build anymore.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THOSE FORGOTTEN")
RAZ: That's new music from the Taiwan-based band Silverbus. They'll be playing at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, which kicks off this week, and they're one of the 100 bands playing at the festival that Stephen Thompson has picked for a project he calls the Austin 100. You can find all those bands at our website, nprmusic.org. Stephen, thank you so much for coming in. And I'm jealous. I'm very jealous. Have a good time.
THOMPSON: Thank you very much. I will have a good time on your behalf.
RAZ: Thanks. And you can find all of NPR Music's coverage, of course, at our website, nprmusic.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THOSE FORGOTTEN")
RAZ: And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Check out our weekly podcast, The Best of WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You can find it at iTunes or npr.org/weekendatc. We post a new episode Sunday night. We're back on the radio next weekend with more news, feature stories and music. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.