Thinking Back To… SXSW 1998

3668-1-400x400By Sean Palmerston

This weekend is the annual SXSW festival in Austin, TX. It is the annual March vacation for the music industry, when bands with new albums or a new record contract head south to show their musical wares for those in attendance. In previous years the festival was arguably intended to break new artists, while in its present state it has become more of a festival that gives attendees the chance to see bigger bands in a more intimate setting, with the buzziest of buzz bands also getting a chance to (hopefully) wag their tails to an attentive audience.

Although I am not there this year, I have had the chance to make it down to SXSW a half-dozen times in the past fifteen years. The last time, two years ago, I was even lucky enough to be a panelist on an all-metal panel about metal and the Internet along with writers from MetalSucks, Noisecreep, MSN Headbang blog and more. It was an interesting experience to be on the other side of things, having people ask me questions and listening to what others that also publish online metal publications had to say, but as cool as it was I think that my first ever experience attending the festival will always remain my favourite.

As longtime Hellbound readers probably know, I have been an employee of Canada’s Sonic Unyon Records for the past fifteen years. I started working at the Hamilton, Ontario-based record label back in November 1997 after a stint working for another metal label (Relapse Records). Sonic Unyon was (and still is) a label that is home to a wide variety of music. The artists on the label go from folk to indie rock to some of the heaviest bands in Canada, one of which (Shallow North Dakota) was invited to perform at the 1998 edition of SXSW. I was asked by Sonic Unyon to go along with SND, as the label had two bands playing a Friday night showcase. The other band was an indie rock quartet from London, ON called The New Grand.

It was early on a Wednesday morning when I piled into Shallow ND’s Chevy van to make the long drive south to Texas. The trio was already a veteran of the DIY touring circuit in North America, having crisscrossed Canada several times as well as having done a few self-booked US tours. They had already played at SXSW the year previous too. It was snowing quite a bit when we left Hamilton on our 26-hour drive to Austin; I have distinct memories of there being a lot of snow on the road through Ontario, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio before it finally started to dissipate. Two members of the band drove, Dan and Biff (Tony just hung out and listened to his Walkman), and I became their third driver so we made the decision to drive through the night. I had a shift through the Tennessee Mountains at about three in the morning, which lasted through to Arkansas as the sun came up. It was a little nerve-wracking to be passed by 18-wheeler trucks whizzing by at 75 miles an hour in the pouring rain, but I made it through.

We were well into Texas by the early afternoon and decided to stay outside of Austin on Thursday night, since we didn’t have a place to stay that evening (our billet wasn’t expecting us till Friday). We got a cheap hotel room in a small city called Temple, TX on Thursday night and spent most of the night watching Behind The Music episodes on MTV. It was a quiet night of rest before we headed into Austin. And by quiet I mean that we only heard two gunshots and the police only got called once to the hotel that night for a domestic in another room. Oh well, the hotel room was only $40, right?

After a good night’s sleep we made our way into Austin for registration at SXSW. My first SXSW found me registered as a roadie for SND, which pretty much made sense as I helped them haul in gear for their showcase that night. The band was scheduled to play a bar on 6th Street that escapes me now – it might have even been called Bar on 6th – they were third of four bands on an all-Canadian bill. For the life of me I cannot remember who was the opening band that night, but I do know that The Inbreds played before the two SU bands Shallow North Dakota and The New Grand. Shortly before doors opened we were visited by members of CBC Radiosonic (now known as CBC Radio 3), who were going to record The Inbreds and The New Grand. I asked them if they would record Shallow ND too, but they declined saying the band was too heavy for their audience. That might have been true, but if you are there recording bands before and after then why not…

Although metal has become a thing at SXSW, and unofficial day parties are now as common as the official showcases, 15 years ago there was very little as far as heavy bands playing and afternoon parties were even more rare. It was a really nice thing to open up the big arts paper, the Austin Chronicle, and to find that Shallow North Dakota had been identified as one of the “sleeper picks” of Friday night. I had hopes that would mean a big crowd would come out to see what was then Canada’s heaviest trio. In reality, it meant there were about 18 people losing their shit when the band played, but those 18 people absolutely loved the show, bought LPs, CDs and shirts and the band was happy to find out that some of those people in the crowd included staff from the nearby Emo’s, which we had discovered earlier in the day had the band’s latest album on their jukebox along with other favourites like Zeke, Turbonegro, Brutal Truth and the Dwarves.

Emo’s was in fact the center of all things heavy at SXSW in 1998 and we actually spent most of the next day there taking in the bands that took part in two different but equally exciting shows. Saturday afternoon saw an outdoor show at Emo’s, which I believed was sponsored by a booking agency. I can’t remember which one it was, but the line up that played was great: it included Brutal Truth, Bloodlet, Hatebreed and at least two other bands whose names escape me now. The guys in Shallow ND were immediately recognized by bar staff, who again mentioned their album on the jukebox (and they later played their newest album in between bands at the Mans Ruin showcase, which was a big surprise too).

Since we made the trip straight down just for the one show the band decided to take the $175 payment instead of getting wristbands for the festival. Honestly, there was only one showcase that were all interested in attending, and it was the one happening later on that Saturday night at Emo’s. In 1998 Man’s Ruin was just about the hottest heavy label in the US. Poster artist Frank Kozik’s boutique label was releasing 10”s and CDs by many of the best doom and noise rock bands around – everyone from Electric Wizard to the Melvins to Fu Manchu and Kyuss all had releases through the label, with even more planned by the likes of Entombed and Queens of the Stone Age. The Man’s Ruin showcase was expected to be a full house, but we didn’t have passes and that was the only way you were supposed to be able to get in. Luckily for us the door people at Emo’s told us to show up at a certain time at their back load-in gate and promised to get the four of us in. We were there at the right time and they came through with their promise.

It was a packed house both inside and out for the Man’s Ruin showcase. I tried to make it inside at different times to see both Men Of Porn and Turbonegro, but it was way too packed and way too sweaty to stay in there for more than a few songs. We all spent most of our time outside enjoying the line-up on the bigger stage. The show kicked off with locals Honky, featuring former members of the Butthole Surfers playing southern rock. Yes, it was awesome. Dale Crover was then part of the next band. He fronted Altamont, playing guitar and singing songs that were a bit more seventies/stoner sounding than his regular gig backstopping the Melvins. His then-wife replaced him onstage for the next band, Acid King, which was a real treat and might have been my favourite group of the night. Then came what all the anticipation and “industry buzz” for this evening’s showcase was all about.

The next act to play the Mans Ruin showcase was the North American debut by Queens Of the Stone Age. The trio, which included three former Kyuss members in drummer Alfredo Hernandez, bassist Nick Oliveri and guitarist Josh Homme, had to that point only released a 7” single but the buzz was already quite strong for the band, who would release their self-titled debut album later on that fall. This show saw the trio play most of the songs from that record, which we all loved. The club was absolutely rammed for their set, a primetime 11 PM slot, which we talked about for months to come. In fact, when the band finally made it up to Canada early in 1999, Dan from Shallow and I went to every Ontario show on their run (Toronto on a Thursday, London on a Friday and Saturday in Windsor ON with a Pink Floyd cover band opening!). The first QOTSA record remains my favourite release by the band, but I am always willing to check out their new releases.

The show wasn’t done, however. After a forgettable set by another band on the label, so forgettable I can’t recall a thing about it, the final band of the night was the infamous Dwarves. I had seen the band in early 1997 do an eight-minute show in Lancaster, PA, which ended after vocalist Blag Dahlia threw a chair at an audience member (!?!), and of course the band was infamous for never finishing a show. This one was to be no different. The band, which featured a very drunk, almost completely naked HeWhoCannotBeNamed on bass (except for a Mexican wrestling mask, naturally), had the most dangerous, craziest set I have ever seen at any of the SXSW’s I have ever attended. It was nine minutes long and featured fist fights, blood, guitars, broken beer bottles and lots of horrified looking bar patrons. It couldn’t have been more rock and roll if it tried.

The entire Man’s Ruin showcase was pretty wild. It was an eye opener for this 25-year-old who thought he’d seen it all by then and it really was the most eventful show I’ve witnessed at a SXSW. I’ve seen lots of other good bands over the years, including a great set by another band that Dan from SND was in, Cursed, where they blew away all of the other more “metal” bands on the metal showcase that they played for The End Records, as well as some very cool shows by the likes of KEN Mode, Kvelertak, SUNN 0))), Los Lobos, Slough Feg and many more, but the Man’s Ruin event was by far the craziest. It was probably the most fun I ever had at SXSW too.

There were a lot of other non-music performance related highlights to this first trip, but those are tales left for another time and place. This already is creeping up towards 2000 words, so cheers to those of you that have managed to stick with me this long! And if you ever get the chance to go to SXSW, do it. I don’t think it will ever be the same as it was back in the 90s, but it is always worth going to.

Sean is the founder/publisher of; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.