It’s hard to say how the Rich Hands fit in to SXSW. In theory, the three-piece is exactly who the festival was built for: a rising young band, with no shortage of talent or potential that fits right into the festival’s stated goal of providing “a launching pad for new creative content.” But as anyone who’s walked 6th Street during the week of SXSW over the past few years knows, there’s a definite disconnect between this message and what’s happening on the ground.
From the McDonald’s WiFri Center, down Rainey Street to the StubHub Music Experience, across I-35 to the monolithic Fader Fort (sponsored by Converse), SXSW is now buried in an avalanche of advertisers and marketing campaigns. So begs the question, is there still a place for a new artist emerge from the noise of all this?
I’m sitting with guitarist/singer Cody Mauser, drummer Nick Ivarra and bassist/singer Matt Gonzales at a picnic table, openly wondering this question. They’ve just finished playing their second of three shows this Wednesday, a 7:15 p.m. slot at the Burger Records showcase. The Rich Hands have played SXSW every year since they formed in 2011, and for the time being, they share none of my cynicism about the experience.
“Every year we’ve done this, it’s gotten better and better,” says Mauser. “Like this year, we’ve got a better timeslot, we’re playing with some great people and I feel like people are really catching on.”
I see what he means. After starting their set to a smattering of faces, the band’s sing-along choruses and propulsive energy gradually drew people towards them. The trio clearly progressed immeasurably since they first drew notice as winners of the San Antonio Music Award’s most underrated band in 2011.
I can easily see the band casting a similar spell over audiences at the Mohawk, Parish or any of the other venues hosting more high-profile showcases throughout the week. Of course, we’re a good distance from the SXSW epicenter, perched at the Spiderhouse Cafe just north of the UT Campus.
I ask what the guys think about potentially playing one of the more hyped downtown showcases.
“I feel like these are the better shows,” says Gonzales. “It’s just more fun, with the camaraderie between all the bands and all.”
“We did an official showcase last year,” adds Mauser, “ And it was one of these shows on 6th Street, and it was just really weird: the crowd, the vibe.”
The camaraderie theme is one all three members come back to consistently when I ask about their motivation for playing SXSW.
“That just makes playing these kinds of shows that much better, that there are people we’ve toured with or that are our friends,” says Mauser. “It’s really all a big family.”
Ivarra, who’s taken the lead in organizing Burger Fest this weekend in San Antonio, talks about the strength of these connections.
“Now it feels like we’re all over the map, like we can make a push nationally or even globally. That’s the great thing about having this network.”
Cody Mauser shredding, with Nick Ivarra rocking the Jordan tongue
As great a networking opportunity as SXSW may be for The Rich Hands, the fact is they won’t make a dime from any of the shows they’ll play this week. And unless you’re Lady Gaga, Prince or a handful of the other big ticket stars who have made stunt appearances at the fest, none of other 2,000 or so bands set to play this week will either. The payoff supposedly comes in attention from the 28,000 or so music industry reps bouncing around town on the look out for the next big thing.
I pose the question to the band, wondering if they buy the idea that these music execs are in the audience looking to give them a break.
“It totally can happen,” assures Mauser. “You never know who’s watching.”
“I mean it sucks,” said Ivarra, “but you have to make the sacrifice.”
For Nick, Matt and Cody, that sacrifice means taking off work from their multiple day jobs and college commitments. If the Rich Hands see the payoff in SXSW, they’re a rare breed among the San Antonio scene. Just about a dozen San Antonio based acts are participating in the festival this year, pretty staggering considering the number of SA bands and the shortness of the drive.
The band agrees to give me a lift downtown on their way to the Hotel Vegas. On the way, we pass the strip on Red River where a year ago today, four people were killed and 15 others were injured by a failed rapper who drunkenly plowed through the crowd in a stolen 2012 Civic. Even with the usual cavalcade of corporate-sponsored showcases, it’s easy to feel the lingering effects of the accident. There’s a subdued feel to the festival, even on this Wednesday night.
“It’s just not as big, not as impressive,” notes Ivarra, reminiscing about blowouts of years past.
The following day, I’m back with the band at the Whip-In, an excellently eclectic spot just off I-35. The band’s first show for the day, a record store festival, was cancelled last minute after a neighbor called in a pre-emptive noise complaint. Mauser seems content to view the cancellation as a veiled blessing. “I’m in better shape to play at 7pm that 4:30pm anyways.”
The setting may be different, but otherwise not a lot has changed. Like the Spiderhouse, the crowd here is sporting the same Bart Simpson-chic of backwards caps, skateboards and worn-to-shit Vans. Even the bands, pulled from the heavily overlapping Fountain and Burger records lineups are mostly the same.
Perhaps most importantly, we’re again a couple miles from the SXSW epicenter, and there’s not a badge or press credential in sight within the crowd. Just as the band takes the stage at 7:30 p.m., a notification informs me about Miley Cyrus’ surprise appearance at Fader Fort, further highlighting our disconnect from the festival proper.
I ask Mauser how he’s feeling about the fest right before they close things out.
“Every year I feel like I don’t wanna do SXSW,” says Mauser. “It’s a clusterfuck of bands and people and traffic. But in the end, we get everything going and I always have a good time with it.”
The band seems intent on closing out their SXSW with a bang, laying down an even stronger set of material from their three albums, and closing with a killer cover of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Almost Cut My Hair.” It’s a thinner crowd, though the enthusiastic presence of Nick, Cody and Matt’s girlfriends dancing and talking selfies up front, adds needed energy. After the set, I sit with Ivarra to reflect a bit as his band wraps up their fourth festival appearance.
“You know the first few times we played, there was no gradual growth. We’ve played to empty rooms or half-assed rooms multiple times. It’s bigger now, but for me, my whole plan is to figure out why it’s like that. How you get the crowds out there, how to build a scene.”
I ask how the festival plays into this.
“We’ve done SXSW four years. And you know, if it doesn’t get bigger next year, well, I don’t know…”
It’s hard to gauge how successful this fourth outing was for The Rich Hands. Certainly they had a good time, played some great shows and solidified their network of contacts. But for a new band, looking for a big break, it’s hard to see how these satellite showcases or any other platform the festival offers can lead to much attention. If anything, the Rich Hands offer a lesson in persistence, in how making great records, playing killer shows and building a network can slowly but surely pay off. It might not be the usual SXSW Cinderella story, but given the current state of the festival, it’s certainly closer to the truth.