In the first days of 2009, a hard-rocking, fun-loving group of guys from California made a huge impression on me. I was leaning up against the fence of the Beauty Bar in Austin, Texas with a friend, bored and unsure of what to do that dreary weeknight, when some tall, scrappy dudes boisterously busted through the Beauty Bar’s doors, musing aloud, “We’ve gotta find some people to come to this show!” Our eyes immediately met, and they asked, “Will you come to our show?” Asked who they were, they replied happily that they were in a band called Voxhaul Broadcast, and their buddies with them were in a band called the Union Line, and that their other friends, the Local Natives, were soundchecking inside. At the time, none of these names meant anything to us, but their chutzpah was so endearing that we headed inside. About ten other people joined us and we all had our minds collectively blown. A few months later, the Local Natives exploded at South by Southwest.
I’m forever indebted to the Voxhaul Broadcast guys for pulling us into the venue, and I’m both thrilled and unsurprised that they’ve met so much success since then. The band put our their debut full-length album, Timing is Everything, in late March, and are currently on tour with Rooney and Skybomber.
Though the first Voxhaul Broadcast recording, the EP Rotten Apples, came out in 2008, the band has been jamming together since their early teens, and a couple have known each other since they were in diapers.
“Tony [Aguiar] and Kurt [Allen], the guitar player and the drummer, they’ve known each other since they were like 3 or 4, playing out in the street,” lead vocalist and guitarist David Dennis says. “And I met Phil [Munsey] when I was 14, so we’ve all known each other quite a while.”
Dennis says the group’s longtime bond is reflected in the group’s music. “We pretty much learned how to play our instruments with each other. So, it’s really comfortable. It’s really comfortable to write and be in a band with each other and be with each other on the road, ‘cause we’re like brothers as much as friends, you know? It’s been one of those things where I think it makes for honest music. When people have known you for that long, they call you out on your shit; they really know who you are. You’re not fooling anybody.”
The guys have had musical leanings for a long time. Aguiar remembers when he and Allen were around eleven years old, yearning to somehow make it out to Woodstock ’99. “Instead of going, me and Kurt just decided to get a boombox and overflow my mom’s whole front yard with water and mud, and just jumped in it,” Aguiar says. “We destroyed my mom’s entire front lawn. And little did we know that they put insecticide in the grass that day, so me and Kurt ended up with rashes all over our bodies for, like, weeks.”
The band’s occasionally wild enthusiasm has not died down over the years. Touring around the country has allowed for many more adventures. “One time we were in Santa Cruz, and these people wanted us to come over to their house and we were like, ‘OK! They seem cool!’ And then we go buy a bunch of beer, and everybody’s drinking and having a good time, and then this person walks in and starts yelling and freaking out, and we suddenly realize that we’ve got a bunch of people living in a halfway home drunk. That was pretty bad,” Dennis says.
More recently, the guys had a brief encounter with the law that ended up winning them a few new fans. “We got pulled over two days ago by a state trooper, and he took all of Phil’s pot,” Dennis says, laughing. “But he was really nice. He let us go, and the cops were making jokes. We ended up giving them a CD and they never gave us a ticket. They were like, ‘Ah man, I’m gonna look you guys up!’”
In their early touring days, Voxhaul Broadcast had to rely on the kindness of strangers to make things work, sleeping on floors and sharing gear with their fellow touring bands. Still, there were rough nights.
“We were driving through the mountains, up this hill, and there were semi-trucks slipping down the hill from the black ice,” Dennis says. “We didn’t have chains on our tires and the police wouldn’t let us go any further, so we pulled over in this town. This is in the middle of a blizzard, and all the hotels were taken up, because they already had turned a bunch of people in. We ended up – all four of us – sleeping in the van during a blizzard. It was one of the most awful nights ever.”
Things have improved since then. Now, the guys are trying to learn from veterans like Rooney. “Rooney have this air about them,” Dennis says. “I really like to hang out with dudes that tour that much, they kinda know how it works. We haven’t gone on a lot of big tours, so it’s been cool to chat with them.”
Even though Voxhaul Broadcast aren’t as veteran as Rooney, they know the ropes and know what it takes to make it in a band. “There are so many great bands in L.A., so many that I feel are as good as us, if not better, you know? And some of them don’t get recognized at all. So it’s really about the people believing in you and pushing you,” Dennis says. “And it’s one of those things that you really gotta love doing. If you think you have something else that would be worth your while and make you just as happy, you should probably do that.
“You’re not gonna make a ton of dough. Well, I mean; no … that’s not…true. You will make a ton of dough. But it might take a really long time. And you have to give up a lot of other things. It’s really hard to be in relationships and all that kinda shit. To keep friendships. You really have to be committed. There’s a lot of hard times before the good times, for sure.”
It would seem Voxhaul Broadcast are hurtling into their good times. After a killer run at this year’s South by Southwest music conference, and back-to-back tours with Rooney and the Airborne Toxic Event, the band is hoping to keep plugging along and making progress. They’ve also already outlined the Holy Grail band goal they want to achieve.
“One of our ultimate goals we always talk about is, like, if we were as big as U2 and we just needed to go a step further, we would wanna be the first band to record a record on the moon,” Dennis says. With one eye on the moon, the band is pleased with where they’re headed on Earth for the time being.
“If we just keep on playing shows and hope that people like the music that we’re writing, we’ll keep on enjoying what we do and we’ll hope that other people do, too.”
Voxhaul Broadcast will open for Skybomber and Rooney tonight at Emo’s. They’ll be back in Austin May 22, opening for the Airborne Toxic Event at La Zona Rosa.
Hitting up an A-Trak gig in 2011 is a very different experience from when the DJ was starting out back in 1997. In the late ‘90s, DJing and turntablism made up a huge scene in the music world, but the general public was still familiar with DJs as the friendly morning voices telling them about the weather, and cranking out pop and rock hits between commercials. If you were at a DJ gig, it was in a club and you were on the floor, dancing wildly and lighting up when a piece of your favorite song leapt out at your ears from the mix, or raving with glowsticks under the influence of cosmetics. If you were really into the scene, you were nodding your head as other DJs scratched sick patterns into vinyl grooves. The prevailing venue for DJ gigs, though, was the nightclub, and no matter how technically talented a DJ was, he or she was still mostly considered a background performer.
Flash forward to April 20, 2011, in a new club in downtown Austin called Venue 222. A bouncer collects tickets from fans at the door, who are lined up to see one of their favorite artists perform. There are no drums onstage, though, and no guitars, basses, or even mic stands. When I walk in at 10 p.m., there’s just a folding table set up with two turntables side-by-side on top, and two guys with huge earphones slid around their necks, nodding their heads. This is the modern-day DJ gig: it’s like any other rock concert, which makes for a very diverse crowd.
After warming up with opening sets by the Gaslamp Killer and Kid Sister, the audience was antsy for A-Trak’s arrival. As the stage crew cleared the folding table from the front of the stage, a giant structure covered by a plastic grey sheet became the focus. After setting up behind the sheet, the crew finally pulled it off to reveal a giant, abstract “A” with LED lights inset. It was very 70s and very, very cool. When A-Trak entered the scene, the crowd went crazy and the diversity really revealed itself. During his set, half of the crowd was club dancing (and one guy had LED gloves on, passionately raving by himself as onlookers smiled), while the rest held up their phones and pocket cameras, recording songs and snapping photos of A-Trak, just like you’d see at a rock show.
A-Trak, born Alain Macklovitch, is totally savvy to the changing world of DJing, since he’s grown alongside it through his young adult years. He got into DJing when he realized he had a knack for it.
“I found I had this sort of natural disposition for it, and then that turned into a really serious hobby, where I would come home everyday after school and practice for many hours,” A-Trak says. “It was a lot of dedication — a little obsessive.”
The obsession paid off. At the tender age of 15, A-Trak won the DMCs World Championship, the biggest DJing competition at the time. And no wonder — he was incredible. This win kick-started his career.
“Suddenly I was getting a whole lot of press, all types of magazines, and getting booked internationally from clubs to festivals to really experimental stuff, collaborating with all different musicians — it opened a lot of doors,” A-Trak says.
A-Trak has since expanded his resume; he’s sort of the Jack White of the dance and hip-hop world, producing albums for Kanye West, breaking Kid Cudi on his music label, Fool’s Gold, working with huge fashion labels like Nike and Zoo York, and remixing and DJing with an expanding list of genres. “That’s how my mind needs to work,” he says. “I need to work on many things at the same time.”
Though DJing has become far more widespread over the years, A-Trak says there are definitely still a few misconceptions about it. “Every era has its own misconceptions. I think now, the big catchphrase everybody likes to say is, ‘DJs are like rockstars!’ I don’t even know what that means. I think if anything, it points to the idea that the biggest thing about DJing now might be the cult of personality. Maybe people don’t know so much about the craft, you know what I mean? A lot of people just know, ‘We’re gonna go to a show and watch this guy play songs we like, and he’s gonna throw his hands in the air.’ That’s one aspect of DJing, but there’s definitely a craft.”
A-Trak is a master of the craft. In his later teen years, he began to develop a notation system for scratching. “It looks more like a seismograph than anything, like a lie detector almost. The basic idea is just to draw a graph of the record movement. It’s very scientific.”
Despite his technical proficiency, A-Trak himself admits that one of his biggest hits, “Barbara Streisand,” which he did with his partner Armand Van Helden in his side project Duck Sauce, was far more basic. “The music is deceptively simple. Super simple. It’s more about the emotion and the reaction that it brings out. I think a lot of it even has to do with our personalities and how we gel with our sort of weirdo sense of humor. What we actually do in the studio, is kindergarten.”
Still, he says, there is a craft to the simplicity here, too. “The production is super simple, but I think the big key to the success of Duck Sauce is the fact that we get it to sound really good. For songs to become universal, of the level that ‘Barbara Streisand’ got, they have to be at a level of sonics that just please people at an instinctive level, where you don’t really think about, ‘Oh yeah, that really sounds good!’ It has to work everywhere. If a car’s passing by and the song’s playing on the radio, you wanna be able to recognize it.”
With technical talent and a knack for great production, A-Trak could really consider himself set. But on top of this, he’s a savvy performer who knows how to use modern tools to communicate and brand himself.
“The relationship between the artist and fans is really different,” he says. “It’s a process where you have to be more directly involved with your fan base, ‘cause they have to go buy tickets.” So he’s utilized social media sites like MySpace and Twitter to reach out directly.
“I think in the beginning I was a little hesitant to get on, because on the more personal life level, it’s like I don’t wanna meet people online, that’s weird. You know? But I kinda had to do it because of my career, and once I got on, my impression is — it’s just how things are.”
A-Trak has become the king of Twitter, sending short notes to fans directly as he tours around the country. “I like Twitter because I like the immediacy of it. I’m always on the move, and anytime I hop in a cab and for ten minutes I’m just kinda sitting in the back seat, with no one to talk to, but not enough time to really do anything constructive — I just start tweeting. There are a lot of moments like that, with just the way my life is. There’s a lot of movement, a lot of in-between things I have to do, and it’s fun to write my thoughts. I’m a fan of the brain fart, something that pops in your head and you say it.”
Not only does A-Trak utilize social media to connect to fans, but he’s an expert at working off of the crowd in live performances. He knows just when to flash a grin, when to climb up on top of his table, when to step back and survey, and when to talk to his fans to pump them up. There is also still a bit of the brazen 15-year-old DMC Champ in A-Trak, choosing to use his samples to communicate through his music. More than anything, these days he lives up to his promise in the Duck Sauce hit “aNYway:” “I can do it any way that you want it.”
There are bands made up of rock stars who travel from place to place performing for fans, thankful of their audience but distinctly separate from them in their artistry. They walk on stage, crank out some incredible tunes, wave goodbye and call it a night, occasionally signing autographs by their bus behind the venue. This is the standard for most artists, entertaining and moving people as a separate entity.
Then there are bands who blur the line between audience and performers, because they know no other way. These are the family bands, the bands who consider their audiences a fresh crowd of new members each night. Gogol Bordello is this kind of band through and through — it’s in their DNA. The common theme weaving through many of their songs is unity, community and a sense of one-ness. They are proud of where they come from, which is all over the world: Russia, Barcelona, Scotland and Ethiopia, to name a few. Lead gypsy punk Eugene Hutz and his merry band of internationals ultimately strive to be citizens of the universe, making us all their neighbors and cousins, and this appeals to a diverse fan base. Gogol shows always bring out some of the most diverse crowds, with hair-dyed punks, vest-donning preps, and everyone in between. As long as you’re prepared to party, you’re a welcome guest.
Gogol kicked off their set with an emphasis on connectedness. “Tribal Connection” was a surprisingly slower jam for the band to begin with, but it got the crowd grooving nonetheless. They didn’t let us rest for long, though; the song immediately shifted into “Not a Crime,” and there was a sudden burst forward as people pushed to get closer to the madness of the mosh pit. Fists pumped in the air as everyone shouted in unison, “Not a crime!” at the direction of backup singer/percussionist Elizabeth Sun and MC/percussionist Pedro Erazo. Where Hutz is the heart of the band, these two are the adrenaline. Erazo throws down whiplash-inducing rhymes in whatever language he’s feeling at the moment, and stares the crowd down with a near-crazy expression, half-daring and half-possessed. Sun is joyous, a burst of feminine power putting a little block to work as she hops up and down like the most wicked Step workout-instructor you’ve ever seen.
“Ultimate” and “Wanderlust King” always get the crowd-members jumping around, and wake up the crowd surfers, who take their cue and launch on top of their neighbors. “Immigrant Punk” was a huge highlight for me, as that was one of the first tunes I’d ever heard by the band back in my college radio DJing days. It’s a political song about life as an immigrant, and the line that hooked me was, “You got a dictionary kickin’ around? Look up the immigrant, immigrant, immigrant punk!” Now, the song can sort of be seen as the “Part One” to the band’s more recent single, “Immigraniada (We Comin’ Rougher)” from last year’s Trans-Continental Hustle. This song didn’t come out until later in the band’s set, but when it did, it seemed to unify everyone more than almost any other tune. Heartfelt shouts of “Hey!” along with the band, intense pogo-ing and sweaty dancing accompanied the group as they insisted, “It’s more than true, it actually happened!” This song also allowed veteran member and violinist extraordinaire Sergey Ryabtsev to lend his vocal prowess a little more prominently. I frequently hear people standing around me commenting on their love for Ryabtsev, the “coolest old dude” many of them have ever seen. Ryabtsev is an incredible violinist, ripping out solos left and right, and lending excited and loving facial expression to pump everyone up.
Other highlights of the night included a salsa-fied version of the fantastic and hilarious jam “American Wedding,” all about the tameness (read: lameness) of these stateside ceremonies. Hutz prefaced the song by asking how many people had been to an American wedding. Tons of folks cheered and hollered. Then he said, “How many of you have been to a Brazilian wedding?” A large group of people cheered even more wildly, and Hutz grinned and shook his head, proclaiming, “That’s bullshit, man.” Then he asked how many people had been to a Russian wedding, and the whole crowd exploded. He laughed, saying, “For some reason that always happens, everyone’s always been to Russian wedding.” The band’s most metal song, “Break the Spell,” woke people up as Hutz encouraged us all to wake up and take charge, and naturally the band’s biggest hit, “Start Wearing Purple,” elicited massive hoots and hollers, and Hutz painted the crowd purple with his open bottle of red wine. Everyone went mad as the band went silent save for Ryabtsev, who insisted, “Start wearing purple for HIM now!” gesturing to Hutz.
Surprisingly, the band ended on an oldie. Off of Voi-La Intruder, they jammed out on “Sacred Darling,” putting accordionist Yuri Lemeshev front and center. They worked in a few of the previous tunes and came to a cacophonous finish, waving lovingly to the crowd as they headed offstage for a brief break before bounding out for their encore.
The encore started off with a song I didn’t recognize; I believe it was an Irish folk song, because Hutz prefaced it by saying the band had played it on St. Patrick’s Day in an Irish pub, and that the crowd went wild for it. It seemed as though that would end the whole night, and some folks started to head out of the venue. The band took bows, and everyone left the stage except Hutz, who paced it like an excitable puppy. He grabbed his acoustic guitar and hopped up on a giant stage speaker, jamming out the first swaying chords of “Alcohol” to massive excitement. The entire crowd joined in singing, and the rest of Gogol trickled back onstage, transforming the song into a final chant of “Break the Spell.”
When the last chords were finally played, the band leapt down into the photo pit and gave as many people as they could warm hugs and fist bumps, once again promoting the idea of the Undestructible Familia and the unity between the band and their fans. To Hutz and co., it’s one giant party and we’re all just attending. Luckily, Gogol Bordello throw the best parties.
Marina Diamandis of Marina & the Diamonds is one of those people for whom the phrase “blood, sweat and tears” was coined. She’s a pop singer with the voice of an opera singer who has the hunger for stardom that you might imagine a young Lady Gaga or Britney Spears possessing, except that she also has good-natured wit and a down-to-Earth character that endear her to fans. She is simultaneously the girl next door, and a diva in training, magnetic and impossible to take your eyes off of. On record, I knew none of this, except the witticism. When Marina took the Antone’s stage Monday night, she defined the rest within the first song.
Austin-based L.A.X. opened for Marina. I had heard their name before, but knew nothing about them. I fell in love almost instantaneously. L.A.X. are like some crazy blend of modern auto-tuned pop music with the best of cheesy 90’s pop and R&B. The female vocalists, Erin Jantzen and Yadira Brown, stole the show for me. They danced around, played in the fan blowing massive photo shoot-worthy air, and Yadira blew everyone away when she rapped over their tunes, eliciting hoots and hollers from a mightily impressed crowd. For some reason, there were few dancers getting down with the band – my guess is a mix of it being a Monday night and a younger crowd, so fewer people were, ahem, letting go of inhibitions – but there was still loving applause by the end of the band’s set, which they ripped through without breaking between songs. I was totally won over, and would recommend this group to anyone nostalgic for Ace of Bass, who likes talented rappers, or who just wants to dance.
As fabulous as the L.A.X. ladies’ voices were, nobody quite compares to Marina. Her gorgeous roar is arresting. After her four-piece band took the stage dressed in all black, Marina entered the scene as some weird time-traveling Pink Lady in a cheerleading skirt, halter tee and appropriate jean jacket with a giant diamond painted on the back. Her hair was teased out up to the heavens, and she was wearing a headband with a bow and neon-colored sunglasses. She tore the roof off with “The Outsider,” her voice rising and falling over dancey synth beats.
Marina and her Diamonds managed to play ever song on her 13-track full-length debut, The Family Jewels, with highlights including the fun and snotty “Girls,” which the ladies in the audience happily sneered along to, sparkly and Robyn-esque “Shampain,” crowd-pleasing “Oh No!” which tackles the theme of what someone is willing to give up for their goals, “Obsessions,” which saw Marina behind the keyboard and really allowed her voice to soar, and of course her hit, “I Am Not a Robot,” for which she changed into a neon-pink faux-leather dress and led an impassioned sing-along.
The band debuted two songs from their upcoming sophomore release. The first, never-before-heard, was called “Living Dead,” and you could feel how stoked the band was to give it a shot. Marina was nervous, but a cup of vodka soothed her and she managed to keep it from going “tits up” as she’d feared it would. The tune touched on a lot of her favorite themes, and it sounded like it could have even been an outtake from the Family Jewels. The second new song was one of my favorites of the whole night. Called “Jealousy,” it has a gut-twisting bass line and fantastic melody. It’s got a Eurythmics overtone to it, but still feels fresh.
Marina shut the night down with a final costume change and an ode to America, “Hollywood,” that was an energetic and fantastic way to close. In a sequined skirt and top with the American flag on it, she belted her tune about the “American Queen.” She’d mentioned earlier in the night that she was legitimately fascinated with American and wanted so badly to “make it here.” If this performance was any indication, she’s well on her way.
Some artists are best left to recording booths and vinyl discs, where they can tweak their visions to perfection. Others shine best under live stage light, and Marina defines this category. Given the chance, she will make you fall in love with her at a live show. Her energy, visible star power and knockout vocal prowess absolutely must be experienced in a sweaty crowd. Marina is the real deal, and I can’t wait for her to storm the charts and become the American dream.
A last-minute benefit has been put together by Bearded Allies featuring some awesome local bands at the Scoot Inn. On Saturday, blog favorites Little Lo, Ghost of Electricity, Lean Hounds and psych rockers The Boxing Lesson will perform, and the $5 cover charge will be donated to Mercy Corp’s Japan fundraiser. Doors are at 7:00p.m. Get out there for a good cause! More info can be found on Facebook.