BOAT PEOPLE IN AMERICA
I also caught up with Robin Waters, who was my very dedicated second engineer during the recording of Dan Sultan’s ARIA-winning album Get Out While You Can. Robin’s Brisbane-based band, The Boat People, had just played a smoking set at the Aussie BBQ, and I figured I’d hit him with some questions while he was still hot. Jonathan Burnside: What inspired you to take the effort to get the band over to SXSW Robin? Robin Waters: This is our fifth trip to the USA and our second to South By Southwest. We wanted to come back here to introduce the people we work with here to our new album, Dear Darkly. South By Southwest tied in well with that. JB: What’s the major difference you’ve observed between Australia and the US, music businesswise? RW: The sheer scale is much greater in the US – just the actual number of people involved. Generally people are very positive here and there is much less of a tall poppy syndrome than back home in Oz. But as a caveat, I’ve seen a lot of Australian bands coming over who have done well in Australia by sounding American or like a particular successful American act. Those bands aren’t going to do well in the US because they won’t stand out from what’s already here. It’s hard to sell ice to the Eskimos. JB: If you were going to chart your trip as a profit and loss statement, what would the bottom line be? RW: The trip itself would probably be a slight financial loss. But the film and TV syncs that we’ve picked up from all our trips would take us into profit territory. Some of the great government support programs that are available to Australian bands have really helped us as well. That’s definitely something American bands don’t receive!
Pete Kicks from Satellite Sky and his sister Kim crank it out at an ‘unofficial’ gig on 6th St during SxSW. PHOTO: Casey Jones AT 46
I think the best result is that the trips have given us a better sense of what we need to do to make worthwhile music that stands out in the context of the whole world. It’s easy, as an Australian band, to get into the mentality of trying to live up to what people and the media in Australia are in the habit of looking for. But trying to give people what they are accustomed to not only limits the band creatively but also makes the band less interesting to anyone outside of the Australian environment. JB: That’s a good point. You have to think internationally to be international. And that might not always make you a hero in your hometown. So how would you advise other bands considering taking the leap across the Pacific? RW: As someone who makes music, it’s your responsibility to expand your horizons as much as possible. That means travelling, being inspired by new experiences and by meeting people who didn’t grow up with you and don’t hang out in the same inner-city clique as you. That said, I’m not sure I’d advise South By Southwest as your introduction to the US music business, if business is the sole criteria of your trip. Unless you’re doing well enough in Australia to have some serious buzz around your band, you should perhaps look into some other smaller festivals over here. CMJ Music Marathon in New York during October is a good first step, for instance. But musically, all of these trips overseas have helped us obtain a better sense of who we are as well as giving us the confidence to follow through business-wise. We’ll continue to build this thing slowly – giving our music the opportunity to connect with people over here who are passionate enough about it to help us. And those we’ve met so far have been amazingly supportive and positive.
After thanking Robin with a “nice talk, mate”, I left the Great Aussie BBQ and headed down Sixth Street, which, during South By Southwest, is closed off to traffic and is absolutely packed with music-goers. Through an open window of one of the smallish clubs that seem to line the street for miles, I saw a woman with multi-coloured hair smashing her kit like each drum was the captive head of a loser ex-boyfriend. That and the sign that read ‘Three Dollar Margaritas’ provided plenty incentive to get me through the door. Drink in hand, I was basking in the noisy grunge/glam energy when the singer yelled out, “Thank you Austin! We’ve come all the way from Melbourne, Australia, to play for you and we’re having a blast!” I was surprised. The show wasn’t an official South By Southwest showcase, just one of the hundreds of events taking place each day and night free to the public – no wristband required. South By Southwest has taken on such a momentum that artists from around the globe head to Austin to take their places even without official showcase bookings. Every record store, dive bar, pizza joint, laundromat and pawn shop puts on sideshows on their retail floor or parking lot. I wondered whether this Aussie band had busked rather than BBQ’d their way to Austin. After the show, I introduced myself to Melburnian siblings Kim and Pete Kicks, the drummer and guitarist/singer of Satellite Sky. Jonathan Burnside: More Aussies! I had no idea where you were from when I wandered in. Your show wasn’t an official showcase. Does that mean you’ve come all this way on your own bat? Pete Kicks: Yes. Being an independent band, we organised everything ourselves with no label, management or government support. We’d been over to the US before and made friends with the