The third month of the year in Austin, Texas is synonymous with one thing – the South by Southwest Festival (SXSW). A lot of locals seem to hate it, but I think they just get annoyed by the traffic congestion and the crowds of people. You can’t hate the fact that some of the best new bands, films and creative minds in the world want to come to Austin to showcase their talent. I love that it happens here.
I was in Austin during SXSW in 1996 and 1999, but it was not until 2003 that I first really got involved.
In March 2003, I had been back in Austin for almost a year, living in a small one-bedroom apartment with Kristy on Enfield Road. We had no money, no credit, and we were slowly furnishing our place from charity shops. I took the bus everywhere or rode my bike, and Marc was really the only person I knew. Kristy was working as a waitress and I was working as a Legal Assistant with the Texas Legislative Council. My job was not quite as soul destroying as TGI Fridays, but it was maybe the most boring job I’d ever had. For weeks at a time there was literally nothing to do.
On the positive side I had the time to be creative. Marc and I started a business filming weddings. At the time, all of the older wedding videographers in town still made wedding videos – on VHS tapes. So we figured out we could do wedding DVDs and make them look pretty decent using basic Mac software. I learned how to shoot and edit on Final Cut, and started to dabble in music videos.
One night in the summer of 2002, Marc and I took some handheld cameras out to film an Austin band at The Hole in the Wall on the Drag. They were called The Real Heroes and a few weeks later Marc edited the footage together into a music video for them. They loved it and wanted us to do more.
One weekend, the guys in the band invited me to join them on a road trip to Dallas to film a show. We all drove together in a big white transit van that they had hired for the weekend. Ben (the singer) and Paul (lead guitar) sat up front, and I sat in the back with Joey (drums), Kenneth (bass), and Kyle (guitar/keyboard). I’d always been a fan of live music, but this was my first experience seeing it from the band’s perspective. They were five very different personalities, who were all now good friends, but through the music that they created they had forged a deeper bond between them. They were a gang.
It reminded me of being a kid back in Barrhead, sitting on our kit bags in the back of a plumber’s van with the rest of our under 11’s football team, driving across Glasgow to go and play a match on a freezing Saturday morning. Or being with the lads in Forest Pump, my University team, with 7 of us piled into Jonny’s Nissan Micra, laughing and joking, as we drove to Jack Kane Sports Centre in Edinburgh on a Wednesday afternoon.
Except instead of football, the Real Heroes were talking about music and films and comedians, or writing new songs, or coming up with ideas for videos. I loved it.
By the time we got to Dallas I knew that we were going to be friends. By the time we got back to Austin on Sunday night, they had decided they wanted me in their gang, and they asked me to manage the band.
I was 27 years old and I had made myself a promise years earlier to try and ‘make it’ doing something I loved before I was 30. If it didn’t work out then I would get a proper job. I didn’t even know what a manager did, but I thought it might be the closest I would ever come to actually being in a band, and that was pretty exciting to me.
So I learned how to book shows and negotiate fees with club owners. I also seem to remember spending a lot of time at Kinkos making copies of bios and photos and compiling press kits into cardboard folders. It also gave me an excuse to wear my old vintage suits. I felt like a band manager should wear a suit.
A few weeks before South by Southwest 2003, we had the idea to do a late night party during the festival to showcase the band. I’d thrown some parties before (mostly my own leaving parties), and I’d also organized a mediation conference a year earlier so I didn’t think it would be too hard. I had no clue what was in store.
I need to clarify something before I go any further. There are three sides to a story right? I say this to clients and opposing attorneys all the time now. There is my side, there is the other side, and then there is the truth. I’m going to tell you my side of the 2003 late night SXSW Vortex story. I know that there is another side because I hear about it all the time from some of my closest friends. That’s fine. If those others want to write their own memoirs, then good luck!
Alright, so The Real Heroes had the idea to do a late night party at the Vortex Theater on the east side of Austin during SXSW 2013. Joey introduced me to Juliana, who was booking the theater at the time, and we started to put plans together. Ben and Paul invited their friends Pretty Beat Up to open the show, and we started working on posters and flyers. I made a video to promote the gig and my friend Bido showed it on the Austin Music Network.
Then about ten days before SXSW, Juliana told us that there had been some sort of a mix up. Apparently another Austin band had also been told that they could use the Vortex to do their own late night party on the same day. That band was called ‘I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness’. I’d never heard of them, but I was pretty sure that I didn’t like them.
That’s one of the great things about being part of a band – you develop something akin to a gang mentality. And if you are not with us then you are against us. The double booking was news to the guys in Chosen Darkness too, and they were just as pissed off as we were. Juliana asked the two bands to see if we could work something out.
After a few tense emails with some dude in their band called Ernest, we figured it out so that Pretty Beat Up would play first at 1.30am, Chosen Darkness would play a short set of about 20-25 minutes at 2.15am and then The Real Heroes would finish the show. I told him it would be like ‘Live Aid’ sets and then we’d all get on stage together at the end and sing ‘We Are the World’. It seemed like they were on board.
The party took a lot of planning. The Vortex theater was basically just an empty warehouse with a big patch of fenced-in grass outside. So we had to bring in our own PA system and kegs and booze and everything. There was also a play being performed in the theater earlier in the night, so we couldn’t even get in to set up until after that had cleared out.
Ben from the Real Heroes designed an awesome flyer and we made it into a laminate so it looked like a VIP pass. That was a genius idea. He worked at Waterloo Records too and gave out hundreds of the laminates all week. The rest of us walked around all over 6th Street and handed them out to everyone with a badge.
This was my first SXSW experience as a manager and I genuinely thought that if I could get the Real Heroes to perform in front of the right people then that would be it and we’d get signed to a major label. I remember being pretty nervous before the party. We also hadn’t bothered to get any permits or licenses for the show, so the threat of getting shut down by the police was a real one.
By the time Pretty Beat Up went on around 1.30am, there were maybe 50 people there. Then something happened. Cars started arriving. Taxis started arriving. Limos started arriving. Hundreds and hundreds of people started to show up.
The theater space inside was pretty small. There was no actual stage, it was just a big dark room with bleacher seats set back on two of the walls, and a few spotlights. There was maybe room for about 150 people in there, 100 seated and 50 standing. The grass area outside where we had the kegs had room for about 200 more people.
By about 2.15am there were at least 500 people inside the grounds and another 300 people in line outside trying to get in. I remember looking outside and seeing this rapidly growing mob of people as every taxi in Austin dumped more and more revelers in the parking lot outside.
We were paying some old dude $50 to be our “security” and he rightly decided he couldn’t let anyone else in. He blocked the only entrance with his wiry body and told everyone to go home. The folks outside didn’t like that and some of them tried to break the fence down or climb over the barbed wire. I walked outside at one point and was accosted by industry bigwigs from Rolling Stone Magazine or MTV or Columbia Records who couldn’t get in. They all had our laminates around their necks that said ‘Backstage Pass’ and ‘Admit 2’ and they were demanding to be let in. There was nearly a riot.
It was chaos inside too. The theater was completely full except for the small corner where we had set up the stage. After what seemed like an age, I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness finally started their show and I think they played for at least an hour. When they were finally done, someone pulled all the wires out from the PA so the Real Heroes had to set up everything again. It didn’t matter. Sometime after 3.30am The Real Heroes played and everyone loved it.
It was an epic party. Once the bedlam subsided outside it was fine. There were loads of other bands and famous people who made it inside. I remember a well-known Irish comedian came up to me in my three-piece brown suit and asked if I could find some drugs for him. It’s not something I knew anything about, so I introduced him to a member of a notoriously wild rock band, and they became immediate friends.
The night was a massive success, and I was sure that it was only a matter of time before the Real Heroes became the next big thing.
It was also the start of a minor feud between The Real Heroes and Chosen Darkness that escalated after we both got a bill for another $500 each two weeks after the party. Somehow the bands all lost money that night, and of course we blamed each other. Looking back I should really have spun our feud into an Austin Oasis/Blur indie band fight, but I didn’t.
I managed the Real Heroes for three more years but I’m not sure that we ever hit the same high notes as we did at that first Vortex party in 2003. It also seems to be one those parties where everyone who is anyone was there.
I met a lot of people that night who have gone on to shape my life. It may have been my Lesser Free Trade Hall moment. More than anything, it cemented my bond with The Real Heroes gang that will never be broken. It was through Paul that I met Steve, who I still consider to be one of my best friends. Through Ben I met my good friends Linda, Hannah, and Ashley.
I also became good friends with Allison from Pretty Beat Up, and a year later her bandmate Jason and his buddy Steve Olsen joined a poker game at my house. They invited Dean and Melissa to play and it was Melissa who eventually introduced me to Farah. Through Joey I met Brian Floyd, another close friend, who I stayed with when I first went to New York, and who later officiated at Farah and I’s wedding in 2007.
As it turns out, Farah was at the Vortex party too. She was a good friend with the guys in Chosen Darkness (Ernest, Chris, Jason, Tim, and Eddie) and their girlfriends. I didn’t actually meet Farah until two years later, and of course she knew of ‘The Real Heroes’ only as the shitty band that nearly ruined her friends’ party.
I like to think that the love between Farah and I helped to thaw the ancient grudge between the two bands. Nowadays the guys from Chosen Darkness, and their spouses, are some of our best friends. I see Tim and Eddie all the time at our kid’s parties, and Jason McNeely runs one of the best venues in Austin, in Hotel Vegas. As for Ernest and Chris, well we forged our own gang in 2015, when we started a band together with our friends Nicky and Jason Reece. I love those guys.
I still love South by Southwest too. Like that first Vortex party, I always have a feeling like something could happen at any moment that might change my life.
The first Vortex party certainly changed my life. If nothing else, it gave me a purpose to be in Austin. It also happened at a time that my relationship with Kristy was fragmenting. In 2003, I spent a lot of time with the Real Heroes and I enjoyed many more late night parties in Austin with them. It’s perhaps part of the reason why six months later Kristy and I would break-up, and why when it came to the second Vortex party in March 2004 – The Scottish Invasion Party – I was already married to the band.