For three decades now, musicians have been making their ways to Austin in March, hoping South by Southwest will provide that elusive boost to their musical careers. It’s happened countless times.
But as my band, Dread, experienced back in 1989, it often doesn’t happen exactly as planned.
In 1989, Austin was smaller and growing fast, just like South by Southwest — a conference of music industry insiders that had started just two years earlier. As the little print ad proclaimed, it was “THE BIGGEST MUSIC FESTIVAL IN TEXAS! 250 BANDS! 50 SOLO ARTISTS! 23 CLUBS! 3 NIGHTS!” And, perhaps, the most surprisingly low number, “ONE $10 TICKET GETS YOU INTO ALL SHOWS!”
Obviously, it’s a little different these days, but in some ways it was easier in those early years for an upstart rock band to get an official showcase, if you got your application and demo tape in on time.
“I remember having limited expectations about being able to actually play, even if [we] hadn’t fudged the turning in of the application,” recalls Dread lyricist and vocalist James Bryant. “You know and we were disappointed not to get the showcase, although, at the time, I’m sure we probably just, you know, a couple of years before we were literally children. So, it was probably, you know, screw them, you know, very young and in many ways stupid.”
James and I started Dread a little less than a year earlier, with guitarist Joe Novak and bassist Mike Peoples. I was the drummer.
In the hard rock universe of the late ‘80s, Guns ‘n Roses had helped supplant the hair metal that had reigned earlier in the ‘80s. And, in some ways, they contributed to the major label signing of Austin band Dangerous Toys after South by Southwest a year earlier in 1988.
With the ascendance of the even heavier rock of bands such as Metallica, we were convinced that this would be our time. So, missed application deadline notwithstanding, and rather than consign South by Southwest ’89 to the missed opportunity file, we decided to bring that opportunity literally to us.
“It felt at the time like that was even better than a South by Southwest showcase, because just because you’re playing doesn’t mean that the A&R guy from MetalBlade Records was going to be in the room, and he made a special trip to come to out place to hear us rehearse, which seemed like a huge deal,” James says.
An honest to goodness old school record company A&R man – artists and repertoire – could sign us to MetalBlade Records.
So, there he was, watching us play.
He said there must be something in the water down here in Austin that fomented the creation of complex odd-time-signature metal. Then, he said something that was intended to be encouraging, but was not received that way.
He wanted to show us some of what was happening in L.A., some of what he thought was on the cusp of breaking big, and it was kind of disheartening to me: a resurgence of hair/glam metal. I’m pretty sure one of the bands was Winger, but James doesn’t remember that detail.
“I must have blocked that out,” he says. “I don’t remember that at all.”
But, the A&R man also said something else. He said it was the most important advice he could give and and, historically, the hardest to follow.
He said, “Whatever you do, stay together. Stay together.”
We nodded earnestly and anticipated the phone call to come. It never did.
We did stay together – for several more months, anyway. By the time South by Southwest rolled around again, Dread had disbanded, for reasons having largely to do with its members’ age range of 20 to 21.
There was a reunion show the following year, which was recommended by the Austin Chronicle. Hundreds of people packed Liberty Lunch on that August night, the fireworks of Aqua Fest above, sending us off into adulthood, or something like it.