SXSW 2015 Music Preview: 25 Bands to Catch in Austin

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SXSW 2015 Music Preview: 25 Bands to Catch in Austin

The South by Southwest Music Festival is meant to be about discovery, but it can be difficult wading through the more than 2,300 bands playing in Austin this week to find ones you’ll love. We asked our staff who you should catch if you’re at SXSW this week. This just scratches the surface, but here are 25 bands we recommend you check out, from those just starting out to established acts that you’ve got to see live.

Beneath the fuzztone guitars and Molly Rankin’s sadsack vocals on what sound at first like straightforward indie-pop tunes beats a droll heart shot through with a subversive streak. Rankin strikes an impressive balance in her lyrics between lovelorn woe and deadpan wit, tackling 20-something romantic angst with a sly wisdom well beyond her (and, frankly, most people’s) years. She and her band of Toronto transplants draw on the wistful, plaintive sound of mid-’80s British indie-pop—jangling guitars, swirls of atmospheric keyboards—and twist it on songs that hint at the tumult lurking just below seemingly placid surfaces.—Eric R. Danton


Anderson East
I’ve been a bit infatuated with this Nashville songwriter since I first heard him last year, and the debut full-length that he just recorded is phenomenal. It’s one of those 10-song records that’s damned near perfect, traveling through the old, smoky bars of older days and down the twisted back roads of love. These are Sam Cooke-caliber love songs, if they had more of a honky-tonk bent and were fueled by repetitive nights of hard whiskeying. The way that East has of conveying that deep-gutted hurt that can only come after an exhausting want or attraction is next level expertise. He is a spectacular talent, and releases like this one are as thrilling as they come.—Sean Moeller

Bee Caves
Call it post-Americana. Bee Caves’ six-song debut Animals With Religion is a haunting, atmospheric offering that builds slowly into a layered madness. Opener “Running Home To You” mixes in hints of muted trumpet over atmospheric acoustic and electric guitars. “I Remember Now” sounds like it’s as influenced by fellow Texans Explosions in the Sky as much as bands like Lambchop.—Josh Jackson


The Black Angels
The Black Angels are extremely good at figuring out ways to propel their psychedelic mischief forward without worrying all that much about its current influx of popularity. The Austin band’s run of sinister, washed-out soundscapes has taken it from obscurity to elder-statesmen status in a matter of only a decade or so, filing down the familiar calling cards of psych to focus on strong songwriting, anchored by vocalist Alex Maas’ flatlining cadences.—Ryan J. Prado

San Francisco electro dream-pop duo Cathedrals fuses music and visual art for a multisensory experience. Singer Brodie Jenkins grew up on a Sonoma county apple orchard and played in a touring family folk band. Multi-instrumentalist Johnny Hwin, meanwhile, grew up on classical music in a Northern California suburb and later toured for a short stint with indie-electro group Blackbird, Blackbird. On their can’t-miss single, “Harlem,” there’s a beautiful balance of Jenkins’ carefully layered vocals and Hwin on the guitar. Although the drums and effects make it seem like the song is heading in one direction, an alarming guitar solo punctuates the confluence of sounds and the listener can’t help but smile at the unexpected deviation. With new videos and songs on the horizon, the fusion of music and art never vanishes as the central theme of their creation.—Adrian Spinelli

Charles Bradley
If you don’t find yourself moved at a Charles Bradley show—moved to dance, to yell, to throw your hands up in a silent “amen”—live music most likely isn’t for you. The Screaming Eagle of Soul is live performance at its finest, a perfect balance of spectacle (the mic tricks, the flashy jackets he embroiders by hand himself, the pelvic thrusts) and real heart. For as much joy as Bradley brings the crowd, you get the sense that he’s still the one who’s happiest to be there.—Bonnie Stiernberg


Courtney Barnett
That same slacker-anthem cool that permeated Courtney Barnett’s “Avant Gardener”?already decreed one of the best songs of the year pretty much everywhere?materialized in her live appearances. At this year’s Pickathon festival in Portland, Ore., Barnett somehow bridged her heavy-lidded linguist/bard vibe with an effortless affinity for grand guitar posturing and easy-does-it punk-lite mojo in a Kurt Cobain t-shirt. If all her sets were like this (and there’s little reason to presume they wouldn’t be) then she’s got to be one of the most charming, whip-smart performers currently touring the world.—Ryan J. Prado


The Family Crest and Mother Falcon
Every once in a while a pair of bands come along, formed at roughly the same time and seeming to share a single, entwined strand of DNA. Mother Falcon and The Family Crest are two such bands, orchestral indie pop-rock units that have been compared to one another endlessly from the moment that both formed in 2008. The similarities make such comparisons natural and understandable: Both bands are large, with live acts that hover around 8 or more (Mother Falcon is usually a bit bigger, up to the mid-teens). Both have Asian male lead singers with emotional, dramatic voices. Both have female, brunette lead violinists who also provide primary back-up vocals. Both have horns, strings and a flair for dramatic, over-the-top live performances. And yet, when they both came into being, neither even knew the other existed. In fact, when we discussed the comparison with members of the Family Crest at the CMJ Music Marathon, they revealed their relationship with their doppelganger band initially began as an adversarial one. The two groups quickly bonded, however, striking up the kind of friendship one might expect in a zany indie comedy. Likewise, both bands have seen their stature rise within the music industry within the last few years—Mother Falcon was long a beloved Austin favorite before their 2013 album You Knew and subsequent touring greatly expanded the fanbase. The Family Crest, meanwhile, produced one of our favorite 2014 albums, the wonderfully realized Beneath the Brine, which is doubtlessly their best work to date. These two sonically ambitious groups are currently at the height of their powers. How fitting, then, that both are playing on the exact same SXSW showcase. On the evening of Wednesday, March 18 at St. David’s Bethell Hall, you can see first The Family Crest and then Mother Falcon within 90 minutes of one another, in what would seem to be an obvious nod to both their similarities and differences. Go check it out and see how two talented young bands stake individual claims to why they’re both full of promise.—Jim Vorel

Flint Eastwood
Based out of Metro Detroit with her mates Clay Carnill, Mark Hartman and Bryan Pope, Jax Anderson fronts a resolute rock-outfit that’s quickly gained notoriety around the Great Lakes for their spectacular, stumping live presentation—a heavily rhythmic, hooky rock blend of danceable beats, samples and strikes of synth. As Spaghetti Western soundtrack samplings swoop under Pope’s fiery guitars, Carnill grooves atop measured snippets of sequenced-beats syncing hip-hop rhythms to the more forceful hits of Hartmans live kit. Anderson, meanwhile, sermonizes the good word of, well, not “rock,” but, any kind of enlivened music, really; pointing at and waving crowds forwards, closer, as she lurches, lunges and fitfully pogos upon the edge of the stage.—Jeff Milo

Foreign Fields
Foreign Fields’ folk-tinged electronic music caught our attention for its out-there lyrics and melodies on debut album Anywhere But Where I Am and their impressive live performance on Daytrotter’s Barnstormer Tour. Now, the band is working on new material in Nashville, Tenn., crafting a follow-up album slated for release sometime this year.—Dacey Orr

Friends throughout the truly tough part of life—high school—Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker are like the baddest girls in school, screaming their girly rage through the hallways. But the duo isn’t cutting class just to frolic in the fun and play guitar. No, they have a message and they’ll sing it loud and banging. On their self-titled debut EP, Girlpool tackles themes from slut shaming and self expression to Saturday night and drunk boys. It’s girl power at its unwavering height—difficult and fun. Tividad and Tucker throw a party, lace their boots and stomp their melodies into our brains. And they do it all without a drummer.—Alexa Carrasco


Pop your head into any venue in Austin this week, and the band on stage is likely to fall squarely in the middle of the indie rock/Americana spectrum. So if you wan’t to break all that up with some funk, we recommend you check out Atlanta’s Gurufish. Led by Jimmy St. James, this 8-piece collective brings a jolt of electricity to the party with a glam-rock theatricality and an unending groove—just what you’ll need to reenergize during a marathon week.—Josh Jackson

You may know this band as Deers (see our Best of What’s Next feature from when they were still using that moniker). Now, after a name change, this Madrid group is ready to embark on its first trip Stateside. Catch their first-ever SXSW set this year and impress your friends years from now with tales of seeing them “way back when.”—Bonnie Stiernberg


Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires
Lyrically, Alabama native Lee Bains tackles tough history in the context of his own experiences, acknowledging the negative in a way that begs for another story to be told. “I know the new architecture’s largely depressing / and the politics are pretty regressive,” Bains sings in “The Weeds Downtown,” a Southern-fried rock gem from the band’s Sub Pop debut, Dereconstructed. “But ain’t shining a light on what’s dark / Kinda your thing?” But it’s his unrestrained lives show that really made us fans, along with his wary but boundless appreciation for the region that built him.—Dacey Orr

Photo by Laura June Kirsch

Leon Bridges
If you’re at all a Sam Cooke fan, make it your business to catch Leon Bridges at this year’s SXSW. The 25-year-old Fort Worth native’s soulful songs are straight from the Cooke playbook—but why mess with a winning formula? Sometimes sweet, smooth and stripped-down are all you need.—Bonnie Stiernberg

Lydia Ainsworth
All it took was encouragement from one of the most courageous vocalists of the 20th century to get a New York University grad student (and Toronto native) to sing. Thus became Lydia Ainsworth, Joan La Barbara protégé, whose fractured-fairytale, electro-etched chamber music skirts, like the Grimm brothers’ best, a widening chasm of unspeakable terror. Whether that chasm is an encroaching technological age or something way more personal, naming her influences and guessing at her fears aren’t fair ways to describe Ainsworth’s debut. Because the lush Right From Real is something altogether so much more immediate: pop with a perfectionist’s bent poised irrevocably on the cusp of a complete breakdown.—Dom Sinacola

Photo by Jessica Upton Crowe

Natalie Prass
When Bjork recently spoke about the tendency to credit men with the genius of a woman’s art, she could have been looking straight at critics about to write about the fantastic debut album from Natalie Prass. Over nine songs, Prass shows a range in songwriting, from anthems to confident R&B burners to whimsical prairie folk to theatrical grandeur. It is the debut of a songwriter not struggling to find a voice, but fully formed and confident as all hell. She makes knowing nods to Joni Mitchell, Lesley Gore, Diana Ross and Joanna Newsom, all while seeming natural and instinctual. She is the product of her influences and still original.—Philip Cosores


New Madrid
New Madrid landed splat in the middle of Athens’ musical consciousness with their 2012 debut, Yardboat, and proceeded to dominate the local music award ceremony that year, which is no small feat in a town where the branches of the music scene are virtually sagging with ripe fruit. Now with New West Records, New Madrid have grown Yardboat’s jammy Southern rock into a psych-tinged sophomore album, Sunswimmer, with the help of producer David Barbe (Deerhunter, Animal Collective) at Chase Park Transduction studios. There’s something about Sunswimmer that feels instantly comfortable, like a pair of shoes from the thrift store that someone already wore in for you. Opener “All Around the Locust” reveals singer Phil McGill, drawling with a lazy-tongued twang amid washes of reverb and effects-laden guitar.—Rachel Bailey

This isn’t EDM, yet it makes everyone who hears it want to dance. And throw on our headphones and soak it all in. It’s the balance of high energy and relaxation. ODESZA, a production duo out of Seattle, eschew the bubble-gum “gutz-gutz” and robotsex sounds typical of electronic music today. ODESZA arrives instead with “tasteful electronic,” as member Clayton (Clay) Knight half-joked to us this fall.—Adrian Spinelli


Speedy Ortiz
There are many ways to experience SXSW, and since I’m the kind of person who loves to obsessively plot out my life, my instinct last year was to schedule my nights hour by hour, leaving nothing to chance. What I quickly learned, though, was that a spirit of semi-organized chaos permeated the streets of Austin, and had a way of waylaying all of my best-laid plans. If I stuck to my rigid pattern of thinking, not only would I be disappointed as the schedule fell apart, but I wouldn’t be tapping into the unique SXSW vibe. I quickly chose to abandon my OCD tendencies and let myself be carried on whatever wild currents were flowing, and that’s how I allowed myself to be surprised and wowed by acts like Har Mar Superstar, Diarrhea Planet, and so many others. The band I want to mention now was completely unknown to me last year when Paste’s Tyler Kane dragged me into a venue called The Parish Underground after midnight on Thursday, March 13. They were called Speedy Ortiz, fronted by a badass named Sadie Dupuis. In the tiny venue, they blew me away, and I’ve since become a loyal fan of their music, which “rings loud and clear by way of ass-kicking guitars, thunderous rhythms and a promising new voice,” as Kane put it on this website. So I give them my highest recommendation, but also have to insist that you spend some time adrift in Austin, pushed and pulled by forces out of your control, so that you can find your own Speedy Ortiz.—Shane Ryan

Sheer Mag
Philly’s Sheer Mag makes scruffy power-pop accessible enough to transcend the record collector set. They hit that sweet spot between low-frills classic rock a la Thin Lizzy and AC/DC and the energetic insolence of early punk, and make it sound as vital and exciting as ever through great songwriting.—Garrett Ryan

Springtime Carnivore
This Springtime Carnivore record that Greta Morgan released in the last parts of 2014 didn’t come out of nowhere, but it kinda did catch us by surprise. It didn’t surprise us that it was good, but it surprised us that it was so good it hurt. Over the last few years, one of the most vogue things to do has been to record an album of lo-fi beach jams that’s supposed to get beloved just for the beachy parts and because it feels so lusciously aloof. There’s a strange malaise to most of these records. Springtime Carnivore’s self-titled debut is a whole other thing completely. It’s breezy and yet dense as a bolt. Morgan’s songs about the many frivolous and often fascinating sides to that lunatic activity of love, that we all so frequently engage in, are staggeringly complex, but still fall-off-the-bone tender and chewy. She’s made one of those beachy doo-wop records that you never knew you needed in your life until it came along.—Rachel Bailey


The low-key but top-notch indie-pop of Twerps harkens back to the 1980s, when fellow Australians the Go-Betweens and New Zealand neighbors the Chills and the Clean made waves on college radio. They’re smart and literate without trying too hard at either, and tender without ever getting whiny or overemotional. It’s classic college radio stuff done as well as anybody else today is doing it.—Garrett Ryan

War on Drugs
Watching The War on Drugs frontman Adam Granduciel, who looks like Jimmy Fallon’s older, world-worn brother, was a different thing than I experienced in the rest of my time at North Carolina’s Hopscotch Music Festival in 2014. He’s known as a perfectionist, particularly when he’s making an album, and no doubt this intense attention to detail is an essential building block of his music, but watching his band live, you don’t look at the stage and see a control freak. You see someone channeling the music in a way that few others could ever approach, and the magnitude of it all necessarily makes everything else look minor by comparison. There’s something unchained about it all, as though his talent gives him the freedom to let the music run wild. It’s all perception, but genius has that way of erasing the middle steps between idea and execution, so that while the others are painting by numbers, with someone like Granduciel it seems to flow unchanged from an origin you’d never be able to find by simply re-tracing his steps.—Shane Ryan

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Zella Day
Zella Day’s breakout has been years in the making, with periodic highlights along the way. In 2012, Day’s acoustic cover of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” rose to the top of Hype Machine’s chart. That feat was repeated more recently with her own composition, “Sweet Ophelia,” a sun-flared pop track that begins with a blown-out beat and builds to a soaring, synth-boosted chorus. Similarly lush hooks surface throughout her four-track EP. She’s been mistakenly labeled as an electro-pop artist, but her folk and rock leanings are more evident in her live performances. All of her songs originate on guitar, which means even her most produced and polished tracks can be performed acoustically. You might even be lucky enough to catch her cover of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”—Chris Tinkham

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