Top image: photography by Steve Gullick
Having drummed for South London’s finest – the likes of Fat White Family, Misty Miller, Zulu and Phobophobes – last year Dan Lyons went solo (premiering his debut single exclusively with HERO).
On a mission to spread his music far and wide, this month the Margate-based musician swapped England’s Kent coast for America’s west to play Austin, Texas’ renowned SXSW festival. Along the way, Lyons penned his adventures for a special three-part diary.
Below is the final chapter of his story across America: hitting the stage at SXSW, drinking alongside Bill Murray and returning home optimistic for the future.
An English nobody in the land of the free: Part Three
In the Motel 6 in Las Cruces we found out from the radio that someone in Austin was using the US mail service to deliver explosives to people’s houses, that there had now been two attacks, and that people had died. I remembered watching a documentary not so long ago about the Unabomber. I wondered whether the guy who was sending all those parcels had seen it too. It cast a dark cloud, I thought about the victims of these senseless, pointless attacks that seem in one form or another to have become extremely common nowadays.
We drove through Downtown Austin and its skyscrapers. The festival takes up most of the city and as a result the place becomes a confusion of one way streets, dead ends and no go zones. We eventually arrived outside the convention centre, the nerve centre of SXSW – home to artist registration, TED talks and the ‘Artist Gifting Suite’ wherein performers are given JanSport backpacks and $10 vouchers for Guitar Centre, along with the obligatory supply of watery beer.
Waiting outside the building were my manager and Dave Dale – a man I met in 2014 on my last trip to the United States, he has a beautiful house on the outskirts of town which he offers up as a pied a terre for bands from the UK who have been asked to play SXSW. We were all totally exhausted, but Sam and Jeremy (who had actually been driving) were feeling it the most. Two days of non-stop Highway, desert and cacti had taken it’s toll and at that point we were all wondering why we hadn’t decided to take an internal flight to Austin instead.
At the 720 Club, a small venue on the corner of 6th Street, we were ushered inside by a man with a clipboard. He showed us where to put our equipment and presented us with two drinks tokens each. I felt shattered, and totally culture shocked. We had been in the same friendly company for the last week or so, and being in this strange new city, full of thousands of other musicians, all hoping to make it big or sign a record deal off the back of their musical efforts, was daunting.
It seems to me, that SXSW for many music industry hacks, doesn’t actually serve as a chance to find auspicious hopefuls, or even to discover ‘new’ music – which is how it is presented – but instead acts as an excuse for these guys (and it is mainly men) to go on holiday, get pissed for three days, and to pat each other on the back about the bands they’ve already signed. Maybe this is just the embittered devil on my shoulder, judging the ‘other half’ cynically from afar, but one can’t help but feel that now more than ever, in our digital world, the puppeteers are less and less worried about people seeing their strings.
We were booked to play at one in the morning. It was half twelve, I had no guitar leads. I was handed two ethernet cables – I had asked for ‘patch cables’ – by my manager. A quiffed, suited rockabilly type had been “uh huh huh’ing” on stage for the last half hour and I was in a sort of delirium, excited and nervous to play our first gig of the festival. I asked the band due to play after us if they would lend me some leads, thankfully they agreed and were very kind about it. Alice handed me a packet of shortbread biscuits and told me that I should offer them as thanks.
Soundcheck is a no go at these types of things, you’re lucky if you even get a chance to tie your shoe laces before you’re hustled onstage to ‘make an impression’. The gig went well considering the fact that I had pig-headedly ignored the sound engineers instruction not to move the amp, which was facing sideways, towards me, not towards the audience. I decided to turn the thing to face the crowd and turn it up. The result was that my soft, delicate, intricate musings had now taken on a totally different shape and I found myself playing in a garage band again, shouting and beating the beautiful Gibson I’d been lent into a pulp. It was very fun, but left me feeling odd. A good mistake to make on the first night. It was ‘full of energy’ according to a man who works for Tom Morello’s record label. Not in the way I had imagined it to be.
It’s so hard to turn the sounds you have in your head into reality. If you sing too loudly, or hit the wrong button on your effects pedal the whole picture can just melt away and you’re left with a sound that is completely different and distant. Obviously there’s a lot to be said for improvisation and those magic moments where some totally alien beast appears and takes you somewhere you didn’t know you were going, but it’s a fine line to tread.
So we headed off after the gig in our giant red George W. Bush mobile to Berkman House – Dave’s Place. Waiting there was Dave’s brother, John. I don’t know whether it was coincidence that in each of the places we stayed there lived men obsessed with the distant galaxies of the silver screen. We had spent a week in LA, in the camper van at Mark’s place – Mark is responsible for the “lost cult classic” Box Head Revolution – and having done so we were very well versed in the ways of the sci-fi fanatic, we felt at home straight away.
We slept in the same attic I had stayed in with the Fat Whites in 2014, I think Freya and I even shared the exact same bed I’d been in all those moons ago. It was odd, but familiar. That first trip to America was where my relationships to the rest of the band really started to turn sour. Putting it lightly, I was drinking too much, and had reached a point where I no longer felt part of what was going on. I was bustling to be treated as an equal, but in doing so walked the path to my own demise. So it goes. Sometimes things happen for a reason, as people keep saying…
The next few days were easy, we didn’t have a show until the weekend, and it was Wednesday, so we decided to head into town to see what was going on, lots of bands from London were hanging about. I knew Goat Girl had a few shows lined up, and I had just been in touch with my friend Early Sans, who plays in Superorganism, who said they were doing a few gigs throughout the week.
Compared to the night time at SXSW, the days are calm, although there’s not much in it. Hoards of people dance in unison filming videos for trap artists you’ve never heard whilst others sell branded edible marijuana lollipops for a dollar a piece. Smart looking people don Ray Bans and corduroy trousers, mingling, chins wagging, rubbing lanyards with each other. It’s no secret that the festival is very industry heavy. SXSW has grown from it’s inception as a community led festival (1987) into an all consuming corporate carnival. There were just a hundred and seventy two bands playing the first time round. In two thousand and eighteen there were over a thousand.
People kept saying that because I’m based in the UK, I stood more of a chance of ‘being heard by the right people’ at SXSW. For many local – and by local I mean American – bands, I suppose that playing at SXSW isn’t quite as much of a big deal as it was for us. It’s probably just on the managers list of things to do each year, like ‘The Great Escape’ is in the UK. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what I expected to achieve from jumping in a plane and heading over there. Apart from having an adventure…
My manager had told me endlessly that it was ‘too early’ and that I wasn’t ‘far enough along’. There was also the initial wobble of worrying whether my missing the first few date of the Phobophobes tour would be worth it – more on that later – but we had actually got there, and done it. That was the thing that mattered to me the most, it cemented the ever wavering notion that what I was doing now, for myself, was worth it, was real. To be 6000 miles away from home, playing the songs I’d written less than a year beforehand with world class musicians to a foreign crowd, felt amazing. Without diving too far into my endless well of self pity, I have always felt like an outsider, and I didn’t here.
The notion of a solo project is a weird one. “He’s gone solo” – it’s inherently self interested, using your own name as a label to present your ‘art’. In Art art, nobody thinks twice about signing their name at the bottom of whatever it is they’ve made, even in poetry… But with music nowadays the band is inherently cooler than the person. I think this may be down to the fact that the ‘solo artist’ / ‘singer songwriter’ label has been tainted by the influx of abysmal pop stars that splatter the charts nowadays; Ed Sheeran, Calvin Harris, Ariana Grande, George Ezra etc. A band name can be used to make an immediate statement against the self centred nature of selling yourself – ‘Black Flag’ ‘The Rolling Stones’ ‘Nomeansno’ etc. Sometimes I do think whether it might have been good to use a pseudonym or a band name, it means you’re able to create more, and make mistakes, without having to take direct responsibility for it…
At SXSW, the badge (as opposed to wristband) is king. It’s part of a tiered entry system, a money making scheme whereby if you have a music badge you get priority entrance to any music event, and skip ahead of all the lowly wristbanders, and even the artists themselves. The same goes for all of the Film and Tech events. There is a definite unspoken hierarchy in place in Austin during this week in March. Whole buildings are painted in the colours of tech giants, and plastered with logos and branding, and are out of bounds even to bearers of the most expensive ‘Platinum’ badges. Secret performances are held, cringe worthy DJ sets lapped up by millennial liggers and nervous coders. Entry is only granted if you are an employee of one of these giants. The ‘YouTube’ house, took up an entire chunk of the centre of town, guarded by two burly skinheads who may as well have laughed when I asked if I could come in. this type of stuff just adds to the strange exclusivity complex that exists there.
A nice contrast to this consumer hell is the story of the man who is responsible for one of the main homeless shelters in Austin. It’s a big building, and most importantly is situated just off 7th Street – prime real estate. The story goes that he bought this building some time ago, and it was to be used as the headquarters for some business or another, but was having altercations with the people at the town hall over planning permission. He detested the way these people worked, their boys club arrogance and their general attitude, so decided to donate the entire building to the homeless charity. It now offers shelter and hot food to some of the thousands of homeless people in the city.
Freya and I spent a lot of time back at Dave’s house. There is a Mexican supermarket called El Rancho next door, from which we stocked up on the most amazing salsas and Oaxaca cheese. I cooked and we watched David Lynch’s Dune with John.
Gig day rolled around and we all met up at the venue, The Velveeta Room, which is a beautiful old place, usually used for hosting comedy evenings and open mic nights. There were red curtains and ornate lamp shades above the stage. That gig was the first time everything had really come together, we were relaxed and the songs sang. The audience were lovely and suddenly being at the festival made sense.
After the show we met Jake from The Black Angels, and his girlfriend Jessica. They were heading to a bar called 13th Floor. We followed, and proceeded to indulge in yet another heady night of tequila and whiskey. It was after a couple of hours of this that Jake asked Freya and I if we’d like to play to the people in the bar. Of course we obliged, and played a stripped back set with Jeremy on bass. I love playing like that, with just an electric guitar, bass and vocals. All pangs of anxiety and homesickness had gone.
After the bar closed, there was talk of an after party at someone’s house. It’s all a bit blurry, but the next thing I remember was sitting on someone’s doorstep as it started to rain, contemplating whether or not to knock on the door. Jeremy had been there before us, and told us that someone had already come out and threatened him with violence if he didn’t get off the porch. Feeling slightly over confident I decided to knock on the window. This was a stupid idea. I had forgotten that we were in Texas, on a stranger’s property, and that whoever’s it was was well within their rights to use whatever means necessary to remove us. Anyway, after about half an hour, the guy eventually opened the door, and told us that there was no party. We got off lightly, called a taxi and headed back to the ranch.
The next day was the Panache Booking ‘Hangover Party’ at Beerland, one of the oldest and well renowned venues in Austin. I saw two amazing bands that day. One was called Baywaves, who’s bass player moved around the stage in a way I’d never seen before, and Surfbort. I can’t describe in words what Surfbort were, you’ll have to look them up, but their singer, Dani, was one of the most exciting musicians at the whole festival. They play old school LA punk rock – total chaos held together by a rawness and lust for life that was unrivalled by any of the other bands I saw that week.
We played our slot and got out of there. It was our last night, and I wanted to go out. John Dale (Dave’s brother) was there and suggested we check out this locals bar called the White Horse. that’s where things started to get weird…
Imagine every bar scene in every American movie you’ve ever seen. This was that place. Over in the corner on a slightly raised stage, dimly lit, were a country band playing to couples dancing the two step. Amongst these cowboy hatted aficionados was Bill Murray and a young girl. Freya and I danced for a song and then headed to the bar, where Jeremy, Sam, and Janine (a photographer who had been at the gig) and her friend were drinking.
I’d heard earlier on in the week about a bar called Justine’s, my friend Marie worked there, and had invited us but we had not been able to go. I had a good feeling about it. Marie and her friends were the most eclectic and interesting of all the people I met in Texas – they belonged to a separate world, a sort of Space Cowboy universe, full of acid and big boots, laced with that Texan politeness, a “thank you ma’am” type of thing.
We walked through a big green door hidden in a hedge on a rather unassuming street. A little corridor led us into a seated area where people were eating and drinking wine. It was one of those indoor/outdoor spaces that felt more like somewhere in Europe than the Lone Star state. There were fairy lights and candles everywhere. Inside a band was playing, full of the most incredible musicians, they were playing covers that nobody I know would even dare think about attempting. I felt like I had been transported back in time. It was just like a scene from one of those jazz clubs in On the Road.
This was it, the final night of our trip, America existed here in full technicolour glory. Every cliché you can think of bounced off the walls and landed at the bar. A trumpeter tore through the electric atmosphere as people from every corner of the world were talking loudly and dancing with each other.
As the evening went on, colours and faces started to blur into one another, the walls pulsated and I suddenly found myself able to understand the writing on the French film posters that were hanging up. Freya and I were happy, and totally lost. We had let go. When we came back inside, Bushwick Bill (from Geto Boys fame) was on stage. He had the most expansive vocabulary of insults I’ve ever heard. We turned around and there was Bill Murray again. Sam appeared and told us that he had just been given the finger by the man himself.
So, at 6am, suddenly realising we had a plane to catch, bags to pack, and a giant SUV to return to the rental company, we piled into the back of a taxi and high tailed it out of East Austin and onto the freeway. I felt like I was in the Millennium Falcon, the lights of cars and street lamps were beautiful. When we got back to the house, John was just waking up and was in the kitchen feeding the cat. As he lifted the fifteen kilogram bag of food to pour it into the cat bowl, the bottom gave way and hundred of thousands of pieces of cat food poured out and formed a pyramid on the linoleum. It was too much, Freya and I burst into laughter and fell, hopeless, to the floor.
Upon our recovery we headed upstairs and began frantically trying to get our stuff together. We had to get the guitars back to Gibson, pack, drop the car off and catch a flight. Simple enough, but the fact that we had had no sleep (and had left our minds at Justine’s) made it seem as if the task ahead was monumental, and totally unachievable. By some miracle I managed to arrange for the car to be picked up by the rental people, and spoke to Gibson to make sure that it was OK for Sam to drop the guitars off on his way to the airport two hours later. We were safe. We said our goodbyes and left in a hurry, without much of a goodbye.
We made it through security and into the gate, where we had Bloody Mary’s and chips at a conveniently placed bar where a man was playing gentle country music on an acoustic guitar… The flight from Austin to LA was surprisingly comfortable, I slept the whole trip. We found ourselves back in the dry heat of Los Angeles, and the comfort of LAX. Freya told me that she’d loved airports since she was a child, and that this was her favourite.
Meeting us there were Jeremy’s step mother, father and aunt. The Reynolds are lovely people from San Diego, this trip was the first time Jeremy had been able to get back to the States to see them since relocating to Whitstable from Brooklyn three years ago. We went to a Mexican restaurant near the airport and I ordered the fish enchiladas, Freya had a ‘veggie’ burrito. Each plate of food was enormous, and graciously received. Halfway through a bite it suddenly dawned on me that we were on our way back home. To Margate, through London, via East Kent where my parents live. England, that distant land of greenery and familiarity. Normality and memory. Family and friends…
After lunch, we boarded the American Airlines flight to London. We were surrounded by high school students who were taking a trip to Europe, they were loud and aggressive, and big. I was uncomfortable, but so tired that I managed to sleep a bit, waking up at regular intervals with pins and needles and a strange taste in my mouth. I had stuff to think about, I was playing a gig with Phobophobes in Guildford the next day and had to work out how I was going to get there, and whether it might be a good idea to stay in London after we arrived.
Two ‘o’ clock in the afternoon we were met by my Mum and Dad, back on home turf. Freya and I were both incredibly bemused and tired. I actually felt a strange panic, maybe it was anxiety, or just that I felt irritable from being up in the air for so long. I had been trying to reach Jamie and the guys in Phobophobes for a few hours now, amidst trying to make sure the car had been picked up, and the guitars dropped off, but had no response. I decided to send a message on my phone, and whilst typing I saw the three dots that appear when someone is typing a message to you. They were there literally for a second before this long paragraph of text appeared. It essentially said that they hoped I’d understand, but that the deputy drummer was going to finish off the rest of the tour, they hadn’t wanted to ruin my trip by letting me know beforehand. I was gutted. I’d planned my whole trip around making sure that I could get home for the shows, and was really looking forwards to getting back on the drums again.
Obviously, my being in Austin, doing my own thing whilst the band I’ve played in for the last four years set off on the first tour of their album release wasn’t a great way to demonstrate my dedication to them. However, the situation had been discussed at length and it was decided between everyone that it wouldn’t be too bad if I was only going to miss a few gigs, they understood how important it was for me to have another – creative – outlet. To cut a long story short, and avoid getting too upset, the band continued to play the rest of the gigs (including a sold out show at the 100 Club which we’d been working towards for months) with my drum kit and a different drummer. We met in London when they returned home, and they kicked me out.
All the paths I’ve taken have lead me to where I am now, away from London to the coast, via Los Angles and Austin, living with the person I’m in love with, singing songs. This trip marked the beginning of something extremely special. Freedom and happiness.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about our adventures over there – and haven’t got too bored in the process. I have returned with intense highs ringing in one ear, and crippling lows in the other. Lost friends behind me and new ones ahead. And for the first time in a long while, I feel excited about the future.