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The dA-Zed guide to Austin, Texas

As SXSW kicks off, we profile one of the most radical state capitals in the US one letter at a time

A is for Aisha Burns

Where they used to lay the foundation for other instruments, Aisha Burn’s slow-burn violin and viola  parts now serve as a launching pad for her haunting voice. Best known for her work playing strings with instrumental ensemble Balmorhea, Burns now creates her own twisting, ethereal arrangements under her own name. With multitracked vocals similar to those of Julianna Barwick, her first solo album Life in the Midwater, is one of the most arresting recent releases the city has seen.

B is for Butthole Surfers

Though possibly a cautionary tale, the Butthole Surfers story and aesthetic still ring true in the Austin music scene. While the venues they played in the 80s, like Liberty Lunch and Club Foot, are long gone, the band’s mix of rock, psychedelia, and noise has carried on as an antidote to the folk and country that has traditionally ruled the state. 

C is for Church of the Friendly Ghost

A local non-profit that serves as an incubator for experimental music and new media art in Austin, Church of the Friendly Ghost hosts performances by everyone from European free jazz greats to bedroom drone acts from down the street. Though Austin touts itself as the Live Music Capital of the World, it’s often difficult to find venues for outsider music, making COTFG a blessing for the musical fringe.

D is for Dazed and Confused

Considered by many to be the quintessential Austin movie, Dazed and Confused was local director Richard Linklater’s revealing of the city to the world. More commercially successful than his (perhaps more zeitgeist-capturing) Slacker, this film is filled with Austin institutions like high school football, moon tower keg parties, and Matthew McConaughey. Today, Linklater is deeply involved in developing the Austin film scene, which has recently produced indie pictures like Hannah Fidell’s A Teacher and Bob Byington’s upcoming Seven Chinese Brothers.

E is for End of an Ear

End of an Ear is the best in a city full of great record stores. Though they carry everything from classic Alice Coltrane to the new Alt-J on vinyl, Texas artists like Bill Callahan, Parquet Courts, and The Black Angels still tend to dominate their best seller charts.

F is for Farewell Books

Located on the increasingly hip East Side, Farewell Books is a hub for local artists and art enthusiasts. This is the place to find new and used design books, work from up-and-coming painters and photographers, and local zines like Raw Paw, Raspa, and Jonny Negron’s erotic Adapt.

G is for Golden Dawn

Psychedelic garage rock from the 60s, Golden Dawn released one album and quickly disappeared. 

Though long relegated to the shelves of obscure record collectors, the band will reunite this year for Austin Psych Fest, a three-day festival that includes classic acts like the Zombies alongside new-school psychedelia like Panda Bear and Oneohtrix Point Never.

H is for Holodeck Records

Founded in 2012 by members of several local bands, Holodeck Records has quickly made a name for itself releasing limited edition vinyl and cassette tapes. With a penchant for modular synths and drum machines, the label has released work by artists from Montreal and Los Angeles, but its core roster is home grown. The spooling tape loops of Smokey Emery, Troller’s blown-out take on house music, and the krautrock stylings of Thousand Foot Whale Claw all find a suitable home on Holodeck.

I is for Instrumental

Maybe it’s the scenic landscapes that surround the city, but Austin is home to more than its fair share of instrumental bands. Explosions in the Sky, with their soaring, cathartic passages of electric guitars, are probably the most well known, but Balmorhea (a brilliant marriage of folk and rock composition with more classical instruments like violin and cello) and My Education (driving rock meets drone) are sound arguments against the idea that Austin is just for singer/songwriters.

J is for Jess Williamson

With her new album Native State, Jess Williamson has created a thoroughly modern folk album. Minimal, throbbing banjo and electric guitar serve as the bed for Williamson’s Leonard Cohen-meets-Lorde confessionals. It’s easy to see her continuing in the footsteps of one-time Austin resident Joanna Newsom.

K is for Kinky Friedman

Part of Austin’s “cosmic cowboy” era in the early 70s, Kinky Friedman played his brand of progressive country music in local clubs like the Armadillo World Headquarters. Like Friedman, who penned songs such as “Ride ‘Em Jewboy,” “High on Jesus,” and “Asshole from El Paso,” Austin as a whole has a knack for supporting a counterculture that is able to pay homage to its Texas roots while keeping tongue planted firmly in cheek.

L is for Lee Dockery

Through a series of cassette releases, small-run CDs, and collaborative live performances, Lee Dockery has staked his claim as the ambient musician to watch in Austin. Dockery coaxes dark, spectral drones from his upright bass, layering bowed notes to create drifting ambient passages and manipulating electronic effects to create dark undercurrents.

M is for Mirror Travel

As Follow that Bird, this trio gained enough acclaim to support Austin stalwarts …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead on a recent US tour. After changing their name to Mirror Travel, they recorded their new self-titled album of fuzzy garage rock out in the desert of West Texas. They came back with a collection of songs that reflect the heat waves and empty landscape of that part of the state, but still pack the anthematic punch you’d expect from your favorite Best Coast single.

N is for New Sincerity

A term coined to describe Austin bands who were reacting to the irony and sarcasm of the punk scene, New Sincerity was a short movement in the late 1980s. The biggest artist of the bunch was Daniel Johnston, whose eccentric, endearing songwriting and artwork is still treasured today. Several bands in Austin are seen as current torchbearers of this movement, including Okkervil River who recorded a track with Johnston for their album Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See.

O is for Ola Podrida

David Wingo’s Ola Podrida project is lush indie rock with real emotional depth. The newest album, Ghosts Go Blind, expertly takes a somnambulistic journey through past regrets and experiences. Wingo also lends that understanding of mood to his work as a film composer. One of his newest pieces was an excellent collaboration with Explosions in the Sky for the soundtrack to David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche.

P is for Publications

Like the rest of the world, Austin has recently witnessed a resurgence in print publications. Leigh Patternson’s Synonym features photography, art, and interviews that match a issue-specific theme (recents include Ennui and Cliffhanger); Foxing Quarterly has become the main venue for local short fiction, poetry, and visual art; and black-and-white newsprint Rubberneck covers the underbelly of the Austin music scene with concert photography and record reviews.

Q is for Quality Floods

Fast-paced, fun-loving garage rock, Quality Floods hasn’t released an album yet, but a slew of heralded shows around town has put them on the local music radar.

R is for Raul’s

Though it closed in the early 80s, Raul’s still holds a place in Austin music history. The small club across the street from the University of Texas became the first place in town where punk and new wave music were welcome, making it a home for local acts like Big Boys and The Dicks and touring artists like Devo and Elvis Costello. Raul’s was even host to The Clash, who filmed their “Rock the Casbah” music video in town.

S is for Switched On

Local shop Switched On is a treasure trove of modular synthesizers, drum machines, and effects pedals. Stocked with everything from vintage ARPs and Fairlights to the newest from Moog and Dave Smith, the shop has helped usher in a new emphasis on synthesis in town. Bands like SURVIVE, Silent Diane, and Sleep ∞ Over are quietly gaining traction outside of Austin with their rippling synths and dark electronica.

T is for Thor Harris

It seems implausible that Thor Harris has played drums with so many great bands. While recording and touring with the likes of Devendra Banhart, Shearwater, Smog, and Swans, Harris also creates his own solo albums, works as a carpenter and plumber, and paints. Harris cemented his status as an Austin icon when he penned his widely circulated manifesto “How to Tour in a Band or Whatever.”

U is for Ume

Initially gaining a reputation for an over-the-top live show, Ume’s sound bridges the gap between math rock and the breathy cooing of Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon.

V is for The Visual Arts Center

An annex of the University of Texas, the Visual Art Center masterfully curates the high/low mix of art and culture that’s common in Austin. Beside big names like Laurie Anderson, you’ll find an exhibition from local artist Michael Sieben, whose illustrations have decorated skateboards and graced magazines like Thrasher for years.

W is for The White Horse

An East Austin honky-tonk where you’re likely to see both horses and fixed-gear bikes tied up outside, The White Horse is classic Austin. From night to night, you can learn to two-step with real live cowboys, listen to Mexican conjunto music, or see hip, up-and-coming folk rock bands. Shakey Graves, one act in particular that has made the most of this eclectic mix, channels roadhouse blues, outlaw country, and a little bit of punk rock energy.

X is for Pure X

Though their name conjures images of late nights and dark nightclubs, Pure X has recently been more comfortable with the languid, backyard psychedelia that seems to thrive in Austin. In the same way that artists like Kurt Vile and Real Estate can make anything sound like a sunny day, Pure X works through their issues right out in the open.

Y is for “You’re Gonna Miss Me”

Roky Erikson’s 13th Floor Elevators put both Austin and psychedelic rock on the map. “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” the first track they released, combined the bizarre sound of electric jug with Erikson’s signature howl and became an enduring classic of the garage rock genre. This song shares a name with a moving documentary that follows Erikson’s struggles with schizophrenia and eventual return to music with an album backed by local favorites Okkervil River.

Z is for The Zoltars

One last taste of garage rock, The Zoltars do the fuzzed-out slacker sound as well as anyone. Walking Through the Dark, their latest album on Austin’s CG Records, has cornered the market on dreary guitar hooks and disheartened harmonies — perfect for those few days a year here when it’s cloudy outside.