In a suburban area of downtown Austin, the Red Bull Moontower stage glows luminously among the bungalows and car lots like a recently landed UFO. Punters, drawn by the eerie throbbing light and otherworldly hum, gather mesmerized. They stand waiting, seemingly caught between hope and fear, watching to see if alien beings will materialise from the swirling smoke that has engulfed the neighbourhood. When a figure does appear from the backstage airlock, there is a moment when its terrestrial credentials are brought into question. But once the fog of dry ice blows away, it soon becomes clear it’s a human of sorts. “Alright Austin, Texas,” croaks the being. “We’re The Cheek and my voice is fucked.”
Backtrack five days and East Anglian pop-punk scamps The Cheek arrive in Texas for the South by Southwest festival already suffering from a substantial sleep deficit and a raging collective hangover. The Southbridge five-piece barely have 24 hours to adjust to Austin after the craziness of Tokyo and a tantalizingly short, surreal stopover on home soil. Wednesday is their first full day and they have two shows to play in this wholly new and intensely weird environment.
Austin’s Lower East side is swarming with the full gamut of human life. Indie kids and rock fans stand out from the super-sized families with big gulps like the skyscrapers rising from the banks of the Colorado River while platinum blonde cheerleaders totter between them all in slinky summer dresses and stilettos. Now in its 22nd year, SXSW has grown from a cosmic cowboy and blues festival into the lovechild of a weekend at Glastonbury and a night out in Manchester’s clubland.
In the packed streets, the air is filled with the soundclashes of a hundred bands playing side by side and the excited chatter of crowds filling the cramped sweatbox bars and jostling for views at the open windows. The sickly-sweet smell of cheap liquor and fast food vendors hangs over everything, caught in the blanket of Texas humidity. On a curb outside BD Riley’s, one of the many Irish pubs on East Sixth, The Cheek look like a bunch of students who have partied way too hard way too early. Heads down in that time honoured pre-puking fashion and with charity-shop shirts drenched in poisonous sweat, the band look to be struggling to keep their dinner down and their spirits up. The time zones have not been kind.
“Just before we left for the first gig, the jet lag really kicked in,” says Thom Hobson, the band’s laconic bass player, by way of explanation for the state they’re in. “Somehow we got up for it. Now we have to do it again, only an hour later.” The band’s previous performance, a short set at an industry party a little down the street, was plagued by PA problems and a threadbare crowd more interested in the glowing screens of their Blackberrys. Now The Cheek need to dig deep for their SXSW showcase show. Asked where he’s going to find the energy to perform, Thom replies as if faced with the most obvious question in the world: “From the music, man.”
The music certainly seems to energize the band. Ripping into opener Just One Night, the pavement casualties of a mere few minutes before are transformed into a quintet of spasming lunatics. Eyes popping, faces contorted, and throwing punky shapes, The Cheek are different animals on stage, albeit on one which is about the size of a card table. Somehow the show passes without any injuries sustained despite the close proximity to flailing, stabbing guitars and the epileptic dancing of lead singer Rory Cottam. The crowd in BD Riley’s and in the street outside soon grows in size and enthusiasm, attracted by the wired eccentricity and choppy riffing which made heroes out of a long list of British weirdoes, from XTC to Blur. When Rory climbs into the open window and gyrates his rubbery frame for the passers-by during set closer Slow Kids, it’s clear that The Cheek have studied their rock traditions long and hard. Nothing pleases an expectant crowd more than the promise of an adventurous front man coming a cropper right in front of them. The singer survives unscathed but the combustible and irresponsible nature of the final song’s theatrics makes sure The Cheek make an impact, even if Rory doesn’t.
In the breathless aftermath, the Cheek spill out onto the street outside again, amped on the energy of the performance and the vibe from the appreciative crowd. The buzz will last long into the night, taking them to bars and gigs throughout the downtown area. The jet lag can wait to mount its next assault. The Cheek are in town and eager to experience what Austin has to offer.
Back at the Red Bull House, the band’s rented pad they’re sharing with up-and-coming London dubstep/grime star Goldielocks, The Cheek listlessly pour out of one piece of garden furniture into another in an unconscious game of musical chairs under the relentless morning sun. It’s their first day off and no one seems to know what to do with themselves or where to do it. The conversation is bizarre and fragmented as befits a group of sleep-starved minds. It ranges from a short debate on the future of the red panda as the rock animal accessory – “Monkeys are so 80s,” says Ali Bartlett, The Cheek’s thoughtful drummer – to whether half-naked wrestling in ski masks would make for a good photo shoot.
South by Southwest is The Cheek’s first taste of the US as a band. Despite enduring stereotypes about America back in the UK, they’re keen to point out they arrived with open minds.
“It didn’t seem fair to come with preconceptions,” says Christian Daniels, the lead guitarist. “I prefer to make my mind up after experiencing something.”
“I always wondered if the US would be like in the movies,” adds Ali. “And you know what? It totally is.”
In contrast to the ruffled, borderline psychosis of the band, Goldielocks reclines in the shade of a benevolent birch as if she’s the guest of honour on a Greek shipping magnate’s yacht. Decked out in summer dress, trilby and gargantuan shades, she seems unaffected by either travel or the prospect of her first Stateside shows proper. “I played in New York before,” she drawls, her London twang halting the incessant chirping of curious birds. “But these are my first real US gigs.” As well as her SXSW showcase and her 2 am slot on Saturday’s Moontower stage, Goldielocks will be performing a DJ set. “I’ve only brought four CDs,” she adds nonchalantly, unfazed by the prospect. “It’ll have to do, I s’pose.”
Soon everyone finds the energy to party again, although it helps that it’s in the comfort of their own home-from-home with an energizing array of local celebs and international faces in attendance. The likes of Lady Sovereign and Daisy Lowe rub shoulders with the geezer who runs the strip show just off Highway 71 and a guy who looks like a Hells Angel who has taken a wrong turn. The humid dusk and subsequent sweaty darkness is filled with a multitude of accents and laughter as spirits rise and inhibitions are cast aside. While the diverse guest list kicks-back, The Cheek still have work to do. Huddled together in the downstairs living room, the band perform an edited reprise of their BD Riley’s set with an encore of Twist and Shout to finish, playing with as much heart as if the cramped confines were the stage at Madison Square Garden while party-goers weave through the wires and amps on their way to the bar. Outside Lady Sovereign conducts a football master class while various random assailants physically assault a clown-shaped piñata with an ineffective plastic baseball bat.
Friday’s scheduled visit to a shooting range to experience another part of traditional Texan life – the handling and firing of assorted weaponry – is intelligently postponed until the following day given the number of shaky hands in the camp after the previous night’s hi-jinx. Stories of paddling pool wrestling and the effects of questionably cooked meat slosh between the self-afflicted as the tour bus drives everyone to a thrift store the size of a supermarket. The shopping is lethargic and is soon called-off in favour of sustenance. Goldielocks heads off to prepare for her first show of the day while everyone else votes for time to recover before catching her live.
The gig at Beauty Bar, a venue designed like a 50’s hair salon, goes well. “That wasn’t a true representation of a US crowd so I’m not going to say I rocked America but they were into it,” says Goldielocks on her performance. “Southern hip-hop is pretty bassy, like grime and dubstep, so I think they get it here.” Asked whether the prevalence of industry faces at SXSW gigs makes a difference to her shows, she answers in typically laidback fashion. “I’m playing for the fans, not the suits. It’s just fun to do. Maybe I’ll meet other artists who I can collaborate with but my main focus is just performing.”
Later that night, three fifths of the Cheek roll up at the Billboard Magazine showcase event to watch an exclusive acoustic set by Graham Coxon. After an intimate half hour in the company of the Blur guitarist and seven of his new songs, Rory and Thom are awestruck. “How ridiculously good was that?” asks the singer rhetorically.
“Abso-fucking-lutely amazing,” adds the bass player.
As Friday becomes Saturday, the entire Cheek, along with Goldielocks and the rest of the entourage roll up to the Lady Sovereign gig at Club de Ville on Red River. It’s another long, chaotic night which includes a prolonged period of crowd-surfing and stage invasion by Thom at the Black Lips show and ends with brave but futile attempts to ward of sleep and the sunrise back at Red Bull Central. Fatigue and the rotation of the earth finally win. Despite everyone’s best efforts, they always do.
The huge sign above Red’s Shooting Range is just one of many billboards crammed on the side of the dusty slip road off the main highway. Diners, fast food joints and, more bizarrely, motor boat showrooms and dentists vie for attention in this one of a thousand out-of-town commercial enclaves. No-one would notice this pre-fabricated one storey warehouse of sun-scorched brick were it not for the intermittent echoing crack of discharging handguns coming from inside. But this is another world for The Cheek and Goldielocks. This is where New Britain meets Old Texas. Racks of shotguns fill the walls alongside displays of military grade semi-automatic weapons. Sizeable bullets which would not look out of place in a sex shop stand proudly erect; potent symbols of potential death and damage. The gung-ho attitude the majority of the group had before arrival quickly dissipates as British and American ideas about guns meet head-on.
After a short moral debate which divides the group, those who choose to shoot receive a quick tutorial and shuffle through to a cramped corridor to wait for a free firing alley. Bear-like locals in trucker caps and plaid shirts blaze away at distant targets with a variety of pistols while a denim-clad couple enjoy a date with matching rifles. Outside in the pot-holed parking lot, guitarist and vocalist Charlie Dobney and drummer Ali Bartlett contemplate life, but mostly death, and the reality of gun ownership in the US. Neither is comfortable with the now obvious connection between weaponry and mortality.
Soon they’re joined by the other members of The Cheek who filter out with their preconceptions and excitement in pieces as if blown away by a booming 12-gauge. Not one of them has converted their pre-trip enthusiasm into a confirmed love of guns. Goldielocks has also refused to shoot and the overall atmosphere outside Red’s takes on a dark and disturbed hue under the blinding glare of the Texan sun.
Half and hour before their set at the Moontower, The Cheek are showing more than a little wear-and-tear. An ailing Charlie wraps himself in an unflattering, oversized hoodie and takes another chug on a bottle of cough medicine. This isn’t some pharmaceutically-charged act of rock’n’roll hedonism. Charlie, like the rest of The Cheek, is paying the price of excess. “I feel well dodgy,” the guitarist growls from under a cloud of tour flu. He looks it too. The band have been fighting off the inevitable for most of the past week but now the inevitable seems to have the upper hand. Saturday is their big night but one look at the clearly-ill guitarist and one has to wonder whether or not they’re even going to make it on stage.
Given everything which has gone before – the partying, the gigging, the constant culture shock – it’s no surprise that The Cheek look more ready to drop than to rock before performing at the Moontower. But just as before, when they were still on Tokyo time in an Irish pub in an Austin street some five days ago, the band dig deep to give a typically frenetic show. Under a thick shroud of darkness sporadically punctured by psychedelic search lights, The Cheek puff through the first couple of songs but find their sea legs on the hook-heavy You Let Me Go. As if to give them further encouragement, the two video screens mounted either side of the crowd start beaming images of The Cheek in action to the wider world. The band responds to this closer inspection with increased effort and by the time the insane plea of Give Me You Hand rolls out over the audience, the boys are at full tilt. Despite his opening profane apology, Charlie’s voice holds out to the end, and the lads push themselves to another finale of full-on physicality before bidding Austin goodnight.
By the time Goldielocks brings a taste of Croydon attitude to proceedings in the early hours, the crowd is wired and inspired. Buffering the audience with waves of earth-tremor bass and sassy rhymes, she soon has a sea of hands in front of her. A triumph is on the cards until The Man intervenes. The venue is surrounded by surly looking cops and a fleet of cruisers as an announcement of closure rings out from the stage. The music is stopped but the party continues; no-one is ready to leave and the call for an orderly dispersal is ignored. After sticking around with the majority of the resilient crowd until the sun dares to rise over the tense scene, the British contingent eventually ride the Moontower buzz all the way home.
“This has been a great festival,” says Christian, gripping hard on the last remnants of his determination. “You walk around with your head down and this could be Reading or Glastonbury but when you look up, there are all these skyscrapers and this sprawling city. It’s totally rad…just an awesome experience.”
“Just having all these bands in all these venues…it’s mind-blowing,” adds Thom from under a towering fishing cap which would make Elmer Fudd blush. “This is probably the best place to have an urban festival. It’s been a blast.”
With that, The Cheek and friends forget their ailments and party on. The previously at-death’s-door Charlie even gets the girl in a real Hollywood ending. That’s the healing power of music for you.
First Published in The Red Bulletin