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4 April 2011

A short attention span essay about electric outfits, SXSW, odd futures & punk rock boys

Last week !!! played a semi-private show at New York University where they debuted this LED jacket, created by the creative and technically minded folks at Van Adams Technologies.

It was electric — as documented in these photos by David Andrako.

Hopefully there is more to come.

These last few months I’ve had the exciting opportunity to help the band re-imagine what their live show might be and to spark, perhaps, a renassiance for the group — 15 years into their career, and a few years after their closest thing to a “hit,” a song called “Heart of Hearts.” (A fan favorite in the US, it was something considerably bigger in Japan, the United Kingdom, and various other overseas territories.)

This re-imagining included !!!’s first ever appearance at SXSW. It was there that I couldn’t help but notice something…odd. The three !!! performances I attended down in Austin were painfully packed. Someone told me there were 7,000 audience members at a free-to-the-public-festival called Mess with Texas; at the band’s headlining set for Other Music’s lawn party, they followed UK buzz act James Blake and, from what I observed, had a bigger draw. Yet most of the media buzz on the event failed to mention them. Our peers in this weird fan-to-media coverage ratio include The Strokes, who drew 22,000 people to a stage near Lady Bird Lake in downtown Austin and, oddly, the Dead Milkmen whose set at Mess with Texas were completely packed with ardent fans, many of whom could sing along to every line of their decades-old novelty hits like “Bitchin’ Camaro” and “Punk Rock Girl.”

Directly across the way from the Dead Milkmen, another group with a completely inverted ratio of fan-interest-to-media-buzz played one of their half-dozen sets at the festival. This was the acknowledged buzz act of the festival, a not-as-different-as-one-might-imagine group called Odd Future. (Like !!!, the Strokes & the Dead Milkmen there is something deeply punk about what Odd Future are doing — but more about that later.)

Communicating to the world, at first, through a Tumblr blog; mentioned by Kanye West in a tweet to his two million plus followers; Odd Future are known as a group which defines the speed of hype in the social media era. Even I’ve blogged about them previously. They’re no doubt worthy of all this interest as proven by SXSW clips like this one.

But here’s the weird part: Most of the videography and writing I could find about the Strokes, !!! and Dead Milkmen was by…fans. An appropriate thing for this age of social media. But Odd Future, a group supposedly propelled by organic fan-to-fan social media comment, seemed to be the only thing the most mainstream of outlets like the New York Times found worth of coverage.

Viz this and this, the paper’s two main posts on the festival.

It’s probably stupid to opine in too much depth about Odd Future having missed all of their shows in Austin, but after watching a dozen more clips of the group online, I’m comfortable in observing they have two major assets going for them, neither of which is particular to hip-hop, the internet or even, for that matter, the 21st century:

(1) A great frontman and I mean fucking great — like Ian or Henry back in the hardcore days great. The longer they’re around in fact, the more this seems less like a hip-hop story than a rebirth of hardcore. (The clip above is from a Thrasher Magazine party, natch.)

(2) Way more connections to the music industry than is being let on in their back story. People started telling me about this group in September; I know some hip-hop heads were into them much earlier than that. But a gestation period under twelve months suggests a certain…connectedness. Knowing what I know of the music industry, P. Diddy and Mos Def wouldn’t have both shown up on stage with the band by SXSW without careful negotiations by whoever Odd Future’s handlers are. You also don’t sign simultaneous deals with XL and Fat Possum without a fair number of lawyers involved. And the rise of Frank Ocean — “a 23-year-old New Orleans-born, Beverly Hills-based singer” — as part of the “Odd Future crew” struck me as, well, odd. As did this Billboard cover story on the group which followed.

In other worse, this band’s “viral” rise just seems way too well stage managed. In other words, what I’m not sure Odd Future has yet is a real paying audience. At this point, they are way more of a media story than a story of fans liking the band.

Are Odd Future going to sell more copies of their next few records than Dead Milkmen? Yep. But please be aware that chatter does not equal long-term audience interest, or any of the things that actually make a band viable besides the booking of an occasional appearance on late night TV. Or, well, obscure Canadian webisodes like this one in which the group comes off looking less like the future, and more like…well…the next in a long line of overhyped lambs led to the media slaughter.

Above: Odd Future’s Tyler, the Creator baffled by Canadian celebrity interviewer Nardwuar the Human Serviette.

I, for one, wish them luck.

They’ll need it.

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

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