Austin Live Music Scene 101 with Dan Dyer and Suzanna Choffel
We introduced you to Austin musician Suzanna Choffel who shared her local tips and insider secrets for our Local Knowledge series. Now meet the amazingly soulful singer, hirsute and hunky Dan Dyer. These guys aren’t just friends, they also share a stage with their well-received side-project, the band The Coveters.
We sat down with Dan Dyer and Suzanna Choffel in the courtyard bar of the hip San Jose Hotel to discuss the Austin music scene and why it’s just so damn cool. We chatted about everything from why musicians come to Austin to when you should visit this fun, laidback town.
Q. Why do musicians gravitate to Austin?
A. Dan: I think there used to be a certain kind of musician who used to come here, one that wasn’t necessarily trying to ‘make it’. You knew Austin was a music town — especially in Texas and the surrounding states — you knew that you could come here and that there was a music scene here. It was never really associated with being successful. In terms of ‘stars’, there was always Willie (Nelson) and Stevie Ray (Vaughan). You had a lot of Stevie Ray wannabes move here. Over the least decade it’s changed, mainly because the industry has changed — ‘making it’ means something completely different these days because of the fragmentation of the industry. So now the kind of musician that comes to Austin is somebody who wants to make it, they wanna be a career musician, they don’t necessarily want to be a superstar. It’s a much more realistic approach to the music business.
Q. So you can carve out a career and earn a living with an Austin fan base?
A. Suzanna: Yeah, sure!
Dan: The odds are pretty much the same, but Austin gives you opportunities. There are a lot of places to play here. If you wanted to play every night you could — not everybody, but a certain level of musician can. It’s a great place to find your self musically, to hone your craft. There are lots of people doing the same thing. While it’s a competitive community it’s not hindered by the straight out competition like Nashville, where everyone wants to make it in the old sense of the word. Here people help each other out a lot.
Suzanna: There is a lot of collaboration here!
Dan: Here people write together, but in Nashville that’s almost the rule. There, you write together and try to get a song picked up and end up on a big album. That’s kinda cheesy here in Austin. We’re way too complacent!
Suzanna: We just like writing songs and playing them ourselves. Our egos are bigger!
Dan: We like playing gigs and going to the gigs of our friends. We help each other out. It’s still extremely tough and there’s a lot of people here, but it’s a good problem! There’s an incredible amount of players and songwriters… you almost have to choose your niche because there’s just not enough time to see it all.
Q. So many genres of music are getting played here, it’s mindblowing…
A. Suzanna: I hear that in New York it can be hard to play more than once a month but here it’s free for the taking — and some are literally ‘free’, meaning you’re not going to make much money off them, but it’s a good opportunity to build your fan base and get experience.
Dan: You don’t make a lot of money playing Austin, and while there are exceptions, you know that people can see you anytime. But people look to Austin and if they see your name in the Austin Chronicle, in Dallas or Huston, it means something.
In typical Austin style, we’re interrupted by the arrival of David Pulkingham who comes and says hello. David is a brilliant guitarist and fretman for local legend Alejandro Escovedo. David starts to play an acoustic set, adding a bit of background music to the interview…
Dan: See, that’s Austin for you!
Q. A lot of innovation is coming out of Austin in all fields. Why?
A. Suzanna: Austin is definitely a ‘yes’ town. There is a high level of optimism and positive thinking. Most of the people are open and friendly. Although there is some resistance to change from some of the older people, from condos being built to music venues changing, Austin is growing really fast and it’s a young town. There’s just a lot of creative fostering going on here.
Dan: Plus we’ve got the software industry here that’s made a real impact, and the film industry as well. But it’s South by South West (SxSW) that’s really made a difference, especially in the last few years. For a couple of weeks a year here I would argue we’re at the forefront of the music side of things, the film side of things, the interactive side… I think being around that kind of thing, where you have the leaders of these industries here, makes a big difference. They end up either moving here or forming relationships here. Being a musician here, you hear about a software company that’s gone through the roof and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to become a software entrepreneur, it just feels like things are happening here.
Q. How has SxSW changed Austin and how has SxSW changed?
A. Dan: SxSW has changed as the industry has changed. You used to play SxSW to get a deal — nobody I know cares about that anymore. There used to be a lot of pressure, and I know a lot of bands probably still carry those industry expectations, but to me it’s gotten better and more useful. Playing shows during SxSW, no matter where they are, you meet bands, booking agents and venue owners. It’s actually pretty overwhelming.
Suzanna: I’m going to spend more time looking at the interactive side of SxSW next year because musician friends I know got a lot of the connections they made out of that part of the festival. On the music side, as the industry has changed, you’re not really sitting there hoping for a scout to be there. I’ve had scouts at gigs and it’s great that one more person knows who you are, but it’s more booking agents, venue owners, and festival owners that make it worthwhile. It’s a crazy festival!
Dan: In recent years, though, with the recession, it’s become less of an industry festival and you’ve had more of a fan base there at the gigs. As the industry has transformed so has the festival. It’s just as much about fan interaction as a grand scheme to take over the world. It’s the best way to see bands. It’s very intimate, even though there are thousands of people here.
Q. How many shows do you play during the festival?
A. Dan: Eight last year, twelve the year before.
Dan: We’re at an advantage living here, figuring out what gigs to play, so we’re not going to play the corner gas station at 8am.
Suzanna: Well, unless they give you a twelve-pack of beer and a free tank of gas!
Dan: Actually last year I rigged up my bicycle and rode it. I can fit my keyboard, guitar, stands, and pedalboard on my bike!
Q. Music aside, what makes Austin special? Why should people visit?
A. Dan: I think Austin has a pretty unique mix of urban and natural landscapes. It’s a very active city. The Mexican culture here is something special. It’s a very laidback city, way more than Dallas or Houston, it’s just got that welcoming feeling. You’re not worried about getting mugged…
Suzanna: The other night I was walking Downtown and I had a backpack on with a lot of money in it…
Dan: She’d just robbed a bank.
Suzanna: (Laughs)…but I never felt unsafe and I was thinking maybe I should be a bit more aware. I did get mugged at knifepoint in Rio. That’s an extreme case. But in any big city you have to be a little bit on guard, but we’re just so relaxed and laidback here.
Q. Suzanna, so what makes Austin special to you?
A. Suzanna: Breakfast tacos! I have not been able to find those consistently anywhere else! Also the access to the green areas of the city. I grew up spoilt — my afternoons were spent taking my guitar down to the green belt. It’s almost like you’re camping! It’s not as isolated as it used to be, but it’s definitely very special.
I had a musician here from Denmark recently and I took her out on a Monday night. We went to Ming’s, a Chinese restaurant that has live music every Monday, to Momo’s, and then to the Gallery, and she was just amazed. Three places on a Monday night, all with a different vibe, crowds at all of them — and happy crowds! We do get a little spoilt here and think that’s the norm. It actually makes it hard to not go out — every night there is something calling you to go out!
Q. Are you worried that Austin is going to change?
A. Dan: You could argue that it already has. This used to be a college town. For instance, right now, in the summer, it used to be a ghost town. I could drive down the street in the middle of the day and have the whole road to myself.
Suzanna: It used to take five minutes to go anywhere in this town!
Dan: It’s going to have its problems like any growing town…
Suzanna: It is growing fast!
Dan: There are always people out there who are going to try to make money instead of taking a little bit longer to plan better and create something more appealing for forty years time rather than meeting the demand now. I think that’s going to bite us. We’ve made mistakes, but we’ve done pretty well. The youth culture here plays a big part in that.
Q. Favourite places to play? Are these the best places to see bands?
A. Dan: Momo’s is our main spot. The Saxon Pub. Continental Club, which is like two clubs in one. The Gallery upstairs at the Continental is free and tonight we’ll play from 11pm until 2am! The Continental Club has everything from classic country to rockabilly. If they were into indie music I’d send them to the Red River district.
Suzanna: Momo’s is great because it has great sound. It’s a great place to hang out. I’ve been there on different nights of the week with completely different crowds and it’s always laidback. The Continental Club is a bit more rockist. People go there to get drunk and dance — very wild! Saxon is interesting. It’s been around forever, it’s got great sound, and you see the same people every night that the barmen knows by name — they’ve been going there for twenty years! — it’s a cool vibe. It’s a South Austin kinda thing.
Dan: Cactus Cafe is great.
Suzanna: Cactus is where you go to see an intimate show, some wonderful folk singer-songwriters such as Townes Van Zant got their start there.
Q. Should people visit during SxSW or Austin City Limits Festival (ACL)?
A. Suzanna: ACL is not really an Austin festival to me. You look at the line up, it’s all bigger bands being flown in with maybe ten local bands playing on the small stages. I’ve gone and I’ve loved it but I’m not the kind of person who goes to a festival for two days. SxSW is very different. It’s a little more inclusive and you can choose where you go, but ACL you’re kinda trapped. But even with SxSW, if you don’t like big crowds, don’t come! You’ll see a very different kind of Austin during SxSW.
Q. Favourite record store in Austin?
Q. It’s good to see people still buying records here!
A. Dan: I’ve shifted to vinyl, man, I’m done. I’m done buying MP3s. I still have my iPod, I’m just not buying anymore.
Q. Where should musicians head for a great instrument?
Dan: There are a couple of places: South Austin Music, definitely a centre of the music industry, and so is Austin Vintage Guitars.
Suzanna: I go to Austin Vintage Guitars if I want an amp or a guitar.
Q. Best music souvenir from Austin?
A. Suzanna: Definitely a ‘Hi. How are you?’ t-shirt. It’s iconic. If you see someone in another city with one of those on, it’s like, cool, you’ve been to Austin!
Dan: I would say that or Austin City Limits, the TV show. You could actually go to a taping and see yourself on television when it’s on! “There! I am right there!”
Suzanna: That’s cool, that’s one of my most favourite musical memories of growing up in Austin, going to those tapings when I was young!
Dan: Musicians would like Collings Guitars.
Suzanna: Beautiful guitars!
Dan: They’re a highly-esteemed guitar maker, well-known for the quality of their guitar, but they don’t give anything away! International artists, if you see them playing one, they bought it!
As we wrap up the interview, the band the Tom Tom Club (consisting of Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz and his bassist wife Tina Weymouth) comes on in the background. Talk turns to Talking Heads leader David Byrne. Dan says, “You know, I saw David Byrne and his Brazilian back-up band here in this courtyard, with just about as many people here as there are now.” (About 30!)
Now that’s classic Austin.