International housing: Marriage, MTV, half-hearted defections and Taco Bell!
Was that Russian band serious about wanting to defect after a SXSW showcase? Or did they just want to stay in Austin for free as long as they could?
It was in the early ‘90s, soon after implementation of SXSW’s international housing program, where bands from overseas are put up in local homes at no cost. The Russians (nobody can remember the name) were matched with someone who gave up their space and privacy for a few days in exchange for a pair of wristbands. So, SXSW ended on Sunday and by about Tuesday the hosts realized the Russians were in no hurry to leave. The distraught couple called SXSW, which sent over a van to pick up the group and take them to a cheap motel near Ben White. The reasoning was that the band would get sick and bored at the fleabag and start heading to Florida, where they could get a flight back to Moscow. “The only problem was that the motel had MTV, which they had never seen before,” says Roland Swenson of SXSW. “They just sat in their room watching MTV all day, happy as shit.”
After SXSW stopped paying for the room, the band would try to hang out all day at SXSW, having announced their intention to defect. But nobody really took them seriously.
The Russians were stranded because they had spent all their money buying a van in Florida that broke down in Austin. When SXSW suggested the band sell their van for bus tickets to Florida, that’s what finally got them on their way. “We heard they were really insulted because (another Russian visitor) told them only the lower class rides buses in the U.S.,” Swenson says. Whatever, it did the trick, as the group got their van fixed and headed out.
There have been far more positive stories about the international housing setup, like when Casis Elementary teacher Celeste Hackney hosted a Danish band and ended up marrying the sound man and moving to Copenhagen. And there’s the time computer engineer Mitch Gottlieb put up a broke, unknown British rock band, then toured Europe with them after the Darkness became huge.
The housing program is not for the picky or deluded. “Two guys are going to have to sleep together, so if you have some macho problem, either get over it or get a hotel room,” reads part of the form e-mail that goes to prospective ocean-crossing lodgers.
The hosts aren’t responsible for food or transportation, but most pick up the bands at the airport, feed them and cart them around town to music stores, thrift shops, barbecue joints and Western wear shops. It’s fun to show off the cool parts of Austin, but sometimes you have to adjust quickly, as one host learned when he tried to take a band from Iceland to his favorite Tex-Mex restaurant. “Taco Bell!” they chanted until he succumbed.
Although the bands are sometimes stars in their home country, they are almost always unknown in the United States. Some bands just don’t get it. “One year a band had sent emissaries to check out the house ahead of time, to make sure the mattresses were firm enough and the place was clean, that sort of stuff,” SXSW international housing director Marilyn Faust recalled in 2006. “The host family was hurt. The manager was saying, ‘Do you know who this band is? They’re big stars,’ and so I said, ‘Then they can afford to stay in a hotel.’ ”
About 90% of the overseas acts at SXSW do just that.