BEFORE THEY MAKE IT TO TEXAS to join the thousands upon thousands of musical acts begging for a sliver of the spotlight at SXSW, Monarques really need to get out of the Residence Inn in Boise, Idaho. A seven-member band is a logistical disaster on countless levels—stages are cramped, finances are stretched thin, and their tour vehicle (the dashboard prayer candles are a dead giveaway that it's on loan from Y La Bamba) resembles a mobile version of Hoarders. In a band this size, with a budget this small, claustrophobia is simply not an option.
Included in this constant sense of overcrowding is the current issue at hand: hotel room capacity. Seven musicians sardined into a single room is, in fact, quite possible. But when a poorly timed power outage occurs in the early morning hours, a repairman comes knocking, and the band members quickly scatter—a pair hide in the closet, two more in the locked bathroom, anything to make it appear that a small clan of humans didn't just sneak into this tiny room and violate Residence Inn policy (this, despite the room's permeating musk of "band").
Welcome to the world of a large-in-number, small-in-stature band trying to break through at SXSW.
Monarques have no record label, no manager, and no guiding hand to assist in the logistic and financial hassle of traversing across half the country in order to play one official SXSW show (plus one house party and a coffee shop). Financially, it's a horrible decision, the kind that decimates credit scores and makes one question the sheer level of sacrifice it takes to be a musician. But it's a sacrifice shared by nearly all of the 2,000-plus official SXSW bands, and each and every one of the countless other acts that show up uninvited to Austin, hoping to latch on to various unofficial parties that seize the Texas capital every March. For every Pepsi-sponsored Snoop Dogg performance or "secret" Kanye West show in an abandoned power plant, there are bands playing in a van parked by Wendy's, or just a handful of desperate musicians busking amid the tide of people on the street.
Here, platinum acts like Cee Lo Green and Foo Fighters perform adjacent to baby bands, all of which attempt to draw attention to themselves from the 35,000-some official attendees. As festivals go, it's a monumental success. Last year's SXSW—including its film and interactive segments—generated $113 million for the local economy, but the true number is likely to be far greater when you consider the countless events that occur off the grid. In addition to lining the pockets of the City of Austin, a well-received SXSW performance can vault a previously obscure band into the mainstream, turning a hobby into a profession, a modest—yet irrefutably difficult—dream for so many musical acts.
The current incarnation of Monarques includes Josh Spacek, Chrissy Busacca, Richard Bennett, Michael Slavin, Talia Gordon, plus touring members Matthan Minster and Niko Kwiatkowski. The majority of them have earned their stripes in countless Portland bands, yet none quite as promising as Monarques. While their name recognition tapers off outside Portland city limits, Monarques have crafted an undeniably great style of music that channels the Enchantment Under the Sea innocence of a 1950s prom, complete with an energetic, hook-heavy vintage rock sound that could fog up Buddy Holly's glasses. Using the digital lemonade stand that is Kickstarter, the group had little difficulty raising $1,745 (with only 30 backers, meaning the average donation was impressively over $58) using a clever campaign where the entire band would reward top-tiered benefactors with dinner and a romantic sunset. These funds have been allocated to record their debut full-length. In the meantime Monarques' lone recording, a self-titled and self-released EP, captures the still-evolving band on the cusp of a sound that has a vast and limitless appeal. Proof of this was evident on their first trip to Eastern Oregon.
On a deserted avenue in Pendleton, Oregon—where the only scenery missing from this flat rodeo town is a lonesome tumbleweed dancing down the vacant streets—Monarques opened a two-week tour booked solely around SXSW. This show is at Pendleton's finest, and only, de facto venue, where a mostly older crowd shuffles in—the rumor being that the town's younger populace has yet to come to terms with a $5 cover. The band was flown to New Jersey last April to compete in A Prairie Home Companion music competition, a fact that delights the audience.
A show that looks dismal at first—a tiny stage, panini sandwiches on each table, a middle-aged woman named Patti who is tying one on for her birthday—is quickly hijacked by Monarques. Chairs are quite literally kicked out, the dance floor swells (in a middle-aged, white, Eastern Oregon way, but still), and the band ends up moving more merchandise than they did the previous night headlining a show at Mississippi Studios.
"We usually lose money on tour, we're okay with it at this point," says Spacek. "It can't last for much longer, we can't keep doing this, but everybody wanted to go, so the sacrifice is fine." When discussing the band's initial visit into the madness and clutter of SXSW, he explains, "I don't have any great expectations. I think it's going to be fun. I know there are some people that I'm going to meet up with while I'm down there, some label people, which is cool. It's just nice that they're going to be there and we're going to be there." He adds, "I have no idea what to expect."
It's true, there is no primer for what SXSW can offer a band. There is the deafening hype of certain acts that are carried from the festival atop the shoulders of critics and the like, but for every one of them, there are the deflated expectations of hundreds of bands ignored by the blunt reality of a festival that is more crowded, and corporate, than ever. For many bands, the island mentality of SXSW can be woefully misleading, a fool's gold approach to networking in a digital age where such festivals do little to change anyone's current surroundings. Yet this year, Portland acts Typhoon and Holcombe Waller both generated a sizable amount of national press, most notably the latter, who wasn't even booked for the festival but used guerilla hotel room shows to garner fawning accolades in the New York Times.
Following harrowing drives through the snow-covered Blue Mountains, the state of Utah, and into the Southwest, Monarques arrive in Austin a few days later without a place to stay, driving the 10-plus hours straight following a house show in Las Cruces, New Mexico. "There were 10 people there," says Spacek of the performance. "Actually, 10 enthusiastic people. They all danced and then we all did YouTube karaoke together." After a few days of getting acclimated, Monarques' official SXSW show might have been the polar opposite of their tour kickoff in Pendleton. The sheer magnitude of the festival turns every set of four walls into a venue, this being the case with their home for the night, the restaurant-cum-sports bar TenOak. The band performed in a back room tucked behind a crowd glued to televised college basketball game, equally as oblivious to the frat boys in Longhorn burnt orange as they were to the band. Monarques' sprightly set worked wonders on those there for the music, including the aforementioned record label employees Spacek spoke of earlier in the week.
Minutes after performing, and still damp with sweat, Spacek sums up the experience: "It's insane. We've never been to anything like this before." He continues, while simultaneously dodging the next band loading in their equipment, "There were definitely people here we wanted to see that we couldn't see any other way. It's totally been worth it."