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Trying to make it at SXSW

An Atlanta band, filmmaker, and entrepreneur hit up Austin's 2013 mega-conference. Was it worth it?

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Phil Jones, who founded Dog Bite and is the project's primary songwriter, cradles several guitar picks in his hands.
  • Max Blau
  • Phil Jones, who founded Dog Bite and is the project's primary songwriter, cradles several guitar picks in his hands.
SMALL STAKES: Dog Bite performs to a tiny crowd at the North Door during its official SXSW showcase, hosted by the band’s label, Carpark Records.
  • Max Blau
  • SMALL STAKES: Dog Bite performs to a tiny crowd at the North Door during its official SXSW showcase, hosted by the band’s label, Carpark Records.

SXSW Music: Dog Bite

Last year, former Washed Out keyboardist Phil Jones ventured out on his own to focus on his psych-folk project Dog Bite. Jones, a 23-year old, soft-spoken SCAD graduate, is trying to make a living as an artist. He's a drawer, painter, and sculptor, but music has become his primary focus as of late. The Atlanta guitarist and vocalist, who plays with a rotating cast of local musicians, garnered enough early attention to sign with indie label Carpark Records.

There were plenty of reasons for Dog Bite to be excited about SXSW. The band's full-length debut, Velvet Changes, had just been released. He and his current bandmates, bassist Woody Shortridge, drummer Tak Takemura, and guitarist Russell Owens, were coming off a successful, month-long North American tour opening for Toro y Moi and performing to sold-out, thousand-cap rooms almost every night.

Before the music conference, Jones had a single goal for the trip: "I hope people come out and dig the music that we're playing." Given Dog Bite's momentum, the band was primed to have a breakout SXSW.

But as with so many bands in Dog Bite's position, it simply didn't work out that way.

The band's trip got off to a shaky start when Jones learned that the first of its six SXSW performances was scheduled to take place a full day earlier than expected. As a result, a leisurely 22-hour drive from Los Angeles turned into a race against the clock. After hightailing their trusted white Volvo station wagon to downtown Austin, the Atlanta indie rockers arrived only an hour before their first show at Red 7. Jones forgot his guitar effects pedals, but the early afternoon showcase went on as planned. Several dozen people attended.

As the band registered at the Austin Convention Center, the musicians acknowledged it was a struggle to play dive bars and house parties after a definitive tour with their Carpark labelmates. SXSW also represented a role shift for Jones, a laid-back guy who now leads his own group without the help of a dedicated manager. It was a far cry from his SXSW experience last year with Washed Out, when he was just responsible for playing music. "With Washed Out, they would just hand me stuff," he says.

After a day off thanks to the schedule mix-up, Jones participated in an on-camera interview with SXSW in Iron Works BBQ's sweltering asphalt parking lot. He showed up slightly hungover for his lone media obligation, but managed to cruise through standard questions. Once the conversation ended, Jones, Shortridge, and Takemura headed to East Austin, where a trendy Los Angeles clothing company hooked them up with free apparel — a common practice at SXSW. They picked out free merchandise, including camouflage pants, sunglasses, and an oversized shirt that read: Sex, Drugs, and Rap. Jones also chilled with friends in other bands playing at SXSW, including Toro Y Moi, Sinkane, Wild Belle, and fellow Atlanta rockers Mood Rings.

IN AND OUT: Phil Jones (left) and guitarist Russell Owens load their equipment into the Spiderhouse Ballroom for the KVRXplosion, Dog Bite’s second SXSW performance.
  • Max Blau
  • IN AND OUT: Phil Jones (left) and guitarist Russell Owens load their equipment into the Spiderhouse Ballroom for the KVRXplosion, Dog Bite’s second SXSW performance.

The group's second gig was part of the KVRXplosion. The student-run University of Texas radio showcase was one of several shows located more than a mile away from SXSW's main drag. Inside the Spiderhouse Ballroom, a shiny disco ball twirled and cast light onto a couple dozen people. Jones strummed his guitar in an empty candlelit booth as the showcase ran behind schedule.

College students hustled Dog Bite through a short 10-minute soundcheck. Without introduction, the band dove straight into lush album opener "Forever, Until." A small audience slowly trickled in to catch the brief 20-minute performance. The band agreed that the show went better than the first.

Dog Bite's biggest issue with this show, and numerous others, wasn't the performances, which were impressive. The problem was that the gigs were harder to get to than the average showcase. Some required a bus ride — a killer at a conference with dozens of shows taking place at any given hour.

It's hard to blame Jones for not having a manager or booking agent given the costs associated with each. But having neither greatly diminished Dog Bite's impact, especially when so many other acts utilized industry professionals to capitalize on SXSW's opportunities. The lack of support also resulted in the band playing venues of varying quality. Some establishments had top-notch audio equipment, while others had shoddy audio rigs that didn't provide Jones with the heavy reverb he needed for his vocals. "There's usually an effects knob," said one volunteer audio engineer at a dingy living-room show.

There were silver linings for some performances. Dog Bite's official Carpark Records showcase drew 40 people, but more importantly it was live-streamed. More than 1,100 people checked out the band's Bust magazine house party performance online when only around five people watched in person.

Jones was able to meet face-to-face with Carpark Records' staff, including founder Todd Hyman. Dog Bite has already finished making a "heavier" sophomore record that Jones would like to see released in late 2013.

More than anything, the band appeared to have mentally checked out as each show passed. They were running on fumes toward the end of a hellish four-show, 24-hour stretch in Austin. Dog Bite did have a career-defining experience, only it happened on the road in the month leading up to SXSW rather than at the festival itself.

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