Ambiance. Credit: Josh Nee

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Hand Grenade Job was on tour in the great American south and northeast over the past two months. Over the course of the tour, HGJ’s Beck Levy chronicled her experiences on the road. After the first leg of the tour concluded, Beck came home for a short break before heading back on the road. Read previous entries herehereherehereherehere, and here.

March 18, 2017: Austin, Texas, day off at SXSW

I drive from Dallas to Austin with Bryan riding shotgun. He flips through my CDs and notes that it’s a roughly 50/50 mixture of metalcore and lesbian folk. We get a late start because of our need to patronize the vegan diner again, but it’s okay, when we get to Austin, the rest of Thou is walking down the street to the house. The house is the first of three Thou shows that day, it’s the Community Records showcase. I hang out in the backyard for a little while, taking advantage of the free water and shade, but I’m hellbent on swimming in the river. Barton Springs is one of the best things about Austin.

I meet up with Rachel at a swimming hole. The water is icy cold. The rocks are slimey. The shore is muddy. My feet are starting to blister. It’s almost as though platform jellies are not the ideal hiking footwear. After about half an hour, Rachel leaves for work and I walk back to my car.

SXSW-induced tears. Credit: Joe Steinhardt

I’m hot, dirty, dehydrated, and my mind is starting to fail. Instead of evaluating my needs and options, and making a plan based on those, my thoughts ricochet against my physical distress, not reaching any conclusions, resisting stillness. After sitting in my hot car for too long, I realize my first priority should be getting some water. I find a bodega and do a good job pretending to be a functional human right up until when I physically fall apart, my ankle folding underneath my foot, and I topple onto the floor. I buy water, Limon Pepino Gatorade, and wait until I’m back in my mobile oven before I start emotionally falling apart too. The sobs come before the tears. I believe the term is “ugly crying” but thanks to the Botox my face doesn’t move much, so it’s more like “impassive-mask crying.” My heart is racing, my body feels too-light and tingly. I don’t feel like a person or even like the owner/inhabitant of a body. As usual, it takes a while before I even identify that I’m having a panic attack. I put a Propranolol under my tongue and let it dissolve. It’s a preventative medication—not that effective after the onset of panic or anxiety. But thanks to the hypervigilant medical climate, I don’t have benzos, which (as everyone who has panic disorders knows) is what I actually need when I’m having a panic attack.

I’m trying to put as much cold Gatorade in my body as possible. It’s the most soothing flavor. I breathe in and out. I decide what would be best for me is to go someplace dark, quiet, and cool, for an indefinite amount of time. But thanks to the tyranny of dissociation, I do the absolute opposite instead.

First I go to the Monofonus showcase to meet up with Joe Steinhardt. I’m still openly crying, with my makeup running down my face. I am an unabashed public cryer. Being a long-term human test subject can deaden your self-consciousness about having strangers witness your despair, plus, I don’t care what anyone thinks of me. Monofonus is an outdoor stage surrounded by artsy trailers. It has the vibe of a large family barbeque: kids hang out by picnic tables.

The band currently playing sounds like a chorus of opera singers over a lounge band covering Frank Zappa. I hate it so much that it makes me cry harder. In deference to my anguish, Joe walks away with me and we sit on the porch steps of a house on the property. He starts talking about Iron Man 3, free jazz, and His Hero Is Gone—topics he will circle back to over the course of the day. I want to be distracted, but I’m actually just overstimulated, and it will only get worse. I’m happy to run into Marie Butcher of Soft Healer at Monofunus, but I can’t really deal with being there, so we walk around the neighborhood.

Beck and Joe Steinhardt. Credit: Marie Butcher

It turns out I hate doing that too, and the powerful depersonalization of anxiety firmly takes the wheel for the rest of the day. My sense of self is a vapor; a fine mist on my clammy, unfeeling skin. My body is a machine of agony. It drives me and Joe to the edge of the SXSW madness, two miles outside of downtown. We walk downtown in search of the van that contains Joe’s backpack. He’s talking about something that I think might be Deep Listening, but when I offer that analysis he says not quite. Then he’s talking about Iron Man 3 again. My blistered feet keep moving. We sit on a curb in the disgusting epicenter of this blasphemous corporate hellswamp of a fest, surrounded by vomit, trash, street teams, people who think they are music fans, and bands who think “making it” is a thing.

All of a sudden I realize I can get up and leave. I haven’t eaten since early that morning. I say goodbye and walk off with the goal of finding a taco truck. Thou is playing with Pig Destroyer and Power Trip at a CLRVYNT showcase across town, so I set off in that direction. I’d accidentally left my favorite shirt at their first show of the day, and because the anxious mind latches onto goals arbitrarily, I’m fixated on getting it back right away. I don’t succeed in finding food on the way to the venue. Bryan meets me outside and gets me affixed with a bracelet for entry.

My quest for food and T-shirt temporarily forgotten, I stand right up front to watch Thou play, separated from the stage by a metal barricade and a flock of photographers. Most of the other people right up front are also brandishing cameras. I look to my left and there’s a guy with a big pad of paper sketching the band as they play. “CLRVYNT” is projected on the wall to the right of the stage. The stage itself is lit up in red and the flashing lights of the photography calvary. In the middle of songs, sound techs rush the stage with the urgency of battlefield doctors, adjusting mics, reupping gaffer tape.

And the laminates… oh God… the laminates.

This is the only official SXSW show I’ll attend. Being at SXSW gives me a visceral sense of unease. The environment is carefully constructed, self-conscious, every audience member communicating specifics about their identity with their look and their attendance, every detail curated to elevate a brand. The exchange between performer and audience is hypermediated by this… and all the elements blend together: curated identities becoming art becoming brand.

Pills for living. Credit: Lindsay Eyth

To some extent these observations are true of many events, concerts, shows, and cultural products. There’s no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism, so is it meaningful for any one individual to participate or opt out of these things? I don’t think so. But I’m still vegan—so don’t I think so?

I pay $10 for an extremely small quantity of beet tater tots. I drink three cups of water. Someone working for the venue tries to take the third cup right out of my hand and throw it away. My cue to leave. My friend Lindsay Eyth has been peddling her wares to SXSW attendees at her retail trailer The Mall all day. We find each other. Somehow, she smells fresh and her makeup is perfect. In contrast, I am a sentient festering blister. We walk miles back to the approximate location of my car, and then another several miles around that area until finally locating it. I fantasize, out loud, about getting a saline infusion, and try to hail an ambulance like a taxi.

By the time we get back to Lindsay’s house I feel drunk on discomfort, high on despair. I have accrued three wristbands. They’re like the rings on a tree.

Makeup master.

March 19, 2017: Austin, Texas at Shirley’s Temple, The Louisiana Metal Showcase with Thou, and Many More Bands

We sleep late then try to eat as many different kinds of cake as possible. After the third piece of cake, my constant pain flares up and I can’t function. I take a medicated nap on Lindsay’s bed, an ice pack under my neck.

Tonight’s show is a showcase of 6-plus bands where I will be the only woman performing, as well as the only non-Louisianan and the only non-metal band. Thus, I have decided to elevate my normal level of feminine presentation. I don a pink-striped bodysuit and roll up the waistband of my shorts for maximum undercheek. Pink eyeshadow, pink lipstick, generous glitter, luminous highlighter. The ever-present jellies. When we roll up to the gig, Lindsay and I stick out right away. When I try to load in, the guy at the door doesn’t assume I’m in a band, despite the gear in my hands. Lindsay and I chill at my car—a tiny feminine paradise of cake, makeup, and selfies—and we watch the sunset.

There are two dudes wearing cowboy hats at this show. One dude in a “parental advisory” shirt. And one dude who, I could tell from the most cursory glance, was going to get really drunk and harass anyone in his vicinity (he turned out to be friends with cowboy hat #1).

The show is at a warehouse space, and outside at Thou’s van, I ask if it’s the same one we played together almost a decade ago. They said no, but it reminded them of it too. That spot was bigger and had an indoor half pipe. We played a late late show with Pygmy Lush, Cult Ritual, and a bunch of other bands. I don’t think we played until, like, 2 a.m., and we weren’t out of there ’till about 4 a.m.

“Heavy Metal Parking Cake”

Our show the next day was in New Orleans, 8 hours away, and it was a matinee. So we drove overnight in a loose caravan, all three of our bands (Turboslut, Thou, and Pygmy Lush). We made it to New Orleans, but Pygmy Lush didn’t. An hour after the matinee show started, I checked my flip phone voicemail and found a message from Mike about how all of Pygmy Lush were in jail. Cops in Texas know that vans with out-of-state plates are easy targets, particularly during festival season. Pygmy Lush got out the next day, and drove in time to make it to our next show in New Orleans. We made a huge banner and affixed it to the front of the house: “PYGMY LUSH JAIL BREAK.”

It doesn’t look like this show will go as late as that show so many years ago, and we don’t have a show the next day, but we are planning on driving overnight anyway. Some of the Thou boys have work the next day. Bryan has a headache and is miserable. He tries to nap in the van as the show drags on. Bands say they’ll play for 10 minutes then end up playing forever, and the time in between bands rivals the set lengths. In order to expedite our exit, I plan on doing a vocals-only set. I’m scheduled to play just before Thou, who are headlining the showcase. Everyone goes outside between bands, only coming back inside when they hear a band starting. I don’t think anyone will be able to hear that I’ve started and come inside to see me play, so I have Thou set up like they’re going to play. They even line check. As I suspected, people hurry inside. That’s when I realize that they’ll just go back outside if Thou gets offstage. So I turn around and am like, “just make some noise!” This is something we joked about but it wasn’t clear who was serious and how serious.

Andy and Matthew start making noise, I start singing, and once I start I don’t stop. I try to differentiate between the songs; change my intonation, change my vocal effects, change what I’m live-looping. I indulge in a lot of menacing pacing, staring, pointing. The ambient accompaniment is hitting me in the same mood from where I’m generating my vocals. Whoever is behind the soundboard is changing the lights in sympathy with the noise. The audience is quiet. They feel present. I’m feeling some robust energetic exchange between us. Nobody leaves. They’re one indistinct mass except for the faces of Lindsay, Rachel, Candice, and Bryan. After 20 minutes with no breaks, I reach the end of my material and take a deep bow, so that people know to clap, thus signalling to Matthew and Andy that I’m done. I say “I’m Hand Grenade Job. Buy my merch,” then I depart the stage. It turns out that behind me, Andy had his knife out the whole set, and so did Matthew! I have been wearing a hunter’s scalpel around my neck, so the three of us were in unplanned aesthetic harmony. 

I sell more merch that night than on nights I play normal sets. I try not to mull that over too long.

We leave Austin in a caravan. I have Bryan shotgun. He puts on Perfume Genius. It becomes increasingly difficult to stay awake. At the second pit stop Josh, the only other person who can drive stick shift, takes the wheel of my car and I restlessly, uncomfortably nap until the sun starts to come up.

To be continued…