For many bands, the annual South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, presents an interesting challenge. There’s the chance to perform multiple times over a five-day window for everyone from new fans to industry insiders to tastemaking bloggers to other established bands. But there’s also the chance that the grueling work of loading in and out in record time to perform for 30 minutes three times a day can disappear in the noise of 2,500 bands and 100,000 attendees converging on a city with more than 800,000 residents ready to gorge themselves on live music.
And then there’s the case of Jacksonville band Sunbears!, which played three shows on March 12 in Austin, each building on the strengths inherent to the band’s soaring electro-infused psych-pop, which shares sonic space with The Flaming Lips and Portugal. The Man. But the Sunbears! crew had to rush back to Jacksonville before playing their capstone SXSW showcase on Friday, March 14, due to a medical emergency with lead singer Jonathan Berlin’s two-year-old son.
“Basically, what happened was, he went down for his nap on Thursday and developed a rapid spike in fever that threw him into a seizure,” Berlin says. “It’s fairly common with toddlers, but the scary part is that he actually stopped breathing and was totally unconscious, so my wife had to give him mouth-to-mouth before the ambulance arrived. Then, once he got to Shands, it took him a really long time to get his wits about him. Normally, toddlers snap out of this really quickly, but it took him four hours. All his CAT scans and bloodwork came back clean, though, so as far as we know, everything’s OK.”
Though Sunbears! had to cancel its final performance, Berlin still thinks the band got the most out of its third trip to SXSW — its second as an official artist and first as a full quartet. (Jordan Davis and Walter Hill joined Berlin and longtime Sunbears! compatriot Jared Bowser last fall, but the band had only performed live as a four-piece a handful of times before SXSW.)
After driving 17 hours straight from Jacksonville to Austin on Tuesday — Hill jokes that the band had to go 60 mph the whole time because the trailer pulling its gear was taller than its trusty Scion, cutting down on aerodynamics — Sunbears! kicked off its SXSW performances on a bitterly cold Wednesday morning with a show on an outdoor creekside patio. Later that evening, the band put on an electrifying set at Javelina, a jam-packed bar in Austin’s cozy Rainey Street district, where most venues are housed in restored historic homes. “That was the best show of the day because we got to do all of our [visual] projections on the bar’s white wall,” Berlin says. “At first, the sound guy was like, ‘I’m not letting you set that stuff up — you realize there’s a 20-minute turnaround time for the band after you, right?’ But he told us we could do it if we guaranteed we could break it down in 10 minutes. I think we had it all out the door in eight minutes.”
Sunbears! played one more set later that night at the downtown Austin bar The Ginger Man, a New Granada Records-sponsored show attended by Jax native Ian Witlen, who photographed SXSW for Rolling Stone and posted a shot of the band in a rollingstone.com slideshow that included Snoop Dogg (aka Lion) and Against Me! “I don’t know if Ian got to pick what photos went up or if an editor did, but that was pretty awesome,” Berlin says. “There were lots of bigger bands in that slideshow.”
All signs point to 2014 being a solid year for Sunbears!, with several festival dates this spring and summer and access to Walter Hill’s Twin Hill Studio in Atlantic Beach providing the freedom to write and record at the band’s own pace. Also, thanks to Hill’s in-house record lathe, Sunbears! can now produce vinyl on its own. “We cut the 7-inch that we released last October there, and we’ll be able to cut our forthcoming full-length, Future Sounds, there as well,” Berlin says. “New Granada Records, which released our last album, wants to put it out again, but they also want to see if we can find a bigger label home for it. Overall, we’re just trying to see if we can take a greater step forward.”
As for whether the band’s trip to SXSW last week helped? “Since we had drinks Tuesday night, played shows all day Wednesday, and then drove home Thursday, it felt like all business for us,” Berlin says. “Obviously, I’m happy my son is 100 percent OK, so I don’t think about it as, ‘Did SXSW help us?’ so much as, ‘Well, that was a good time.’ “