There’s a distinct difference between the Austin that hosted SXSW Interactive and the one I found myself swallowed up by tonight. Interactive’s creative coders and masters of multimedia manipulation have skipped town; taking their discourse about data-based journalism and which tablet is right for school children with them.
In their place one can find fliers for 1 a.m. shows featuring bands no one has ever heard of and likely will never hear of again are tucked under windshield wipers miles from the downtown epicenter. Sixth Street, the well-documented party strip wherein beats the heart of Austin’s music scene, pumping alcoholic sustenance and drunken food panaceas to the music-witnessing masses, is now a venue unto itself. Every few feet crowds converge on traveling folk bands and would-be rap stars kicking it in the one venue that never requires a badge, a wrist band or a cover: the street.
And just a few feet from an assault on all senses that includes the smells of nearby, truck-based pizzerias and fifteen booming live shows all happening at once and all competing to define what Nicki Minaj meant by “super bass,” I took in my first show of the SXSW music season at Swan Dive.
Swan Dive, like most good venues, is a box loaded with alcohol at one end possessing a stage at the other equipped with decent lighting and passable sound equipment. Countless venues manage to screw up the sacred trinity of booze, lighting, and sound. These conditions, on the other hand, were perfect and I knew that for sure because Toquiwa (who until recently referred to themselves as Pinky Piglets) were just finishing up the sound check as I walked in. I heard only a little and it in no way prepared me for the sugary sweet pop build-up climaxing into a behind-the-back guitar wrenching, rock ‘n’ roll disintegration.
It doesn’t matter if you’re playing Madison Square Garden or just an open mic night, more often that not what makes or breaks a show is stage presence. Kayne’s got his swagger. Gaga has an unnecessary number of costume changes. Toquiwa has the unrivaled power of bubbly, Japanese cuteness distilled in its purest form and unleashed through amplifiers.
Just a few songs into the set, Toquiwa’s vocalist grabbed the mic, fanned her throat and said in a Japanese accent that could only be described as adorable, “I’m thirsty. I need a beer.” When one was produced by a member of the crowd, she sipped it with the enthusiasm of toddler eating candy when mother isn’t looking. Then she said, “Yummy!”
That was the moment Toquiwa converted a Swan Dive full of people there to see some other band into proponents. The sound of that conversion was audible to anyone standing in that room. The sound was about a hundred people saying, “awww” at precisely the same time.
The cuteness is only one half of the coin in this case.
For most of the show, Toquiwa came at us like a bi-polar pop idol wielding a guitar cocked and loaded with sonic death. Every time I thought the band was going poppy, the guitarist would hike up to the front of the stage and lay it down with full-on, face-contorting licks. At one point she actually did pull a Spinal Tap and play the better part of a verse with her axe slung behind her head. The lead vocalist came out wearing an oversized I Heart Tokyo shirt. Cute, right? Halfway through the set, she stripped it off to reveal a leopard print body suit then danced at a level of closeness a few inches past intimacy with her bass and guitar counterparts
This constant transformation between a set of rock vixens and borderline pop princess is best exemplified in the song “I Want A Chocolate.” At the core is a soft, pop mentality but surrounding it is an impenetrable shell of heavy metal guitar riffs and solos.
Twenty minutes after Toquiwa’s finale, I’m sitting in The Jackalope swigging back some Lone Star with some buddies who came by for the show. In stark, black and white terms, we agree that Toquiwa is good, but not great. They seem to be in that flux where moderate levels of success and few tours outside of the homeland could break into untold levels of commercial success and popularity. That may explain the name change for the uber cutesy “Pinky Piglets” to the artistically ambiguous “Toquiwa.” And if Toquiwa is searching out a new direction, I posit only that in a country brimming with a pop princesses, doing away with their rock edge would make them just another stick of bubblegum.
Besides, they seemed to be having a blast at their SXSW performance and so did I.