Song of South Florida

How Humbert attacked the music industry in Austin, Texas, and maybe, sorta, won.

"I've lived in Broward since I got back from L.A.," he says. "The people in Hialeah aren't so bad, but the system's bananas. It's like living in Cuba. But fuck it — I'm old. I'm old enough that next month, we'll do a 'Help Caesar with Colon Cancer' fundraiser."

"People would pay out the ass, bro," Ferny says.

Music erupts in the practice room, a languid salsa soundtrack to the well-oiled bullshit session going on inside the control booth. All of Humbert is here, relaxing, drinking beer, welcoming friends, goosing one another with a constant flow of barbs. From years of together time — on the road, before gigs, after gigs, partying, playing — Humbert has elevated rudimentary hanging out into a form of grand entertainment.

The mobile projection unit makes another stop. Parked vans and building façades work well; the foamcore screen is even better.
Jonathan Zwickel
The mobile projection unit makes another stop. Parked vans and building façades work well; the foamcore screen is even better.
Caesar and Ferny get set for the masses pouring out of La Zona Rosa
Kim E. Leon
Caesar and Ferny get set for the masses pouring out of La Zona Rosa

A watercolor sun is setting over Austin, and the city's resident bat population — about 1.5 million — pours into dusk from its home under the Congress Avenue Bridge. A few blocks over, on Sixth, hipsters swarm with similar density. Police have closed the street to vehicular traffic, transforming downtown into a relatively safe haven for debauching.

For all the hundreds of revelers on the street, thousands more are inside, and lines begin to form in front of venues lined door to door to door — the Parish, the Drink, Buffalo Billiards, Friends, Emo's, Exodus, Eternal. Most folks here are eager to catch the buzz band that will be the talk of SXSW, the one the bloggers blog about on their BlackBerries before the last note sounds. Others are eager to be that band.

There's a commotion in the street, and out of nowhere bounds Blowfly, the masked-and-caped filth flinger who's taken 30 years to rise out of Miami's R&B scene and into the indie underground. Followed by a film crew and sequined retinue, he struts down the street and vanishes into the crowd.

Humbert arrives with a different kind of fanfare. Seven strong now that Franco's here, the band is pushing what looks like a balloon-clad breakfast cart down the middle of Sixth. On the bottom shelf sits a whisper-quiet generator that powers a large PA speaker. The PA plays the song "Hugo" from Humbert's 2004 album, Plant the Trees Closer Together. On the top of the cart, a DVD projector plugged into the generator blasts the "Hugo" video, which Franco directed, onto any flat surface — parked cargo vans, building façades, pieces of cardboard.

"I dunno who can take credit, because Ferny and I both came up with the idea," Franco says.

"You're really responsible because you shot the video," Ferny counters.

"We've stopped like five times tonight," Leo says.

"And every time, it's been like this, people just fuckin' stoked," Dave says.

Between streetlights, where it's darkest, Franco stops the cart. Rimsky and Caesar stand ten feet in front and hold up two two-by-three pieces of foamcore — the movie screen. Franco fires up the DVD, and the summery sound of "Hugo" fills the crowded street as the video hits the screen. Sure enough, the perpetually flowing human torrent slows, and within seconds, a dozen people stand transfixed. The song ends, the crowd cheers, and Franco starts the video up again.

Last night, the operation was shut down by Austin police. City law allows projections but bans broadcasting in public at more than 75 decibels without a permit. The cops weren't rude, but they weren't friendly either. "You know you're not in Miami when a cop shows up on horseback," Leo laughs.

"So this morning, I went down to City Hall to talk to the woman about what it would take to get permits and stuff," Franco says. "It was nothing! I brought CDs and press kits, and they were totally stoked."

The video — a stylish, one-camera, low-budget affair that recalls the weirdo early days of MTV — plays several times on a loop. Ferny circles the crowd, passing out fliers to every enthralled bystander.

"They win the sheer inventiveness award," says one, an indie-label rep from Philly named Jim Moran. "I've been coming to South by Southwest since 1995, and it's three times the size it was then. The question for any band is, how do you cut through all the noise? This," he says, gesturing at the video and the handful of magnetized viewers, "is fucking brilliant."

Hours later, after several laps of Sixth Street and Austin's 2 a.m. last call, the boys score their biggest coup yet outside La Zona Rosa. The Arctic Monkeys — this year's buzziest buzz band — finish their set, and the mobile projection unit is besieged with hundreds of drunken, ecstatic fans. Franco plays the video over and over. People are grabbing for CDs faster than the band (minus Rimsky, who's drunk and passed out in the minivan) can hand them out.

"Oh my God, this is fuckin' beautiful, bro!" Ferny roars to no one in particular.

At this point, pretty much everyone in Austin — including the pop critics of the Boston Globe and the Village Voice, an A&R guy from Hollywood Records, a film crew from Hong Kong TV, and Wayne Coyne — has seen the video. They've all loved it and told the band as much.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help