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SXSW’s Music Manager James Minor on Japanese Titans, Krautrock Legends, Korean Rap and Everything In Between

As SXSW grinds into gear for its 30th year, Billboard speaks with general manager of music James Minor about how the festival comes together, convergence between its three sections and the things…

SXSW’s 30th edition kicks off today in Austin, Texas with its Film and Interactive festivals, with Music following quickly on Tuesday (March 15) . And with more than 2,100 artists, hundreds of showcases and panel discussions and a wide range of activations and innovations all over the city, it’s an experience that is well-known to be overwhelming. This year, SXSW will welcome both President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama as keynote speakers for Interactive and Music, respectively, as well as longtime David Bowie producer Tony Visconti, Rap-A-Lot Records founder James Prince and plenty more. And those are just at the Convention Center.

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The rest of the city will host a revolving door of showcases and artist performances so wide-ranging that no two attendees could possibly have the same experience. As SXSW revs into gear, Billboard speaks with the festival’s general manager of Music James Minor about the process of putting together the massive event, the blurred lines between Music, Film and Interactive and who to keep an eye on this year.

Billboard: When did you first get involved with festival?

James Minor: Well I’ve been working here for five years, but even before that I lived in Austin on and off. Before I worked at the festival I was one of the people who would grade acts, back when we would get big boxes of CDs and cassettes. Just kind of volunteer. So I really only worked here for five years, that’s the short answer.

You’re the general manager of the music festival. What does that job entail?

I basically oversee what’s happening as far as music programming goes. A lot of what we’re doing, keeping in touch with international export offices, that sort of stuff. It’s just basically overseeing the musical festival part of it.

So tell me a little bit about this year. What do you guys have new coming up this year? Is it a different approach than any other year?

I mean in terms of programming, it’s still the same sort of approach. Things that you would probably notice that are different is that’s there’s more convergence between the three [festivals]. Now we’ve kind of spread that out through the event, so there’s more crossover. 

That also mirrors how music and technology are converging together in general, too.

Exactly. The lines between the three events are definitely blurring. It’s just kind of the way things are these days.

So it’s not like, hard and fast lines between the three of them anymore.

There still are, but like I said, there is a slight blur. You know, now we have the VR/AR Track, it’s a virtual reality and augmented reality, that’s something that we offer to all badges because the subject matter is relevant to all three of them. We’ll do things with film in particular when they have music programming, like we have a documentary on Smart Studios this year. There’s one on Sharon Jones, one on Gary Numan. There’s an Austin City Limits documentary, the Miles Davis movie. There’s an X Japan one [called We Are X]. Do you know X Japan?

No, I don’t think so.

It’s crazy. It’s like this Japanese arena rock band that’s been around since 1982. Like, they’re the biggest band in Japan. I just kind of vaguely knew the name, but this movie is insane. One of the guitar players killed himself, and then all of a sudden there were all these copycat suicides. The singer was kind of abducted by a cult at one point. It’s just like this really, really insane story. So we’re gonna show the movie, and the drummer… This is another really weird thing. In Japan, they identify somebody as the band leader. We kind of think of the leader of a band as being the singer. But their front person is actually the drummer. Like, they have a guy who’s been a singer for the band since 1982, but the band leader is the drummer, which is very strange. But he’s playing classical versions — he’s also a classical pianist — he’s playing X Japan songs, classical versions, with a string quartet. Totally weird. But as soon as word got out about it, anybody who is Japanese knows who this guy is and it’s a big deal for some people and for somebody who didn’t really know anything about this band to begin with it’s really kind of cool. 

That kind of speaks to the whole aesthetic of what SXSW was founded on. “Hey, you didn’t know anything about this band, well here you go. Figure it out.”

Yeah. Once it became more of an international festival, that blew the doors wide open. There are so many bands out there that we’re are just not aware of as Americans and it’s really exciting to kind of do the digging and find this stuff out and just educate yourself. 

When you guys start putting the music festival together each year, are there overarching themes or ideas that you want to look towards in terms of booking?

Well you know, the consistency is always discovery, and the acts that we invite are ones that already kinda have something going, have been doing the work and who we feel could benefit from being here. There has to be some sort of interest somewhere already for us to invite an act, because it takes so much for somebody to come to SXSW as an artist that we want them to be benefiting from actually being here.

How do you select the keynote speakers each year? Congratulations for having President Obama and the First Lady.

Oh yeah, that’s so exciting. I actually watched the President’s weekly address that he does over the weekend, and watching that hit home that this was happening. I always knew that it was a big deal, but that really kind of freaked me out when I actually saw that. But as far as the keynotes go, it’s really a long conversation. This is the first year that we’re doing multiple keynotes. And we usually kind of start in the summer, talking to people, see who makes sense. You know, Tony Visconti was somebody who we always wanted. We’ve been talking to him for a while and it just so happens that this is the year, but we already have been discussing having him come and everything. That just sort of happened that way.

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What are you personally looking forward to the most this year?

Personally, you know, there’s so much stuff. The one’s that I really look forward to are definitely international acts, those artists that you wouldn’t normally be able to see. We’re doing a hip-hop from Asia showcase and I think that’s going to be pretty amazing. I’m excited to see how people react to it. We have Kohh from Japan, Aristophanes from Taiwan; she’s the one who’s on the new Grimes record. Dwagie from Taiwain, Suboi from Vietnam, Deepflow from Korea. I think it’s going to be really, really interesting. So I’m excited about that. Faust I’m really excited about, been on the bucket list for a long time. It’s like German kraut rock legends. So that’s pretty exciting for the super music nerds.

Richie Hawtin, he’s come before and he’s always a highlight, just a very interesting, smart guy. Iggy Pop of course, that’s one of the big ones, but I’ve been listening to that new record and it’s the best thing he’s done in a really long time. It’s pretty amazing. Eliot Sumner, have you heard her record? It’s Sting’s daughter. Whenever you hear kind of a famous person’s kid put out a record, or is doing music or something like that, you’re always like, “Eh, okay.” But she’s actually great. The Moonlandingz, which is another kind of kraut rock-y, it’s two of the Fat White Family guys and Sean Lennon. That should be cool, what I’ve heard from that record is really great. Do you know Jambinai? They just signed to Bella Union, which is Simon Raymond from the Cocteau Twins’ label. And it’s this kind of post-rock instrumental act from Korea.

I’m sensing a theme developing here.

[Laughs] Yeah, they’re actually really amazing. It’s like, I guess you would probably consider Explosions in the Sky to be like maybe third wave Slint. This is kind of the next step after that, where it has traditional instrumentation but it’s still rock and it’s really cool. Anderson .Paak, everybody’s already talking about him. He’s gonna come out ahead I think. I’m really interested to hear the Charli XCX SOPHIE stuff. The the new Lapsley stuff I’ve heard is really good. There’s a lot.