Love Strong: Warmduscher Drag Austin Down the Rabbit Hole at SXSW

A dispatch from Ingrid Marie Jensen from on the ground at Austin’s South By Southwest, reflecting on a sweaty thunderous set in the lurid intimacy of Hotel Vegas.

Photo: Maisy Banks and Reuben Davies Lindley | Words: Ingrid Marie Jensen

March means early spring in Austin, Texas, and therefore, time for South By Southwest. Electric-hued bluebonnets, blush-pink evening primroses, and lavender explosions of bougainvillea are blooming all over town. Faces are tilted to the sun to soak it up, in heart-shaped sunglasses when the light proves too relentless, micro shorts and see-through dresses and cowboy boots and strawberry margaritas everywhere, all the time. As Austin has evolved from a place of uninhibited, affordable fun to a hyper-hip Southwestern version of LA (I mean, Matthew McConaughey’s practically the mayor now), so has the festival. SXSW has grown exponentially bigger over the last ten years, becoming the festival equivalent of urban sprawl. From its origins as an Austinite indie music showcase in 1987, it has come to encompass the fields of television, film, and tech as well as the music showcase it initially aspired to promote, becoming more of an international convention than the traditional three-days-in-a-muddy-field affair.

Hotel Vegas at SXSW 2022 by Lloyd Bolton

Over on the city’s hip East Side, Hotel Vegas is buzzing. A queue of festivalgoers wraps round the corner, choking nearby Onion Street and backing up the traffic on Sixth. Warmduscher are scheduled to play a mid-afternoon set as part of a day-long event run by the Austin psych festival, Levitation.

Founded in London in 2014, Warmduscher are a near-lethal cocktail formed from members of Childhood, Fat White Family and Paranoid London (their current line-up is composed of Clams Baker Jr, Ben Romans-Hopcraft, Adam Harmer, Marley Mackey, Quinn Whalley and Bleu Ottis on drums.) The description in their Bandcamp bio states their main interests as, well, everything you’ve been told not to display a significant interest in: “Gentrified executions, color coded colostomy bags, and mayonnaise dripping off the chin. A subway sandwich ride to heaven, kisses on the pink parts. WARMDÜSCHER want it all.” Purveyors of “all things greasy,” they invite you to leave regret at the door and responsibility shoved under the sofa cushions. (The group described their second album, 2018’s Whale City, as “a playground for the people that have stepped above and beyond their comfort zone.”) The band’s weeklong tenure at SXSW, presented by Dan Carey’s label Speedy Wunderground, kicks off their North American debut tour, which takes the group to Los Angeles, the Midwest, Canada, Washington, D.C., and New York City.

There is no door to the Hotel Vegas Stage, just an open gap that looks like a hole punched clumsily in the side of a rickety shed. Entering its yawning maw feels akin to crawling down a rabbit hole of your own free will—unnerving and exciting, a freefall into the wondrous world of Warmduscher. Daylight disappears and with it, the concept of personal space. The place is packed, and the crowd is rowdy. Attired in their new group uniform of black jumpsuits, Warmduscher kick into “Big Wilma,” a deliriously fast-paced rocker about a call girl who kills her clients with a switchblade. It’s so loud it’s like being pummeled, a full-body massage of sound. Despite a music festival being the appropriate occasion to drink your vision away, there’s no one at the bar, because everyone is staring at the band’s high-octane performance in total thrall. Even the barkeep stands transfixed, mouth a little agape, hands braced against the worn wooden counter as though she might fall over if it wasn’t there, watching the band groove and grind against a psychedelic projection.

Clams is in wraparound shades, bouncing up and down with frenetic energy; Bleu appears to be possessed, his blonde hair flying; Ben and Marley look, as ever, cool, confident, in control; Adam is a chaotic blur of jumpsuit and guitar. Near the end of the set, Adam lurches forward in the middle of a particularly rocking riff and, with great panache, spits all over the front row. He does it so masterfully that somehow all the little droplets seem to hang suspended in space for a long moment, falling in a slow spiral that matches the psychedelic swirls of the projection. It’s like a scene from a movie, somehow as impressive as seeing Vaslav Nijinsky execute a grand jeté, and it delights the crowd, as indeed it should.

Warmduscher’s recent single “Love Strong,” (produced by Dan Carey) was released to “bridge the gap” between the appearance of the band’s fifth studio album, which is due to be released on Bella Union later this year. The video, directed by the inimitable Jeanie Crystal, is a regular feast for the senses, and features the band surrounded by hypnotically graceful dancers in highlighter-bright rave garb, beneath flashing lights as Clams chants: ‘Love strong/in a brand-new world.’ It is both an instruction and a meditation.

With Warmduscher, every album is a brave new world unto itself, exploding with the band’s untrammeled, unchecked creative power. And perhaps the most remarkable thing being brought to the table by this rag-tag bunch of geniuses is an extraordinary mélange of humor, love, and a sort of fierce and unkillable hope that burns on, no matter how dark or scary the story gets. ‘Love Strong,’ encapsulates that philosophy, and it’s on display every night across the country, as the band work their way through America. They are, very probably, the best working live band in the world – long may they reign. Whatever’s on the agenda for their next album, any dish served up by Warmduscher will always be worth risking something for, whether it’s your comfort zone or your neck.