It was the most over-used conversation filler of the week. “Is this your first time at South-By?”

I never knew quite how to answer. Yes, I technically participated in the circus that is Mid-March in Austin last year. I was here, I ate queso, I stayed out late. And that is pretty much where the similarities between my 2011 SXSW and what I experienced this year end.

The more I awkwardly skimmed past the fact that last year I may have been here, with my band, in an RV, playing unofficial showcases and generally enjoying unemployment, the more my new tech friends wanted to hear about it. The reality, I gathered, is that almost no attendees of SXSWi stick around for the actual core of the conference, the music festival.

My daily emails from Timehop made the contrast even more apparent. On this day last year I checked into Home Depot, where I spray painted my band’s t-shirts in the parking lot. Then I checked into a practice space, where I couldn’t find earplugs and further damaged my hearing with a three-hour practice session. And then Emo’s (RIP), where I hopped on stage before the crowd of an Interactive party called Beer Camp. It was a far cry from the early morning panels, fancy Austonian hotel roofdeck parties, and dinners at Perry’s Steakhouse of this year’s festival.

Which is why, as I reflected on the week alongside a plane full of SXSWi-goers who looked just about as broken and exhausted as I did, I thought I’d share some of those contrasts. This is a little more personal than what I’d normally write for, you know, my job, but it’s Sunday, and as Sarah has mentioned, this is what our Back Page section is for.

—–

I’ll start in 2011.

Twenty eight  hours of non-stop driving split between four people seemed like an exercise in stamina already. When we saw the size of our 28-foot Cruise America RV (huge) and learned our lead singer wouldn’t be authorized to drive (expired license), the upcoming journey became even more daunting. We were comforted by the fact that one of the many cheesy murals plastered on our recreational vehicle featured a college football tailgate party where some wonderful jerk had drawn penises near the faces of each fraternity brother. It felt somehow appropriate.

Averaging between 5.5 and 6.3 miles to the gallon, we powered through on Five Hour Energy and Metallica, which turned out to be the most agreeable of the available rest stop CDs after we broke our iPod connector.

It wouldn’t be the last thing we broke on our wheeled home. Somewhere in Texas, a low hanging branch knocked a section of the RV’s raised roof clean off, creating a permanent sunroof over the shower. (Should it rain, the shower is actually the best possible place to create an accidental sunroof.) We drove over countless curbs and eventually scraped the entire driver side of the vehicle.

Team Genius, as we’ve gone by for the past four years, arrived in Austin smelling wonderfully and feeling well rested. Or something like that. Given the RV’s cold shower water (which itself was limited in volume) and the arrival-by-plane of several more band members and their various girl/boyfriends, we would remain at similar state of odorousness, restedness and all-around pleasantness for our entire seven days at SXSW. To our delight, we fit in pretty much perfectly with most of the festival’s attendees.

We were there for seven days because our first show was a SXSW Interactive party. It was actually the best one we played. The crowd, compared with the music snobs in attendance later in the week, hadn’t already spent the afternoon watching 10 bands they’ve never heard of. They were fresh and excited to rock out and they loved our confetti canons. It may have helped that they were also drunk as hell, considering the point of the party was a beer pong tournament.

As an unsigned band on mostly unofficial shows  (we’re now on Paper Garden records), the quality of show and audience decreased as the week went on. One afternoon show was literally on the side of a highway in front of a strip mall women’s bookstore. Semi trucks honked at us as they sped by ten feet away.

One show, at a different strip mall, was attended by only the bar’s employees and the other bands. At another show, the crowd turned on us after confetti from our canons landed in, and presumably ruined, their expensive glasses of wine. At two different shows, the same terrible comedian somehow opened for us (note: comedians playing rock shows are the worst). The strangest by far, though, was the house party we played at a commune outside of Austin, which felt a about as awkward as a middle school talent show.

But it was glorious. Instead of panels, there were day parties, starting around noon. Every single conceivable place in the city suddenly becomes a music venue and I discovered a number of amazing new bands that I still evangelize to my friends. Each day I woke up, slightly hungover with absolutely no agenda except maybe play a rock show.

The act of finding usable outlets to charge phones and bathrooms became a bit of a game; a friend of a friend living in Austin finally caved and allowed ten smelly strangers use his shower. Our repayment for this generosity was to test some sort of automatic nail gun he was studying for a grad school project. As the ten of us, fuzzy-headed from booze and lack of sleep, nailed pieces of wood together in a random ally in Austin, the next door neighbor’s house somehow caught on fire. Fire trucks roared in, old ladies were carried out, firehoses were unfurled, and, in the background, our nail guns nailed. It was more than a little surreal.

——

The most surreal moment I experienced last week happened at around eight in the morning. I was lying, barely awake, on an air mattress on the floor of the most extravagant suite in the Driskill hotel when a guy walked in the room. An unfamiliar British voice came from the bed: “And who might you be?”

The guy: “I’m am (…dramatic pause…) the future.”

He, like the 12 or so other people staying with me in the Driskill’s Cattle Baron Suite, was a founder. His company happens to have the word future in its name. Here I am at SXSWi, I thought, and I’m being pitched before I’ve even gotten out of bed.

I spent last week sleeping in a giant four-room suite adorned with leather and cowskin walls, a 10-person dining room table, a remote control fireplace, and every night, a yellow rose on my pillow. Of course, it should be noted, I was sleeping on the floor.

If my 2011 SXSW was like MTV Road Rules, this year’s was like the Real World.

I thought the flophouse set-up was brilliant. The Driskill was centrally located and with all the amenities of a fancypants hotel, but since we packed it to the gills, cheap as hell. Plus, I was staying with a room full of founders of New York tech startups. I’d be like an embedded reporter, one of them told me. Yep, just like Iraq.

The first snag came when I realized none of them were in Austin to attend panels and launches and breakfast meetings as I had been. Only a couple of them actually had badges. They were there to party, which, hey! awesome! until it’s two in the morning and 40 people are dancing in what is supposed to be my bedroom.

Fine, I thought. SXSW is just as much about the parties as it is about the content. I can get down.

Fast forward to night two, when, at around four in the morning, several gun-carrying men in uniform instructed us, in no uncertain terms, we were to pack our bags because we were being evicted. I could tell they took a slight bit of enjoyment watching us begrudgingly pull our clothes from the giant walk-in closet and try to sort out which of the 15 Mac power cords belonged to whom.

At one point we were told, repeatedly, by a security guard to “RESPECT MY AUTHORITY!” The problem was actually one of security–they thought we were somehow sneaking people into our party after the hotel had closed its doors to the public at two. And then a drunk guy we didn’t know tried to come in and some shoves occurred. The security guard amazingly reacted by screaming “FIGHT!!” and running away.

We sat in the downstairs of the Driskill with our packed suitcases, angrily Tweeting #occupydriskill until around 6am. One founder, nervous about losing his work visa, hid in a bodega down the street. They decided, given we had nowhere to go at that hour, to let us back into our room as the sun began to peek through the suite’s decadent, floor-to-ceiling curtains.

The hotel’s manager apologized to us the next day but the Cattle Baron Suite’s brush with the law kept our room relatively subdued for the rest of our time there.

There’s a part in The Office when the Scranton and Stamford offices merge, and someone from the Stamford office asks, “How do you guys get any work done?” Phyllis answers, “Oh we find little pockets of time here and there.” That’s how I felt about writing articles during SXSW. It was nearly impossible, because every moment spent hovered over my laptop was a missed networking opportunity.

Every party I tagged along with my Cattle Baron friends to meant I was skipping five others I’d committed to. Compared to the relaxed, wake-up-and-do-whatever vibe of the music week, I felt like a frazzled, late-for-everything mess.

I managed to hit up a few meetings, panels and parties; since I documented it here on Pando, I’ll spare you the recap.

—–

So my takeaway is this: Both weeks were a bit of a social experiment, where my limits of close quarters, stamina and, frankly, partying were tested. Which gets at what I think (I think?) is the point of SXSW.

It’s doing strange things in strange places with people you don’t really know. Cutting up a pineapple at a commune because a hippie demanded I do it in exchange for charging my phone at his house. Pedaling my own pedicab for half a mile because why the hell not? Exploring and finding an amazing view off the private back balcony at General Assembly’s Hotel St. Cecilia party. Running head on into Tim Armstrong. Dancing in the street to a high school drum line. Serendipitously meeting Big Important Founders. Stumbling into a secret East Austin house party. Witnessing ridiculousness in the form of eating competitions, delightful guerrilla marketing and karaoke RVs.

Both the music and the interactive parts of SXSW are chaotic 1000-ring circuses that blend industry productivity and pure, simple hedonism. Both the conference and the festival are viewed by their early, core supporters as too big and too overblown to be worthwhile. But nothing cool and secret can stay secret for long if it’s really cool. If nothing else, the entire big, overblown circus that is Austin in mid-March is a hydraulic generator of awesome stories that turn into SXSW lore. It is painfully–painfully–cheesy to say, but those awesome stories connect us with the friends we meet here, and they’re the reason I’ll probably be back next year.