One of the events that generated the most chatter around Austin this past week was when Greg Ambler, bassist for the Syracuse hardcore band Perfect Pussy, heaved his bass into the river after an unofficial, late-night show. Curious as to the motivation behind it — which were the source of much speculation throughout the remainder of the week — we reached out to Ambler, who responded while en route to Phoenix, Arizona, for a show. He talked about with us what he was thinking at the time, and his feelings about South by Southwest in general.
Let’s just get right to it: What were the events that precipitated you heaving your bass overboard, as it were?
It’s weird to say what made me do it in that instant, but I know there was definitely a lot of stuff leading up to it. The night before, the drunk-driving incident, was really fucked up. We left Stubb’s [where the band had been playing the NPR showcase] and there were all the cops down the street. Most of the younger band members had walked off to go back to the place they were staying and they stumbled across all these kids lying on the sidewalk, because the ambulance hadn’t come there yet, so they called me to come pick them up. That very much affected them. The next day, we’d heard the Stereogum show [the band was scheduled to play] had been canceled. I kind of figured that it would, and I called my buddy the next morning and he said, “There’s no way they’re going to cancel the show,” and I tried to explain to him that it was more than just this one incident, it’s a direct result of this festival happening, people getting wasted and having no concern for other people — that person was fleeing a DUI checkpoint at the time.
Then they were trying to just move the show, and I was really adamantly saying that we weren’t going to play any show that day anywhere near that spot. I didn’t want any of the band members going back there. I thought it was disrespectful, because [the incident] was as a direct result of the festival. Nobody’s career was going to be made or broken by that particular show, so we should have, at the very least, rescheduled it for another time.
We had been planning to do that bridge show, but it was supposed to be for Friday night. I had said I would much rather just take the day off and just have everyone hang out and maybe play a show for just friends that wasn’t a big buzz-fest. It was part frustration, part showmanship, I think — you want to make the set memorable. Any time we play, I try to make that my outlet. I’m definitely a very cynical, negative person most of the time, and that’s where I get most of those aggressions out. So that had something to do with what was going on there, but at the same time, being inwardly violent and just playing as fucking hard as you can every time you play. That’s what was in my head: It was either me or the bass at that moment, and I’m old enough now to put my health above all. That’s basically what it was.
So it sounds like it was more of a frustration with an insensitivity toward the tragedy than with the festival itself as a whole.
Yeah, it wasn’t a conscious statement or anything like that, but it was definitely a boiling-over point. After the fact, a lot of people were shit-talking about how it was pollution, and that made me happy I did it, because I just love being the villain as long as I’m in the line of reason. I don’t think throwing a piece of wood into a river is technically pollution because the last time I checked wood actually grows from plants.
Were you excited going into the festival?
We were all excited to play, definitely. I really only entertained the idea of doing it because our agent is from Austin, so I knew we would get good offers. We were on tour at the time anyway. Other than that, I do not want to shit talk the fest because it was amazing, every person there was amazing, every band was great, it was such a good thing. As far as the commercialization, it just comes with the fucking territory, as long as you’re self-righteous and cool about stealing all the shoes you can while you’re there. We played the Doc Martens, Vans and Converse stages, and they hooked us up, but we also went back multiple times to make sure all of our friends got some shoes. We were getting shoes for other bands whose shoes were falling off their fucking feet. We were just trying to spread it around as much as possible. I walked out of there with seven fucking pairs of shoes myself. We were definitely going back over and over. They were like, “Haven’t you been here already?” and we were like, “Yeah, but we’re punk kids! We wear through these quick!”
How does a band like yours, with the aesthetic that you have and the values that you have, reconcile yourself to playing an event like this?
I’m 30, I’ve been in the punk and hardcore scene for a very long time, I have no problem walking into a place uninvited and taking all the shit I feel like I can. As long as we’re going in there within our own means and in our own way. We literally turned down so many shows for South By because I feel like South By is a big fucking soul-suck fest. I feel like the only reason for us to play was to play shows that were going to do something for us professionally. As much I think about having fun and playing with our friends, it’s to a point now where we have to make decisions based on what’s good for our band. So the festival was just a way for us to expose ourselves to new audiences, and a lot of other bands do not get that. We were in a really opportune position to get that, and we felt like it would be disrespectful of us to turn it down.
So many bands are force-fed that fucking American Dream that they’re going to get discovered at South By, but they don’t know that everything’s pre-determined, and that every band there has already been offered the good spots, and that them paying to register is a fucking farce. They invited us to play South By, and when I went to register it was a $40 admission fee, so I told them to fuck off and they sent me a voucher within two hours. And I don’t mean to shit-talk it, but there were thousands and thousands and thousands of bands trying to get through.
It’s hard to speak about it because I’m coming from underground, and I’m just now starting to see all this stuff from a bigger-picture point of view. I know the people who are running it aren’t inherently evil, it’s mostly a bunch of kids who are really into music, they’re just trying to use their jobs to involve themselves in the things that they love. Even though it was corporatized, everybody was there to have fun. Even the people who were there from the companies, it was like their day off from the office, so they were all just kicking back. It was a really good time, but there are a lot of things about it that are weird and hard to reconcile. There were definitely points in time where we were talking about, “Should we be taking all this free stuff that we’re being offered?” And we had to have a conversation about, “If someone offers you something, basically they want you to wear it so that you get in a picture wearing it.” Basically, they’re wanting you to endorse or sponsor that brand, which is fine, if that’s something you’re OK with individually doing. If somebody gives you a watch, and it’s a watch you would normally wear, than that’s fine, but just be aware of what is happening and why they’re asking you to wear it. It’s definitely a fine line. Every little offer is really scrutinized by us as a band. But there is that feeling of, “Well, if they’re going to give us free shit, then we’re absolutely entitled to it.” Me and the guitarist we just love to eBay the fuck out of everything we get. We were basically stockpiling.
What was your take on the experience as a whole? Would you be open to going back?
Like I said, we were very fortunate. We got offered amazing shows, we were very taken care of, it was very easy to access most of the shows — except for Friday and Saturday, when shit got insane. I cannot say that we would go back and do the hustle that we did. Basically, we’re touring this extensively this year so that next year we can lay back and pick the bigger shows and do all our side projects. Anything’s possible, but I don’t think we’d go back and grind the way that we did this year.
How many shows did you end up playing?
With the bridge show and minus the Stereogum show, we did seven shows in four days. Which, honestly, talking to everyone else — Eagulls did 14. A lot of our other friends bands get cornered into this idea that the more shows you play, the more exposure you’re going to have, but I went to some of those shows and it was really like playing a show in the northeast to a bunch of our friends. I don’t think bands should necessarily feel like they have to play 100 fucking shows in four days. They should just concentrate on being a good band and then they can sit back and, if they’re good enough, offers will come in. I don’t think any band should be forcing themselves through that fucking meat grinder. It’s a strange thing.
But it was an amazing experience. All the people we met were so amazing, all the kids who came up to us to talk to us after shows, it really solidifies why you do these things. A lot of the kids who saw us wouldn’t have had the chance to see us anywhere else. Five of those shows were free. So it was really cool to be in such a big festival setting, but still be able to interact with people one-on-one.