When I first arrived in front of the Zeta Psi Fraternity house in the decidedly vanilla West Campus neighborhood of Austin, I was surprised. Though I had spent countless hours there with friends in previous semesters, chugging away cheap beer and biding my time on the spacious porch, the house now resembled something more immediate and tantalizing—strung up lights, a makeshift stage, a haphazardly charming poster proclaiming the day’s event, Camp West Campus SXSW Showcase.
Four months in the making and culminating in an 18-hour concert, 21 bands and roughly 1000 people filled a fraternity house for one of the most memorable experiences of SXSW.
An Austin historical landmark, the plantation-style home rests on old bones. Though the large painted greek letters in the front lawn proclaimed it kin to the countless other houses that dot West Campus, Zeta Psi’s age and storied past whip an air of unconventional charm within the traditional and oft-derided bastion of primarily Anglo-Saxon collegiate tradition. The house residents and brothers carry this air with them—a multicultural patchwork of various backgrounds and majors. Bernie Sanders stickers are stuck to the walls next to Keystone Light signs and a Dali print hangs in an upstairs room, keeping a watchful eye over a dirty bong.
Possibly due to the gleeful surrealism for SXSW or a mutual bond over music and cheap beer, I was able to put on a punk concert at a fraternity house in the heart of West Campus with the help of my friends and the enthusiasm of the bands that played. The music of South by Southwest has evolved over time from a grassroots celebration of new and noteworthy musicians to a something approximating a Millennial Ayn Rand’s raunchy fantasy. Though this massive and loosely connected festival gets overrun with press and media attention at every Capital One or Schlotzsky’s-sponsored event, the backbone of SXSW is still confined to smaller, more makeshift events. As more cutting edge music shifts toward a do-it-yourself approach in the face of rampant corporate sponsorship (see essentially every college rock group of the 1980’s), UT students tend to flock to their friends’ living rooms and co-op basements to see their favorite band perform a short, sweaty, and often unforgettable set. Or, in this case, a fraternity house.
Prior to the day of the show, the well-worn house was buzzing with activity. Plywood was hastily hauled in to construct the stage, the PA system and backline were lugged by a tired pickup truck unsure of its own capabilities. Hushed, frenetic conversations were held when last minute thoughts spiked into the forefront of the organizers’ minds. Between the looming fear of Fire Marshals, impending threats of sound ordinances, and the ever-present question of who the hell would even show up to a frat house to see a punk show and why did we even do this, it was soon apparent that there was much to act upon but little left actually worth discussing– at some point, it seems that all one can do it hope, cross fingers, and rely on downtown Austin to become the tech-savvy clusterfuck that it is known to be and divert all of the attention away.
As the day before Camp West Campus wore on, things slowly fell into place, much like some day-drunk puzzle. Kegs were delivered, nails were hammered in, I chain-smoked. As the lights were plugged in and the sun power-walked toward the next hemisphere, the house seemed transformed into something approaching unequivocally Interesting status, for better or worse. Sweating and with the witching hour approaching, our comfort-colored subjects scattered away from their clubhouse, eager for the next morning. This is not to say that all involved knew what expect–minus a few self-aware individuals in line with the scene– the briskly shouted adieus of “it’ll be lit” can still be heard swirling around Lake Ladybird to this day.
The next day began early and loudly. At 10 am, many of the more musically-inclined brothers arrived to prepare for door times and the first band loading in. At around noon, Meach Pango, began to play. As they filled the house with exuberant music, warm bodies began to trickle in, somewhat bemused expressions on their face. This was not particularly the crowd that would normally find themselves in the proverbial belly of the beast, much less on one of the busiest days of SXSW. If you had closed your eyes, however, the sounds vibrating around the vicinity of the address conjured up images of sweaty basements rather than spacious homes– cathartic, angst-filled, and brimming with a community. A diverse lineup was paramount to the viability of the event, and the organizers succeeded, bringing sounds made by LGBT, queer, and non-binary musicians to take the main stage of a southern frat house. Around 3 pm, the crowd really began to roll in to hear the music. The knowing, ironic smirk of many of the patrons faded into smiles and shared nods of genuine enjoyment. Camp West Campus was in full swing.
Around 7 pm, the main acts took the stage. Kissisippi, Oso Oso, Prince Daddy and the Hyena, Mom Jeans., and Heat, one after another after another. Bodies crammed into one another inside the small living room. Outside, on the front lawn, beer was languorously sipped while cigarettes were smoked. Beer pong was being played, a team of drunken fraternity brothers up against a team of equally drunk cooperative members. Possibly due to the unmistakable heaviness of THC-laden air inflating the house or the day drunk-now-evening drunk carefree attitude of those present, there was a semi-tangible feeling of experience present in the air. This was a weird event, sure, but it was also incredible. The bands sounded amazing, each one better than the last. During Mom Jeans’ set, brave souls were crowd surfing the small room as people slammed into one another, all hastily choreographed to the joyous cacophony of jangly guitars and angst-ridden lyrics.
Just as ingrained in the storied history of UT as the desire to stay DIY is the culture of Greek life. In recent years, Greek life at UT and around the country has been the subject of much debate, to say the least. Derided by many as either the fledgling remnant of a racist and misogynistic America or upheld as the gold standard by which the quintessential college experience has to be compared to, Greek life in Austin has always had some sort of clash with the more liberal, inclusive populace. However, this is not to say that SXSW, Greek life, and DIY culture perpetually occupy separate spheres. Sometimes, things come together. On the balmy March day, many of the people filled inside the house soaked in a gut punch of a feeling– a form of nostalgia for the present, almost. Every moment is heightened, each conversation is affirming and immediate. Each song provided the parameters of an experience meant to be savored, indulged in. There was some sense of community formed in the 14-hour long showcase between everyone present before the buses took us back to work, or school, or home, or somewhere else where a moment like this couldn’t happen. Camp West Campus was closing down for the season but had delivered more than one could have hoped.
DISCLAIMER: The author was not an active member in this, or any, Greek Letter social organization at the time of writing this or when the events took place. However, he has had past associations with the Zeta Psi fraternity. This article and its author do not condone any actions of greek life as a whole or of any system that works to artificially impose a hierarchy of elitist, racist, sexist, or otherwise intolerant behavior upon a community that supports it.