West Water Outlaws had a plan heading into this year’s South By Southwest.
Before arriving in Austin, the band played a slew of tour dates with the aim of honing its chops prior to the big stage at SXSW. The four band members slogged through shows of varying quality, sometimes just playing for the bartender, sometimes drawing a crowd.
The band can sell out the Fox Theatre in Boulder, but it still is putting in the legwork, laying the foundation for similar success outside of its hometown. By the time Austin came around, the band was running like a well-oiled machine, allowing WWO to peak at just the right moment amidst the chaos and energy of SXSW.
“When you play every night, your band and your music gets super tight, and you get so comfortable playing every night,” says guitarist Will Buck. “That was sort of the purpose of doing the tour before South By, because once we got to South By, we were like, we’ve been doing this every night. We’re ready for anything.”
“When you’ve been touring that long, you get kind of telepathic with one another,” says singer/guitarist Blake Rooker. “You get to the point where you know what someone’s going to play before they play it. Even if you’re improvising, you see where they’re going and take cues to where they’re going. It was really important to us to be at South By with that kind of thing going. … We were exhausted, but we had a lot of fun.”
So did it pay off? The band played shows for several days while in Austin, but the highlight was the Colorado SpokesBUZZ showcase at the 512 Bar on 6th. Playing to a packed rooftop, the band was firing on all cylinders, clearly enjoying themselves immensely. The crowd densely wedged in to see the band, and, in a SXSW rarity, few people seemed to leave during the show.
“That was one of the best shows on the tour, I have to say,” Buck says, grinning. “Just being up on that rooftop at SXSW was enough, and then the crowd was just so good.”
The sounds of other bands playing were drifting up to the 512 rooftop between songs during the set, and even though the bands’ amps faced away from the street, West Water’s powerful sound surely graced the ears of passersby. But the energy of the show must have been palpable, because, to the amazement of the band, a small crowd of people was gathering on the street. The band had an audience both inside and out.
“The crowd was pretty awesome. That made us feel really good. To look down [from the rooftop] and see 20, 30 people just standing around …” begins bassist Vince Ellwood.
“… it made all the empty houses on tour worth it,” finishes Buck.
And that’s where West Water Outlaws are as a band, savoring the shows with enthusiastic crowds on a months-long tour speckled with duds. The band is firmly in the “paying dues” stage. After a hectic, exciting SXSW, the band continued on to Lubbock, Texas, a city of 234,000 people located about 400 miles northwest of Austin. The band was supposed to get paid a case of beer, but no one at the bar had gotten one by the time the guys pulled up in their van. So the bar gave them a tab of 30 drinks instead.
“I think the Black Keys played out of a van for 10 years,” Buck says, sounding like he was speaking out of a need for reassurance as well as motivation.
Although WWO tours quite frequently, the band still isn’t paying the bills. All four members (Buck, Ellwood, Rooker and drummer Andrew Oakley) have part-time gigs when not on the road. The band wants to aim for 150 gigs a year — the members say once they hit that number, they might be able to eke a living out of their music. But until then, they are in a position of just trying to break even on tours and not break into their personal bank accounts to pay for gas.
The band plays the Fox Theatre on Saturday, April 27. The guys have had a lot of practice since their last show, and they are working on releasing their first full-length album. (The band released an EP, Real Killer, in June.) The band has a handful of new songs from the album that no one in Boulder has heard, Rooker says. The band honed the songs on the road, and it is ready for the hometown audience, the band says.
Though WWO has a long way to go, the band certainly has come far since its humble beginnings playing shows in the basements and tiny bars of Boulder. When the band first started, the goal was to play the Fox Theatre. Now, WWO has sold out the Fox and came close to selling out the Boulder Theater, and its hometown shows represent more of a party atmosphere than a pay-your-dues one.
“I’m excited to show the new stuff and see how people react,” Rooker says. “We’ve tested it a lot elsewhere, but Boulder is the real test. If our home market is into it, that’s all that matters.
“It still feels like an honor to be able to play the Fox Theatre on a Saturday.”