SXSW 2013: James Nghiem

Editor’s note: We asked Jordan Bayhylle of DEEERPEOPLE to write about SXSW 2012 from the musician’s point of view. To keep perspective fresh, we’ve asked James Nghiem, comedian, indie filmmaker, and drummer for The Nghiems, to tell us about this year’s nexus of indie talent. His band also won best music video at Norman Music Festival 5 for their stop-motion “Dum Dum Dah Dah.”




“This one right here. It’s important,” Zon says as she straightens out her deck of tarot cards on the table. We’re in the back of Othello’s, taking a break from the stand-up comedy in the front while she tries to divine my future. “Some people call it the Tower card. I call it the Thunderbolt.”

Zon is calm, but I can’t tell if she even believes what she’s saying or if this is merely fun for her. The card itself is in desperate need of color as depicts two people jumping off an ominous tower; it’s bisected by a thunderbolt.

“Man. It looks scary as fuck. Is it bad? It looks bad.”

“It doesn’t have to be bad. It just means you’re gonna take a fall. Just try to land on your feet.”

“I’m gonna take a fall? That means it’s bad!”

“No it’s not. Just Remember. You’re gonna fall, but know you’ll land on your feet. You’ll be all right.”

When SXSW looms, its shadow stretches far beyond Texas past Oklahoma and deeper still into the Midwest. It’s coming and everybody who loves music knows it. They’ve felt it for months, watching from a far, waiting for their favorite bands to confirm; making preparations and itineraries in hopes that they’ll navigate through the coming sonic riot with their bodies intact and a story to tell. This is SXSW.

It’s Wednesday night in Norman, Oklahoma and I have Austin on the mind. On Monday, I’ll pack my drumsticks and leave for festival. I’ve never been one to buy into the “Keep Austin Weird” hype, but having lived in Norman for almost ten years, I can’t deny that I need a change of scenery even if it’s only for a week.

But being weird has never been Norman’s problem. Whenever things got boring here, something would be done to shake things up. I remember seeing a group of crusty punks constructing homemade stilts before prancing through unsuspecting neighborhoods and declaring themselves a circus.

“Circuses have animals!” we heckled.

“This guy smells like an animal,” they shouted, pointing to the crustiest among them.

I caught a whiff of him. They were right.

Norman’s definitely not boring, but it’s still small for a city. It’s like a Noah’s Ark of culture. It has everything I like from the people to the art, but in biblically-limited quantities. Lately when I’ve been walking around at midnight, I’m starting to feel like I’ve seen everything on this boat.

Tonight’s a typical night. James Draper, local hero and perennial funny man, suggests we go to a house party a little bit up the road, past the bars. Osi, a fairly new comedian with nothing to do now that the show has ended, concurs. He votes we move that way.

As we walk I do my best to avoid potholes, looking at the ground carefully every fifteen feet. Around this time last year, I rolled my ankle by stepping into a pothole during a late night drunk walk. The ankle affected me for months. When I think about last year’s Norman Music Festival, I can still feel the ache of limping my drum set through a crowd of drunks to the stage, limping through seven songs, and then limping all the way back home. With SXSW on the horizon and feeling a bit cursed, I hope to avoid stumbling into the same pattern.

“You excited about South By?” Osi asks.

“Hell yeah, I am.”

“What’s it like?”

From what I remember, SXSW is a lot of walking, a lot of trying to see bands I like, and then a lot of disappointment after missing them. That might not sound very festive, but it’s not rehashing past experiences that I’m excited about. It’s the potential of epic nights to be had, which is SXSW’s true allure. And potential is enough for me.

“It’s awesome.”

The three of us make it to the house around 1:30 in the morning. I can hear faint hip-hop coming from the crack in the door and there’s a drunk girl talking loudly on the porch. These are all familiar sights in Norman on a Wednesday. We walk five steps up the porch to the door.

“Who are you fuckers?” the girl says.

“I’m James,” Draper says.

“What about you?” she says, pointing to me.

“I’m James too.”

“Get out of here!” she exclaims as if this were sitcom and she were a drunken Elaine Benes, shoving me hard as she speaks.

I slip backwards off the steps on the porch, momentum carrying me to the ground, but eerily I remain calm, rolling backwards until I land with my two feet under me, and my palm pressed against the concrete to break my fall.

Fuck, my wrist.

“Oh shit!” she says. “I’m sorry! I forgot those steps were there!”

“Damn Nghiem. You look like a ninja right now,” Osi says.

“I think I jacked my wrist,” I say, feeling like last year’s idiot who walked into a pothole and could barely play his drums without wincing.

“Let me look at it,” drunk girl says. “I can help. I’m studying to be a nurse.”

Begrudgingly, I walk with her underneath some light, and she grabs both of my palms for comparison.

“Hmmm. The blood vessels in your right palm and wrist are inflamed and swollen.”

No shit. “Interesting. I wonder what could have caused this, doc.”

“Can you move your fingers?”

I can and do.

“Yeah man. You should be good. This swelling should be gone in a day.”

The owner of the house walks up to the two of us.

“You good Mr. Nghiem,” he says, flashing me his deformed knuckles. “See. Your hands don’t look as bad as mine. I socked my friend the other day. Hurts like a bitch.”

I test out my wrist and stretch it out. He’s right. It’s not that bad. I feel a little irritated, but ultimately relieved as I recall the words from the amateur psychic back at the bar.

You’re gonna fall, but know you’ll land on your feet. You’ll be all right.

The SXSW anticipation begins to well up again. Monday can’t come fast enough.


Illustration of James Nghiem by Andy Nghiem

Illustration of James Nghiem by Andy Nghiem. His glasses really are that yellow.

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