Instead of their usual RV, the members of Tow'rs drove a van to their first-ever South by Southwest performance in Austin, Texas. The folk act, touring with five members, was missing two usual road-mates, the children of band co-founders Gretta and Kyle Miller. And although the group was able to travel lighter without the kids, this is not to say their luggage wasn't burdensome as they drove the desolate stretch between Flagstaff and Austin: Three guitars, two synthesizers, a bass, a drum set and a cello filled their vehicle.
Tow'rs formed in Flagstaff in 2014, but now has members spread across Arizona. With a decidedly DIY aesthetic, they've released three albums and amassed a dedicated fanbase during multiple tours. Despite this being their first SXSW, Tow'rs has applied to perform at the festival every year since 2015.
"We would always get waitlisted," vocalist and guitarist Kyle said. "So when we did get in, it was really exciting. It feels like a nod from the music world that they know we're out there."
Beyond the husband and wife team, Tow'rs also includes two Tucsonans: multi-instrumentalist Kyle Keller and drummer Dan Bagley, as well as Flagstaff-based cellist Emma Crislip.
"When we first started, we were more of a folk project, nothing too serious, just playing in taprooms," Keller said. "I first played the banjo and harmonica, but now I'm more of a multi-instrumentalist. I get to help make the band be a band, and not just singer/songwriter. I kind of get to add a third dimension."
Tow'rs, soon releasing their fourth album, fuse the pastoral and human with their intricate folk songs. They sidestep a facile "indie" label with beautiful storytelling and unique instrumentation, incorporating strings, drums and synthesizers. The passionate poetry of their tracks often touches on themes of love, introspection, faith and conflict. While many of their songs are delicate, they aren't afraid to get loud.
"We weren't officially accepted into South by Southwest until towards the end of things, so my jaw dropped when I found out," Keller said. "It's a long-time dream of mine, one of those revered festivals I've always wanted to go to."
Tow'rs also landed on NPR's "Austin 100," a list highlighting the most interesting and noteworthy artists performing at SXSW every year.
Due in part to the rapid expansion of SXSW throughout downtown Austin, more and more venues are popping up to host showcasing artists. Where once it was the convention center and bars, the venue list now includes churches, coffee shops and even hotel lobbies.
Tow'rs performed their showcase set on the 18th floor of a Hilton, at a small hotel bar overlooking the city. The temporary stage didn't offer much room to move around, and the office ceiling panels overhead didn't fit that traditional rock show look. But still, a sizeable crowd gathered for the heartfelt performance.
Over their half-hour set, Tow'rs performed songs inspired by the paradoxes of love, Aesop's fables, bitterness and enlightenment. During their mic check, they were one of the rare bands at the festival to request an instrument's volume be turned down.
"I think the official showcase was very cool, but I'm more excited for the unofficial shows we're playing." Gretta said. "It's not just about the one big slot you're playing in. There's so much happening around this event that you can get wrapped up with."
More than a music festival, SXSW is a conglomerate of multiple festivals and showcases highlighting artistic mediums and beyond. The event holds specialty conferences on film, video games, technology, business and more. Over its 30-year history, SXSW has grown to host hundreds of thousands of attendees annually, and is a critical event for musicians to reach a new audience.
At the same time, startup culture and consumerism run amok at SXSW. Flyers and advertisements litter the ground and walls of Austin during the event's week-and-a-half runtime. The words "innovation" and "influencer" are thrown around without meaning. In previous years, an outdoor stage was built inside a giant Doritos vending machine. This is a far cry from the tall woods of Flagstaff and the introspective melodies of Tow'rs.
"We're just trying to figure it out," Kyle said. "This event is very much about networking, and that's good, but being around so much self-promotion can be yucky. There's kind of an undercurrent where everyone's trying to get something from one another. I don't feel like it fits with our vibe, but that's certainly not to say it's not valuable."
Despite feeling a bit out of place, the members of Tow'rs embraced the opportunities and mania, attending a music mentor session, filming a music video, connecting with other bands and catching quite a few shows on the side.
"I tried to go in without expectations because I really didn't know what to expect anyway," Gretta said. "It's kind of cool that it's not 100 percent our scene, because we get to be involved in such diverse music... I think we would do it again if asked."
Kyle says he most enjoyed simply spending time with his friends and band. As the members are spread between Flagstaff and Tucson, he doesn't get the chance to be with them every day, and the work they do together shows they are just as excited about the music as he is.
"Honestly, the best part of this might be traveling with Gretta without the kids," Kyle said, laughing.
Looking forward, Tow'rs is embarking on a springtime tour across the country and putting the finishing touches on their newest album, propelled by their experiences at SXSW.
"I think there's this notion in the music world that in order to make it, you need a big production team and a lot of money," Kyle said. "But I've always had this suspicion that the people who made music they cared about and went out and played it honestly, those are the ones who made it. And this show gave the affirmation that maybe the way we're doing things is working out."