An eccentric icon that is equal parts ambition and humility, Louis Black is a tireless workhorse who helped found cultural institutions like SXSW, The Austin Chronicle and The Austin Music Awards. While his endeavors have grown from grassroots upstarts to massive productions, Louis remains grounded, his sights set on future projects. We spoke with Louis about early struggles and the bootstrap mentality that has served Austin’s creative community. From unhinged performances at the AMAs, a drug’s vital role in launching SXSW and an anti-porn zealot saving the Chronicle – Louis took time to ruminate on his past, and the anecdotes don’t disappoint.

South By Southwest’s inception had an interesting plot twist involving a couple of New Yorkers and the illicit use of a white powdered substance in the 80’s. What exactly happened?

The New Music Seminar was the dominant music event at the time. It was in New York. And two of the guys who were involved in The New Music Seminar came to Austin to talk about doing a regional day. We snapped … what a cool thing that would be. And then they never came back. So eventually Roland Swenson and Louis Meyers came to Nick Barbaro and I and said, “Why don’t we do it? Let’s start a regional convention” and we decided to do it. And I have oft thought that they didn’t come back because of their use of recreational drugs, they were strung out. So I am very grateful for the drugs. I don’t swear to this. I just always assumed that. We called them and asked their permission and they said fine. They were friends of ours actually. So they knew what we were doing. And since then they have mentioned, on occasion, or at least one of them has, perhaps it wasn’t their best move to give us … the go ahead to do it. They maybe should have done it. I would be glib sometimes and say, “That’s when cocaine cracked its whip.”

SXSW has changed over the years and it has its detractors who label the festival with broad strokes as a big brand event. How does an attendee seek out the festival’s punk and independent DNA?

I really believe that the kind of driving idea behind SXSW. There’s two basic ones and one that’s very punk which is there’s no difference in who’s in the audience and who’s on stage except for the foot and a half height of the stage. And that’s what we told them when we were kids and I feel it to this day. And one of the things SXSW does is it gives you knowledge and helps you create relationships and shows you quality work so that you realize that there’s no reason why you can’t do this. But when you’re in the center you can really feel the jag, the energy is really there. And sometimes I get a little discouraged and then I’ll be walking around and I suddenly get that sense, and you see people are really excited. Sure it’s different but I think the energy is still there.

The other idea was that all these things are basically … both art forms and businesses. The more you understand the business, the more control you have over your own art. It doesn’t mean that you have to be independent, but at least you understand the business. In music and in film and everywhere we present a lot of quality work. So in terms of being an artist it shows you what the standard is. It’s not easy. You have to work really hard. I know a lot of artists who are successful, musicians and filmmakers. And everybody I know gets up every morning and works. They are excited and they are challenged but they work all the time.

And so … I think it’s changed. It really has. SXSW certainly has changed from the first year. We expected, you know, 700 people. But I think at that the core and at it’s best, those ideas still drive it.

From when it was started, I don’t think anybody could have imagined what it is today. But from right now projecting perhaps 20 years in the future, could you take a guess at what SXSW might look like?

SXSW … it’s kind of like asking where’s my son going to be in 20 years. But it’s also true, that the core ideas are very functional. When the traditional record business went away, SXSW was the perfect place to pick up business. Now money and music went away even more and so things have changed. But in so many ways, SXSW has proved to be smarter than we were, in that the whole idea of bringing everybody together to talk. Originally it was going to be regional, that’s why we called it South by Southwest. It became national very quickly and then international. But there’s people from every aspect of all those businesses. From people who run movie theaters to people who make movies to people who have distribution things. Austin is so crucial to it. It’s so conducive. What goes on at SXSW, goes on in Austin every day of the year. SXSW is a multiplier but it’s not an innovator. It didn’t create it. It’s just really awesome.

I don’t know where it will be in 20 years. You never know. If you’d ask me about print media ten years ago, I would not have guessed that it was going to go away. And then it goes through such a dramatic change. The Chronicle was in one place ten years ago and now in a very different place. All the weeklies had an enormous amount of power. Ten years ago when we had our conventions, everybody was kind of giddy. We were making money. We had a lot of political power and cultural power, and then that all went away in a relatively short period of time. So you never know. But I think SXSW is more flexible.

The Austin Chronicle, which you helped found, benefitted from some controversy early on – having been banned from HEB. What happened there?

Mark Weaver was an anti-porn activist, near anti-gay activist, but anti-porn. He had gotten HEB to throw out the Chronicle because we featured personal ads for gay people. I think had he complained to HEB, they threw us out, and then he went around to all the media in town. Now I think if a housewife had complained, they would have thrown us out, but she wouldn’t have then gone to all the media. So Mark went to all the media in town. We were also carried by Texaco stations, but by someone who was paid to do that. Somebody who distributed in a variety of places. He called Texaco and said the paper just got thrown out of HEB, do you want to carry it? As you can imagine, they said no.

My wife at the time and I were going to France for a couple of weeks. And back then, when you were in France, you didn’t really communicate with the states. Now you use your cell phone but it wasn’t like that. When I left Austin, I thought the paper was going to be dead when I got back. And I was okay with that. I didn’t really want it to end but it was nine years and it was just struggling. It was such hard work. I thought okay, if it’s dead, it’s dead. And then when I came back, that night we went to Whole Foods to get some groceries. And people kept coming up to me and congratulating me and I had no idea why. HEB had let us back in. It was because people had organized protests. People had picketed. And the one thing that Nick and I said was … Our attitude was HEB had every right to decide who gets distributed in the area, and who doesn’t. But we don’t want Mark Weaver telling Austinites what to think. So we were back in the HEB.

And then, and I don’t really remember when, like three months or eight months, but somewhere in there, suddenly business really took off. I’ve always strongly believed that what it was … We put out a quality paper for a really long time and everybody was reading us and they didn’t think everybody else was. And for like three weeks we were a major topic of conversation. I think suddenly business owners began to realize their clients and everybody else was reading The Chronicle. Then advertising really took off and then, finally, after ten years – that was when the paper achieved stability.

Thank God for Mark Weaver.

I was always very grateful. Very grateful. In the beginning, it really was so rough. We didn’t know what we were doing. We were writers. We thought how hard can it be. We didn’t know about distribution or advertising or classified cells. And worst of all about personnel. Because you hire your friends and they don’t work out and how do you fire them. That took the longest to figure out, how to run a business. Neither Nick nor or I were really equipped.

You’ve written hundreds of articles over the years. Is there a certain topic that comes easiest for you?

When I was doing a column … I always had three or four ideas in my head. Sometimes I would finish one and decide I needed to add a paragraph and then write a whole new one. I write very quickly. I type with one finger, only one not two. I had to type at a ridiculously early age and had to take typing in junior high. I would try to type with all my fingers and I would say “Oh, dammit”, and just type with one finger. I passed secretarial class with one finger. I know it’s amazing but I write very quickly. Usually if it comes quickly, it’s a better column. The ones I really labor over usually don’t work very well. Some of them are really sloppy. Sometimes I would just start writing and get as far away from the opening topic as I could and then see how I can come back.

Some of those were my favorite columns. I was engaged in that interior dialogue that those columns came out of. And so, for the most part, it was not really hard writing. Then when it became hard, I stopped doing it but now I really miss it. I miss writing. I write all the time but I do a lot of press releases for tech companies. So I really miss writing. It was a lot of fun.

Well the new generation is doing pretty well. Writers like Kevin Curtin and Rachel Rascoe are great reads. Do you have any advice for the younger generation?

I think they are doing a great job. The advice … I decided the best advice was for me, which was get out of the way. Because the last thing in the world they needed was me giving feedback, when I’m not doing it all the time. And I became editor in the third or fourth year. When I tell the story in public I usually act as though I was editor from the beginning just because it’s easier. But I didn’t become editor until like the third year. Then I was editor until a couple years before I left.

I am not a micro-editor at all. I don’t know how to spell. Thank God for spell check. And my grammar is abysmal. But I’m a macro. I find the soul of the piece. And a lot of times you are just suggesting to people, hey why don’t you go do this piece. So as an editor I was very hands-on. I was always looking for new writers. One time I got a press release and I called the band up and I said to the guys in the band, “Did you write this?” They said, “Yes, are you going to cover my band?” And I said, “No, but I’m gonna hire you to write.” I was always finding writers wherever I could. And so that was really very personal. I think they’ve done a great job since then. I think they’ve maintained the quality of the paper. But I think … I wouldn’t give them advice. Because I think it’s a new generation, and I’m going to hold back.

The Austin Music Awards began in 1982 and there was concern that if local punkers, The Big Boys, won ‘Artist of the Year’, that The Chronicle would be seen as too ‘street’.

What happened was, Jeff Whittington, who was the music editor; really wanted to do the poll. We all agreed and we were ready to run it and I suddenly had this concern, well we were having problems with were we too ‘street’ at the time. We were only a few months old. We were all pretty crazy. We were working all the time. And so I had … briefly I had this thing where I said, “Well, maybe we shouldn’t do this. Maybe people will think we’re too punk. And I took one look at Jeff who was about to have a nervous breakdown and dropped that. I’ve brought it up more recently because I’m friends with Chris Gates and Biscuit and I thought it was indicative of how l wrong I had been on many occasions.

When the actual awards are taking place and the planning is all done, what do you take the most pleasure in once the ceremony is actually started? Where do you have the most fun?

I think the awards are really remarkable, in that it is really collaborative and cooperative, and it’s about music, not about money or celebrity. You can make a lot more money in New York or LA or Nashville. You can become a bigger star. I think most people in the Austin scene really are into the collaboration … not that they don’t want to be successful, of course they do. But there’s a nature of which this community really works together. And so the awards now, having done it for 37 years, I don’t think it’s about the accolades … and even early on I would get nervous about that. Because I think that kind of competition thing, I think is counterproductive. But it’s really about who’s had a really good year.

And since we’ve being doing it for so long and so many categories. It was 50 then we cut it down to 35 but we added another 10 to make the music industry awards. So it’s like 60 categories now. And so many people have won it. So many people have been honored. And I think there’s only a handful of people who might have deserved to get it and didn’t. I can’t think of anybody offhand. So really … It seems to me to be very much an Austin event. It’s like a high school reunion or something. Everybody’s happy to see everybody else. The community votes on it. It’s not critics. It’s not industry. And so I think there’s something very organic about it. And I realize … And I hadn’t even thought about this but I realize like last year, everybody shows up. And I think that says something. Out of the 35 categories, maybe two people won’t be there because they’re on the road or they didn’t allow time.

When we just did the Austin Music Industry Awards last Sunday, for the first time we didn’t tell people who had won. It was just they knew they had been a finalist. But the didn’t know who had won. And every winner was there except for Jody Denberg who thought hanging out with Yoko Ono in New York was more important.

Yeah, I can see why hanging out with Yoko might be …

A little bit more important. I’ve been bitching about Jody but I’m kidding.

The awards look like a reunion. It’s exciting just seeing some legends run into each other and have those interactions. Do you have any favorite moments from the awards?

There’s a lot of them. Actually the second year we did it, Stevie Ray Vaughan flew in on his own nickel and did two-thirds of Texas Flood and then he played with Jimmy. I think it was one of the first times he and Jimmy played together on stage, at least in Austin. That was like the second year.

There were two with Roky Erickson. One where he was going to play with Doug Sahm. He agreed to come and to play but he basically wandered around the stage and didn’t play. And then other time with Roky when he played with the True Believers and he wouldn’t get off stage. They were doing “Two-Headed Dog” and Roky kept running up to the microphone and singing “Two-headed dog, two-headed dog, stuck inside the Kremlin with a two-headed dog” again and again. At one point, three of the guys had him cornered with their guitars and had him pushed off to the side of the stage and he broke through and sang “two-headed dog” again. I thought that was pretty cool.

There are so many times though when different people played together. Margaret got Okkervil River and Roky to play together and then they recorded an album that did really well. Having Pete Townsend come out with Ian McLagan or having Alejandro Escovedo go, “Oh here’s another guitar player”, and Bruce Springsteen walks out, was pretty cool. You know the backstage is where everybody is waiting because they come in groups. And all of those people … Some of them haven’t seen each other in a while and there’s a real camaraderie.

Music venues are mostly ephemeral, is there a shuttered Austin music venue that you miss the most?

That’s a really interesting question. Not really, because I’m used to change and I expect change. I really miss Rauls. When I came to Austin I had been listening to music a lot, but I had never been a part of the scene. I always thought that would be fun, and there I was, part of the scene. I knew everybody. I hung out. I was making movies. I was writing about music. It was really as good a groove as I thought it was going to be. I mean it was really creative and it was fun. Raul’s was really coming of age. And then Liberty Lunch was one of the best places to hear music I ever went. But everything changes. I miss the Armadillo actually, which was a pretty great place. But I’m not one of those people that’s like, Oh, Austin’s dead, you know. The death of Austin was pronounced on an almost weekly basis, since we started The Chronicle, and it was done long before that. So many things are weird now, because the city is changing. It’s going to get too expensive to live here and traffic and all that. I think, in the creative community, there is still a lot going on.

With all of your different accomplishments in Austin, you’ve proven yourself to be a branding savant. Is that just an extension of your creativity?

I don’t know. I don’t have a lot of skill sets. I have some strengths. I think what I really am, is a creative bureaucrat. Nick Barbaro and Joe Dishner came to suggest the paper. Louis Meyers and Roland Swenson suggested SXSW. Rick started the film site and now he helps there. I’ve started some things on my own but usually if somebody comes to me, I say “yes” and usually when I say “yes”, I’m not thinking. But once I commit, then I’m on board. I do think that I’m a bureaucrat. I think my strength is in structures and in communication. Then I realized at a certain point that one of my strengths was branding, which if you would have told me, I probably would have shot myself earlier on. It was not what I wanted to be. What I love to do, I do with a lot of identity and community. You want the people who are going to be interested in what’s going on to know about it. I think I’m a good writer. I’m a good film producer and I think I was a strong editor. But I do think my major skill set has, ironically, proven to be that I know how to create bureaucracy

Well you’ve planted a lot of seeds in Austin that have become synonymous with the city. Do you have a favorite of your accomplishments?

That’s actually interesting. I think number one is that I never did anything alone. The remarkable thing about Austin was I was always working with other people, and they were terrific. My biggest childhood disease that took the longest to get over, was reading Ayn Rand and the Fountainhead. It took me a long time to realize that I love collaboration and that the ego stuff is ridiculous. By the point I moved to Austin, I realized it, and I had an amazing time working with other people. I really didn’t think about what I had done until I got sick in 2011. Up until then, I was always thinking about ideas that I had that I didn’t do and what the next group of problems was. So I kind of always felt that I really hadn’t accomplished very much and I didn’t really look back.

Then I got sick and I kind of looked back with some pride what was there. I also feel like, and I don’t have false modesty, I got to do a lot of stuff. I did it with other people. All the time. It wasn’t just Nick at the Chronicle. It was the Chronicle staff. There were other people in town. When we were making the town, they started SIMS and they started HAAM. So many places where they have problems, everybody sits around and moans about it and not everybody figures how to fix them. And there’s lots of examples of that. It’s a town where people consistently sat around on the couch and got high … or got the work they wanted to do. And Rick [Linklater] went out and made Slacker. Robert [Rodriguez] taught himself how to edit. When he was 10 his dad bought him a video camera. When he was 14 he bought a second one, and he taught himself how to edit using the two decks which I’m not even sure is possible. Using two different archaic decks to edit, but Robert taught himself how to edit.

So many people in this town, John Kunz and Louis Carp started Waterloo. Eddie Wilson and the gang started the Armadillo. In this town, again and again and again, people saw a need and they didn’t wait for somebody else, they did it. They went and they created stuff. And so I’m lucky. I was involved with the paper. I was involved with SXSW and the film society. So I got to do a lot. But it was always working with other people.

I wanted to end with was you are on to your next big project with Louis Black Productions and Production for Use. Are there any books or films that we should be looking out for in the near future from you?

Well, I finally … I’ve been writing a book on the films of Jonathan Demme for most of my adult life, seriously like for 20 years. I did it for my PhD and I have a permanent draft now. It was really getting to me because when I was a kid I never finished anything but as an adult I finished everything. And this just kept dragging on and on. But now I have a draft done. And hopefully at some point that will be a book. There are some thoughts … I’m superstitious so I don’t want to talk about working on them. But there’s a bunch of stuff that’s percolating. A lot of interesting things are going to happen in the next couple of years.

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