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The basic ingredients of Saturday's Laptop Battle at Churchill's Pub are, well, pretty basic. All that's needed are computer-wielding contestants, an audience, and a few brave judges. Now, about the rules: Screw the rules. What do you think this is, American Idol? All right, so maybe there are a couple of rules.
"The only real hard-and-fast rule is one laptop per contestant; oh, and no microphone all the vocals have to be pre-recorded," says Kris Moon, of the Seattle-based LaptopBattle.org. He should know. After all, it was Moon who, along with fourthcity.net's Zapan, introduced North America to the high-tech stage sport of laptop battling in 2003. The first event was a local affair (the Battle of Seattle, as it were). But it took only a year for the event to branch out across the continent, hitting towns like Vancouver, Chicago, Austin (at SXSW), and New York City. Miami missed out the first two years and might have sat this one out too. But as with any underground scene, all it takes is one person to get shit started. Enter Matt Reininger, of MiamiMusicGuide.com.
"Last fall, I received a message from a friend of mine who had just finished competing in a laptop battle in Atlanta," Reininger says. "He told me about all the crazy antics regarding the show and the tremendous crowd involvement. I was impressed. So I thought to myself: 'South Florida has some of the most progressive laptop musicians the country has to offer. We also have, perhaps, the most forward-thinking music label, Schematic Records... Why aren't we competing with the rest of the country?'"
So Reininger fired up his laptop and contacted Moon. Now Miami's on the laptop map ("maptop"?), squaring off a who's who of local noisemakers. At presstime, the list of contestants included Otto Von Schirach, Doormouse, Wicked Dream Foundation, DJ Aura, Obed, Kentsoundz, Peasants With Feathers, Hydroplane, and Line Noise. Whoever wins Saturday's competition moves onto this December's finals in Seattle but only after scoring up to $1,500 worth of computer gear.
"The interesting part of this battle is how these guys have to compete," Reininger says. "Essentially, the audience and judges don't know what they are doing behind that laptop. For all they know, Doormouse just hit 'play' on iTunes and is checking messages on MySpace. So the way the battle is really won is by the contestant's performance how the artist interacts with the crowd, what props he brings on stage, what he dresses up with, et cetera. Antics are the key to winning this."
Of course, it's not all about putting on a wacky stage show, as Moon points out. "Having a good melody and crafting a good song tends to win hearts of audience and judges," he says, though mostly concurring with Reininger. "The guys who proceed to semifinals have really good stage performance. They interact with the crowd as well as their computer. Laptop culture attracts the kind of people who are out on the edge doing weird shit. Though everyone's idea of what makes a good battle track differs."
And that's where the judging comes in. Moon lists four common guidelines for picking a winner originality, technicality, stage performance, and audience reaction. Judging the event are Sweat Records' Lauren Reskin, local electronic artist Dino Felipe, and the music editor of New Times Broward-Palm Beach (yes, Fats Pompano's heading to Little Haiti to be a volunteer judge, without compensation).
When the final battle cry has been sounded and the winner's been announced, that's when the party begins. Local electro/jazz/noise/what-have-you group Inner City Bonfire lights it up with a live set while the leftover battlers join in. Adding a touch of multimedia is the crew of local street painters doing their thing next to the stage.
Though Moon has never been to Miami, he's more than familiar with two of the city's more over-the-top performers, Otto Von Schirach and Doormouse. "Otto and Doormouse that's going to be a clash of the titans," Moon says. "If either of them take it to Seattle, it'll definitely raise the performance bar."
Kind words, no doubt. But Moon's not just blowing smoke up anyone's ass. This is coming from a guy who's seen a lot of weird stage shenanigans in the past three years, from contestants dressed in rabbit costumes to faux octogenarians carrying walkers and moving in slow motion. But the chaos has been pretty well-controlled, for the most part. Well, for now, at least.
"No one's lit their shit on fire yet," Moon says. "Though I'm sure it's only a matter of time."