It was almost 2 a.m. this past Thursday, the second of two consecutive nights to which Beatcomber volunteered its ear as a judge in the Vans Warped Tour Battle of the Bands. The last band standing after the three-week, six-night competition at Alligator Alley will ascend a stage at Pompano Beach Amphitheatre on August 6, at the South Florida stop of the PG-13, product-placement op that the Warped Tour has become. But these last couple of nights of music have been the worst in recent memory. Local groups like Breakline, Balance, All or Nothing, and Fushumeng pinch out lowest-common-denominator hardcore, all of it virtually interchangeable, with generic presentation and nonexistent songwriting.
Like a prison break or a messy baby, the whole affair was aesthetically crude but also strangely beautiful. In the ever-shifting molehill that is the local rock hierarchy, these battling bands lie at the murky bottom, the fertilizer the rest of the scene springs from. They exist to take the gigs that other acts won't, to attract the fans other groups deride, to give kids something to bang heads to until they realize they don't have to love their friend's garage band just because his garage is next door. And, God bless 'em, we need them to do what they do.
Having to endure what they do for four straight hours, though, sent Beatcomber's mind on a warped tour of its own. The whole notion of a "battle of the bands" seems misguided to begin with. Most people embrace music precisely to avoid the competition surrounding sports and academics and the general bloodlust that comes prepackaged with the rest of modern existence. So why get in the ring to knock down your peers in a pastime that's supposed to be noncontact? Why not just, you know, play shows where you don't get scored like figure skaters?
In the case of the Warped Tour, the prize is decent enough to warrant the effort. Even if it's a crack-of-noon slot that only the most dedicated early birds will catch, it's still a killer bullet point on a band bio. But in South Florida, battles are common all year long, with prizes far less enticing and promoters far more questionable, and they're almost exclusively inexperienced, inarticulate acts that clog up the lower brackets.
Much-admired jazz punks Lost, My Love? came out on top of last month's brouhaha at Sofa Kings, the first promoted by Fort Lauderdale's Double D Productions. During the six-week process, vocalist Chris Macfarlane saw the bright and the bitter sides of battling.
"Just like every other [local] band, we don't have any money," Macfarlane explains. "So when we heard we could get a grand and a video and studio time, those are the things that bands whore themselves to get. To get them for free is sweet as shit."
But as almost any winner from one of these contests will tell you, the promises rarely materialize. The $1,000 cash prize that Double D initially advertised was nixed after two major sponsors pulled out. When they went into Pompano Beach's Mercury Studios to record, engineer/producer Adam Wesley saw potential in their material but suggested they return in a couple weeks with new, more structured songs. Rather than rev up the band's creative engine, the criticism completely broke it down.
"We kinda broke up after that," Macfarlane says. "I guess that affected the way everyone wrote. I honestly didn't give a fuck, but I was still pissed, because I'm like, is that what were working for? Is that what we're ultimately trying to do, be some radio-friendly band? But I guess it was what any label guy would probably tell us."
"You have to look at it from a business aspect, which musicians don't," David Neri of Double D says. "They say they're in it for the love of music, but everyone's dream is to get signed. So it's all bullshit. If you really want to make it in this business, it is a business first. Yes, you love playing, that's why you play, but -- I love to make money too."
Neri -- who plays guitar in the band Chicken for Chico -- takes a bottom-line approach that seems to belie his company's stated intention of unifying the South Florida scene by throwing big concert events like band battles. But he sees the money and the music coexisting by necessity.
"The rock 'n' roll crowd is prone to stab each other in the back or talk shit," Neri says. "There's no unity. You look at the R&B, hip-hop, and urban crowd and they're all united -- they sing on each other's CDs, they play shows with each other, they propel their careers off each other. And we don't have that. I'm trying to show that if you can get six bands together with something to shoot for and thrive and link each other and network, then you can go further."
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What about the rivalry that's automatically established among bands engaged in competition? Where's the unity in pitting bands against one another?
"That's an ego issue," he says. "Bands need to look past that and say, 'Maybe this band is better than us. Maybe they're better songwriters. Maybe we could learn from these guys. Let's link with them and do shows. '" It's a capitalistic approach: Whether in the free market or the local music scene, competition breeds camaraderie, along with a sense of one-upmanship. Both are powerful motivators.
Macfarlane grudgingly agrees. "There was this other band [at the Sofa Kings battle], and they talked a lot of shit to us, and we beat them," he says. "In a way, you're showing all the other bands you're better than they are. That's not really what I'm about, but it is kind of cool."
Cool enough to keep him going forward. Macfarlane is regrouping with members of Lost, My Love? in a new band called the Living Forest. By this time next year, he and the band might be local champions, battling all the way to Warped Tour '06. Or they might retire from the world of professional music competition, satisfied to just rock for the sake of rocking, kicking ass without taking names.