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Road Rash

[The author plays bass for the Heatseekers.]

It's not every day that a band makes it out of Fort Lauderdale. This is for many reasons other than the obvious: It takes a good ten hours just to drive out of the state.

On Friday, July 16, almost two months after the Heatseekers won the Miami regional competition for Little Steven's Underground Garage Battle of the Bands, we loaded up the van and headed north to New York City for the national finals, where we played at a sold-out Irving Plaza in front of 1,500 people.

Along the way, we pissed each other off, ran up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art the way Rocky Balboa did, and ate cold Indian food on an AC vent outside a Chapel Hill club before playing a gig for five people. We hit Jacksonville, Atlanta, Chapel Hill, Philadelphia, and Manhattan, playing shows in each city.

You think you really know someone, but you have no idea what they're really like until you spend ten days in a van with them. Digestion (or lack of), weird smells, sleep deprivation, insufficient funds, poor driving directions, and my very unrock 'n' roll devotion to NPR were all obstacles. For drummer Chuck Loose, singer/guitarist Owen McLean, guitarist Chris Maggio, and myself, it was our first time touring outside of Florida together. After five days packed in the minivan, we were all a mass of exposed wires; we kept knocking into one another and shooting sparks. Chris offered wagers on who would be the first to get in a fight, freak out, or cry. As we finally hit the Jersey Turnpike on Tuesday morning, I did the latter.

Day of the Competition: The day before the battle, we had gotten a call from Little Steven's camp telling us to be ready Friday morning for an interview with MTV2. With only a handful of media interviews under our belts, our biggest concern was trying to convince Chris that his standard reply of "bag of dicks" was not really appropriate.

Now, all black is not necessarily the uniform for the Heatseekers, but it is what we have stuck to for a few years. It's classic and timeless, like Johnny Cash, yet helpful at concealing yesterday's beer stains. At 9 in the morning of the interview, Owen met me in the lobby of the cheap hotel where we were staying in a pale plaid shirt, backward green baseball cap, and his mom's old pair of black jeans; they had a rip in the bottom of the back pocket, so his wallet hung out, cradled by a few stray threads.

I don't know why I cared, but I did. The whole ordeal clashed with our punk rock ideals, but it's not every day that you get interviewed by a machine like MTV. It's like the ugly kid getting asked to the prom; these things happen only once in a lifetime and, damn it, you want to look good.

We got to the Gramercy Park Hotel to check in (we were getting free rooms for the night) and headed for the bar where the interviews would happen. Other bands shuffled in the revolving door to check in and dry off. It was raining hard, casting a small, black cloud over the day. Upstairs, there's a quick pre-interview with an amped-up MTV girl who says things like, "That's off the shazam!" The boys rename her "the Fluffer."

We entered the bar area, which was decorated with tropical-print wallpaper, and we were pinned with microphones for the interview. Owen, who had been keeping check on everyone's emotions the entire trip, cozied up to a sullen-looking Chris. "You all right, man?" he asked. Chris looked up and said, "If you ask me that one more time, I'm going to punch you in the fucking face." The cameraman, seeing the opportunity to expose band turmoil, said to the crew, "Oh, this is gonna be a great interview."

But it was not. When the cameras rolled, we were dead silent. It was uncomfortable, like watching a mime. My throat felt like a desert, and all that was coming out of it was hot air. The peppy VJ tried her best to ignite some controversy. "So, is there anyone you think should win or not?" she asked casually. I politely picked a band called the Blackouts and tried to avoid starting shit. Thankfully, Chuck dusted off some of his stock quotes, and we made it through. A few hours later, we headed over to Irving Plaza. The sky was still pissing on us, and Chris' faux Rod Stewart 'do had gone limp from the humidity.

The Battle: The judges for the night included Little Steven himself and MTV's veteran talking head, Kurt Loder (who, up close, actually has a large head). Little Steven was wearing his trademark bandanna and snakeskin boots. As we walked in, he was rehearsing in front of the camera, trying to lighten up the mood with Sopranos-tinged lines like "Welcome to tha muthafuckin' nightmare of my life." The consensus among the bands was that everyone was just happy to have gotten this far. It's a nice change from the Miami battle, where the air of nervous competition was so thick you could stab it with an ice pick.

The evening's host was Kim Fowley, the rock 'n' roll producer/writer best-known for creating Joan Jett's teenage girl band the Runaways. His shock of white hair, coupled with a black suit with a white collar, made him look like a lecherous priest. He handed me his business card before we went on, then introduced us to the crowd. Our ten-minute set was over before we even had a chance to get nervous.

The Aftermath: The rest of the night was a blur of sweat and vodka tonics. At the end of headliners Rocket from the Crypt's set, the judges announced Muck and the Mires and the Blackouts as the winners. This seemed fair; the two bands are solid representations of each side of the garage rock spectrum. Now they're off to play another ten-minute set, this time at Little Steven's International Underground Garage Festival on Randall's Island with the Strokes, the New York Dolls, and Iggy and the Stooges.

After oversleeping our checkout time by an hour, we were on the road again, ending our tour on Sunday in Brooklyn. We were back in familiar territory, playing at the aptly named Trash Bar. It ended up being the best show of the trip, and we left New York at 3 Monday morning with an extra boost of morale. Our MTV interview, however, was nixed.

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Terra Sullivan

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