“Y’all are in for a treat tonight,” Isaac Mathison-Bowie ’15 of Word on the Street called out to a packed, anxious 10K last Saturday night. The room had filled up in a matter of minutes with students awaiting the kick-off of Macalester’s annual Battle of the Bands (BOTB) competition.
Five wildly different and entertaining groups took the stage that night—the 8-piece collective Word on the Street, the indie rock groups Broken Gnome and Sweet Smog Children, the rap group Slick Rock + Trick Shot, and a post-hardcore group called Death & the Maiden, who walked away with the big prize: opening at Springfest 2013.
“I was really impressed with the variety this year,” said BOTB judge Kerry Alexander ’12. Lead singer of Bad Bad Hats, Alexander was the first Mac alum to judge the event. She was joined by Victoria Malloway of the Macalester music department and Laura Yurich of the music blog Minneapolis F*cking Rocks. After they determined the final two bands – Death & the Maiden (DATM) and Broken Gnome – the two finalists each played another song, and the audience voted for their favorite.
Most of those in attendance were upperclassmen – friends of the bands, music majors, or just folks looking for something fun to do on a Saturday night. Program Board wasn’t too worried about publicity.
“The bands do that work for us,” Will Kent-Daggett ‘15, one of the coordinators of the event, explained. Their main focus this year was just getting bands to compete. And although only five groups participated, compared to last year’s eight, the eclectic bands of BOTB 2013 represented the changing tide of the Macalester music scene.
The “energetic,” “groovy” and “danceable” Word on the Street performed first.
Although they were last year’s victors, and the “one to beat” according to judge Alexander, they did not appear in the final round. There was debate as to whether or not the band would even be allowed to participate at Battle of the Bands this year.
“We were a little worried it would dissuade other bands from competing,” said Kent-Daggett, considering Word on the Street opened for Biz Markie at Springfest 2012.
The three-piece indie group Sweet Smog Children followed with a sound as strong and distinct as the eight-piece force before them. The group’s members demonstrated their versatility, as Will Kennedy ’13 stepped up from his drum kit to sing and play the bass guitar for their second song, while Death & the Maiden’s Maxray Savage ’13 and Rob Granfelt ’15 played guitar and drums respectively.
Broken Gnome, eventual runner-up in the competition, impressed both the crowd and the judges with their technically sound, gimmick-free performance. Alexander especially enjoyed this group. “I love Jonas’s [Yela ’14, lead singer of Broken Gnome] voice,” she raved. “It was one of the few I could hear.”
The final competitor was the always entertaining, over-the-top Slick Rock + Trick Shot, a rap duo composed of vocalist Tommy Symmes ’13 and producer Freddy Kamps ’13. Symmes took the stage to a crowd chanting his name, and was soon accompanied by a motley hype crew in animal hats, pj pants, and boxing gear. “We achieved our number one goal, which is making the crowd dance,” said a smiling albeit “mildly disappointed” Kamps after the show. “I would say we got rowdy.”
The dark horse of the competition, Death and the Maiden, hit their audience with a wall of intense, ear-blasting sound. Although they call themselves post-hardcore, the diverse technical backgrounds of their members (some of whom play in indie bands as well) truly set them apart. Lead vocalist Ross Hutchens ’15 screamed into the microphone, while Granfelt jammed on the drums, and Dan Lee ’15 and Savage gelled on bass and guitar, respectively – occasionally joined by Hutchens on guitar. Hutchens and Lee both have punk/hardcore backgrounds, but Savage and Granfelt are newcomers to the hardcore scene.
“Death and the Maiden impressed,” said Alexander, when she left the stage after announcing the finalists. “They were the first name to come up [in the judge’s selection process].”
“There’s something distinct about our sound,” said Hutchens after the show. Granfelt followed up, commenting on the differences in background that he and Savage brought to the band. “Our ignorance about this music is almost the beautiful part. We’ll try stuff you’re not supposed to try with this genre.”
The group could not have been more surprised to come out as champions. “We totally accepted that we weren’t gonna win,” said Lee. Hutchens echoed his sentiments, saying “we saw it as good practice for the show we have coming up.” Savage chimed in: “We underestimated the power of pure energy.”
Their victory speaks volumes about the departure from a strictly indie Macalester music scene. “When you’re at Mac, not even just with music but everything, you’re hit with this idea that you should re-think your previous opinions and views about everything, ” said Lee. “I’m sure a lot of those people who voted for us… they hear the word hardcore and their ears shut off. But I think now people are just more apt to re-think how they feel about things.”
Hutchens predicts that DATM’s rise to the forefront of the Mac music community may break down some barriers for music groups to come, who may now “feel comfortable playing whatever kind of music they like.” His band-mates hope so; Granfelt says Mac kids shouldn’t be afraid to try new things. “If you have a metal band with a banjo and a violin, Mac kids will listen.”
Looking ahead to Springfest, DATM is creating a wealth of new music in an attempt to stay away from their “old stuff” and experiment with more of an electronic, dubstep influence.
BOTB opened a window of opportunity to DATM, just as it has for Mac bands in the past – even Mac bands who didn’t win the competition. These groups are already moving on to bigger and better things outside of the Mac bubble. Carroll, runners-up to Word on the Street last year, traveled to Austin, TX this month to play in the South by Southwest music festival, after emerging as winners in the VitaMN’s Are You Local? Music competition. The band released Needs, their first EP, on February 12th of this year. Bad Bad Hats, who played alongside Carroll at BOTB in 2012, and in the finals of the Are You Local? competition, released their first EP titled It Hurts last year.
Who knows who we’ll see outside of Macalester in the years to come. All of the competitors at BOTB 2013 have the potential to break out of this school and achieve wider acclaim. Mac kids are already listening to these disparate, talented groups – maybe in a few years, others will be listening too.