I am seated on a beige bench in Lee’s Palace at 9:20 pm on January 9. Having just narrowly escaped death by a patch of ice on my way here, I note that the bench is one of those benches that you sat on in elementary school for recess. Above me, a disco ball reflects the purple lighting that engulfs the venue. There are four dangling lights surrounding the disco ball but only one of them is blue. It bothers me.
Four well-dressed guys with white shirts come on and play “Someday” by The Strokes. They are Paint Dept., one of the two finalists. They sound like an indie rock band straight from the early 2000s — you know the type. They formed in a band member’s garage with sentimental lyricism that makes you subtly miss your ex.
The most standout member of the band is Kyle, the bassist. His hair is seriously gorgeous. Kyle described his hair as “blinding and buoyant.” It looks like expensive spaghetti that drops down to his shoulders.
His dad later told me that Kyle used to be bald. Kyle confirms this, looking into the distance as he reminiscences about how he used to wear a hat when his hair was in the liminal state between baldness and the gorgeous spaghetti longness that it is today.
By now about 70 people are in the venue. Most of the crowd sit on the beige benches while the few bravely standing hold their drinks and stare at the band. I look intently at one stander who is touching his right arm with his left hand like John Wayne at the end of The Searchers. Paint Dept. gestures for the crowd to come closer before playing an Interpol cover.
I debate whether I should stand up and engage in the crowdly escapades. I decide otherwise. My status as a note-taker who is jotting down everything with a near-empty pen prohibits me.
The band tries to make banter the same way one tries to banter with a friend of a friend that one just met. It’s only when they play their second The Strokes cover, “Last Nite,” that the crowd really gets into it.
It’s at this point — after a raffle in which I did not win anything — that Rocket Bomb comes on. Another five well-dressed guys start playing high-energy pop songs. Do you have to dress nicely to be part of a band? The bassist does not have long hair, but his bright red jacket combines with the purple lighting to accentuate the ’80s aesthetic the band is going for.
Rocket Bomb are an indie dance pop collective with rose-tinted glasses for ’80s disco and funk who integrate modern pop sensibilities to create hip dance songs. They cite DNCE, John Mayer, Shawn Mendez, and The Killers as influences. They are more confident with the crowd, commanding the power to significantly increase the standing to bench-sitting ratio.
While they go through their set, someone in the crowd shouts, “I love you Jacob!” and then the lead singer — whose name is not Jacob — takes off his black jacket and proceeds to cover Tiësto and Dzeko’s “Jackie Chan.” Bodies move. Rocket Bomb gets the crowd to do that thing where everybody claps in the air.
Rocket Bomb are definitely the larger entity: sporting over 350 Facebook likes, over 1,200 Instagram followers, and almost 5,000 monthly listeners on Spotify as of press time. Meanwhile, Paint Dept. has nine Facebook likes, about 100 Instagram followers, and no Spotify.
In this sense, 2019’s Battle of the Bands is a classic David versus Goliath tale. Rocket Bomb advertise themselves as a product that 20-somethings can dance their 20s away to, while Paint Dept. are a grassroots garageband for 20-somethings who pontificate about how modern society lacks any realness.
Suddenly, Rocket Bomb starts playing the Wii theme. This is a level of post-irony that requires more alcohol in my system to appreciate, so I try to go to the washroom. Unfortunately, I am stopped by security who tell me I can’t bring a drink out. I do what any reasonable human being would do and finish the drink there. By the time I get back, Rocket Bomb is finishing their set.
They tell the crowd to follow them on Instagram and that they have merchandise for sale at the back. Everybody gets closer for the last song. Or, more accurately, about 35 people get really close to the stage and about 28 people stay on the sidelines, either sitting on the beige benches or standing and staring intently from a distance.
At the end of the night, these two seemingly distinct bands, in both sound and style, are pitted against each other in a battle of the bands. You’re probably here for an answer to this question: who wins? Well, to answer, I quote Jacques Derrida, the post-structuralist French philosopher: “Every other is wholly other.” For Derrida and his postmodern funkies, we don’t make comparisons with one another in terms of an objective standard.
I can’t really compare Paint Dept.’s sound with Rocket Bomb’s, because any sort of objective standard by which I might compare the two wouldn’t capture the singularity of each individual band.
Derrida points out that to take otherness seriously, that is, for an other to be truly Other, there has to be something utterly irreducible about them. The other must always be outside oneself. As such, there must be something unfathomable and untranslatable between Paint Dept. and Rocket Bomb as musical acts. Yet that singularity — that thing which makes Paint Dept. ‘Paint Dept.’ and Rocket Bomb ‘Rocket Bomb’ is what makes each respective act meaningful in the first place.
Declaring a winner for the battle actually defeats the ethos of both bands. Fortunately, the judges don’t have this philosophical concern — it is a battle after all.
Rocket Bomb won.