When I heard the floor crack at Elks Lodge freshman year, I thought it would be the last Battle of the Bands Phi Mu Alpha ever hosted.
But for the first time since 2019, this student band extravaganza has returned — though this time on cement floors.
Hillsdale students flooded into 55 Below last Saturday to see Pi Mu Alpha’s Battle of the Bands. Music blasted out the doors as I walked in right before the second set. At least 60 were students already there, illuminated by the blue and red strobe light, to support their friends.
Phi Mu Alpha and the bands blew my expectations through the roof, not the floor. “Them Kids,” made up of senior Frank Vitale, juniors Matthias Rhein and Luke Shepherd, and freshman Sam Wallace, opened with “Creep,” keeping an ecstatic energy through their set. The students quickly got into the music, rocking along to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Students from Simpson and Donnybrook flooded to the front of the audience, screaming along to the songs and interacting with Rhein.
Next up was “Sad Dads,” led by seniors Aidan Cyrus, Victoria Nuñez, Ethan Buehrer, Kamdyn Shaeffer, and junior Nathaniel Bly. Cyrus’ energy enthralled the audience, as well as a surprising vocal solo from Bly, the drummer. His scream-singing left the crowd staring at each other, and laughing, in disbelief.
“Nathaniel Bly was born to be the front man for an Australian hard rock group, but if the rock group was from Georgia and loved Zaxby’s fried chicken,” Cyrus said. “I talked to Dean Pete and he said we should ease the student population into Bly’s visceral stage presence. We were expecting the crowd to melt.”
To come up with songs for a set, Cyrus said their band sits in a circle in the Howard practice rooms and says the first word that comes to mind.
“After two or three words, we try to find the closest real song to our fake song,” Cyrus said. “For instance, I said, ‘Swim trunks,’ and Kamdyn said, ‘middle school’ and so we chose ‘Swimming Pools’ by Kendrick Lamar.”
Sophomore Alexandra Hall said her favorite group was “Sad Dads.”
“They played a ‘Modern Baseball’ song at one point and I felt my soul leave my body for a second,” Hall said. “I never thought Hillsdale could bring back some good old pop punk.”
Next up was “Stella Anne and the Half Pints.” The band included seniors Will Smith, Shane Smith, Drew Godsell, Anna Fieser, and junior Michael Thelen. By this time, you had to be careful approaching the stage, otherwise you’d easily get crushed by the packed crowd, especially when the performers started playing fan favorites.
“We try to strike the right balance between choosing songs that everyone will know and love, and songs that show off our strengths as a band,” Thelen said. “Sometimes this means sacrificing the more obscure songs that we would love to play but that the audience wouldn’t really know, which can suck, but it always pays off in the end.”
Thelen said a big key to keeping the crowd engaged is interaction and good stage presence.
“A band that is rocking out and visibly having a great time on stage is so much more engaging to an audience than a band that just stands still and plays,” Thelen said.
“Stella Anne and the Half Pints” ended up winning Battle of the Bands, which Thelen said brings campus clout on top of other advantages.
“I know the whole band is psyched about it because winning the battle also gives us good exposure for events later in the year like CHP Showdown,” Thelen said. “For me personally, the best part about winning is that it means that the audience had a lot of fun during our set, and that’s always one of my main goals as a musician and performer. There’s nothing like watching a packed crowd of people jumping around, screaming the lyrics, and having a great time to the music that you’re playing.”
Cyrus said events like Battle of the Bands remind him of his love for Hillsdale.
“Playing music with my friends, watching my friends dance, and celebrate, watching my friends show their talent to their other friends,” Cyrus said. “It’s just friends enjoying each other’s company. Not to be sappy, but those nights I will not get to experience ever again after Hillsdale.”
Thelen said some of his favorite moments included hearing the crowd sing along to “Locked Out of Heaven” and “Still Into You.”
“There are also so many great little moments throughout the set that remind me how awesome my bandmates are – Drew will add a cool drum fill, Will will get awesome feedback with his guitar, Shane will nail a bass part, or Anna will hit a killer high note, and we’ll just look at each other and smile,” Thelen said. “They’re some of the best musicians I’ve ever played with, and it’s a joy to be onstage with them every time.”