Fans help Sunderland win national contest

Sunderland beat 299 other bands from across the country to bring home the grand prize in Charter Center Stage

The votes were sailing in, sometimes between eight and 15 per minute.

The vote counter ratcheted upward, 8,750; 8,790; 8,876; 8,904.

The clock finally reached the contest's last half-hour with Sunderland in the lead by six hundred votes - after a midnight rally back up from hundreds of votes behind.

If you are under 20 and a local music fan then you were probably online Sept. 25 between 9:30 and 10 a.m. furiously punching the refresh button at

Why? Because Hood River rock band Sunderland was in a neck-and-neck online voting race for first place in a nationwide battle of the bands contest, offering $25,000 in prizes and a secured slot opening for "Panic! at the Disco," a band famous for rock 'n' roll clout.

If you are a Sunderland fan or just someone who likes to see the home team win, then the news is good. Sunderland beat 299 other bands from across the country to bring home the grand prize.

"We are really, really excited!" said Sunderland's Zach Grace, band guitarist and songwriter, in a phone interview 15 minutes after the news was posted on the Charter website.

"The community really helped us win. If Hood River hadn't been talking about this, rallying for us - we couldn't have done it," said Grace.

"Oh, my gosh. I can't even comprehend it," said Dylan Bauld, band bassist. "We just want people to know that having our hometown behind us kept us going; it gave us confidence. Thank you so much."

Vaughan Heppe, drummer for the group, added this to his thanks: "Have faith in us. We can, and want to, go far with this opportunity."

"This really says something about Hood River when a small town pulling together can beat out with people from New York," said McKinley Kitts, Sunderland lead vocalist and guitar player.

On Sept. 26 at about 3:30 p.m. the band received its official notification of having secured the verified top votes against 10 other semifinalist bands - netting 9,029 online votes over seven days in the Charter Center Stage contest.

The second-place band, Night Fevers, representing the New York City area, came in with 8,454 votes - after having jostled in and out of first place against Sunderland over several days in the semifinals.

"This is so ridiculous! I've dreamed of meeting 'Panic! at the Disco' since I started following them at 14," said Kitts. "Now we will be playing with them."

The band will also take home $10,000 in gift certificates and prize money to be used for equipment and other band needs in addition to winning all its travel costs to the Oct. 15 concert in Madison, Wis., worth close to $15,000 more.

Good timing - the band recently had $5,000 in equipment stolen during a concert in Denver.

"We can really use this money right now," said Bauld. "We have to replace a lot of what we lost."

One of the first moves the band made when receiving their good news was to make a generous decision, perhaps inspiring to others in the community. The band has plans to "pay it forward."

"We plan to donate some prize money back to Hood River Valley School District for all of their support to us," said Grace, who started in his first band while at Hood River Middle School.

"We want to say thank you somehow for having carried us; supported us," said Kitts about the planned donation. "I wish we could give individual hugs to everyone who voted for us."

As the opening band for the "Panic!" concert, Sunderland will play the starting slot for about 25 minutes while at the Willow Island at Alliant Energy Center, a huge outdoor concert venue. The concert will also be streamed live via Charter Communications' Facebook page.

"This will bring us incredible exposure," said Grace.

The band will also be allowed to sell merchandise at the concert, including its existing EP recordings.

Three band mates, Kitts, Grace and Bauld, were in Hollywood at the time the call came in on the contest, cutting a new set of demos and a new single. Heppe was still in Hood River, after having already finished his drum tracks for the recording.

Even with the separation, the four musicians celebrated in sync - sharing phone calls with each other and their families.

With an added bit of good timing, the band also announced this week their selection to open for the popular musician Drake Bell during a portion of his east coast tour.

Yet, beyond the excitement of new opportunities lays the reality before the group - just a little over two weeks to prepare for the break of a lifetime through the Charter contest.

When asked how each band member plans to prepare, the unanimous answer to a man was - "practice, practice, practice and practice!" -- music to their former music teachers' ears.

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