Guitar Zero: The Search Is on for St. Louis' 'Air' Apparent (Riverfront Times)
Cover story, Riverfront Times, June 27, 2013
This was my first cover story for the RFT, and it was pretty much an accident. I had pitched the editor-in-chief and music editor on writing a lead music section feature about air guitar's St. Louis invasion. Halfway through writing that, the EIC called to say that an upcoming cover story had tanked and he had a new hole in the schedule. Did I have time to expand my story by about 1500-2000 words within the next six days? Well, with my client schedule that week, no, but I did it anyway, coordinating a few more interviews and digging into air guitar history. This led to my writing not only the cover story but also a series of air guitar sidebars and follow-ups.
Guitar Zero: The Search Is on for St. Louis' 'Air' Apparent
By Allison Babka
St. Louis has birthed its share of musical luminaries over the years, from the early rock and R&B of Chuck Berry and Tina Turner to the blue-eyed soul of Michael McDonald and hip-hop of Nelly and Chingy. But there is one genre that no St. Louis performer has yet to conquer. This town has yet to produce a musical celebrity who — literally — plays nothing.
Kriston Rucker, cofounder of US Air Guitar, wants to change that.
"Every city in the country should have an event and be represented in USAG," says Rucker. "You never know — maybe the next national or world champ is from St. Louis."
Over the past decade Rucker has been responsible for elevating what used to be an embarrassing guilty pleasure done only behind closed doors into a respected art/performance sport. As the official air-guitar association of the United States, USAG hosts dozens of annual competitions nationwide, sizing up America's best faux Fender strummers to determine who will represent the country at the Air Guitar World Championships in Finland.
The Finns started it as a joke side event for a music festival in the 1990s, and, to their surprise, the audience and participants loved it. Now with a mission to promote world peace through air guitar (seriously!), the world championships welcome contenders from some twenty countries.
"Years ago, a friend and I heard about the Air Guitar World Championships, so we went to Finland to find out what the deal was," Rucker explains. "It was great fun and pretty bizarre, but we were shocked to discover that the United States wasn't represented. We just thought this was one international event that the USA could viably claim as something we should dominate."
Although many coastal and Midwestern cities — including St. Louis' cross-state rival, Kansas City — have become centers of air-guitar activity and notoriety, the Gateway City has never been called upon to showcase its imaginary hot licks and musical "O" face — until now. On Friday, June 28, the Firebird plays host to a qualifying round to determine this year's US Air Guitar champ.
Robert McClimans, the talent buyer for the Firebird, thinks the event could be epic. Sort of like the '67 Monterey Pop Festival when Jimi Hendrix famously lit his Stratocaster on fire, or the time back in 1964 when Pete Townshend first smashed a guitar onstage. McClimans already envisions a St. Louis air-guitar legend in the making.
"A year ago, I would have been like, 'That's stupid. Who'd come see this?'" McClimans says of the event. "But now, I think people will be into it. St. Louis has shown a remarkable ability to show up to everything over the past few years."
And what if a performer from the Firebird goes on to become the US Air Guitar champion?
McClimans has an idea: "We should parade them down Market Street like we do the Cardinals."
What kind of person decides to enter an air-guitar competition? Who chooses to demonstrate their childhood fantasy of being a — capital letters — Rock Godby publicly shredding air to Black Sabbath, Bon Jovi, Van Halen and the like?
"You've got to be kind of half-crazy," Rucker says.
"Or be a person who turns their shame filter off," suggests Eric Melin.
Melin should know. A Kansas City resident, he has been a fixture on the air-guitar map since 2009, winning multiple US Air Guitar regional titles as "Mean Melin."
"It's living out rock-star dreams on a low-budget level," Melin says. "The same type of people compete, and you get the same kind of crowd as at a rock show."
Melin, a marketing and communications manager at a social-media monitoring firm, is no stranger to rock-star dreams. He has played drums in noteworthy bands Ultimate Fakebook and the Dead Girls, appeared on VH1's The World Series of Pop Culture and shared the stage with groups such as Motion City Soundtrack.
In fact, Ultimate Fakebook is the line that connected Melin with McClimans at the Firebird.
"My band had a few reunion shows, and Robert [McClimans] booked us to play St. Louis," Melin remembers. "We got there, and it was the most amazing show ever, with 150 people headbanging and playing air guitar."
But McClimans later discovered a different side to Melin.
"I was looking at YouTube and somehow found 'Mean Melin, three-time air-guitar champion.' I was like, 'What the fuck is this?' I didn't really know the scope of air guitar. It's a big deal," McClimans says.
Though Melin has already tasted the rock-star life, he's using air guitar as a chance to finally take center stage.
"I'm a drummer, always sitting down in the back. And that sucks," Melin says. "I want to be the guy in the center, but I can't sing. So I do air guitar."
Jason Farnan had a different approach when it came to joining the air-guitar community. Based in San Diego and going by the name "Lt. Facemelter" at USAG events, Farnan is a three-time regional champ who began his air-guitar career with a shrug.
"Like many air guitarists competing today, I watched the hit documentary Air Guitar Nation and thought, 'Holy hell, I need to go to one of these shows,'" Farnan recalls. " When I went to buy a ticket, I noticed that for an additional $2, you could compete. I thought, 'What's the worst that could happen?' And five years later, I'm more heavily involved than ever."
Participating in air-guitar competitions means creating and embracing a stage persona. Contestants develop larger-than-life characters with back-stories, costumes and distinctive moves — similar to those in professional wrestling.
"If American wrestling didn't exist and someone said, 'What if grown men wore leotards and pretended to fight?' it would sound ridiculous," Rucker of the USAG says. "But no one gives it a thought now."
That's exactly what's so enticing to Justin Howard, the 2012 Air Guitar World Champion who goes by the stage name "Nordic Thunder."
"Creating your air-guitar character is an opportunity to be anything you want, whether that's an '80s hair-metal, spandex-wearing Mötley Crüe-playing rock star or a sweet Southern belle who is possessed by the Devil, and the only way she can communicate with the world is through her air guitar," Howard says. "No matter what character you decide to take on as your alter ego, just let your freak flag fly and become that person onstage!"
Setting up the performance itself requires some serious consideration and storytelling ability.
"Your one-minute competition song is like a three-act play. You're telling a story with your whole body," Melin says. "There's a lot more you can do with an air guitar that you can't do with a real one — throw it up, catch it, impale yourself with it."
Steven Fuller hopes St. Louis will rocket his budding air-guitar addiction to the next level. The 33-year-old dad showcased his first public air guitar this past February at an "aireoke" event in his hometown of Kansas City.
The song he chose — "Welcome to the Jungle" by Guns N' Roses — left him physically exhausted but hooked.
"The whole time you have to be holding this thing that is not there," explains Fuller. "But still you are flexing your arms for five minutes like you are carrying around a seven- to ten-pound instrument. I'm in shape, but it's a workout."
Earlier this month Fuller entered his first USAG competition. He didn't make it past the first round.
"I'm short, and I don't think I could be seen all that well," reflects the five-foot-seven-inch Fuller, who performs as a well-dressed axman named "The Dapper Dwarf." "I didn't rally up the crowd as much as I could have."
So it was back to the living room where Fuller practices his air guitar after his kids go to bed. (His wife, Elizabeth, a ballerina who stands stands more than six feet tall, has also taken up the hobby. She performs as a character named "Dirty Bird.")
Last week Fuller drove to Iowa to compete in a USAG qualifier in Des Moines. The six-hour round trip proved encouraging. He placed third, missing a chance to move onto a USAG regional competition by one-tenth of a point.
Air guitarists at USAG events perform a 60-second set in front of a three-judge panel that ranks them based on their invisible fretwork, stage presence and "airness," defined as "the extent to which a performance transcends the imitation of a real guitar and becomes an art form in and of itself."
Fuller believes he has command of the first two criteria. He plans to reach maximum "airness" this Friday at the Firebird.
So, too, do all those who'll compete against him.
"Qualifier shows are like punk basement shows — smaller, crazier and less structured," says Melin, who will come to town to emcee the competition. "If you just come to see the show and not enough competitors have signed up, you may be dragged up to perform.
"We've had injuries — broken toes and blood on the stage," Melin continues. "We're just not allowed to light things on fire anymore, which hurts for me because I'd been working on my smoking air-guitar routine."
The winner can expect the competition to become more intense at the semifinals and nationals.
"The competitive atmosphere of nationals is hot damn crazy sauce. You're surrounded by top-tier air-guitar talent, and any given competitor can take home the crown," says Farnan, a graphic and Web designer in his non-air-guitar life. "The crowd is likely three times bigger than the qualifier you came from. You have to completely win [over] a crowd full of strangers, and that's the most difficult task to conquer."
After a few years of being scrutinized and scorned, the country's air-guitar culture has become more accepted not only as entertainment, but also as a skill.
"People, on the surface, see it as a bunch of weirdos running around playing invisible instruments. Which it is, but it is also absolutely an art form," defends Howard. "The brave souls who step out on the stage are creating something from nothing. In that minute, there is something magical that happens between the air guitarist and the audience — an energy traded back and forth."
The best performers are those who are willing to push the envelope.
"You get things like sitar. Or a person did dueling banjos," Rucker says. "You get all sorts of stuff."
For McClimans at the Firebird, he'll be happy with just a few '80s hair-band songs and some theatrics.
"I've seen [on YouTube] that competitors have brought fireworks and confetti to events," McClimans says. "For every boring indie-rock band that stands there and doesn't do anything, there are plenty more dudes flailing around on the stage for this."
McClimans plans to hold USAG competitions in St. Louis annually, and he hopes that his hunch to bring air guitar to the Firebird pays off better than other events for which he has been propositioned.
"In a totally insane twist of awkward, weird coincidence, somebody approached us about booking the Air Sex World Championships on the same night! What are the odds of that?" McClimans asks. "Maybe I should have done some sort of fucked-up double bill. Why not?"