Interview by Michael Alan Goldberg
On Saturday, May 30th, the Khyber hosts the Philadelphia regionals of the 2009 U.S. Air Guitar Championships [9pm/$15]. And coming back to defend his title as 2008 Philly Air Guitar Champion is Rob “Windhammer” Weychert, who last year claimed victory at the TLA and repped our city (and came in a respectable 7th place) at the National Air Guitar Championship competition in San Francisco, losing out to eventual world champion Hot Lixx Hulahan. In his fascinating, compelling essay for Fray.com, Weychert explained how Windhammer took over his very being (”As each cell was possessed, it shared its newfound immortality with its neighbors until none were left to convert”), and he vividly described the onstage air guitar experience:
Windhammer’s left hand was a blur. His right hand dashed up and down the invisible fretboard, furiously articulating chords in unprecedented contortions. If anyone witnessing the light-speed riff even had a chance to wonder what the hurry was, the abrupt emergence of the solo answered their question. It announced its presence with a shrill battle cry, a single, piercing note clearing the way for an eager battalion of its siblings. With ferociously wide eyes, Windhammer orchestrated the invasion effortlessly. Each attacking note was brought into being not just by his hands, but by his whole body. The air guitar swayed and lunged with his body, and his body swayed and lunged with the music. The three were one.
I had the great pleasure of catching up with Windhammer for an interview and photo shoot on the eve of his title defense; below is part one of our exclusive chat about the glory and stigma associated with air guitaring, the hazards of air guitaring, and much more:
MAG: Over this past year, did you always intend to come back and defend your title?
RW: When I first did the competition, I kinda figured, “Well, I’ll do this thing, and then I will have done it, and that’ll be that.” It didn’t really occur to me that it was something I would return to or continue to do, and then when I won and I went to the nationals, it was just a lot of fun and I saw no reason not to come back next year, not just to defend the title, but because it was fun. If I don’t win this year, I’ll probably go back and do next year’s.
MAG: What are you most looking forward to about this year’s regionals at the Khyber?
RW: Having it at the Khyber’s gonna be interesting, so I’m curious to see how well that’ll work out just in terms of... there’s quite a bit more intimacy, it’ll be easier to pack the place, but at the same time you can’t have as much of a rock-star vibe — there is no backstage. So I’m definitely looking forward to seeing how it all works, and also just seeing what everybody else has in store. I think we’re gonna see some repeat people from last year, and some new faces as well.
MAG: To me it seems like the Khyber is grittier, more authentically rock ’n roll than the TLA and maybe better for this kind of thing.
RW: Yeah, definitely. And I generally prefer to see shows in that kind of environment. But regarding the whole mythical rock-god thing, which the air guitar thing seems to be about, it lends itself to a big setting. Which is not to say it precludes smaller settings. I’ve only competed in two places — one that was 1,500 capacity, and the TLA which was 1,000 or something. The Khyber I think maxes out at around 200, so it’ll be a different kind of thing.
MAG: What would be the ideal location, do you think?
RW: Oh, I dunno. I don’t think there’s an ideal location. It’s like anything else, it can benefit from different kinds of situations. Like, you wouldn’t wanna see Iron Maiden at the Khyber, for example. It might be cool for the intimacy, but, yeah... at the same time, you wouldn’t wanna see, I dunno, some super-gritty little punk band at Giants Stadium.
MAG: Do you have any pre-performance rituals?
RW: Not really. I just kinda...
MAG: There’s no “special place” you go to or anything?
RW: I don’t think so. I mean, if there’s a special place, I’m there all the time! I’m just kinda there and they say it’s time for me to go up, and I go up.
MAG: What goes through your mind when you’re up there onstage?
RW: It’s not so much thinking as it is instinct. You have sort of a planned routine, and I dunno how other people do it but I don’t tend to stick totally to that planned routine. Generally I stick to it, but this air guitar thing, it’s essentially the music talking through you in this weird way, and as pretentious as that sounds that’s pretty much what it is. And so I think when I’m up there I’m not so much thinking about it as letting the music do what it does to me.
MAG: Wow. Do you ever analyze tape — you know, the way pro athletes look at game film — to hone your technique?
RW: Well, I’ve watched videos of my performances last year. It’s definitely good to look at that kind of stuff to get a sense of the space you occupy on the stage and how you use the stage and your body language and everything else. You have to be really self-aware, and it’s easier to do that when you’re able to step outside yourself and look at yourself on video or whatever. So yeah, I do a little bit of that. I don’t analyze it too much. There are little things I notice that I’ll be like, maybe I’ll try to avoid that, but I don’t... I’m not like hyper-critical of it.
MAG: When did you first realize you had this special talent for air guitar?
RW: It’s something I’ve been doing as long as I’ve been a rock ’n roll fan, so for most of my life. I think anyone that’s a big rock ’n roll fan does it, or something like it, as a way to respond to the music.
MAG: Was there a definitive moment when you realized this was your calling?
RW: If there was, it was probably in the late ’80s when I was in junior high and the whole hair-metal thing was at its peak. I think that’s when I really started getting interested in this stuff. And also that was around the first time I had any regular exposure to MTV, and so just the whole image went along with it and the mythos to it and the mystique and the posturing, all that stuff. If there’s somewhere where air guitar began for me, it was with that stuff. The music is one thing, but the image that goes with it is an extra element that I hadn’t thought about too much prior to that.
MAG: Were there any air guitarists you looked up to as idols or heroes?
RW: No. Actually, the funny story is that I knew there were air guitar competitions but I didn’t know exactly how it was all organized or what the deal was until I saw the documentary Air Guitar Nation, and that came out in 2007. And when I saw it, I was watching it with [my girlfriend] Leah, and I turned to her and I was like, “Man, these guys are so lame!” And I think she initially thought that I was making fun of the behavior, as people are wont to do, but after that I was like, “No, I could do this so much better than these guys,” and that’s when her face kinda fell. She realized that I had greater aspirations than merely to ridicule. That’s not to say that I look down on other people who play air guitar — I was only half-joking when I said that the people in the movie were lame — but I did think I could do it at least as well as these guys. So I decided to keep an eye out for next year, if it would come to Philly, and it did.
MAG: Do you think there is a stigma attached to being an air guitarist?
RW: Oh absolutely! Anybody that’s doing anything that’s a little... well, I guess air guitar has historically been a kind of private activity. It’s something you do in your bedroom. It’s not really a public thing, it’s certainly not a public performance thing. And so anytime anyone brings something like that out from being a personal thing to something more public, they’re gonna get a lot of ridicule. And it is a silly thing, I’m not gonna deny that it’s silly. Take a look at any air guitar video on YouTube and you’ll see a ton of negative comments — and granted you’ll see a ton of negative comments on any YouTube video – but I think... I would venture to guess that there are more people who think it’s completely fucking stupid than people who actually are into it.
MAG: Have you ever considered pursuing air drumming or air violining or something other than air guitaring?
RW: Oh, I’ve been an air drummer just as long as an air guitarist. I always wanted to be a drummer, that was my first interest — if I was gonna be a rock ’n roll musician, I wanted to be a drummer — and so yeah, I’ve been doing air drums as long as air guitar, if not longer. And if there was an air drum competition, I dunno, I might be into that.
MAG: Have you heard of such a thing?
RW: I’m sure there air drum competitions, but I haven’t really looked into it.
MAG: So how many hours a day do you practice air guitar?
RW: I don’t really practice. I’ll just find myself doing air guitar when I’m listening to music and my hands aren’t otherwise occupied [laughs]. Leading up to the competition I’ll do a few run-throughs, but I don’t spend hours and hours a day practicing. I think last year, between the two competitions, I practiced a total of ten times.
MAG: Ah, so you’re not really the Yngwie Malmsteen of air guitarists, locking yourself away in your room for 18 hours a day to work on your technique...
RW: No. I think if I’m any good at this, it’s because I’ve just... I just do it without thinking about it. It’s not like I need to assign time to practice — I am always practicing.
MAG: That seems kinda Zen or something.
RW: Yeah, it’s like an unconscious thing, I guess.
MAG: Did it take you a while to find the winning technique?
RW: Well, it’s hard to say what enables someone to win, because honestly it’s pretty arbitrary.
MAG: Come on, don’t sell yourself short!
RW: It’s true! These judges are not authorities on air guitar. I dunno if anybody is an authority on air guitar. Generally they’ll get radio personalities or people in bands, and chances are they’re liquored up, and chances are they’ve been encouraged to be really derisive. I don’t think anybody’s kidding themselves that they are to some degree the subject of fun up there on the stage, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing for the judges to be mean. There’s such a thing as taking it too far, but if it’s all in good fun... but anyway, I think — not to say the people who’ve won didn’t deserve to win — but there’s definitely an element of arbitrariness to it. I think when I won in Philly, it could just as easily have been anyone else. The other thing is, it’s usually considered death to go first.
MAG: Why’s that? Because you’re forgotten about by the end?
RW: Not necessarily that, because your score lasts regardless, but because the judges typically haven’t done this before, they don’t really have a gauge for what the scoring is. So the first person, the judges usually don’t know what to do, so you don’t wanna be that first person.
MAG: Do you draw straws or something to see who goes first?
RW: Yeah, basically. Although at the national finals it’s different. The people who are returning champions get to pick their numbers, and then everyone else pulls out of a hat.
MAG: Are there certain approaches to air guitaring during competition that are best avoided?
RW: Ummmmm [laughs], probably not. If you’ve seen some of these performances, anything goes.
MAG: Are there any hazards — you know, physical, mental, emotional, spiritual — to doing air guitar?
RW: Well there’s definitely physical hazards. I mean, people have gotten seriously injured.
MAG: Like how? What are some of the injuries you’ve seen or heard about?
RW: Well the most notorious one was last year — Bettie B. Goode, she was the Brooklyn champion, she lost a toe.
MAG: Excuse me?
RW: She lost a toe. I wasn’t there [laughs]. It had something to do with climbing up on something and then she fell and her toe got caught in a chair or something and it ripped it right off. That happened.
MAG: Damn. When you hear about something like that, does it give you pause? Like, that you should get out while you’re ahead because you could risk serious bodily harm?
RW: [Laughs] No. And for a couple reasons. First of all, I wear boots. And secondly, my stuff tends not to…there are people who are jumping off high things and diving into the crowd and all this stuff, and I haven’t really gone there. I don’t know if I will eventually or not. I haven’t done anything really death-defying or particularly physically heroic. It’s more for me about the posturing. You know what I mean? So I guess the bottom line is I don’t bite off anything more than I can chew.
MAG: That’s very Ozzy of you, or actually very not-Ozzy of you, I should say.
RW: No, that’s not very Ozzy at all! He made a career of biting off more than he could chew.
MAG: Do you think Philly is an air guitar town? Does Philly get it in ways other towns don’t, or is it vice versa?
RW: Umm, if I had to guess I would say vice versa. For a couple reasons. Last year there were 14 contestants, and as I recall, I was the only contestant that lived in Philadelphia proper. There were one or two from the ‘burbs, and there was someone from Lancaster, and there was someone from the Poconos. And everybody else was either from New York, DC... there was one guy from Virginia. And that isn’t necessarily about if Philly is into it or not, because I don’t think it got a lot of press here. Also, I don’t think we even half-filled the TLA last year. It was the first year in Philly, so people didn’t seem to really know about it. But I mean, the crowd was really into it, and that was cool.
MAG: Well, do you see yourself as a Philly air guitar ambassador in any way?
RW: [Laughs] I’m certainly proud to represent Philly. I love Philly. And I know that it’s a good rock ’n roll town and there’s a lot of great rock ’n roll fans and rock ’n roll bands. so I’m proud to represent. But whether Philly really “gets it” or not is hard to say. It’s a weird thing to “get”...
MAG: If you win the Philly regional competition, and then the nationals, it’s off to Finland for the world championships later this year. If you become this year’s world air guitar champion, what are some of the things you would do in that capacity? Are there certain causes or issues you would spotlight?
RW: Umm, I haven’t really thought about it. I mean, bottom line, I think that being the world air guitar champion this is something you do implicitly, but I would just sort of encourage people to loosen up and have fun.
MAG: To follow their dreams...
RW: Yeah, I guess the one guiding principle to all of this is that if you’re not doing something merely because you’ll look foolish, that’s not a good enough reason. And that’s what I wish more people would embrace. So that would be the cause I would embrace.
MAG: Do you feel like you’re misunderstood? Do your friends and family look at you weird because of this whole air guitar thing?
RW: Nah, I think anybody that knows me, it was a no-brainer that I would do this. I mean, I pretty much do it anyway, this is just me doing it on a stage in front of strangers. I don’t think it came as a surprise to anybody.
MAG: Is there anything to say to the other competitors? Any message you wanna send out?
RW: [laughs] Ummm, let’s see...
MAG: Yeah, see, now’s your chance to go all WWE on ‘em.
RW: Yeah, ummm, how about: Windhammer’s coming...
MAG: That’s all you have to say?
RW: That’s all I have to say.
MAG: Windhammer’s pretty stoic, huh?
RW: Yeah, he’s pretty much... I think the best words to describe him are “uncompromising” and “humorless.”
MAG: That’s kind of interesting. A lot of other air guitarists seem pretty exuberant, happy-go-lucky, that kinda thing.
RW: Yeah. My personality and my sense of humor and all that definitely has that same kind of over-the-top, flamboyant, crazy aspect to it. But for whatever reason, and I can’t say why, Windhammer just... it made sense that he would be this way.
MAG: What have you learned about yourself through Windhammer?
RW: That posturing goes a long way. Seriously, like, one of the judges at the national finals last year gave me a higher score than he was going to, merely — so he says — because he was afraid I would beat the shit out of him after the show.
MAG: So fear and intimidation are part of your tactics?
RW: I guess, yeah. Obviously nobody’s gonna be genuinely afraid of somebody who’s onstage doing air guitar, no matter how serious you look. Why Windhammer has evolved into that kind of character, I dunno. Because I’m not self-serious at all, really. I guess it’s ironic that I want to encourage people not to be afraid of looking foolish when here’s this character that’s so dead serious. You know what it is? I think for Windhammer, this rock thing is not a fucking joke. It’s his fucking job. That’s what it is. It’s his fucking job to do this and to rock your fucking face off. It’s his job. It’s not even so much job as his duty. It’s his sense of rock duty. And like, get the fuck out of the way if you’re not down, you know?
MAG: Just from the research I’ve done watching a lot of air guitarists and seeing a lot of their tactics, there’s so many ways you can go about it. Intimidation is one way to do it, confusion is another, humor... it’s not just the air guitar skill itself, you can do a lot of things on that stage with your persona.
RW: Yeah. I like that about it. People bring so many different personalities and attitudes to it. If everyone was doing the same sort of thing it would get pretty lame and pretty boring.
MAG: How do you envision the future for air guitar? Can it get bigger, or has it already peaked in terms of a trend or a pursuit?
RW: I dunno. It seems to get a little bit bigger every year. When that will eventually plateau or how or why, I’m not really sure.
MAG: Do you think entire air band competitions, as opposed to just air guitarists, might be a cool idea?
RW: I don’t think so.
MAG: You know, like the Journey “Separate Ways” video?
RW: Yeah, that’s a real inspiration, that Journey video. I’m still amazed that they not only had a career after that video, but a very successful career. That song was such a huge hit. It’s hard for me to imagine, even in the ’80s when people did a lot of ridiculous shit, that video... man.
MAG: Maybe that was the moment that truly legitimized air instrument playing, though?
RW: Nah, I doubt it. But I think with regard to where air guitar is going and whether or not it’s gonna maintain popularity – if you wanna call it that – I think the bottom line is that what’ll give it its vitality is people continuing to do cool things with it. And you would think that it’s pretty limited with what can happen, but I’m continually surprised by what interesting stuff people come up with. Like my favorite performance ever, definitely from last year, was this guy named Awesome [formerly Shred Begley Jr.], and his performance was great and there were tiny little things that made it that much better. Like, at one point he did this air shotgun thing, and when his shotgun went off, somebody in the crowd had a confetti gun that went off at exactly the right time. That makes one little move ten times cooler. So as long as people keep coming up with little details like that to make it more fun and interesting, I think it will still be cool.
MAG: What song will you be competing to this year?
RW: I’d rather not say.
MAG: You don’t want to reveal your choice of music? Is that an unspoken rule of air guitar competition — not to reveal your song ahead of time?
RW: No, plenty of people do, but I don’t. Mostly it’s because [laughs]... the party line is that I don’t know what the song is, Windhammer’s just gonna show up and make it happen. Windhammer is not pantomiming to some pre-recorded track. He’s causing that shit to happen.