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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Interview Thu Sep 29 2011

Nordic Thunder: The Myth, The Man, the 2011 National Air Guitar Champion

On August 26th, a leather-clad, Viking-esque man named Nordic Thunder took to a rain-slicked stage in Finland and showed the world how a Chicagoan rocks the fictional guitar at the 2011 World Air Guitar Championship. Despite a valiant effort that included one monumental slide off the stage, the U.S.'s 2011 champion lost by 0.3 points to Germany's The Devil's Niece.

On the other side of the world, I, along with many of my Rotary coworkers, watched Nordic Thunder, who we knew as that video guy, Justin Howard, flip sweat-drenched hair and jam his imaginary ax. It was hard to believe that guy on stage was the same quiet guy from the elevator.

Nordic Thunder (aka Justin Howard) (photo by Alyce Henson)

It got me thinking, who is this Nordic Thunder fellow and just what makes him rock? Luckily, the air guitarist had some free time between photo shoots and signing autographs to sit down for some tea.

Scene: Nordic Thunder is dressed in a loose definition of business casual clothes sipping a Team Sparkle. Despite the button up, the man exudes rock-and-roll. My earl grey tea feels inadequate.

Gapers Block: So where did it all begin? Is air guitar something all little boys do?

Nordic Thunder: Anyone can do it and everyone does it; anyone who says they don't do it is lying. You hear a song and it has some awesome guitar in it and you just want to rock out. Ever since I was a little kid I did that. But taking it to the next level and performing in front of people and not just in your bedroom or the shower is awesome. It is a rush.

GB: Where did Nordic Thunder come from? And more importantly the costume!

NT: The first year I entered, I had a friend said "I want to be your trainer. I want to help you do this." We were trying to think of what to do and, this is a true story, I know it sounds ridiculous, but I believe him, he said he had a dream. In the dream I'm on a cliff and the waves are crashing and there is thunder and lightening. The name Nordic Thunder appeared in the clouds. He called me the next day and said "Dude I had this dream. This is it." I was like "Perfect, let's do it." I had some very creative friends in school that made the costume. The first year there was very little, just a loincloth and some fur around my ankles. That was it. I was pretty much naked on stage. I got the top piece after I got a little bit of a gut and I thought "I need to cover this up a bit." The loin cloth is made from old women's purses that I bought at thrift stores and some hair extensions we found in a dumpster.

GB: OK but what do you wear underneath the loincloth?

NT: I used to wear a woman's skirt that I cut up and tied around my legs to secure everything in which sucked because once you're tied in, you can't go to the bathroom. When I went to do the George Lopez show, I forgot that piece so it just would have been the leather and hair and nothing underneath that. I told the costume people I would still do it, I mean I have no shame, but I'm sure you don't want my junk all over TV. So they let me borrow this skin colored Speedo, which was great! After the show I asked them if they wanted it back but they were like no you can keep it.

GB: George Lopez changed your life.

NT: He did and then I got his show canceled.

GB: Do you feel like you contributed to the decline of George Lopez.

NT: I mean I guess you book an air guitarist on your show and that is what you can expect. Everyone there was super incredibly nice. ICP was there and they were incredibly awesome. Tim Gunn was awesome.

GB: When you were hanging out with all these celebrities, did you ever start to feel like a celebrity?

NT: No but all this attention is awesome. But I would be doing what I'm doing regardless of the attention. But the fact that I'm getting all this attention is cool because it gives me a reason to geek out and talk to people about air guitar. People see it on the surface as something silly and weird and stupid and goofy and ridiculous which it is, it is all of those things, but once you're able to get past that and get to what it really is and what it means to people, it is awesome.

GB: What does air guitar mean to people beyond that silly factor?

NT: It gives people, who normal people might consider to be a dork or a loser or a nerd, a chance to be themselves on a stage and have everyone in the room be supportive of them. I can't think of anything else I've done in my life where you can say I'm being myself right now and people are accepting of that. It is the best feeling in the world.

GB: Have you been recognized since you've been back?

NT: Yeah I have been. It is kind of weird... One day I was walking down Milwaukee and this guy in his car locked eyes with me and said "Nordic Thunder, fuckin' 'a' dude," and gave me an arm pump. It was awesome.

GB: Let's talk about the World Championship. What was it like competing with all the best?

NT: It's so funny because by the end of the trip the competition came second to the experience of being there. You're meeting all these people from all over the world who are all equally as weird as you are and don't care what anyone thinks of them. They are just there to have fun and express themselves. All these people are just really good people and just want to do good. The main initiative behind air guitar is promoting world peace; that's why this festival exists. You can't hold a gun if you are holding an air guitar.

GB: Any thoughts about having the first female world air guitar champion?

NT: It is great! It is good for the sport. Air guitar is dominated by men; the women who do it are like fucking awesome. They have, for lack of a better term, bigger balls than most men who do it. The women who commit to it are amazing. The fact that the world champ is a woman I think is good and it will encourage more women to want to do it.

GB: I have to ask about the knee slides. They are seriously impressive! In the final round in the world championship you had one massive knee slide that took you right off the stage. What happened?

NT: I save that move for the second round if I make it because it is awesome and it looks great. I don't wear any kind of protection so when I stand up I'm just bleeding and it adds to the character. During the song I was trying to find a place to use it because I knew people were expecting it. Just before I went up, I knew I was going to use it at the very end. I didn't expect slide off the stage. I wanted to slide to the edge where all the cameras were but not into them. The stage was wet because it was raining. When I slipped off, the people just kind of parted and I dropped about 6 ft and landed on my elbow and there was just this pain up my arm. I thought, "oh man I just broke my arm. This sucks." And I just stood up and tried to pretend I was ok. I was like "I'm fine, I'm fine."

GB: Glad there was no permanent damage. On to the next question, like Ms. America, how do you Nordic Thunder plan to use your title as US Champion to better our world?

NT: Wow that is a really tough question. (Contemplative pause, sip of Tea Sparkle) If I could make people feel like I felt in Finland that would be a huge step. I really strongly believe this, if everyone treated one another the way the air guitarists do, the world would be an amazing place. If I could make people feel comfortable being themselves, I mean that is so easy to say but it is another thing to do it. If you could do it and not care what anyone thinks of you, and just love yourself, love the people around you, that is really all that is important. I think I would like to have that realization and live life to its fullest. Man that sounds so cheesy but its true...I think especially if kids started air guitar when they were that young when they really don't care about a lot of things, if you could stay a kid your whole life, we would all be so much better off.

GB: So we just need to introduce Air Guitar 101 in CPS schools and problem solved! You are actually originally from Wyoming but you've been in Chicago for many years. Do you get any inspiration from Chicago?

This city is very hard. I felt like it chewed me up and spit me out. I came to a point where I almost left but I stuck it out. This city takes a lot from you but it gives. I feel like I've gotten a lot out of this city especially in this past year with air guitar...The Chicago crowd is different in the sense that the fans are more hard; there is a certain breed of people here and they love a certain flavor of hard air guitar here. That is why I think Nordic Thunder does so well here. Because it is fast and loud and it is in your face and it is angry but it is also nice at the same time, which I think Chicagoans are.

GB: What music do you listen to for inspiration?

NT: My favorite song of all time to air guitar to is Black Sabbath's "War Pigs". It is just a good jam. I actually like to air guitar to slower songs. I really do love all kinds of music. I live in Ukrainian village so I go to the Empty Bottle on Western on Friday nights. They have a honky-tonk country night there which is awesome, like old school country, or you can see heavy metal or jazz or blues there.

My favorite Chicago band is Lair of the Minotaur. I also really like The Hoyle Brothers. Indian is another heavy metal band that is great.

GB: What's in store for the future? Are you planning on defending your title next year?

NT: I had set to retire this year. I've had back surgery from air guitar, I still have two herniated disks, plus my knee injury and my feet are just giant scars. But after going to Finland and tasting that next level I made a commitment there; I'm going to be doing this for the rest of my life for sure. As far of competing, next year I will defend my title, I will go straight to nationals. It is getting tough to top my performances but I'm going to try to do double, like way better, than I did this year. I want to be the first US air guitarist to win two years in a row and go back to Finland and be part of something way bigger than I am.

GB: Any parting words for all the air guitar fans out there?

NT: Just don't be afraid to have fun even if it means making a complete idiot of yourself. It is worth it because it feels really good.

If you just can't get enough Nordic Thunder, check out the new late late late night show "The Jonathon Brandmeier Show" on Friday night after Last Call With Carson Daly on NBC. The show will feature the champ performing under the Marilyn Monroe statue on Michigan Avenue.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

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