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US Air Guitar Tue Jun 10 2014

Nordic Thunder Returns to the US Air Guitar Semifinals

nordic2.jpgHalf the reason I went to my first air guitar competition was that I had a free ticket; the other half was to ditch a lame party that had gotten uncomfortable. By the evening's end I had become a full fledged, hard core, air guitar nerd. I watched the gripping and hilarious documentary Air Guitar Nation and became an avid fan of Chicago's own air guitar god, Nordic Thunder.

When I got the chance to interview Mr. Thunder himself, my geek levels went into overdrive. I nabbed the interview opportunity and immediately went into a panic: how could I possibly prepare for an interview with someone who's won a world championship for playing an instrument that doesn't even exist? What on earth could I ask the man that he hadn't already been asked? How could I possibly manage to simultaneously hold in my mind these two completely true facts: by night Nordic Thunder is a world champion air guitarist; by day he answers to the name Justin Howard and holds a steady job at Rotary International headquarters in Evanston? There was only one way to find out -- screw up my courage to actually talk to the man.

The first time I saw an air guitar show I went into it thinking "well... okay," and by the end of it I was a convert.

That's awesome. Yeah, there's a couple different types of people who come to the shows: the people who think "Aw, that's stupid," and people who come to see it because they're curious about it and their minds are just blown.

The Air Guitar world championships are held in Oulu, Finland. How on earth did Finland become the epicenter of air guitar?

It started out at a film and music festival in Oulu, they were thinking "what can we do that would cost no money and be entertaining and fill extra slots at the festival," and came up with air guitar. It's since turned into a week long event; the competition is one night but you spend the whole week with people from 20 different countries around the world, and we all act silly and have fun, and it sounds cheesy but we also all talk about how to better our communities, and the air guitar acts as a universal bridge bringing people together. It is absolutely completely absurd, ridiculous, funny, and silly, all that it appears on the surface -- that was my initial draw to it because it's so stupid, and I wanted to become the best air guitarist I could be. It started as a joke, and then it turned into a serious joke, and now it's honestly the way I live my life -- around the ideology of competitive air guitar promotion, and world peace.

How did the character Nordic Thunder come to be?

In '06 I had decided was gonna compete in air guitar because a couple years prior to that was in Wyoming, and three hours before flying back to Chicago I turned my body weird -- there wasn't an immediate pain, but I went to hospital, and everything was fine but I needed a scan to see if I'd torn any ligaments. I flew home, and my first day back I saw a flyer for an air guitar competition at Joe's on Weed Street, and thought, "What are the odds of this happening to me?" I was a mess, there was no way I could compete -- I tore my meniscus, had surgery, and a year or two later saw a thing [about air guitar championships] in RedEye and thought, "I'm gonna do this, and I'm gonna win." A friend of mine at school said, "Let me be your manager," and told me I had to have a character, like in pro wrestling. I had to become this persona and fully commit. I already had long hair and a beard so it worked out as an aggressive heavy metal character. And the name came from -- this is a true story, whether you chose to believe it or not -- my friend said to me, "I had this dream and you were on this cliff, and the clouds parted, and I saw the words 'Nordic Thunder,' and that's your name!" There's a lot of air guitarists who will switch up their characters, but I decided early on I was gonna fully commit to it, and if people see me on the street they'll say, "Oh, that's Nordic Thunder!"

And then you have this day job...

Yeah, I work at Rotary International, I do video editing there. I have to wear slacks to work and a button up shirt, I have to look halfway decent. I haven't figured out how to make a full time job with air guitar. It's alright though, it's cool.

You once said, "Pain is temporary, air guitar is forever."

I actually have suffered; I've had knee surgery and back surgery due to air guitar, I take off running and slide across the stage, always barefoot, it always eats the skin off my knees and takes honestly two to three months to completely heal. I did a slide on a stage and the emcee said, "You're bleeding," and that's when I said, "Pain is temporary, air guitar is forever."

That's a pretty serious commitment.

Of course! I've always I fully committed to the character on stage. Offstage I might look like a lunatic but I speak properly. Onstage I commit to the character and the art itself because it is an art form. If I believe that I'm playing a real guitar I can expect the audience to believe it too. If you don't believe it how can you expect the audience to believe it?

There's something so cathartic about watching air guitar -- people pretending to play an instrument, but they're so committed to it that it turns something ridiculous into something awesome. It must feel like you're a rock star.

It's incredible, knowing all the bands that have played at the Metro. I've performed at big clubs in D.C. and N.Y., and festivals in Poland and Germany, I had a two week tour of Finland playing air guitar. It's absurd but it's pretty incredible. A lot of people who do this obviously have a love of music, and whether you're a good guitar player or not (when you're on stage) you're a badass and a rock star. it's incredible. It's done in a very non judgmental zone, we're all friends -- yes, we want to win, but were not pissed off if someone else wins. It's nice to know no one is going to be judging you on anything -- the weirder the better; it's a very freeing experience.

Watching air guitar is a freeing experience.

It is scary. My girlfriend competes. She has the worst stage fright, but when she gets up there she doesn't seem terrified. There's something about that moment with the lights and the crowd screaming, and if that's what meth addicts feel I understand the addiction.

What's your girlfriend's air guitar persona?

Her name is Cannonball Maven; her character is like if Loretta Lynn and Satan had a daughter this is who she would be. She comes out wearing a traditional style '60s square dancing dress, and her routine starts off with some sweet sounding country song, and then something happens and she transforms into this character and spits black stuff out of her mouth.

I've seen a few women competing in air guitar championships, but not many. Would you say that in general it's a male dominated arena?

I don't want to say it's dominated by men -- the 2011 world championship was won by a woman, and in the States every city has a crew of ladies that come out to do it. Chicago is a breeding ground for badass women who are really good at air guitar, and they are very welcome. Boston has an air guitarist named McNallica, and she's more of a dude than most dudes.

So what will you be doing at the Metro on Friday?

I'm performing the opening routine, and then doing a halftime routine -- a routine I did last year when I made a Slayer montage the evening Jeff Hanneman died. I sat in front of the computer and strung together all these clips, and timed it to six minutes 66 seconds. I also have a Metallica routine where I took the entire Kill 'Em All album and got it down to four minutes. There's no pressure trying to get scores, I'm just working the crowd and having a good time.

How many times have you won air guitar championships?

In '06,'08,'10, and '11 I won the Chicago championship; in '11 I won the U.S. title and went to Finland and came in second place. In '12 I lost the US title, but I had achieved a pretty high status in this community, and made the decision to pay my own way to Finland, and had no money for a hotel. A good friend of mine from Oulu connected me with a hotel -- there are only four hotels in the town; she got me a free room in a different hotel every night, and I entered the competition called the Dark Horse competition the night before the final show. The top five competitors from Dark Horse can compete on the big stage, I came in last (fifth) in Dark Horse, and the following night we draw numbers to see what order you go in, and I drew #2 which was a strike against me because as the show goes on the audience gets primed and going early makes it almost impossible to win. I thought, "This sucks, I'm through," and then I thought, "Fuck this, I'm just going to go as hard as I can and see what happens." It ended up going in my favor and I won.

I can't believe I just interviewed Mr. Thunder.


Watch the magic that is Nordic Thunder this Friday at the 2014 US Air Guitar Midwest Semifinals at the Metro, 3730 N. Clark St. Doors open at 8pm, show starts at 9pm. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased online, by calling 773-549-4140 or at the door.

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