The interview doesn’t start well. The jocular analogy I draw between air guitar and Milli Vanilli is met with stony-faced silence. Mentally, I do a lightning rethink and jettison the smartarse questions. Searching for safe ground, I ask them why they became air guitarists.
“The thing I love about air guitar is that it’s democratic,” Steve says. “You don’t need a big bank account and a fancy guitar – all you need is two hands, two thumbs, eight fingers, and some air. I mean, that’s how I got to where I am today. Hour after hour I stood in front of my bedroom mirror and played with myself. That’s why it means a lot to me when I see kids in the crowd playing air guitar – because 12 years ago that was me.”
For Vince, it’s all about the performance-high: “When I’m on stage riffing like crazy, I’m a god. In that moment” – he takes off his sunglasses – “in that moment, I’m Jimi Hendrix and Marcel Marceau rolled into one. You can’t buy that, man. You just can’t.”
Intriguingly, Vince suggests that most contestants are proficient in other air instruments.
“Yeah, it’s true. Most of us have our fingers in more than one pie: air flute, air maracas, air whatever… Every now and then I round out a performance with air drums – like a late-night talkshow host.”
He shakes his head. “The crowd go wild. They love the irony.”
I ask the guys what brand of air-guitar they play. To my surprise, they tell me. Steve plays a Fender Stratocaster, and Darren a Gibson SG, because it’s got nice “weight”. Then someone mentions Australian Guitar Magazine, and Vince goes off: “Those wankers? How come they never feature air guitar in their magazine? The nationals are next month – not that you’d know it from reading AGM. It’s like an Australian tennis magazine not writing about Lleyton Hewitt. It’s discrimination. That’s what it is. I’m sick of their fucking prejudice against air guitar.”
He eyeballs me. “Put that in your article.”
Steve is more measured. “I don’t want to add to the ill-feeling between the air guitar and non-air guitar communities. Look, it’s disappointing that air guitar doesn’t get more recognition in AGM, for sure. But it’ll happen. We share too much in common for it not to.”
“Yeah. After all, the second word in air guitar is guitar”, says Darren, with the expression of someone who’s just pulled a rabbit out of a hat. Errol has a different take, however, preferring not to compare non-air guitar and air guitar at all.
“It’s two different things, man. It’s like comparing a watercolour to an oil painting.”
A tattooed guy down the bar has apparently been listening to our conversation, because he interrupts:
“No, it’s not, you fucking retard. It’s like comparing a watercolour to a no-colour.” For a second, things threaten to turn ugly. But Steve and Darren keep Vince calm, and we move to the pub’s nonsmoking section.
Again, Steve is conciliatory: “Look, I love non-air guitar. Without it, we wouldn’t have backing tracks to do our thang to.”
I ask the guys whether they ever get the urge to create their own music.
“But, we do,” says Steve, who suddenly stands bolt upright and, right there in the front bar of the Corner, goes into a paroxysm of air guitar, fingers dancing, riffing silently. Vince, Darren, and Errol watch intently as Steve gyrates through what, judging from his expression, is the Stairway to Heaven of air-guitar solos. Despite Darren’s rapt commentary, to me it looks like epileptic jazzercise – and based on the startled expressions of passing pedestrians, I’m not alone in that assessment.
The best part of 10 minutes later, Steve finishes, drains his beer, and declares: “That’s what I’m talkin about.”
I’m about to point out that, apart from the odd tka-tk-tk-tka or chish-ch-ch-chish, Steve hadn’t made a single sound, when Errol intervenes. He claims that he “heard” Steve’s solo, just from studying his fingering and his hand positions. Well, there you go…It had looked like a middle-aged man wiggling his fingers and making sex faces, but apparently I’d just witnessed one of the great guitar solos, and not heard a single note of it.
I ask about the Victorian championships. Competition has its downsides, according to Errol, who says style often prevails over substance.
“Air guitar’s an art form that’s still in its infancy”, he says. “At the moment it’s all about razzle-dazzle. Unfortunately, some judges are romanced by star jumps, purple lycra, and matching wristbands. Well, I’m no showpony, so I concentrate on superior technique. I think it’s all about fingering, myself.”
The boys have interesting comments to make about Australian air-guitar champion Rock ‘n’ Roll Troy.
“Back in 2004 that kind of stuff might have been cutting edge”, says Vince. “But guess what? It’s not 2004 anymore. So Troy? Move the fuck on, man.”
Vince is equally dismissive of 2004 runner-up G, advising him to “go back to plaiting his pubic hair, and leave air guitar to the experts”.
Steve is starting to look antsy, and worried that another solo is imminent, I quickly ask my final question: have they ever considered taking up “real” guitar? Almost as one, they shrug. “Yeah, a non-air guitar is fine,” Errol says. “But after so many years playing air guitar, I find the real thing a bit limiting.”