How to be a Guitar Hero

You know who Brownbag Johnson is. That’s his wailing guitar in “Cheat on the Church” (.MP3), the Graveyard BBQ song that won the first “Be A Guitar Hero” contest. You know because you rocked it out: You shouted the words to its shrill opening sermon; you head-banged your way through the whining glory notes; you felt your fingers cramp and burn on those never-ending, face-melting riffs. Admit it: You played the shit out of that song. And every time you did, you felt like you were 18 feet tall with cajones the size of cantaloupes and throngs of adoring fans prostrating themselves at your bedroom slippers. Basically, you felt like you were Brownbag Johnson.

But when Brownbag Johnson played his own song, he felt more like you. “Let’s put it this way: Our bass player’s little brother – who’s only 8 years old – can kick my ass at it,” he laughs. “Even though I wrote the song, I’m not totally kicking ass at the game.”

Ever since Guitar Hero descended upon an unsuspecting public last year, regular joes like you and me have become conquistadors of rock, sweating out our souls over plastic guitars. The game sold over a million copies and schooled thousands of rock neophytes in the Pantheon of Metal Mythology: Ozzy, Pantera, Motorhead, Megadeth. Thrashing in unison, we threw up the horns for everyone from Palmer to Hendrix, and somehow, without even completely realizing it, we all started thinking, “Man, Boston can totally crush it.”

But even better was that secret thrill upon purchasing yet another indie gem in the Unlock Shop. Really, who didn’t stomp around their living room in Kubrick-esque glee to “Caveman Rejoice”? Or kick it hoity-toity style with “Eureka, I’ve Found Love”? And who among us could resist the lure of that mournful organ and that thin, unintelligible growl in Graveyard BBQ’s dirtcore anthem, “Cheat on the Church”?

Tracking the Indie Scene
From the beginning, producers planned a Guitar Hero tribute to bands in the indie scene, because, after all, every Hall of Fame mega-group must start somewhere. “All great bands start off as small up-and-comers,” says Ted Lange, associate producer for RedOctane. He worked on both Guitar Hero games and helped run the “Be A Guitar Hero” contest. “What better way to support rock music as a genre,” he asks, “than to turn people on to new bands that may one day be headliners?”

The original Guitar Hero included 17 unlockable indie tracks (metal deities Zakk Wylde and the Black Label Society notwithstanding). Some songs were relatively easy to acquire: Many of the bands, like The Acro-Brats and Anarchy Club, feature musicians who moonlight as Harmonix employees. For the other slots, however, developers scoured the local Boston scene, approaching dozens of bands in the hopes of finding someone crazy enough to sign up.

However, now that the franchise is established, Harmonix doesn’t need to search so hard. For the second game, which expanded its indie offerings up to 24 tracks, the company was deluged by MP3s from bands hungering for videogame immortality. “It’s really great. You never know when you’re going to hear the next big thing,” says Lange. “Sometimes, we find the rare gems in the sea of music we get.”

RedOctane and Harmonix’s quest for songs also included the promotional “Be A Guitar Hero” contest, which ran for both games and promised the winner a primo slot in the indie set-list. The only requirements for entry were that submissions had to be “hard rock” or “heavy metal,” with a featured lead guitar. Committees from both Harmonix and RedOctane then whittled the songs down, choosing the winner based on sound and ease of adaptability into the game.

Dirtcore Pioneers
Although the contest drew many submissions its first year, Lange says that selecting a champion was easy. “Graveyard BBQ was, without a question, the winner,” he says. “As soon as we heard that first slide on the guitar, we knew we had something unique.”

The band, on the other hand, had been utterly ambushed by its own success. Graveyard BBQ had actually formed as a joke in 2003. Four good friends would get together and pretend to be redneck yokels, complete with fake beards and Confederate flags, while slinging out some serious tunage.

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But a funny thing happened on the way to the graveyard: The audience loved it. “It started out as a few select shows, but it kept escalating,” says Johnson, lead guitarist. “We had no expectations for anything like that, but we just kept going with it.” Soon, they ditched the fake beards and concentrated on perfecting their thrash-metal dirtcore sound. Before long, the band had enough material for a full record, and one year after forming, the group recorded their first album, Greatest Hits, Vol. 1.

Johnson recalls discovering the “Be A Guitar Hero” contest through The Noise Board, a local scenester forum often frequented by Boston musicians and businesspeople in the industry. On a lark, the band sent RedOctane a CD with a few songs, including the fan favorite “BBQ Nation” (.MP3), as well as “Cheat on the Church.” “Again, no expectations; just send it in and see what happens,” recalls Johnson. “Sure as shit, we landed a gig on the game.”

When Johnson learned that “Cheat on the Church” had been chosen, “it was pretty much the best thing that’s ever happened,” he says. “Obviously, to see your song, which you pretty much wrote out of your bedroom, in a videogame that has been exposed to millions of people – that’s just surreal.”

Winning the “Be A Guitar Hero” contest marked a turning point for the band. Before Guitar Hero, no one – especially the members of the group – had taken Graveyard BBQ too seriously. Although they’d achieved some local notoriety, the group had never toured, been interviewed by any publications, or even released a second album. “But once it exploded like that, with the whole Guitar Hero thing, it was just so huge,” says Johnson. “[The band] turned into its own monster.”

Hits at the Graveyard BBQ website and Myspace page skyrocketed. Fans started to demand tour dates, cover songs, t-shirts, guitar tabs and CDs. Album sales also rose – which presented a unique problem, because, until recently, Graveyard BBQ had no management. “I’m literally selling CDs out of my bedroom,” says Johnson.

Above all, Johnson notes, concert attendance exploded. He attributes at least half of the band’s new fanbase to the Guitar Hero exposure. “People were curious to see us,” says Johnson. “A lot of people that played the game had no idea that we were from the Boston area. So it’s definitely been a big exposure bang for us.” Fans have even asked him to sign their Guitar Hero controllers after concerts, which he happily does.

Graveyard BBQ doesn’t reappear in Guitar Hero II, but the band continues to hunt for more exposure and fame. They’ve just signed with new management, and, although they still need a new keyboard player, they’re currently shopping around for a record deal. In early November, they went into the studio to record their second album, which has been in the planning stages for over a year. Once the record’s released, Graveyard BBQ plans to hit the road nationally in support. “At this point, we’re full throttle,” says Johnson, with barely contained glee.

Overall, Johnson can’t say enough positive things about his band’s Guitar Hero experience, and for good reason: The game essentially transformed Graveyard BBQ from a “hokesy-jokesy side project,” as Johnson calls it, into a real-life rock show. Johnson fully admits that the band owes its current success to the franchise. “Without it, I’m not saying we wouldn’t have people interested in the band,” he says. “But Guitar Hero was such a huge thing that it’s definitely aided in building a buzz for the band.”

The question is: Will history repeat itself for this year’s winners?

The Next Generation of Raw
“This year, the turn-out was insane,” says Lange. “We listened to more mp3s than you can imagine. It’s tough when you can only choose one.”

That one happened to be “Raw Dog,” by The Last Vegas, off their 2006 album, Seal the Deal. Unlike Graveyard BBQ, The Last Vegas has been pursuing mainstream fame for quite some time. Started back in 2001, the Chicago-based band toured the States constantly over the last three years; they also completed a seven-week European stint over the summer. Their sexy, frenetic sound – a chimera of biker rock, punk and raunch – has spawned rave reviews in national publications like Village Voice, Bass Player’s Magazine and Entertainment Weekly. They’ve even appeared on MTV’s G-Hole, with music featured on Fuel TV and MTV’s Pimp My Ride. These guys mean business.

Before they’d entered the “Be A Guitar Hero” contest, the band had heard of the game but never played it, says John Wator, lead guitarist. “We spend all our time traveling around,” he explains. “We don’t really have a lot of time for videogame stuff.”

They’d only heard about the competition from a friend, who forwarded them the Harmonix email explaining the contest rules. Intrigued, Wator submitted “Raw Dog,” but he figured nothing would come of his entry, since the odds were stacked so high against the band. But sure enough, “Raw Dog” blew everyone at Harmonix and RedOctane away.

As part of the winner’s package, The Last Vegas traveled to New York City to conduct press interviews and test drive their song in Guitar Hero II. Initially, Wator was shocked. “Honestly, it was a lot harder than I thought it would be. You think, ‘Well, I wrote the song, I shouldn’t be that bad!'” he laughs. “I was just on the middle level, too. There’s definitely some people out there who will blow me away playing the game.”

“It’s really fun, though,” he adds. “Definitely up my alley.” I ask him what the band liked best about the game, and he replies, “Chad [the lead singer] was a big fan of ‘Shout at the Devil,’ but personally, I enjoyed any song that let you use the whammy bar a lot.”

Wator laments that the indie scene is difficult to escape, and for most bands, mainstream success will always be elusive. Still, he’s cautiously optimistic about the Guitar Hero II exposure. “When you’re on this level, it’s really hard to get out to new people, especially younger kids, because they can’t come out to a lot of clubs that we play,” he says. “Now you get this opportunity, where people might not even be looking to find a new band, and they come across something that perks their ears and makes them think, ‘Hey, that’s kind of cool.'”

As of press time, the launch publicity boom hasn’t hit The Last Vegas just yet, but Wator can’t wait. “Pretty much the whole experience of this has been great,” he says. “Anytime you get something like this that can open more doors, that’s pretty exciting.”

Tommorow’s Guitar Heroes
Lange affirms that as long as the Guitar Hero franchise continues, it will definitely include indie bands. “We’re always going to support the indie scene,” he says. “The indie scene is where most great bands start.”

As the Guitar Hero franchise moves to the next-gen systems, particularly the Xbox 360, online content distribution may prove surprisingly promising for future indie bands. Some of the material that couldn’t fit into Guitar Hero II‘s final release will appear on Xbox Live – including, suggests Lange, maybe a few tracks from the companies’ indie archives. “We’re still planning everything out,” he says, “but with downloadable content, we can do a lot.”

As for the indie bands themselves, both Johnson and Wator were impressed by how accessible Guitar Hero is for non-musicians. Johnson says he likes how the games inspire people who’ve never picked up a guitar in their lives. “It’s opened up so many avenues for people to really get back into rock ‘n’ roll,” he says. “To pick up a guitar and mess around with it, and turn yourself into a guitar hero.”

Freelance journalist Lara Crigger, whose previous work for The Escapist includes “Playing Through the Pain” and “The Milkman Cometh,” had way too much fun writing this article. She plays a mean Expert-level “Symphony of Destruction.”

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