In April 2013 Harmonix Music Systems stopped their weekly song updates to their videogame Rock Band. Up to now they had 281 consecutive weeks of adding tracks to the game, ending up with a catalogue of 4262 songs.
Back in January 2008 when I first encountered Rock Band I was still part-timing as a game journalist. EA Finland had decided to introduce the game by renting an actual rehearsal space in a music hotel, setting it up with very high volume, lighting, projector, mic stand and everything. As a games writer I was invited and proceeded to spend tens of hours in the space – our first session lasted fourteen hours.
During one of those sessions I was singing by myself – I must’ve been the first one to arrive. I had been curious about the singing and everybody was avoiding it. I was surprised by someone walking in while I was singing. While rattled, I kept on singing, and felt really good about it – having an audience, in a sense. Contrary to most others, I was putting the original vocal track’s volume way down and upping the mic. I wanted to hear myself.
So I picked up singing and proceeded to force it unto others. I remember a moment in that space, singing the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps” – a song that’s difficult for me (still is) – with the full band backing, that you know, being in a real band would be awesome beyond words.
I didn’t much think about it back then as it seemed like a fantasy that could never happen, but the seed was planted then and there.
We proceeded to play really rather a lot of Rock Band, all through to RB3. Singing kept growing on me.
About two years later (2010) I picked up a real electric guitar, totally inspired by Rock Band and totally chosen by my wife, for its looks – she has an identical instrument. I wasn’t that much into the guitar per se as it still seems too technical for me, but I just needed to play music and understand music better. Pretend playing the songs had given me a newfound appreciation for music. But it was always about the band, and the singing. I knew I wanted to front a band on a gig.
Since then I’ve been practicing on and off on the guitar. I can only play shitty rhythm guitar a little bit, but it’s just enough to at times give me the feeling of “holy shit I’m making music!”
Rouhgly at the same time I stumbled on the “52 Weeks” blog series on the Harmonix community site, chaired by Helen “HMXHellion” McWilliams. Her story was the most inspirational thing I’ve read in my life, of getting a guitar because Joan Jett is awesome and of writing a letter to your whole company, explaining how you want to start a band. And then making it happen, their track “Seven” ending up as a personal favorite in Rock Band. These women were not life long musicians, they basically just picked up instruments and went for it, well past teenage years.
Ever since then I’ve had this thought at the back of my mind of actually starting a band one day, for real. But in my mind that one day was perhaps closer to retirement age, when I had run into a group of friends with the same dream. I had talked about this with my friends, but it felt like the stars wouldn’t align any time soon.
So this year Harmonix stopped updating Rock Band. We would still have a couple of Rock Band parties per year, until our plastic finally gives up, but to me it felt like the end of an age. The dream was there, fading ever so slowly, and I couldn’t let it go. There was an anxiety building up, something unanswered. Rock Band being an evolving, living thing was answering some call I had inside me, and now it was going away, I had to answer it myself.
Ubisoft made another cool rock game, Rocksmith. I’ve been practicing with that and a couple of weeks ago I realized that when backed by a proper band (on tape), and run through a good software amp, my simple rendition of “Go With The Flow” by Queens Of The Stone Age on a real guitar sounds okay.
Fully realizing that this is all based on videogames, I hesitated for two full days, before finally posting a message on Facebook, explaining my goal: to start a shitty punk band right now, at the tender age of 34.
To my dismay, in a couple of hours there were enough volunteers for two bands.
We haven’t had our first rehearsal yet, and it could be that it won’t be a shitty punk band after all (I’m the only non-musical guy in the group), but we do have a goal of having a gig in a year, if we get that far. What I do know is that if it doesn’t work out, I’m going to start another band. And eventually, yes, I will front a band on stage.
It is the mission of Harmonix to “share the joy of creating and performing music with everyone, regardless of their musical experience”. It took five years of tireless, constant inspiration by you, but I can finally say: thank you for the music.
PS. More videogame companies should have missions.
PPS. It looks like there’s a lot of people around who really should start bands today.