Connect with us


Interview: Alexandra Lipsitz

Opening in select New York City theaters today is director Alexandra Lipsitz’s debut feature-length documentary Air Guitar Nation. The film tells the story of how competitive air guitar came to the United States, which up until 2003, had never sent an official contender to the World Air Guitar Championships held annually in Finland.

Opening in select New York City theaters today is director Alexandra Lipsitz’s debut feature-length documentary Air Guitar Nation. The film tells the story of how competitive air guitar came to the United States, which up until 2003, had never sent an official contender to the World Air Guitar Championships held annually in Finland.

What is air guitar? It’s that thing people do, mimicking holding an instrument and rocking out, usually reserved for those times when they just lose themselves in a song. In competitive air guitar, performers get up on stage and have one minute to totally rock out to a music selection of their choice. They are judged on technical merit, stage presence, and ‘airness’ – “the level to which their performance transcends mimicry and becomes and art form in and of itself.” Basically, air guitar is pure rock and roll, or rock and roll in it’s purest form, with even the instruments stripped away. Air guitarists perform under stage names and personas, and, when the first east and west coast championships were held in New York and LA respectively, performed in front of sold out crowds.

The film also documents what might be the greatest rock rivalry over the past decade, the fierce competition between David “C-Diddy” Jung and Dan “Bjorn Toroque” (pronounced “born to rock”) Crane. Saying anything more about this ego-fueled air guitar battle would ruin one of the best parts of the film, so here is where I stop talking about it.

I had the chance to meet up with Alexandra while she was in New York. Also present was Dan “Bjorn Turoque” Crane.

Jameson Kowalczyk: How did this project originate? How did you get involved in it?

Alexandra Lipsitz: I work for a company called The Magical Elves, and we produce TV, and the guys who went to Finland in 2002… did you see the movie?

Jk: Yeah.

AL: The guys who are narrating it, they went to Finland in 2002 and they came back and brought it to our company with the idea of producing a TV show, but it didn’t really work out as a TV show.

JK: I though it would make a good “Project Greenlight” or “Project Runway” kind of series, following a group of air guitarists.

 AL: Yeah, we made “Project Greenlight” and “Project Runway” and “Last Comic Standing,” a lot of reality shows, so Chris and Sedwick pitched it as a kind of anti-“American Idol,” and it just really didn’t pay with TV. But I met Dan and C-Diddy and Gordon Hanson, and the story kept evolving, and I kept showing up with a camera, and around 2004 we had all this footage, and I said ‘Let’s just cut this into a documentary,’ and everybody had kind of thought that was a good idea along the way, but nobody had done it. And I just started cutting it at my house.

JK: Do you play air guitar?

 AL: I do. I do now, I’ve been taught by the masters. Am I a good air guitarist, Dan, what would you say?

Dan Crane: Her heart is definitely in it. That’s all I’ll say.

AL: [laughing] That’s all you’ll say?

DC: For real, no, she’s good. I’ve never seen her compete, I’ve just seen her get it out at like an aireoke or you know, late nights after we’re celebrating.

JK: What kind of music do you like to air guitar?

AL: I’d say I’ve got a pretty broad… one of my favorites is “Cannonball” by The Breeders. That’s my favorite. And I like doing duets, I’m big on the duets. “Cannonball,” and let’s see, what was the other one?

DC: You’ve done “Dueling Banjos.”

AL: “Dueling Banjos” is one of my favorites.

DC: She kicks ass on “Dueling Banjos.” She really gets into that one.

AL: I do. I did – what was that? — “Crazy Train” with C-Diddy at AFI. And I really never practice, I’m pretty much a purist, don’t you think? You can pretty much throw me up on any song. And I’ll sort of be able to handle it.

JK: And what are some of your favorites?

DC: I like Beethoven’s Fidelio, the opera, that’s good… I’m just kidding.

AL: [laughs]

JK: I’m trying to picture that in my head. 

DC: Yeah. It’s complicated… Well, the best air-ea is [Dan says some words in german I don’t understand], which means, “Ah, the trick of the eye.” But no, I like… I’m kind of more from the punk school, I guess you could say, more than the hair metal, although I do get into… I mean I like old school, like classic old school rock, like Led Zepplin, Motorhead, that kind of stuff. But I also like California Uberalis by The Dead Kennedys, that’s always been a favorite. But yeah I will pretty much air guitar anything, anything but reggae. That’s kind of my general philosophy. [Dan stares off at something in he pub behind me] And I like German rock. German girl rock.

AL: He actually just likes German girl rock bands. He’s eyeing the girls at the table next to us.

DC: [to the German girl rock band at the table next to us] Excuse me? Are you in a band?

Sexy German Rocker Girl: Yeah. 

DC: What’s your band called?

SGRG: Junior Senior.

DC: Junior Senior? Wow. That’s exciting, I know Junior Senior. I was going to audition to be in Junior Senior oddly enough. To play bass. I don’t know who I met, but you obviously found a bassist. It’s too late now. Oh well.

SGRG: [laughing]

DC: [to me] And Junior Senior. I’m a big fan of Junior Senior.

SGRG: [laughing/smiling] Ah, thank you!

AL: Is the band all girls?

DC: Well, I don’t see Junior and Senior. They must be somewhere else. [to Junior Senior girls] Where are Junior and Senior?

SGRG: Junior will be here in a little bit, but we are the only ones here. We played in Austin, Texas.

AL: How was South by Southwest? Was it good?

SGRG: Yeah…

DC: It’s a good time. Welcome to the warmth of New York City.

SGRG: [laughing]

DC: Sorry for that diversion there.

JK: Don’t worry about it. Can you define ‘airness’?

DC: The textbook definition is the extent to which your performance exceeds the imitation of guitar playing and becomes and art form in and of itself. The non-textbook definition is…

AL: Airness is, for me, when you see someone performing on stage and they’re no longer just a person mimicking playing somebody’s guitar, and they actually become a rock star. You could be at Wembley in front of thousands of people, and believe it. And it’s very, very obvious when somebody has airness, compared to somebody who doesn’t. Like you know immediately.

DC: People have said it’s like pornography, you know it when you see it.

AL: [laughs] Who said that? Was it Kristen?

DC: It’s been said.

JK: You only have a minute to perform, how do you chop down a song for a performance?

DC: It depends, it’s all a matter of personal freedom. For example, I know how to use my computer to edit songs, so I’ll talk the best nuggets of a song, or I’ll do a medley of every Led Zeppelin song ever recorded, condense that down to 60 seconds. Some people just bring a CD and say, ‘Track 3, start it at a minute 30, and just play it. It’s all up to you.

JK: How do you pick songs to perform?

DC: Well pretty much most of my time, when I’m not performing, is listening to… is being in bars listening to songs, and keeping mental notes… I actually keep a little notepad in my pocket for, ‘Oh, that would be a great air guitar song.’ I don’t do this anymore because I’m not competing, but you just kind of pay attention to the songs around you, or you go through your iTunes playlist and hook to bands that you think would be good, and basically you put it on, and like this song for example [referring to the soft piano music playing inside the pub] is not a good air guitar song – there’s no guitar. But you just wait for the right song, and when it comes along, you see if it has drama. 

JK: Do you remember the fist song you really lost yourself into?

DC: Yeah, it was Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” I actually got up… this was before competition… I was with my band, we had just played a show and we were all hanging out at the bar and “Don’t Stop Believing” came on. I think I was a few sheets to the wind, and I got up on a table on my knees and was giving a whole rock-out thing. And I was lost in the song.

AL: The first song I lost myself into… I don’t know what it was because it was in Finland, I think it had to have been Led Zeppelin or some old classic rock. We were at the .45 Special and it was this guitar rock part for air guitar. So it wasn’t like a track I put on, it was sort of this big dance party air guitaring thing.

JK: What does it take to be an effective air guitarist?

AL: Definitely airness. You’re judged on criteria, and it’s pretty righteous criteria: it’s airness, technical merit, stage presence… So technical merit is you actually appear to be holding a guitar. It doesn’t mean you always have to be like this [rigidly imitates holding a guitar], but you can’t be off and dancing wildly and lose your air guitar, unless it’s intentional, like you’re throwing it up in the air and catching it. So it’s airness, stage presence and technical merit, and is that it?

DC: Those are the three biggies.

JK: What are the differences between competing in New York City and competing in Finland? The judges seemed to have a different approach overseas.

AL: I think you see a lot less talent in New York, only because this is on a regional level. When you get to Finland it’s world class. It’s like when you win a heat in America and then you go to the Olympics, you’re going to see a much higher caliber of performer or athlete on the world level, on the world stage.

DC: You also see more blonds. More blonde people. Young blonde girls. That’s the major difference.

AL: [laughing] Dan was definitely seeing more blonde girls…

DC: The ratio of blonde to not blondes… which is a terrible band, Four Non-Blondes, New York is down here, and LA obviously, has more blondes, but they’re fake blondes, like they’re fake air guitars. Then you go to Finland, and it’s like 80 percent.

JK: Were you approached by any girls after you performed?

DC: Not a lot of girls, but enough.

AL: Enough for his ego to grow, definitely.

DC: But you know, we shared a special rock and roll hunger.

AL: Even if he’s not around, I get approached for him. They’re like, ‘How do we get in touch with Bjorn Turoque?’ Lot of charm.

DC: It’s not easy being Bjorn.

AL: [laughs] ‘It’s not easy being Bjorn?’

DC: It’s been said.

JK: What were your first air guitar competitions?

DC: New York.

AL: Los Angles.

JK: How did your expectations and view of air guitar change after you experienced your first competition?

DC: I think my expectations were probably similar to what a lot of people’s expectations are when they hear about an air guitar competition, which is sort of like a raised eyebrow and a ‘Really, are you serious?’ But yet, I knew I wanted to compete. But then by the time it was over I was completely sold on the whole idea, and understood that on the one hand it was an amazing sport, and on the other hand kind of an actual art form, like when it’s done well it’s very artistic, and on the other hand – it’s air guitar, you can have as many hands as you want – it’s like going to the best rock concert you’ve ever been to in the past twenty years, because all the music’s great, the crowd is going insane, they’re just going wild, and people put on a much better performance. A lot of bands these days stand there and look at the wall or their shoes or whatever, and it’s boring to watch, it’s boring to watch live music 98% of the time. This is an amazing venue to watch somewhat live music.

JK: What was the last band that you saw live that gave a really impressive performance?

DC: Dr. Dog.

AL: Yeah, they were great.

DC: That was last… I’ve seen them a few times, the last time I saw them was…

AL: South by Southwest?

DC: Yeah, last year at South by Southwest.

AL: We premiered the film at South by Southwest in 2006, that was our world premiere. And it was amazing, and we all stayed afterwards for the… well, because the film festival is first then there’s the music festival. We all stayed for the music festival, a bunch of us did. And it was so much fun, I had such a good time.

JK: And what was your opinion of air guitar, or how did it change, after your first competition experience?

AL: Well, I had no opinion of air guitar before… I met C-Diddy and we went to “Jimmy Kimmel,” and then I started having an idea of what was going on because… I should say I met David Jung and C-Diddy, because there’s a very big difference between the two of them. So I met David Jung and then I met C-Diddy, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is interesting.’ And then we went to the competition, I really had no expectations.

DC: Who do you like better?

AL: David Jung or C-Diddy?

DC: Yeah.

AL: I couldn’t say, I like them both.

DC: Who do you like better, C-Diddy or Bjorn Turoque?

AL: [laughs]

DC: Nevermind.

AL: You’re so insecure, it’s awesome.

JK: What are the differences between C-Diddy and David Jung?

AL: Well, he expresses it in the movie, really kind of explains it. One is just kind of nice, calm, quiet, well spoken, and thoughtful, and the other one is sheer rock power, Asian Fury. And he is, he really is. He’s a good performer. He’s really great. And so I had no expectations going into the competition, and what I saw blew my mind, and it was probably one of the better rock shows I’d been to, and I’ve been to a lot of rock shows in my life. And I think, I don’t know… you have to experience it. I really don’t know how else to say it. Go see the film, go see the US Air Guitar Competition, enter it, have a good time, go to aireoke. It’s just something that needs to be experienced.

JK: Are there a lot of these events going on? How much has air guitar expanded in the past few years?

DC: Occasionally I’ll host an aireoke night, which is not really a competition, it’s more free form. It’s like a karaoke night, but instead of singing, you play air guitar. And we kind of think of that as a farm system for competitions, much like the minor leagues. But the first few, in 2003, it was just an east coast and west coast regional, and then that winner went to Finland. And then I snuck to Finland, through the backdoor. But this year we’re going to have I think 20 cities across the U.S. So New York, Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, tons of cities. And all that info will be on, I think they’re updating the site this week. And so yeah, it’s definitely expanded, twenty-fold, or no, tenfold I guess, since it’s beginnings.

AL: And people are definitely catching on. I remember I was talking to somebody in LA and they were like, ‘Yeah we had an air guitar event the other day.’ And I was just like, ‘Great.’ I think it’s something people hear about and think, oh that will be fun, and they’ll start an aireoke at their bar, or a little competition.

DC: There have been air guitar competitions since the 70s I think, but this was the first time… The Fins really started this idea of doing an international, kind of sanctioned, competition. And 2002 was the first time the U.S. had an official entry.

AL: And the Fins, they were… at first they came up with this, they wanted to do something for peace, like to make peace fun, and it was part of a festival, and they were just going to do the Finnish Air Guitar Championship, and then went online and saw there was no world competition, and that’s how it started.

JK: How were you received when you went to Finland? Were they welcoming, or…? The two guys you’re seen talking to in the movie didn’t seem to friendly.

DC: The Austrians. That was… I egged them on a little bit. But I was just trying to talk to them. I think people were… we also had a camera crew with us, so not only had we just started bombing Iraq two month prior to our arrival, but we had this whole camera crew, and people were just like, ‘What’s with the Americans?’ You know? And I was very wary of that. And part of my mission there was to kind of show them that there were Americans that weren’t behind the war and thought George Bush was a… whatever. I think people were a bit hesitant at first, to kind of interact with us. But one of the things that’s great about this whole world is that the minute the music is playing and everybody is tossing back a couple of beers, you just become best friends with all these guys. And that’s what… I think there is a very political message to the film, and that’s what this idea of sharing rock and roll and music, and just kind of a love for youthful exuberance expressed through rock and roll, it’s something that’s very uniting. And very harmonizing, I guess you could say. Pun intended.

JK: What was the first concert you went to?

AL: The Doobie Brothers [laughs]. I was with my Dad, okay? And there was this guy next to me with a huge afro. I was really young, this was the 70s. And he’s like… he was smoking a joint, and he passed it to me…

DC: Was he one of the Doobie Brothers?

AL: [laughing] No…

DC: Was he like, their cousin?

AL: … he passed it to me, he totally passed it to me. And my dad was like, ‘No.’

DC: And it was all downhill from there.

AL: I was like, seven years old.

DC: I can’t remember… there were three concerts that were my first three, but I can’t remember what order. But I think they all kind of go together anyway, which was Cheap Trick, STYX, and Journey. All in an indoor stadium in Denver, Colorado.

JK: [to Alexandra] You’ve had some crazy jobs in the past, working for a circus, working as a crewmember on a sailboat. Could you talk a bit about those experiences?

AL: Sure. I left school early…

DC: Like 2:30?

AL; Yeah, like 2:30 [laughs]. I left school early and started traveling, and just ended up some funny places. I actually apprenticed with a director in Europe, a Polish filmmaker. We were in Poland before the wall fell, and doing… the first movie I ever worked on was an underground rock scene in Poland documentary. I ended up going back to the states and meeting someone who was going to Southeast Asia and wanted somebody to go with them, and they just took me. And then they left, they gave me some money and I was sort of stuck in Southeast Asia [laughing] going ‘What the fuck?’ So I got on a boat and I crewed on a sailboat. And then my mom was getting married and she was like, ‘Get back to the states!’ and she worked for The Big Apple Circus…

DC: She was a clown, right?

AL: Yeah, sometimes. No. She was a managing director of the Big Apple Circus and helped run the school and fundraised for them. She had been working for them my entire life, since I was 11. So I would put up posters for the circus and grew up sort of hanging around circus people, going to school, going to shows. So I came back, and at my mom’s wedding, [inaudible name] was there and we got to talking, and basically that’s how I started working for the circus. A bunch of my friends and I just joined up and went o tour for about six years.

JK: What kind of job did you have?

AL: I was a roustabout, which is somebody who puts up the tent and basically does…

JK: So you weren’t juggling knives or taming lions or anything?

AL: No, there were a couple of knife fights [laughing], but no juggling. It was a lot of fun. It was like the best college you could possibly go to, I think, working for the circus. It was very safe, you could party, you learned amazing work ethic, and you put on this amazing show, and you learned about performance. It’s good if you’re interested in becoming involved in theatrics or something like that.

JK: [to Dan] Do you still work a day job? Or have the book, your band kind of freed you from that?

DC: Yeah. All that stuff sort of freed me up from having to do the day job. I’m not sure how long that’s going to last.

JK: What was your day job?

DC: I produced educational software.

AL: [laughs] I probably though he was making porn when he told me that.

DC: Yeah, educational. For kids.

JK: Sex ed software?

DC: Kids gotta learn sometime. We’ve got to give them visual aids. But I did reading software, reading assessment software. Exciting stuff. I was thrilled to leave it behind. But yeah, you know, I just kept getting jobs doing stuff I didn’t like, because software pays well. And eventually I just decided ‘This is not my dream. This is not what I want to do with my life.’ And I thin participating in all these competitions helped me realize that you should go after the things that… even if you keep losing, even if you keep getting struck down, as I did…

JK: You had some success though. You rocked your first competition in Finland to make it to the finals. The judges gave you nearly a perfect score in that competition.

DC: That’s true, that was the night. I mean, I always got good scores, but they were just slightly not good enough. That’s why I kept going. And I ended up writing a book about the whole thing, and that sort of kept me afloat for about a year. And now, I’m still doing freelance writing, the thing with my band.

JK: What’s the name of your band?

DC: We’re called ‘Nous Non Plus.’

JK: What are you working on now?

DC: I’m working on my line of air guitar aerobics videos. Air-obics. That’s been a long project in the works. Probably not gonna ever happen.

AL: Air-obics? With who?

DC: I got some people. [laughing] not really working on that more than up here.

AL: I can’t wait to see you and Chi-Chi Rodriguez in spandex.

DC: Yeah, that’s gonna be good. I did a short pilot for Comedy Central, for their website, that is stuck in their legal department right now. I’m still doing freelance writing. I just wrote something for Blender. I’ve got some other stuff going on, I’m going to try and come up with another book idea. Life beyond air guitar. That’s not the name of the book, but some other non-air guitar related thing. It’s hard to get away from this world. A, because it’s so fun, and B, because it just keeps pulling me back in. But I’m not out yet. Plus I’ll be going on tour in June with US Air Guitar. I’m now the MC of all the competitions. So I’ll be on the tour bus, playing Guitar Hero in the back.

AL: Against me.

JK: Who’s better at Guitar Hero?

AL: He is.

JK: Do you need guitar skills to play Guitar Hero?

DC: No. You just need rock skills. It’s good training for air guitar actually, because if you don’t understand the separation of rhythm and both hands, Guitar Hero will train you for that. And then you have to… it’s obviously much more exaggerated than that. Like, a lot of people will just get up and do this, move both hands at the same time, that’s not good air guitar. You have to understand the strumming is here. Guitar Hero is excellent training for that.

AL: I’m hoping we can eventually come up with an Air Guitar Nation video game, that would be a lot of fun.

DC: And lunchboxes too.

AL: And Bjorn Turoque and C-Diddy action figures. And they could fight.

DC: But we love each other.

JK: Are you friends with C-Diddy? Or David Jung?

DC: We have an understanding, you could say. It’s a kind of mutual admiration.

JK: Are Bjorn Turoque and C-Diddy friends? Or does the rock rivalry continue?

DC: No. I don’t think Bjorn and C-Diddy will ever be friends. But Dan and David are. That’s not true actually. We buried the hatchet –  the ax, if you will.

JK: [to Alexandra] And what are you working on next?

AL: I’m working on developing three new documentary ideas, just looking for funding. And I’m doing two TV shows this spring and summer. Another “Project Runway” and a show for the TV Guide Channel that’s kind of like “Project Greenlight,” but for producers instead of directors.

JK: Anything else you would like to say?

AL: Just to tell millions of people to see this movie. If anyone would like air guitar to grow, it is their civil duty to show up and see this film, so that it will end up in Kansas City, for some small child that needs to release their inner air guitar.

DC: I also think like… movies like 300 have gah-zillion dollar marketing budgets, and our marketing budget is… air. We have practically no marketing budget for this movie, so word of mouth has a really big impact. And I think people will… I’ll give you your money back if you don’t walk out of the theater with a smile on your face.

Continue Reading
You may also like...
Click to comment

More in Retro

To Top