Craig "Hot Lixx Hulahan" Billmeier won last year's International Air Guitar competition by dethroning two-time reigning champ Ochi "Dainoji" Yosuke, marking the first time an American had won the contest in four years. This year, he automatically qualifies for nationals, so he's touring as the emcee of the U.S. Air Guitar competition, which arrives in Cleveland next week. He recently called from San Francisco, where he works as a studio engineer, to talk about the responsibilities of being an international star and what to expect from this year's competition.
When did you first start playing air guitar?
I started before I even realized it. I think from watching MTV, with the likes of Eddie Van Halen and Nitro and any other rock band you see. I just started to emulate them.
So you've had no formal training?
I did not take any bachelor's classes, no.
Can you actually play guitar?
I can. But I've found it to be a detriment. People who don't play guitar at all aren't inhibited by the physics of what a guitar is. The only real benefit to playing a real guitar is that if someone makes fun of you, you can go home and get your real guitar and bash them over the head with it.
Do you play Guitar Hero?
Yes, but I'm more partial to Rock Band. I'm the actor who does the motion capture for Rock Band. It's just a peripheral point of awesomeness I've acquired through playing air guitar.
Take me through last year's competition. You won the regional in San Francisco, right?
Actually, I won the nationals in D.C. I was enlisted as the emcee last year except for the first two shows, which Bjorn Toroque was going to emcee. I only had the first two shows to compete. I didn't win the first night in New York, but I won the next night in D.C.. That ensured me a spot at nationals.
What was the competition like there?
D.C. is fierce. In fact, the entire Eastern seaboard is really tough. There's a group of 10 guys who are at all of them. They're all stellar performers. You're always going up against a hot group of people. I was more into being the emcee than competing. You're still in the thick of it, but you don't have the pressure.
How tough was the competition at nationals?
It was phenomenal. It was so breakneck. The reality is that everybody understands that they're just air guitaring. Nobody is above that fact. Everyone is totally friendly. And because of the blog, everyone knew about each other. There's definitely a lot of camaraderie.
What was the international competition like? Had you competed internationally before?
I had back in 2006. That was six weeks after my first air-guitar competition. It all moved very fast. The whole time, I thought, "This isn't really happening. It's too ridiculous to be reality." By the time I got to Finland, I was in over my head. Finland is awesome because it's a multi-cultural nerdy convention. You have dudes from all over the world who speak all different languages. We all stay at the same hotel, and you're there for a week. It's just like a big nerdfest.
Is more preparation required?
Most people are already established. I learned the first year that they're not quite as into goofiness. I reeled it in and tried to be more technically proficient and not as bombastic. I played the game, as it were.
What songs did you perform to?
You have that first round where you bring your own song, and in the second round, the committee picks the song. The first song, the one of my choosing, was "Plane Crash" by the Toadies. The second one was "Red Flag" by Billy Talent, whom I'd never heard of before that competition.
In Finland, you had to go up against the reigning champ, but he wasn't the one who gave you the toughest competition.
No, I think the dude from the Netherlands was up there. The guy who year in and year out poses the biggest threat is Heart Buckboard from Germany. I don't know what it is, but he's like [American air guitarist] William Ocean, where he comes up with outlandish characters. He doesn't just focus on the air guitar. He has something else and tries to work air guitar into it. He's always fun to watch.
I like that outfit you wore last year. What look were you going for?
I think I was going for functionality. Last year, I went a little too neon. It was all pink and orange. I thought I might trim it back and focus more on the rocking.
Was it important to you that an American won for the first time since 2004?
As a member of the U.S. air-guitar team, yes, of course. As a member of the world community, not really.
What advice can you give up-and-coming air guitarists?
First and foremost, ditch any and all semblance of shame. That pretty much covers it. You're dead in the water if people can sense that you're a little inhibited and embarrassed. But if you roll with it, you've got them in the palm of your hand. Look at the last two Cleveland champs. One was dressed as Derek Smalls, and the other one didn't wear underwear.