He is barbaric. His long hair hangs past his shoulders. His beard is unkempt. He chugs from a drinking horn and spits at the crowd.
He is Nordic Thunder.
And like a warrior with many scars to prove it, he refuses to give up without a fight. His next battle will be to hold on to the crown…of best air guitarist in the U.S. (Cue the music.)
Justin Howard, 28, will command the stage at the regional air guitar competition on June 29 at the Metro. If he is victorious, he'll go up against handpicked competitors from a dozen cities to head to the national finals in Denver. If he conquers that, like he did last year, he advances to the World Championship in Finland this summer. He placed second at the World Championship.
Howard, a video editor who lives in Ukrainian Village, started searching for his head-thrashing song a few days after last year's world finals tournament.
"I air guitar every day, if I hear a song that sounds good and has nice riff to it, of course I'm going to jam to it," he said. That means at home or in the car while driving.
Once he finds the song – or as he puts it, the song finds him – he spends time editing it to the best 60 seconds of strumming. He listens to it hundreds of times to memorize the notes and chords. The month before taking the stage, he practices for one hour a day several days a week. He even records his routine using his web camera so he can tweak his performance. Only one person, his girlfriend, ever gets to see it before the competition.
Stage presence is crucial, he said. The dream of a Columbia College classmate of a fierce Viking standing on a cliff overlooking the ocean with thunder, lightning and clouds inspired his onstage persona. His song picks reflect his persona: aggressive and in-your-face.
It wasn't until he got back to Chicago from a trip home to Wyoming in 2005 that he saw a flier at John Barleycorn in Lincoln Park for competitive air guitar. "I thought it was the most absurd thing ever," he said. He knew he had to enter someday.
But he was so bummed he couldn't compete that year because he was on crutches after having surgery for tearing cartilage in his knee from, wait for it, playing air guitar at a friend's house to Iron Maiden's "Run to the Hills."
Turns out it's quite hazardous. He had to have back surgery in 2009 for a ruptured disc and two herniated discs in his back from rocking out too hard to "Through the Fire and Flames" by DragonForce. Howard also has a show stopping power slide move, but always ends up skinning his knee and feet.
His motto: Pain is temporary but air guitar is forever.
The first year he entered a competition, he beat out all Chicago players in 2006. He won the regional tournament again in 2008 and 2010.
As the reigning U.S. champ, he doesn't know how he'll top last year's performance. "I'm going to go balls to the wall and throw all safety aside, hurt myself and punish my body," Howard said.
He gets a surge of adrenaline when he steps onto the stage and shows off his mad guitar skills.
"It's important to not lose sight of what it is you're doing. You're playing air guitar. You shouldn't take yourself too serious," he said. "As long as you're in on the joke and don't take yourself too serious and have genuine fun, then air guitar is for you."
He does play the (real) guitar, but he doesn't think anybody wants to hear it.
"Air guitar is way more fun. I'm a rock star when I play air guitar," he said.
Five tips from Nordic Thunder for a good air guitar performance:
1.You have to be completely willing to make an absolute idiot of yourself.
2.Have absolutely zero shame.
3.Be willing to be the butt of many jokes.
4.Be able to turn those jokes around and blow their minds with how awesome your air guitar skills are.
5.Be willing to completely surrender yourself and want to have fun.