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Eric Melin of Lawrence, Kansas represented America in this year’s 2013 Air Guitar Championship in a fierce competition before huge crowds. You’d think that would be enough, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg for this ridiculously smart, hilarious, multi-talented rocker who also happens to be the nicest dude in the world, completely belying his stage name “Mean Melin.”

Mean Melin’s Epic Performance

Serial Optimist: Oh man, I just watched video of the championship match… Match? Dance? Fight? What’s it called? Anyway, it was great. Really fantastic! Is it ok that I think it’s both impressive and funny?

Eric Melin: Absolutely. The thing about air guitar is that it can be all different kinds of things to different people. I love the absurdity of it. It’s inherently ridiculous to watch someone flail around and play air guitar – most people say it’s as close to masturbation as anything else. Which is basically what Miley Cyrus did on the VMAs, so I’m happy to welcome her to the worldwide air guitar family!

SO: Do you have any neck problems?

Eric: I haven’t seen a doctor, but I usually have to take a couple days off for the soreness after some heavy thrashing. Dave Mustaine’s doctors found broken pieces of bone in his spinal cord before he went in for neck surgery and, “Peace Sells But Who’s Buying?” was the first album I air guitared to on a regular basis, so I have that to look forward to.

SO: You actually play guitar. Are you airing the actual chords or just airing the space?

Eric: I’m actually not a guitar player. I’m a drummer. I play the air drums too, but air guitar is far more fun. I have no idea how to put a chord together, but I’ve been playing in bands for over 20 years so I’ve been involved in that process for a long time – usually sitting impatiently behind the kit waiting for creative lightning to strike. But being a drummer gives me a distinct advantage because my body can illustrate the drums part while my hands do the guitar stuff. There’s way more going on here than pretending to play the guitar. The air guitar can do all kinds of things the real guitar can’t do (i.e. extend the neck or sprout another one miraculously). You gotta get creative to stand out in the judges’ minds.

SO: Whoops, sorry. For some reason, I thought you played guitar too. Anyways, obviously these performances are rehearsed, how do you decide which song to play to and how do you rehearse?

Eric: Yeah, doing this has fundamentally changed the way I listen to music. I have a playlist I update throughout the year—which is constantly being added to—of air guitar possibilities. Later on, I try to edit them down to competition length, which is one minute. This year, though, I collaborated with a guitar player named Doug Minner and we wrote and recorded a song JUST FOR AIR GUITAR. That way, I could make music to fit the crazy “moves” I was seeing in my head (i.e. throwing the air guitar around my back and catching it in the front, slowing the song down and playing it backwards).

SO: I don’t want to insult your rocking cred, but do you work with a choreographer?

Eric: I watch “All That Jazz” every year and get all my self-loathing inspirado from the ghost of Bob Fosse. Then my own air guitar coach Peter “Stiff” Dickens comes over to my ranch and insults me until I break down in tears—as I practice in front of a mirror. After this complete physical and mental teardown, we build it back up from scratch, saving only the most mind-blowing moments for maximum airness.

Melin Channeling KISS With His Bros

Melin channels his inner KISS at age seven

SO: Tell us about your competitive air guitar journey. I picture it all starting with a baby “Mean Melin” (he was just “Crabby Melin” at the time) strumming away in his diaper to the delight of his parents.

Eric: When I was about 7-years-old, I dressed up my brother and our cousins as KISS and put on a concert with tennis rackets and crayons (and a Lite Brite with the KISS logo behind us) in my Granny’s basement. We mimed to Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” because we hadn’t heard their music yet and it was the only 45 I had. I just knew they looked cool because I had bought KISS cards at the grocery store.

I’ve been air guitaring ever since, and even made an instructional video in 1990 for a class. To my eternal embarrassment, I’m miming air guitar on a “there” guitar. Not sure what I was thinking then. In 2009, I saw “Air Guitar Nation” and realized people did this competitively. I’ve since been in five straight national US Air Guitar championships, but this was my first trip to Oulo, Finland for the Worlds. I entered as a Dark Horse contestant the night before the competition and won, which got me into the World Championship, and I survived the first 1st-place-deciding air-off since 2004 to emerge victorious. It was a true “Rocky” moment, complete with me sobbing and calling for Adrian.

SO: What’s the air guitar community/sub-culture like? Are you all buddies or is it super competitive? 

Eric: Both, but more on the community side. Every year it gets harder and harder because of all the hilarious and wonderful routines we see at US Air Guitar competitions. I keep having to up my game. But air guitar may be the only sport where you’ll find yourself booing bad scores that were given to your opponent. When you see something amazing, you want it to be rewarded. The US Air Guitar community is amazing. So many ridiculously talented people pushing themselves further each year and coming back for more. We’re all friends. As of last week in Finland, I’m proud to call air guitarists from China, Russia, Australia, Bulgaria, Germany, Belgium, U.K., and Japan my friends as well. There’s a very quick bonding experience that happens when you put yourself out there in front of an audience with a group of people to do something so absurd.

SO: I read in the rules that though backup bands are not allowed, air roadies are allowed. Do you have any?

Eric: I have had air roadies in the past, but over the years, I’ve stripped myself of all gimmicks and just made it about one guy and his air guitar. My air guitar talks back to me and gives me advice, like the dog in that Don Johnson movie.

Melin during his Dark Horses 2013 qualifying round. Photo by Heidi Risto

Melin during his Dark Horses 2013 qualifying round. Photo by Heidi Risto

SO: I loved what you said in the comments section on Huffington Post when you talked about the haters. You said, “Air guitar is performance art. Simple as that. The moment when it transcends becoming a person pretending to play guitar and becomes someone playing an air guitar is a beautiful, exhilarating, blissful moment.” Why would people hate on this? Do you have to defend yourself a lot?

Eric: Some people take themselves and life too seriously, I guess. I like having fun. There’s something freeing about acting like an idiot in front of hundreds or thousands of people. The fact that air guitar has gone from being something you do in the bedroom or when you’re drunk at home after a party to being something you do in front of a live audience competitively is ludicrous! That’s exactly why I signed up.

SO: You’ve had the craziest fucking life! You were an improviser in Kansas City, have been on two TV game shows (“World Series of Pop Culture” and “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”), you’re the creator and host of  the great movie critic website Scene Stealers AND you were the drummer for Ultimate Fakebook, a band that was signed by a major label and who still has a cult following. NOW you’re the Air Guitar World Champion! Not the National, but the WORLD champion. I’m running out of a breath just talking about it all! Whaa What?!

Eric: My motto has always been “Why not?” Lots of people sit around and say, “I could do better than that,” but few actually get off their asses and try out/compete/work hard/get better. You only live once. When my new band The Dead Girls opened for KISS in Kansas City, I thought for a moment that was it. I had come full circle and could sit back and reminisce for the rest of my life. Fuck that.

SO: What’s next for “Mean Melin?”

Eric: I have always been an ambassador for air guitar, but now I will proudly carry that responsibility for the world. There’s lots of cool stuff happening. For example, I’m friends with some Expeditionary Learning teachers who are putting together lesson plans to teach kids about coming out of their shells and taking risks through air guitar. Next year I get to go back to Oulo, meet new air guitarists from all over the world and defend my title!

SO: And next for Eric Melin? Something crazy and ridiculous I’m sure.

Eric: Why, have you heard about something crazy and ridiculous? I’m game.


SO NOTE: Eric writes about social media for Spiral16 and is really behind archiving his air guitar life at meanmelin.tumblr.com. Follow him @SceneStealrEric.