A few weeks ago we covered the Rock-afire Explosion documentary that’s currently in post-production. If you don’t recall, there is a whole community of people who grew up with fond memories Showbiz Pizza Place, and now there are people who have bought the old animatronic robots from the house “band” and they’re reprogramming them to play new songs.
This whole idea seemed awesomely crazy to us at Glorious Noise—exactly the kind of obsessive fandom that we celebrate—so we tracked down the guy who’s responsible for the whole phenomenon. Aaron Fechter created the Rock-afire Explosion with his team of assistants in 1980. This is the same guy who invented Wack-a-Mole in 1976. That’s right: dude’s responsible for half of your favorite arcade memories.
Recently, Fechter sold the few sets of robots he had left in crates to fans who “promised they would love and cherish them forever.” And now, you can bid on which songs will be choreographed. Recent winners have included Against Me‘s “Borne on the FM Waves of the Heart” and Usher‘s “Love In This Club.” They just completed their version of the Arcade Fire‘s “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels).” Check it out after the jump.
We caught up with Fechter via email to discuss how this all came together.
GLONO: You did the original vocals for many of the characters. Were/are you ever in a band?
Aaron Fechter: The only band I was in was the one we called “Tropical Cleaners” that consisted of the musicians who did the tracks and voices for the Rock-afire Explosion. We played a few gigs together, but very little other experience with live performance. We named ourselves after the place we took our laundry because they already had T-Shirts with the name on them.
GLONO: Music + computer programming in 1980! Did you ever imagine how something like the internet might change the dynamic between musicians and fans?
Fechter: Yes… I was working on the technology to make it possible through my Anti-Gravity Freedom Machine until the Internet burst on the scene and took 15 years of research and development and made it worthless.
GLONO: What jobs did you do before Creative Engineering? Other experience with animitronics? Robots?
Fechter: I started Creative Eng when I was very young (24), and before that worked out of my garage to invent things. I built a few lousy robots as a kid.
GLONO: Back in the 80s, did the music industry hassle you for covering the songs you did? How about now? What do you think of how copyright issues are being dealt with today?
Fechter: The music industry was cool with us as long as we paid ASCAP and BMI. There were only two copyright owners that wanted more. We paid Ray Stevens $100 to cover Guitarzan, and Frank Sinatra told us not to do a song (for any price). We also paid standard royalties for songs we sold on record. So , no real problems. No problems recently regarding my use of other peoples copyrights, but I am presently suing two men for violating my copyrights and refusing to cease and desist along with other aggravating issues. I think people just need to know when to cease and desist. A good time is when a copyright holder says he doesn’t like what you’ve done and offers you a chance just to stop doing it before taking you to court. The real problem is that there is no easy way to pay for the use of a song. As far as downloading music is concerned, that’s a mess.
GLONO: What were some of the reasons why the characters of Chuck E Cheese (and the brand itself) were chosen to continue after the decision to consolidate was made? Why wasn’t C.E.C. retired and Rock-afire given the opportunity to press ahead?
Fechter: CEC used the Chuck E Cheese characters instead of the Rock-afire because they owned the CEC characters and I owned the RAE characters. They offered to use the RAE characters if I would give them full rights to them. But the offer did not include my getting anything for those rights other than the knowledge that my characters would still be used in CEC. Not a very good deal. No money. Just “give us the copyrights and we won’t kill off your characters.” I guess they felt they were dealing from a position of strength since they didn’t really care which characters they used.
GLONO: It seems that out of the two entities, the Showbiz side had more memorable characters with individual personalities. What were some of the other characters that never made it past the drawing board?
Fechter: There were lots of them. Some made it into character form but not into public showings. Reginald J. Flootsnoot, the fire breathing dragon, a pirate, the Wizard of Oz Characters, Bubba the Shakespeare reciting gorilla…etc..
GLONO: The choreography that Chris is doing seems wonderfully detailed. Give a brief explanation on how one produces a song for a show and how much time is involved in putting together a routine for a typical four minute long song.
Fechter: Chis is taking a break choreographing songs until some issues are worked out. At this time, I am asking Chris not to speak for me or my products. We don’t have a finalized agreement wherein he is working for me yet, and I am asking that fans who don’t have my permission, not post shows to the Internet featuring my copyrighted characters. I feel it is important not to allow just anyone who wants to to post whatever they want to post. It might kill my chances of landing that TV deal if the quality and quantity of RAE shows on You Tube result in loss of interest in the characters.
I am having to choreograph all the songs meanwhile, which is OK with me, but I just can’t turn out as much material and I know Chris would like to get back to programming again. It takes about a week to do one song working full time. Every movement of every character for every second of audio has to be painstakingly choreographed to work smoothly with every other movement of that each character. It’s way too difficult to explain in a few sentences.
GLONO: Have you ever met Chris’ wife? This is a pretty substantial collection that obviously requires a lot of time from him and space to store. What are her thoughts on his hobby?
Fechter: Yes, I have met Chris’ wife. She appears supportive as my girlfriend is of my dedication to the hobby.
GLONO: At this point, it’s obvious that there is a large amount of passion and nostalgia fueling the Rock-afire name…so what next? Is there a message you’re trying to send to C.E.C. in an attempt to re-launch some of the characters? Is the ultimate goal to make sure all of that talent and hard work isn’t forgotten? There are expenses involve with something like this and I’m curious to learn what’s the motivation behind maintaining this piece of pop culture?
Fechter: No. I have no interest in getting the characters back in CEC. I want to land a weekly TV show on VH1 or MTV to cover songs by up and coming Indie bands as well as popular musicians. It’s a cool way to artistically entertain people with music, some they know and some they are being introduced to. Like a cover band that never ages. We’re the only 80’s band that looks exactly like we did in the 80’s. I heard Abba won’t reunite and tour because they want people to remember them as they were, not as they are today.
GLONO: Talk a little bit more about the documentary. What was your initial reaction when you learned about the project? Did you know that this pizza chain with an admittedly novel marketing idea would have such an impact on so many people that one day they would make a movie about it?
Fechter: At first, I was wary of the documentary and wasn’t involved at all. When I met the producers, I developed trust in them not to turn this into another “Borat”. I always did hope that when the kids that came to Showbiz Pizza grew up some day and became execs at record companies, they would give me a shot at the big time. I have stayed young and strong to handle it when it happens.
Lately, in addition to programming Arcade Fire videos, Aaron Fechter has been busy working on the Animatronics Experimenters Kit that claims to allow anyone to develop their ability to create “The illusion of life!” for only $299.95 plus $15 shipping…
Todd Totale contributed to this interview.