Remember that time as a kid when you were invited to some friend’s birthday party at Chuck-E-Cheese? If you were even luckier (and I was), it was your own party. The arcade/amusement park/restaurant offered fun, noise, and junk food in excess with the latest games, prizes and most important, the ball pit where one kid always nearly drowned.
And when it came time to eating pizza, out came what was Chuck-E’s most cherished attraction: The Rock-afire Explosion. This animatronic band of weirdo animals performed songs on stage as you gobbled up a dishonest fourth slice and watched in awe, thinking, “I wonder what would happen if I accidentally spilled my Pepsi on that hillbilly bear?”
Those nuggets of nostalgia live on in the new Young Rival video for their song “Oh Nancy,” which is taken from their recent EP, Strange Light. The Hamilton-based band have already seen a couple of their videos go viral: namely the autostereogram visuals of “Black is Good” (directed by Jared Raab) and the dazzling makeup work of “Two Reasons” (directed by bassist John Smith).
As a former Chuck-E-Cheese patron, “Oh Nancy” is Smith’s finest work yet. To pull it off, he contacted the creator of the Rock-afire Explosion, Aaron Fechter, who also invented the Whack-A-Mole game and founded ShowBiz Pizza Place, which later merged with Chuck-E-Cheese. Fechter programmed his life-sized animatronic characters to perform and lip-sync to the new Young Rival single, and as you can imagine, it’s pretty spectacular.
I spoke with Smith about the video and how he was able to make such a ridiculous idea actually come true. Check out a premiere below and read on for the interview.
AUX: How on earth did you hook up with the guy who invented Whack-A-Mole? Was he a tough person to find?
John Smith: It all got started after watching a documentary called The Rock-afire Explosion. It followed these extreme fans of the robotic band from Showbizz Pizza (which would later merge into Chuck-E-Cheese). It turns out that the co-founder of ShowBiz Pizza, and the animatronic band the Rock-afire Explosion, was the same man who invented Whack-a-Mole. His name is Aaron Fechter.
After finishing the movie I went down a bit of an online black hole reading more about his work and life, and eventually came across a website with his email address. It stated that he had been taking requests for custom songs, but had decided to stop doing so. I figured I would try reaching out regardless because I had nothing to loose.
He sounds like a bit of an eccentric. What was he like to work with?
He was very professional and enthusiastic about the project. His laboratory had recently been partially blown up after a tank of experimental cooking gas he was working on had exploded. Miraculously the Rock-afire Explosion band survived the explosion, and this was going to be the first time he worked on a Rock-afire project since patching up his building. I think for him it was a real moment of proving to the world that nothing could stop him. His ambition showed in how eagerly he helped us chip away on this. It is very clear how passionate he is about his work.
Where did the concept for this video come from?
I wish we could say the idea came to us somewhere between the ball pit and the arcade, but I think it was just as simple as watching the documentary, and then immediately finding some of these incredible fan-made cover videos with the band doing Nine Inch Nails and Usher. It wasn’t much of an original concept in that regard, but as a band we really loved the idea of working with Fechter and his band of robots to make our next video.
How long did it take to get the video done – from first contacting him to having the finished edit?
I believe our first email to him went all the way back to May 2014… so all in all it was a project that spanned out over two years, which is pretty wild. Watching the video you’d think it shouldn’t have taken longer than a weekend of actual filming and editing, but a lot was happening within that time span for us as a band behind the scenes that slowed things down.
We had originally contacted Fechter with an older version and recording of “Oh Nancy.” This was before we had signed a record deal with Paper Bag Records, and at the time we planned to release the song and video independently that spring. Right around that same time the option to work with Paper Bag came up, and by the time we signed the papers, found a producer, recorded Interior Light and the tracks on Strange Light, and played a bunch of shows… well, here we are two years later.
How hard was it to get Aaron to manipulate the animatronic band to lip-sync your song? Were there any snags hit during the process?
Early on in the project we did get an email from him about being in the midst of a legal argument over a shared wall on his property that his neighbour was ripping down. Poor guy had half his lab blown up, then his neighbour was doing this to him. This held back the start of the project initially, but I admittedly did enjoy watching his YouTube updates to the public about the ongoing fight over this wall. The man doesn’t give up on anything. After that debacle, he got back to work on the video immediately and had kindly apologized for the delay.
I wasn’t there in person to watch his workflow, but I have read that he still programs each and every movement using an Apple II computer. I guess he lives by the rule of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” He’s been doing this for decades, and I’m sure he has it down to an efficient process, but I do know it is still a time consuming task since every single movement has to be programmed and timed accordingly.
Obviously something like the Rock-afire Explosion is some sweet-ass nostalgia for people who grew up with Chuck-E-Cheese. Was that the idea, to tap into people’s childhood memories?
Not necessarily. It does carry a strong sense of nostalgia, but that theme wasn’t specifically a goal. More so I just really enjoy collaborating on projects with interesting people that have unique skills, talents, and interesting personal stories.
You guys have had a couple of your videos go viral. Does that success influence the concepts for future music videos?
Yes and no. Like most bands, when we were younger we just made most of our own music videos out of the DIY attitude. I think it’s like anything in the creative world: the more you do that one thing, the more you try to push it within its confines. I always wanted to try and make videos that were creative in their own right, instead of just having a video of us playing our instruments in a basement.
Aside from that, we’re in what I think is another amazing era for the format of music videos. That medium was so close to becoming extinct around 2000-2006, as MuchMusic and MTV were quickly replacing their airtime with reality TV. But then YouTube came into the picture in 2005, and soon after opened up a whole new world for music videos to be relevant again. In that context, I think the past decade or so has been a very exciting time for the format and creativity of music videos. To me it only makes sense to make something that stands out now creatively, because if it really connects with people, your music has a chance at gaining some exponential exposure through social media.
However, all of that being said, our real barometer for anything we release is if we collectively think it’s creative, funny, cool, or just simply something that appeals to us on any level and works with the music. Having a couple videos get a bunch of views is great and all, but we’re not setting out to “out do” ourselves each time. We’re just seeking out new ideas for our own kicks, and trying to keep things fresh and exciting for ourselves as a band. Maybe our next video will be us playing our instruments in a basement – because we haven’t tried that yet.