1.27.2010

RIP Zodiak Ironfist



Time to get serious.

I am shocked and deeply saddened to learn that my friend and fellow bassist, Rob Michaud, otherwise known as Zodiak Ironfist (his alias on YouTube), has died. Rob died in early January, apparently of heart-related complications. I never met Rob in real life, but I did interview him over Skype last year for a freelance story I wrote that has yet to be published. Rob was one of the most genuine people I have ever had the pleasure of speaking with. He was kind-hearted, up-front, and just as solid a guy as can be. He was also one of the greatest bassists I have ever heard — hands down, Rob was the real deal. He loved music with every fiber of his being, but never took it too seriously.

If there's one thing that can be said of Rob, it is that he loved what he was doing, and that he never asked to gain the following he amassed in his time as a Living Room Rock God. So here's to Rob Michaud — the original Living Room Rock God. You will be missed. Condolences to his wife, family, and friends.

Please stop by Rob's YouTube page to partake in the pure awesome that was his bass-playing.

Posted below is the entirety of the story I wrote after interviewing Rob. Interviewing Rob and writing this feature was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. And I will never forget what he told me after he read it: "You're one hell of a writer."

We miss you, Rob. Rock on.



The Living Room Rock God
An Interview with Bassist Rob Michaud
by Matt Click


Rob Michaud plays bass in his pajamas for strangers. That’s how the 37-year-old post-doctoral research scientist describes his recent forays into the burgeoning musical community on YouTube, where he is known as ZodiakIronfist. To some, Rob might appear that way—an aging rocker in his pajamas, playing Iron Maiden songs in his living room. But his tight, thrash-oriented pick-playing and flawless finger-plucking denote otherwise. Beating away on his 1974 cherry red Rickenbacker 4001 every weekend has brought Rob some measure of internet fame and an eager fanbase. With hundreds of thousands of views on his videos and over 2,000 subscribers, it’s clear that Rob, despite his humility and self-deprecating sense of humor, is a true Living Room Rock God.

“I don’t know how any of this happened,” Rob says of his success on YouTube. “I really don’t know. Like, at all. This was not by design.”

Rob plays with passion and without reserve. He taps his foot to the beat, his picking hand a blur as it rakes across the thick-gauge strings of his bass. Between measures he flies into elaborate fills, mostly improvised, often insane. He leans his head back, eyes closed, and just plays—for the fun of it, for the love of it, for the thousands of subscribers who watch those callused fingers fly across the frets in the hopes of maybe eking some of his intense energy and drive.

“I don’t consider myself a natural musician,” Rob says of his playing style. He lights a cigarette with a plastic lighter, the tip flaring orange in the dimly-lit room. He takes a drag and blows through pursed lips. “I consider myself a natural scientist who likes music. I know this sounds kind of hard to believe, but I know very little about music, as far as what scales go together or whatever. I’ve never thought in terms of that. Everything is by sound, it’s not by design. I sit down and I play with the strings. I thump it this way and I thump it that way. I flick it with my finger, I dink it. I do everything I can to make a sound I’ve never made before. Once I make that sound, I try to figure out how to make music with it.”

Rob is a tall man with broad shoulders. His dark hair is swept back as he settles into the living room couch—the very living room in which he films his cover videos. He sips coffee from a colorful porcelain mug. The white walls of the Columbus home he and his wife Erica share are adorned with a few framed pictures, a “Vote Obama Nov. 4” poster, and a set of replica swords. In the corner, a large Peavey combo amp sits silent. Rob’s two bass guitars—the Rickenbacker, affectionately called Priscilla, and a crimson Schecter Stiletto named Wulfgang—are kept nearby, along with a black Ibanez electric guitar. Nailed on the wall above the amp are four stained wooden letters: LRRG.

Rob is the originator of the online Living Room Rock God (LRRG) movement. It’s a term he coined jokingly in March 2007, when his guitar rendition of Iron Maiden’s instrumental track “Losfer Words” hit YouTube and clocked in a few thousand views. An LRRG is anyone who loves to play music, but for whatever reason is limited to rocking at home. The term has since caught on with dozens of other musicians on YouTube who all refer to themselves now as Living Room Rock Gods. There is a website as well, where LRRGs from around the world come together to talk shop and make music. It’s a new frontier—musicians forming bands across continents, drummers jamming with guitarists thousands of miles away. Barriers are being broken and music is happening. And all the while, Rob Michaud remains humble.

“The way I’m treated on YouTube, it’s like I was born to play bass,” Rob says. “But bass playing was really accidental for me. It started out because of a gigantic misconception.”

Growing up in Texas in the 1970s, Rob was the child of divorced parents. He was a fan of the glam-rock band Kiss, whose on-stage antics and garish costumes appealed to his love of all things creepy and monstrous. When heavy metal experienced a resurgence in the late 70s, after its plummet in popularity on the cusp of the punk movement, Rob was there with wide eyes and open ears. It was Iron Maiden’s “The Number of the Beast” that initially caught his attention.

“It was the song that converted me from a Styx-listening pencil-necked geek to a metal maniac,” he writes of the song on YouTube. “That initial scream by Bruce Dickenson just grabbed me by the spine and never let go. The album cover was great, the songs were great, the music was fast and heavy. I knew I had finally found a home. Six months later, I bought my first bass.”

The speed and the heaviness of the riffs—Rob couldn’t get enough of it. Bands like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Motörhead were making noise nobody had ever heard before. The songs were epically long, sporting wailing guitar, rumbling bass, screaming vocals, and drum beats laden with double kick-pedal. Rob decided he wanted to be a part of the metal scene. He wanted to play like Steve Harris and traipse about the stage like Nikki Sixx and blow fire and spit blood like Gene Simmons. That deep-throated growling of distorted guitars might as well have been a choir of angels for Rob—it called to him, and the young metalhead responded.

But for Rob, his entrance into the metal scene was bittersweet.

“I made a huge mistake,” Rob says, a smile tugging at his mouth. “I thought the distorted guitar that I heard was actually the bass. So I started noticing the bass players in the heavy metal bands and started really liking those guys. And then one day I got a bass in my hands and it didn’t growl—it went fwomp instead.”

But Rob wasn’t deterred by that fwomp, and soon bought a bass of his own. A local woman was making her good ol’ boy of a husband sell all of his toys, and among the horde of goodies was an Antares electric bass guitar.

“To this day, I have never seen another Antares,” Rob says, chuckling. “It was an off-brand, off of an off-brand, off of an off-brand. The strings were old flat-wounds and the action off of it was probably five or seven millimeters. It was just an unbelievably horrible bass.”

At the time, Rob had no idea what constituted a “good” bass, and so he banged away on the cheap flat-wounds of his Antares for months. His progress as a beginning bass player was slow. He didn’t play often, picking up the instrument every few weeks for only an hour or two. In the first six months of playing, Rob estimates he played an accumulated 10 hours.

“I wasn’t really to into the sound,” Rob says. “I was disappointed and kind of ashamed that I had spent that much money on an instrument that I didn’t really know anything about.”

After the first few months though, Rob buckled down. He became inspired by great players like Steve Harris of Iron Maiden, whom Rob lists among one of his chief influences. And there was no shortage of great metal albums being released either: Rob recalls Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” and Slayer’s “Reign in Blood” to be landmark albums for the thrash metal scene, and for his development as a musician.

“I sort of learned in a real backwards way what bass was all about,” Rob says. “Once I had a bass, I could hear it in the music, and I said, ‘Oh, so that’s what I’m supposed to do.’”

Rob had Black Sabbath’s legendary “Iron Man” down within three months, but his real crowning achievement as a rookie bass player happened a year later. Rob conquered Iron Maiden’s “Wrathchild,” a song rife with Harris’ signature furious finger-plucking. After that, Rob’s skill in bass took off, and he steadily grew to love the instrument. After three years of playing with that beaten old Antares, Rob got his hands on a Rickenbacker, the fabled high-treble axe of Cliff Burton, Geddy Lee, and Lemmy Kilmister.

“I walked into the pawn shop and there was Priscilla sitting there with a $450 price tag,” Rob says, smiling slightly at the memory. “I wheeled-and-dealed my parents, got my lawnmower money together, ran down there, and bought it that day.”

A Rickenbacker 4001 can cost upwards of $2,000 nowadays, being a solid-made instrument with a distinct, punchy tone and a unique look. Rob has been playing Priscilla for nearly 20 years and, aside from new strings and a re-finishing, the instrument has faired well and hasn’t needed any considerable maintenance. Like a woman aging gracefully, the fade of Priscilla’s sheen only adds to her charm. The majority of Rob’s videos on YouTube feature his beloved Priscilla. He happily obliges any fan on YouTube who inquires about the beautiful instrument.

Rob’s mother was supportive of his musical endeavors, urged by her then-boyfriend Mel (who would later become Rob’s stepfather) to encourage Rob’s passion. Mel was a musician himself who played rhythm guitar in several rock bands in the 1970s, and knew music was a conducive and healthy outlet. But not everyone was approving of Rob’s interest in heavy metal.

“I grew up in north central Texas,” Rob says. “You know, the Bible belt. Southern Baptist country. And I had a whole lot of trouble with the community because of my Iron Maiden t-shirts and my long hair. I didn’t look like someone who was going anywhere in life and they gave me a real hard time. I’m not saying I was a scofflaw or anything, but I didn’t like authority figures, and I let them know it. They didn’t really look at me for my character. Instead, they prejudged me because of my outward appearance and my taste in music, which I always thought was a bit unfair.”

Despite the negative reactions he received, Rob’s love of all things metal continued. Feeling confident in his abilities as a musician and hungering for the experience of playing in a band, Rob joined the progressive rock band Quest during his college days.

“We were sort of a combination of Rush and all that lame high-pitched crap that was popular in the late 80s,” Rob says. “And I was just their really fast bass player.”

Quest was a fairly successful local band. They regularly performed in front of crowds 1,500 strong, and a music video they had produced won an award. Quest was being noticed. Soon enough, record company representatives began appearing at Quest’s gigs. They attempted to woo the band, pushing contracts under their eyes, promising fame. Rob, however, was not impressed.

“It gave me enough of a glimpse into the world of music and what I had to sacrifice to become a career musician to make me run with my tail between my legs,” Rob says, laughing. “I did not want to do this. And so I said, ‘No, guys, I’m going back to school. I’m gonna go study science.’”

Quest fell on hard times after Rob’s departure, never achieving success with the record companies, and breaking up soon after. Rob was grateful to have jumped off the train before it derailed and began focusing on his academics, keeping music in his life if only on the sidelines.

“I decided at that point that I was never going to be famous,” Rob says. “I wasn’t even going to try. I don’t want to tour. I’ll play a club, a few people will cheer, I’ll go home, and that’ll be what I do.”

Rob had other band experiences later on, the most successful of which was a group called Mojo Bobfoot, a Primus-esque band made up of college buddies. Their songs were goofy and strange, with lyrics made up mostly of inside-jokes. For Rob, Mojo Bobfoot was his best experience with a band—just a bunch of friends fooling around with rock ‘n’ roll. Later, while living in New York, Rob fell in with a local death metal band. But the lead guitarist wanted Rob to tune his Rickenbacker down from standard E to C, and Rob refused. He snapped the clasps shut on Priscilla’s hardshell case and stalked out of the room.

“Find another bass player who wants to sound like a fart,” he told them.

At his next audition, Rob found himself in a haze of cigarette smoke amongst a jazz troupe. The guitar player was a black man with dark glasses and a bow tie, while the sweaty pianist looked like a skinny Billy Joel. They stuffed a sheaf of sheet music in Rob’s hands and said, “Alright, this is what we’re playing. And a one, and a two, and a three—”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Rob called. The high-hat on the drums sizzled to a stop and the guitarist silenced a chord in mid-strum. All eyes fell on the metalhead with the Rickenbacker. “Uh, guys, I can’t read music.”

The jazz troupe exchanged glances.

“You can’t read music?” the guitarist asked, brows arched.

“No,” Rob said. “Not at all.”

“Get out,” the guitarist said.

The bad experiences kept piling up for Rob.

“There’s a lot of scumbag musicians,” Rob says. “I can only tolerate their cocaine habits and drinking for so long. I kept having these experiences until one day I just gave up. I said, ‘You know, I’m just gonna play by myself.’” He pauses a second to sip at his coffee. “But that was before YouTube. Before I realized that there are thousands of people just like me playing in their living rooms and lot of them happen to be nice guys.”

Rob joined YouTube in August of 2006. While scouring for music, Rob came across guys his age—with jobs, families, mortgages—playing covers of the thrash metal tunes he grew up with. Rob was enthralled, and soon started posting videos of his own. He formed a collaborative group with users such as guitarists PDXGuitarLegend and SatchBoogy, and drummer WCWhitner. Together, this makeshift cover band performed songs by Iron Maiden, Mötley Crüe, and Judas Priest—each member would record his part, and then the individual tracks were mixed and edited together. The effect was a virtual band, performing for a online crowd of thousands.

And then something happened for Rob. A YouTube user and fellow bassist called PookLowEnd came across Rob’s videos. He loved the concept of the Living Room Rock God and decided to take it to the next level. Pook created the LRRG website, devoted to featuring LRRGs all over the world. Rob’s number of subscribers—and the number of subscribers of nearly every self-confessed LRRG on YouTube—shot through the roof. The movement had begun. Rob’s self-depreciative title he used so innocently in his videos became a kind of siren call for living room musicians everywhere. The LRRGs gathered and started rocking. Rob was left wondering how this all happened.

But recently, Rob and the LRRGs have taken a beating from record companies that view their cover tunes as copyright infringement, specifically Warner Bros. and UMG. Rob has had six of his videos removed, and recently posted a video in protest of the blatant disregard for artist’s rights. What angers Rob most, though, is the fact that an automated computer system is removing the videos, and not people. Ironically, professional musicians have had their own videos removed due to copyright infringement, because this automated removal system does not have the capacity to differentiate. Bands such as Divine Heresy and Metallica have had their own music removed from their official YouTube pages.

“This is completely out of control,” Rob says. “Not only are the record companies asserting their rights over the consumer, but now they’re also asserting their rights over their own clients. So now, I don’t think they represent anybody but themselves. We’re all just sick about it and we’re all powerless to do anything.”

YouTube was formerly a standalone company that operated solely on revenue from advertisements. But the video hosting site has become exponentially popular in the last few years, and Google now owns YouTube and controls its interests. Because Google has yet to make any sort of deal with the major music labels, these record companies now reserve the right to remove videos they deem to be infringing on artist’s rights, including covers by Rob and the LRRGs.

“But it’s not the record companies versus us little guys,” Rob says. “I think the argument that’s happening here is that YouTube does not have a right to show our videos because they make money from all the advertising. So now what’s happening is UMG and Warner want to hurt YouTube, so they’re saying ‘Pull those videos down,’ and YouTube has no choice because they don’t want to get sued. I don’t think it’s going to get adjudicated until there is a deal between Warner, UMG, and Google. Right now, they’re playing hardball with each other, and they’re hurting customers left and right in this war of attrition. It’s corporate warfare at its worst.”

Despite this, Rob and the other LRRGs press on. There have even been cases of cover artists intentionally posting videos out of protest that they know will be removed, and waiting to see how long it takes before the all-powerful electric eye finds them and reaps destruction. But as YouTube is put under siege and these companies war across the expanse of the internet, the movement continues, and the Living Room Rock Gods continue doing what they do best.

For Rob Michaud, though, being an LRRG is just a bit of weekend fun. He feels blessed to have so many subscribers and glad that he can entertain YouTube users with his video covers. But ultimately, Rob is just what he claims to be—a guy playing bass in his pajamas. But he’s alright with that.

“The reason I’m not famous is because I don’t want to be famous,” Rob writes on one of his videos. “I had my chance at rock-stardom years ago and walked away from it in favor of an academic career. I think that my life is far more livable because of that decision. I have a wife that loves me, a decent job, and I do not have to travel all over the place all of the time. Not only that, but I have you guys as an audience now. And that is really all of the audience I’ve ever wanted. I'm happy.”


1 comment:

  1. I grew up with Rob Michaud, in fact I was one of his best friends in elementary and junior high school. I distinctly remember discovering Iron Maiden with him and jamming on my Les Paul copy while he played that old Antares bass. He was an odd guy with a quirky sense of style and humor. A gifted visual artist and an accomplished musician, and we influenced each other's art and music. We lost touch after high school and I was sad to hear of his passing. He was a unique individual and I'm happy to see that he was able to share his musical talents with so many people and touch so many lives in the short time he was here. His legacy is his inspiration. Rockin' Rob, they called him. Keep on rockin'...

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