Like many Harmonix employees, I was excited to get one of my songs ("I Get By" by my band Honest Bob and the Factory-to-Dealer Incentives) into Rock Band. Unlike any other Harmonix employees, however, I have now seen a video of my song being 100%-ed on vocals - on trombone.
A few weeks ago I suddenly started getting flooded by emails and IMs from fellow employees telling me I had to see this video. And they were right; trombonist Ethan Zawisza totally nailed it, even the random-sounding bridge that always trips up actual vocalists. One Harmonixer called it "Honest Bob the way it was meant to be performed", and after hearing it, I couldn't really disagree. So when I was offered the opportunity to interview Ethan about his awesome performance, I couldn't pass it up.
Check out the video by clicking here.
Dan Schmidt: It's good to talk to you. I know I already told you this electronically, but thank you for making that video. It got passed around at the office a ton when we first discovered it. It was totally awesome.
Ethan Zawisza: Thanks for showing it.
DS: It was our pleasure. I thought we would start by asking you how you started getting into these music games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero? When did you start playing them?
EZ: I got the first Guitar Hero as a Christmas present, I think the same year it came out. And I started getting into the first one and got really excited for the second one, and just kept going. Once Rock Band came out, I kind of drifted away from Guitar Hero because of all the other instruments and stuff. Then I got kind of faithful to Harmonix instead of Neversoft.
DS: I was looking up online an article from Blender.com from 2007 that said [you] very well may be the best fake guitar player in the world.
EZ: That was awhile ago, yes. [laughs]
DS: I guess you were seriously good back then. Have you kept it up?
EZ: I'm at school right now. It's kind of hard to keep up with what I used to do.
DS: If you're not going to become a professional Rock Band player…
EZ: No, not yet.
DS: I was looking you up on ScoreHero and saw that Rock Band you were the highest rated player on Expert guitar.
DS: Yeah, still. Were you ever number one?
EZ: Yeah, I think I was number one before TheB721 came along, I think.
DS: Yeah, he's number two, and Professor Joe is number three.
EZ: I haven't really put in a lot of scores lately for Rock Band.
DS: Looking at these people, people like you, it humbles me. I thought I used to be pretty good at it back when [we were] playing our games while we were developing them here, and now… Why did you pick the trombone?
EZ: I'm studying trombone in school right now, so I've been playing trombone for a while. And I thought it'd be pretty cool. With trombone here, everyone's joking about me doing trombone because everybody used to make fun of me for playing Guitar Hero all the time at school, but I figured why not make it Trombone Hero and go for a really hard song right away.
DS: When did you begin learning the trombone?
EZ: Fifth grade. So, I don't know how many years ago that is…eight years? I've been playing for eight years. I think it's pretty much because everyone else was playing trombone.
DS: Everyone else who was a popular kid?
EZ: Everyone else was doing it so I figured, hey, it's probably pretty fun.
DS: I guess trombones are more popular where you grew up than in Boston.
DS: Now, you said you're playing it in school. Is that your [major]?
DS: Performance in particular?
EZ: Trombone performance and music education. Double major.
DS: Classical playing or jazz playing or…?
EZ: Right now it's just classical. But once I'm a little settled into things, I'm gonna try to do both.
DS: Trombone playing to be done as well, as you've proven.
EZ: Yeah [laughs]
DS: I wanted to apologize to you for writing this song in B major.
EZ: It was a good challenge.
DS: [laughs] Can you explain briefly why that's such a horrible key for trombone?
EZ: When you're playing and you're learning, a lot of the stuff you play in high school and elementary school bands is in flat keys - like B flat, E flat - not too many accidentals. And then once you get into stuff like B, either all the flats or a huge number of sharps. And B, you're not used to playing that kind of scale, I guess. And you're using a lot of positions you never use. So you gotta kinda jump into it.
DS: The trombone is a classical instrument, right?
DS: This is the second time I've had a classical [instrument] - Eran, who plays clarinet, did a guest appearance on a flat clarinet, and that song was written in E major.
EZ: Yeah, that's pretty hard.
DS: There are hundreds of songs in the game. What made you pick this one?
EZ: It's hard, which is what I like about a lot of the songs. I love singing it, ever since I started playing it. So I thought it'd be pretty fun to try it out on trombone because it's pretty hard.
DS: What did you do, just sort of learn it by ear?
EZ: Well, it's kind of by ear because a lot of the stuff is first verse, second verse and you kind of get used to it. And you recognize what's what and you can just follow the scale. And you sing it to yourself and you're like, 'oh, this is it.' And the bridge, it's not as hard to think about once you actually start playing it on the trombone. You think, 'oh, it's just a bunch of random notes,' but it's really not.
DS: [laughs] Well thank you.
EZ: You actually learn what it is, and then once after I was done playing it on trombone, I sang it again and was like, 'wow, this is really easy to do after I've been playing it on an instrument.'
DS: I feel justified somewhat because the song in Rock Band and people [say], 'It's just a bunch of random notes. The guy's just making it up on the fly.' And I was like, 'No, it's all done on purpose.' And the fact that you nailed it 100% just proved it's real music.
EZ: Yeah. And it's fun to play.
DS: Was this the most difficult part of the song to learn or to execute, the bridge?
EZ: Definitely, because after I learned the bridge, I finally nailed it on video, so I'm like nervous throughout the whole section. Where it speeds up, there are a couple of parts in the video where you can actually tell I'm pretty close to missing the phrase. Because the notes are really short, it's hard to get everything to come out.
DS: It's gotta be kind of tough as well because it's doing the slow down and speed up in some of the phrases are sung a little peculiarly.
EZ: And there's a couple of sudden note changes, like one note in the melody you've been playing for song long and then one note's changed and you kind of forget about it sometimes.
DS: You know, it's funny that you pointed that out in the video. You had a little graphic. I wasn't even aware until I saw that that the line is sort of coming out of this thing I've been repeating like eight times in a row. And it bleeds nicer into the next phrase. I wasn't aware of that until I saw you point it out. I apologize for that one.
DS: Actually, when we were originally [developing] Rock Band, all the people here in the audio department and I wasn't really involved in that process and then I was sort of just spot-checking it afterwards to see. And the person who did the vocal parts ran it by me, and I had corrections for her - 'you have me singing an E there, but I'm really singing a D sharp…' - and she said, 'no, I'm sorry. You're really singing in E.' I did not live up to my intentions. Some of those she got what I thought I was singing, and some of them are what I was actually singing. I was singing something other than what I thought. I noticed the second time that you had Overdrive, you actually wound up deploying it right over the bridge.
DS: That's awesome.
EZ: I was trying to use it up in one pass.
DS: [You didn't play the percussion notes at the beginning of the track.]
EZ: Well, I couldn't think of a nice sounding way to play them. I only had the audio going into the mic anyway, not into the video. The video was going direct into the TV, so you wouldn't have heard what I was doing until after.
DS: It would've been so great to have the 'blat, blat, blat' every so often.
EZ: I can always do it again. [laughs]
DS: You could've gotten even more points than your performance by doing that. Any other trombone performances that you're working on?
EZ: I don't have Rock Band here at college, and I'm going ScoreHero and checking out all the DLC I'm missing. Well, my break is next week, so I'll go home and see what I can do. But I've been wanting to do another video like that for a while.
DS: Excellent. I saw that you posted it way back in March and that's when it started.
DS: Sometimes I just [search] YouTube for these games and there are some really interesting performances out there. I really recommend it. [Have you played The Beatles: Rock Band?]
EZ: I haven't even taken a shot at that game yet, because I've been here. But I wanna get going on that.
DS: You know, trombone playing is really popular, especially with the new vocal harmony feature. You can get a nice sort of breath choir going.
EZ: I hadn't even thought of that.
DS: From Abbey Road, do you know that song?
EZ: I can do a split-screen thing, have myself in the video four times.
DS: There you go. That would be pretty cool.
EZ: That's a good idea.
DS: I've seen when I was browsing around on YouTube the voxtaring - playing guitar and vocals at the same time. I guess when you've gotten to the point when you're [good], you have to give yourself a challenge.
EZ: As you go through, as time goes on, great players come out. And you don't really compare to them anymore. And you just want to try something new so you can be good again, in a sense.
DS: [I wanted to tell you] that you are certainly invited on stage with us.
EZ: Wow. I'll have to learn a few more songs first. [laughs]
DS: [laughs] We can do an entire set. Become a five-piece for the night.
DS: Is there anything else you wanted to [talk about]? I think I got through my questions.
EZ: I don't have anything particular in mind.
DS: I guess we'll get going then. Let us know if you're ever in the Boston area and we'll get together for you to perform with us.