80s, 90s, Articles, Interviews, Music — February 20, 2012 12:15 am

Interview with Rock-afire Creator Aaron Fechter

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Photo courtesy Seth Christie.

In the battle between Chuck E. Cheese’s and Showbiz Pizza Place, one animatronics pizza place band reigned (and still reigns) supreme: the Rock-afire Explosion. Created by Aaron Fechter of Creative Engineering, the Rock-afire Explosion rose to fame in the 80s and 90s as part of the Showbiz Pizza Place chain. In the 80s, Showbiz bought Chuck E. Cheese’s and began Concept Unification in 1990—switching out the Rock-afire in favor of Chuck E. Cheese and his pals across all restaurants.

As all good things do, the Rock-afire has stayed alive in the hearts of fans. Most recently Mayer Hawthorne called upon Aaron’s expertise to create a video featuring the Rock-afire for his song “Dreaming”.

While the Rock-afire is only a hobby for Aaron, he has been hard at work producing Rock-afire videos, entertaining the idea of taking the Rock-afire out on the road, and pursuing a new endeavor: alternative energy in the form of Carbohydrillium.

Aaron spoke with Pop Rewind about the Rock-afire, his dreams, and his slew of projects.

Music video for Mayer Hawthorne’s “Dreaming”

Pop Rewind: I caught Mayer Hawthorne’s “Dreaming” music video—was that your band?

Aaron Fechter: Yes it is, that’s the one that I have in my studio in Orlando.


PR: How long did it take for you to program?

AF: We worked on it a little at a time. We probably worked on that show for about a month. If you were programming it constantly, day in and day out, that show would have taken about four days to program.


PR: Did you have any input on the shots in the “Dreaming” video?

AF: I would say I had 90% free reign. I did ask them for input, like which characters they wanted to do lead, which characters they wanted to do backup vocals. They told me they wanted Billy Bob and Fatz to both sing lead, and they’d decide what to video tape when they got there, with the knowledge that I could change anything. When they got there, I showed them different options, and they would make some directorial decisions, such as the one part where the sun goes down when they talk about ‘California sank below’.

The Rock-afire band, ready for action!

AF: They came up with some ideas that they wanted as we were programming and then I showed them some ideas. It is a creative process, even once they got in, to decide what the programming would be. A lot of the basic stuff, like the drums, were fine as-is, and then as they were watching the show, they decided, ‘Can we have four cymbal hits? You didn’t program the four cymbal hits like in the music and we’re going to put that in the video.’ So sure, we’re going to put that in. Then when they were doing claps as a percussion instrument, they said, ‘Can we use the applause sign for that?’ Sure, why not. There was some on-the-scene programming going on.


PR: Are you planning on doing any more music videos with the Rock-afire for other bands?

AF: When I’m working with a band, they don’t want me to talk about who they are and that this is coming out because they like it to be a surprise. For example, Mayer Hawthorne didn’t want me to tell anybody that we were working on it or that it was coming out, or anything like that. He wanted it to be a surprise for his fan base as much as possible. So I kept it under wraps. If I’m working with anybody right now, I have to keep that under wraps.


PR: I watched the Rock-afire Explosion documentary from a couple years back and you had mentioned that you have one more Rock-afire show for sale. Do you still have it?

AF: I’m hanging onto it until I find someone that is willing to pay me what we used to sell them for in 1980. It’s the last one and I don’t have any problems storing it. I’m asking the same thing that I sold it to Showbiz for as opposed to just junking it for pennies on the dollar, which is $120,000. Obviously that’s more than what a fan would want to pay for it. When somebody wants a first class show with all the new retrofits and all the new inventions that I’ve come up with since the early days, then I’ll put that in for someone.


PR: Are you planning on opening a Rock-afire event to the public?

AF: There’s a chance that the Rock-afire will start a road tour, with the interest of people like you and the other fans that grew up with it. I’ve been asked quite a number of times if I could send the Rock-afire out to open for a band or play a wedding, or all sorts of things. The cost of doing that on a one-time basis would be too high. I guess if I partnered with somebody or saw enough opportunity in it, it might be worth the investment to have a traveling Rock-afire on the road doing performances.


PR: Are you still producing your Animatronics Experimenter’s Kits?

Aaron is working on kits for animatronics enthusiasts.

AF: Yes I am. Even though it’s been a long time since I started producing them, I still feel like I’m in the development of that kit, so I’m not advertising it anywhere, except on the Internet if you happen to do a search and find it or maybe word of mouth or something. I don’t really want to sell too many of them yet, and when I say too many I mean like thousands, because I would be in a little bit of trouble since I’m not ready to produce them. I still make them by hand, one at a time, so when I get a request for one I do build them. I do have a long lead time for them because I make them up for the person who orders it, I don’t have a bunch of them sitting around ready to ship. I’m still doing that and I’m still anticipating that I will finish that design to the point where I’ll be ready to roll it out as a product that I do hope will sell large quantities. There’s just some things I need to clean up with it: documentation, instructional video, and some of the parts that look a little rough for a product that you would send out to thousands of customers. I’m really still in development of that idea and I expect to make progress with that and hopefully some day it will even be part of a curriculum where in schools you could learn about animatronics and use my kit as your lab experiment, so that’s what the goal is there.


PR: Turning to Chuck E. Cheese’s for a minute, what do you think of the current state of Chuck E. Cheese’s— leaving the animatronics band behind in favor of a bunch of monitors?

AF: There’s a lot less maintenance with a TV screen than there is with a whole big band with all these moving parts, but there’s also a lot less maintenance with just a wall painted brown. They made their decision to go somewhere between the quality of the Rock-afire and the simplicity of a brown wall and I’m sure it was an economic decision that they made and probably also an entertainment decision. They have people making decisions as to what entertainment they think is needed in a Chuck E. Cheese’s, and it’s hard to say whether they’re right or wrong about it. They measure success in terms of whether they’re still in business and whether they’re making money. That’s how the stockholders measure success. They’re not really in the business of creating art. When I started with Showbiz, we definitely thought of ourselves as artists and we wanted to create art and do the very best that we could. We thought of ourselves as a local Disney World and we thought that quality would rise to the top. I think that on the local basis, it’s hard to pay for all of that and I think that’s why Chuck E. Cheese’s had to eventually cut as much as they could out. I don’t fault them for their decisions, it’s just not what I would have done.


PR: It kind of loses the magic when you’re just looking at screens.

AF: Yeah, it’s just another show and there’s been so much done on screens. The high-tech visual effects available to us on video these days, you can’t really rival that no matter what you do, even if you took a movie of the Rock-afire Explosion, it’s still just a movie. Maybe the Rock-afire Explosion is something that people enjoyed and loved, but never really had a good home. My favorite fantasy of the distant future for the Rock-afire’s home would be a major amusement park, like Disney or Universal Studios, that would embrace the Rock-afire and embrace the fans of the Rock-afire, if there were enough of them, and actually produce a Rock-afire experience, which would be like the Simpson’s Experience or Back To The Future or Jaws, or any of these other things where they create a ride or experience based on modern culture. If an amusement park wanted to do that and put together one really fabulous display or exhibit or ride, it would be fantastic because then it wouldn’t just be the Rock-afire on stage, but it would be an entire adventure. Maybe instead of it being a $120,000 exhibit like it was at Showbiz, it could be a $50 million adventure. That’s my real dream for what might happen to the characters, hopefully sometime in my life. All it takes is millions of fans to tell Universal what they want. As long as Universal thinks there’s only a few scattered people who remember the Rock-afire and they’re not willing to shell out their money to get there, then of course it wouldn’t make sense for them to do that, either.


PR: With that kind of attraction, you would develop new fans as well from the younger generations.

AF: That’s probably what we have to do now, is to develop new fans. Not just the ones that saw it when they were growing up, but new fans. I really like it when a parent writes me and tells me, ‘My kids just loved the Rock-afire,’ and I do try to encourage that sort of thing. But I’m not exactly Mr. Disney or Mr. Family Guy, either—well, I guess I’m more like Family Guy the cartoon because I love to have adult humor or adult situations in my work, but I try to keep it sort of as a second-level thing that you really have to be an adult to get instead of putting it right out there or putting explicit lyrics on the stage.


PR: Well, there is Billy Bob’s “I Ain’t Gay” song.

AF: That’s actually a very innocent song. I got some negative commentary from a former fan who thought it was anti-Christian or thinks I’m anti-Christian or whatever, but I’m not, and it’s not. It’s an innocent song. In fact, pretty much that whole song was based on my feelings about love when I was seven years old. The whole ‘I’m not gay’ thing is kind of a joke because the way Billy Bob talks, people are always asking me, ‘So is Billy Bob gay?’ No, he’s not gay. He’s just a sweet guy from the south. They say, ‘Okay, well, he sounds gay.’ I don’t know how you sound gay, but no, he’s not gay.

 Billy Bob’s “I Ain’t Gay,” first of the new Rock-afire videos.

AF: Billy Bob is not gay, but that doesn’t mean he has a girlfriend yet. He’s looking for a girlfriend. And he has all the same fantasies for a girlfriend that I had when I was seven and I was dreaming about Nancy C. being my wife one day and how wonderful that would be. I was so in love. I really have been in love since I was in the second grade with somebody. One day, I had heard all the other kids talk about the birds and the bees. I was younger than most kids in my grade so I wasn’t as advanced as they were and I went home and asked my dad about the birds and the bees. When my dad explained it to me, I was just appalled. It gave me quite a shock. Anyway, I wanted to relive those moments when I went from a child who was in love with girls because they’re pretty to really wanting a girlfriend, and that’s where Billy Bob is. He’s been moving along for 30 years as a bear who’s happy to live in a shack with a bird to a point now where he’s kind of adolescent and he’s thinking about having a girlfriend. The story’s not over.

You’ll notice in the song, there was nothing else said about gay besides ‘I’m not gay.’ The reason I thought that would be good, especially for children, is that it uses the word as a normal everyday word. It recognizes the fact that some people are gay and some people are not gay. And nothing bad or good is said about one or the other. It’s simply a fact of life. Some people are gay, some people are not. There’s no defensiveness projected about it, there’s no hatred, it’s just simply a fact. This is just a simple, innocent statement, and an innocent song about a boy who is fantasizing about finding a girlfriend. If somebody wants to read into it more than that, then they have the problem. They have not accepted that gay is a normal part of Americana now. And that’s basically what I’m doing. I want to go ahead and say, ‘Okay, well it’s normal. No, I’m not gay, but I do hope to find a girlfriend and we’ll see where that goes. I hope she’s sweet and pretty.’


PR: So you’re planning on doing a follow-up music video to “I Ain’t Gay”?

AF: There will be more songs and stories to come as Billy Bob comes of age and decides to start dating. We did a little foreshadowing in that song with Rolfe offering to find Billy Bob a girlfriend through his new dating service. For some reason, even though Billy Bob is on stage and entertains a lot of people, he still has trouble meeting girls. There will be a story following that up.


PR: Are you developing any new characters to go along with that?

AF: Yes, actually we have created a new character that will be revealed in a future video.


PR: How long do we have to wait to see that?

AF: I’m not sure. We were recording some of the skits in late December 2011, and that usually means months instead of years, but it takes a while because we just do a little bit at a time.


PR: Besides the Billy Bob saga, what other videos can we expect from you?

Expect some new tunes for Beach Bear soon as well.

AF: I’m working with the voice of Beach Bear [Rick Bailey] right now on a Beach Bear song. I’m very interested in starting to do some originals more than ever because the thought that we might put a show on the road is encouraging me. We won’t be a cover band or a lip sync band, but actually have songs of our own and see if that gets some interest. Also, I have a lot of songs in my head and over the years I’d jot down the ideas or record a few bars of an idea. The ‘I Ain’t Gay’ song was one of those. The reason I wanted to get that one out was because it allows me to start the story I want to produce with Billy Bob.


PR: What are your plans for the future?

AF: Eventually, and when I say eventually I hope it won’t be too much longer, I’ll have a nice website for the Rock-afire fans and try to support that with the sales of a few odds and ends. The Rock-afire will always be a hobby, unless it becomes profitable again, in which case I’ll be able to put more time into it and be able to hire a staff. Really what I’d like to do is see what happens with a few ideas, for example the website, maybe collect more ideas for marketing on the website and see if there’s a way to make some money out of the Rock-afire, and if there is, then things will start coming rather rapidly again like they did in the 80s.

Aaron was always passionate about alternative energy. Above, Looney Bird loves that gasahol!

AF: Meanwhile, I have a completely different area of expertise that I’m working on. It has nothing to do with the Rock-afire, but it is about alternative energy. It’s a new fuel that we’re developing right now at Creative Engineering and we’re working on it really hard. It’s called Carbohydrillium. This is really what I’m devoting my dreams to. I’ve always been interested in alternative energy. Even on the stages of Showbiz Pizza Place, I stressed my fantasy to come up with a new kind of fuel. On Billy Bob’s stage we had Gasahol and they’re producing it right there and they’re making it out of corn squeezings and they’re running trucks on it and they sell it by the six-pack and you can drink it or run it in your cars. That’s why Looney Bird is so looney.

AF: A guy that was helping me build animatronics back in the early 80s, Bill Richardson, came back to me and asked if I needed any help in making anything and then he showed me what he’d been working on for 30 years. He discovered a new kind of fuel accidentally while he was working on a different idea. He showed it to me and it was pretty darned amazing. I had him do some demonstrations for me. We built a machine in my shop that makes the fuel and we’ve been testing it, making the fuel, testing the machine, and getting ready to market it. The problem with all alternative fuel is that they’re expensive compared to gasoline.

AF: One thing we discovered about this fuel is that it makes a very delicious steak if you use it for a cooking fuel. The steak, chops, chicken, hamburgers, barbequed vegetables, everything comes out so unbelievably delicious because of the quality and characteristics of this fuel. I’ve decided that we’re going to start the life of this fuel as a designer cooking fuel called Hydrillium. We have spent the last year and a half continuing to develop the reactor that makes the fuel and to develop a new kind of grill that efficiently uses the fuel. Right now we’re at the point where we are putting these grills out to beta testers and letting them cook their own food over this fuel at home. The results are amazing. With something as personal and individual as taste, you’d think you’d get some people who agree that the food is good or better than propane or charcoal or cooking it in any other way and then you get some people who would disagree, but the truth in it, and this is the absolute truth, nearly 100% of the people who have tasted the food that I’ve cooked over this fuel agree that the food is remarkably better.


PR: I can’t wait to see more on that. That sounds very unusual, but very cool.

AF: It also runs engines, generators, cars, and airplanes. It’s a really beautiful green fuel. When it burns, it has no toxic emissions and no pollutants. We make this from water and it turns back into water when you burn it. And it’s not hydrogen. Anyone who knows anything about science says, ‘Oh, it’s hydrogen.’ No, it’s not hydrogen. We actually take water and carbon and form a new molecule and this molecule, when it burns, turns back into water. That’s one of the reasons why the food is so delicious. What happens is it burns with a very high and consistent flame. It puts this delicious very thin char on the outside and pumps the inside of the food full of water, so it moisturizes the food and it steams out the grease.


Thanks to Aaron Fechter for taking the time to talk to Pop Rewind! Keep up with the Hydrillium Grill at Off the Grid and be sure to subscribe to Aaron’s YouTube channel so you don’t miss his fantastic upcoming videos!

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