Eat & Drink

Dark Matter Coffee, CH Distillery team up to help air guitar champion reclaim his name

What do coffee, booze and air guitar all have in common? World peace, obviously. This month, Dark Matter Coffee, in collaboration with CH Distillery, will release Nordic Thunder, a coffee blend aged in CH aquavit casks. The coffee is an effort to help Justin Howard—AKA 2012 Air Guitar World Champion Nordic Thunder—take back his Viking persona, known for promoting love and acceptance, from a white supremacist group by the same name.

A NORSE OF A DIFFERENT COLOR

Howard, 32, has been a competitive air guitarist for 10 years under the stage moniker Nordic Thunder, which he describes as his crazy viking alter ego. While searching his name on Google one day, Howard came across nordicthunder.com, which at the time belonged to a band that’s been associated with the white supremacy movement. On his performances posted to YouTube, Howard frequently found hateful comments from trolls saying he was a “disgrace to the band” and the “white race,” he said. Howard tried to obtain the URL for about six years but wasn’t able to afford it.

“It’s unfortunate because the band shares my name and they stand for hatred against people,” Howard said. “Nordic Thunder exists as a person who radiates positive vibes and energy into the world, and I believe that my invisible air-guitar playing can bring people together no matter where you're from or what language you speak or what color of your skin is or what your sexual preference is. None of this matters in the world of air guitar.”

A longtime resident of Ukrainian Village, where Dark Matter’s headquarters are located, Howard has been friends with the coffee folks for years, and a 2013 blend called Thordic Nunder was loosely based on Howard’s character (a contract with Dr Pepper wouldn’t allow him to endorse the coffee). Dark Matter’s “minister of propaganda” Kyle Hodges said Howard is like family to the coffee company and has volunteered his time at several Dark Matter charity events and block parties. They’ve had plans to partner on a second blend as a thank-you to Howard, so when he mentioned the website, it was an “aha” moment, Hodges said.

“When he got down to why he wanted to do it and get that website, that meant a whole lot to everyone [at Dark Matter],” Hodges said. “You just don’t find people every day who are pushing the boundaries and trying to get everyone involved and really be that ambassador for no other reason but to do it. And to have that kind of evil white power going up against him, it just wasn’t cool. We thought the best thing to do was to take the name back and use it for good versus evil.”

RECLAIMING HIS NAME

Dark Matter officially acquired the domain name in September last year, and the site will launch at the coffee release party Friday at Star Lounge (2521 W. Chicago Ave., 773-384-7827), Dark Matter’s Ukrainian Village coffee bar. Nordic Thunder coffee beans are infused with CH aquavit, a Scandinavian spirit made with caraway seeds, fennel, fresh dill, cardamom and grains of paradise. In Norway, it’s a spirit that’s traditionally sipped at celebrations.

“We’re helping him take ownership of a branded persona that he has built up that does not deserve that negative feedback,” Hodges said.

Howard did a blind taste test of three aquavits and settled on CH’s because he felt it would complement the coffee best. The beans were infused with aquavit using a special cask conditioning process, and tasting notes include milk chocolate, honey and juniper berry. 

AIR TO THE THRONE

Howard first heard about the U.S. air guitar competition in RedEye in the early 2000s. However, he couldn’t compete that year because he tore his meniscus while air-guitaring in a friend’s living room a few days earlier. (He also ruptured a disc in his back while competing in 2008.)

He finally competed in 2006 and won the Chicago title. Since then, he’s won two more local titles, a U.S. and a world title and taken his performance to Finland, Germany, Qatar, Scotland and Poland, where he performed in front of 700,000 people. He was also featured in a Dr Pepper commercial in 2013 and last year opened for one of his inspirations, Andrew W.K., whose guitarist told Howard that he was going to steal some of his moves, Howard said. 

But the Air Guitar World Championships aren’t just for fun. The competition promotes world peace. “You can’t hold a gun if you’re holding an air guitar,” Howard said. “[We’re] aware of how absurd that sounds and the ridiculousness of what it is that we’re doing. There’s no denying that. That’s part of the fun is acting like a complete jackass in front of thousands of people, but there is a purpose for what we’re doing, and it’s a very real purpose.”

The hate group only gave him more motivation to keep air guitaring for the cause, he said.

“I really do believe the world I imagine in my head can exist, and it exists without people like white supremacists.”

Grab a bag of Nordic Thunder coffee ($18) and eat free Dimo’s pizza at the release party at Star Lounge on Friday. The coffee will be available by the bag at Dark Matter locations and online, and by the cup ($3) at CH Distillery (564 W. Randolph St., 312-707-8780).

HOW TO AIR GUITAR

Pro tips from the master Justin Howard, AKA Nordic Thunder, 2012 Air Guitar World Champion.

Believe in what you’re doing. When holding your air guitar, it’s important to remember that it’s actually heavier than a “there guitar.” It has weight to it, and you must feel that weight as you strap it on. If you believe that you are in fact playing a “real” guitar, onlookers will forget that you're not holding a physical guitar and be left wanting more. This is crucial.

Practice head-banging every single day. You'll be sore the few first days, but practice will build your neck muscles to avoid whiplash, or “bang-overs,” as they’re called in the business. Head-banging while air-guitaring will legitimize the fact that you ARE a rock star.

Perfect your facial expressions. Practice in front of any reflective surface. Appear to be in pain, then move onto looking as if you are experiencing feelings of ecstasy. You want onlookers to question whether or not you are sane. This can be achieved through widening your eyes and grinning uncontrollably.

Accept the fact that you WILL look like a fool. But don’t let this deter you from wanting to become a great air guitarist. You’ll find that by making a fool of yourself through this art form, you can free and empower yourself to become fearless in many other aspects of your everyday life.

Recognize the power the air guitar possesses. It is a universal language understood by everyone and can be used as a tool to promote world peace. After all, you can't hold a gun if you're holding an air guitar.

@ohitsheather  |  hschroering@redeyechicago.com

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