When I Grow Up
From dreams of being in KISS to a career in recording, and everything in between.
Life’s a funny thing. We start out with hopes and dreams of what we will one day become and then life begins happening. Time passes and there you are in the middle of the journey whether you like it or not. It is what it is. I recall a great line from The Wonder Years, a TV show about growing up in the ’60s and ’70s. The main character was a boy named Kevin. In one episode, Kevin asked his dad when he decided he wanted to be the Shipping and Receiving Manager for an international corporation. His dad simply answered, “Actually Kevin, I wanted to be the captain of a ship when I grew up.”
I grew up on Kiss, Alice Cooper, Zeppelin, Ozzy, Van Halen and other hard rock giants of the ’70s and ’80s. Being a Kiss fan like many other kids at an early age, I got bitten by the bug—I wanted to rock and I wanted to make my living at it. By age 12, I was up to my ears in guitar after a two-year failed attempt at becoming a drummer. Too loud—too Bobby Brady for my folks. Hey, you can turn down a guitar right? Well, that didn’t happen. My time was spent woodshedding throughout the days and nights, and with the arrival of extremely technical and musical players like Yngwie, Al Di Meola, and Paul Gilbert, my ceiling was raised considerably. I lived for guitar, music, and nothing else. And this was the way my life was going to go until I was rich and famous (and had one of those cool circular driveways for my British import).
Going to college, I got my degree in music composition (a non-profit major they called it), and right after graduating I signed to Hollywood Records and Bill Graham Management. Life was good. I earned $50 a week while living with my folks, and getting ready to live the rock-star dream. MTV, endorsements, gear, touring, and everything that went with it was just about to happen. Then Nirvana released Nevermind. I ended up out of the band and still at home. I wondered if playing guitar was something anyone could actually make a living at. The new music scene completely changed and nearly overnight it was considered a bit of an embarrassment to be able to play your instrument with any degree of proficiency and skill.
So what to do? I went back to teaching guitar at the local music store while auditioning for bands half-heartedly and hoping something would stick. Then my father-in-law to be (years before I got married) asked me how I planned on one day taking care of his daughter. Good question: I was planning on rocking hard and making millions. I did have cool hair and could play 32nd notes really fast. Hmm.
Then completely out of the blue my buddy got a gig at this new computer tech company named Creative Labs. They made sound cards for computers and needed a guy who knew about audio and MIDI and could help in technical support. The gig paid $1300 a month! That was 6.5 times what I was making in the band and more than I was making teaching by a mile. Got the gig. Worked at it for six months and completely burned out. I spent eight hours every day on the phone with irate customers who were desperately trying to get this new technology to work.
My goal was to quit, but they liked me in Marketing and Developer Relations, so I took that gig and doubled my salary. I was on salary now, not an hourly wage. This enabled me to come and go as I pleased as long as the work was done. Stayed on for two more years and decided to move to Seattle from the Bay Area. Worked at Microsoft for five years. Stayed in the technology area for video games and audio the whole time. Dot Com. Startups. Stock options, 401(k), benefits, and the whole bit. All the while I kept my own recording studio and continued my musical path while holding down the job. I couldn’t complain, but I did. It never felt right. I decided to move to Arizona to get away from the gray and rain for some serious sunshine, but kept my gig. Telecommute! Layoffs. Bummer. Four-month severance package! So in 2005, I incorporated and started my own company as a composer for video games, television and film.
After years of playing guitar, producing bands, buying and selling gear, and building guitars and amps, I was going to go for it full on. It was scary to start without the backing of a company and to fly blind, but I really had no choice. For years, I had the comfort of knowing medical, dental, and 401(k) were covered, as was a salary that came in twice a month. Slugging it out for the first few years was tough, but rewarding because I was in control of my own destiny. If I didn’t push myself I didn’t earn money. Fortunately because I stayed in the same industry I had been working in for all the previous years, my contacts were established and most of the time I worked with past colleagues.
My first high-profile gig took several years to come about. It was a small game that was just starting to get take off, and it was called Guitar Hero. They needed somebody to do “re-records” or covers of classic rock tracks. I made a niche for myself and have done over 90 to date. That game put me on the map, and though it’s on hiatus, the benefits have been tremendous to my career. Since then, I’ve not only stayed in the video game world, I’ve expanded into television, film, and radio. Every day is different, that’s for sure.
So here I sit at my home studio/office writing this month’s column. In the past month, I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing incredible gear for Premier Guitar, working with a classic rock band helping them sort out 2" tape masters, recording guitars as a sideman for a half dozen projects, writing and producing new music for an upcoming XBOX game, and getting ready to embark on another film trailer and video game soundtrack. I play guitar every day as part of my work, but I also compose, mingle with great musicians, and live the dream working from home. It’s not always easy and the economy has changed the landscape considerably, but my life has forever changed for the better.
So when I grew up I was going to be a rock star and live in that house with a circular driveway. Didn’t quite work out that way. Still, I have to pinch myself now and again because I truly am living the dream—just not the one I pictured in my head.
Your turn, where did the road lead you?
Steve Ouimette is a lifelong guitarist, gearhead and studio fanatic. He runs Steve Ouimette Studios and writes music for video games, film and television. You can find him online at steveouimette.com and facebook.com/steveouimette. BTW, he rarely Tweets…