Severe Tire Damage in The San Jose Mercury News
The whole world is a stage for this cyberspace garage band
Appeared in The San Jose Mercury News, page 1 (yes, front page news), Nov. 15, 1997
Three years ago this Tuesday, Severe Tire Damage beat the Rolling Stones to be the first rock band to broadcast live music and video on the Internet. Since then, this group of Silicon Valley technological wizards has continued to set new milestones for online performances -- they followed the first audience-controlled video camera that pans the band with the first audience-controlled fog machine.
All this from what might be the world's smartest rock band, with three Ph.D.s and patents galore. They're smart enough to know they're not musical geniuses. "We write code better than we write songs," admitted vocalist Steve Rubin, 45, who holds a doctorate in computer science and works for a software start-up, Electric Editor.
It was the group's technological skill that enabled the obscure Severe Tire Damage -- named after the signs that accompany security spikes at rental car lots -- to beat the Rolling Stones in an online battle of the bands on Nov. 18, 1994.
The middle-aged British rockers had announced they were going to be the first band to broadcast live audio and video on the Internet from a performance. But then this other group of middle-aged geeky rockers stole their thunder.
Aware that the Internet broadcasting outlet carrying the Stones was open to anyone, and wanting to play to the worldwide Stones audience, Severe Tire Damage and its technical crew jumped the gun and broadcast an impromptu performance from Palo Alto 20 minutes before the Stones.
Back then, as is still true today, not everyone with a computer could watch. Internet surfers need a computer with at least a Pentium chip, special software and a high-speed Internet connection of about 128 kilobits per second.
The warm-up band claims to have been better received than the Stones. "There were only nerds listening, that's why we got more applause," said drummer Mark Weiser, 44, chief technologist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, widely regarded as the father of ubiquitous computing, a theory that computers will be embedded in everyday objects which communicate with each other.
"Being better technologists than the Stones," he added, "we sounded better because we had a better signal."
At the time, Severe Tire Damage and its networking crew were actually old hats at "multicasting," transmitting their live video and audio worldwide over the Internet's multicast backbone, or MBone. In June 1993, the band performed at the opening of a new fitness center at Xerox PARC. On the same day, Xerox was hosting a lecture by one of the principal creators of the MBone and his talk was being cast over the Net. After he finished, they turned the cameras on the band.
The band got together seven years ago just for fun. They don't do weddings, but they've gotten gigs at Unix conferences.
The researchers have come to see a larger purpose to their chords and riffs and howls. "We're trying to understand how the Web and the network are going to be used in the future," said bass player Mark Manasse, 39, a mathematician at Digital who factored one of the world's largest prime numbers. "This is a good test in terms of self-publishing, self-promotion and multi-media content delivery."
The band's weekly 8 p.m. Wednesday night rehearsals can be found on its Web site at http://www.std.org. There, the band sells T-shirts and compact discs. Fans can opt to buy one of the two complete albums recorded by the band, or any combination of songs they want on a customized CD.
"We believe that this is something that everybody is going to be doing in the future," said Russ Haines, 32, the guitarist, who formerly worked for Digital but now regards himself as the band's professional slacker. "It would be real easy for huge corporations to monopolize this. But it's important to me to see that everybody can participate, that the Internet is not just a money-making place to be."
First radio show
Severe Tire Damage's technical staff -- Xerox researcher Berry Kercheval and Digital's wizards Lance Berc and Brad Horak -- writes its own software, interfaces and has rigged fiber optic cable into the Digital basement garage.
At 9 a.m. Nov. 21, the band will be trying out their show electronically, without the use of amplifiers, at radio station KFJC (89.7 FM).
Until now, the band has attracted an audience mainly of technology workers and academics and, thanks to some international television coverage, teenagers from Korea. "Severe Tire Damage is very excellent," read one e-mail from Korea. Technology, not culture, remains a barrier. "I want to watch you on the Internet," another teen wrote, "but I don't know how to."