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The Sonic community has a lot of drastically differing opinions, but there’s one constant in the fandom’s love-hate relationship with SEGA’s iconic hedgehog: Crush 40 kicks ass. While debate will likely forever rage over what Sonic's best game is and whether the 2D or 3D titles are superior, there’s no argument against the band that’s helped define the blue blur’s sound ever since 1998’s Sonic Adventure.
Made up of singer Johnny Gioeli and guitarist/composer Jun Senoue, Crush 40 provided Sonic with a catalogue of rock songs that score the hedgehog’s quintessential moments. From opening cutscenes to climactic final battles, Crush 40 has spent the last two decades accompanying players’ screens, and ingrained itself deep within Sonic canon.
So what’s it like being in the hedgehog’s video game band? How do songs get written, and what happens when you take them from the living room to the stage? To find out, I sat down with Gioeli to talk about Crush 40’s history, impact, and what comes next.
“When I was contracted for the [Sonic] games, that's when things changed,” Gioeli tells me via Zoom. “Because then it became, you know, more creative, where I had to think of [music] like scoring a movie. I was presented with drawings of some very, very minor animation, and I had to literally take a piece of music that Jun [Senoue] wrote, and go into the studio to read about what was going to happen.”
Senoue was a fan of Gioeli’s band Hardline, and in 1998 the two worked together on Sonic Adventure’s ‘Open Your Heart’, followed soon after by tracks for SEGA’s NASCAR Arcade. It was around this time that Gioeli had an idea, and it proved to be a good one.
“I said [to Jun], ‘This is more than just writing songs for a game, we should develop a band,’” Gioeli explained. “Either way, the music supports the game, the game supports the music, and for us to be a band would be a much better idea.”
Now, the group just needed a name. “[Jun] said, ‘What do you want to call it?’ And I said, ‘Well, I never want to turn 40 years old. Let's crush 40,’” Gioeli told me. Coincidentally, Senoue’s favourite soda is also called Crush, so the name stuck.
Despite Crush 40’s close relationship with Sonic, Gioeli doesn’t play video games. This meant that when it first came time to write lyrics that reflected Sonic’s attitude and design, the singer needed some help. “I used to have to give these [documents] to my daughter, as I wasn't a gamer,” Gioeli says. “And I'm saying, ‘Can you read this? What is it? What the hell is this? Who the hell is an Eggman?’ I had no clue.”
This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as Gioeli says it meant he always wrote Crush 40 songs based more on feelings, with the basic game plot and imagery helping guide his lyrics. Gioeli’s process clearly worked, as it helped create one the songs most synonymous with Sonic, and video games as a whole: Sonic Adventure 2’s ‘Live & Learn’.
“The idea behind the song is quite simple,” Gioeli explains. “It was me imagining someone navigating through the game, getting crushed, and learning and getting past and living.” But even with that simplicity, Gioeli wasn’t sold on the track at first: “I thought ‘Live & Learn’ wasn't good. I remember sending it back to Jun after I worked on all the melody and lyrics.”
Luckily for Gioeli, Senoue absolutely loved it.
Gioeli’s concern for his work’s reception was emblematic of the band’s unique position, as he couldn’t properly gauge how players felt about his work for years. He wasn’t in their living rooms as they booted up their Sonic games, and he hadn’t had a chance to perform these songs live. At the 2008 Tokyo Game Show however, that changed. Crush 40 had its first live performance.
“We were there preparing for that event until about one in the morning,” Gioeli remembers. “And there were all kinds of production people marking the stage and saying, ‘Johnny, we want you to come out at this point. We want you to wave to the audience.’ And I’m thinking, what the hell is going on?”
Naturally, Senoue and Gioeli saved the best for last, ending the performance with a live rendition of ‘Live & Learn’. “We start the song and I do my cues. And I see this frickin’ mosh pit. And I'm like, wait a minute. This song is special. This song is important. I don't know why, but it is.”
Senoue’s YouTube channel captured the performance, and the crowd’s reaction alone verified Gioeli’s on-stage suspicions, Crush 40 was bigger than he ever could have realised.
“I never knew how big this was,” said Gioeli of his assumption before the 2008 show. “I didn't understand the franchise. I didn't understand the fanbase and the community, and I could have been there more for the fans. So, I’m there for the fans more now.”
Gioeli’s enthusiasm hasn’t waned in the last decade plus, with Crush 40 closing last year’s Sonic 30th anniversary symphony, which saw Senoue and Gioeli reunite - albeit across the internet - to perform their most recognisable tracks.
Like those watching at the time, Gioeli was swept up in the moment. “I was blown away with the comments. And it was just, again, another reassurance of how important the community is, and what a great memory it has been. For them. And for me.”
Despite the positive response to Crush 40’s appearance at the anniversary event, the band doesn't get approached by SEGA much today. Gioeli knows that this is due in part to the Sonic franchise changing over the last two decades, as it makes way for new faces to herald its musical style, and he’s perfectly okay with it.
“This may be disappointing, but we’re not asked that often to be involved anymore,” he says. “To be honest, we’re seen as the old guys. SEGA is looking for fresh, new blood. They’re trying to ignite another Crush 40-inspiration.”
Gioeli will still interact with the fans and get involved with their projects, and he made it clear that he has absolutely no animosity for what’s followed Crush 40: “I’ve had my time and I’ve had my history, you know, god bless the new artists.”
Related: we recently sat down with the stars of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Ben Schwartz and James Marsden
That said, Crush 40 isn’t quite done yet. Gioeli gives me a pretty straight answer when I ask if he’d lend his lyrical talent to the third Sonic the Hedgehog movie, which is confirmed to be on the way after the success of the 2022-released sequel.
“Absolutely one million percent yes,” he says. “I reached out to them, we had some conversations. I’m gonna be ready for that, I’ll just put it to you that way. We want to write a bunch of songs, but of course we still have our nostalgic stuff. This means we want to write a bunch of songs, should that happen for Sonic 3.”
Measuring Crush 40’s significance is almost impossible. But for those at Sonic’s 30th anniversary symphony - myself included - the band’s appearance wasn’t just nostalgic, it was vindicating, celebratory and incredible to witness. The medium of video games is lucky to have Crush 40, and artists that care so much about the players they impact.
Follow the author on Twitter at @WNelsonJourno.
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