The L.A. singer-songwriter who traded in an executive role at a video game juggernaut for his rock ‘n’ roll dreams shares cover of The Cars’ “Drive”
In March of 2018, after an eight-year run as CEO of Activision, Eric Hirshberg stepped down from his role with the revitalized video game company.
Here was the guy responsible for Call Of Duty, arguably the greatest military combat game ever developed, leaving a revitalized Activision the very holiday season after delivering a one-two knockout combination of Call of Duty: WWII and the dark sci-fi shooter Destiny 2 being hailed as the No. 1 and No. 2 top-selling console games of 2017 in North America.
“Serving as Activision’s CEO has been an honor and a thrill,” said Hirshberg in a statement at the time. “This is an amazing company. One which routinely delivers epic experiences for our fans on a scale that no one else can. I have nothing but admiration for the incredible team I have had the privilege to lead.”
So after spending these eight years on the frontlines of online gaming’s bleeding edge, Hirshberg took a well-deserved sabbatical from the digital rat race to focus on his first love: music. Prior to Activision, Hirshberg was only able to enjoy making and playing music in between college classes and day jobs. But the fortune he has earned as five-star general of the Call of Duty franchise over the course of a near-decade has allowed him the opportunity he’s been seeking since he started writing songs at age 15: the ability to make his own album.
That life goal finally comes to fruition today with the release of his debut LP Spare Room, an airy and infectious collection of tunes in that classic L.A. singer-songwriter vein you’d hear from the stage at Largo from such greats as Jon Brion and Freedy Johnston. And following the success of the album’s super wry lead single “(Keep Mar-a-Lago But) I Want America” (which hit over 1 million views on Youtube), the Rock & Roll Globe is beyond honored to premiere the latest song from the album–a stunning rendition of the Cars’ hit ballad “Drive”–today on the site.
But first we had the chance to ask Eric a bunch of geeky questions about Activision and video games, so if you could indulge us for a moment.
What is your personal connection to The Cars and “Drive” in particular?
Well, broadly speaking, I was and am a huge fan of The Cars. Their first album was the first album I ever bought. They were one of the bands that provided the soundtrack to high school for me. As for “Drive,” of course, it’s one of their most iconic songs, so like everyone, I connect with it on that level. But more personally, it’s a song about addiction and the impact that has on relationships. Unlike most songs about addiction, it’s told from the point of view of the person trying to help the addict, and not succeeding. Unfortunately, I can relate to that. If you listen to the lyrics, they are intense. Dark. I mean, “Who’s gonna hold you down while you shake?” is just a chilling image. But I have always felt that the polished 80s production of the original, while beautiful, sort of obscures the intensity of the message. Maybe that’s part of why it worked. But I like it when cover songs can reveal something new about a song you are familiar with. And I thought there was an opportunity with “Drive” to strip it down and not give the intensity of the lyrics anywhere to hide. I wanted to put the darkness front and center.
(As a side note, I also think Elliot Easton doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He is one of the best rock guitarists ever and I feel like he is the one that makes The Cars a rock band. Without the edge he brought, I feel like they would have sounded like a lot of other overly-synthetic 80s bands. He grounded and humanized their sound.)
VIDEO: The Cars “Drive”
What kinda music did you play before working at Activision?
I have always written songs in the “singer/songwriter” genre. Somewhere between Alternative rock, Folk and straight up Rock. I have always been very lyrically focused and I like honest, human production. This song was recorded live in the studio with all of the musicians playing together and minimal over-dubs or effects. I think you can feel the difference. You can hear the eye-contact between the musicians. You can feel the air in the room. I wanted it to feel like you were in the room with the band.
Given how much early 80s culture has become so popular again, did you find returning to music easier now than say 20 or 30 years ago?
Not really. I mean, I am certainly a product of the 80s so of course I can relate to all of the resurgence of 80s pop culture. But that didn’t really factor in to me returning to my music and focusing on it now. It was more about a lifestage for me, and having the opportunity to do it.
VIDEO: Eric Hirshberg “(Keep Mar-a-Lago) But I Want America”
How has the reaction been for “(Keep Mar-a-Lago) But I Want America”? Have you gotten trolled over it by Trumpies?
I haven’t been trolled at all! It’s been viewed over 1 million times on YouTube and over 600K times on Twitter and the feedback has been almost entirely positive. And it got retweeted by some big folks in the political world like Andrew Yang, Anthony Scaramucci, Four-Star General Barry McCaffrey, etc. It’s been kind of wild. If you told me that one day I would write a song that Andrew Yang and Anthony Scaramucci could agree upon I would have thought you were nuts. I’d like to think the positive response is entirely due to the song itself, but I actually think this is just a result of the algorithms of social media. I think it’s primarily being seen by people who already agree with the message. That’s just how things spread online these days. But that’s ok. I wasn’t under the illusion that hearing this song would suddenly make someone who supports Trump suddenly agree with me. I do think, however, that it might have made people who already agreed with me more energized to go vote. It’s sort of a sonic catharsis for the frustrations that I and the majority of Americans have felt over the last four years.
What is the story behind calling the album Spare Room?
My father (who passed away last year) had a great career as a car designer. Like me, he was a creative person who became a leader in the business world. And also like me, he had a secret passion–his was painting. In the houses I grew up in there was always a spare room (a corner of a garage, a guest room, a shed) where my dad’s painting happened. Those rooms were sort of magical. Not grand. Anything but, actually. But they were where he always seemed happiest. I have had a similar relationship with my music. I have been writing songs non-stop since I was 15. Every place I’ve ever lived, I have always made a spare room for my music. Half of a closet. A landing at the top of the stairs. Eventually a dedicated room. To me the name is about the thing I learned from my dad: that no matter what else life throws at you, no matter what other responsibilities you have, artists need to make room for their art. I always have. And this album is a result of that.
VIDEO: Pitfall! Atari 2600 gameplay
I’m 47 and a serious Activision kid from the original Atari era. Sky Jinks, Barnstorming and Pitfall! were my big 3. I’d love to know what your favorite Activision game is and why?
Well if you’re talking about the vintage games particularly, Pitfall! was the first video game I fell in love with. A very talented developer at Activision makes sculptures using wood blocks as the pixels of old 8-bit video game characters. He gave me one of Pitfall Harry and the three alligators he had to jump over which is hanging on the wall of my music studio right now. If we’re talking about the more modern games, I don’t know if I can give an unbiased answer.
Also, what Activision game do you think would be the coolest to reboot?
Well, I actually got the chance to make reboots of some of my favorite old games happen. We brought Crash Bandicoot back, Spyro the Dragon, We rebooted Guitar Hero. They’re all great games. Sometimes I think the simpler mechanics and graphics of the older games were actually an advantage. I mean, all of us wanted the graphics to look more realistic. But those constraints, the simple graphics, the simple music, they really forced the creators to make sure the game itself was fun because there was no production value to hide behind. I think the same is true with music. As production has become more computerized, you can do anything. You can push a button and have a synthetic symphony accompanying you. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
With this cover of “Drive,” for example, I wanted to take a song that has layers upon layers of keyboards and break it down to two finger picked notes on a guitar and build it back from there. And when you do that, you can see the beauty, the pain, the intensity of it in a whole new light.
VIDEO: Eric Hirshberg “Drive”