The Sonic community has very different opinions, but there’s one constant in fandom’s love-hate relationship with SEGA’s iconic hedgehog: Crush 40 kick ass. While debate will likely forever rage over what Sonic’s best game is and whether 2D or 3D titles are superior, there’s no argument against the band that has helped define the sound of blue blur since the 1998s. Sonic Adventure.
Consisting of singer Johnny Gioeli and guitarist/composer Jun Senoue, Crush 40 provides Sonic with a catalog of rock songs that score classic hedgehog moments. From the opening cutscenes to the climactic final battle, Crush 40 has spent the last two decades accompanying player screens, and is ingrained deep within the Sonic canon.
So how does it feel to be in a video game band of hedgehogs? How are songs written, and what happens when you carry them from the living room to the stage? To find out, I sat down with Gioeli to talk about the history of Crush 40, its impact, and what will happen next.
“When I was contracted to [Sonic] games, that’s when things change,” Gioeli told me via Zoom. “Because then it becomes, you know, more creative, which is where I have to think [music] like printing a film. I was presented with an image of some very, very small animation, and I had to actually pick up a piece of music that Jun [Senoue] writing, and going to the studio to read about what was to come.”
Senoue is a fan of Gioeli’s band Hardline, and in 1998 the two teamed up at Sonic Adventure‘Open Your Heart’, soon followed by a song for SEGA NASCAR Arcade. It was around this time that Gioeli had an idea, and it proved to be a good one.
“I say [to Jun], ‘It’s more than just writing songs for a game, we have to develop a band,’” explained Gioeli. “After all, 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 only needs a name. “[Jun] said, ‘What do you want to call it?’ And I said, ‘I never want to be 40 years old. Let’s destroy 40,’” Gioeli told me. Incidentally, Senoue’s favorite soda is also called Crush, so the name sticks out.
Despite Crush 40’s close relationship with Sonic, Gioeli does not play video games. This meant that when it first came to writing lyrics that reflected Sonic’s demeanor and design, the singer needed help. “I used to have to give this [documents] for my daughter, because I am not a gamer,” said Gioeli. “And I said, ‘Can you read this? What’s that? What is this? Who is Eggman?’ I do not know anything.”
This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as Gioeli puts it, meaning he always wrote Crush 40 songs more based on feelings, with the base game plot and imagery helping to guide the lyrics. Gioeli’s process definitely worked, as it helped create one of the songs most synonymous with Sonic, and video games as a whole: Sonic Adventure 2‘s ‘Live & Learn’.
“The idea behind this song is quite simple,” explains Gioeli. “I imagine someone navigating through the game, being crushed, and learning and going through and living.” But even with that simplicity, Gioeli didn’t sell on the track at first: “I don’t think ‘Live & Learn’ is good. I remember sending it back to Jun after I worked on all the melodies and lyrics.”
Luckily for Gioeli, Senoue liked him very much.
Gioeli’s concern for acceptance of his work is emblematic of the band’s unique position, as he cannot properly gauge how players have felt about his work over the years. He wasn’t in their living room when they started their Sonic game, and he didn’t have the chance to perform these songs live. However, at the 2008 Tokyo Game Show, that changed. Crush 40 had its first live show.
“We were there preparing for the event until around one o’clock in the morning,” recalls Gioeli. “And there were a lot 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 crowd.’ And I thought, what is going on?”
Of course, Senoue and Gioeli saved the best for last, ending the performance with a live rendition of ‘Live & Learn’. “We started the song and I did my cue. And I saw this damn mosh hole. And I’m like, wait a minute. This song is special. This song is important. I don’t know why, but it is.”
“I never knew how big this was,” Gioeli said of his assumptions before the 2008 show. “I don’t understand franchises. I don’t understand the fan base and the community, and I could be 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 out last year’s Sonic 30th anniversary symphony, which saw Senoue and Gioeli reunite – albeit on the internet – to perform their most recognizable song.
Like those watching at the time, Gioeli was swept away in that moment. “I was blown away by the comments. And that’s just, again, another reassurance of how important the community is, and how beautiful the memories are. For them. And for me.”
Despite the positive response to Crush 40’s performance at the anniversary event, the band is not being approached much by SEGA these days. Gioeli knows that this is partly because the Sonic franchise has changed over the past two decades, as it makes way for new faces to herald his musical style, and he totally agrees with that.
“It may be disappointing, but we’re not often asked to get involved anymore,” he said. “To be honest, we look like parents. SEGA is looking for fresh new blood. They’re trying to ignite another Crush 40 inspiration.”
Gioeli will still be interacting with fans and engaging with their projects, and he explained that he has absolutely no animosity towards what happened after Crush 40: “I have my time and I have my history, you know, God bless the artists. new.”
Related: we recently sat down with Sonic the Hedgehog 2 stars Ben Schwartz and James Marsden
That said, Crush 40 isn’t finished yet. Gioeli gave me a fairly direct answer when I asked if he would lend his lyrical talent to the third Sonic the Hedgehog film, which is confirmed to be coming soon after the success of the 2022 sequel.
“It’s really a million percent huh,” he said. “I contacted them, we had some conversations. I’ll be ready for it, I’ll just tell you like that. We want to write a lot of songs, but of course we still have our nostalgia stuff. This means we want to write a lot of songs, if that happens to sonic 3.”
Measuring the significance of the Crush 40 is nearly impossible. But for those in attendance at Sonic’s 30th anniversary symphony – myself included – the band’s performance was not only nostalgic, it was proving, celebratory and amazing to watch. Video game media are lucky to have Crush 40, and artists who care deeply about the players they influence.