An interview with Severe Tire Damage: The first live band on the Internet

LiveVideoStack 2022年8月19日

By Alex Li

The history of the Internet is full of sparkling moments that have changed the entire world, and the invention of livestreaming is definitely an impressive one. Nowadays you would never be surprised by this technology with so many live events around you, but back in the 1990s, when online communications were all about texts and emails, streaming live audio and video seemed like a miracle.

You might be wondering: how and when did this miracle happen? What technologies were used?Who did the first live show on the Internet?

In order to answer these questions, we have to go back to 1993.

On June 24, 1993, using a technology called MBONE, Severe Tire Damage played the first live performance on the Internet. Unlike other bands, it was formed by four cool computer scientists working at different high-tech companies: Steven Rubin (Apple), Russ Haines (DEC), Mark Manasse (DEC) and Mark Weiser (Xerox PARC).


Severe Tire Damage in 1995
From left to right: Steven Rubin, Mark Manasse, Russ Haines, Mark Weiser

Recently we invited Severe Tire Damage to join our interview and let them share this historic moment with us.

In this interesting interview, Steven Rubin, the lead singer of the band, discusses how Severe Tire Damage became the first live band on the Internet, the technology they were using to make this happen, the opening performance they did for the Rolling Stones, and the feedback they received at the time.

Being a musician, Steven also shares their favorite STD songs and performances, the songwriting process and his own understanding of music.

Regarding his real work as a computer scientist, Steven talks about how he became interested in computers, the projects he worked on in his career, and the potential risks brought by computers.

The last part of this interview is for Mark Weiser, who died in 1999. Mark was the drummer of Severe Tire Damage, and also a visionary computer pioneer widely considered to be the father of ubiquitous computing.

The following is our conversation with Severe Tire Damage (Steven Rubin answered all the questions, and was assisted by Russ Haines and Mark Manasse).

 

LiveVideoStack: We are very excited to have Severe Tire Damage with us here. Before the interview starts, could you please introduce yourself to us?

Steven Rubin: I am Steven Rubin, the lead singer of Severe Tire Damage. I'm still in contact with Russ Haines (the guitarist and alternate vocalist) and Mark Manasse (the bass player and background vocalist), both of whom have agreed to let me speak for them. The drummer in the band, Mark Weiser, died in 1999.

 

Being the First



Severe Tire Damage in 1993 

LiveVideoStack: How did you become the first band performing live on the Internet?

Steven Rubin: We worked at the various computer science laboratories that invented this technology. Mark Weiser was the Chief Technology Officer of Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) and was aware of many of the emerging trends in computing. He knew about a talk that was going to be given at PARC about livestreaming (a term that didn't exist back then), and he was aware that the speakers were going to demonstrate the technology by broadcasting their talk over the Internet. Coincidentally, Xerox PARC was throwing a party on the roof of the building that day to celebrate the opening of their new fitness center. Mark recognized an opportunity for Severe Tire Damage to play over the Internet, and he got us the "gig" playing on the roof. When the talk ended, they switched the camera feed to us, and researchers as far away as Australia were treated to our music.

 

LiveVideoStack: What technologies did you use to make this happen? What challenges did you meet in the process?

Steven Rubin: The technology was called “MBONE,” or Multicast Backbone. The challenge was that every piece of data sent over the Internet must go from one point to another. Therefore, if a computer wants to “broadcast,” to send a piece of data to multiple other computers, it must send that same piece of data many times to deliver it to each viewer. MBONE technology allowed the data to be sent only once, over a “backbone” of the Internet, and each viewer could tap into a local MBONE node to download the data. It reduced Internet bandwidth and allowed broadcasting. This technology no longer exists because newer versions of the Internet protocol now support the idea. So MBONE was an early version of the livestreaming technology that we have today.

 

LiveVideoStack: In 1994, you opened for the Rolling Stones on the Stones' first Internet show. How did that happen?

Steven Rubin: We did our first broadcast over the Internet in 1993, and word got around that such a thing was possible. In 1994, the Rolling Stones were touring America to promote their “Voodoo Lounge” album. Mick Jagger claimed to be a technophile, so he decided he wanted part of their Dallas, Texas show to go out live on the Internet. At the time, MBONE software had no interlocks, no advanced features to identify different streams and keep them separate. There was only one stream, and everyone who used the software communicated over it. So a half-hour before the Stones went out on the MBONE, we did. Broadcasting from a conference room at DEC's Systems Research Center in Palo Alto, we introduced ourselves as the opening act in the world's first “virtual concert,” where the warm-up band was in a different city than the main performers. We played for about twenty minutes, told the audience that the Stones would be there soon (like a good warm-up band always does), and disconnected from the MBONE. Many told us that our broadcast was better, but this was no surprise to us—the band crew members were some of the inventors of this technology, whereas the Rolling Stones used hired programmers who had to stumble through the complexity of some very-new software.

 

LiveVideoStack: How did you feel about being the first live band on the Internet? What feedback did you receive?

Steven RubinThe feedback from the Stones gig was instant and amazing. Because the world press was watching the broadcast, Severe Tire Damage was suddenly very popular. Articles appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and foreign media such as British Sky TV.

To us, it was a like a joke, to be famous because of our hobby instead of our real work. Newsweek called us “less well-known than the Rolling Stones,” which we thought was a great compliment. Walking through the streets of Palo Alto one day, someone stopped Mark Weiser and said, “I know you...” Mark expected to be identified as a famous scientist, but instead the man said, “You're the drummer in that band.” This made him quite happy.

 

Why Music Matters

  
LiveVideoStack: How did you get interested in music? Was there any particular musician or band that inspired you to get into music?

Steven Rubin: I always liked strange music. Frank Zappa, The Residents, punk rock. I also enjoyed “novelty music” (comedy) and my brother, Paul Rubin, had a novelty band (“Cab City Combo”). So the opportunity to sing my favorite songs was hard to resist.

 

LiveVideoStack: How and when was the band formed? Why was it named Severe Tire Damage?

Steven Rubin: The band was started by Mark Manasse, who gathered some fellow nerds to play at a computer conference. After that, the band reformed with the other three members. We weren't called “Severe Tire Damage” at first. Instead, we changed our name each time we performed. We were “N.W.A. (Nerds with Attitudes)”, “Box of Rocks”, “Oil Supply”, “The Vampire Lestat”, “RU-486”, and “The Creeping Features.” One night, we played with another band called “The Nigels,” so we changed our name every time we introduced ourselves, calling ourselves, “Son of Nigel,” “Where's Nigel”, and even, “The Dead Nigels.” Severe Tire Damage was inspired by a hotel parking lot's warning sign, and the name was just too good, so we kept it.

 

LiveVideoStack: What was your songwriting process? Where did you find the inspiration?

Steven Rubin: Russ Haines wrote most of our songs. Mark Manasse did a few and I did one or two, mostly just lyrics. Russ can compose a song based on nearly any subject. Fans who wrote to us with stupid questions always got a song. A rival band got a song. One of our crew's fathers got a song. Russ even wrote a song about a silly frog-shaped toy (Ornamental Comic Toad).

 

LiveVideoStack: What's your favorite Severe Tire Damage song and performance?

Steven RubinI have many favorite songs, but Chris Killed Your Dog is high on the list. Mark Manasse is fond of his own song, Pincushion Boy, an ode to Multiple Sclerosis. Russ likes Who Cares, which, as the title track of our CD, reminded us that we were taking our fifteen minutes of fame a little too seriously.

As far as performances go, our USENIX conference was certainly the best (January 10, 1997), with thousands of fans gathered to watch us deliver the closing talk. We had three screens behind us: a slide screen (as all conference presentations need), a closeup video of the band (because the hall was quite large), and an MBONE screen of our broadcast. We titled our talk, “Stupid MBONE Tricks” and interspersed music with a presentation of our technological silliness.

But for all the fame and praise that performance elicited, I'm still partial to our last gig in March of 2000, when we played for a media class at Cal State Hayward. The students were afraid to get too close and left the first few rows of the auditorium empty. So, with my wireless microphone, I climbed over the empty chairs while snarling the lyrics to our songs, causing the students to shrink deeper into their seats.

 

LiveVideoStack: What do you like most in music? What did you try to express through music?

Steven Rubin: One of the things I like about punk rock is that it addresses social issues, although in an angry and satirical way. I wrote lyrics to a number of songs, and I always used that model to make them socially relevant. Subject matters in my songs included the media, war, mental illness, and health care.


Severe Tire Damage in 1997

LiveVideoStack: Was it difficult to lead a double life (programming and making music)?

Steven Rubin: Not at all. One was my job; the other was my hobby. Each one fed on the other to make me more popular, so it was a complete win.

 

Why Computers Matter

 

LiveVideoStack: How did you get interested in computers?

Steven Rubin: I learned about computers in 11th grade of high school, back in 1968. Programming grabbed me instantly, and I haven't stopped enjoying it, even 54 years later.

 

LiveVideoStack: What projects did you do in your career?

Steven Rubin: The main project I did in my career, one I still work on even in retirement, is an open-source EDA (electronic design automation) system called “Electric.” People around the world use it to design integrated-circuit chips. I wrote it when working at Schlumberger/Fairchild, left it on the back burner when I was at Apple, then picked it up again at Sun Microsystems.

 

LiveVideoStack: Among all the work you have done, which part do you find most satisfying?

Steven Rubin: I like to see my programs get used. Back in graduate school in the 1970's, I wrote computer games, and it always thrilled me when I saw others playing them. I still enjoy hearing from users of Electric who tell me about the chips they've made with my program.

 

LiveVideoStack: What was the work atmosphere like of your time? What about the computer scientists those days? Who impressed you the most?

Steven Rubin: I was always a researcher, working in labs that were independent of production software. This gave me the freedom to do whatever I wanted, without consideration of sales or marketing. Our heroes were the geniuses who could imagine all this stuff. In our band, the two Marks were such people: Mark Weiser with his broad visions of computing, and Mark Manasse with mad mathematical skills who understands foundational aspects of the field.

 

LiveVideoStack: Do you see an overlap between music and computer science?

Steven Rubin: There has always been such an overlap. Stanford's computer-music department has been around for decades, and some of the early computer workers were interested in making music. When I was in high school, in 1969, we discovered that we could put a radio on top of the processing unit and the high-speed computations would leak radio waves, playing different types of static sounds. We experimented with our programs to see how they sounded, and we were soon able to play simple songs using our code.

 

LiveVideoStack: Looking back, what technologies or innovations do you think should have benefited the world but actually not?

Steven Rubin: All technologies benefit the world, but cause massive human suffering along the way. Computers have done this too, and the effects are not done yet. I don't know what aspects of computing should have been done better, because no matter what gets done, it gets twisted both for the better and the worse.

 

LiveVideoStack: What do you think about the future of computers? What potential risks would they bring?

Steven Rubin: Computers are already demonstrating one serious risk: privacy. Smart phones track the location of every person on the planet, and emerging digital identity systems go one step further, controlling our access to places and our ability to move about.

 

In Memory of Mark Weiser


Severe Tire Damage in 1995

LiveVideoStack: When did you first meet Mark Weiser? What was your first impression of him?

Steven Rubin: I met Mark when he joined the band, back in the 1990s. At first, he was just a drummer from another research lab, but we soon discovered that he was the most famous of us. He was friends with tech reporters and got interviewed in revered publications. But Severe Tire Damage never let him forget that he was just the drummer. Even at our popular USENIX conference performance, as soon as he got up to address the audience, we teased him mercilessly and drove him back to his drum throne. He could be a nerd somewhere else, but when he sat down to play drums, he (like all of us) lost his fame and became just another musician.

 

LiveVideoStack: What did he bring to the band? How did he influence you?

Steven Rubin: Mark brought notoriety to the band. He enjoyed being the drummer, and he always brought it up when being interviewed about technology. Naturally, this helped the band become more popular. Another thing Mark did was to make all of us want to be “Chiefs" (after all, he was a Chief Technology Officer). I joined a startup at one point and demanded to also be called Chief Technology Officer (even though the company had only three people). Others in the band searched for creative ways to be Chiefs, too. Why should Mark have all the fun?

 

LiveVideoStack: What were Mark Weiser's visions?

Steven Rubin: One of his visions was something he called “Ubiquitous Computing” where computers would be everywhere, even in our clothes. This vision has certainly been accurate.

 

LiveVideoStack: If he were alive, what do you think he would say about today's computer industry?

Steven Rubin: He'd be in love. IOT (Internet of Things) would delight him. And Severe Tire Damage would probably still be playing gigs.

 

LiveVideoStack: Last but not least, will Severe Tire Damage release new singles or albums in the future? Will there be a performance on the Internet?

Steven RubinAfter Mark Weiser died, we got a new drummer, but it wasn't the same anymore. The remaining band members are getting old (I'll be turning 70 in October), and although Mick Jagger can still hobble around a stage, we're probably beyond that. These days, we get featured in HOTI (History of The Internet) and other historical projects designed to capture those amazing early days.

  

Other members of Severe Tire Damage:

Russ Haines (the guitarist and alternate vocalist)

I was the late bloomer in Severe Tire Damage, having only recently been issued patents and founding high tech startups. After STD I worked for tech companies in Silicon Valley, taught college and corporate classes, and had a textbook published. My startup "Eye Vapor" involved worldwide travel to create real-time Hollywood effects for large events and performances including the Super Bowl, Pan American Games, Beyonce, Deadmau5, and The Jabbawockeez. My current project spends other people's money and creates nothing. 

Mark Manasse (the bass player and background vocalist)

I've been an industrial computer science researcher since just after finishing grad school at Wisconsin in 1982 with a PhD in mathematical logic and an MSc in computer science, where I met David Johnson (of Garey and Johnson) while he was teaching at Madison in sabbatical from Bell Labs. He suggested I join him at Murray Hill, which I did. From there, I worked in theoretical CS until I spent a quarter teaching CS at the University of Chicago, which I had previously declined for undergraduate and graduate schools, and a teaching job. In 1984, I met Greg Nelson while he was on sabbatical from Xerox to teach at Princeton during which time we started working on some CS semantics research. During that year many at PARC had left for a new research lab for the Digital Equipment Corporation, as did Greg, so joining him meant leaving for DEC SRC and California in the summer of 1985. 

I stayed there when Compaq purchased DEC, but left when HP decided to purchase Compaq, and left (with a dozen DEC SRC and WRL researchers) for a new research lab for Microsoft until they decided that running groups both in Redmond and Mountain View was too pricey and shut us down.

From there I worked for three years at Salesforce, while they concluded that research wasn't a corporate desire, and dumped us. I then started at a currently struggling startup, i2Chain, where I produced five patents (out of my total of just over fifty), only two of which have issued so far.

 

Learn more about Severe Tire Damage and their music: https://www.std.org/index.html

We truly appreciate Steven Rubin who edited the whole English interview article and provided those precious STD photos. We also thank Barry Zhao for reviewing the Chinese translation.

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