[This article originally appeared in The Toronto Star on August 1st, 2006. The article has disappeared from The Star’s web site, however, so with Michael’s permission I’ve reproduced it here.]

Aug. 1, 2006.

My band rocks — well, rocks the Internet anyway.

We’re Gert, a six-member crew that writes and records regularly and hopes to finish our first album by the end of the year.

The bonus? We do it all without leaving our own homes.

Until last weekend, Gert had never been in the same room together — we don’t all live in the same country, let alone the same city — and most of us hadn’t even met. Just as the Internet has made working remotely commonplace, so has it paved the way for remote rocking, and it’s proven to be a great way for a family man like me to relive my high-school glory days.

It started a year ago when Rich Brewer from Boston, Mass., Rob Cosh from Ottawa, Des McKinney from Mississauga, Tom Skillman from Campbell River, B.C., fellow Torontonian Paul Gosse and myself were six lonely solo musicians “hanging out” at http://www.songfight.org/, the home of a thriving music community and free songwriting competition.

Once a week, a song title is posted there (or two, or three, or in one case, 11), and amateur musicians have about a week to write, record and submit an mp3 version of their song based on that title. (Recent titles have included “Stairway to the Moon” and “Covered in Bugs.” “Toronto Star” was even a title in 2003.) The songs are posted, votes are cast and the winner earns nothing more than a few days’ bragging rights. Not a penny changes hands.

Through the site, the six of us got the idea to collaborate on a song. Online collaborations weren’t rare at Song Fight — I had already entered a couple of fights with Skillman, the only guy I’d previously known. But Gert was a supergroup, six musicians rocking out with thousands of kilometres between us. The result was greater than we’d hoped; Gert has won six of the eight Song Fights we’ve entered.

Like the other guys, I started in bands the traditional way. You know the deal: a group of guys with enormous egos get together to make the kind of music they think is going to change the world, or at least help them meet chicks. Instead of actually writing songs, they butt heads over who sings what and who plays which solo, and eventually break up over the much-celebrated “creative differences.”

Not so with Gert. One of us records a structure, usually a guitar track, and posts it to our website forum. The rest of us download it, and use the forum to bat around ideas as to who wants to do what. (With six singers, sound engineers and guitarists, and a handful of bassists, drummers and keyboardists among us, our roles change from song to song.)

And then, unlike other bands, we’re alone in our own homes to rock the mic, bang the drums or carve out the lead guitar. Each imports that original structure into his computer-based studio and records his part in sync; those parts are saved as WAV files and posted to Cosh’s server to be downloaded by whoever is mixing that week.

“We’re the love child of a four-track recorder and the Internet,” jokes McKinney, who has variously lent his keyboard, guitar, bass and vocal skills to Gert, and has even mixed a tune or two. “Online collaboration like this couldn’t have happened 10, or even five years ago. Gert is a defining example of what’s possible given the communications and technology advancements of the last decade.”

Does online collaborating rival the feeling of rocking out in the garage, the six of us disturbing the neighbours? No, not even close. But with families, careers and lives, it’s the only way it could work for most of us. I don’t have the luxury of blowing off an afternoon a week to make noise with the boys, but I can find an hour here or there on my own to make Gert work. If I want to record my guitar on Sunday at 7 a.m. while my 3-year-old watches cartoons, I can. What other rock band would allow that kind of schedule?

Still, after more than a year of playing together online, we decided to give the “old-fashioned way” a shot at McKinney’s Mississauga home. Of course, there was a good chance it would go horribly. Would personalities clash when we met? Musicians can be a difficult lot — it’s the egos, you know — and having a buffer of a few thousand kilometres can be nice sometimes.

“When I play on a Gert tune, I can feel the band in the room with me, but I think remote communication has been the key for it working for Gert,” Skillman said in the days leading up to last weekend.

When we finally crammed ourselves into McKinney’s basement to see if we could actually play our songs together, we couldn’t — not at first. None of us had actually played those songs again since recording them up to a year ago. But the riffs and rhythms came back quickly. By Sunday afternoon we were tighter than we could have hoped, six sweaty guys making noise the way it was supposed to be made.

“This is more fun than should be legal,” McKinney said, and he was right. I felt 18 again.

But even more important is that we got along. They’re the best musicians I’ve ever worked with, but they’re more than that: guys with great senses of humour, families and careers. We weren’t strangers at all, but friends.

Now we’re talking about having an annual “Gert Together.” Who knows if that will happen? One thing is for sure: next time I rock the mic in the basement by myself, it’s going to be a lot easier to picture my friends in Gert there with me.

Gert recorded the jam, of course; mp3s can be found at http://www.gertband.com/