MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Whisked into the spotlight by circumstance, the world’s second-most famous cowbell player plopped onto the hotel couch and thought about the randomness that changed his life. He had spent the past four years in the Stanford percussion section, whacking instruments in support of the sports teams he grew up loving, and yet the chaos of the past four days all seemed so arbitrary. The television camera could have recorded a different song, when he was instead parked behind the drum kit, or it could have focused on another of the many students rocking their faces off. Heck, even another percussionist could have been chosen for the journey to St. Louis for the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament, and maybe that student would be sitting here instead, swept up by the viral fame.
“It’s a very, very chance occurrence,” said Alex Chang, in a rare moment of rest since his zeal spread across the Internet via GIFs and Vines and headlines on Sunday afternoon, creating an instant sensation out of a 22-year-old mechanical engineering major still stunned by the attention. “It’s been pretty surreal.”
The grandson of Chinese immigrants and a native of Los Altos, Calif., Chang joined the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band, a fun-loving and polarizing group that can elicit both admiration and venom, depending on the perspective and, usually, whether you cheer for the Cardinal or someone else. (The longest section of its Wikipedia page is titled “Controversial actions by the band.”) During football seasons, he rotates between field drums, playing the bass, snare or tom-tom. When winter arrives, the traveling party shrinks and only two drummers go on trips – one for the drum kit, the other for auxiliary percussion instruments like the tambourine or cowbell. Often, the two drummers rotate.
Which brings Chang to last weekend. He was raised on March Madness and brackets, though Stanford hadn’t made the NCAA tournament since 2008, and was foremost thrilled that the Cardinal had finally broken the streak. Besides, all college bands make television appearances before or after commercial breaks.
“Usually my parents and family freak out,” he said. “The Internet doesn’t really freak out about it.”
But this is March Madness in the digital age, where Twitter can give anyone their 15 minutes of fame, so when the CBS camera crew first panned past Chang banging the cowbell and then, during separate break, lingered on him for a little longer, his likeness began to spread. He reached the front page of Reddit. USA Today said he was the “undisputed star of the NCAA tournament.” The Bay Area’s NBC affiliate Skyped him on air. And soon, Chang found himself waking up, on four hours of sleep, to appear on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” in Los Angeles.
It wasn’t the first time randomness thrust Chang into the public’s eye. No one outside friends and family has made the connection yet, but in 2011, GQ Magazine released a list, titled “The 10 Douchiest Colleges in America,” and ranked Stanford fourth. The accompanying picture showed Chang, shirtless except for his band vest, wearing oversized clown glasses without lenses and a frizzy blue wig, a snare drum strapped around his shoulders. It was at the Orange Bowl his freshman year. His mother went to the local convenience store and bought the last few copies, not fully grasping the concept of the list.
And so, as he clanged away and the camera slid past, Chang didn’t think much of it. After Stanford finished its upset over Kansas, advancing to the Sweet 16, he and several others shuttled back to Ames, Iowa, where the Stanford women’s team was playing its second-round game, as the congratulatory messages bombarded his Facebook page. Over the several days since, Chang has re-watched the GIF, which a reporter again produced on Thursday afternoon. Seeing himself flail about, like the dancing air tubes at a used car lot, Chang laughed. It elicits memories of Will Ferrell’s famous SNL character, who Chang insists is still the most famous cowbell player in existence.
“All in the moment,” he said, as the clip played on loop. “I was literally trying to rock out in the moment while you’re playing awesome music for an awesome team. That’s the thing about cowbell. You just play. Probably the most important thing is that you’re rocking out.”
Before coming to the interview, Chang heard several Stanford basketball players whispering near the elevator, because they recognized him, and the prospect of more attention is somewhat concerning. He thinks about a scenario in which he never got identified, because the band has strict protocol when it comes to speaking with the media and giving out real names. (His nickname is Mi’enz, pronounced “mittens” without the two Ts, and would only identify his co-drummer as Krkl, pronounced “crackle.”)
The appearance and interview requests have gotten so voluminous that Chang and the band’s two public relations managers stopped trying to keep up. Chang feels a burden of representing every one of the fellow musicians he loves so much. But he likes that family and friends can enjoy the publicity alongside him, like when a cousin posted the Kimmel video and, by association, enjoyed the fame. So far, all the attention has been overwhelmingly positive.
He also knows this will pass, that the Internet will soon find someone else, maybe even Thursday night when No. 10 Stanford faces No. 11 Dayton, an Elite Eight berth on the line. At this point, Chang knocked on the table before him for good luck. All this, he says, could be gone in six hours. Not the fame, mind you, but Stanford’s season, because to him that matters most.
“The reason why I was rocking out so much, so hard, was because our basketball team was doing so well,” he said.
After graduation, Chang plans to pursue a Master’s in management science and engineering, and hopes to keep playing with the Stanford band, returning as an alumnus for football games. But he will always carry with him the events of this week, like GIFs and the television segments and the thought he had during the second half against Kansas, when he was still just another kid rocking out, when he heard the noise level rise in St. Louis and thought to himself, “I’m a part of what they call March Madness. This is wild. This is definitely madness.”