Find out more about Steampunk Music
First of all, would you like to talk about yourself? Who are you and how would you describe your style of music?
I’m just a half-Cuban guy who’s always liked making stuff. Most of my life was spent in the cultural stew of Miami, FL. An early interest in drawing evolved into a career in multimedia design, web site development, and video production, with side jobs in writing and theatre. In my late teens I’d started playing bass guitar in local bands, which hooked me into making music.After about 10 years, I was weary of the things I’d grown up loving turning into joyless work. I took a leap and started a new career as an air traffic controller in Pensacola, FL. It’s the kind of job where you have to work through unexpected situations on a daily basis, so it can get interesting at times. The best part is I can unplug my headset, go home, and enjoy making music and writing again.
That mental freedom has allowed me to play around with the different sounds and influences I’ve come across in my travels: lots of percussion, distorted bass, cultural influences from Japan, Native America, and Latin culture, classical instruments like the cello and harpsichord, etc. I just like taking sounds that don’t normally go together and blending them into a new palette.
Your music is full of mechanical sounds like air raid sirens, cannons and so on, do you want to make the story of the text come more to life by mixing instruments and sounds?
Working on sound design for theatre groups gave me an appreciation for the effect foley cues can have on the composition of a scene. The important thing is to not overdo them and allow them to become a distraction. If I feel they can improve the impact of a song without upsetting the balance, I’ll add them into the mix.An example is „One Bullet“. The song is about an airship coming under attack by an aerial hitman. It’s a dieselpunk setting, so I wanted to bring in a definite 1930’s atmosphere. The air raid siren is a German WWII model pitchshifted and run through a tremelo effect. A ship’s bell clangs away as the siren screams. Then come the cannon shots punctuating the last chorus, each of which are actually single 20mm cannon shots, in reference to the line „He lines up the sights of his twenty mike mike.“ I try to make it all tie in to the intent of the song.
How do you write your music – is there a usual method? Do you make up a story first?
It varies so much. I generally start with a theme for each song, and for that inspiration I often look to real events and places. History holds more drama and rich action than fiction could ever possible conjure up. „Warriors Without a War“ is a steampunk-flavored telling of CSS Shenandoah’s voyage, „The Surgeon’s Widow“ is about the Whitechapel murders. For „Louisiana Sunrise“ I wanted to write a song about the unique, vibrant city that is New Orleans.Musically, it may be surprising to some that half the songs on the new album were born on a baritone ukulele. That includes some of the heaviest songs on the CD, like „The Sins of the Godly“. Circumnavigator was a very layer-heavy album that would be difficult to reproduce live. It’s the opposite with Until the End. I wrote most of the songs so that I can intentionally strip them down to a simple ukulele and still keep the essence intact.
Is it the same kind of inspiration you need for your short films and clips?
They inspire each other. For instance, a scene from some of my steampunk fiction features an airship enduring a vicious storm. The imagery and action I had in mind for that scene led to me writing the track „Above the Overcast“ on Circumnavigator. That song then let to the short film „Every Storm has an End“.
Is there a topic you like to write about the most – except for the Steampunk influence of course?
Zombies! They are the ultimate villain, because they have no fear, no sense of self. It’s fun coming up with a setting or a situation and say „just add zombies“. I’ve written a couple of zombie stories lately. They’re just great fun.
How come you decided to make music and especially your style? Was there a special key experience?
By 2001 I’d been making industrial-style music for years. I felt the urge to grow beyond the synth and guitar sound by adding some fresh elements to my palette. I bought an E-MU Planet Earth MIDI sound module on sale. As I scrolled through the dozens of world instruments available, I wasn’t sure what many of them were. Oud? Taiko drum? I realized I needed to expand my musical knowledge.While I learned the sounds of these virtual instruments, I didn’t have anyone laying down boundaries in my way. No one told me that ouds belonged only in Middle Eastern music and taiko drums belonged only in Japanese songs. I couldn’t see limits in how they could be applied, so I began incorporating them into new and existing industrial tracks. I’d run djembes through distortion, kalimbas through delays, a saz through a wah-wah. It became a fantastic playground for experimentation. While I don’t use the E-MU anymore, it’s still in my gear rack. Once in a while I wake it up just for the nostalgia.
Nowadays, I collect real instruments and enjoy learning to play them as much as time allows. I much prefer „natural“ instruments as opposed to virtual. However, even when I’m using a sample – like the shamisen on „Steam-Powered Samurai“ – I research the instrument like crazy to make sure that it sounds as real and as natural as I can make it.
Since there is no specific Steampunk music style meaning the various kinds of ways to make your music called Steampunk – what is for you the important fact that makes something Steampunk? Is it method, instruments, story or costumes?
Does a song transport the listener to another place or time, via either lyrics or the musical composition? That’s my gauge.For instance, Two Man Gentleman Band are nowhere near steampunk in intent. However, their sound and style instantly take you back in time to the early 1900’s. On the other hand, The Men That Will Not Be Blamed for Nothing are a punk band with a hard rock/punk delivery, and the steampunk comes through via lyrics about Victorian themes and history (women’s rights, inventors, wars).
Costumes don’t matter that much to me. I mean, sure, „the look“ is part of most bands‘ marketing plans, but I don’t intentionally like a band less or more because they play in ratty Metallica t-shirts versus authentic antique Victorian wear. It’s supposed to be about the music. In the end, the costumes are just packaging.
You seem to put great effort in doing all yourself – is this an important part of your art?
It’s just the way things worked out. Hiring people to design web sites, shoot videos, and create CD art is expensive, and there’s always the chance ideas can get lost in translation. Since I already have the background and tools for graphic design and video production – and I simply like doing it – I kept it in-house.
Musically, I’ve enjoyed collaborating. The new CD has two collaborative tracks on it: „Lady in Waiting“ with Unwoman and the bonus track „Into the Light“ with EliAugust. Both of them are amazing vocalists and I was very fortunate to work with them. Their deliveries are so different, but each instantly and intensely captured the feel of their respective songs.
You also write Steampunk Fiction – is your music the perfect soundtrack for these stories? Are there connections between your ways of expression?
Absolutely. Many of the songs off Circumnavigator originated in my fiction work. „Captain Morena“ and „Above the Overcast“ are scenes from my 2009 NaNoWriMo novel. „The Undead Approach“ is a soundtrack to a longer zombie story I’m hoping to finish by the end of this year. „Hunting the Future“ is named after a Native American steampunk novella which appeared in Steampunk Tales#2 and #3.On the new CD, „One Bullet“ is the opening scene of a novella I’m blocking out. The other songs on Until the End are stand-alone stories.
Your short film „Every Storm has an End“ was chosen for the Steampunk Festival. What was your inspiration for it?
In the past, I’d worked on infomericals and corporate promo videos. It gave me a lot of experience in script-writing, organization, and editing, but it was extremely dry work. Now that I was no longer doing that for a living, I wanted to have some fun. My first thought was to do something with a definite story, use lots of special effects, and try out a green screen for the first time.The film itself is a love letter to my wife, who actually appears in it (she didn’t know it when I shot her footage). We’ve been together a long time, survived many trials, and we’re stronger than ever.
The whole production of this film was your own work – as mentioned the “do it yourself” kind of way. How long did it take you to finish this project? Do you plan to keep on making short films?
It was a couple of months of pre-production – modelling the airship in a 3D animation application, shooting footage of clouds, purchasing a camera, buying props, buying fabric for the green screen, and polishing the script. The actual shoot took place over three weekends in my house. Editing and compositing took another couple of weeks. All in all, probably between two and three months.I do plan to shoot more videos. Right now, there are too many writing projects on my plate which demand my focus.
Do you have a favourite song of your own? If yes, which one and why?
I’m split between two, because they both have very personal meanings to me. The title track off of „Until the End“ is my attempt to capture the self-sacrifice inherent in the strongest relationships. Musically, it reflects on the swirl of the ocean before and during a storm. I wanted it to work on both a literal and metaphorical level. Hopefully the audience finds it was successful.“Little Revolutions“ is a protest song. Many of my songs take 19th and early 20th century history and give it a steampunk twist. This song is about an unadulterated real modern event (the 1989 Tank Man of Tiananmen Square incident) and inspired by a real person: the late Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was assassinated in 2006 for trying to be a voice of reason in the Chechnya conflict. These are both people who stood up for their beliefs. One vanished into anonymity, the other paid the ultimate price.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m working on a novel right now, three shorter pieces, and have also started work on the next Escape the Clouds album. I’ve got seven song ideas in various stages of production. However, the most exciting thing is that my wife and I have our first baby on the way! Does anyone know where I can pick up some infant-size goggles? 🙂
Are you inspired by other artists?
Absolutely! I listen to a large variety of music. Industrial. Rai. Hip-hop. Soviet Patriotic Music. Reggae. World. Anime soundtracks. I enjoy performers that fuse a variety of styles together, like Yoko Kanno, Asian Dub Foundation, and Rachid Taha. My early influences are still very much alive in me, including Nine Inch Nails, KMFDM, and the now-defunct Stabbing Westward. Lately, I’ve taken to listening to classical and Afro-Cuban music. The latter two are my writing soundtrack of choice.
What fascinates you about aviation and what was first, aviation or your love of Steampunk?
Aviation, for the freedom it brings and for how quickly it changed the way humans viewed the world. My favorite era of aviation history is the span between the two world wars, as so much development and risk-taking happened during those years. There was of course the huge surge in rigid airship technology spearheaded by Hugo Eckener’s Luftschiffbau Zeppelin bureau. Records of all sorts were being set, the first of the big „firsts“ took place, and true aviation adventurers were taking their place in history. The contributions of Lindbergh, Earhart, Byrd, Doolittle, and many others made the safe flight of today possible.
If you are not writing or performing – what do you do in free time?
Free time? There is such a thing? 😉 I enjoy spending time with my wife, traveling, discovering new foods and places, watching dark shows like The Walking Dead and Dexter, reading history, and playing video games. I’ve got a backlog of games I need to finish. Right now I’m almost done with Portal 2.I also just got back into flying after putting it on hold for a couple of years. I got my pilot’s license in 2006, through a fortunate barter and trade deal with a flight school. I did their web, video, and IT work, and they gave me flight hours. There’s no way I would have been able to afford it otherwise.
This year, I studied up and got myself back into the air. It’s not like riding a bicycle, so you need to do it fairly often or you get rusty. If it wasn’t so expensive, I’d go flying a lot more. Flying on your own is such a different experience from the airlines. I think everyone should get up in a small plane at least once in their lives and feel what real flying is like. I find it very peaceful.
Do you want to say something to our readers?
Exploration is a huge aspect of steampunk. There is a world of steampunk-influenced musicians out there that create high quality music with artistic vision, unique sounds and unique styles.Some of my personal favorites that I haven’t already mentioned include Vernian Process, Frenchy and the Punk, Beats Antique, Dr. Steel, Ghostfire, Clockwork Dolls, Ben Steed, Victor Sierra, and Professor Elemental. The variety within those artists alone is proof that there exists no definition to the steampunk sound. Each artist makes it their own.
For the latest info on steampunk music, I hope you will check out the following sites:
* The Facebook group „Music for Steampunks“
* http://www.Sepiachord.com – Steampunk music community site
* http://www.ClockworkCabaret.com – Steampunk radio show
* http://www.GildedAgeRecords.com – A collective of steampunk musicians
Did I forget something that must be said?
Not at all! I appreciate the great questions. Thank you for spreading the word about independent and steampunk musicians around the world.My music and writing is available at: http://www.EscapeTheClouds.com . If anyone has any questions, I invite you to join me on my official Facebook and Twitter pages. I’d love to hear from you.
Thanks for the interview!
The official Escape the Clouds web site is: