Captain Robert of Abney Park Singing aether shanties into the lost horizon www.abneypark.com
It's a hard life being a musical airship pirate. You can never tell which to loot first when you land, the instrument dealer or the liquor store.
Thankfully, Abney Park can build their own gear, so there's always more time for rum.
Since their beginning in the early 1990's, Abney Park has grown to be the quintesential spokespeople for the steampunk sub-culture. Talented and well spoken, they've has been touted in print, on the web, and on television (MTV, G4TV, etc.) as the go-to people for all things steampunk.
I had the chance to speak with the captain of this rowdy crew after they returned from their stunning show at DragonCon 2009. With over 30,000 freaks, geeks, and fantasy/sci-fi punks buzzing around Atlanta that weekend, there was quite the story to tell.
Welcome back from DragonCon! That's a hell of a trip from Seattle. How did it turn out?
It was awesome! We were sort of booked last minute for this, and the impression we were given for the reason is that "We thought steampunk was just a one time thing, but turns out its three times as big this year as last year!." And its true, everywhere we looked were steampunks. Even in a crowded elevator I heard some one say "Damn, there are more people dressed steampunk then any other costume!" I wanted to say "That's be it's a subculture, not a costume. That's like saying "there are more people dressed as goth than Superman."
Hum, I wonder if "Elvis" is a subculture?
Since DragonCon is filled with general fans of sci-fi and fantasy rather than your normal steampunk audience, how was the crowd reaction?
Scary huge. We have one song in particular where the whole crowd jumps up and down in unison. As it turns out, when you get thousands of people doing that, it takes its toll on the floor! I have read in fans blogs that the floor was moving so much people were getting scared.
For a non-steampunk, we are just a band with a look, much like Bowie or The Cure any of those bands that did more then just walk on stage in Jeans. I honestly think the most unusual thing for the non-steampunks is that the audience is dressed too! Hopefully this won't exclude anyone. When we started doing this, it certainly wasn't to make an external culture that kept everyone else away.
I think most of our audience is familiar with your work, but can you take a moment to introduce the band? When did you form, and where do you call home?
Abney Park mostly sleeps in Seattle, though we are always on the move. I formed the band a billion years ago (please don't make me say how long) and Kristina joined a year later, then Nathan joined, oh, maybe a decade or so after that, and then Daniel joined, and there was a billion singing or dancing girls during all that time.
What instruments is the band using these days? It seems like every new performance I see for your new songs includes a different set of instruments. It must be a great feeling to be so flexible musically.
Its not so much that were flexible, as that we are easily bored, and just as easily excited by something new. Short attention span music: every song is a different "sound" and every show we transform the band.
Currently we are Vocals, Guitars, Bass, Keyboards, Violin, Mandolin, Melodeon, Darbuka, Harmonica... and on special occasion Kristina has sat down to a vintage Grand Piano. Hell, the new album will even sport Trombone and Didgeridoo.
Seattle seems to be the big scene right now for steampunks. I couldn't take three steps down the block without someone trying to sell me a raygun or goggles from under their shabby overcoat. What's happening over there and who should we be looking out for?
Yeah, I guess your right! There does seem to be a ton of stuff happening, everything from steampunk art walks to events held by The Seattle Steamrats, which is a steampunk based group holding regular events ranging from classes on steampunk to concerts, to full blown festivals.
Abney Park also tries to make everything we do a community event, not just a "concert." We allow vendors, artists, and any scene related groups to have tables or space at any of our events, and always free. For us the community is everything, they are so good to us, and we want to make sure we are giving at least as much back to them.
Speaking of the Seattle music scene, I saw that your female vocalist recently jumped ship to focus on her dancing. Who's currently filling in for your live shows, and how goes the search for a new vocalist?
I think we've found what we were looking for. For a few years we had dancers who could sing a bit, but it's been a while since we had a pure "vocalist" in that role. The vast majority of the female vocals you've heard on Abney Park music was from a single girl from years ago named Traci Lee. Since Traci, we've mostly had dancers who also sang, but not pure "vocal artists." The Show took precedence over the sound, and that was fun too.
When I started my search, and asked for applicants to audition who were "dancers with some singing ability," and when fans saw this they really spoke out! I saw (angry?) blog posts saying things like "doesn't Robert know that the most important thing to us is the SINGING?" Honestly, I didn't know that. I knew it was most important to me, but fans always complimented the dancers, and their wardrobes, so I figured that's what the fans wanted.
Well, we read the fans concerns... and then the auditions hit... and we were throne for a loop. A girl named Jody (who didn't dance a lick at her audition) started singing with the band, and I think with in the first 15 seconds of the first song me and Nathan and Kristina started giving each other that "oh shit" look. We suddenly SOUNDED like Abney Park in a way we hadn't in years. The rich harmonies, and tingly female vocals offsetting my gritty low male vocals, dramatic choruses, beautiful melodic bridges. Kristina started tearing up, and I really started to get excited again!
I haven't talked much about Jody since then for a few reasons. I'm always afraid if I compliment a new person, people might think I'm talking badly of a past person, which is not the case since we've had nothing but tremdously talented people in Abney Park.
...but also because I really want peoples first experience with her to be about HEARING her, not reading about her. The music is what its all about, and you guys are in for a real treat when this new album comes out.
Has the search for new talent affected the release of your new album, Aether Shanties?
Only in a good way. Our timing set back occurred when the hard drive crashed due to a 109 degree heat wave that hit Seattle. This town isn't built for that kind of heat, and our studio was not air conditioned. It is now.
This "do over" has really given us a new opportunity to get Jody on all the songs. It's with great relief that we now know we can have her voice on this album.
Abney Park has a reputation now for sporting beautiful, but fragile music equipment. With a high-profile show like Dragon*Con, what special gear took the cross country trip and what actually made it back in one piece? Was Nathaniel able to take Jake von Slatt's custom amp out for the run?
Naw, the Vonn Slatt amp has joined us onstage only for local shows so far. That's mostly to do with restrictions flying. If we ever dropped air travel as our only means of conveyance, we might be able to bring more toys along!
Lets see, what broke last show? I think just my mic. Neat thing is, though, we are always surrounded by steampunks, and steampunks always have tools handy to help repair things.
What can we expect from Abney Park once the new album hits? Back to the studio or back on the road?
Both. I never stop writing music. In fact, the new album is not done and I think we currently have three more albums in the works. We will release a live album, hopefully, within 6 months of Aether Shanties going live. We will be doing a Christmas album... we did one as a joke a hundred years ago, and (surprising to us) people loved it. Since we love getting money to pay bills and buy more rum, we think supplying fans with a real Christmas album might be a good idea.
And, because I'm a masochist, I haven't already started on the next album. Just a couple sketches so far, but it's obviously not for Aether Shanties, but the next transition.
I read that you were considering a new fashion branch on AbneyPark.com that highlighted pieces for sale by some really talented designers.
*punk culture is built on the DIY backbone, which you've expressed excellently with your gear and stage clothing, but that which makes us love the crazy custom pieces also makes them scary expensive to produce in consumer quantities. What were your thoughts on building this fashion line, and how has the idea been progressing?
We had a lot of manufacturing problems with the first designs I came out with. I did some sketches and sent them to a tailor I knew in Bangkok. Cool stuff; like a coffee brown swallow-tailed sleeveless tuxedo jacket, etc. He made me a few dozen, and they were selling like hot cakes, when all of the sudden he disappeared. So, I gave the job to a Canadian seamstress who did nothing for over a year. So, we gave the job to an American design who did a few before losing interest.
Meanwhile, I found this FANTASTIC local designer, but she can't sew all the stuff herself. She studied her art in Bali, and thinks we can have stuff made there.
Anyway, its tricky, and I really want to be focusing on music, so we'll see. Music is still by far the biggest selling thing we've got, yet the majority of our merchandising problems come from non-music stuff. Is the headache worth the fun? Not sure.
Before we go, I have to give some love to "Until the Day I Die," your new Charleston-inspired song from Aether Shanties. As a gang of rowdy airship pirates, what gave you the push to try something a little more dieselpunk?
In the early days of steampunk, Kristina used to get shit for being too dieselpunk, to which she'd gracefully respond "Bite me."
Actually, we've always been pretty dieselpunk. Abney Park is a blend of Post-apocalypse, Victorian, and Dieselpunk, and we've always been light on the Victorian part, because frankly, you need sturdy clothes to do what we do. Those long gowns and suits and tops hats would be a pain in our ass. We've got hard work to do, and many miles to go before our heads hit the pillow.
Tomorrow's show is on the Victorian ship The Queen Mary – its ironic, our life in Abney Park is not an impersonation of steampunk, and it really IS steampunk. 100 years ago, if some one wrote a story about a band of musicians touring the world in futurist bird like "Flying Machines," telling tall tales about there adventures together, and playing concerts in everything from speakeasies to airships to steamships... well, that would be one hell of a steampunk story, and it'd also be our life exactly.
Special thanks to Robert from Abney Park for helping with this interview, and to Kristina for putting up with his shenanigans.