Dieselpunk + Steampunk Culture

INTERVIEW - Ed Saperia & Patrick Gleeson of Clockwork Quartet

Ed Saperia & Patrick Gleeson of Clockwork Quartet
Dirty secrets of The Magician and The Conductor

While exploring one of London's less reputable neighborhoods, I bumped into a Magician and a Conductor who wished to tell me their story.

The Clockwork Quartet (in character) are a band of traveling musicians who entertain the passengers aboard a train that travels back and forth between London and Dover. It is the individual stories of passengers they meet that the Quartet brings to life in song form.

Clockwork Quartet

The band features an unusual selection of instruments: Violin & Stroh Violin, Cello, 6 String Banjo & Guitar, Bass Banjo, 5 String Banjo & Piccolo Banjo, Accordion, Oboe & Musical Saw, and two percussionists who use a double kit composed of scrap metal, metronomes, clocks and other found objects. In addition, almost everyone in the band sings at one point or another.

I walked away 50 quid light and I think my pocket watch is missing, but it was worth it to hear what they had to say.

It almost looks like The Clockwork Quartet is less a band than it is a club of indefinable musicians and craftsmen. What can you tell us about the core idea, where it began, and how it's grown over the years?

Ed, The Magician - Over the years? I came up with the idea for this project last September, so we've not even been going a year. The idea of doing some sort of steampunk project had been bubbling for a bit though - but while the visual aesthetic has been around for a while, the name and associated culture are pretty recent, only really getting going in 2007 or so. So why steampunk?

Like hip-hop was the indigenous folk culture of 1970s New York, with its own music, style of dress, dance, politics, even typography, I genuinely believe that Steampunk is the first true indigenous internet folk culture. I'm 24, and I am about as old as you can be to have grown up on the internet without being a hardcore techie, one of the hardy pioneers, so only now can we start seeing this type of thing emerge into the mainstream. My generation (and surely we must measure cultural generations in just handfuls of years now!) is really the first for whom "to grow up on the internet" has much meaning. I've never had a social life without mobile phones, facebook, chatrooms. I've written at length on the main tenets of steampunk as a culture and why they are particularly relevant at this point in history in a previous interview.

Clockwork Quartet

Anyway - why a band? First of all, you are quite right, it is more than a band. In fact, it doesn't even make sense to speak in these terms anymore. Media is cheaper to create now than ever before, right from the hardware (film quality video cameras can be had for £1000, professional quality DSLRs for £400, etc), the software (protools, photoshop, the stuff bundled with any Mac, reams of internet tools), through to distribution - who needs record labels anymore? We can reach millions (and for us producing media for steampunks, 99% of our potential fans) through the internet for free, instantly. So why limit ourselves to music? The distinctions between different types of media are totally artificial. It's a funny age, truly it is. It makes no sense being a just band anymore. Unlimited, world class entertainment can be had on tap via the internet, the whole industry is being turned on its head, from music to film to journalism to marketing to theatre to advertising to retail... So we make whatever we feel like, whatever excites us or we have ideas for.

It just happened that a very good friend of mine, Ash Gardner, who now plays the Engineer character in the band, is a professional record producer, he's done some quite big indie names, Noah & The Whale, Emmy The Great, Jeremy Warmsley, etc), and we live in the same building, a converted warehouse in East London, and so naturally the project is slanted towards music, simply because we know so many fantastic musicians and have recording equipment on hand, but we've now got books and films and all manner of random craft projects in the works as well (we're building a giant smoke ring cannon, you heard it here first, Dieselpunks exclusive!), not to mention our live shows, which will certainly be more than just music.

Also I should mention Patrick's influence, I met him around when the project was coming together and he was keen to write a steampunk musical at the time, which as you can tell has left a bit of a mark on the music that resulted - each of the songs is a story, the band members are all characters (though there is a rich history of this in bands), he's been writing most of the music, though with help from me and Hugo and some other band members. Really the 'musical' influence aligns very nicely by what I think steampunk as a musical genre means to me, or at least what I think it ought to mean... certainly more than, as our fans like to say, "rock about airship pirates". Ah, should probably mention that, though you haven't had much new stuff from us in a while, there are a good dozen or so songs being worked on as well, which we'll be releasing over the next year or so as they are finished, so no worries there.

With over 13 members listed on your website, you might want to consider updating the name to The Clockwork Baker's Dozen or The Clockwork Army. Who does what, and how do you plan on fitting everyone on stage?

Patrick, The Conductor of Clockwork QuartetPatrick, The Conductor - Easy - we'll only ever play in enormous stadiums.

Seriously, when I see that many people I stop thinking "rock band" and start thinking Robin Hood and his "band" of merry men. If everyone showed up at the same gig, there might not be enough stage to go around, or the manager might think a rival gang has showed up.

Ed, The Magician - 13 is even an underestimate. With something as multifaceted as what we're doing, it doesn't make sense to talk about people being "in" the band, different people contribute many different things to the project, and it never made any sense to me having a frontman or a, um, front-group like with a traditional band, relegating people who do less obviously visible things to the album sleeve - the creativity the designers or sound engineers or artists bring to the project is just as relevant as anyone else, and almost all of us play a bit of music or get in on the recordings or help out in the films and so on. I can give you a bit of a breakdown though I guess, but bear in mind it's a lot more organic than a list or roles would suggest...

Hannah Ballou of Clockwork QuartetHannah Ballou is, I guess, the gal that would be the front-woman, she's the compere and storyteller and the singer of the "Quartet" that's in the title. A little background digression - the Clockwork Quartet is four musicians (Stuart, Nadia, Maral and Noura) who travel around with Hannah, The Raconteuse and Patrick, the Conductor, as a travelling band, and they meet interesting people on the way (everyone else) and write songs about them (in which the characters themselves sing), so The Doctor's Wife is about a meeting that The Ranconteuse had with The Doctor, and the story that he told her. She's got a theatre background, and is a fantastic performer as well as musician, so she was perfect for this role, compared to some of the rest of us who are just musicians (or like myself, who really shouldn't be let on stage at all...). She also does most of the physical (as opposed to musical) directing for the live shows.

Patrick I've already mentioned, he writes most of the music, he also runs the musical rehearsals and also helps out with the website, and is generally fantastically creative, efficient, reliable, talented and handsome. He shows his hand in most aspects of the project in some way.

Patrick, The Conductor - I can only talk about the point after which I got involved, by which time Ed already had some strong ideas about what the Clockwork Quartet should be. I had been planning on writing a steampunk musical, and Ed was looking for a composer/songwriter to write and arrange a bunch of narrative-driven songs for the band. A mutual friend put us in touch, and I quickly realized that his project was more viable and more interesting than my half-baked idea, so we teamed up to do CQ. After a couple of meetings to discuss what sort of thing he was looking for I went away and wrote The Watchmaker's Apprentice. He liked it, and we went from there.

The Magician of Clockwork QuartetEd, The Magician - I myself do nothing more glamorous than keep the damn thing organized - like you said, organizing artists = herding cats. I try and keep things focused so we actually get stuff done on time, everyone turns up, we produce stuff that's self consistent and aligned with the rest of the project, keep people communicating so we all know what we're up to, and try and remind people to communicate stuff to our fans as well (the beleaguered blog, which nobody enjoys updating and I have to bully people into writing for; it turns out actually *doing* things is much more fun than writing about them, and not everyone is that great at blogging. There's more stuff going on than we've got round to documenting properly, we promise...). Oh, and I bust my balls working a day job in an investment bank to pay for the more expensive bits of the project, but hopefully when we get our act together we can start selling merchandise and we can fund our projects with that as well. I guess I do have one contribution to the project which is all my own, that's the jewelry.

I've always been into jewelry making, and steampunk lends itself to this beautifully. I sell them on commission, and they'll be part of the band merchandise sold through the website. Musically, I play one half of the drumkit, which leads me neatly onto...

Jason is the scientist character, and his distinguishing features are being a fantastic drummer, a fantastic photographer, a fantastic website designer and a complete inability to turn up to rehearsals on time. Seriously, once he was 4 hours late! Anyway, I should mention the drumkit now. We have this big tensegrity sculpture with all manner of lumps of metal and triangles and washboards and clocks and random percussion things hanging off it that we hit, shake or kick that's to be played with two people, one on each side. Again, no pictures of the damn thing yet, but we'll have some for you in a couple of weeks when it's finished being painted and stuff. Percussion is a really important component of the sound, so we thought multiple percussionists was very important. In some of the songs we have up to 4 people playing it at once, but generally it's just Jason and I. We've got a film planned where we show it off and do a little percussion jam, haven't got round to it yet because Jason's been in Florida for a while. Photography: he takes damn good pictures, and we managed to put together a bit of a photography studio to use for the band as well. Who knew that a photography studio is basically some lights and a very large piece of paper - you can get a really professional look very easily. Clockwork Quartet coming to a GAP advert near you! Finally together with Patrick he runs the website, which is mysterious magic voodoo to me, but I think it turned out pretty nice in the end. Lots more to do though.

Ash Gardner, The Engineer of Clockwork QuartetAsh Gardner, The Engineer, I've also already mentioned, he records and mixes us and does our live sound along with Jonathan Swain, The Engineer's Apprentice. Mixing is even more mysterious magic voodoo to me than websites, so I can only really refer you to his posts on the blog in which he makes a valiant attempt to describe how to mix in words, which is mostly bizarre gibberish but you have to give him credit for trying. If you've ever played a live gig, you'll know that the guy behind the sound desk is one of the most important people in the room in terms of how well the gig goes aurally, so for me it's crazy that most bands don't include an engineer as part of the line up and just leave it to chance. I not only felt that we should have our own sound engineer (or two), but I really wanted to elevate the role to a more visible representation, equal to the musicians. Now a sound desk isn't the most steampunk looking bit of kit, so now part of the secret for why we have the steamdrone: it's a visual front for where the sounddesk is going to be. It's also got a keyboard, and a monome, and a tenorion, and various other bits of sound equipment, which help produce the environments and sounds that we need, as well as the booming sound of the steamdrone itself.

Dr. Matt Wilkinson, The Doctor of Clockwork QuartetWhew, who else? There's Dr. Matt Wilkinson who plays The Doctor, and who is an actual Doctor of Zoology at Cambridge University. His special skill is being awesome, he does public lectures at The Science Museum and all over the world - one of his research topics is building accurate models of pterodactyl wings to see how they flew! - but in his spare time he performs a lot and plays the musical saw and the oboe, and we're working on some films with him where he talks about Victorian science and dissects things... hmm, have to chase him up about finishing the script for that.

Emma Butterworth is the general's wife, who plays every instrument ever, and she also helps out a lot me with some of the organization and writing press packs and things like that, she's also a talented artist and composer, and she's also writing a Victorian novel I think but nobody has got to see that yet. We've also got this project about filming her talking about various old Victorian shops and landmarks that you can find around London.

The literal quartet, that is Stuart, Maral, Noura and Nadia, mostly concentrate on playing the music, they have their own "Clockwork Quartet actually with just a quartet" musical project that they work on which we'll be recording soon hopefully, sort of an invented style that's a cross between skiffle, gypsy swing and folk. Hugo plays the accordion as the shifty Fugitive character, and he helps with running the rehearsals and musical directing and coaching, and he writes some of the music as well - he's a fantastic musician.

Will, The Lover, he's a professional artist, sculptor and prop maker. He makes, well, all sorts of amazing things.

Notably most of the Steamdrone itself and the Blunderbow, which you might have seen a few pictures of.

He's currently working on a much more powerful, long range version I think...

And the other Will, The Chocolatier, he's working on making a working clock... made out of chocolate...

Chocolatier Will doesn't play an instrument, but trust me, when you come to one of our gigs, you'll understand why it's a good thing to have a chocolatier in a band!!

The Steamdrone is a popular attraction on the blog. Who brought that monster to life and can it actually be controlled long enough to create music? Any attempts to perform The Ballet Mécanique yet?

The Steamdrone and The Clockwork Quartet
Photo (c) Bizarre Magazine

Ed, The Magician - It was a double team of Will and Joe, together these guys make most of our larger stuff. It was originally going to be acoustic, but... well, the real story is that Bizarre Magazine called us up and said "Hey, we want to do a big feature on you, can you do a photoshoot in 3 weeks?" and so I told Will to drop that idea and just get something finished that looked good for the shoot! Making an acoustic steam organ that sounds good and abides within health and safety guidelines and also looks stimulating takes some serious design and engineering! It's something that we've still got our eyes on though, definitely - in principle, it's not very complex, it's just a giant whistling kettle! but it's not something to try and cram into three weeks...

All of The Clockwork Quartet members seem to possess an incredible taste in fashion. Do you have a favorite shop or tailor you all frequent, or is it every man for himself when picture day comes around?

Ed, The Magician - I gotta raise my hand here. I designed most of the costumes; Most of the male members of the cast are in fact just wearing clothes that I already owned. For the quartet and the girls, I worked with a friend of mine who is a fashion and costume designer to come up with and implement some designs. A few of the cast members dress steampunkily on occasion in their everyday lives... The Lover, The General's Wife, The Chocolatier... but somehow not everyone is quite wired up the way to express their style in their clothing :)

Tell us about the music. All of your songs are expertly crafted stories first and foremost. Where does the idea begin and what does it take to get it from your brain to our headphones?

Ed, The Magician - My writer friends have always told me, you don't start with a plot and jam in a character, you start with a character and work out what they'd do. I remember the idea of characters came very early on - the idea of characters as strong steampunk stereotypes. You need a mad scientist, and a fop, and so on.

The only story which sprang out fully finished was Patrick's The Watchmaker's Apprentice, actually - we were discussing some ideas very early on, and he rang me up the next day and said "hey - I wrote a song - see if you like it" and that version was barely changed from what we finally recorded. Other stories we throw back and forth a few times, but usually we're pretty sure of the underlying themes we want to address, and the tone of the piece, and somehow once these are set a lot falls into place.

Steampunk is a genre that's very rich for story writing, because it's actually a very prescriptive aesthetic - people behave like so, technology is at a certain level, society accepts or rejects as it does - but, perhaps since it has its roots in a science fiction-ish realm, it has an unlimited tolerance for rulebreaking, so if you want your society to be a bit more modern or your technology to allow teleportation or whatever, you can do this but still leaving your world remarkably intact and intuitive because most things are very clearly defined. It's worth noting that compared to most steampunk we don't really mess with fantastic technology very much... for me, the effect that technology has on people is more about hope, the dream of what it may one day allow. We become accustomed to changes in our world so quickly that the real, incremental march of progress barely makes us blink as it passes under our nose.

Patrick, The Conductor - At the very beginning we started planning what the songs would be and how they would fit into the framework of the live show, long before we came to start writing the music and lyrics. I spend much of the second half of 2008 going to Ed's house to meet up with him and Hugo to discuss characters and story arcs within and between songs, the themes we wanted to play with and the moods we wanted to portray, as well as tinkering round with instruments and sharing musical ideas. I ended up writing most of the music and lyrics, and everything I wrote would go through I process of discussion, criticism and re-working. It really helped to have as many meetings as we did, because it meant we were all on the same page in terms of what we wanted to achieve. Likewise having Ash (who's producing all of our recordings in his studio) around a lot - he's Ed's downstairs neighbor - meant that by the time we first hit the studio in January he already knew what he wanted the finished recordings to sound like, and we knew we could trust his judgment.

We've heard The Watchmaker's Apprentice and The Doctor's Wife. Is there more on the way?

Ed, The Magician - Yes, yes, yes, definitely - we're working on putting on a great live show in October, but we'll be back in the studio after that, and we hope to have a full album done in the first half of 2010. All creative commons, all free.

Patrick, The Conductor - The first album and the live show will centre around 13 songs, six of which we have already started recording. Each of the characters will have more than one song, so once the whole thing is put together you'll hopefully be able to hear a whole string of interwoven narratives. And that's just the first album.

Who came up with The Book Of Sand idea and what do you see it evolving into?

Ed, The Magician - That was a little idea I had sometime last year. I am very interested in communication design and user interface - I think this is still an area where we have a great deal to discover as a species. Talking isn't the most natural way to communicate - it's slow, it's hard to keep track of long conversations, easy to get off topic, if lots of people are doing it you often interrupt each other or have to wait a long time to talk, and without technology it's hard to talk to many people at once, or people who are far away. But we're no longer limited by our mouths.

We can use all sorts of varied methods of communication - chatrooms, twitter, mobiles, email, etc - all of which address some of these issues but present their own problems. We've swung one way now, people are now so connected and enabled to the point where you often are sent more text than you care to read (ahem), which means that inboxes fill up alarmingly or things just feel overwhelming and fidelity is lost due to data overload. Twitter was the first step the other way. Force the writer to be concise. Very concise. This way a reader can take in a lot more than if everyone were going around writing whole essays about everything.

But if you do have a complex point to present, it's not really possible in this format. I also find that it's slanted heavily towards users talking about themselves - it's presented as "what is on your mind right now?" or whatever, which means that a lot of things get posted, but the I think most interesting discussions center around a topic rather than a person...

Book Of Sand is my stab at answering the question "how can a million people have a conversation?". I think we don't realize it but this is one of the biggest questions that we're tackling as a species at the moment. Now that all technological barriers are taken away, how can we communicate effectively with our governments? How can we find like minded people now that popular culture is shattered into a million pieces ? How can we organize information effectively without imposed ontologies?

Book of Sand allows anyone to butt in at any point in any conversation with what they want to say without interrupting. Book of Sand allows you to follow any thread in any conversation without getting sidetracked or off topic. The speaker speaks to his heart's content, and the listener follows the thread of most interest. Book of Sand forces you to be concise not only in words, but also in structure. If you like, the temporal aspect of any discussion can be removed entirely, unlike in (say) a chatroom - an active, bustling Book of Sand is used the same as an empty one - you follow threads, and reply to things you find interesting.

If you find something interesting, that means you care about replies to it, which is bookmarking or hearting it. You can then filter everything by how much people have hearted it, and so see all of the threads that people have found most exciting: content is thus automatically ranked by other users. Or, alternatively, you can filter to see which things are newest, put the temporal aspect right back in and see what people are talking about right now. It quite excites me the possibilities that this tool suggests - it's quite bewildering to use at first, but only because we're not used to communicating in such an open ended way.

Er, yes, so, we needed some testers, and so I thought, well, the website doesn't have a forum, why don't we use The Book Of Sand as a forum and see what they make of it? If they're fans of ours they must be hugely intelligent and interesting, so it seems like an ideal testing ground. I am going to start up a non-clockwork quartet incarnation of it and try and get that to take off as a more neutral thing, but the problem with those is - how do you seed them in the first place? Very difficult question.

Patrick knocked this version together in PHP for me, anyway, and I think he did a pretty good job! We'll see what happens when we have 100 people all using it at the same time, but seems to be working just fine so far!

Patrick, The Conductor - I used what little coding experience I have to write the thing. I think it'll be interesting to see how people use it, and hopefully we'll in turn use that to decide how to develop it. There's already a shopping list the length of my arm of new features we want to add, and one section of the Book is devoted to allowing users to make suggestions themselves.

You call yourself The Magician. What's your favorite trick to pull?

Ed, The Magician - Aha, well. I like to think I am called The Magician because without me - no magic! Really it's because of the stories that I wrote for myself, that I wanted to sing. I always get the feeling that a lot of what people do is just smoke and mirrors, snake oil, and when you master a profession, it's never quite as magical as it seems from the outside, but is just presented as arcane knowledge - it's the ultimate disappointment for anyone enraptured by a skill who devotes time to mastering it. This sort of thing will soon cease to exist as the internet improves and the value of knowledge falls and falls. Magic is surprising though - as a profession, it's the exact opposite! Everyone knows the tricks aren't real, but the skill is in how to present them, like a marketing company whose only job is to market itself! Such a strange concept. To get the full story behind my name though, you'll just have to wait to hear the songs for yourself. I have been learning some magic for the show, and I've done some related things in my time.. I used to do a lot of fire breathing and fire eating and that sort of thing, and I've done a fair bit of this too.

Patrick, The Conductor - Personally I think Ed's greatest trick is getting 20 performers and musicians in a room together with costumes and instruments for more than 30 seconds for photoshoots and rehearsals without pandemonium breaking out.

Let's talk about your work under the Creative Commons license. This is a really bold step for what is seen as a starting band. What inspired this choice and how do you see it benefiting the Quartet in the long run?

Ed, The Magician - The tide is turning. The zeitgeist is beginning to slip towards the conclusion that copyright law / intellectual property is fundamentally broken in a society that creates value by manipulating information. Nobody should pay you for the things you have done in the past, only for the things that you have the potential to do in the future. If our fans value us as musicians and want us to continue creating work, they will provide for us. If they don't, well, perhaps we ought to be doing something else?

Is The Clockwork Quartet the only outlet you use to dirty your hands? I've been reading your blog, www.originalcontentlondon.com, and it looks like you have a ton of projects going on right now.

Ed, The Magician - Somehow I don't understand what other people do for fun, I've always spent my time putting together artistic projects. Entertainment is easy to create, you just think of something you'd enjoy, and then you make it! And, as I mentioned earlier, things are getting cheaper and cheaper to do, it just comes down to being able to make choices about what you want to create. Some things I've done:

I founded and ran a pyrotechnics performance company a while back, that's still going on strong.

I ran large monthly art jam events for a while, which were designed for creative people to get together and prototype ideas. These still happen occasionally, although I don't organize them myself anymore.

I'm in another band which is run by Ash (The Engineer) called House of Strange, which is at least as interesting and multifaceted as Clockwork Quartet, though the style is about as far from Steampunk as you can get.

There are a few film projects that have happened as well, and I'm always helping out with other peoples' things too... most of the ideas I've been having lately we've managed to shoehorn into Steampunk recently though! We've got this plan to make a medium sized hot air balloon...

Patrick, The Conductor - I think what's nice about the Clockwork Quartet is that everyone involved is also involved in countless other projects, be it music, theatre, art or whatever. It means that everyone comes at it with different perspectives and experiences, and we're not just floating around inside a big steampunk bubble. But equally the breadth of what Clockwork Quartet covers means that it allows people to try all sorts of things.

What can we do to help get the word out about The Clockwork Quartet?

Patrick, The Conductor - Just point people at our website - hopefully the songs, photos etc will do the rest.

Any message for your fans before we sign off?

Patrick, The Conductor - Yes! Everything we produce we release under a creative commons license. We've already seen some fantastic fan art, some of which we're putting up on our own site, and we'd love it if people were to take what we've done so far and remix it, play with it, and show us what they come up with.

Ed, The Magician - "If you wish to build a boat, don't gather men and command them to build, instead teach them to yearn for a vast and endless sea..."

Thank you to Ed Saperia, The Magician & Patrick Gleeson, The Conductor of Clockwork Quartet for helping with this week's ICONS OF STEAMPUNK interview.

You can also read Ed's writings at the Clockwork Quartet website, the Clockwork Quartet Facebook page, on Twitter, and on Ed's blog.

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