The band Marquis of Vaudeville has a strong following in the North Texas steampunk community as well as having received positive attention and review on the national level. In this interview Toby Lawhon, lead singer for the band, discusses steampunk as a genre as well as what it's like being an independent band.
While you don’t use the word Steampunk on your web site your band certainly seems to have what one might call a Steampunk look to it. Would you feel comfortable being labeled a “steampunk band”?
Typically musical artists aren’t interested in having their music being “labeled” this or that. However, we understand that it is human nature to label in order to identify. If that means a person labels our music, or band as something to which they more closely relate or identify with more easily, then so be it. We will gladly be whatever they wish. We don’t like to spoon feed people with what we create. We want those who listen to interpret and to get what they want out of the music without being coerced into how to feel or what it should mean to them. That is why I generally write lyrics that tend to be more cryptic or obscure, yet all the while, telling a story. I want the listener to get what they need personally from the song. I think it is important to allow others that freedom rather than to tell them how they should view or what an artist intended before said others have been given the chance to make up their own minds. So to answer your question, we’ve not specifically listed ourselves as “Steampunk” because there are those who envision us as many different genres, some goth, some a revived 70’s glam, some hear a modern twist on 60’s psychedelic in what we do, although I still like the reference as one fan put it “psychedelic, progressive, punk cabaret.” Yes, we enjoy steampunk and neo-victorian aesthetics, have a spacey yet turn-of-the-century feel to many of the songs, are heavily into the steampunk scene, and we do consider ourselves to be a part of the musical steampunk world, but we’ll allow such a branding to be entirely up to the individual listening. Besides, how utterly unpunk it would undoubtedly be to tell people what to think or how to feel. ;) Ultimately, I think that, as an artist, it is not so much of a detriment to labeled by others, but to label one’s self can be a terribly stifling and limiting thing to do.
I know that many of your fans are steampunks and that at least some of your members participate in steampunk events. For those involved in the genre what does “steampunk” mean to you?
Steampunk, or any “punk” culture for that matter, means liberty, freedom for any individual, of expression, of invention, to be whatever, or whomever, they wish to be. It is independence, and liberation from the majority of society’s dependency on big business, on corrupt corporations and politicians. It is nonconformity, and individuality. At it’s core, I feel, lies imagination; the key element of any dreamer, which is the driving force behind what we do as a musical act. We began writing our music with the inkling that imagination and fantastical escape for the listener would be the overall inspiration behind its composition, and we continue to strive for that imaginative essence in all that we do.
Toby and Bryan, at your web site you’re described as growing up “together in the middle of nowhere Texas.” Would you and your band like to tell our readers more about yourselves?
We’re more of a mysterious lot, you understand. We revel in intrigue and the esoteric. What is most important is not who we are, but the underlying and innate message that lies behind all that we do, and we dare people to discover it.
For an independent band that’s so new you have a very sophisticated sound. Amanda Palmer of The Dresden Dolls described your music as “Space-age modern-age glam nostalgia" while the editor of Spin magazine, Doug Brod, praised your music as “Very Impressive.” How do you achieve such high quality to your music?
Our entire endeavor has been approached with an independent sense of mind, yet we don’t feel that this should mean that we have to record with out-of-tune guitars or end up with recording quality that sounds as though we tracked live in a garage with a washing machine going under a humming florescent light. Everything we record, we track and produce independently for ourselves in our own studio. The quality comes through because we know music, it’s as simple as that, and we know what elements must be present in order to write a good song. We’ve all been fairly successful with previous other projects within the music scene, and I believe a good deal of that aforementioned quality also comes from each member being a learned, well rounded musician with an excellent sense of all aspects of musical composition and sound production. On top of that, we never settle for “substandard”, and we don’t believe in “filler”. I’m sure we’ve all had that disappointment of purchasing or listening to an album, and there being only one incredible song. How utterly dissatisfying. The rest of the album doesn’t have the same luster, the same glimmer or gleam as that one gem. For what we do, we feel that every song should incite something genuine & relative in people’s lives. The music should inspire sincere emotion, in whatever form that might manifest for any individual. Each composition must be unique, with strong melody. A potential song must have a certain intriguing element to all of its parts and components. If a certain aspect is not up to par, then we simply put it aside until we find the right piece. Writing music is much like imagining a puzzle and then piecing it all together in your mind.
One might call the style of dress of your band member’s neo-Victorian. Wearing all of those layers of clothing has to be a challenge for you when you’re performing on-stage with the lights and the activity. Would you like to share with our readers what it’s like performing under such conditions?
Being based under the Southern sun within the Texas heat does tend to make our endeavors quite a trial in resolution and resilience at times, especially due to the extravagant magnitude of our variety events. Most musical acts show up an hour or so before a show, but when we host our spectacles & soirees, we typically get into the club first thing in the morning and are there preparing ceaselessly until it is time to perform that evening. We expect to create a certain sense of grandiosity for our attendees so we decorate each venue with props and other adornment for a more accessible escape from reality. Then we encourage our patrons to dress as extravagantly and expressively as they will. If the heat is stifling, it makes this all the more difficult, especially when it is time to step upon the stage dressed to the nines and perform under the hot lights.
I would like bring special attention to the opening lyrics from your song, "Wildflowers":
There's a place for you, There's a place for me, but it's up to us now. We can do what we wish, We can be what we dream, We've just got to somehow.
It appears to me that these lyrics seem very applicable for those of us who consider ourselves “lifestylers”, which I consider myself to be one. By lifestyler I mean that our specific genre-punk, whether it’s dieselpunk, steampunk or some other, is in many ways a subculture or alternative lifestyle. Toby, I understand you wrote the lyrics to Wildflowers, along with most of the music for your band. What do you find to be your inspiration for your lyrics? How much of you do we hear when we listen to your music?
A great deal. What you hear within the music is a significant part of who I am. As a child, all I ever wanted to do was find a portal to a magical world, and it’s no secret to those who truly know me that I still want the same. The music is infused with this wish. I’ve heard it said at times that “an artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them” which is a phrase Oscar Wilde penned one of his characters as saying in The Picture of Dorian Gray. This, I believe, was a contradiction of Wilde’s own true beliefs. I feel that he was merely looking at his own creative endeavors from another angle, or opposing perspective, for what would the essence of a piece of art be if the creator did not leave at least a minuscule fragment of him or herself within the creation? If Wilde’s quote were truly the case, I feel that art would be void, and hollow, and would have no true substance. If self expression was not a factor within art, the world would be uninteresting and vapid, life would be insipid, there would be no diversity, and all creations would be purely practical, perhaps propaganda or an advertisement. I would never want to exist in such a world.
You’ve released a CD with the look of a vinyl record. Was this appearance purely an artistic decision, were you making a statement about the modern music industry or was the motivation something else?
It was merely an artistic decision that tied the whole of our old-world ambiance into a nice neat little package.
Where might our readers catch you in concert? Are there specific venues that you often play at?
One might catch us at any venue within the Dallas/Ft. Worth area perhaps. We are also currently in correspondence with several conventions, expositions, circuses, and festivals around the globe concerning potential performances, those such as Anachrocon out of Atlanta, or Emerald City Steampunk Exposition, which is held in Kansas. If you’d like for us to appear or perform at your local event, then merely contact the event organizers/programming and express your immense interest in seeing us perform. The best place to obtain show information at this time would be to search for Marquis of Vaudeville on facebook or myspace.
What projects are you currently working on and can we expect another CD soon?
There are so many developments swirling about the band at this time. We’re currently planning a steampunk wonderland themed mini-con that we will be hosting here in the Dallas area. We’re focusing on January, 2011 tentatively. That’s an event for which to definitely keep an eye out. We are also in the process of recording a new EP, to be released in early 2011, containing songs with titles such as The Bones of Knowright Lane, The Wild Lost, Wicked Luck, The Pitch and the Paling, and Utopian Playland. We’re very excited about this album. It will have content ranging from vampires, to mysterious whimsical circuses, plundering gentleman highwaymen, intriguing labyrinthine understreets, and mad scientist toymakers, to name but a bit. Another exciting work in progress is our dotcom. Aimee Stewart of Foxfires art, who creates beyond beautiful pieces and who has worked on artwork for Abney Park in the past, is creating the images for the page. We plan on our website being quite wonderfully interactive, and just as with the artwork of Edward Gorey or Tim Burton, a somewhat dark, yet playful, journey, immersing visitors into our imaginative world.
What can Dieselpunks do to help spread the word about Marquis of Vaudeville?
By merely listening to the music, and if one enjoys what it is that they hear, then by simply telling others about Marquis of Vaudeville. Post links on Facebook, MySpace, or other social networking sites. Speak with friends, familiars, strangers, and strange ones alike who share similar musical tastes. Tell them what Marquis of Vaudeville is about and encourage them to look us up and to simply listen.
To hear more of the music of Marquis of Vaudeville you can visit "Marquis of Vaudeville Albums" on MySpace here.