Dieselpunk + Steampunk Culture

Interview with Mark Rossmore of Escape the Clouds

Mark Rossmore of Escape the Clouds

Escape the Clouds is the steampunk brainchild of author/musician Mark Rossmore. Taking us on a Verne-inspired journey to rescue lost love, Escape the Clouds' latest album Circumnavigator is now available for download on the web. To tell us all about the project and his inspiration for adventure is the genious himself, Mark Rossmore.

I'd like to hear a little bit about where you grew up, and what kind of things interested you as a child. We all come from different backgrounds and different families, and it's always fascinating to see how that shapes us as adults.

Indeed! We're all a product of our pasts. I come from the urban melting pot that is Miami, FL. I'm a Cuban-American - even though I don't look at all like one - and my day job is as an air traffic controller in Pensacola, FL.

Wherever I am, I'm usually thinking about making something. I've always been interested in art, reading, writing, and building things. I remember being in the 2nd grade and writing Transformers fan fiction at school and drawing scenes to go with it, then going home and building Lego versions of my favorite Autobots. I always viewed words and visuals as interrelated.

The one thing missing in my early years was music. My parents are wonderful people, but their music tastes were limited to easy listening, classic pop - not rock - and lots of show tunes. I never listened to the radio much. I didn't really watch MTV. I was pretty backwards musically.

In my high school senior year a guitar-playing friend offered me a bass and an amp. I learned a few grunge songs, started listening to a LOT more music, and figured out what I liked. We soon had a singer and a drummer, and actually started writing our own alternative rock songs and gigging throughout South Florida. I also worked on different music projects with other friends, starting up two different two-person industrial bands where I took on guitar, bass, and synth programming duties while my friends would sing and play guitar.

In the space of only a few years, I went from having never picked up an instrument to never wanting to stop playing. It was like taking someone who'd only eaten bread and water all their life and dropping them inside an all-you-can-eat buffet. I'd gone from being vaguely aware of that noise in the background in cars to devouring every style of music you can imagine, and examining it to see how it was made. Being in Miami helped to broaden my perspectives, as there is such a cross-section of culture there. I sought out sounds beyond the standard guitar, bass, and drums.

Eventually, my musical projects parted ways. I started my career as a multimedia designer, married a wonderful woman, and finished my BFA degree (in that order). I honed my visual arts skills, and on the side kept up with my music making. I worked in theatre and video production as well. I love the creative process, no matter the medium.

Fast forward a decade. Unfortunately, designing full-time for a living had burnt me out and turned the things I loved doing into a mere job. I needed a change.

With both of my parents in the airlines, I'd grown up around aviation. I reacquainted myself with my passion for flight, got my pilot's license, and started a new career as an air traffic controller. Now I work within one interest while being able to do everything else - writing, videos, music - just for the love of doing it.

Currently I'm writing more music than I ever did before. For the first time in my life, I'm feeling confident enough to put it out there and let others have a listen. I'm completely self-taught, but through plenty of trial and error I've learned to take the musical ideas from my head and execute them. I view my studio as my main instrument.

In 2008, I realized that many of the concepts and sounds I was working on fell under the umbrella of steampunk. I'd already been mixing genres and tones for years. Now I had a thematic purpose behind doing so. From there I began a shift away from the more traditional industrial sound on my first CD Bring the Rain to the more global sound you hear on Circumnavigator.

Let's jump into the world of Circumnavigator. What you've done goes far beyond a basic concept album. Your artwork and accompanying fiction show the framework of a very detailed setting that I'm sure didn't just pop up for this one album. Tell us about what you built and how it all started.

You're absolutely correct. It's a world that I've been working on since mid 2009.

The story behind the novel was born during National Novel Writing Month, the annual writing competition that urges you to write a 50,000 word novel in the space of November's 30 days. It's ridiculously crazy and a lot of fun. I actually won my first attempt in 2008.

2009 saw me taking on NaNoWriMo again, but I didn't quite make it past 36,000 words due to work and usual life issues that preclude someone from cranking out nearly 1,800 words a day. However, the steampunk-inspired world I created in that unfinished novel set the stage for Circumnavigator. It's an alternate version of the late 19th century where nations wage war and dominate each other more through economics than via actual combat. Resources are king, not muscle. The novel is a revenge tale set aboard a cargo airship caught in the middle of one of these economic wars.

Three of the songs off the album - "Captain Morena", "Ritmo Hidrogeno," and "Above the Overcast" - are directly inspired by scenes within that novel.

It's funny. The album inadvertently became a way for me to tie a lot of my writing pieces together. It's no Lovecraftian Cthulhu mythos, but I've always liked stories that interconnect in some fashion. I looked at the Adventurer's journey and saw places where I could intertwine his voyage with other ideas I had been developing. For instance, the journal entry for "The Undead Approach" is an origin story for a new dieselpunk novella I'm writing. Then there's "Hunting the Future" - a soundtrack for the 2-part novella of the same title that was published in Steampunk Tales #2 and #3. That song's journal entry features a guest appearance by one of the characters from the novella.

Whether the antagonist is fate, nature, or the hero himself, a good story is only as good as its star. Who is the star of Circumnavigator, and what is his role in the world?

He is the nameless Adventurer, a noble explorer whose lust for the unknown both brought him renown and became his personal downfall. He may have climbed the highest of mountains, made his name in the armed forces, built the fastest airships the world had ever seen, and filled a room with air race trophies, but in doing so he neglected the one person who really cared for him. Now he's on a journey to save her aboard his airship, the HMS Seraphim.

Was the story born from the journeys of this man, or is he simply one person in a world you have yet to fully describe to your audience?

His journey is just one plot within that world. His tale spans only about a month, whereas the novel that created the setting takes place over years.

Let's go back to Escape the Clouds as a project. Would you consider this to be your band (with other musicians who might rotate in and out), your solo career as a musician, a single project, or a brand for something larger like a continuation of Circumnavigator?

At the moment, I'd consider it my solo music career. Still, one never knows what the future will bring!

My door is very much open to collaboration. Circumnavigator already has one collaborative song - "Away" - whose lyrics and vocals were created by a talented young woman named Amanda Massingale. She and I have talked about collaborating even further. I'm also working on another song at the moment with an old friend and terrific songwriter named Ken-Ali. It's a remake of a song we wrote over a decade ago, but it's been revamped with all new arrangements.

Whether it's a favorite keyboard, a finicky program that loves to crash just as you're saving your magnum opus, or just an old violin you can never keep in tune no matter how much peg dope you drown it in, everyone keeps something truly personal to them in their studio. It's what makes it a familiar place to work and not just another room. Tell us a bit about your studio set up.

Musical instruments hold a very sentimental power over me, as I associate them with the places I acquired them and the people with which I've played them. Wherever I go I'm always on the hunt for things that make noise. The collection stands currently at about three dozen from places as disparate as New Orleans, the Netherlands Antilles, and Honduras. There's wind, percussion, and other odds and ends in there, like the Hohner melodica I played on "Captain Morena" and the zils I used on "The Adventurer" and "Ten Thousand Miles."

My favorite instruments are the handmade buckskin drum, shaker, and flute which I bought from a Native American artisan while I was out in Oklahoma City. You can hear them throughout the Native American sections of "Hunting the Future". When it comes to effects units, my favorite "secret weapon" is my Korg G5. It's a long-discontinued bass guitar synth processor that sounds badass when you run a regular guitar through it. The guitar tone on "The Adventurer" is a combination of the G5 and a fuzz distortion.

Gear-wise, I run Cakewalk Sonar as my main DAW with a bunch of VST plug-ins and monitor through a pair of Tannoy Reveal Actives. My main audio interface is an M-Audio Ozone and I use a Roland XP-50 as a controller. When I'm on the road, I use an Acer laptop, a Yamaha Audiogram-3 interface, an Akai LPD8 pad controller, and an Akai LPK25 mini-keyboard. I highly recommend the latter two over the Korg Nanokey/Pad/Control products, as they're just much more robust and playable. Vocals and acoustic instruments are recorded using an AKG C1000 mic.

My most amusing piece of gear is what I call "The world's smallest drumkit". It's a six pad Roland SPD-6 drum controller with a pair of keyboard pedals serving as the kick and hihat pedals. It's no Roland V-Drum kit, but it's great for playing drum sequences. I used it to record many of the drum tracks on the album. And, it's ultra portable! I used to take it to work. My coworkers and I would jam in one of the empty offices when were on break... (shhh!)

Sure, we all get by, and anyone can pluck an idea from their brain to shove in someone else's ears for a minute, but it takes dedication to make it stick there. What type of music inspires you today? For example, is there an artist who still mystifies and drives you to become an even better musician?

I just listen to all kinds of music from many genres and cultures. As an example, here's my playlist from my drive to work this morning: "O...Saya" from the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack, "Hurricane" by 30 Seconds to Mars, "Barra Barra" by Rachid Taha, "The Hindenburg Disaster" by Two Man Gentleman Band, "Flowers" by taiko drumming group Bonten, and "Lizaveta" - a Soviet soldier's song from WWII. I'm all over the place.

That said, there are a few artists that I consistently turn to for inspiration.

Yoko Kanno looks like she could play Kagome's unassuming mom in InuYasha, but creates these epic film scores and individual songs that are just phenomenal. Her work includes Ghost in the Shell: SAC, Macross, and Cowboy Bebop. She arranges and mixes so many genres -rock, jazz, electronica, funk, hell… anything!- and makes it all work. Her song "Rise" from Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig is one of my favorite get-up-and-go songs.

NIN's Trent Reznor has long been one of my audio idols. I may not like every single song he produces, but I admire the process and attention to detail he pays to each single note and synthesizer squelch. Listening to his music always puts me in a quandary, as I'm not sure whether to analyze it and think, "What effects or techniques did he use to make that guitar/synth/drum sound like that?" or rock out and scream along at the top of my lungs. He's inspired me to experiment, push the boundaries of how an instrument should sound, and explore how it could sound. He's also shown me that being a vocalist is not always about numbers of octaves and perfect pitch, but whether or not what you do fits the emotion of the music.

Also in heavy rotation on my MP3 player lately is Asian Dub Foundation. They've been around since the mid-90's, but I only found out about them a couple years ago. Their sound is a high energy mix of breakbeats, ragga, punk, hip-hop, and ethnic music, rounded out with fluid basslines and searing guitar work. Lyrically, they're as politically charged as Rage Against the Machine, but incorporate sounds from around the world. From the first time I heard their song "Fortress Europe" I was hooked.

I overall like bands with a message bigger than themselves, artists that comment on the world around them in a way intended to illuminate and make things better. K'Naan. Rachid Taha. Michael Franti and Spearhead. I'm also a fan of storyteller songwriters.

What about literature? Your work contains an ongoing story in an epic world, and I'm sure you have a favorite author that inspires you to pick up the pen.

As with music, I tend to be all over the place. I turn to different authors for different reasons, and I generally prefer stories that aren't set in a place that's familiar to me. I like to be taken somewhere new every time I open a book.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is an inspiration to me. Khaled Hosseini's prose is so very beautiful and poetic, even when it's painting the most horrific of situations. Inside the minds of a pair of Afghani women is a very alien place to be for most people, and he puts you right in there, drawing everything they see and making you experience what they feel with perfectly chosen words.

I read Richard K. Morgan's sci-fi for his flawed protagonists and visceral writing. I also just finished S. Thomas Russell's Under Enemy Colors, an action-packed and thorough look at tactics, politics, and life on the sea in the age of sail. I generally prefer tighter stories and plotting, and writers who are able to describe with just a few powerful words instead of paragraph after paragraph of exposition. Jacqueline's Carey's Santa Olivia is a recent favorite of mine, a character-driven take on genetic engineering that features one of my favorite physical character descriptions: "General Argyle was there, a middle-aged man with a face like a knotted fist." So simple... but can't you just picture that?

I love short story anthologies, as you get to experience so many styles and perspectives in a short period of time. I often approach new songs like they were flash fiction stories, a method which you can hear in "Captain Morena" and "In Your Sleep."

I also read piles of history books, either for research or pleasure. Anton Beevor. Howard Zinn. Stephen Ambrose. When folks ask me, "How can you read all that history stuff? Isn't it boring?" I say: where else can you find as much drama, action, heroism, romance, evil, horror, or humor than in the study of human history?

Speaking of drive, your promotional work is certainly building steam. Since bringing Circumnavigator to life, where have you taken it and do you have any good road stories to share with Dieselpunks?

Most of my promotion work is online, but nothing beats meeting people face to face. I went to DragonCon this year and worked the con with a satchel full of CDs and flyers. I actually made a few out-of-bag sales of the album. It was weird for me, as I've never done the one-man "street team" thing before.

I did have a funny moment there. At the Ghosts Project gig (see them live, they are awesome!) there were three dancers who were backing the band. I was taking pics and enjoying the performance. Later that afternoon, I received a Facebook message from an Escape the Clouds fan saying that she heard I was there and wanted to meet up if possible. I looked up her profile, and - lo and behold - it was one of the dancers from the Ghosts Project show! We'd been fifteen feet away from each other and had no idea of the musical connection. Unfortunately, despite our efforts, our paths weren't fated to cross again during the craziness of the Con. However, we've stayed in touch via Facebook.

That brings up a pleasant surprise: one thing that's been outstanding is the response from the tribal and belly dance community. I've had quite a few dancers from around the country tell me that they love dancing to Escape the Clouds. One lovely lady from South Florida is actually choreographing a solo piece to one of the songs from Bring the Rain. I feel so lucky and inspired to know the music I've created is making people move and dance. That's one big warm, fuzzy feeling.

If we don't see you on the road, what's the best way to hear your music and promote your work?

The quickest path to our music is the Escape the Clouds BandCamp site: http://escapetheclouds.bandcamp.com. Both Circumnavigator and the older all-instrumental album Bring the Rain are on there in digital format.

I also have a full website up at www.EscapeTheClouds.com with the music, stories, videos, and more background info. It's also got a neat interactive map of the Seraphim's voyage around the world. Also on there is the video I made called "Every Storm has an End" - a promo I made telling the story of Circumnavigator and featuring the track "Above the Overcast."

Word of mouth is the best promotional tool. Just tell your friends, even drop a link to the BandCamp site on your Facebook. And don't forget to "Like" away. I keep the EtC Facebook page updated with the latest bits and comments. Drop by and say hi anytime. I'm usually quick to respond.

Is there anything special your fans at Dieselpunks can do to help?

There are so many fantastic artists out there creating steampunk and dieselpunk music. Most are independent bands without a huge promotion budget.

That's where the fans come in. They have so much power. If you like a band, post a link to their work on your Facebook, Twitter, or MySpace. A single link on a social networking site can be posted, shared, and commented upon by thousands of people. Great music deserves a great audience and you can help make a band a success. It's a confidence thing, because people naturally listen more to their friend's suggestions than to some 3rd party ad.

One of the best places to find some unique acts is GildedAgeRecords.com. The bands Joshua Pfeiffer and Evelyn Kriete have compiled encompass an entire spectrum of sound. There is literally something for everyone on there. I've spent hours and hours going through the roster, finding some new take on the steampunk / dieselpunk genre at every turn.

I'd like to thank you for the excellent questions. I hope I was able to illustrate the album's concept and give your readers some good background on myself and the project. You've got a great site here at Dieselpunks and I'm honored to be included on it. Your site alone has certainly introduced me to many new artists. Thanks for doing what you guys do.

Thank you, Mark!

If you would like to hear more from Mark and Escape the Clouds, visit the website at www.EscapeTheClouds.com

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