Saturday, June 19, 2010

the clockwork quartet: steaming into a computer screen near you

A scientist, a magician, a fugitive, a lover, a general’s wife, and a doctor walk into a train carriage on their way from London to Nottingham. There they meet a raconteuse, a violinist, a cellist, a guitarist, a bass banjolier, a conductor, a chocolatier and an engineer. Seeing that they have a six hour journey together and always looking for a good story, the raconteuse begins to question the trio about their backgrounds. The result?

Either the punch line of a really bad joke or the creation of The Clockwork Quartet, a musical steampunk phenomenon that has been making inroads in the London music scene for the past year.
Copyright Naomi Christie.  Used with Permission from The Clockwork Quartet
In February I had the opportunity to sit down with four members of the Quartet— Hannah Ballou (The Raconteuse), Ed Saperia (The Magician), Emma Butterworth (The General’s Wife) and Jason Griffiths (The Scientist) to discuss their work. Since I live in Pittsburgh and they’re all the way across the Pond in London, we established an interview via webcam.

Despite some technical difficulties on my part (never, EVER depend on a cheap $8 microphone from Wal-Mart for internet conversations), the picture comes out clear and we are able to interact as well as anyone can do with a webcam and bubbly personalities to show off, as the members who met with me certainly are.

As we exchange introductions I notice the four band members are sitting on a sofa in what looks to be someone’s apartment. The gray afternoon light of a cold February day comes in through a window behind the band members, outlining them in a sort of halo-like glow. Ballou and Griffiths are wearing relatively normal, modern 21st century clothing. Saperia and Butterworth, however, display red marching band jackets with gold frogging.

LB: So how did the idea for The Clockwork Quartet begin?

Saperia: Steampunk has been coming on for a while, and I had always been into it before I knew the name, with the general style and the look and the clothes and whatnot… But the music was awful, rather subpar. We thought we could do something about that. I live next door to the Engineer, who has a recording studio, and we started up. By this time last year we had recorded two singles. We met Patrick [Gleeson], The Conductor, and he was really looking to write a steampunk musical. So we decided to join forces and it went pretty well… We had originally planned to release a few singles every month. But we didn’t realize how long things took. So we did the first two and then nothing for six months. [Laughs] Actually, we did the first two and then found out that we just couldn’t keep up with that type of recording schedule.

Ballou: And we were also working on our live show.

Saperia: We got distracted with doing our live show, which happened in October. That took a good six months to put together.

LB: How many people are in the band, exactly?

Saperia: It kind of depends on where you stop counting. Let’s see… nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen…

Ballou: Thirteen on stage. Then there are many others. There is The Engineer’s Apprentice, who does sound, The Puppeteer, and so many others who are in non-stage roles. A production manager, stuff like that. It feels more like a theater production when you actually do it.

LB: What was the live show like?

Butterworth: The audience walked into a venue called The Horse Hospital, in Russell Square, which was an old Victorian horse hospital. There are blood stains on the floor, cobblestone, et cetera, and they were greeted by a bar where they could drink absinthe and port and tea, and eat hand-crafted truffles made by our Chocolatier, Will Sprunt. And so it was quite atmospheric, most of our audience came steampunked-out. The stage was transformed into a set with vintage luggage. The Streamdrone figured prominently. The train left the station, we mingled, and they went on a sort of journey with us.

Ballou: Myself, as The Raconteuse, was a sort of storyteller for the evening. I introduced all of the characters I had met on the train via song… It was a rousing success.

Saperia: We played three nights in a row, and sold out all nights in advance.

LB: Have you planned any more shows? Or an album?

Saperia: Well, we are working on an album now. But with a band as large as ours, and a full 13-song album, that’s about 150-200 hours of recording. Everyone has different schedules.

Ballou: It’s hard for us all to meet and work on it at the same time.

LB: Is there anything in the band’s future besides the album?

Saperia: We actually have exciting news that is on the way. We found that while our show was great, most of our fans are international, and we want to do something to connect with these thousands of people who are all over the world. Going on tour with a band that has 20 people is really hard, it’s pretty expensive. Most of us have got day jobs, so it really wasn’t a viable idea. Playing a bunch of shows in London wouldn’t really get us anywhere. So we want to concentrate on making online content, films, obviously our album, producing something like a cross between a web comic and a blog, like a multimedia kind of thing, a lot of videos, short films, prose, art, comics, puppetry… the puppets are actually behind you.

LB: [giggles] Really?

Butterworth: Turn her around.

[Saperia gets up from his seat and turns the webcam around, showing the wall behind the laptop in the apartment in which the interview is taking place. Along the wall are more than a dozen intricately detailed marionettes of each individual character in the band, hanging on a rack along the wall. I can only utter a “Wow” and lapse into silence, absorbing the craftsmanship of the stringed miniatures of the band members. The laptop is turned back to its original position, and I am staring once more at the members of the Quartet, sans Saperia.]

Saperia: There is a lot of stuff you have not seen yet, which is why we have been so quiet for the past couple of months. Check this out…

[The Magician marionette is dangled in front of the webcam.]

Saperia: Over the next four or five weeks, we are building a 2.5 meter model train carriage for these guys to live in.

Ballou: The whistle for The Conductor actually works too…

Saperia: We are going in the direction of becoming a virtual band and production company. We’ll be telling this sort of multi-part saga in serial form over the next two years.

Ballou: It’s interesting integrating all the skill sets we have. I am very must a performer and not really an internet-oriented person, but I just had a lesson on how to do a wiki from Jason.

Saperia: Jason [Griffiths] built us a wiki and did our web design, as well as being a great drummer and performer. The website is going to have an entirely different look.

Butterworth: Everything is going to change.

LB: Can you tell me about how The Steamdrone came into existence?

Ballou: [to Saperia] You had an old gramophone and you gutted it and—

Saperia: The original concept was to have this gramophone on stage, like one that would play and we’d have custom-made 78s that we’d work into songs. Will [Segerman], The Lover, is a professional prop maker. So I said make us something cool that would be steampunk. It was supposed to then be an acoustic, steam-powered instrument. But then Bizarre Magazine got in touch with us for an article they were writing about steampunk. They told us “We might do a feature on you, you’ve got three weeks.” So that killed that idea, but it’s still very cool, it shoots out steam and everything, but it’s not steam-powered. [He sighs wistfully] One day….

[Everyone laughs]

LB: What’s the steampunk community in London like?

Saperia: The steampunk community in London- a lot of closely related subcultures- cabaret. I mean, how do you tell if someone is a steampunk and someone is not? Apparently there is enough to sell out our gigs. It’s certainly worldwide. It’s becoming quite a big thing… A nice way to look at how the trend is growing is to do a Google search for the word “steampunk.” It’s really grown over the past four years from practically nothing.

Ballou: But I still have to tell people what steampunk is all the time.

Butterworth: A couple of days ago in the free newspaper in London, the one that everyone picks up after work, a few days ago they had an article about this “new thing” called steampunk and what it is.

Saperia: I got so annoyed that we weren’t interviewed for that.

Ballou: The style has been around forever, and the name is the only thing that’s new.

Saperia: We’re happy whether we get that name or not. We think we stand apart from it.

Butterworth: It’s good music, you don’t have to be involved with the lifestyle or dress up like steampunk to enjoy the music- I introduce it to people all the time, like my parents’ friends. And they’re not going to dress up like steampunk. They may listen to that kind of stuff but they wouldn’t ever identify themselves as steampunk. So they can still tap into it and enjoy it.

[Saperia interrupts here by waving the marionette that represents The Raconteuse in front of the webcam.]

Saperia: [in a faux high-pitched voice] Hi Lauren!”

Ballou: I don’t talk like that!

LB: How many people at your show made a good effort to dress up in the steampunk style?

Griffiths: I’d say a quarter people made a good effort to dress up like steampunk. A few almost made us look bad. There was a lot of time put into it, a lot of detail and attention paid to their costumes

Butterworth: There were at least 120 a night at the show, and about a quarter made a great attempt and went all out, which is pretty good. At least a half made some kind of effort to go that way.

LB: What is the storytelling concept behind the show and band?

Ballou: If you’ve ever traveled on a long trip, people stuck in close quarters might open up to you about things that they wouldn’t tell anyone closest to them, because they’re strangers who they will probably never see ever again. So they tend to open up more… some of the songs are comical.

Butterworth: It’s not all doom and gloom, some characters have some funny things. The Doctor has a very tragic song, as you’ve heard from the song “The Doctor’s Wife” on our website, but something else he sings is actually quite fun.

Ballou: You tend to get one sympathetic view and not so sympathetic view of each character.

Saperia: The songs will come out as episodes on the blog.

LB: Can you give me an example of one of the stories you tell in your show or will tell on the blog?

[Here the group spends several minutes discussing which character will best fit this request. They settle on The Lover’s story. Saperia takes the opportunity to wave The Lover marionette in front of the webcam and comment on his “nice, big sword.”]

Butterworth: The Lover has fallen into an aristocratic family in the country. He is the fourth of three sons. It’s been decided he will become an artist because the other brothers have been in the army and the church and everything, so that’s all taken. He wiles his life away in the studio until he falls in love with a girl who, unfortunately, has another suitor, and they have a duel. It’s a very fun song and it is one of the lighter songs of the show, but introduces one of the more tragic elements of the show. He ends up killing someone.

Ballou: It seems happier until later. The second song is about what happens after this duel.

LB: So how much of the show is music and how much is nonmusical acting or storytelling?

Ballou: That’s a good question, as that’s something we discussed very often, asking ourselves: “How much is music, gig, in a stationary way, how much is physicalized?” Going back to The Lover’s song, it was mostly standing and singing, but we incorporated The Bass Banjolier, and we cast him onstage as The Lover’s rival. They were going to fight an actual duel, but Stu [Lawson]’s character as The Bass Banjolier is a bit of a coward, so he runs away.

Griffiths: We didn’t decide this is a concert or this is a musical. It was just scene of song, song, song. The songs kind of flow into each other.

Ballou: I am the only one who interacts with the audience directly for each song.

LB: How did the nontraditional percussion instruments come about?

Saperia: I always thought found sounds should be an important part of the sound.

Griffiths: Also not using a traditional kit I think was one of the big changes to the whole sound of the band. A traditional drum set makes you think of modern rock or pop. Forcing ourselves to use pots and pans and boilers and sieves and typewriters instantly gave it an alien, unusual feeling more fitting for a steampunk band. I mean, no one plays the banjo anymore.

Saperia: Not even Stu (The Bass Banjolier).

[The group erupts into laughter]

Griffith: That was a slightly interesting process, but it worked out in the end.

Ballou: The important thing is to let each piece create the kit. For “The Doctor’s Wife,” for example, the typewriter is an integral part of the story because The Doctor is typing out his case notes. But it’s not just a steady beat to replace the drums and keep time. It’s a whole part of the character that helps develop the story.

Saperia: We’re constantly adding pieces to the kit as they fit each story.

LB: What comes first, the story or the music?

Saperia: The creation of the song, the story always came first, even from very early on. Wait, I think I have the original notes still. Let me see…

[Saperia disappears from sight again, and returns seconds later with a spiral-bound notebook.]

Ballou: Wow, it’s like the Holy Grail of the band.

Saperia: You guys haven’t even seen this, have you?

[The other members answer in the negative.]

Saperia: [thumbing through notes] Let’s see…we wanted a crazy old man, which never happened… a duel… a journey by train or by boat…

Ballou: We have that.

Saperia: …an ill love interest… a scientist… a tragedy, a war… a grave discovery in a laboratory…. It was all stories, the basis was all stories. We thought two songs each as a start, and just started writing the stories out.

LB: It seems to have taken off very well.

Saperia: In terms of public reaction is has been better than we could have possibly hoped for. Since we put out the songs we’ve been getting tons and tons of subscribers and people e-mailing us and asking us to play, and other people wanting to help us and lots of blogs writing about us. We still get five to ten subscribers a day. It’s really nice, makes it easy to get through the day.

LB: If you had the choice to do this full time, would you do it?

Ballou: Well we all have lots of other side projects, actually, and there isn’t enough time in the day to devote yourself whole-hog to every project. Some of the members are also in other bands. I am a stand-up comedian and cabaret performer separate from the group (Ballou runs a weekly show at Proud Cabaret.)

Butterworth: Most of us teach and play as freelance musicians as well. We’re designers, we’re artists…
Saperia: We’re in House of Strange. Jason [Griffiths] and Stu [Lawson] and The Engineer [Ashley Gardner] and The Fugitive [Hugo Sheppard] and I are all in The Engineer’s band called House of Strange. It’s not steampunk at all. It’s more electronic.

Ballou: It would be great to do more of this [The Clockwork Quartet], but everyone has got lots of other stuff they like to do as well. The more we can do of this the better as well, and that’s what we’re trying to do with our new multimedia website.

In June I caught up with Ed Saperia to check on the status of the multimedia website.  He has been busy opening up Salon d'Ete, a colonial-themed nightclub, in the months since we last spoke.  Residents and visitors of the city of London can check out this hot spot, complete with food and a bar, live music, and caberet performances, at 21 Duke Street on Friday and Saturday nights.

While steampunk enthusiasts around the world should not expect to find this 13+ member project steaming into their hometown any time soon, they can always tune in to their new multimedia website for regular viewings of their antics and their ability to capture an audience with tragic or comedic yarns.

Put your valise on the overhead rack, sit down, and watch the English countryside fly past the window of your carriage as the Ranconteuse and The Clockwork Quartet share the stories of those they have met along the rail. It’s a long ride for them yet.

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