“Ironbark was the first album that I planned as a whole. Not that it’s a concept album as such, but it was written to be a single work of art with all the songs fitting together in terms of tone, subject matter, harmonic approach and so on. My first solo album, Spinning the Compass sort of happened by accident when I realised some of the songs might work together. Ironbark was intentional.
The title comes from an Australian poem about a gullible yokel from the town Ironbark who is fooled into believing his throat was cut by a mischievous barber:
‘He raised his hand, his brow grew black, he paused awhile to gloat,
Then slashed the red-hot razor-back across his victim’s throat:
Upon the newly-shaven skin it made a livid mark –
No doubt it fairly took him in – the man from Ironbark.’ – Ironbark Banjo Paterson 1892
I stumbled across it while reading up on the Sweeney Todd story, and thought it sounded like a splendid place. Except rather than being inhabited by yokels who are afraid to visit barbers, my Ironbark is inhabited by murderous scientists, evil townsfolk and at least two people who think it a good idea to live beyond death in steam-powered machines.
The bonus tracks here include ‘They Tried To Turn The Lights On’ which i wrote at the time but recorded more recently and ‘Three’ the sequel to ‘Two’ from Spinning the Compass. At some point I will record ‘One’ as well, which does exist.
The live tracks are the whole of the Miser’s Will, recorded at a lovely house concert in North London. This gig ties as one of my three favourite ever gigs. The audience were really into it, but behaved like a classical audience rather than a rock audience. They were entirely silent, listening to every single note. For a performer this is slightly terrifying but all the more exhilarating for it.
Having recently listened back to Ironbark after a few years not having heard it, I am genuinely proud of it. It pushes what I could do with the level of expertise and equipment I had at the time. While I think it is still clearly a home studio recording, it sounds good. It is also where I think I really found my voice as a songwriter after several years of floundering about trying out different styles.
Recently there’s been a little ruckus in the steampunk music community. The lead singer of the band ‘Abney Park’ made the claim that some acts calling themselves steampunk should not be. He then suggested that he was making this claim because there is a genre of music called ‘steampunk’ that includes his band, a few others such as Rapskallion, Tankus the Henge and others. These bands, he claimed, use ‘the same elements musically speaking’ and could be called a genre.
Others took exception to either what he said or how he said it and internet arguments ensued. That’s all very boring, I’m not going to address it.
But I wrote a dissertation on genre distinctions in heavy metal at uni, so I feel like I can address his premise. He’s claiming that those bands represent a genre. Do they share musical elements that are unique to their genre? Is the Abney Park frontman correct?
Let’s define terms
What is a musical genre? Let’s take punk. It has an aesthetic of course, a way of dressing that we all recognise but that’s not enough to make a band punk. Dressing Abba in punk outfits wouldn’t make them punk if they didn’t also change the harmonic language, melodies, instrumentation, lyrics and performance style.
The term ‘steampunk’ is only tangentially connected to the punk style of music, coming as it does from the cyberpunk genre of science fiction. We can be reasonably sure about the sort of things a steampunk aesthetic or narrative might contain, and I think it’s unquestionably the case that all these acts look the part and have lyrical content that fits with a steampunk aesthetic. It’s that neo-victorian, retro-futuristic, alternative history, cogs-and-brown kinda vibe and it’s there in spades.
Of course it’s there in spades for both those acts that Mr Brown has said are steampunk and those that are not. So our only choice is to discount the visuals and the lyrical subject matter and look at the music in isolation.
What is genre not? Genre is not a box. You don’t define a genre then force bands into that category and argue about whether band x is neo-danceatronnica or face-pulse-nerdcore. Well, clearly lots of people do, particularly on the internet, but that doesn’t tell you anything.
Instead think of genre like an archetype or template. There’s an imaginary punk band that is totally punk in every way and you use that to compare to real world bands (none of whom will be perfectly punk to everyone) as an analytical tool. Yeah, I guess The Clash are pretty punk, you say, but then they have elements of reggae in some songs so what does that tell us…. and so on.
Some examples of what might be steampunk
Abney Park – Circus at the end of the World
This song has a simple minor key chord progression that doesn’t change throughout the song. After a brief intro we get two verses interspersed with a string refrain. After that that we have a sing-along ‘la’la’la refrain, which is presented on its own then with the violin hook.
The instrumentation combines modern goth rock forces with some older folky ideas, as can be heard in the fiddle parts.
Rapskallion – Never turn your back on the sea
Once again we have simple minor key harmony, albeit with a little more variation.
The instrumentation is more typically folk: acoustic guitar, drums, bass, accordion, woodwind and fiddle. Oh and what appears to be a panpipe solo. I like this track, it has a nice hook though for my taste there’s only enough variety to justify half the length.
Tankus the Henge – Recurring Dream
I hadn’t intended to express personal preferences, but I really like this track by Tankus the Henge who I hadn’t heard prior to starting this blog post. But opinions aside, what do we have here?
Well there is a bit of a violin melody but this has both got more going on harmonically and, unsuprisingly for what sounds like a British act, a bit of a music hall vibe going on in places.
I really enjoyed this track. Thank’s Tankus!
And it kinda reminded me of Mothertongue, a band on the same label as me who also have a British vibe, some nice trumpet melodies and a a similar energy and vocal style. Someone on the Music for Steampunks facebook page recently mentioned Cardiacs, a band whose attitude to groove, chord choices and song structure can be heard in a great many British bands.
Oh and Rapskallion reminded me of a few acts, including Sanjuro, the band of a guy I did my teacher training with.
And that’s a problem for the premise we’re testing. If you discount the
visuals and lyrical content, which we have to do to even get started, what are you left with? Is it possible to define an imaginary steampunk band that would represent the ideal?
Well, you could say they’d fit into western pop music, would be likely to play in a minor key and make use of elements from early 20th century popular music, possible music hall, possibly folk. You might up date that with more modern grooves, eg rock beats. But Rapskallion don’t do that. Little violin refrains seem to be common too, and male lead vocals.
Is that enough? The Beatles fit into most of that list, Nick Cave fits into some, Mothertongue, Sanjuro, Cardiacs all share some elements.
It’s not enough
Is it enough to set them apart from BB Blackdog who the Abney Park singer explicitly said were not steampunk?
What You Need by BB Blackdog is a classic rock song, and it is fair to say it doesn’t share musical characteristics with the songs above.
But I also think you’re pushing it to claim either that the first three acts are similar enough to belong in the same genre or that they are unique. If they are steampunk, why aren’t all the other acts that sound like that but not wearing top hats and goggles not still called steampunk.
I think it’s reasonable to say that the premise that the Abney Park frontman put forward isn’t sustainable. It’s not total nonsense, there is a bit of a crossover, but to go so far as to say it’s something unique and that musical acts slightly further away shouldn’t also be called ‘steampunk’ is to be frank a bit silly.
This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Steampunk is a genre of fiction and an aesthetic that has developed a whole host of cultural practices around it. One of those is music, and people in different parts of the world have approached that with the tools – musical and extra-musical – they have.
Some of my own music is steampunk in two ways. It has lyrics about steampunk stories, and there are hints of blues scale and Gershwin style harmony in places, albeit well hidden.
Would I claim to belong to a musical genre called steampunk? No, and I don’t think anyone can claim that. And I also don’t think anyone should make that claim, or get worked up about it. Genre isn’t there as a tool to put things in boxes.
So far I have created 18 episodes of my Sunday Bootleg podcast. Each has between one and three obscure tracks of mine – live songs, studio outtakes, demos and so on – plus entirely sensible stories about actual real things that have definitely happened to me.
You can listen on soundcloud, subscribe on Itunes or on your favourite podcast app on your phone (your favourite of the many podcast apps on your phone. We’ve all got a favourite, right? Podblurb, Caster, Earprickr. Your favourite app.)
Today we released a remixed, remastered, expanded version of my first album, Spinning the Compass.
I think it sounds rather good.
You can get the whole thing (or just the new tracks if you want) at this link.
Here’s what I wrote about it:
Spinning the Compass is my first solo album. Originally released in early 2010, here it is remastered and in places remixed.
I had not planned on going solo in 2009 when I started working on these songs. I was still doing silly things with Comrade Robot, and at the time that was my main musical undertaking. But as part of February Album Writing Month 2009 I had written a few songs that seemed to fit into a steampunk theme, so on and off over that year I put things together.
It just so happened that independently at the same time, my brother Joe was also working on steampunk projects, particularly his ‘Oldroid’ models, so there was a ready made set of photos and ideas to use as artwork.
Spinning the Compass is about body horror, bad dreams and machines that get in the way or substitute for real love. Mechanism talks about love gone wrong, I Still Smile about latex and rubber alternatives to human contact, the title track is about being lost in a contracting world that doesn’t make sense and threatens to disappear.
Nevertheless, it is to me a happy album. It was recorded cheap mics and even cheaper software, and I didn’t really know what I was doing. It received my first bad review in which it was referred to as ‘an experiment too far’ (and a few good reviews too) and I learnt a hell of a lot from making it.
It is also where the Seven Bells John saga started. The Steam engine Murders and the Trail of Seven Bells John, from my fourth album, was written at the same time as Spinning the Compass. Lines Overheard at a Séance is most definitely part of that narrative. Indeed if you’ve heard my most recent EP, Black Water you will have heard the musical echoes of this in ‘Ghosts in my Dreams’.
This version of the album also includes two new tracks ‘The Man Who Learned To Fly’ and ‘Lines in the Dirt’ both of which I wrote at the time but didn’t have time to finish recording before I finally got bored and released the album.
This accidental album kicked off a solo ‘career’ that so far has encompassed 4 albums albums, a few EPs and lots of fun.
This January I will have been a ‘signed’ artist for about a year.
Have you seen my new helicopter?
No, that’s right, I don’t have one. Signing with Bad Elephant music is one of the best things I’ve ever done. It means my music is getting heard by more people at better quality than it did before.
I’ve had a great 12 months, and here’s some of what I’ve learned:
1. You won’t be giving up the day job
There’s a myth that if we could return the music industry to how things were a few decades ago, all problems would be solved for artists. Back then record companies had money to invest and they’d support new artists to develop an audience.
That was true, but only for a minority of artists in some genres. It was like winning the lottery.
Now there’s another myth: the money has dried up, labels don’t support artists, you might as well go it alone.
That’s not necessarily true either, though going it alone is more possible now than previously.
Getting signed to a good label is as difficult as it ever was, and no the big boys with loads of money aren’t going anywhere near new acts. They want a guaranteed income. But the little guys, the companies that do it for love not money are still there.
Getting signed doesn’t mean huge advances and everyone doing the work for you. It does mean small, but meaningful financial and logistical support and, if both parties are sensible, realistic expectations of returns. Cos you’re not getting rich making original music. That’s not a thing any more, and for most it never was.
2. It’s not glamorous
There was no champagne when we signed, no illegal substances being snorted off other people’s anatomy, no media scrum, or dodgy offices. There was curry with a bloke called Dave.
Bad Elephant Music has got some good press and you could be forgiven for thinking that they’re a big fish in the relatively small pond of progressive rock music (though much of their output isn’t what you’d call ‘classic’ progressive rock). But it’s still at the stage where no-one involves takes a wage and things are done for love not money. Hopefully in a few year’s time things can be done for love AND money, but those days are a while away yet.
I’m sure this was always the case, but getting signed is where the hard work starts. Now there’s someone else’s money at stake, so while I might have less financial risk attached to my musical endeavours, I have more of a moral risk. There’s someone else’s cash and someone else’s time being spent on my music. So it has to be good and it has to do well.
That means I put as much effort as I could into my last album and all the promotional activities surrounding it. When I was totally independent I could cut corners, leave promotional activities for a few months, not worry if an album didn’t do as well as it could. That did mean that some releases, particularly Three Rows of Teeth, didn’t quite get the attention I would have liked, either from me or from listeners, but it didn’t matter.
And while there are people at the label doing some things, notably PR, planning and lots of the technical stuff, that doesn’t mean I have less to do. It means that when I do find time for music, I can focus on what matters.
More is getting done, but I’m still doing as much as I was.
4. Signed or not, your success is down to you
There are musicians (hopefully they’re a minority) who complain. There’s no support from labels, people don’t buy music, people don’t come to gigs, piracy and/or streaming are stealing from me.
Some of these grievances have merit, but more people are listening to more music than ever before and making it is easier than it’s ever been. All the tools are there and if you want to make it work you can. Providing your aims are making music. If your aims are something tangential to making music like getting rich, please go away. You’re not helping real musicians and there are better ways of getting rich.
(Which is not to say that musicians shouldn’t expect fair compensation for their work. I said getting rich, not getting paid)
5. It’s still worth doing
Being totally independent is more of an option now that it ever was. But if you can find a good label to work with, then you should. It can give you a legitimacy and purpose that is hard to find on your own, and it shares some of the work and some of the risk.
Just don’t expect helicopters and huge advances. You won’t get them, and you don’t really want them.