steampunk

Interview: Victor Sierra and “Yesterday’s Tomorrow”

VictorSierra-NextAlbumSleeve
          Those in the know are aware that I am a wee bit of a Steampunk. I quite enjoy the aesthetic as a cosplayer, and I’ve been trying to pull together a Steampunk novel series for several years now. (I think we’re aaaaaaaalmost there).
         I have a soft spot for Victor Sierra, an extremely talented Paris-based Steampunk band. I reviewed their album ELECTRIC RAIN, and was lucky enough to strike up an acquaintance with the band. Several months ago, after a brainstorming session with my literary agent about how to expand, market and work on the Steampunk novel I was polishing, I hit on the idea of asking Victor Sierra if they might be interested in writing a song about the novel. They were!
         I think “The Skylark’s Song” is a fantastic interpretation of the novel. There’s this great industrial drive to the song, which really plays with the concept of the novel being set in a world just about to enter an Industrial Era, and there’s something about the discordant clash of voices that plays into the fact that the novel takes place during war-time. I think my favourite part is that they sing the novel… and then they play the epilogue! I know many of you haven’t read the book yet, but trust me when I say the song is awesome, and sharp, and right on the nose.
Want to hear it? Here it is!
         One reviewer said, of the track:
The use of an oboe always seems to evoke a lighthearted but tragically flawed sequence.. When mixed with a wailing saxophone the brightest of music has very stark shadows within.. Such is the case with “Freyleche Apokalypse”, like a carnivale gone imperceptibly awry the insipid imposing beat belie the essence of the final track “Skylark’s Song” as absolutely ineffable and inevitable.. The shadow of Victor Sierra lingers just behind the eyes and and reaches to entirely ensconce anyone with improved inner visualization information through their audio interface with extreme effectiveness and absolute precision.
On the eve of the release of their second album, YESTERDAY’S TOMORROW (dropping June 15 2013), Commander Bob, Anouk and Big Machine were kind enough to answer some interview questions here.
I’m not going to review the album because, hey, there’s a song written for me on it! But there are two great reviews if you click here. And honestly, it’s just a fantastic, atmospheric, elegantly rough collection of songs. It’s well worth the purchase.

Photograph by Jim Tinios - Steampunk rules!

1.Tell us a little bit about yourselves! Who are you, how did you come together?

 

bobCommander Bob:
As far as I can remember, music has always been central in my life. I was composing in my head before having even touched an instrument. I have been through several musical trends and  formed several bands. Whatever style I was in for a while was only a platform for me to experiment and evolve towards something else. I moved too fast and I was the engine while all my co-members were sort of  breaks. It has been a drag until I met Anouk and we formed Victor Sierra.
AnoukAnouk:
Actually I’m not a princess!!! But perhaps I’m one in the end! I was an actress, and I became a vocalist when I met Bob. since then I’ve had a child and then I became a fashion designer… In Victor Sierra I’m all of these at the same time. I could say I put myself together… So I must be a Princess after all.
Big MachineBig Machine :
New wave, cold wave, no wave, 60’s garage punk, blues, electro, ambient, dark ambient and Krautrock. Victor Sierra was created before I came in but their sound was definitely something for me…
Photograph by Jim Tinios - Steampunk rules!2.  You’ve probably been asked this before, but what makes music “Steampunk”? Why and how did you decide that Victor Sierra would be steampunk?
bobCommander Bob:
When Big Machine joined the band three years ago, he told us about Steampunk. We had never heard of it before. So we did some research and all of a sudden we found out that we were not alone, at last! Every single piece of the puzzle seemed to fall into place… The dystopia, the “uchronical” visions, the outfits and contraptions, the mix of genres… The encounter of romance and technology.  Victor Sierra had been a steampunk band from the beginning without us being actually aware. But I would like to mention that Dieselpunk does attract me, as well. That’s how we came to create the imaginary Airship Hydrogen Queen -of which I’m the Commander! I would rather speak of retro- futrurism. It’s Yesterday’s Tomorrow!
AnoukAnouk:
Everything was there at once, clothes, music, jewelery, the universe… At one point  we were suggested we were  SP, a click on google to understand what it was about, and we realized we were at the right place: home…
Big MachineBig Machine :
We had been playing for a while when I realized : Victor Sierra is a retro-futuristic band. We are Steamers but we don’t know it yet ! It really changed my life… -_o
(Author’s note: How? Now I’m facinated…)
Photograph by Jim Tinios - Steampunk rules!3.  What do you think are the connections between steampunk music and literature?
bobCommander Bob:
Steampunk started with literature. Steampunk literature is a real genre, steampunk music isn’t.  Steampunk has to do with words, overall ambient, stories, universes, alternate history…Not with musical notes. And this is the reason why music is so diverse in the steampunk world. In terms of music, we have nothing to do  with Veronique Chevalier for example and at the same time we have everything in common with her work because we look in the same direction,  even though through different goggles. Our friends from the Clockwork Dolls are much more romantic than we are and yet, we share an epic vision of the world as it should have been. Mark Rossmore from “Escape the Clouds” is another example of a wonderful songwriter following different paths leading to the same imaginary place.
Photograph by Jim Tinios - Steampunk rules!4. Where do you draw inspiration from when you’re writing a song? Do the words come first, or the music?
bobCommander Bob:
There’s a song composing itself in my mind. Sometimes it gets tiring, even boring! I’ve always been writing about the other side of things. Even simple ones. I’m not interested in telling the truth about things everybody knows to be true. And even more so when they’re wrong!
Photograph by Jim Tinios - Steampunk rules!5.  Do you speak all the languages you sing in?
bobCommander Bob:
I speak French, English and Spanish. I’ve been writing in those three languages for years. As my name shows I’m a Jew originated from Eastern Europe. I don’t speak Yiddish but I heard it a lot in my family when I was a child. It was the language people used for children not to understand. But as always, we got some words here and there. My friend Elsa Drezner writes the lyrics of our Yiddish songs.
AnoukAnouk:
I personally speak French very well! Yiddish is a bit alien to me, though the “cabaret” aspect this language induces is quite close to me. Besides I understand and speak some English and Spanish, well,  mostly after some shots of Rum. And I don’t start my vocalist work before having  perfectly penetrated the meaning of the lyrics. I sing words, stories, situations I can feel mine.
Photograph by Jim Tinios - Steampunk rules!6. Do you find any difference at all between European venues or fans to the North American ones?
bobCommander Bob:
We’re not talking about differences here but about a huge gap! France is dead to innovation. Interesting venues have all    disappeared. Bands and audience are very badly greeted in the ones remaining these days. But it’s a general atmosphere in France. I’m sure you already heard about it. About fans, our audience is much more on your side of the pond than on ours. And we don’t mind. We’re much more attracted to North America.
AnoukAnouk:
What do you think we want to live in America for? As for me, I don’t want to say more on that subject. About all the disappointment we get from that European inertia…
Photograph by Jim Tinios - Steampunk rules!7.   What was it like, running your first IndieGoGo Campaign?
bobCommander Bob:
Actually, it was our second campaign of the kind. Our first one made us cross the ocean last year to go and perform at Steampunk World’s Fair (it was fantastic!). As for this one, we reached our goal which was to be able to record the songs and pay the manufacturer. A second album is always a perilous adventure (?). But it looks that as far as today it’s warmly welcomed by critics. We’re very happy and we hope our audience will enjoy it as well.
AnoukAnouk:
Just one word about Indiegogo… As you already know, I make the contraptions we propose. And what I enjoy so much is that I make each of them thinking of the person who ordered it, even though I don’t know her/him. Her/his name is in front of me, I imagine this person, I sew for her/him… and I like that!
Photograph by Jim Tinios - Steampunk rules!8.      You’ve composed  music for a webseries, and now for my own novel – what other collaborations have you done? What would your dream project be?
bobCommander Bob:
We also recorded “Ecos de Voces Lejanas” from the novel by Josué Ramos, Madrid, Spain. It has been a great pleasure to write this song. What pleases me is the huge difference between this track and Skylark’s Song and Dirigible Days. I have a lot of “dream projects” of which I’ll talk about when I’m ready. For now, our goal would be to perform more often on stage and mostly in North America where we have our audience as I mentioned before. We spent several months locked in our studio. We need some fresh air!
AnoukAnouk:
I speak for myself only. It’s something I haven’t talked about with Bob and Pierre yet. I would love to write a Steampunk  Opera with other bands and Clockwork Dolls in particular. Yes…as simple as that!
Photograph by Jim Tinios - Steampunk rules!9.      Tell us about writing “Skylark’s Song”, please!  What was your experience?
bobCommander Bob:
It could sound a bit excessive. It may sound as if we wanted to please you. But it’s the truth and I don’t mind what people will think about it: It has been the most pleasurable song to write, compose and record. I loved your novel and it inspired me a lot. I suppose it shows when you listen to the song. I love the way Anouk sings and I can’t wait to perform it live.
(Authors note: D’aww! Thanks guys. I was on pins in needles the first time I heard it, and it stole the breath from my lungs and made my scalp prickle. It so much captures the heart of the novel.)
AnoukAnouk:
I know that this question wasn’t meant for me. But I just want to say that I love to sing it. It deeply moves me. I found myself in it, in its lyrics and music.
10.  You guys are all super awesome – tell us how we can buy your albums, book you for a show, and follow you on social media!
You can buy all our albums here:
http://victorsierra.bandcamp.com
And like our band page here:
You can get all info about us here:
You can follow us on twitter here:
https://twitter.com/BobEisenstein
You can follow our Youtube Channel here:
JM FreyInterview: Victor Sierra and “Yesterday’s Tomorrow”
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Gadgets, Goggles, and The Doctor

Elightenment, the Doctor Who Information Network FanZine, has an article by me on Doctor Who and Steampunk in issue 168! Order your copy here.

Sneak Preview:

The Gadgets, The Goggles, and The TARDIS

Or

Why Doctor Who is Steampunk

            There have been arguments back and forth – especially since the Moffat-era TARDIS desktop theme change – about whether or not Doctor Who qualifies as Steampunk. To my mind, it does… ish.

I don’t think of Steampunk as a genre (as genres require tropes and recognizable narrative patterns), but rather as an aesthetic. And as such, Doctor Who is Steampunk. But only as much as it is sometimes Western, and sometimes Soap Opera, and sometimes Psychological Thriller, and sometimes Fantasy. The appeal of Doctor Who is that from week to week, the style and the type of stories being told vary in tone and narrative arc.  It is never just one kind of programme, and is instead a glorious mishmash. Which is in and of itself, very Steampunk.

But what is the Steampunk Aesthetic and why do I think Doctor Who is one of the best examples of Steampunk on television? Pithily called “yesterday’s future, today!”, Steampunk art (literature, music, visual, textile, etc) envisions a future that has collapsed onto a re-imagined Victorian past, or an alternate world where the Victorian era technology and society has held on.  Sometimes these contain alternate history, or “path not taken” moments: Revisionist, or Fictionalized history.  Steampunk allows for technology and historical events to be shuffled together and bent like a deck of playing cards.

Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are oftimes cited when discussing early Steampunk (which is inaccurate, as they are of the era, not writing about it nostalgically), but a quick way to get a grasp on Steampunk is to think of three films: Wild Wild West, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Suckerpunch. (Leaving aside the quality of said films). Current popular Steampunk novels include The Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger, the Leviathan trilogy by Scott Westerfield, the Clockwork Century series by Cherie Priest, and The Friday Society by Adrienne Kress.

Steampunk doesn’t really have any hard and fast rules (hence my argument that it is not a genre), but Dr. Mike “The Steampunk Scholar” Perschon posits that to be Steampunk, an art piece must include:  technofantasy (or technology that requires an element of the impossible to function), neo-Victorianism (a celebration of the Victorian era, and Empire, though this time with an awareness of the problematics of the era), and Retrofuturism (the way the past viewed the future, or more important in Steampunk, how we think the past viewed the future.)  These three features, in any combination and amount, is what Perschon says “constitutes the Steampunk aesthetic … Steampunk is the glass – and while some might not like the analogue of an empty vessel for their ostensible subculture or lifestyle, keep in mind that you can put whatever you like in that glass – art, film, or lifestyle – and Steampunk it.”

And Doctor Who does this inexplicably well.

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To read the rest, order your copy of issue 168 of Enlightenment here.

 

JM FreyGadgets, Goggles, and The Doctor
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Name a ship in my next book!

I am utter rubbish at naming things in my worlds. So, to celebrate all the awards announcements lately and to make sure the names in my next book don’t suck too horribly: A CONTEST!

In the comment area over here, give me your best idea for a poncy, stuffy, rigorously captained Navy Ship, circa 1890-1910.

You have until Friday May 11th to make your suggestions, and then we will vote on our favourites. The poll will close on May 14th, in the morning.

The winning name will appear in my next steampunk novel, and the person who suggested it will be named in the Thank Yous.

Ready?

GO!

JM FreyName a ship in my next book!
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Words for Writers: What the Heck is Steampunk?

There is a lot of discussion of what is and is not quote-Steampunk-With-A-Capital-S-unquote.


Richard Castle investigates Steampunk in an episode of “Castle”.

For a while I didn’t have a good definition of my own (only that it’s “yesterday’s future, today!”), but then I had the very good luck to be put on a panel with The Steampunk Scholar, Mike Perschon, at the Canadian National Steampunk Expo.

J.M. Frey and The Steampunk Scholar; photo by Lex Machina

I was meant to act as Mike’s foil, both of us being smartypants. But I couldn’t disagree when I heard his rundown of what “Steampunk” IS. His explanation of how to define Steampunk was the most clever and concise version I’ve ever heard and I immediately had to agree.

Comic by Kate Beaton of Hark! A Vagrant! Follow her on Tumblr here.

The Steampunk Scholar posits that Steampunk is not a GENRE, but an AESTHETIC.  I will wait for you to fetch rotten fruit, but while you are searching for it, take a look at his article describing why: Steampunk Aesthetic 101.

In short, The Steampunk Scholar posits that these are the three pillars of Steampunk, and that each pillar must be present for the work to be considered Steampunk, but the AMOUNT of pillar that is present may vary, and that is perfectly acceptable.

Quoting from the Steampunk Scholar’s article:

Steampunk is an aesthetic that mixes three features: technofantasy, neo-Victorianism, and Retrofuturism.

Technofantasy . It’s tech that lacks plausibility, or utilizes fantasy elements as impulsion.

Neo-Victorian I’d have preferred something less ethnocentric, but neo-Victorian evokes an era, rather than necessarily saying it takes place in the time. It was a lot less clunky than “nineteenth century fantastic mise-en-scene.” I’m not saying it has to be British. I’m saying steampunk’s aesthetic is grounded in the Victorian period with fuzzy boundaries. It’s not a geographic or temporal limitation, save as inspiration.

Retrofuturism: The way the past viewed the future, or more important in steampunk, how we think the past viewed the future. The idea of steampunk anachronism is flawed, because in texts where it’s a secondary world, there’s nothing anachronistic about your technology. It belongs in that fabricated world. There are steampunk texts that use anachronisms (again, The Difference Engine), but it’s really retrofuturism that runs across the board. Retrofuturism should be understood as more than technological: there is social retrofuturism as well, when we make the past in our image, as we do whenever a nineteenth century woman isn’t slowly going crazy in a room with psychedelic wallpaper.

These three features, in combination, seem to be what constitutes the steampunk aesthetic–since Moorcock and the California Triumvirate, right up until now. Steampunk texts and artworks do not belong to the same genre, but rather draw from the same aesthetic. Maybe that’s just semantics to some, but so long as we keep viewing steampunk as the stuff in the container, we’re going to miss that it was the container we should have been talking about. Steampunk is the glass – and while some might not like the analogue of an empty vessel for their ostensible subculture or lifestyle, keep in mind that you can put whatever you like in that glass – art, film, or lifestyle – and steampunk it.

I would also add that as a sort of flying buttress to these pillers, but not a piller unto itself, is the notion of Exposure of Inner Workings – corsets on the outside, mechanical guts showing, social anarchy, the ability to look at the Problematics of the era that is celebrated (racism, genderism, colonialism, etc.) and work with them and on them, etc.

Further Resources

You can read The Steampunk Scholar’s review of the CNSE convention here.

I am quoted in this article on Steampunk in the Torontoist, which gives a decent overview of my thoughts on Steampunk As Aesthetic: Steampunk And The City

Author Adrienne Kress of the forthcoming THE FRIDAY SOCIETY (Dial, Fall 2012) talks about why she loves Steampunk and how she defines it here.

An older blog entry I did on defining Steampunk here.

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For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: What the Heck is Steampunk?
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Review: Victor Sierra, “Electric Rain”

Victor Sierra – Album Review

Arabesque, haunting, throaty and filled with European duende, Paris-based Victor Sierra’s album “Electric Rain” is perfect for Steampunks who want a less England-central experience. With lyrics in French, German, Yiddish, and English, Victor Sierra’s Anouk Adrien, Bob Eisenstein and Big Machine offer international flavor and haunting melodies mixed with a driving, relentless rhythm that pushes the listener along the train tracks of the album.

Victor Sierra provides an album that is the epitome of what the Steampunk aesthetic is all about – craftsmanship, cultural mixing, passion, raw feeling, cryptic theatricality, pride in your creation, and just a dash of cheeky social anarchy.

Bob Eisenstein, credited with playing all the instruments on the album, has a natural flair for making them scream a little bit. There’s something that he does with the compositions that is just uncomfortable enough that it makes the music intriguing, makes you want to writhe on a dance floor, but not so much that it becomes grating. Big Machine’s synth work is seamless, and evocative of the Hydrogen Queen, the band’s airbound berth. For someone who doesn’t really like ‘fake’ instruments in her music, I quite enjoyed everything about the production. That’s a mark of a true artist with a synth and the electronic arts of creating sound.

And what could easily become a slide into gratuitous and overly sensual vocals is instead punctuated by Anouk Adrien’s more raw, natural and not overly-trained, gripping vocal quality. I’m reminded, happily, of the folksy, desperate singing of Louis Attaque.

This driving, human sound is, to me, the equintessence of Steampunk music.

Even better, I love the cultural mélange of the lyrics. Some French, a dash of Yiddish, a swirl of German, references to Commonwealths and sheesha-smoking caterpillars (“Keep your head!”) – this is what Steampunk is.

Borderless, bold, and blended.

As a story-oriented person, my favourite track is by far #3, “Blood In The Skies”, a song about a tenuously obeying flight crew on a mission that they know nothing about. But the story of the album extends past the CD/MP3s – be certain to check out their myriad of videos, including the suitably cryptic “Self-Portraits” of the band members.

I look forward to seeing this band live – the music lends itself beautifully to belly dancers, pyrotechnics, burlesque, and over-the-top performativity and I salivate at the thought of what their stage show must be like.

And I freely admit that I’ve been listening to the full album on endless loop for the past two weeks, especially while I’ve been editing my next novel.

More info about Victor Sierra
Buy the album “Secret Page”
Buy the album “Electric Rain”
Victor Sierra’s touring schedule.
Want Victor Sierra to come to your city? Click here

JM FreyReview: Victor Sierra, “Electric Rain”
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