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Abney Park Interview

Abney Park Interview

Abney Park was a band I took to after first listening, their eclectic mix of sounds really struck a chord with me owing to my love of the more exotic and mystic side of the goth all woven together by Robert’s velvety vocals. From their pagan leanings prevalent in the “From Dreams & Angels” era (I fondly remember the living woodland website) to them now being hailed as one of the forefronting bands of the Steampunk movement. They have taken many labels in their time, but on closer inspection I’m not quite sure any ever fitted, but whatever the case – they have been a band whose known how to ride the crest of a wave. They be returned to the UK last November (Friday 4th) for Whitby Gothic Weekend, so I thought it fitting to ask some of the questions I’ve been curious to know.

Question: Abney Park is one of the “Magnificent Seven” Victorian cemeteries dotted around London. Why did you choose the name and have you ever been there?

Answer: Yes, we go every time we visit London. It’s a very beautiful place, just swimming in vines and decapitated angels. The park was originally built during a time when the Catholic Church controlled all the cemeteries in London, and things were getting crowded. Eventually, all the Catholic Church cemeteries were full, and so the Church passed a mandate that only Catholics could be buried in there cemeteries. Abney Park was built for everybody else.

Question: Your sound has gone from Goth with pagan leanings, through to shanties, folk and even tribal in places and now some newer songs have a show-tune Vaudeville edge to them. What drives your progression and makes you seek out new sounds

Answer: When I first started writing music, I just wrote ‘Robert’ music, which was electronics’ with world music elements. A few magazine and newspaper reviewers called us ‘goth’, which at the time I have never heard of. It turned out that Goth was derivative of all the music I listened to in high school: Siouxsie and Banshees, Depeche Mode, etc. When I found this out, I was in favour of the comparison, so I plunged in.

Soon, however, the comparison reversed, instead of people saying ‘This is like so-and-so’ they were saying, ‘this is not enough like ‘new-bullshit-goth-band!’, and they old game of ‘not-goth-enough’ began.

Hey, I didn’t get into this to be like someone else! I got into this because people from that scene liked my music. So it was time to shed the old label, and come up with my own, one that would let me explore who I am as a song writer.

Taking a look back at our old lyrics, you can see a lot of Steampunk themes: clockwork boys, Steampunk powered futuristic cities, etc. So, again, someone said, ‘your lyrics are like the literary genre of Steampunk!’ which at the time was not a musical style at all. So, again, I went with it.

Each new world music style we add on really comes from a source of boredom with whatever we were doing. When it’s time to start writing the next album, I go out gathering some new flavour to get me excited. Typically what gets me excited is far from the corporate music machine, which typically means it’s the folk music of some exotic location.

Question: Speaking of new sounds, you have featured a range of instruments in your music and seem to like experimenting. Can you list them and tell me which is your favourite?

Answer: ‘Favourite’ is tough, as they each have a different role to play…a different time when they reign. Here are some of the instruments we’ve used and what I think of them:
• Keyboards are the foundation of nearly everything I’ve done.
• Guitars, when done correctly, can be nearly as versatile and unquenchable as the keyboard.
• Bass I consider the single instrument that defines the shape of an arrangement.
• Accordion. Mine is a folk instrument, with very limited range of cords, but it does offer a full and wonderfully flavoured tone. And it’s always a blast to Punk-out with on stage.
• Mandolin is thin and tinny in the wrong places, but intricate and melodic when applied right!
• Banjo is surprisingly more versatile then you’d think! It does cowboy, it does vaudeville, and it does eastern exotic, without you even trying!
• Bouzouki, I’m still just learning, when compared to the masters. Yet it’s got a sparkle I have not heard in any other instrument before…but it will make your figures bleed!
• Darbuka I’ve been playing for years. I’m really not good enough to make it a solo instrument, but it gives me something to do when everyone else is rocking out.
• Harmonica I love to play, and am pretty good at it since it was the first instrument I learned, but I don’t find a lot of variety in what it brings to the music, so I can’t use it much.
• Violin. I love it and hate it. Violin owns whatever song I put it in, but it’s so temperamental! Room changes temperature? Off key. Player can’t hear his monitors? Off key. Glitch in the pickups? Off key. Player had a drink? Off key. And “off key” is a huge problem, when you’ve got singers onstage! …or people in the audience, for that matter. Yet it’s so damn iconic now there is really no working around it. Whatever song it’s been put in…well, you can’t really replace it with something else without disappointing the listeners.
• Ukulele I learned on Maui (no surprise there) but I assumed it was just a vacation toy. Turns out, a good one can produce a very wide range of sounds, so I’m using it on the next album!
• Trombone brought some great vintage feel when we applied it. For an instrument that’s rarely thought of as “cool”, it always makes a song sound like a party.
• Trumpet We’ve been using trumpet more and more, due to its wonderful vintage feel, and the wonderful trumpet player we found (Cary Rayburn).
• Cello we’ve used several times on songs, and a few times at concerts. It has a marvellous sound, but transporting by plane is such a pain! That keeps us from using it more often.
• Real (non-machine) drums are a blast. With a good drummer, playing with real drums is the most fun you will have as a musician. But it comes at a price: they are even worse to move around then a cello, and nowhere near as tonally versatile as the machine version. I come from a background were the kick drum is the most important sound in your pallet, and acoustic drums just don’t have that perfect punch without a billion dollar studio. I’m also used to being able to spend days finding the perfect snare/hat/whatever, so suddenly being told “you get this one sound. Deal with it.” is tough creatively.
• Didgeridoo I would like to hereby apologize for my love of the didge. I would use it in every damn song if I could get away with it. It adds both rhythm, and exotic flavour, instantly, without even trying.

Question: For me I have yet to discover an adequate description of the Steampunk sound and do not actually think there is one that can be truly described as such. As a band often hailed as at the forefront of the movement– could you provide me with a description?

Answer: Steampunk is not a new aesthetic, and it’s not always done well. So a lot of what you hear calling itself Steampunk will either be in an aesthetic you’ve already heard, or such piss-poor an example that it will also make you think “bullshit”.

To confuse matters more, Abney Park wasn’t always Steampunk, and everything we do now is certainly not Steampunk. (If I could only write in one style of music, I’d kill myself!) So if you hear an Abney Park song, it might simply not be a Steampunk one, and you again may get confused.

So let’s compare Steampunk music to the Steampunk craftsmanship you see online. It is “taking old things with a Victorian flavour and using them to ornament modern or everyday things; like laptops, cars, watches, jewellery”. This is nothing new. Hell, this look was all over the 1960’s and 70’s, but Steampunk is the new name for this. Furniture, and clocks, and lamps never stopped mixing Victorian with Modern. And most modern formal wear is simply Victorian attire, often with no changes in 100 years.

Another tricky part is that a lot of Victorian musical styles are also still in use, like symphonic orchestrations. So when you hear that associated with the new style of Steampunk you are not hearing anything new.

Abney Park will take Victorian era music – cabaret, or vaudevillian, or swing, or ragtime – and mix that into a modern dance/song arrangement. That fusion is hardly new, but there is a new name for it. ‘Steampunk’, as an aesthetic, has been around a long time, but as a subculture and musical term is brand new.

Here is a great quote that I think will bring perspective:

“We used to call it ragtime, then blues, then jazz. Now, it’s swing. Ha! Ha! White folks yo’all sho is a mess. Ha! Ha! Swing!”
~ Louis Armstrong (to Bing Crosby)

Would anybody doubt Louis knew what he was talking about? Nope. But would you then doubt Jazz or Swing are valid and distinct genres? Nope. Names change, and music evolves. Get over it.

Steampunk Music is the new umbrella term for “Vintage Music Fusion”, and there are now a lot of subcategories under that like Electro Swing, or Dark Cabaret. Just as the term “Goth” became a blanket term for Bat Cave, and Death Rock, Black Metal, industrial, etc. Scenesters will always argue the semantics, but in the end all there doing is arguing what everyone else can plainly see.

So the short answer is “Steampunk Music is Vintage/Modern Fusion, focusing on styles from 1880 – 1930’s, if it’s done right, which is rare. It’s a new term, more than a new style.”

Question: Being pioneers in the look gave you that differentiation and I have read that is what you sought after. But now with Steampunk becoming so widespread, are you not in danger of just being another clog-clad face in the crowd? Are there any plans to find a new movement to sink your teeth into?

Answer: No, we didn’t do it just to be different, and no, now that it is big we are not going to do something else just to be different. We do it because it’s cool. This isn’t like Lady Gaga’s dress made of kermit The Frog, which is only intended to look bazaar. Steampunk is beautiful, even when it’s not surprising.

We dropped Goth because people’s preconceived notion of what it should sound like was stifling, and alienating to 99.999% of the world. I once read an review of our music that said it couldn’t be Goth because I sounded like a nice guy! Time to change. If Steampunk turns into that (as many have attempted to do) I will drop it with a kick, and a “fuck you!”.

Currently, however, Steampunk is a massively creative, and wonderful scene filled with nice, smart, creative, and fun people. I wouldn’t trade this for any other music scene on that planet.

Frankly, though, I’d love to get to the point where genre isn’t a discussion point – but I’m sure all successful musicians say that.

Question: I have heard on the grape-vine that you were thinking of starting a clothing line. Is this true and who currently designs and makes your stage costumes and Steamed-up equipment?

Answer: People dress themselves, but Kristina and I teach them how.

We have in the past had an original fashion line, and sold quite a lot of coats, and tailcoats, and vests. I designed all that stuff, just like I design all my clothes; sketch on a napkin and send to seamstress.

But our manufactures all proved so flaky we gave it up. We do have quite a few pieces on line, and continue to have new things for sale all the time, but until I find a more reliable source it’s just too risky to have major garments. When the manufacturer flakes, it pisses off our fans.

We have also talked with major companies like Lip Service about more specifically Abney Park things, but it hasn’t blossomed yet. Still, the future might bring something like this, and I’d think it was cool.

Oh, and I make all the instruments. It’s not that others aren’t awesome at it, its just that I love doing it, and I’m good at it, so why not?

Question: You also did a shoot for the fabulous Alchemy Gothic Empire range, how did that come about?

Answer: One of our fashion manufacturers asked us to model for that shoot while staying at our house. We said yes.

Question: Over the years there have been a number of members moving through the band, most notably female singers. Why has there been such a turnover in members?

Answer: Very few bands have the same members year after year, if they have been a band for more than a few years. People don’t stick with things very long, and I’ve been doing this for 20 years. Being in a band is like being in a job; you can only do it so long before life gets in the way. Tracy (female vocals prior to Lost Horizons) had a couple kids. Magdalene wanted to be known for her art, not her music, so she moved to LA. Krzysztof had to move to be near his kids, etc. Jean-Paul had conflicts with his day job and his wife’s band. Things happen, and it changes people’s directions.

It’s sad, because a few years later (or often just months) they are asking to get back in the band, but we’ve already got someone to replace them! Finn Von Claret was already doing shows with us when Magdalene said she missed being in the band. Robert Hazelton (guitar: From Dreams Or Angels) rejoined the band many times, and left many times. Josh Georing (Guitars; Taxidermy, From Dreams or Angels) is once again working with us to some extent again, with occasional shows and recording with us.

Another problem is that Abney Park is really a solo project, and Solo projects typically change line-ups every tour. I have always written every song, and sang lead in every song, and arranged every song, but my name is too lamed to have the band named something like “The Rob Brown Band”.

Question: How did you find the UK audience compared to the American ones? And what were your thoughts of Whitby Gothic Weekend?

Answer: I found them similar, but with a different accents! Friendly, surprised to see they were the only Steampunks out there, and enthusiastic about everything! UK Promoters have been pleasantly surprised at how big Steampunk events are, too.

Question: You are self-released and self promoted, was this an explicit choice? Have you turned down record deals? What are the advantages and challenges to doing things this way?

Answer: The advantage is we can all make a living at this. The drawback is we have to be good at everything, and work on a lot of the less creative aspects of the business, when we’d rather be making music.

And yes, I’ve been in some fights with record labels that think that loaning money to make an album is worth 95% of the profits from albums. Sure, if I needed the loan, it might be. But I’ve been doing this successfully for 20 years, so frankly, I don’t need a lone. I can make albums and book tours by myself, thanks.

The world doesn’t need record labels any more, and I have the life to prove it.

Question: Your wife, Kristina, plays keyboards and you have a baby daughter. What’s it like working so closely together and juggling family life along with the band?

Answer: I have two kids, actually, Chloe is 8 and Isabella is 5. They are both homeschooled, so they can travel the world with us.

Working so closely with my family is fantastic for me. I’m always at home, were ever I go, and no matter my inspirational need I am right there with my partner at all times!

Question: Are you all full-time musicians and what is your favourite part of the process? Writing, touring, recording, something else?

Answer: Writing is my favourite. Recording is Kristina’s. The rest of the band loves live shows.

Yes, we are full time musicians. Well, most of us. Guitar and bass are currently refusing to go full time – they love their day jobs too much. That can get in the way, but we are making it work.

Question: And lastly, your ship has been taken by the authorities and you are all imprisoned in the lower decks awaiting your fate in the morning. You have been allowed a last supper and are allowed to invite three people to dine with you, who (from any realm or time) would these people be and what would you eat?

Answer: Kipling, Mark Twain, and Mozart – they all seem like they could hold up there end of a great conversation, without getting preachy. (I thought about Steinbeck, or Poe, or Tesla, and though they are awesome, I’ll bet they would be annoying to party with!). For food, I’m cooking Barbecue, spicy as hell, Kipling is making a great curry, Twain brought cigars and my barrel of rum is full!

…and yes, I really do have a barrel of rum.

Published in Devolution