Interview with Abney Park

The quintessential steampunk band talks about the culture, their experiences in Europe and plans for the future.

Abney Park
Abney Park (Hilde Heyvaert)

Abney Park recently landed their airship, the HSM Ophelia, in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, for their very first mainland European concert at the Phantasium opening night.

The Gatehouse and The Clockworker decided it was time for a joint venture and lucked out getting several members of the band to sit down for an interview about being in Europe, performing and who’d play who in a movie.

You’ve been part of the steampunk scene since pretty much the beginning. What has been the biggest evolution in your opinion?

Robert Brown (vocals): Well, there have been several big changes. The first was simply people recognizing that it was a fashion movement and not just an art style. Because originally there were steampunk artists, but nobody thought of steampunk as a scene. And now we’ve just watched it go through all the cultural changes that every subculture goes through.

First nobody knows what it is, next you get a bunch of people that become elitists and start telling everyone they’re doing it wrong. And after that those people sort of get ostracized and now we’re somewhat in the state where people try to decide at what level steampunk is going to settle down and become itself, so it’s kind of all bubbly right now.

I think the only real overnight change is when it went from being an art style and became a subculture. Suddenly people were gathering and called themselves steampunk and it became a verb and an adjective. “That is steampunk and I’m going to steampunk this!” (Laughs) You know what I mean? It’s a thing you do or do to somebody.

What would you say is the most positive and negative to it as it is now from your point of view?

Dan Cederman (bass): The community. People share ideas and help each other.

Robert: Yeah. One of the things that we noticed early on that with steampunk, and this is the main overarching theme that I’ve noticed, is how excited and positive everybody is. When they get together at an event, they’re not going around to put down other people’s outfits. Instead they are going, “That is so awesome, how did you make that skirt? And that’s so cool!” It’s that enthusiasm of everybody for each other that made it cool.

How would you compare steampunk in Europe to steampunk in the US?

Robert: It seems that steampunk in Europe started a little slower, it’s about three or four years behind what’s happening in the US. But it really feels like it’s catching up now. The events that we are playing over here now seem to be getting as big as those that we play in the US. Even though right now the US has a lot more events, steampunk is catching up in Europe.

I hear about a lot of stuff happening here. Steampunk has been interesting for the US because everything’s very modern there. Steampunk in the US is this big rebellion. When we go to London and the whole city looks steampunk, we think, “How is it even a rebellion here?” Here in Europe it’s just dressing like your grandparents. (Laughs)

But, yeah, a big difference is the rebellion in the US, because we were rebelling against all the ugly modernism that is going down there. That just looked fun to the rest of the world, and Europe joined in, and you guys have got so much more resources to pull into it. I wouldn’t be surprised if eventually the Americans were saying, “Wow, it’s those cool European steampunks that can really nail this”. Our country barely even goes back to the era of steam.

You’ve performed in both the US and Europe. How would you say the European audience differs from the US one?

Josh Goering (guitar): When we played in London, we didn’t just play for Londoners, the audience consisted of people from all over the UK and Europe.

Robert: Yeah, maybe it does blend more. The US is very big, so when we play in Portland, Oregon, which is on the northern West Coast of the US, we just play for people from Portland, who all have their own style. And then we do a festival in Texas, with only people from there and it’s a totally different style of steampunk. Each town is their own little isolated take on steampunk. It’s like night and day. But here in Europe each crowd will be from thirty different countries.

Jody Ellen (vocals): It’s a three-hour drive for Clara [of The Clockworker, who was co-interviewing] to get here from Germany, which is the equivalent of us going from Seattle to Portland for a show. It’s not far, by US standards.

Titus Munteanu (violin): One thing that I noticed is that in the States, people that come to our shows don’t just come for the show but also see it as an opportunity for them to express their beliefs and their way of being steampunk. Compared to the show in London, and the same will probably go for the show here tonight as well, you see a lot of people that aren’t showing up in steampunk attire, but that come just to enjoy the music. Not for the steampunk experience.

What’s been your most memorable concert to date? Either good or bad.

Jody: I think the most fun show we ever did was the Wild West Con in Old Tuscon Studios, because it’s where they filmed all the old Westerns movies.

Robert: The entire venue is basically an abandoned cowboy ghost town in the middle of a cactus desert. It’s really cool and we’re doing it again in two weeks!

Jody: We rode horses and shot guns.

Robert: Shooting riffles, riding cowboy horses on Western saddles. There are cowboys guiding you around.

Jody: We wore cowboy hats the entire time we were there.

So are you going to dress up in Western steampunk style for the occasion?

Robert: Oh yeah, absolutely! And do some Western steampunk songs! It’s cool! And when we’re on stage there we’re in a saloon on a saloon stage. And the entire town is filled with steampunks, because they’ve come in from all over the world to be a part of this event. It’s definitely a fun one.

Josh: I really liked London, that was a big high point for me. I’d say London and DragonCon. DragonCon just for the sheer size, it’s this huge convention in Atlanta, Georgia and it’s the biggest thing I’ve ever played, it was amazing.

Robert: We were on stage in front of 6,000 people, so it’s definitely a big event.

Josh: But all the other way around, the last London show we played in the Scala. But let’s say something about the most memorable worst shows, that’d be fun. Robert and I played in a pizza parlor once, about ten years ago. We showed up and the PA was one speaker.

(Robert and Josh burst out into laughter)

Robert: Well, they had two speakers, but one was broken and they had painted a big red X over it instead of just throwing it away.

Josh: And then there was the time where we ended up playing in a nudist colony, where everyone was naked except for us.

What’s your ultimate dream venue to perform at (again)?

Jody: (Joking) The Red Light District in Amsterdam.

Dan: Yeah, and each of us have our own little room. (Chuckles)

Robert: That’d be a great video project, actually.

Dan: My ultimate dream show would be having the budget to get a large enough venue and all the materials needed to really deck everything out scenery-wise. Perform the songs with the backdrops, lighting effects and everything else that goes with them.

Robert: I’ve always said I wouldn’t mind doing a Las Vegas stint if we got to have those types and sizes of sets. Where we actually have a big airship coming on and we’re standing on the deck.

Dan: Exactly.

You’ve released many songs that have become the soundtrack to steampunk so to speak, but which song is your own personal favorite and why?

Robert: Mine changes with whatever mood Im in.

Jody: You used to say “Stigmata Martyr”.

Robert: I was really in love with that song when I first wrote it and the year that followed. The same goes for “Wanderlust”. Especially because it’s a song that you can sing alone or with a band and you can just kind of let go.

Currently I’m working on a song for the next album, which is called “In Time”, which I’m totally in love with right now. It’s always running in the back of my head, but I don’t think anyone’s heard that one yet.

Josh: Pretty much whatever we’re working on at the moment tends to be our favorite, which I think is really natural. For me right now my favorites are all songs that are on the last album, because those are the ones that are the freshest for me and that I’ve worked on the most recently.

Also you grow as a musician, which is of course a good thing, but it’s also a bittersweet thing at the same time, because you kind of grow away from your older songs. When you listen to those songs I often feel like I love that, but at the same time I also feel like I could do that so much better now. So there’s always a little bit of extra attachment to what you are working on at the time.

Robert: And there’s so much work that goes into making an album that by the time you’re done making an album, you hate it. So by the time you fans hear it, the band is sick to death of the songs. (Laughs) We have to set them aside for like six months before we can even start learning them for live performances.

Titus: For me it has to do with the live experience. Depending on the show, just playing them live. I have some songs that I like to keep playing and never get tired of. Not that I get tired of any of the songs, but you know what I mean. But there are certain experiences in certain shows where I felt something sounded very good and it put me in a good mood and I kept on carrying on that experience with me.

Robert: So which song do we enjoy performing live most?

Dan: I actually enjoy performing “Letters”. There’s no huge bass part to that song, but it’s very emotional. And the mood obviously changes for that particular song. I think that we have a lot of inner energy between the band members when we play as it brings us in this very specific mood and it’s just really fun to play.

Robert: I like to play “End of Days” live, because it’s flat out fun to play the bouzouki<. Josh: “Until the Day You Die” is definitely one of my favorites, I like the lyrics to that song as well as the arrangements and everything else. It’s just a really fun song to play. There’s nothing particular about me loving it like a specific guitar part or anything, it’s really just because it’s such a fun song and it’s one of my favorite Abney Park songs. I just love playing it live and I always go kind of nuts with that one.

“Building Steam” is also always a blast to play. As far as newer songs go we just started doing “Ancient World”, which is kinda challenging for me but I like it, that one’s fun too. And of course I also like doing “Automaton” live because I get to fucking show off. (Grins) It’s kind of self-serving, but there you go.

Jody: Dan stole my answer, I like doing “Letters”. I think that it’s the only one of the songs that we play in which half the time I actually cry because I’m so overcome with the emotions of the song and I feel the lyrics. And I think a lot of people do too. One guy even passed out during that song at one of our shows once because he was so overcome by emotion.

Josh: That song is amazing, lyrically, I think that for all of us it’s one of our favorite songs.

Aside from CDs and, of course, band merchandise, you’ve released a role-playing game and a novel. What else would you love to do within the realms of steampunk and within the world of Abney Park?

Robert: Let’s see. We have a board game coming out and a second novel in the works that should be out sometime this year. That’s going to be followed by a third novel. We’ve got a team that’s actually down in Hollywood to see if we can get the novels turned into a movie. So hopefully that’ll happen, let’s see what comes from that. Really, I think there’s nothing we’re not eventually going to do. (Laughs) After all, why wouldn’t you? When this is what you do for a living you can either say, “OK, I’ve written a thousand albums and I’m going to continue to do so,” but I want to keep exploring. I want to try my hand at everything. It’s not all going to be good, but it’ll still be fun to try it all.

So if the novels would get turned into a movie, who would you want to play you in the film?

Robert: Great question!

Josh: I never thought about that. (Whispers at Robert) Robert Downey Junior!

Robert: No! Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Robert Downey Junior is my age and by the time this movie comes out both me and Robert Downey Junior would be too old to play a young Captain Robert. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has a lot of the same facial features as me so if he spiked up his hair he’d probably be a great Captain Robert. He’d be a younger, better-looking version, which is what you want in a movie.

Dan: I have no clue who I’d want to play me.

Jody: After seeing that rock movie, I would have to say Emma Stone, because I get told that I look like her a lot and she can actually sing. What about you Titus?

Titus: (Joking) Besides Brad Pitt, no one comes to mind.

Dan: Still no idea.

Robert: See if we could have gotten a young Dick Van Dyke to play you that would have been perfect.

Dan: Is he sarcastic enough?

Robert: Oh yeah!

If you got to organize a steampunk festival with artists as well as musicians, who would you definitely want to be part of the lineup and where would you organize it?

Robert: The problem with this question is that we keep on doing these shows. Like our next one at Wild West Con, where we are playing with people like Professor Elemental and Steam Powered Giraffe. I mean, how could you do better than that? There are so many really, really great steampunk artists out there, but we play with them all the time so it’s like this wouldn’t really be a fantasy.

Dan: How about from a location perspective?

Robert: OK, so my fantasy location would be a specially constructed aerial platform that hung from balloons.

Josh: In Machu-Pichu!

Robert: In Machu-Pichu… We would have the budget to fly in any steampunk that wanted to come see us and they wouldn’t have to pay to attend. And then they’d have to get up there by a giant pneumatic tube! They’d get shot straight up to the platform with air pressure! And they’ll all be, “Whoohoo,” and land on the deck!

Josh: And it’ll be the last steampunk event ever, because everyone will have died!

Robert: And at the end we’ll burn the entire platform and fall crashing and burning into the sea. It would be the most steampunk thing ever. (Grins)

Dan: Singing “Wrath of Fate” all the way down.

Robert: (Laughs) Yes! (Starts singing “Wrath of Fate”) Down we plunge, a fiery ball…

So Josh, what about your idea?

Josh: I don’t know what I’m going to say to top that. So that or a show on a beach in Hawaii.

Robert: Yeah, we’ll have a steampunk performance on a beach in Hawaii, no one is watching, we’ll quit after a song and go swimming! (Laughs)

Jody: I think we should go to Paris.

Robert: There’s a couple of Paris métro stations that would be perfect venues.

Now that you’re back in Europe, are there places you definitely want to visit?

Robert: We have a couple of days left of this trip after today and we were talking about where we want to head to next. But we’re always at the mercy of our work schedules when we come here: two days before and two days after the show. Go and try to see all of Europe in those couple of days! (Laughs)

We’d love to do some sight-seeing though. We come from the US, where the oldest building is the 7/11 on the corner and we have churches that are rooms with folding chairs in a mall. For us, seeing all the old architecture is staggering. The US isn’t as old as some of the buildings here, so for us that sort of thing is pretty cool.

What’s the most memorable thing that’s happened to you while in Europe?

Dan: The Louvre in Paris. Jody and I went there and that was probably the most memorable for me. All the artworks I had heard and read about for years and years I now got to see. Although the Mona Lisa was very disappointing, because it was so small.

Josh: What was the first museum in London we went to?

Robert: Yeah… I was just going to say the Victoria and Albert Museum as well. We were all affected by it. I remember Josh staggering up to me at the end of this one room and saying, “Looking at this room makes me realized I suck at everything I’ve ever done.” Just being there makes you feel really modest, because everything there is just so amazing.

Josh: And then after I said that to Robert I overheard this little girl tell her father saying, “This place makes me feel like a dumbhead,” and I knew exactly what she meant. (Laughs) We have museums in the US, but, come on, nothing like the ones here in Europe!

Robert: I almost think that if you try to pinpoint what is most wrong about American culture it is a misplaced ego. Where people have all of these egos without having the qualifications to justify them. I think the fix would be if there were some museums in America where people could go and see what 3,000 years of what mankind can accomplish as opposed to the last 200 years of just Americans accomplishments.

Josh: I think it’s ego without accomplishment. Like a sense of being full of yourself, but only because you read about something rather than having gone out and actually doing it and realizing how hard it actually is to do that thing.

Robert: It’s like when you’re the best banjo player in a town with only two banjo players. You never met a better one, so you assume you’re brilliant! When you go to the V&A you see the most amazing accomplishments of mankind and it makes you realized that you’re still aspiring at the things you are very best at.

Josh: That’s a good point, because I guess it’s a perspective thing. Because you only can compare yourself to what you know.

Jody: London was a huge one for me, but I can’t pinpoint an exact location. Also we took a little side trip to Paris and that was like a dream come true for me personally, because it was the one place in my life I had always wanted to visit. So it was kind of surreal standing outside of the Eiffel Tower eating a crépe, which are my favorite, watching a carousel go round and round. It was so amazing that I cried.

Titus: Well, I grew up in Europe, so I have so many memories that are amazing, so I’m not able to just pinpoint one.

How about your most memorable thing from the US then?

Titus: Probably my green-card interview. Those were the most stressful twenty minutes of my life.

What role will your new air kraken play on the HMS Ophelia and what do you think he has plotted for the upcoming Air Kraken Day?

Robert: I think it’ll probably play the role of pillow.

Jody: I think it’ll live in our airship’s studio, guarding the rum barrel.

Dan: It’s a rum guardian!

For those wondering, the band decided to call their new kraken Sir Arthur Conan Kraken, Arthur for short. If you look closely in the live shots, you can see him sit on a drum on the left from Kristina.

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