Robert Brown is the founder, lead singer, principal songwriter and "Captain" of Abney Park, a band practically synonymous with steampunk.
Between his work with Abney Park and being a devoted family man Robert has found time to write a soon to be released novel, "The Wrath of Fate", and to oversee the creation of a table-top Role Playing Game based on his writing ("Airship Pirates").
Somehow he also squeezed in time to chat with us....
Sepiachord: What's the first album you ever purchased? What lead you to that set of songs?
Captain Robert: I think it was Depeche Mode, Some Great Reward. My sister brought it back from London, and she said, "This is exotic FOREIGN music!", which seems hardly believable now, but this was the day when the Footloose soundtrack was the biggest thing in music. I never lost that attraction to finding something exotic and different.
SC: When did you know that you wanted to be a performer, not just an appreciator, of music?
CR :I 'm not sure it was ever a question. In my family there were "Those who do and those who watch". We were informed from birth we were doers, not watchers.
SC: How was Abney Park founded?
CR: I put together Abney Park about 100 years ago, or so it feels. It was a completely different set of people then. Kristina joined me shortly afterward (I had played with her in a previous band), and we slowly transformed into the band we are today.
SC: How did the current line up coalesce?
CR: Piecemeal. Kristina and I have worked together since she was a teenager. Nathaniel was half brother to the bands Videographer. Daniel was Kristina's friends husband. Jody is my Cousin, and so on.
Now, for me this hasn't happened yet, but by the time you read this is will have. We are for the first time in Abney Park history varying our format of "Guitar, Bass, Boy Singer, Girl Singer, Keyboards" by adding a permanent, lead guitar player. This gives Nathaniel the opportunity to play more Violin, Banjo, Mandolin, while giving Abney Park the magical playing of Josh Goering. We worked with him many years ago, and his return means we regain some amazing talent we have sourly missed.
In about 4 hours we will ask him to join our band as a permanent member. I hope he says yes!
SC: What precipitated Abney Park's shift to steampunk?
CR: I always wrote Victorian Science Fiction Lyrics. Songs like The Change Cage (The upcoming Airship Pirates RPG is based heavily on this song) were actually written years before Abney Park was formed, and decades before we recognized the term Steampunk was a fit. When we actually found the word, it seemed like it was a given that we were meant to peruse it. We then started crafting albums with compositions that fit the feel of those lyrics.
SC: What is it about steampunk that speaks to you?
CR: It's the perfect hybrid of the era of Adventure, and our modern excitement with gizmos and gadgets vehicles. It allows a day dream where nothing cool is left out!
SC: Why did you go with the airship pirates look?
CR: On the day we realised our lyrics had Victorian Sci-fi themes, and found the word Steampunk. I happened to be drawing pictures of Airships during all this - mostly because they are easy to draw. Pretty soon the drawing had evovled into an airship flying over a jungle, and ruined mayan temples. The result was that in a few days I had written the song Airship Pirates.
SC: Do the band members design their own stage costumes?
CR: Yes, although occasionally we adopt bits given to us from fans and artists. My outfits all started as napkin sketches, and were then converted to clothes by talented seamstresses.
SC: You've got your first novel coming out, which is not surprisingly steampunk in nature. How many of the Abney Park tunes are part of the song cycle related to the book?
CR: The vast majority of them play into the world of the novel. The novel is written in the first person, and as I go through this strange adventure I occasionally see things that inspire me to write lyrics, and I jot them in the novel.
I'm really thrilled because a few of the songs lyrics held meaning to only me. Through this book form, I can explain lyrics like " Sleep, Sleep My Isabella, Safely in your Carosella. Sleep through the spinning, just like your beginning. Sleep my Child, So sleep my child." These lyrics only really hold there full meaning too me, but when the book comes out everything will be explained.
SC: The band's next released has been announced as "Off the Grid: Abney Park Unplugged". What lead you all to do an acoustic album?
CR: We have occasionally done acoustic live performances, to a varying degrees of success. Recently we started working with this fantastic drummer named Dusty Cox (I'm so tempted to call him Dusty Cogs). The result was amazing, we walked of stage and the sound man said to us, "Geeze, that sounded like a polished album more then a live performance!" Well, that was a call to action, and I have to say we are learning so much about our music and our recording process in this complete departure from our normal methods.
SC: Do you think that doing an unplugged album is something the current line up can pull off that earlier incarnations wouldn't have been able to do?
CR: Yes. Yes I do. We've had plenty of talented people before, but I think we currently have them all at the same time, and they are all in a mindset modest enough to know when to play, and when not to. Music is nothing if not a delicate balance, and when you have six or seven people all making noise at once, that balance is life or death.
SC: When should fans expect a Ranch Hand Robby album?
CR: The joke that grew, I can't believe how much my practical joke of "I'm going country" has evolved.
Honestly, this acoustic album is 50% Ranch hand Robbie tracks; Post Apocalypse Cowboy.
SC: Personally I have to give you much respect for your support of all ages shows. Why are you such an advocate for events that aren't just for drinking age people?
CR: At different ages you have different finical resources. When you are 6, you don't have any money. When you are 16 you have a tiny amount. When you are 24 you are working way too hard at a demeaning job. 28 might be the same plus kids to pay for! At 45 just about everybody starts to get money figured out. Charging everybody the same thing is unfair.
So if I have any say at all in ticket prices, I make kids free (so parents can bring them, instead of pay babysitters), teens really stinking cheap (last show they were $1) and over 20's a reasonable price. I think promoters some forget that fans are just people trying to get by in a repressed economy. An Abney Park show should be an escape, not more stress.
SC: What's your personal favorite Abney Park song?
It's balls-out-singing, great upbeat cadence, and it's lyrics put me in a great "staring to far horizons" mood.
SC: How did "Wanderlust" come together?
CR: I wrote it on a plane trip back from the Island of Tobago, which you can only reach by first flying to Trinidad. I love travel, especially if it takes me off the beaten path.
SC: Jim Morrison of the Doors got sick to death of playing "Light My Fire", are you burned out on "Airship Pirates" yet?
CR: I was for a while. I go so tired of it, I stopped remembering the lyrics. But lately its gone through a rebirth, and I'm in love with it again. I owe a lot to that song. I pretty sure it bought my house, and it set the stage of the world behind the novel and the RPG.
SC: What's next for Abney Park?
CR: Currently we are either about to release, or have just released:
Full Studio Album
Novel, "The Wrath of Fate"
RPG, "Airship Pirates"
All in the next 6 months. After that, I plan on taking a nap - and if I never get up again fans will have plenty to keep them busy for a while.
SC: What's next for steampunk?
CR: ts already a internationally recognized genera, like "Pirate" or "Hip Hop" or "Tudor". Its probably the only style I have ever seen that bridge all art forms, so it really has potential to be something history will not forget. But major artists are taking the "fashion" and leaving the musical style: Rush, Lady Gaga, T-Pain, Sugarland…all these people have been seen dressing steampunk or with steampunk stage sets, but continue to make regular contemporary music. *yawn* To them, its "this years buzz word", which is i guess more then we thought it could be.
The only question I still have is will it become a world-recognized musical genera. I honestly don't think musicians in the scene are really taking it seriously enough at the moment for that to happen. Steampunk musicians have some great music, but are making crappy products (not recorded well, not mastered, not marketed) and they give it away for free - which means they never have money to put into the next product or justify really honing their craft. I only know of a couple that are producing really quality music, but they are taking it from such a comical standpoint that i think it makes a narrow demography and a limited replay-abilty. After you have been told a joke, how many more times do you want that joke told to you?
Abney Park is trying to step up our game, since we are currently in the best position to move this genera mainstream. I hope we can, but I'm not vain enough to think we have produced good enough work in the past for this. And if we can't, I hope someone else can! Other artists need to realize this has the potential to be more then just a fringe curiosity, and step up what they are doing, so we can present this to the world. We steampunk musicians need to not be content with being big fish in a little pond.
SC: You've got your family, your band, a novel in the works and a Role Playing Game about to come out... what's next for Robert Brown?
CR: I want an iOs adventure game in this world, an MMO based on the RPG, and either a TV series or a movie based on the story. I'd take Broadway, too, if i could have Les Mirserables quality sets and productions. Years ago these would seem like unreachable dreams, but everything else has come true, so I'm optimistic.