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Thomas Truax in The Guardian


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Apparently, he's part of the "steampunk" movement. No, me neither....

Tonight I'm gonna party like it's 1899 | Music | The Guardian

Tonight I'm gonna party like it's 1899

With their goggles, spats and Gatling guns, steampunks cut quite a figure on the club scene. But what sort of music do these 'airship pirates' make - and why?

Caroline Sullivan The Guardian, Friday October 17 2008

Thomas Truax and his Hornicator ... Steampunk royalty. Photograph: PR

A stone's throw from Nathan Barley's stamping ground in Hoxton, east London, is a new shop that could have been designed for the fictional idiot-hipster himself. Owned by Joe Corre, son of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, it sells menswear under the name A Child of the Jago (Original Terrorist Clothing and Artefacts). The ground floor is a faux-subversive mix of 140 shirts and badges printed with the words "Disposable" or "Terrorist", but down a flight of perilously narrow stairs is a room that explains why the shop is named after an 1894 novel about the East End. It's full of vintage Victoriana - that military jacket? Yours for 265 - with pride of place taken by a wood and brass "time machine" straight out of HG Wells.

"That is completely steampunk," says Tobias Slater, who should know. He's the organiser of White Mischief, London's main steampunk club night, and frontman of a steampunk band called Tough Love. He examines the time machine's levers and dials with a connoisseur's eye and looks very happy. Slater is one of the more prominent British exponents of a subculture that's been established in America for 20 years and is finally making inroads here. For some US steampunks, dressing in Victorian clothes and accessorising accurately is a way of life; for Brits, at least so far, it's primarily a musical movement, though steampunk theatre and cabaret scenes are slowly establishing themselves. An anthology of steampunk writing, Extraordinary Engines - science fiction set in the Victorian era - has just been published by Solaris, and in June, London had its inaugural steampunk art event, when a brass "telectroscope" was erected near Tower Bridge, allowing Londoners to wave at people waving into a second telectroscope in Brooklyn.

"You can define steampunk as visions of the future that never was, as seen through the technology of the Victorian era, when things were made of pistons and steam rather than silicon and transistors," says Slater, who is dressed in a ruffled white shirt, pegged trousers and spats. "It's an aesthetic, a geek culture, a craft culture." It's certainly all those things; steampunks take pride in their ability to make 19th-century-style clothes and gadgets from found objects, creating intricate gizmos from brass, leather and rivets. A London-based American musician called Thomas Truax even makes his own instruments: there's one called the Hornicator, made from a gramophone horn; another, known as Mother Superior, emits steam when played.

The emphasis on gadgetry explains why so many steampeople are male. So does the movement's basis in late 20th-century science fiction. "Steampunk" was initially a literary genre dreamed up in the 1980s by authors such as KW Jeter, who set stories in steam-powered Victorian London as a riposte to then-fashionable cyberpunk books and films. It was quickly adopted by goths as well as sci-fi buffs and grew into a culture that, in America, is big enough to support a three-day Steam Powered convention, which will be held this month near San Francisco.

"I don't mind being known as a steampunk, because it represents things I have a fondness for," says Truax, whose music can be said to typify SP. Though internet debates rage about exactly what constitutes the SP sound, Truax has the major components, including sonorous, half-spoken vocals and melancholy melodies influenced by Tom Waits and eastern European Gypsy bands.

"I do use a lot of studio effects, but what I do is based on mechanical instrumentation. Steampunk is a cultural thing, where people are so inundated by ones and zeros that they're looking backwards. They see these things on stage making noise and turning and they're mechanical - it's the antithesis of the laptop." The irony of it, he concedes, is that steampunk is an internet-driven movement, but even that token of modernity can be Victorianised - one site shows how to customise your computer to look Victorian.

Every steampunk acolyte I speak to says something similar: that they are trying to modify the modern world by rejecting the idea of mass production, and if the only way to do that is to build their own instruments and dress like it's 1858, then that's what they'll do.

"We're living in a world where everything is a beige plastic box, so going back to a world that was elegant and beautiful has an appeal," says Robert Brown, singer with the best-known steam band, Abney Park. "It's inspired by Victorian science fiction. In the Jules Verne era, they would've had 30ft long cars made of solid bronze, and giant airships with sails and fins."

Abney Park, from Seattle, draw audiences of up to 6,000 in the US. The UK will have a chance to sample their surging, folkish gigs when they tour here in April. They're headlining the Whitby Gothic Weekend - an apt place for their UK debut, since many steamers also declare an affinity with goth. There's an overlap between steam and the burlesque and "new vaudeville" scenes, too: They all attract extroverts who are into dressing up," says Slater, whose White Mischief nights feature an array of bands and cabaret acts that subscribe to the "never- knowingly underdressed" credo.

Brown, who wears a kind of Victorian flying outfit (including goggles) on stage, is an enthusiastic steam advocate, seeing it not simply as escapism but as a way of reimagining an imperfect past. "The injustice and poverty in the Victorian era were horrific. That's the great thing about this - Victorian women were repressed, but steampunk women are the opposite of that. They're tough adventurers and they've got tools and they're ready to go."

So it would seem. I talk to Amanda Scrivener, a Winchester clothes designer whose steam identity is Professor Maelstromme. "Steampunks all make up their own personas - they all want to be airship pirates, adventurers and scientists," she says. "That's why it's fun, cos it's like technology turned upside down - Professor Maelstromme is from the 1880s, and has always been a scientist and inventor. I'm always inventing new gadgets, like goggles with Gatling guns."

Goggles figure so often among steamers - there's even a highly popular site called Brass Goggles - that they have become the movement's symbol, as safety pins became punk's. Part of that may be the result of their portability - they're much easier to carry around than an actual steam engine - but they also straddle the divide between past and present. They're comfortingly old-fashioned, but useful for modern steamy activities such as welding the gadgets steampunks love to carry around. Ed Saperia, who is the singer/guitarist of a London band called the Clockwork Quartet, has a sideline designing items only a steampunk would understand, such as a "miniature-reverse Humberg engine" made of brass and old coins; last week, designer Ozwald Boateng asked to see some of his work.

Saperia is a cherubic 23-year-old who works as a corporate restructurer at an investment bank. He wears Victorian suits and watch chains to the office, and half his east London flat is taken up by his gadget workshop, with its trays of old cogs and rivets. As a DVD of Fritz Lang's Metropolis plays soundlessly on the TV, he plays me a demo of the Clockwork Quartet. It's a rudimentary recording of nothing but his co-singer, Hannah Ballou (an American who is also a burlesque dancer), and a guitar. Worried that the demo doesn't have enough oomph, Saperia picks up an accordion and plays it to flesh out the sound. It's tarnished, bittersweet music that conjures up one of his favourite bands, Portishead.

He has big plans for their first gig, which will happen in December. "I've hired a writer to write a play, and then we're going to rip it apart. There are six characters, each of which exemplifies an aspect of steampunk: doctor, soldier, fugitive ..." Nutty as it sounds, it could work, not least because Saperia is a natural musician. He's already got a fan in his downstairs neighbour, Ash Gardner, the producer behind Noah and the Whale's 5 Years Time. What does he think of Saperia's music? "Awesome. They're doing something unique."

The next few months will dictate whether steampunk becomes an established musical niche over here or goes the way of other fashiony fizzle-outs. Corre, who is in his Child of the Jago shop when I visit, insists that, time machine or not, his venture has nothing to do with steamery. But not to worry - the movement's emphasis on Victorian values might interest the Tories. Could the Conservatives use it to entice young voters to their cause? Nonsense, scoffs Slater when I email him about it later. "Steampunk plays with aesthetics taken from the Victorian era, but I think you'd only have to attend a White Mischief night to see that steampunks eschew rather a lot of Victorian moral and political values."

Thomas Truax tours Britain in October and November. White Mischief's next night is on October 31 at a secret location in London (whitemischief.info)

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