Monday, September 15, 2008

An Interview with the Davenport Sisters

The Clockwork Cabaret is a weekly steampunk radio show broadcast and streamed from WCOM in Carrboro, North Carolina. Its creators, known by the personas of Klaude and Emmett Davenport, also put on a monthly steampunk club night, The Clockwork Ball. When I first heard about the show and the club I was impressed with the Davenport sisters DIY attitude and willingness to expand steam culture, but I pictured them playing music in a bar once a month for themselves and few friends. I eventually got a very different impression from a mailing list for public librarians I subscribe to at work. The topic of steampunk literature came up and a colleague talked about how she did a steampunk program in her library because her teenage regulars demanded it out of frustration at being to young to get into the Clockwork Ball. It seems that its one of the hottest alternative music clubs in the North Carolina triangle and the Davenport sisters have built one of the strongest steampunk scenes in the world. I wanted to know more.

Mr G: Please tell me how you got into steampunk and when it started being more than a genre of fiction for you?

Klaude: For me steampunk began it's growth off the page a little over a year and a half ago.  I believe what lit the spark were some plans for an over the top Victorian ensemble to be worn out to a goth club.  I was googling "bustles" for some inspiration and it led me to those first photos of steampunk ensembles.  I was hooked.  It came naturally because steampunk is a fusion of many of my disparate interests: strange little subcultures, the Victorian and antebellum eras, weird history and diy.  It's a thousand tiny interests I never knew could be fused together.

Emmett: Well, I've been reading steampunk books for some time, so I was familiar with the literary genre. I've always been fascinated with various period clothing pieces and had been incorporating them into my mode of dress for some time, creating a strange anachronistic style. And, then someone told me last year that I was dressed very steampunk, which sparked my curiousity and I discovered that there were people out there with the same interests.

Mr G: Music is probably the least defined aspect of steampunk culture. This makes the whole idea of a club night and radio show less than obvious choices. So what inspired you two to become steampunk DJs?

Klaude: Oh this will be a TOME. I'm warning you! It really is the least defined and most often overlooked aspect of steam-culture, and we knew it would be a challenge, but that's what makes it so thrilling! We've both been involved in the music scene in various capacities for a good long while, so it was an obvious choice. I had my start, like so many others, as a college dj, then ventured into the strange and egotistical world of club dj's and somehow wound up back on the radio. We both have such wide and eccelctic taste in music and I know I had a difficult time fitting some of the music I loved into the nights I was already dj'ing. I'm not sure which came first, the idea for the radio show or the idea for a steampunk themed dance night, but they arrived pretty quickly on the other's tails. Emmett originally approached me with the idea of a steampunk radio show on our local community radio station (the plug! in the winter of 2007. I thought it might be fun for a lark, and wound up calling her about 10 minutes before she went in for our approval meeting to shout at her "Hey! Let's do it like an old style radio program! Let's have little sketches and radio plays, and funny little characters, but also play music." I had no idea what we'd do or how we'd do it. Neither of us did! Poor Emmett went in there armed with Klaude's good intentions and a silly idea. We didn't have the Calpurnia, the Davenport sisters, CLANNG, nothing! And they loved it! We were both a bit shocked. That's the beautiful thing about steampunk though, it appeals to such a wide cross section of people.

The dance night we dj and host (The Clockwork Ball) is a really fascinating social experiment. I'm not sure either of us expected it to succeed the way it has, partly because steampunk music is so hard to define. We were worried folks would stand around the edge of the dancefloor like it was a middle school dance and we'd be stuck in the dj booth wondering whether it weren't all a big mistake. I think the difficulty to define steampunk has actually led to it's success. The event itself is nebulous, changing each time we have one; It's part dance night, part costume ball, part theatre, part concert, part dance lesson, part photoshoot and I suppose there's a smidgen of role playing in there, though most folks shut down their brains when you mention that phrase. A big part of the impetus behind the Clockwork Ball were our own strange musical tastes. I was frustrated that there were huge chunks of my musical collection I knew I'd never get to hear at a dance club. And I knew I couldn't be the only one who felt that way. We wanted to present an opportunity where you didn't have to worry about whether something fit in with your image of goth, indie, punk, or whatever. We can play all those things because steampunk music hardly exists. It's a cobbled together Frankenstein monster. It's really beautiful to see how the steampunk genre allows for someone who may usually identify straight indie or goth to dance to really great music without worrying they're going to have their indie rock street-cred card torn up in front of them. Can you really drop the Flogging Molly track 'Devil's Dance Floor' in the middle of a goth night and expect anyone to keep dancing? No. But if you drop the same track at a steampunk night, even if most of the attendees are the same folk you see out at the goth night, they'll dance so hard they break the floor! It's beautiful. But I could talk about the Clockwork Ball for hours, it's such an amazing experience for me, and I couldn't be more proud to help host the event. Good lord, Klaude shut up.

Emmett: Ummm, what Klaude said... she actually put it so succinctly that there's not really anything else that I could add to that.

Mr G: So what you're saying is that the people who came had no preconseptions of what the music was going to be so rather than pose they danced, but who came? Especially to the first Clockwork Ball. Was there a natural chemistry to the people that first showed up? Did a lot of people know each other already?

Klaude and Emmett: That first Clockwork Ball was an amazing event. Emmett's alter ego promotes a fabulous goth night here in the triangle called Dracula's Daughter. She hosted the first Clockwork Ball in January of 08 as a special theme night at Dracula's Daughter and I know we both worried about it's success. It was a crapshoot and could have gone either way. It went, thankfully, in the direction of pure awesome. There was an amazing mix of the usual goth patrons, and a good number of folks who'd never been out to, nor had a prior desire to attend, a goth night. The beauty of that particular event was that you'd see goth kids dancing to indie, irish folk, and folk-punk, and indie kids dancing to some goth dancefloor classics.

It never fails to impress me every time we host a Clockwork Ball just how wonderful and friendly all the attendees are. It's shocking really! Everyone seems so happy to be out among other members of this burgeoning genre. It's certainly not that everyone knows everyone else, because there's always a new cluster of folks who come out for the event, but the attendees are just so nice and friendly. It's truly a new experience for me when it comes to dance nights.

Mr. G: So part of the reason the Clockwork Ball has been success is that it is a scene bending night of musical crossover, but there is another side of that. As soon as you put the word "steampunk" next to words like "radio show" and "club night" you started defining an emerging music scene just as surely as the handful of musicians who have done the same with the words "steampunk" and "band." Also while the music you select for the Clockwork Cabaret is highly eclectic it is far from random. So what do you listen for when you select music for the show and the club, and (drum roll for the BIG question) what is steampunk music?

Klaude: While the music is eclectic we do try very hard to keep it from being random. Finding the connecting thread that strings all these works together is much less difficult than trying to describe the connecting thread. For the time being we're in a unique situation in this burgeoning subculture/ artistic movement because the definition of it's music can be as strange and varied as we want it to be. When I'm listening for music for the radio show I keep an ear out for an anachronistic feel and unique percussion. This can manifest itself in any number of ways, covers of traditional songs that have been arranged in a nontraditional fashion, eccentric songs played on traditional instruments, industrial music with substantial non-electronic percussion, anything that sounds as if a good part of it has been ripped from it's mooring to reality and shoved into the past/future. If that description seems a bit esoteric, it's because we have to go a little out there when describing a genre of music that doesn't exist! We're pulling from so many different genres, styles, bands and eras that there probably won't ever be a good way to describe all these strange musics in one word, and honestly I don't want there to be. I don't want to see "steampunk" music turning inwards and limiting itself. Of course, we do limit ourselves a bit with the dance night because all the music we play needs to be danceable. Even that descriptor fails us, because what constitutes "danceable" music when you'll have people waltzing, doing the gothic two step, conga lines and violently twirling in mosh pit-esque clusters? I look for a good solid beat that makes my bustle wiggle for our dance nights, and for the radio show I have the freedom that nobody has to be dancing.

Steampunk music? I'm not sure I can define it. I'm not sure I WANT to define it! haha. I can say that so far bands that describe themselves as "steampunk" music borrow heavily from industrial music, traditional balladry and goth musical traditions. I'd like to see steampunk music stay as more of a concept than a solid musical genre, so for now steampunk music is an amalgum of genres, any band and any song as long as it evokes the proper steampunk mood.

Emmett: To me, steampunk music is an anachronistic style, sometimes involving classical instrumentation in a more modern setting or modern musical resources used to make older sounding music. Two good examples of what I would call steampunk music is the band, Vernian Process, they use electronic music to create classical music composition and the band, Rasputina, who use classical instruments in a way one wouldn't expect.

Mr. G: You ladies have been so forthcoming you've covered nearly every topic I wanted whether I asked about it directly or not. It's been a pleasure. I like to share an experience of my own now. I put together play list for a local steampunk party. I spent a lot of time exploring on and other web sites, and discovered a lot of music that was new to me but struck me as in some way steam. The one thing I didn't do was listen to your show or read your playlists for several weeks. I was pretty confident that I had come up with my own version of steampunk music. After the party I went back and looked at your playlists for the shows I'd missed. For brevity, let's just say there were a lot of striking parallels. Do you think that someday in the near future will we be able to say, "most steampunks are into that sound, and that sound and...?" Is the steampunk mindset is strong enough so that a loose and eclectic, but recognizable music scene will evolve?

Klaude: There's a solid unchanging center that holds this burgeoning subculture and art movement together and that's anachronism. A music scene will develop around this core of anachronism for better or worse. I believe we already can say that most steampunks are into certain genres of music. We see interest in indie, punk, classical, alt country and folk, rock, darkwave and certainly goth. The mass exodus from the goth scene means there will always be strong ties between goth and steampunk music. You can see this already with the band Abney Park who's former goth image has morphed into that of a crew of steampunk pirates while maintaning a fairly darkwave sound. They have been enveloped seamlessly into the steampunk scene. We'll have to make our choices as bands start to emerge that self label as steampunk how, exactly, we'll define the scene. Will we be strict and demand these bands are steampunk in both sound and visual aesthetic, or will we allow for some movement?
I hope the genre of steampunk music stays loose and eclectic. I'm enjoy the fact that right now I can play a set with Einsturzende Neubauten, Kate Bush, Vernian Process, Man Man, Flogging Molly, Dolly Parton and the Decemberists in it and folks really seem to like the fact I've smushed together a musical Frankenstein monster. Since we're in the first stages of defining the soundtrack that will accompany this subculture everyone has opened their ears and shut down their preconceptions. Hopefully with outlets like our show and the Sepiachord group out on the west coast we'll encourage the culture of steampunk music to stay loose and fluid and practically impossible to define. Of course, that means it's a real bugger to describe what we do, but it just wouldn't be the soundtrack to steampunk if it were easy to define.

Mr. G: Anything to add Emmett?

Emmett: No, I think Klaude & I are in agreement. That's why we get along so well.

Mr. G: Alright then. I'll conclude my part of this interview with a prediction. You are two of the first steampunk djs in the world, but you shall be the last. What advice do you have for those who will follow you?

Emmett: My advice is to remember that deejaying is supposed to be fun, first and foremost. That as the deejay, it is your job to help an event succeed or fail, and a large part of that comes from your attitude. If you're enjoying yourself and having fun, then the crowd can tell, and they'll enjoy themselves, too. There's never a better feeling then when I'm spinning in the booth just goofing around and I look up to discover folks are dancing.

And for those who want to be steampunk DJ, I say don't let one genre of music define you, People are not one-dimensional, so why should the musical choices be? There are tons of music out there that works and you'll be surprised by what people will respond to positively.

Klaude: Always investigate your audience's suggestions, some of the most interesting music has come to me in that way. Listen to everything, it's hard sometimes to keep your preconceptions out of your brain, but worth it when you can. If you're hosting live events: introduce yourself to everyone you can whether they're dressed the part or no. Meeting all these amazing and creative people, getting to spend a moment or two with each of them and hearing their take on the whole subculture has been the most rewarding part of dj'ing. Plus, when you introduce yourself to one of those doe-eyed folks who look totally shell shocked at the event they've walked in on, usually you'll find it's a look of awe and jealousy and you get a precious moment (yes, like one of those figurines, except with a giant steam powered top hat-mounted cannon) in which to introduce them to a subculture and help make sure it doesn't get martyred by misinformation in mainstream culture like the goth and punk scenes.

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