Jeff Mach: Bad Poetry and Good Opportunities
The songwriter and Steampunk World's Fair mastermind talks about his creative origins and turning obstacles into opportunities.
There are people who create music, and those who promote music. However, there are indeed those rare creatures around who do both. Jeff Mach is one of those double-threats, a promoter of epic steampunk, goth, and other themed events that draw thousands of people from around the world, and a singer-songwriter who tells engaging stories through his music.
I first discovered Mach's music when I saw him perform as the opening act for his own Steampunk World's Fair in 2015. Several of his songs really resonated with me, in particular the song "Dream Factory" (included below). He has a way of taking relatable concepts--like in the aforementioned song, being careful not to allow your dream to become just a job--and weaving them into whimsical, engaging songs.
I had the pleasure of talking with him about his passion for writing music, and for providing a platform for other musicians to engage with new audiences.
How did you first get started writing music?
I literally won a guitar at a folk festival when I was 12. It shows the benefits of attending great but little-known events. A local music shop (O Di BellaMusic of Bergenfield, to which I'm still loyal) was giving away some guitars as door prizes at a folk festival. The music was fantastic, but there weren't a lot of audience members. My luck was good--I won one!
That summer, I met a fellow named Mark Baldridge. I'd been taking guitar lessons and writing these terrible songs. And he taught me this simple lesson: "A song is just bad poetry". I realize that doesn't cover every song or every bit of songwriting--but particularly in that moment, in that time, it set me free. Instead of cold, stilted lyrics, I could write whatever I wanted--it didn't have to be something that would work perfectly on a page. And I've been writing all manner of songs ever since.
How do you feel listening now to your earliest pieces? What's changed, and when (and how) did steampunk enter the picture?
You know, I'm pretty sure that anyone who started making art as a kid looks at their work and feels it was pretty silly. Honestly, though, once I got past a lot of the things that were artificial about my songwriting--not just trying for poetry, but trying to be weird for weird's sake instead of its meaning in a narrative--I started writing songs I really liked about two years in. I still play some songs from when I was 15.
Steampunk's been a gift to my songwriting--to all of my writing, really. I get to create for a massive shared world, and there are no exact good rules. You can push the boundaries, you can play with cliches and tropes and remix or defeat them, you can try to say something that hasn't been said before. I love Steampunk's whimsy and I love its serious side, I love its range, and I absolutely adore how many different musical and lyrical styles fit within the world of "Steampunk".
Do you have a method to your songwriting? Do you start with a theme, lyrics, or the music itself first... or is it simply different for every song?
It's always lyrics. It's always a lyrical hook for me. It's sometimes an idea or a thought, but I'll pretty much look straight for how to find a chorus and a verse and expand the song out until it's a full story - whether that's an actual tale, or just an idea that you open up, examine, and then hold up to the light.
You collaborated with Psyche Corporation to create the steampunk rock opera Absinthe Heroes. Could you talk a bit about the collaborative process, both creatively and logistically?
I'd like to think I was easy to work with, because what I said was, "You're brilliant. Whatever music you put to these words will make me happy, and will work." And I was totally right. It was something like that Elton John/Bernie Taupin style of writing, where the composer and the lyricist barely even talk about the process--though I had the huge advantage of Psyche Corp being an incredibly accomplished songwriter, which meant her grasp of how to use words and how to join emotions, music, and lyrics is really deeply exceptional.
Of all the songs you've written, which do you hold dearest?
I am genuinely curious about what songwriters stand up and say, "Absolutely, this particular song is my favorite that I've ever written!" I can't even imagine what that would be like. I have a working repertoire of about a hundred of my own songs, and I could probably narrow it down to...my top ten?
But I'm really fond of the "Tale of Wonder", which is the opening song for Absinthe Heroes. I have this theory that the opening song of a rock opera or a musical should set the tone for the show, but doesn't have to be tied too precisely to the action. So that opening song should try to send an electrical current through peoples' blood, muck with the chemicals in their heads, get them to a place where they can be excited and choose to get sucked way the hell in. That song, in particular, is modeled a bit after my first love--Gilbert and Sullivan's patter songs--and contains things I love, like tons of words and internal rhymes:
"This is a tale of wonder
Hope and cunning
Could you talk about your first live performance? What have you learned since, that you wish someone had told you back then?
Oh, easily. I can do it all in a sentence, "If you're going to play in an Irish bar when you're 13 years old, and you don't sing or play very well in the first place, perhaps, as one of the patrons kindly suggested, one ought to learn a few Irish songs first."
How did you get your start in event creation and promotion?
Rocky Horror. I loved The Rocky Horror Picture Show; I fell into a deep and lifelong passionate adoration of the way it changes a physical and emotional space, like the magic of a stage play but untamed and with more interaction.
I wanted to put on Rocky Horror in college. Strange University politics happened and I couldn't (I won the lawsuit, though)--and I was left with this band of misfits who came from a really diverse spectrum of weird subcultures. "What the hell do we do now, if we can't show Rocky?" we asked. And so we decided to put on events for people with that same spirit--you know, as Frank-N-Furter says:
"I'm a wild and an untamed thing
Of all the events Jeff Mach Events puts on, people perhaps know you best for The Steampunk World's Fair. How did that event originate, and what has it been like watching it grow into one of--if not the largest--steampunk music event in the world?
There's a lot behind the story of The Steampunk World's Fair, but there are two pieces which stick out:
There was some real uncertainties about what Steampunk was going to become. There was a school of thought which felt that the fanciest, most--there's no other word--stuck-up Steampunks were the "best" Steampunks. I was with the school that said that not only was being fancy NOT the only or best way to measure Steampunk, there WAS no "best" Steampunk - we were all Steampunks, all-embracing, diverse, and welcoming.
And back then, pretty much every Steampunk event, particularly in the US, was essentially modeled on the old scifi convention model. Which is a lovely model, and I love literary scifi conventions. But they were very much based around almost nothing BUT panels and talks and discussions. And that left out the music, the dancing, the eating and drinking, the revelry--the whole festive, lively, vibrant spirit of Steampunk.
And it turns out that this was what the world wanted--an inclusive Steampunk, FULL of shows, performances, and things to do. It turns out that we weren't alone in thinking this might be one of the most fun ways to do Steampunk things. And when you start out by embracing everyone, then you have a chance to win over more people, if you show them a good time. And one thing SPWF indubitably does is show people a good time.
As a promoter, what do you look for in the bands that you bring on board to perform at your events?
We promote festivals. We are very much not based on the model of "We have this particular big band, and then all the other stuff". Even when we had a band that was much bigger, internationally, than any of our others, we worked hard not to center around that band. So we actually look to round out the experience with a combination of variety, musicianship, and Steampunk spirit.
Be friendly, give Steampunks a reason to identify with you, make great music, and have a circumstances which makes your appearance practical for everyone. That's how to do it.
What do you have planned musically for the near future and on down the road?
My next rock opera is Villain, Villain. It's something of an old-school swords-and-sorcery tale, but told directly from the point of view of the Dark Lord, not the damn plucky heroes.
What are the best places to hear and experience your music?
I'm biased...I think the best place to hear ANY Steampunk music is at The Steampunk World's Fair. And part of that's me joking about, but part of it's deadly serious. Even now, seven years later, we put more care and effort into our music, sound, light, stages, and stage management than many music festivals or concert venues, with no small help from our partners, Circuit 6. I've seen--and performed--under some conditions which really didn't take into account the importance of helping a musician be seen, heard...and found! So good sound checks, good light, good sound itself, good staging, and trying hard to let people know who's performing and why they should go see those people: those are pretty core to who we are and what we do.
Jeff Mach is a singer-songwriter, playwright, and event developer. You can find out more about The Steampunk World's Fair at www.steampunkworldsfair.com. His next event is America's only 3 day Goth festival, www.darksideofthecon.com, coming this March; The World's Fair is this May. He lives in Hackensack, New Jersey, with his husband and 4,000 old science fiction books.