On Ukuleles and Apocalypses
by Mark Rossmore
Dr. Carmilla lights the path into her rich, dieselpunk world.
September
09
2012
ARTIST PROFILE

Dr. Carmilla
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Picture a bar on the ragged fringe of a post-apocalyptic desert. Its rowdy patrons converse in hushed tones about scarce riches and scarcer women. Whiskey and water slosh freely. In the air between its sagging board walls and above its found-object benches, music lingers, speaking of desperate hope and characters all too familiar in this hard-lived future.

Welcome to Dr. Carmilla's world.

SP-M: Each of your songs is a story, set within a richly detailed dystopian future. Are they all vignettes from a grander tale? Or are they stand-alone images?

I'm really glad you asked me that! Usually, my songs are actually a part of much, much larger story arc- usually based directly around or about the elusive vampire, Dr. Carmilla, though not always. Take for example, the "Loreli cycle". Currently there are about 8 or 9 parts to the story. Two of them feature on Exhumed & {Un}plugged and one made an appearance on the Ageha {Prototype Edition} EP. It's been in writing for about three years now and may well come to its finale in it's own album, sometime over the next couple of years. In Exhumed, I decided not to say which Loreli songs were which parts as it's much more centric on individual songs than a unified story. However, there is a strong story-telling connection across my entire repertoire. In fact, there's a somewhat large crossover between both Dr. Carmilla's and The Mechanisms' material (http://themechanisms.bandcamp.com/), too.

Occasionally, I'll write something that stands solely on it's own, but that's rare. Usually there's a lot of references that you can find between my songs. I'm also a huge fan of sneaking in references to things like sci-fi films, television-series, books, poetry, etc.

SP-M: Elements of cabaret, jazz, and atmospheric soundtracks weave their way throughout your music. What artists do you consider influences?

Oh, where to even begin? I guess chronologically speaking soundtracks were a very early influence in life: I've been a fan of David Bowie's work, as well as War of The Worlds (the musical, particularly, but also the book) for as long as I can remember. Since I was a child, I was always fascinated with film and anime soundtracks. Particularly ÅΈFP (Yoko Kanno) and probably anything touched by the hands of Giorgio Moroder, Brian Eno or Tim burton during the 80's. I've also been pretty enamoured with Sigur Rós over the past few years.

My influences in Jazz, Cabaret and Swing is pretty extensive. The main artists that stand out in my mind right now are Miles Davis, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Wolfgang Parker, Kurtz Weil, Lashings of Ginger Beer Time, Single Bass & Janelle Monáe. And I know that Ms. Monáe isn't strictly in any of those genres, but her work borders on several of them, including soundtracks. Plus I'm just such a big fan, I couldn't not mention her! I guess you could call her music 'prog-soul' (if you wanted to), but she's just very unique!

Musical theatre and film have played a big role in influencing my work, too. I really love Little Shop of Horrors; Hedwig & the Angry Inch; Repo, The Genetic Opera; and Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, to name but a few.

SP-M: You've just released an all-new ukulele album that juxtaposes your darker themes with the gentler tones of the uke. What inspired you to go in this direction? 

A lot of people tend to assume that the ukulele is always a very happy-go-lucky instrument but, as with any instrument, a good musician can produce a whole range of musical expressions from their instruments. I've worked a lot in the past with subverting the idea of what an instrument is traditionally assumed to do.

Many years back, I saw the film Some Like It Hot. It's got jazz, comedy, drag, camp under(and over)tones and stars Marilyn Monroe on a soprano ukulele. I was also performing in a band at the time and one of the members played ukulele, so I was quite accustomed to being around them. After seeing Some Like It Hot, I realised that I simply had to get one.

As time went on, my disability got worse and I found I couldn't carry my keyboard around anymore. Even guitars became a struggle to take to a gig.

After writing "Rocket Girl", I started composing ideas more on ukulele, initially adapting my earlier material to see what would happen. I write most of my songs with simple structures when I'm first writing, to make sure that it doesn't rely too heavily on many instruments working in unison. Then I normally add embellishments on top- but if the sound doesn't fill out easily on a solo instrument like the ukulele or guitar with vocals, then I try to simplify more. Take this, for example: Mozart relied heavily on embellishments in his work - that was probably his greatest skill - whereas Beethoven relied more on strong, identifiable refrains and use of leitmotifs. I love using leitmotifs in my music, as it helps to construct narratives without relying solely on words. You see them a lot in War of The Worlds too!

I chose ukulele for all of the above reasons: portability, simplicity, subversion and--finally--Contrast! One of the things that made The Smiths so powerful was Johnny Marr's jangly, happy guitar lines, contrasting Morrissey's mournful crooning. I love playing around with the dynamics in my material.

SP-M: The ukulele has long had a reputation as a "toy" instrument next to its bigger six-string cousin, but it seems it's finally getting some respect. For instance, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder recently put out an all-ukulele album. What do you think is causing this shift in perspective?

Partly, I blame George Formby for the image of it being like a toy. I mean, ok, the soprano ukulele's diminutive stature doesn't lend itself exactly to being the most serious-looking of instruments, but Formby really helped to put the nail in the coffin of the ukulele for many years. People would rather be heckled to play "Stairway" or "Freebird" anyday over (shudders) "When I'm Cleaning Windows". But secondly, yes, guitars didn't help matters either.

Electric guitars changed everything. Initially helping Jazz-guitarists gain more volume in a big band context, it was later (largely due to the popularity of the Beatles) that had secured it's place as the 'go-to' instrument of the Rock and Pop music world.

In comparison to the guitar, the well-known soprano ukulele is small and quiet- an unassuming and 'child-sized' instrument. For the past 50 years, the world has been used to the phallocentric size-comparison of these two instruments. After all, rock is so largely and predominantly a masculine-glorified genre and movement. It's so rare for women to be seen as great musicians in rock, instead with their value often being placed on how 'sexy' the musicians are. And what more a feminine comparison to the guitar than the humble ukulele- more petite, higher-pitched and quieter. Society very rarely views the feminine and the masculine on equal terms.

But things are changing. The internet enables so much more and faster communication of ideas and conversation. With the slow necrosis of the old world of music business and with better, cheaper recording equipment and ways of sharing music, people are starting to open up a lot more to new ideas. Instead of competing in a world of Kerrang, MTV and NME, we're vying for the attention of anyone connected to the internet. And so a lot of ideas get shared around. Musical conversation is happening much faster.

The humble ukulele is a much cheaper item than a guitar, plus more accessible and easier to play. It's very rarely played with the idea in mind of 'becoming the best' and has little room for competing egos. And that's the beauty of it--being able to concentrate on the music, rather than how complex what you're playing is. Which is not to say that you can't be complex on a uke -- but it's more acceptable to be an "okay" ukulele player, rather than some string-instrument-swinging god.

Times are changing, and in this respect, I feel it's a very healthy thing for the world.

SP-M: Your first EP Ageha was successfully funded via Indiegogo and your fanbase, and the new Exhumed release made it over 2/3 of the way. How did it feel watching those numbers tick ever higher to your goal? 

Sadly, the [new] album didn't reach it's funding goal, though it's been one hell of a trip! I was recording alone, every night, whilst also having to work on my own promotion without any prospect of definitely getting the funds I needed. Watching the clock ticking down was really nerve-wracking. If the last few days hadn't suddenly picked up a lot more, it would have been very hard to bring this album to CD at all. I ended up funding a lot out of my own pocket, which is not something I enjoy doing. My fans always seem to be really wonderful people and it gives me real satisfaction to know that they are there to support me because they enjoy my music.

Crowdfunding is an excellent approach to making music, in my opinion, because it's not charity. It's trade. The artist says: "This is what I want to do and with your help, you'll get not only music, but some awesome and more unusual items in return", which is a really great way of getting projects off the ground without taking the risk of impoverishing yourself.

It's not easy, though! It takes a lot of work and there's never a guarantee that you'll raise the amount you need. It's also quite tough in a world that, all too often, assumes that music should be free. People tend to forget or gloss over the fact that many of us musicians make very little income from our music. For me it's a full-time job, but it doesn't pay anywhere near the UK national minimum wage.

Even though I didn't reach my target, I've successfully managed to do so in the past. This time, I raised enough with money through my fans and from my own pockets and managed to pull off getting it past the creative and recording stage. I still need to raise funds to print more copies and for promotion (as well as being able to eat), but I'm glad I was able to make it this far! My new funding campaign will start soon, aiming to raise the final $600 (roughly) that I need.

SP-M: I've heard several people say you inspired them to take up the ukulele. What's it like being a steampunk ukulele icon? :) Which types of uke did you use on the new album?

Utterly fantastic! Inspiring people to pick up an instrument is one of the most rewarding things in the world for me; it's nice to bring something so wonderful into their lives! I get a lot of strange comments when people first see my ukulele. They're not entirely sure of what to expect! But then I tear into a set, and people start listening. It's quite an intimate instrument and after a show I get a lot of people approaching me, often talking about my ukulele playing. It makes a nice change from guitar or piano-driven performances, too!

I used my main tenor ukulele for most of the album (a Lanikai model). It's a stunning instrument to play and the sound is incredible. It looks great for live too! I tried using a few of my other ukuleles for Exhumed & {Un}plugged, but I always seemed to find myself back to that uke during recordings! Much of the variation in finding the right ukulele sound on the album was done experimenting with different microphones, their positions and sometimes a blend from the ukulele pickup, too.

SP-M: Aside from your primary instrument, bass guitar, and of course your ukes, what instruments do you play on your releases?

So far I've used: a variety of different guitars (classical, acoustic, electric and baritone), programmed and acoustic drums/percussion, synthesisers, keyboard, a piano, cello, kazoo and a rachet (noisemaker). I really enjoy playing a wide variety of musical instruments.

I was quite dismayed that I couldn't afford to get a bass ukulele for recording Exhumed & {Un}plugged. However, I hope that some day in the near future I'll be able to get a couple--one to use instead of bass guitar and one to replace the upright bass; they're so much lighter and better for my health!

In the future, I'm also hoping to play some trombone, descant recorder, glockenspiel, viola and violin on my recordings. It's fun experimenting with instruments that I don't get to play as much on recordings. And speaking of, if you want to hear some more of my instrumentation, I would definitely recommend checking out Jessica Law's 'Rogues Gallery' EP (http://jessicalaw.bandcamp.com/). I played a lot of different instruments whilst recording with Jessica and it was really fabulous working with her and her music. She's such a talented song-writer, a great lyricist and a beautiful singer; it was a really interesting to see what would happen when working as her producer in Silvana Laboratory.

SP-M: There's a few videos online of your live performances on YouTube. How often do you perform live?

That varies a lot, depending on how my health is doing and what opportunities surface. Unfortunately a lot of venues don't have full wheelchair access, especially not to the stage, and this is a real problem, from my experience. I really love playing gigs, but venues need more disability awareness!

I've played seven live performances since february this year (which averages about one per month) at six different towns/cities across England & Scotland, in the UK. I sometimes have to travel quite far to play dates which is always fun, but can be very exhausting, too! I'm hoping to sort some more dates in the near future, though I've been working really hard on recording Exhumed and my next two EP releases (Ageha (re-recorded) and Zouka)!

SP-M: The spoken word vocal format is prominent on several of your tracks, such as last year's "Eleven". Who do you consider influences in the genre?

Haha, it's almost become canon that my recordings feature at least one track with spoken word parts on it! 

Partly, it's influence from musical theatre and *again* War of The Worlds, as well as from my love of prog-rock. I'm pretty much in love with most concept albums and many songs with narratives.

I actually began writing stories and poetry before I played my first instrument. It's almost like this kind of subconscious integration, sometimes. And sometimes it's a conscious effort. I think music gets boring if it's always the same formula (I really try to avoid that). I like to add a variety of sounds and techniques in my music to create atmosphere and effect. With recording especially, I'm always very critical of what effect something has on my music.

I guess listening to a lot of weird music and film during my teenage years really helped to set my mind in motion to the variety of possibilities available to musicians.

SP-M: I understand you suffer from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which--from what I understand--unfortunately has no cure at this time. How does living with this affect your daily life, and your ability to make music?

 Quite frankly, It's hard. Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome affects different folks in different ways. For me, it can be really difficult balancing my work with looking after my health. Although I'm offered the same opportunities in the "music industry" as many other musicians, it's not on equal terms. Finding a stage which I can get my wheelchair on can be a real task. Many other musicians are able to gig a lot more, but for me it's very exhausting. People often expect me to work as fast as the other musicians that they know, but I can't always work at that pace--I get tired easily; I'm in chronic pain, and I'm susceptible to some pretty nasty injuries easier than most people.

I don't think there's even a single thing in my life which isn't affected by my health in some way. I'm dyslexic too, which sometimes makes communicating ideas with other musicians difficult. Sheet music is often regarded as the (cough) "universal" language of music. It's pretty much a non-issue when working with, say, most rock musicians--but when it comes to classical musicians, it's sometimes a hard task to find ones that can initially function without sheet music! I have to rely on my ears and brain a lot to figure out how best to translate ideas for others.

SP-M: Is music your medicine?

Absolutely--it can cure many things; or at least help to alleviate some of the symptoms. Music is generally more healthy than toxic for human beings and vampires alike!

SP-M: What other projects do you have on your horizon at this moment?

 Apart from my next two EP recordings, I'm also working on another, more instrument-heavy album! It's sounding great so far, but everything else about it is pretty hush-hush!

I'm also working on a collaborative project, though things are a little slow with everything else going on! I'm moving location soon and have a lot of paperwork to fill out, which also eats far more of my time and energy than I'd like! Never under-estimate the power of real-life to eat away at your ability to work.

I'm also working on a web-comic, based in the same universe as Dr. Carmilla, and so far it's looking really swell! I've been working at it for a while, though its release has been postponed until I have quite a bit of it ready. If I released it now, I'd have no time to do my music! Better to let these things come when it won't cause a clash of deadlines.

And speaking of current projects, I'm working to improve the facilities on offer to artists at Silvana Laboratory. The studio is starting to look pretty nice, but we still need to get more equipment together and start the website too. 

Lastly, I'm not sure how long it will take to find the right musicians in the right location, but at some point I would like to start looking for others to form a new ensemble, or to help take Dr. Carmilla in new directions. I really enjoy being able to work solo, but being in a band also has its benefits! I miss the camaraderie, the merging of different ideas and having others being your partners in crime. For me, being in a band is like being part of a family. It's a working relationship but, quite often they can quickly become some of your closest friends.

SP-M: Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on your releases and music-making. It's certainly been a pleasure for me to speak with a fellow steampunk ukulele enthusiast!  

The pleasure is also mine! Thanks for having me here!

  
Author Bio: Mark Rossmore
Mark Rossmore has released three atmospheric albums of steampunk-inspired music as Escape the Clouds. A multimedia artist who enjoys telling dramatic stories, he has self-produced three acclaimed music videos and is a published author of steampunk short fiction, aviation articles, and music-related non-fiction. Learn more about his music, videos, and writing at: http://www.EscapeTheClouds.com .
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