Steamstock: Frenchy and the Punk
Hey! Hey! The Energetic Duo Bring their Percussive Cabaret Sound to the Bay Area.
Samantha Stephenson and Scott Helland are amazing at what they do: making exuberant, unique music and enchanting Bohemian art. They've toured relentlessly across the country and overseas, and have been featured performers at many steampunk conventions.
Now, with a new album out, they're headed to the San Francisco Bay Area for Steamstock, the biggest all-steampunk music festival yet.
SP-M: Let's begin with an ending! Your song "I'm Free"--off of your newest CD Hey Hey Cabaret--closes with the lines "I might not know where I am, but I know I'm exactly where I was meant to be." Are those lyrics autobiographical?
Samantha: Yes. The whole song is very personal. All I ever wanted when I was growing up was to lead a creative life, that was my goal and I knew at a very early age that I had no interest in getting married or having children. Luckily my family never pressured me into doing either of those things but I was expected to enter the corporate life which I did but at the expense of my happiness and sense of well being. It was a big step for me to turn my back on all of that, and I have never regretted it.
SP-M: Your music is this intense blend of acoustic punk, wicked percussion, and whimsical vocals. How has your sound evolved over the years, from your time as The Gypsy Nomads until now?
Scott: I already had 7 solo CDs under my belt when we first starting performing together in 2005. We did a lot of my instrumental guitar tunes that were a mix of celtic, neo-medieval, folk, European and middle eastern melodies and Spanish guitar with Samantha adding all her cool percussion to them. We started touring right away. Being on the road was very influential to our songwriting and inspired us to write a lot on tour. We both love drums and it was inevitable that we would drum together. We worked out some of our drum instrumental arrangements on songs like "Blacksmith" and "Carnival" on the steering wheel and dashboard while at rest stops.
In 2006 Samantha began writing these cool French style cabaret tunes like ‘Le Train’ written on tour in Kansas and "Caravan" written in a Laundromat while she waited for her clothes to dry! We recorded an all French CD, Eternal Summer, in 2007, and our sound really started to form then. In 2008, Samantha began writing lyrics in English with songs like "Oh Gypsy" and had all these cool almost Agatha Cristie type stories like "House of Cards" which brought in some steampunk themes. She lived in England as a kid too, so the fairy lore, Sherlock Holmes and British tales she heard growing up come out in the songs and those themes made me write more upbeat and driving guitar riffs. I played and toured in hardcore punk bands throughout the 80’s, so the punk energy from my past came back. Samantha and I bring a lot of different influences to the FnP writing table and the Frenchy and the Punk sound has really developed into this interesting mix of cabaret, folk, punk, celtic and gypsy jazz styled rhythms and Rio/Taiko drum instrumentals. It’s such an awesome creative journey to be on, and it’s all happened so organically.
SP-M: Hey Hey Cabaret came out this past Spring on the heels of a successful Kickstarter campaign. Which are your own favorite tracks off of the album?
Samantha: That’s tough to answer because there are a lot of different feels to the songs. The title track "Hey Hey Cabaret" is really fun to play live because the audience sings along and gets really into it! It’s super upbeat as are "Birthday Fanfare", "Silent Movie", "I’m Free" and "Make It Happen". "Steampunk Pixie" has a sultry powerful energy and a great groove and sassy lyrics to boot. "Le Chat Noir" is like a little gem, it’s sweet and conjures strong visuals. I love playing "Confession of Jack Bonnie and Sally Clyde" at shows, it’s got a bit of a bawdy, beer-stein-in-hand feel and has cheeky lyrics. I could go on and on because each song has it’s own personality. Some fans may be surprised by "Tie You Up", I sing in a higher register and the content has a slightly different bent. Raising over $10,000 through the kickstarter campaign and website fundraising was amazing and very humbling.
SP-M: How is a Frenchy and the Punk song born and raised nowadays?
Scott: As with everything we do, it’s all an organic process. I’m constantly playing guitar and coming up with new riff ideas and nowadays Samantha sings lyrical lines and melodies into her phone so we always have ideas flowing. But, out of the blue I could be playing a riff and she will just hear words, almost like they are already attached to it and a story and song will form. Sometimes she’ll get the melody and chords all at once and we work it out from start to finish like the song "Yes! I’m French." Or I’ll sit down at my hard disc recorder if we’re at home and work out a skeletal arrangement for a song and come back to it a month later like with the song "The Circus Parade" from ‘Hey Hey Cabaret’. That song just evolved over several months. It’s harder to write on the road these days though, our schedule is more demanding so we try and conserve our energy for the show. Some songs take 20mins to write others take 3 months!
SP-M: "Steampunk Pixie" off of Hey Hey Cabaret sounds like a charming love letter to the steampunk community. In speaking with several other notable SP artists, there seemed to be a trend where the artists were just making the music they loved to make--regardless of actual genre--and the steampunk community said, "Hey, that sounds like steampunk music!" Did you two actively seek out steampunk, or did the community adopt you?
Samantha: We were definitely embraced by steampunks. We were just doing our thing and happened to do events that encompassed that community. We’ve done so many steampunk events now that we are entrenched in the scene but we do still play Fairie Festivals here in the US and Europe as well as the other music festivals and events we are hired for. For us the Steampunk Pixie song is really the marriage of the steampunk and faerie festival scenes as we have a strong affinity for both. They are very creative and spirited communities and I can’t say enough great things about the people who populate those scenes. We love them!
SP-M: At times it's hard to believe all of that sound onstage is coming from just two people. Scott, you've been using looping guitar techniques since the 90's. How have advancements in technology helped your live show?
Scott: I’ve always written for at least 2 musical parts on the guitar. I loved that wall of sound when I played in punk and metal bands. I wanted to have that sonic wall with acoustic instruments in a more folk/world style. In the beginning I would use a CD player for the accompanying guitar part, then I switched to a DAT player. When I got a loop pedal I experimented with that at home for a long time to find a way to incorporate it into the live shows. I wanted it to be like another player instead of just an obvious layering of sounds.
In the meantime when the ipod came along that replaced the DAT and I used that for a while even though I got flack for it at some shows. I was a finalist at an open mic one time and a radio guy hosting the event said, “you have great songs and sounds, but, you’ll never get anywhere using an ipod onstage.” Ironic considering how much that stuff is used these days. But at that time, it may have irritated me enough to just grab that loop pedal and make it work. To get it to sound natural and have it flow in an earthy musical way is an art.
I also have an electronic drum pedal that I activate manually like a bass drum without having to lug an actual bass drum around. We already have enough drums in the van. I really love that I can create the different parts live without any pre-recorded music as the energy of the moment can dictate the pace. It also makes it possible for us to remain as a duo, something that is important to both of us.
SP-M: Some of your live show's highlights are the taiko-like drum instrumentals, such as the dueling drumsticks of "Blacksmith" off of your Gypsy Nomads album At The Carnival Eclectique or the near-instrumental "Circus Parade" from Hey Hey Cabaret. What inspired you to create those pieces?
Samantha: The first time we hung out together in 1998 was when I invited Scott to one of my art openings in NYC. I was living in a warehouse with 10 other artists from all over the world; Japan, Mexico, Venezuela, Korea, Italy and Germany. We had monthly shows and I would display my sculptures and paintings. I had two drums in my studio space that I had brought back from the Ivory Coast when I had visited West Africa a few times, and that night Scott and I ended up drumming at the art show! It wasn’t until 2005 though that we actually wrote our first drum tunes. Also I had lived in Sao Paulo, Brazil when I was a kid and had become obsessed with the Carnival of Rio, dance, drums and everything about it.
Very early in my music listening days I gravitated to bands because of their drummers like Rush and Santana and later Type O. Scott started playing drums when he was 9 but when he started playing punk shows at the age of 13 he was the bass player because J Mascis was on drums. Today we write the drum tunes together, the instrumentals like “The Circus Parade” are purely Scott’s creations, I just provide the percussive accents.
SP-M: Touring has taken you all over the American East Coast, Midwest and West Coast, and across the Atlantic to France, Germany and the UK. Now you're headed west to California for Steamstock. When was the last time you guys played on that side of the country?
Samantha: We toured out to the west coast for the first time in 2005 and again in 2010. The years in between we would make it out as far as Colorado before going southward or northward and around the Midwest. We are super excited to perform at Steamstock along with Thomas Dolby, Abney Park with whom we’ve played many times before, Vernian Process who we haven’t had the pleasure of playing with yet and so many other awesome bands and performers. It’s going to be quite the happening and it’s a real bonus that it’s in the San Francisco area. Last time we were in San Fran we played a Gypsy Punk night! Can’t wait to go back.
SP-M: Just one look at your ridiculously busy touring schedule, and one can assume that music is your livelihood. What were your last "day jobs" before doing this full-time?
Samantha: After getting my MBA I did office type of jobs in advertising, PR, etc… until I came to this crossroads where I realized I would rather die than live that life, that’s how strongly it is in my cellular structure to do something creative. I also realized that the fear of the financial struggle that an artistic life seemed to entail was becoming less daunting as I was struggling both financially and spiritually at the time. I equate the spiritual with the creative as they are one in the same for me.
Paul Gauguin has a lot to do with my decision. I always excelled in math and sciences at school and for some reason I thought if that were the case then you weren’t meant to be an artist. When I was working at a PR firm for the French West Indies I learned about Gauguin’s life and found out that he was a stock broker before becoming a successful painter. That completely turned my theory upside down and became the key that opened the door to a whole new path. So yes, music is our full time gig and we both gave up full time jobs in year 2000!
SP-M: Your creativity goes well beyond music, crossing over into visual arts and crafting. Your albums, stickers, and shirts showcase many of your original drawings. When it comes to crafting, the favorite of many it seems--including this author--are Samantha's handmade Bohemian Bats. How'd those little winged fellows come about? What came first--the music or the art?
Samantha: I first connected with the creative force when I started dance classes at the age of 4 in England and I continued studying dance for over 20 years after that; ballet, modern, jazz, tap, hip hop. It was something I couldn’t live without, it kept me sane. When I moved to NYC I got heavily into sculpture at the Arts Student’s League and the National Academy of Arts both in NYC and eventually turned to oil painting. I had always known how to sew as my mom used to sew clothes for me when I was a kid.
I got into doing the Bohemian Bats by chance. I’ve always thought finger puppets are very comical and I have a strong attraction to bats and their symbolism of rebirth and transformation and their energy of the mysterious and dark. I had made one for myself about 7 years ago and thought it was so cute that I made another one and so on! They are my labor of love. I’ve probably sold about 150 of them now. They feel like adoptions and that’s why I starting doing the bat slide show on the website. Some of our pins and other graphics are based on my oils. The pen and ink drawings on our patches, t-shirts and stickers are Scott’s images.
Scott: For me music was first, unless you count the hours months and days I spent as a kid drawing. My parents never sent me to summer camp, they sent me to little local free art classes. The images I create for FnP are all pen and ink drawings, my medium of choice, and the main image that has become our logo, is the Batfrog. As Samantha mentioned, Bats are very transformational creatures and so are frogs so I put them together. I like the idea on having a logo with meaning, symbolism and humor behind it. I think of the Batfrog as a Victorian flying apparatus from the natural world. Plus I always thought it was funny that French people eat frog’s legs. I used to catch them as a kid!
SP-M: Speaking of "multimedia", your breakthrough album Happy Madness spawned three music videos: the saucy "Make Out", the clever "House of Cards", and the surreal, mystical "Dark Carnivale". Are there plans for some more audio-visual wickedness afoot?
Samantha: Yes! We will be filming again in November. We have three songs we are planning on doing and after that we’ll see. Those three videos we did for Happy Madness were really well received. We basically did those very DIY style. Our friend, photographer and videographer Frank Siciliano filmed, and I directed and edited them.
SP-M: What's next for Frenchy and the Punk?
We keep going forward, one step at a time and hope that people continue to love what we do and that blogs like yours continue to help us get the word out! We are super low budget, very DIY so every time someone turns a friend onto our music, every time a radio show does an interview, every time a blog does a write up or review, every time an event hires us and pays us our worth, every time someone buys our music or merch, we get to do this amazing job for another day.
On the music front, we are finishing up the Drum CD which should be coming out in the very near future. We spend a lot of time on the road so recording can be challenging to schedule.
As far as shows, we’ve got lots of amazing ones coming up, about 30 more scheduled for the next couple of months. We have a tour dates page on the website www.frenchyandthepunk.com and we do send out newsletters so people can sign up for our mailing list on the front page of the site. We have a facebook page for more frequent updates too and of course the Twitter page.
Thank you for this! We appreciate the coverage xo