Steamstock: Vernian Process
The First-Ever Steampunk Band Sets its Sights on Steamstock
Every grand adventure begins with a single step–or so the saying goes. In the early 2000's, a California musician named Joshua Pfeiffer became the first artist to describe his work as "steampunk music". Composing as Vernian Process, the solo project soon became a full live band, creating epic, atmospheric music tackling deep historical, fantastical, and social issues.
While many other bands have since become involved in the steampunk music scene, there can be only one original. And that pioneering band is Vernian Process.
I spoke with Josh and bassist Janus Zarate as they prepared for Steamstock, the world's first major steampunk music festival.
SP-M: Vernian Process was the first band to self-identify as an actual steampunk band. Since then, there's been an explosion of artists around the world either adopting the steampunk theme, or being adopted themselves by the community. What's it been like, watching from the ground floor as this entire musical genre came into being?
Josh: I love it! I love that every single band has their own take on the idea. It's not like we have a legion of bands trying to copy what came before. I've heard a few artists that cite VP as an influence, but I don't really hear "our" signature sound in their music. Yet I can hear how listening to our work could have influenced their own style and sound, and that's a real treat! As an artist I have always held those that influenced me in the highest regards. So it is really fascinating to be on the other side of the equation now.
Janus: I haven't been in VP as long as Josh has, but I have definitely been enjoying the work that emerging steampunk artists have been delivering. It's refreshing that this community of musicians hasn't locked itself into one genre-defining sound. We're not really a genre in a conventional sense, anyway. I've rambled on about it before in articles I've written on the topic, but steampunk musicians are united by a methodology more than anything else: the combination of old and new, often in an anachronistic manner. Electro-swing, chamber pop, orchestral post-punk... our contemporaries are certainly an inventive bunch!
SP-M: Steamstock–a California music festival dedicated entirely to steampunk–is now only days away. Vernian Process will be sharing the stage with the unique Thomas Dolby, other well-known steampunk artists like Frenchy and the Punk and Abney Park, and an eclectic collection of local bands and performers. What are you most excited about?
Josh: I'm really excited about the whole show. A number of the acts on the bill had been working with me on the Gilded Age Records project, and we've exchanged dozens of messages online, but it's going to be the first time I get to meet these artists in person, and perform with them on stage. I also must admit I am really hoping to hear some vintage Thomas Dolby live. Mr. Dolby, if you are reading this... I would be so very happy to hear "Europa and the Pirate Twins", "One of Our submarines", or "Airwaves" in your set! =D Oh and lets not forget Lee Presson, who I have worked with a number of times as a DJ, but never had the pleasure to perform with. I've been a fan of Lee's project long before I ever attempted making or DJing music myself.
Janus: I'm really looking forward to seeing the bands I've never seen live before, especially Thomas Dolby and Frenchy and the Punk. There are a few relative newcomers to the madness of steampunk who have also piqued my interest: El Radio Fantastique, Good Co., and Hydrogen Skyline.
SP-M: Would you have seen an event like this being possible five years ago?
Josh: Believe it or not, I've heard rumblings about a Steampunk Music Festival since 2006 at least. It's something a lot of people have wanted to do for years, but our friend Mr. Gardner finally got the ball rolling, by collaborating with a number of great peeps in the Bay Area steampunk circle.
Janus: Last June, Gene Forrer of the Steam Federation met me at a coffee shop in San Jose in order to discuss an ambitious idea: to put together a genuine steampunk music festival. He wanted to pick my brain on the subject and see if it was realistic and viable. I remember telling him that if he could garner the right backers and support from the community’s leading bands and promoters, it could definitely happen–but it wasn’t going to be cheap. I think it was shortly after that when murmurs of the festival idea started cropping up in the Federation, and Gene was powerless to stop the festival’s new nickname of "Steamstock"–a play on the iconic Woodstock festival. Shortly after that, the Federation took on the bold endeavor of starting the Clockwork Alchemy steampunk convention, and I didn’t hear much about the Steamstock idea after that.
Fast forward to about May or so, just before our show at Clockwork Alchemy. Brian Gardner of Swing Goth contacts me asking whether we’d be interested in joining the lineup of the biggest steampunk music event anyone has ever attempted. The name of the event? You guessed it–Steamstock. And here we are now, on the eve of its arrival!
SP-M: You're working on the follow-up to your debut album Behold the Machine. That CD was heady with topics such as death's journey ("The Last Express"), Jack the Ripper ("The Curse of Whitechapel"), and the dangers of too much automation (the title track). What themes are you exploring in the new album? Do you find your inspiration in specific events in history, in fictional narratives, or in broader socio-political themes?
Josh: All of the above actually. We draw from both fictional Steampunk works, real historical figures and events, and we have a heavy amount of socio-political layers in our lyrics. The new album is going to have an even greater degree of all three. I can't get into too many details about the new album, or my band mates will kill me. But I can tell you we are incorporating a number of traditional international styles of music into the album (a first for VP) mixed with modern styles we know and love. Argentinian Prog-Rock, Chinese Trip-Hop, Balkan Ska/Punk, Egyptian Surf Rock, and many other sounds and styles will be present. Basically we want to keep the sound our fans know, but evolve it in new and interesting directions. I've heard a few people who are concerned we're abandoning our Steampunk sound, but I would say that isn't the case at all. We're simply comfortable with branching out into a myriad of different directions, while keeping the elements that make Vernian Process what it is.
Janus: We will still have our fictional inspirations as well. "Something Wicked (That Way Went)" is an example of that, drawing directly from Ray Bradbury’s similarly titled novel. The heart of the new album is still going to be iconically steampunk, but with socio-political ambitions: an H.G. Wells-inspired epic about a time traveler who dares to change the past for the sake of the future. It’s where we derived the album’s title–The Consequences of Time Travel.
SP-M: Do you have a release date in mind, and will you be debuting some of the new material at Steamstock?
Josh: We don't have a release date set in stone just yet, but it will drop sometime in 2013. And yes, we will be debuting some new material at Steamstock.
SP-M: Prog-rock. Post-punk. Goth-industrial. World-symphonic. It seems like every reviewer wants to shove your music into a hyphenated genre box–but can't. How do you feel about that?
Josh: I love it! I love it so much, I can't explain it. I love music, plain and simple. I love music that other people tend to loathe too such as Disco, Country, Polka. I mean sure, there's hundreds of thousands of songs that don't do anything for me, but I haven't met a genre I didn't find something cool in. So to be unclassifiable is pretty much the highest honor I can imagine. It puts us in a very small camp of musicians, one that holds some of my personal favorites such as Oingo Boingo, Fishbone, Madness, Mr. Bungle, Primus, etc.
Janus: The struggle that our audience seems to have with categorizing us–outside of calling us a steampunk band–doesn’t really surprise me. Each of us in the band have an incredibly diverse set of influences. The fact that we’re always willing to toy with new sounds, instruments, and genres keeps our minds fresh and our passions vibrant. Our audience loves us for that, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
SP-M: VP wasn't always a full band. Behold the Machine was written by you initially, and then fleshed out when Martin (guitar and production) came aboard. Now with a complete lineup–Janus (bass), Eugene (drums), and Brian (keys)–how has your songwriting process evolved?
Josh: We also have a brand new addition to the VP family. Steven Farrell will be joining us in the studio and live on stage to provide additional keys. This is a great turn of events for us, because now Brian can either team up with Steven to provide multiple layers of orchestral elements (counterpoints for the win!), or he can play rhythm guitar to Martins leads. It gives us so much more room to play with ideas.
As far as the actual songwriting goes, this is the first time I have worked in a studio with a full band to write new music. Martin and I still work on his workstatiion to create skeletal ideas for songs, but all of the real writing gets fleshed out live with the band.
Janus: When I joined in 2009, the bulk of the work was still being done by Martin and Josh via late nights at the workstation. Now with the full band, a lot of our ideas are born from random jams, or from rehearsal room exploration of concepts written by individual members at home.
SP-M: Along with writing the next album, Vernian Process has branched out into soundtrack work. How did you get involved with the web series Dirigible Days?
Josh: I originally created this project as a way to score some composing gigs, so it's really awesome that is finally coming to fruition. We got involved with Dirigible Days when Gary Lobstein contacted us and simply asked if we'd like to contribute the theme song. We checked out their demo reel for the show, and we all agreed that it seemed like the kind of show we could get behind. We're all fans of fun, silly, cynical comedy, so the show was a perfect fit. I personally love their old school effects, and writing. So about a month later we had a theme song written. If you listen closely, you can hear nods to some of our favorite composers such as Nobuo Uematsu and Joe Hisaishi.
Janus: Collaborating with other artists is one of my favorite things about being part of Vernian Process, so when Gary approached us I was excited to get us aboard. I’m really looking forward to seeing where their show goes from here, now that they’re on their second episode.
SP-M: You've played many gigs on the West Coast, such as Portland GEAR Con, Seattle's Steamcon, and San Francisco's The Ball of Cthulhu. Are there any easterly show prospects on the horizon? A lot of people on the sunrise-side of the USA would love to catch you guys live.
Josh: We would love to make it out to the east coast again. We did one small tour there back in 2009, but that kind of fell apart, as only one of our scheduled gigs actually happened. So we were left in pretty big debt for awhile. If and when we tour again, it will be after the new album drops, and we'll have a whole series of gigs lined up.
Janus: Touring is an expensive endeavor, but if the new album does well, I’m sure we could be persuaded into some gigs far away from home. So long as we don’t come home poorer than we started, I’ll be quite happy.
SP-M: What does the end of the year and beyond hold for Vernian Process? And what are the best ways for fans to stay abreast of your events and updates?
Josh: Lots and lots of new music. We have approximately forty songs in the works, and after we finish The Consequences of Time Travel (the new album) we will be jumping right into the next release. The one thing you'll notice with VP is that we don't like to rush our albums. They are ready, when they are ready. I'm not a huge fan of writing filler songs to pad out an album, so each and every song must be as good as we can make them. Regardless of what comes next, be sure of one thing... Vernian Process will be constantly evolving, as we as people and musicians continue to evolve.
Janus: The best way for fans to stay in the loop is to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+. I ‘m also updating our website as we speak, and I’m going to be creating a mailing list soon that will provide fans with semi-regular updates. It’ll be a great way for fans to get a better look at what goes on behind the scenes.
SP-M: Best of luck this weekend, and with all you've got planned thereafter!
Josh: Thanks Mark!