EXCLUSIVE! On the Beach: The Making of When Banners Fall
The Clockwork Dolls Take on WWII's Great D-Day Crusade on Their Epic New Album
History holds far more drama, horror, comedy, and action than fiction could ever conjure up. Siezing history by the heart, steampunk band The Clockwork Dolls have steered away from the symphonic airship opera of their debut album Dramatis Personae towards the real heroism and gutwrenching emotion of the Second World War's D-Day Invasion.
The result is When Banners Fall, a sweeping, orchestral look at a monumental event that changed the world. The band has crafted a memorable journey, mixing archival recordings from the period with original music and soaring operatic vocals. For lovers of history and cinematic music, this is not an album to miss.
Now, Allison Curval, the band's composer / producer, gives Steampunk-Music.com an exclusive look into the making of When Banners Fall.
But that's not all....
We proudly present to you an EXCLUSIVE preview of the entirety of When Banners Fall!
Your debut album Dramatis Personae was filled with rich, fictional tales of airships and dashing ne'er-do-wells. Now you've swung the boat around, and are taking on the historical tapestry of the World War II D-Day invasion with When Banners Fall. What inspired the thematic shift?
Honestly? Like many horrific stories that end with either victory or great defeat (much like WWII), you can blame Facebook for this thematic shift.
When the challenge of plotting the next album landed on my desk, I wasn't quite sure which stylistic direction to take The Clockwork Dolls. We had a variety of orphan songs in our catalog with plenty of different styles to choose from. Some songs were epic, grand orchestral pieces, others were baroque electropop with a catchy dance beat, and the rest were just awful.
So, because this is always a good idea, I asked our fanbase on Facebook what their favorite songs from Dramatis Personae were; kind of a backhanded way of asking, "HEY, WHAT STYLE OF MUSIC DID YOU LIKE!?" and the fans gave me the response that helped steer the future sound of the band.
Turns out, surprise, surprise, folks love the epic orchestral stuff. Which is good news, because that's exactly the type of music I LOVE to write. It's also the type of stuff that drives my instrumentalists and vocalists crazy, something I also like because their tears sustain me, so ultimately it was a win-win scenario.
ANYWAYS, I digress. I started piecing together ideas for a theme. A few ideas were thrown around with two of them making the final cut: a dark victorian fairy tale set in an Alice in Wonderland style dreamscape and another being songs about great moments in human history. With epic orchestral music.
Looking back at our first release, Dramatis Personae, I've always felt that it lacked a certain depth. There was a lot of pulp and a fair amount of escapism, but nothing really felt grounded, nothing felt real. With this in mind, I made the decision that the next release should be based on history. History, with epic orchestral music.
WWII has always, in my mind, been a moment in time where humanity has shown its ugliest face and its most beautiful of characters. It was a period in time where truly magnificent people withstood impossible odds, displayed acts of bravery and sacrifice, and rolled up their sleeves to preserve a bright future for a generation they had yet to encounter and a tomorrow filled with uncertainty. I wanted to pay my respects to that generation. This is When Banners Fall was born.
My only regret is that during my time working on When Banners Fall, I've only scraped the surface. Time was clearly not my friend during the creative process for this album.
You really got into the spirit of things creating this album--and by "spirit" I mean a bottle of VAT 69, and some other WWII flavors and artifacts floating around the studio. Tell us about your "method composing".
Oh, God, this... Ok, first and foremost, that bottle of VAT 69 is largely untouched. You see, I went out on the limb to nab a bottle of it (yes, I special ordered it, and yes, I stuck with it even though it came in a plastic bottle, and yes, I got it after marathoning Band of Brothers), but I NEVER EVER had a scotch that smelled like tequila. UNTIL THE TIME I FIRST SMELLED VAT 69.
I drank probably three shots worth of it (I GAVE IT A CHANCE, I REALLY DID!) and then, BAM. DONE. NO MORE. I still keep it around; it's a symbolic of my failure.
Now then, yes, when I compose music, I lose myself in the aesthetic, environment, and era of whatever concept I wish to invoke.
With When Banners Fall, I tried my best to capture moments in time, from the feeling of euphoria when Victory in Europe Day was announced, to the tension and fear leading up to D-Day, to the feeling of sacrifice and sadness felt as we sent our children to war.
Throughout the summer in which I had worked on this album, I watched propaganda films, informational videos, radio broadcasts, speeches, fireside chats, and listened to the music of the 1930's and 1940's. I often times found myself at 1 AM, listening to Vera Lynn with a glass of scotch and the keyboard sitting idle because I simply couldn't tear myself away from the experience of hearing such wonderful music from such a trying time.
This experience, and many others over the summer, was truly an eye opening experience. I'll confess that prior to this project, my whole experience with World War II involved Saving Private Ryan, Call of Duty, and me passed out in the back row in history class with doodles all over my notebook.
Writing When Banners Fall was truly an experience for me that I won't forget, and the things I learned were all owed to that one simple technique of losing oneself in a certain time and a certain place.
As far as artifacts, every member of The Clockwork Dolls has been issued a red patch with a white V embroidered on it, it stands for Victory, something I believe was the most beautiful word one could say during that period of time. We're sewing it onto our stage outfits, kind of a badge of honor.
If you could go back in time to WWII and experience one moment firsthand, which would it be, and--you knew this was coming--why?
I'd be in London on Victory in Europe Day. I'd want to be in Whitehall to experience the sheer euphoria from the crowd in knowing that tomorrow was a brighter day.
Several tracks of When Banners Fall blend recordings of WWII luminaries--such as General Eisenhower's "Great crusade" broadcast and Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Mighty endeavor" address--with your orchestral backing tracks. Did you select the archival audio pieces first and write the songs around them, or did you write the music and then find a suitable historical recording to fit it?
The speeches came first and then I wrote the instrumentals around them. This, of course, was a huge challenge because there were so many options for me to choose from, but I had to exercise restraint. Maybe for a later album.
Do you think Hollywood has done the reality of WWII justice?
That's a tough one because honestly Hollywood has done much in getting me interested in WWII. I feel that with later WWII films (Flags of Our Fathers, Saving Private Ryan, Letters from Iwo Jima, etc. etc.) gave credit to the gruesome and dark nature of war and expressed some of the isolation and alienation that came with conflict, but too much of it focuses on the sensationalism of battle itself.
They are great films, don't get me wrong, but I'm finding that there's a lack of personal narrative with films Hollywood produces. Maybe it's the budget, maybe it's trying to cram in action sequences or too many characters, but watching other films (Europa Europa, Max Manus, Downfall, Flame and Citron, to name a few) focuses a bit more on personal narrative (although, don't get me wrong, there are plenty of action with these flicks as well) and I find it easier to identify with the characters and their story. I will, however, say that television series such as Band of Brothers and The Pacific do a magnificent job, but that's just because it's Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg.
I'll tell you what I would LOVE to see: A movie about FDR. Not just his political career but his personal life, the trials he went through battling polio right up to WWII, and the tough decisions he made leading a country through a time of great crisis.
And you may all take this as you will, but my favorite WWII movie is still Inglorious Basterds, both versions.
There was a shakeup earlier this year when your former singer left the band. Now you're back with two new vocalists: Colette Lovelace and Trinket Bramage. How did they get involved, and how has the band's sound evolved since they came aboard?
Colette Lovelace is a close friend of mine (don't tell her I said that) who worked with the band as our resident merch person, booking manager, and occasional back-up singer since we first started performing back in 2009.
Rumor amongst the performers was that she could sing. I didn't realize that she had a set of pipes about her until I attended one of her impromptu performances at a local bagel shop. The owners of the shop asked her to sing a song and she busted out with a piece just right off the cuff that lead to applause all around. All the patrons (all 3 of them, HAH!) in that shop were clearly impressed and so was I. Don't tell her I said that.
Fast forward to March. Our prior vocalist calls it quits, we have a gig coming up in May (Steampunk World's Fair) and I'm stuck in a bind. Should I call it quits? Stick with it? See if I can pull an all instrumental set with just myself and my guitarist? What do I do? Colette steps up and says, "Hey, I got this." I had my doubts at first, but after Steampunk World's Fair, I never doubted her again.
Now, Trinket is a different matter; she is one of Colette's friends in real life, and when word got around that the old vocalist left, Trinket stepped in and auditioned. After hearing her and Colette sing, I did what I do best: channeled my inner Scorpion and shouted "GET OVER HERE!" The next thing you know, the two of them are in the studio rehearsing for our live show. After that, I jiggled the joystick, hit punch, and BAM; instant fatality on the previous lineup and a new challenger has entered the game.
But enough of Mortal Kombat; how has the sound evolved? As far as song writing? Not much. The brains of the operation and the chief instrumentalist is still the same (Yours truly!). What has changed is the vocal style, and the quality of the lyrics. Once you listen to the album I'm sure you'll agree that The Clockwork Dolls provides some fine ear candy. I don't say that because I'm trying to sell the CD. I say that because everytime I hear the vocals, I get a lump in my throat and tears start to well up, because it's just that beautiful.
The Clockwork Dolls has grown up significantly in its sound, thanks to the contributions of Colette Lovelace and Trinket Bramage, and I owe it all to them and their hard work.
You've included a beautiful acapella cover, "The Band Played Waltzing Matilda", sung by Colette. For those unfamiliar with the original, why is this song important to you and this album?
When Banners Fall is an album that ends with this high note. I can't have that happen. Happiness and joy must be laced with sadness in order for it to be a true Clockwork Dolls experience. "The Band Played Waltzing Matilda", originally by Eric Bogle, is a song that questions the euphoria of victory and captures the feelings of a soldier in WWI who lost his legs in the horrors of Gallipoli.
That story, and the lyrics of this piece, really brought things home with the lyrics, "And the young people ask, what are they marching for, and I ask myself the same question." What is there to be proud of in bloodshed? What lessons have we learned? Are we destined to repeat it?
I couldn't bring myself to say no to covering this song, and I could not think of a better place to put it then at the end.
Plus Colette always wanted to cover it, so I kind of put her on the spot. Because I can. Plus it's all vocals, all I had to do was hit record. IT WAS MY FAVORITE SONG TO WORK ON.
The album ends with the title track "When Banners Fall", a song about hope rising from the ruins of war. Morse code accents the song. I'm going to guess those aren't just random dots and dashes we're hearing....
Ahhh yes, the Morse code was SUPPOSED to spell out VICTORY. However with my knowledge it could accidently spell BACON, I'm not sure. I can't tell you how happy I was when I got confirmation that it did indeed spell VICTORY by a person who knew their stuff. As the song progresses I adapted the dots and dashes to fit a beat and the meaning by that point gets kind of obscured, it could say SANDWICH I don't know. If it does, please, don't tell me.
You write, produce, record, and mix all of the music yourself (with some help on the final mastering by Vernian Process guitarist Martin Irigoyen). You also do all of your own promotion and artwork. What's it like handling all of those tasks?
Monster energy drinks are my best friend. I probably consumed an entire case while working post production on this album; I swear I probably bleed the stuff if you cut me.
Honestly, being in a music project like The Clockwork Dolls is like having another full time job. I have a production schedule, I try to keep to it, mostly (thank you very much Borderlands 2), and I make small benchmarks and try meet them. (Try is the operative word here; again, THANKS BORDERLANDS 2!)
The live incarnation of Clockwork Dolls is Colette, Trinket, guitarist Christopher Bass, and yourself on synthesizer, guitar, and--that filthy bastard child of both--the keytar. You've performed and been invited as panelists at a number of steampunk conventions. Where are you planning to tour in the next year or so?
That filthy bastard child, by the way, has a FANTASTIC informational video. Seriously, look up Roland AX-09 Lucina keytar on Youtube and find the one with the creepy lady with the blank stare. I watched that thing on repeat, it's HILARIOUS.
Okay, I had to do it. You know you were curious. - MR
Now then, your answer: This next year is actually going to be a huge creative experiment for us; while we have some convention shows lined up, we are, for the most part, going to focus on studio work. Following When Banners Fall will be a full length album which I hope to finish by next summer.
Along with the live shows, what's on the horizon for Clockwork Dolls? And what's the best place to keep track of your updates?
And don't forget: you can order When Banners Fall right now! The album comes out on November 9th.