Dragon*Con Countdown: Musick Most Dark
by Mark Rossmore
Valentine Wolfe unleashes their newest macabre collection.

Valentine Wolfe
Official Site: Click Here


Musick Most Dark



Valentine Wolfe are vocalist Sarah Black and double bassist Braxton Ballew. Their sound bridges steampunk and goth through their classical training, literary inspiration, electronic craftsmanship, and a healthy dose of DIY ethic. Their newest album, Musick Most Dark, is set to launch Aug. 30th at Dragon*Con.

SP-M: Could you introduce yourselves and your individual backgrounds?

Sarah: My parents were missionaries to Indonesia so I spent most of my younger years in Indonesia and also at boarding school in Malaysia. I have traveled extensively in Southeast Asia, and this has had a wonderful impact on my early musical development. I started piano and clarinet lessons at a young age and made the decision to major in music for college. I went to the University of Georgia in Athens for my bachelors and masters degrees in Music Composition.

During school I met a bass player who would prove to be instrumental (teehee) in my career. I convinced him to start a musical endeavor with me in 2006. Since then we have been exploring both of our dark fantastical realms of storytelling through music. We now live in Greenville, SC. We have been fortunate to work with local theaters in scoring projects. We scored Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice for the Warehouse Theater and 12th Night for the Distracted Globe.

Braxton: I'm Braxton Ballew, double bassist with Valentine Wolfe. I began playing bass guitar in high school with an aim to be in Iron Maiden. I came to the double bass kind of late, but I instantly knew this was the instrument that most inspired my musical imagination. I'm a huge bass geek&an hour-long solo bass recital? I love hearing those! I love playing those!

By day, I'm the education director of the Greenville Symphony, and I also play in the double bass section. I have a doctoral degree in music from the University of Georgia, and my research areas were electronic music, interactive music, and electro-acoustic music featuring the double bass.

Discovering electronic music was a revelation. I loved playing bass, but kind of knew intuitively that the path of symphony/freelance bassist wasn't totally right for me. I just didn't know where else to look! When I took my first Intro to Electronic Music class (University of Cincinnati), it was the eureka moment. Here was the bridge between Beethoven and Sgt. Pepper.

When I met Sarah at UGA, it was like coming full circle: there was the serious approach to music combined with the grooves, the creativity, and the passion that I grew up with in the rock world.  Though I couldn't put it into words at the time, these two passions fed one bigger dream: music with no boundaries. And an amazing musician and wife to inspire and push me along toward that goal.

I still love playing in the orchestra, though.  

SP-M: What is the inspiration and the history behind Valentine Wolfe, and the origin of the name itself?

Sarah: Valentine Wolfe is the name of one of the characters from the Deathstalker novels by Simon R. Green. Valentine is a depraved gothic madman whose power-hungry schemes brought delight to this female reader. While not necessarily a good role model for my day to day activities, I certainly wanted to base my art upon a solid foundation of depraved decadence.

Braxton: Sarah wanted us to form a band, and I flatly refused. I''d grown to loathe being in bands and all the drama and fighting!  And to bring all that it into my relationship? No thank you!

To my surprise, she said that was cool, and just sort of went on her way. A few weeks later, she mentioned she had a demo of some songs she was working on. When I asked to hear them, she was pretty coy, very Lucius Fox. I pressed on, so finally, she played me what she'd been working on.

I started in mixing and editing, suggesting a riff here or there, coming up with a fragment or two, and she mentioned that a few double bass riffs on the demo might be kind of cool.

Three weeks later, I realized I'd been in a band with her for two and half weeks. I sighed and suggested we start rehearsing.

SP-M: Last year you were Dragon*Con panelists and attendees. How's it feel coming back now as a main stage act?

Sarah: We are performing as a house band at DragonCon this year, and we could not be more excited. We have been attending the convention for years now and can't imagine ever quitting! So of course we were overjoyed when we found out that this year we could have the opportunity to share our art with 50,000 of the coolest people we will ever meet!

Braxton: It's a dream come true, as cheesy as that may sound. Dragon*Con has always inspired hope and ambition in us, and every year we'd talk about how amazing it would be when we finally got to play the Con&if ever! We got the day after we saw Iron Maiden live, and it's a pretty amazing weekend when you see your favorite band, and it's not the coolest thing that happened to you! We're very excited and honored.

SP-M: When we spoke at one of this past year's convention's events, you mentioned that Valentine Wolfe didn't start out as steampunk, but has since been adopted by the community. What about your music and your aesthetic do you think appeals to the steampunk listener?

Sarah: Our music is very dark, but it also has a tongue-in-cheek humorous aspect to it.

We have always been interested in costuming as part of our art and certainly we love combining different ideas together. We employ anachronism across the board of everything we do. Also, our music has a strong DIY component. We have not been signed to a label yet at this point in our career so we are intimately involved with all areas of music production. Many of the friends we have been making in the steampunk community also have the same trials and joys. It is wonderful to be able to communicate with other artists about all the elements that go into making art. We can share tips and tricks with each other in addition to just being there in support for each other as we all do our own thing. It is a very supportive community and we feel so honored to be a part of it.

Braxton: I believe there will always be a place for sincere, well-executed music (or anything). I think that while we're not perfect and always have room to grow and improve, our music is on a fundamental level, just us. As fans ourselves, I think this resonated with others in fandom.

I think Steampunks excel at making connections between seemingly random ideas. I think they can hear our musical versions of Gorey, EA Poe, and the darker side of our macabre expression. The alternate history has always appealed to us; we've just never aspired to captain an airship! I think it comes down to my first answer: they can hear the anachronisms, they can see and hear the work and sweat we put into our sound, and we're telling a ripping good yarn, albeit one best told in the dark.

SP-M: Your newest album Musick Most Dark is launching at Dragon*Con, after a very successful crowdfunding campaign. How has your sound evolved since your last release, The Crimson Masquerade?

Braxton: We chose to emphasize the double bass and voice as salient compositional elements. This led to much more layers and orchestration in our arrangements. Since we use electronic drums, we tried to think of ways to make the beat groove, but without being tied to usual drum patterns: so gears, clocks, bells, whirs, and all kinds of Industrial Revolution samples made it into our drum loops. Aside: that was an intentional compositional choice: we wondered what Nine Inch Nails would have sampled in the 1880s.

But we still want heads to bob, so there's lots of the trusty 909 kit, metal riffs, and things we like. We just exaggerated and emphasized these qualities much more. There's a song called Her Ladyship's Remedy that begins as twisted Gilbert and Sullivan and runs smack into a Dio-era Black Sabbath groove. Things like this make us smile.

SP-M: Which artists or writers do you count as creative influences?

Sarah: Simon R. Green, George R. R. Martin, Jacqueline Carrey, Charlaine Harris, Anne Bishop, Kate Elliot, Nightwish, Kamelot, and Sarah Brightman

Braxton: Musicians: Renaud Garcia Fons and Francois Rabbath are my bass gurus. My favorite bands are Iron Maiden, Rush (yeah, I'm a bass player, so what), Nightwish, Tool, and Nine Inch Nails. My very favorite desert island band is King Crimson. I'm not shy about naming my favorite classical composers: Mozart and Bach, depending on the day. I'm also very into Handel, Vivaldi, Marin Marais (master of the viol de gamba), Schubert, Faure, and Philip Glass.

In other media, I'm fan of Edgar Allen Poe, Edward Gorey, Charles Baudelaire, Alan Moore, Neal Stephenson and Neil Gaiman, George RR Martin, and Phil and Kaja Foglio. Visually, I really like Jeffrey Scott and Jasmine Becket-Griffith.

There's no way I could acknowledge all the steampunk bands, artists, and writers who inspire us. I admire anyone who has gone along that rocky path from inspired idea to realization and presentation. I think you can always learn something from everyone, and not in the cynical what-not-to-do kind of way.

SP-M: Tell us how about your writing methods. How do you conceive and compose your songs, and what's your favorite instrument to write on?

Sarah: We are comfortable working with a variety of methods. Sometimes one of us will write a complete song for the other one. Sometimes we write together. Composition can be an introspective experience. Sometimes it can be more of a collaboration with a partner in a safe environment for improvising new ideas. I like to work pretty fast when I write. I have ideas for songs all the time, so whenever I get ready to write, I just sit down and let the ideas flow out. I trust my instincts. I do not self-censor or critique while I am getting my ideas down. I love to sit at the piano or keyboard attached to my computer to compose, but ideas come to me everywhere.

Sometimes I have pencil and paper ready to write down anything I want to revisit later, but if that is not the case, then I try to memorize my idea.  That way, I can come back to it later.After the idea has been committed to paper or computer, then I like to revise it. Sometimes the melody comes first, and sometimes I set the lyrics to music after they have been written.

In the Shakespeare plays I mentioned that we have scored, I had the challenge of setting Shakespeare language to music. Now that was fun! 12th Night had a specifically steampunk theme for the play, but The Merchant of Venice was modern without evoking any specific era. So for both of those plays, I was writing music that would sound modern and ancient at the same time. We wanted the listeners to be able to hear the musical influences of the late 1500's but also to realize that we were writing modern music as well. So as I set the text, I tried to pay attention to how actors speak his language and incorporate that into the melodies. This caused those melodies to be slightly more angular but helped the listener to understand the meaning in Shakespeare's text.

Braxton: I'm an improviser, so I write on the bass. I'm also a ruthless editor, so the process doesn't go as fast as I'd like sometimes. I generally write my favorite ideas when I'm not writing&sometimes a riff will suggest itself during a looping adventure.

Every now and then, it's good to give the bass some space, so I'll muck about on the piano, but I'd never claim that I play piano. I also get things stuck in my imagination, so every now and then, I'll sit down and write a whole song, start to finish, very quickly (Disarticulation was written that way, and people love that song).

I'm currently working on writing every day, and doing my best to get the editor out of the muse's way. My best editorial work happens when I'm being creative and not trying to improve something&that is, when listening to a demo, I'll think, hmmm&pipe organ might be cool here.

It's a balancing act, and I doubt I'll ever tame the savage reviser/editor within. I'll just keep working to make sure it's balanced, though.

SP-M: What are your plans for the near and the distant future?

Braxton: We've had a great year in terms of a path we'd always wanted to explore: scoring. We scored two Shakespeare productions in Greenville: Merchant of Venice for the Warehouse Theater and Twelfth Night for the Distracted Globe Theater Company (and Twelfth Night was a steampunk production!). This fall, the Peace Center for the Performing Arts is bringing a production into their education season called Lamplight and Shadow, written by our friend Jayce Tromsness. That was our first scoring project, a long, droning, dark ambient piece. Lamplight is about the last hours of Edgar Allan Poe's life, and it is just amazing&we're excited to be involved in such an awesome production.

My dream is to develop education content centered around fantasy culture in general and steampunk in particular, and we'll get to make our first forays into that this fall as part of Lamplight, we hope.

We'll be playing a few shows: Electric City Fright Film Fest in Anderson, SC on October 27. And we'll be coming back to our home con, Upstate Steampunk Meetup and Extravaganza. It is one of the friendliest and most fun cons you'll ever go to, and we cannot recommend it enough. We always look forward to this con!

And despite our promising to take a bit of a break and enjoy the achievement of Musick Most Dark, we've already got some ideas and concepts for album number 3. No rest for the wicked, eh?

No indeed! Have a great time at Dragon*Con and congratulations on the new CD.

Follow Valentine Wofle at: http://www.valentinewolfe.com . They will be performing Thursday Aug. 30th at 10:00pm in the Hyatt, preceded by The Aeronauts and followed by the Extraordinary Contraptions. Their acoustic set is on Sunday at 5:00pm on the Hyatt concourse stage. 

Photo Credit: Victoria Jenkinson
Valentine Wolfe Logo: James Nimmons

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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