A couple weeks ago I wrote a review of the many virtues of British Steampunk band The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing. Since then I’ve acquired the album (thanks Gina) from Amazon.UK and found it to be an amazing piece of work; funny as all hell while still kicking some serious ass. Recently I sought out bassist Marc Burrows* and asked him a few questions to get to know The Men… all that much better. What I received in return has to be the best interview experience I’ve had and I am that much more excited for these guys, especially now that they have a Christmas E.P. on the way. The E.P. can be pre-ordered here:
Now, on to what Mr. Burrows had to say:
Okay, so let’s start by my asking about the origin of the band. How do you guys know one another/how did you meet?
The band itself started as Andrew and Andy. Andrew was living in Andy’s spare room at the time, and they both have a mutual interest in Steampunk and
Victoriana. They started knocking a few songs about and performed as a two-piece (guitar and saw) for a while. ‘Charlie’, ‘Steph(v)enson’, ‘Boasting Song’ and ‘Bedlam’ all date from that period. They could probably tell you more about that era of the band. At the time Andrew was touring a stand up show called ‘Andrew
O’Neill’s Totally Spot on History of British Industry’ and wanted the band to be the opening act for his run of London dates. They decided to expand to a full line
up, I knew Andrew from the Comedy scene and was drafted in on bass. The rest is Apocryphal History. Our original drummer, Ben, was really only doing it as a favour and was never happy with the whole Steampunk thing, so when he finally decided he couldn’t be bothered anymore Jez, whose an old mate of Andy’s, was drafted in and immediately fitted right in.
Obviously this is a character-driven project – there are moments during the record where you guys refer to one another conversationally as Mr. O’Neill, etc. and it adds to the already very personable feeling the… etiquette on the album establishes, so that by the end of the cycle I feel as though I know the characters more than I know the muscians in most bands. How did the characters develop, i.e. – were they natural extensions of the your personalities and the way you interact in real life, or is there a bigger picture here? (pardon that one if it sounds a bit hoighty toighty, but I am genuinely interested in what gives some bands ‘characters’ instead of just character (or lack thereof)).
I don’t think there was ever an attempt to create or represent properly rounded characters as permanent and consistent creations. We’re not Gorrilaz. Although
there is obviously an exaggeration, or fictionalisation of the personalities in the songs, it was never meant to be an all-consuming part of what we do. In a sense the band itself is a character- what would a rock band sound like if the punk revolution happened in the 1870’s? Even that isn’t wholly consistent. The band doesn’t have an established canonical story line and we zip across the Victorian era throughout the record. ‘Steph(v)enson’ opens with the line “In the Victorian Era…”, looking backwards, while ‘Blood Red’ and ‘Charlie’ are clearly represented as contemporary.
Not sticking to a rigid set of characters gives us a lot more flexibility: ‘Goggles’ is a feminist take on Victoriana which is absolutely Andrew in terms of his
personal politics (and I don’t think the rest of us would disagree) and is pretty much in his voice. There’s no character adopted there at all. Other times we adopt characters to prove a point more effectively: ‘Charlie’ and ‘Blood Red’ are both in the first person in order to really wring-out the reactionary opinions in both songs. This way we don’t have to stick to a specific time period or voice. We talk about the “Victorian era” a lot, but the next record has a song on it called
‘Doing it for Whigs’ which is an 1830’s political protest song, predating Victoria’s ascension by some years. We’re not tied to anything.
You guys really pull the Steampunk/Victorian thing off brilliantly, with what appears to be both a suspicious tongue-in-cheek with regards to the ‘genre’ (or would that be ‘sub-genre, micro-genre or niche-genre?) and a genuine appreciation for the elements that make it interesting. Why Steampunk? Am I
totally off course here?
No, I think you’re bang on the money. Steampunk is a brilliant sandpit to play in, but when you start to take anything too seriously you’re in danger of losing
something. We were once criticised in live review for not taking the genre seriously enough: this is a subculture where people pretend they’re Airship Captains! We’re all fans of Steampunk to greater or lesser extents (you should see Andy’s front room), we’re doing this from a genuine love for the scene, but to deny its more ridiculous excesses would be short sighted and a bit ridiculous. I think we ‘re also all instinctively uncomfortable with the ‘class role play’ of the scene as well. There’s a lot of fetishising the upper-classes which doesn’t suit us at all. Everytime someone says “Huzzah” it sets my teeth on edge. Maybe we just like approaching things as an outsider.
I always find it hard to pin down something that feels like Steampunk tome, literature wise. A lot of things that are considered classics of the
sub/genre, while indeed being amazing (Gormenghast, The Anubis Gates) have the ‘Steam’ feel but not the near indefinable ‘punk’ element. And now that it is indeed a recognizable genre in the book industry (i.e. – marketable) there are authors that write specifically to the predetermined coordinates of the style. However, novels such as China Mieville’s incomparable Perdido Street Station or The Scar seem to come closest for me, even while not taking place in any recognizable, Earthly Victorian setting. If you do indeed dig the elements of technological/Steam fusion what, if any, works define the genre, or perhaps better said ‘feeling’ for you?
Good question this. There’s your obvious texts: Alan Moore’s ‘League of Extroadinary Gentlemen’ is the one everyone always references but it’s pretty definitive. You’re right with China Mieville as well, have you read ‘Un-Lon-Don’? Again not a Victorian setting but the atmosphere is very steamunk (The ‘Smog’ is the baddie and there’s flying London Buses!). There’s a lazy tendency in mainstream journalism to say anything “a bit Victorianish” is “Steampunk”, the term got connected to the recent Guy Chambers ‘Sherlock Holmes’ film. But there was nothing Apocryphal there: it’s just set in the 19th Century. The most Steampunk thing I can ever think of is the bit at the end of ‘Back to the Future III’ where the time travelling steam train starts to fly. Gregory Maguire’s ‘Oz’ novels nail it too: check out all the “tick-tock” people. Even the faintly cringey stage musical of ‘Wicked’ does Steampunk pretty well: the whole thing is over-seen by a clockwork Dragon!
Frank Zappa asked the famous question ‘does comedy belong in music’ and this point has always seemed to me a stark divider. How is it working for The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing, a group that has me laugh out loud one minute and grit my teeth and dig my feet in in grindy, thrashy exhileration the next?
It’s nothing new! It’s only in the last 50 years that comedy and music have really separated in working class culture. ‘High Art’ has always kept the two apart, but the entertainment of the commoners has always had a healthy and legitimate dollop of both at the same time. I think it’s what attracts me to what we do so much, the chance to be a legitimate rock band and a legitimate comedy act. That’s what Music Hall always did, so combining the two suits Steampunk perfectly. Right from baudy medieval folk songs, through the 19th century Music Halls, even up to the Second World War. George Fornby wasn’t seen as a comedian or musician, he was seen as both.
It’s not even true to say humour doesn’t exist in modern Pop/Rock. The Beatles were hilarious, look at ‘I Am The Walrus’. Look at the wit in lyrics by The Smiths or Queen. Even someone who appears to take themselves very seriously like Muse… there’s no way they sit in their studio self-harming and weeping into their silk shirts, they’re pissing themselves at how over-the-top, bombastic and ridiculous they’re being allowed to be. Probably cackling like mad. Some of the best
Hip-Hop is hilarious as well, look at Eminem, a man who can release ‘The Real Slim Shady’ and ‘The Way I Am’ within a few months of each other.
It works the other way too… the best musical comics put the music as far forward as the comedy. Look at Tim Minchin, Bill Bailey or Flight of the Concords.
Any musical influences you wish to share? I have this underlying feeling there’s at least one Jazz hound in the group…
If there’s a jazz hound it isn’t me. They’re staying quiet. Although I do own 2, count them, 2 Miles Davies records (‘Kind of Blue’ and ‘Bitches Brew’ since you
ask). As a band we’re taking the lead from classic 70’s and 80’s punk, right from the Pistols onwards, but it goes in all sorts of directions. ‘Blood Red’ sounds like Slayer (which is Andrew’s influence), while other songs are more straight punk rock. I always felt ‘Boilerplate Daniel’ sounds like ‘Ace of Spades’. The next record is going even more diverse, there’s one song that goes music hall/death metal/music hall/death metal/music hall/death metal/post rock/glam rock. In one song. Look out for that one. Another sounds like 80’s protest punk meets Sick of it All, and another is almost a power ballad. Strange but true. Personally for me I’m really influence as a bass player by the loopy, fluid work Krist Novoselic did in Nirvana, and the syrupy way the bass welds the drums to the guitar on early Smashing Pumpkins albums. But you’ll be hard pushed to spot those moments on the record.
How was your (fairly) recent trip to the States? Michigan I believe I read it was, for the World Steam Expo? Any plans to come back to this side of the
pond? Or if not where can one see you play in London? Any regular gigs?
Amazing, and completely bonkers. American Steampunk is a much bigger deal than at home, I think we were really taken aback by that. We were booked to do two signing sessions and were astonished anyone came, but the second one had a 45 minute queue. Completely bonkers and so much fun. We’re definitely back for the World Steam Expo 2011, and hopefully a few more Cons as well, ideally strung together with some more regular club shows. We’d love to do a full tour.
In London our next show is at Festival of Sins, a big Fetish night in December.
What’s the last good book you read? Movie? What are you listening to recently?
Not Steampunk at all, but I just finished a book called ‘Starter for Ten’ by David Nicholls. It’s painfully hilarious. Movie: I really enjoyed ‘Scott Pilgrim Vs the World’, I’m a big fan of Edgar Wright going back to seeing ‘Spaced’ a decade ago on British telly, and I’m a huge fan of the Pilgrim comic books. Musically I’m currently enjoying the new Manic Street Preachers record and the Ben Folds/Nick Hornby Collaboration, and still addicted to the Amanda Palmer Radiohead EP.
Favorite bands to share a bill with?
We just did a show in London with Lady Carol, who’se incredible, Check her out! We got on really well with the all the bands we met in the states too: Tartanic and the Gyspy Nomands.
I just polished a bag of Sainsburys Taste The Difference Triple Choc Cookies.
Okay, what’s next for you Mr. Burrows and/or the group (please say Now That’s What I Call Steampunk, Vol.#2 is coming sooooon.)
This weekend we’re going into the studio to record our Christmas EP, ‘A Very Steampunk Christmas’, I’m very excited by that as I’ve written the A-side and
it’s my first proper writing contribution to the band. I may sing lead-vocal as well, although I still might back out and let Andrew handle it. It’s going to be a massive, classic sounding Christmas rock record. It’s Phil Spector meets Charles Dickens in an 80’s metal bar.
There’ll definitely be another full record, hopefully next year. We’ve written four songs for it so far with another handful in a halfway stage. I imagine it’ll come together a lot more quickly. It’s a much more collaborative project this time, we’re very much writing as a full band where as with ‘Now That’s What I Call…’ a lot of the songs were already written by Andrew and Andy and we just filled them out as a four piece. I think it pushes in more directions musically too… it’ll be punkier, heavier, funnier, jauntier and lighter than the last one, and a much better representation of where we’re at as a band. We’re not calling it
‘Now That’s What I Call Steampunk Volume 2’ though, you’ll have to keep waiting for that.
Personally, I’m doing a lot of Stand Up shows across the rest of the year, all the dates are on my website: www.marcburrows.co.uk
Anything You wish to add/ad/summon/salute or deface?
Just to say thanks for listening… It never gets old to hear people say they like the record. I hope you like the next one!
Thank You very kindly dear sir, and keep making the wonderful music!!!
* It should be noted that I originally posted that Marc’s aka was Lex Machina – that is most definitely incorrect. Lex Machina is the photographer whose brilliant work can be seen in the following places: