Mon
Oct 5 2009 2:50pm
What’s the Soundtrack of Steampunk?

Every aesthetic movement has—or should have—its own soundtrack. I would argue that an aesthetic movement that doesn’t have a soundtrack is doomed to an early death;1 having music to gather around, after all, makes it a lot easier for like-minded folks to hang out together and have fun, and isn’t that part of what any decent aesthetic movement is about? (Apart from making cool stuff, that is.)

At this point, steampunk’s visual and literary aesthetic has become specific enough that it’s useful as a generic and critical term. Its musical boundaries, however, appear to be fuzzier. Last summer, Matrix Online did a feature on the sound of steampunk acknowledging that the doors appear to be pretty wide open: Nine Inch Nails might be included, but so might Tom Waits, Björk, and Queen. At the same time, it offered up thirteen bands—Abney Park, Vernian Process, Unextraordinary Gentlemen, Vagabond Opera, Rasputina, The Peculiar Pretzelmen, Skeleton Key, The Decemberists, The Birthday Massacre, The Dresden Dolls, Johnny Hollow, Beat Circus, and Bat For Lashes—that it argued could be considered steampunk bands without much hesitation. For some of these bands, the label steampunk fits because the bands themselves say it does; they use the word in their own description of their sound. But some of the others don’t use the label—and it’s interesting to hear what their precedents are.

The obvious touchstone for a few of them is gloomy/dreamy synth-pop-post-punk-rock-whatever from the 1980s, from 4AD’s Goth heyday to Sisters of Mercy to the Pet Shop Boys (when I was listening to Vernian Process, I immediately thought of the sound of the Pet Shop Boys’ Actually, which the people behind Vernian Process may or may not like, but there it is). For others, though, the touchstone is the 1920s and 1930s: cabaret music, gypsy jazz, and various strands of folk music—American, Eastern European, Middle Eastern.2 It’s severely fascinating that these two sensibilities could be grouped under one label, as on their face, they don’t have a lot in common. Sonically, on one side, there are synthesizers, electric guitars, and drum machines; on the other side, there are violins, accordions, and trash can lids. Marrying the two can be awkward (personally, while I find the sound of Abney Park to be an intriguing experiment, I’m not sure it’s entirely successful). Yet they share an extreme emotionality: Both wear their hearts on their sleeves, and I mean that as a good thing. Is that what pulls them all together?

But what is it exactly about the music of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1980s that makes sense for the steampunk aesthetic? What’s wrong with, say, the 1950s? Or the 1890s? Why would a movement that classifies itself partially as neo-Victorian not go in for some update of Victorian-era music? (Or does it?) And second, where are the borders of this sensibility? There are a lot of bands today that take their cues from the above set of influences. Could they all be considered steampunk bands, or is there a point where the label is an awkward fit? What other music apart from those listed above could be considered steampunk? Let me know: I’m always interested in hearing new music.


1 This is actually a riff on a now-apocryphal statement by a jazz drummer that any style of music that doesn’t attract women to it isn’t worth playing. The story goes that this drummer was hired to play at a jazz-fusion festival sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s. As he got on stage, he looked out over the audience, saw a sea of men, and thought to himself, “this is going nowhere.” Sure enough! (Sorry, jazz-fusion fans. I mean, I like Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Birds of Fire as much as the next man, but the drummer has a point.)

2 Then there’s the chamber-pop thing, but enough has been written about that, I think.


Brian Slattery edits and writes things, and dreams of forming a band composed of violin, accordion, banjo, and tuba that plays on street corners around the world.

This article is part of Steampunk Month: ‹ previous | index | next ›
31 comments
Jason Henninger
1. jasonhenninger
Some of the bands you mention I've never heard of. Thanks for the heads up.

I would definitely think Tom Waits fits. Not every single song, but some of it is very steampunk-ish, especially around the Swordfishtrombones/Rain Dogs era. Oh, and his cover of Heigh Ho, certainly. All the clunky machine sounds he makes fit nicely. More for the fantastical machinery aspect than Victoriana, howerver. (also, I'm working on an interview with Jill Tracy, and she definitely can evoke a fantastical Victorian feeling).

Robyn Miller's music for Riven and Myst are fantastic, creepy clangy stuff. And Laibach and Eisturzende Neubauten, too, for the music of machinery.

I'd also add the first few cds Andrew Bird did along with Beats Antique (on the middle eastern fusion side) and while he doesn't intend it at all to be steampunk, I can think of no better soundtrack for voyaging on an airship than Claude Chalhoub's first cd.

And of course, Thomas Dolby! Mad science and submarines are steampunk as can be, I say.

you wrote: "But what is it exactly about the music of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1980s that makes sense for the steampunk aesthetic? What’s wrong with, say, the 1950s? Or the 1890s?"

I tend to think of steampunk covering everything from the early Victorian to the end of the Weimar, as far as influences go. I think it mixes bits and pieces from many decades and adds scifi components with a highly fictionalized notion of colonialism that retains only the "what-ho, let's drink tea and go adventuring" stuff and none of the reality of, you know, rampant prostitution, child labor and repression of indigenous cultures. All that pesky reality.

I think steampunk has little to do with the 40s and 50s and such because the glory days of the British Empire were long gone by the end of world war two, and the shift moved to the US and its subcultures. The music of the WW2 era and after is ex-empire, you know? Does that make sense?

As for earlier music, before the popular use of recording media, we have only the written version to go by. Still fine as source material, but I think for modern musicians, they'll draw from recordings more than sheet music.
Josh Kidd
2. joshkidd
I've always thought that The Decemberists, with their pseudo-old-british themed ballads, were a little bit steampunky. The band definitely enjoys anachronism.
CoffeeJedi
3. CoffeeJedi
Ask the Davenport Sisters:
http://www.clockworkcabaret.com/

They play most of the artists you listed, and more, on their podcast. You can check out their latest playlists here:
http://clockworkcabaret.podhoster.com/
CoffeeJedi
4. bwfenlon
I liked your choices, but I've always thought that those bands labeled "the Denver Sound" (Jay Munly, 16 Horsepower, Slim Cessna's Auto Club, Reverend Glasseye, The Denver Gentlemen, etc.) have sounded very good when I've read steampunk. Though defininely "americana gothic", their retro instruments and sound really go hand in hand with the written word.
zaphod beetlebrox
5. platypus rising
The Tiger Lillies.
Current 93, Death in June, Nurse With Wound.
Cardiacs.
His Name Is Alive.
Tuxedomoon.
Dayle McClintock
6. trinityvixen
I thought the soundtrack for Steampunk would be things you'd expect to hear on a creaky old phonograph, like any of the background music in BioShock. Color me surprised that it's more industrial than that.
Joshua Pfeiffer
8. VernianProcess
"Actually"... we love the Pet Shop Boys.

Well, I know I do, and I founded the band. So there lol.

To answer your questions more fully, read my upcoming blog post right here at tor.com (which I'll be writing this week).
Jason Henninger
9. jasonhenninger
@5

Current 93, Death in June, Nurse With Wound

Hmm...I never thought of them like that, but, I guess so, in a creepy "laudenum picnic for the Thule Society" sort of way.
Jonathan Wood
10. JWood
Couple of bands worth mentioning:

The Dear Hunter (particularly their first album)

http://www.purevolume.com/thedearhunter/albums/The+Lake+South%2C+the+River+North

Darcy James Argue's Secret Society which plays Steampunk big band and have official credentials as they were featured in the first issue of Steampunk magazine

http://secretsociety.typepad.com/
CoffeeJedi
11. JCDS
Oh I think that Neutral Milk Hotel has a kind of steampunk vibe to them. There's enough of a hint of crazy circus music and out of control instruments to make me think so.

See:In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
Meagan Brorman
12. nutmeag
In my brain, I hear rock opera type stuff (a la Phantom of the Opera), though I can see why people say The Decemberists and the like.
Jaymee Goh
13. Jha
I find The Clockwork Quartet to be far more representative of steampunk - as a literary genre, too, in particular. They have that theatricality that draws many steampunks in.

http://www.clockworkquartet.com/music.php

Abney Park and many of those other bands, while good, is a bit too synthesized for my tastes. Then again, my steampunking is a bit more organic and "back to roots" type stuff.
Iain Coleman
14. Iain_Coleman
Would Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds be considered steampunk? Or is it more steamprog?
Brian Slattery
15. brianslattery
This is awesome. Thanks, everyone!

@ 1: I hear what you're saying about steampunk covering Victoriana to the end of the Weimar Republic. But how does that explain the 1980s influences?

@ 4: I can't take credit for the musical choices; they were from Matrix Online.

@ 8: I'm delighted not to have annoyed you by comparing your music to that of the Pet Shop Boys. They certainly have a sound, don't they? And Actually is my favorite of their albums--it's the one that I listened to incessantly when I first got it on cassette (!). It occurs to me only now that one could do amazing things with the song "It's a Sin" by dramatically changing the instrumentation. In keeping with the spirit of this post, it would make an incredible cabaret number.
S Diller
16. CuenDiller
When I think of Steampunk music, my mind veers toward the sounds of the 20th cent. Something I could imagine coming from a nickelodean. I have this CD called "music, New York & Hopper" that is comprised of city blues and scores from silent movies. It includes music by George Gershwin, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong. Though it could use another element (something dreamy and a little harsher), IMO it fits better than Abney Park and Pet Boys Shop which is too sythesized.
Paul Eisenberg
17. HelmHammerhand
Some Frank Zappa music would fit the bill, particularly, IMO, "Sofa #1 and #2."
Also, Emerson, Lake and Palmer's debut album is clunky and layered and nearly industrial, if it wasn't so progressive. Songs like "The Barbarian" and "Tank" evoke imagery of archaic machinery. At least to me.
CoffeeJedi
18. Steampunk Siren
every last band mentioned (except maybe emerson,lake & palmer) here has been on

url=http://www.sepiachord.com]www.sepiachord.com

its a fabulous resource for finding steampunk music. their livejournal & twitter has a new song of the day. everyday. with links to hear the song.....
featuring these bands and many more that are from the same vein.
I suggest everyone add them to your twitter feed to discover steampunk music.

they don't focus on one type of music either. one day you will be listening to electronic, the next, country and the day after maybe rockabilly or folk.

I find it incredible that they have been doing this since 2006 and have not run out of steampunk songs to post about and CDs to review on the website.
CoffeeJedi
19. Steampunk Siren
every last band mentioned (except maybe emerson,lake & palmer) here has been on

www.sepiachord.com

its a fabulous resource for finding steampunk music. their livejournal & twitter has a new song of the day. everyday. with links to hear the song.....
featuring these bands and many more that are from the same vein.
I suggest everyone add them to your twitter feed to discover steampunk music.

they don't focus on one type of music either. one day you will be listening to electronic, the next, country and the day after maybe rockabilly or folk.

I find it incredible that they have been doing this since 2006 and have not run out of steampunk songs to post about and CDs to review on the website.

(fixed link sorry about the double post.)
Joshua Pfeiffer
20. VernianProcess
@15. Actually (no pun intended this time)... I did do a cover of King's Cross a few years ago. I plan on redoing it now that we have an actual studio and stuff. I also just saw the PSB live two weeks ago and they performed King's Cross! I was totally blown away. Excellent band. Their new LP Yes is one of my top albums of 09'.
CoffeeJedi
21. captplothole
Maybe they're just on the fringe, but I think Modest Mouse has some very steampunk leanings to some of their work.

Certainly The Decemberists.
Jason Henninger
22. jasonhenninger
@15

Hell if I know. Seems though that the era of new wave/postpunk whatever you want to call it was a golden age of geek music in general. Maybe it was access to less expensive synthesizers than in earlier decades? Or the advent of the music video giving a whole cinematic angle to popular music? Anyhow, we had massive scifi and fantasy influece in music then, so naturally some of it would be of the Verne/Wells variety.
CoffeeJedi
23. Helmholtz
Excellent article. Very early Gary Numan with the Tubeway Army (first album) always struck me as steampunk.
CoffeeJedi
24. charlzf
The Dresden Dolls would make a perfect soundtrack for a steampunk movie. The Dolls are today's Liza Minelli and Joel Grey.
CoffeeJedi
25. AeolianDissent
I'm not sure there can be a steampunk genre of music. Music which steampunks listen to, yes, or musicians who are themselves steampunk (whether by fashion or lyrics)...but not steampunk music.
It's similar to how goths are generally alike in fashion and literature, while musically each individual could prefer classical, punk, metal, rock, industrial, or any mix of genres.
That's one of the things I love about steampunk. It's so varied.
It has only just begun to be labeled (or even recognized) by the general public.
Its focus is the re-imagination of what was and is. I can have my victorian sci-fi adventure whether it occurs during the peak of the industrial revolution, in a world which stopped at steam technology, or in a post-apocalyptic future that fell back to 1890's tech.
Getting back to the topic, steampunk seems to be based more around an idea than a music genre. I definitely encourage steampunk bands, but steampunk music...doesn't really make sense.
Kenneth Sutton
26. kenneth
As a DJ for steampunks in Second Life, I once somewhat tongue-in-cheek blogged:
“What exactly is Steampunk music?”

Performer self-identification? Minor key and moody vocals? Retro-futurism? Appropriation of historic styles? Subject matter? Fan appreciation? DJ whim? Unusual instrumentation? Eccentricity? Goth musicians looking for a niche? Do-it-yourselfism? All of the above? Other?

I agree with @25 AeolianDissent that "steampunk seems to be based more around an idea than a music genre," but dissent (groan!) from his conclusion that steampunk music doesn't make sense.

The ideas that I think are at the heart of much steampunk music include:
* trangression
* anachronism
* appropriation of world influences
* diy
* post-modern winking at the listener

Some groups and musicians I would add to those previously mentioned (many of which I haven't heard of before and will eagerly look for):

Beirut
Clare Fader
Dandelion Junk Queens
Diego's Umbrella
A Hawk and a Hacksaw
Hungry March Band
Jonathan Coulton
Max Raabe und das Palast Orchester
Ode Hazelwood
They Might Be Giants
Vermillion Lies
White Ghost Shivers

Why, yes, I do have peculiar taste in music. Why do you ask?

So my particular list leans towards dark cabaret, gothic roots music, and Klezmer fusion.

I also suggest that any band that produces acoustic pop music using the accordion, tuba, hurdy-gurdy, or jaw harp is pretty damn punk without being, you know, punk rockers.
Jaymee Goh
27. Jha
kenneth: I really like that little list of ideas which make up elements of steampunk music, and think it's very applicable to other forms of steampunk as well! I shall have to borrow it!
CoffeeJedi
28. Therru
I'm with Jha @13. Personally, I find it rather surprising that an aesthetic movement that celebrates mechanical and analog technologies leans so heavily toward electronic and synthesized music. Of those bands mentioned above that I have had time to check out so far, my absolute favourites are The Clockwork Quartet (and I found The Decemberists enjoyable, too). My music taste leans more toward the organic. But then I'm not a goth by inclination, and have never been. Having been young during the 1980s may be a contributing factor. :)
CoffeeJedi
29. Trez
Clockwork Quartet, Clockwork Quartet and Clockwork Quartet. Love 'em

The music they've released so far is fantastic. Their live show was just stunning

http://www.clockworkquartet.com/
CoffeeJedi
30. Twowolves
I have heard of Steampunk, but just started reading my first Steampunk novel, "Boneshaker" by Cherie Priest, this past month. The first band I thought of when considering Steampunk music is The Decemberists, especially their latest, The Hazards of Love. Why? Their music has a flowing style with Eastern European influences that are well suited for songs relaying tales of Victorian love, revenge and all manners of other things.
CoffeeJedi
33. Hollysmess
My "Steampunk" iPod playlist contains several of the artists above, but since my Steampunky novel is actually a Western, I also included a lot of Celtic and Bluegrass sounds: Connie Dover, The Duhks, Loreena McKennit, and assorted other people with fiddles and mandolins.

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