Captain Robert Brown was one of the first Master Makers to support our concept of celebrating Steampunk making in all its myriad forms. No surprise, since Brown has been making Steampunk art in many forms himself for the past two decades. As a maker, Brown believes in improvement, appreciating excellence, and the pure enjoyment of the process, all things he’s coming to share with you this June at Aethertopia 2019. And this time he’s bringing the band!
We ask him a few questions to give you an early insight into his art and process, and even his answers read like a good story. Enjoy!
A: Many people, when asked how they came to steampunk, tell how they discovered the genre as a definition for an idea or aesthetic they already loved. The origin story of Abney Park is much the same. Can you tell us more about how that felt, when you first discovered steampunk encapsulated all your music encompassed?
CRB: It was actually a casual moment. While the band rehearsed, I was recounting how we had been labeled by the press as a “goth band”, (because my voice was deep, and we used keyboards a lot), but how the term never really covered everything we did.
Sure, we had the victorian aesthetic, and occasional ghost stories, but we didn’t stick with dark and brooding. Sometimes our songs were cheerful. Yes, our lyrics often read like victorian literature, but they weren’t always horror stories; often they were vintage science fiction.
During this lamentation, I’d been drawing. The drawing started as a sketch of pirates on a ship…but I screwed up and drew the bottom of the boat. Of course, you never see the bottom when a boat is in water. So, to be funny, I drew this boat hanging under big balloons.
“Airship Pirates?” A band member asked. We had never heard the term at this point.
“Haha! I guess!” And then I went back to the topic at hand, “We never picked ‘goth’, it was assigned to us because of our victorian aesthetic. Maybe what we need to do is create a new subculture…based on a victorian literary style, like gothic is…and claim it as our own. Something nobody has ever used before, so nobody can argue about whether or not we’re doing it correctly. But what genre is victorian, occasionally light hearted, and features science fiction more than horror?”
At the time, “Steampunk” was a rarely heard word. It was created as a joke between authors, and they used it to write the first four steampunk novels…which they did. Then they promptly forgot about it for 20 years.
It was perfect: it fit what we had always been doing, and yet was so obscure we had carte blanche to do whatever we wanted with it. At the time we decided to take on this label we had no idea if it would be successful or not. We assumed we’d be laughed at for it, and we certainly were…just before it became the massive world wide phenomenon it is today.
A: Since steampunk didn’t really have a sound at the time, how did you come to the conclusions you did on what constituted that sound?
CRB: We explored. We are still exploring.
Basically, my flow works like this: I’ll come up with a lyrical idea, say, a clockwork boy building himself, and I’ll sketch out the lyrics. (Abney Park’s “Twisted and Broken”) Then I’ll sit down in my studio and try to picture what those lyrics would sound like as music. Would it feature hand-cranked machine sounds? Calliope? Accordion? Foot pumped organ? (Yes, I actually have these instruments in my studio, and have learned to play them.)
The next track might be something more abrasive in nature, like the rebellion song of enslaved automatons (Abney Park’s “Rise Up”). Since this is a war song of machines I want the drums to sound like a march, strings to sound like a symphony…I want to hear the anger of the machines!
So, I guess the sound follows the lyrics, and it’s different each song. This has lead a lot of people to question if steampunk even has a sound. Yes, it does, but it’s a varied sound, as steampunk is in a constant exploration and evolution…just like the era it’s based on.
A: You’ve built a single world through your songs over time. Did the songs come out of a unified image or did the image form around the music?
CRB: Well, the music formed around the lyrics, and the lyrics were simply a couple hundred daydreams.
Then one day, a fan asked me about the “big story”. Apparently all these isolated daydreams fit together in the minds of our more-creative-than-usual fans.
At our fans’ prompting, I then sat down to start the novel series, which stitches together the 250 steampunk stories contained in our songs.
About halfway through writing the first novel, I received an email from a table top gaming company in London. They were interested in creating an RPG based on the lyrics of Abney Park songs. When I told them I had started on a novel, they were thrilled, and the next year turned into a collaboration of three writers: myself, Peter Cakebread and Ken Walton, creating the world for both the novels and the RPG.
A: You’ve since branched out into games and, now, audio dramas. What does each form bring to the other? What inspires you to branch out each time you do?
CRB: I had a list of things I “wanted to be when I grew up”: writer, world builder, rockstar, game designer. I also wanted to be an astronaut and a daddy.
Slowly, one by one, I’m crossing things off my list. (Anybody got a rocketship I can borrow?)
A: Your music has inspired many artists and makers across the world. Is there anything that you find inspires your creativity?
CRB: Excellence. When I see, hear, or read truly excellent work three things happen to me emotionally:
- I get deeply jealous.
- My soul feels soothed and redeemed that “good art really is good art”. It’s so hard to watch mediocrity be successful, so it’s truly therapeutic to see or hear excellence.
- I’m inspired to try to be as good myself. I can’t always do as well, but it sure is fun trying!
A: What do you look for in steampunk craft?
CRB: First, depth of imagination. How throughly realized is the daydream behind the work? Did the artist merely make it “look kinda steampunk” or is there a whole story behind what they did?
Secondly, is it original or simply a copy of a 1,000 other steampunk items?
Third, how skillfully did the artist create the illusion? Metal, plastic, and wood glued together then painted a solid color just isn’t impressive compared to how the steampunk art scene has evolved. I want to see that the work of art looks made by a master craftsman, I want to see patina, and shine, and cohesiveness, and skill.
A: You were a Master Maker judge at the first Aethertopia last July. What did you take away from meeting those contestants?
CRB: Oh, too much to list! So many brilliant artists, so many great stories, so much skill and craftsmanship. More directions and explorations than I could have imagined. It was humbling, and difficult to “judge” all this amazing talent and vision.
A: What do you look forward to this year?
CRB: Feeling the way the event made me feel last time…but also, bringing MY steampunk art to show! This year I will bring my band, and show what WE do best!
A: For new makers considering this year’s Aethertopia maker’s contest, what advice would you give?
CRB: Be original, and have high standards. Your art will sit next to other amazing art. We are talking about Hollywood quality miniatures, and costumes…so bring your very best!