Articles by

<Marian Kuemmerlein>

07/04/07 12:00am

Professor Calamity, author of the Steampunk Manifesto, founder of the Catastrophone Orchestra and Arts Collective, and inventor of the catastrophone [pictured above], stands ramrod straight on the steps of Judson Memorial Church during the Anarchist Book Fair. He is thin and wiry, dressed head to toe in black, with a red and yellow pirate’s kerchief around his neck and a newsboy’s cap on his head. He glances around furtively before chasing down the steps into Washington Square Park, where he sits on a rail and lights the first of many Parliament cigarettes. “My baby’s the catastrophone, but we have other phones,” he says, referring to the cellphone on his hip, the only part of his uniform that doesn’t match his steampunk aesthetic. 

The catastrophone, a steam-powered musical switchboard and calliope, stands over eighteen feet tall, requires three operators and sounds like a church organ. Monstrous and beautiful when up and running, Calamity’s baby now resides in several crates in his garage in Queens. “It is an illegal instrument,” he tells me. It took him years to build, but there is literally no place for it in the New York scene. “We could operate it in an unspace,” says Calamity. “Like a tunnel or a roof. But never in a venue, or a club. It’s too dangerous. It could explode. We wear rubber gloves, aprons and goggles when we operate it.” And, because of the steam, the catastrophone drips, creating a pool of water around the operators and audience, if there is one. Finally, Calamity admits with chagrin, part of the instrument is powered by butane and the smell “is not the most pleasant.” Still, he says, he looks forward to performing at least once this summer, at a friend’s loft in Williamsburg. “If they knew anything about steam, they would never let me perform in their house,” he says with a smile. “People think of steam as relatively benign. Like a teakettle.” He shakes his head and lights another cigarette.

Professor Calamity is one of about, by his estimation, two hundred New York City “steampunks,” a burgeoning sub-culture that mixes the mechanized aesthetics of the late 19th-century Industrial Revolution with the DIY anti-authoritarian ethos of the late 1970s. The term was initially coined to describe a “gonzo-historical” genre of fiction in 1987, a tongue-in-cheek reference to cyberpunk. In the past few years, however, the subculture has grown from its genre-fiction roots to include music, fashion, cinema and other related pursuits, (like old-fashioned accessory restoration and refurbishing defunct machines.) Developments in the scene are recorded in the UK-based Brass Goggles (“the lighter side of steampunk”) and Portland, Oregon-based Steampunk Magazine (“putting the punk back in steampunk.”) We are approaching what steampunk blogs refer to as a “gearhead renaissance.” The attitude of a steampunk is more can-do than the navel-gazing goth, but more sophisticated than the sanity-be-damned cheerfulness of skapunk or rockabilly. Steampunks are also differentiated insofar as they don’t necessarily self-identify with specific music: Calamity reminds me that he is not, in fact, a musician — he is a mechanic first and foremost, a tinker. Though steampunks are not musicians first, they do have definite musical tastes. The list of steampunk musical heroes includes Carla Kihldstedt of the Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls, Colin Meloy, and Voltaire, who describes his work as “music for a parallel universe in which electricity was never invented and Morrissey is the Queen of England.” Topping the list is Tom Waits, because of his use of calliopes, particularly on Blood Money. Calamity acknowledges Waits as the Godfather of steampunk, confirming the claim that Tom Waits is to steampunk what David Bowie was to glam.

Literary heroes include Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and more recently William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, whose
novel The Difference Engine is credited with bringing steampunk closer to the public eye. Lemony Snicket and Edward Gorey are read aloud to steampunk babies.

Fashion-wise, a steampunk’s closet is heavily Victorian, but more practical than a Goth’s; steampunks are
sympathetic and very supportive of the neo-burlesque movement, with both the women and men applauding Dita Von Teese. When pressed to choose a favorite modern designer, many steampunks choose Jean-Paul Gaultier,
but insist that it’s preferable to make one’s own clothes.

“Instead of looking at a machine and saying ‘what can I make this machine do,’ we like to think ‘what can I do around this machine,’” says Calamity. No surprise, then, that many steampunks, two of which are in Professor Calamity’s band, came to find the culture through trainhopping. They find the strong presence of trains in the city a comfort. Calamity reminds me that anyone can operate the catastrophone. “The dial will go to three, and you stick the third tube into the third socket,” he says. “If you know basic math and can operate a switchboard, you can operate the catastrophone.” Steampunks, ultimately, are happiest in the garage, tinkering away with their Rube Goldberg machines. 

Steampunk will probably never go mainstream, because it can’t really be mass-produced. “When everything is the same, nothing has value,” says Calamity. “The iPod, to us, is very impersonal and disposable. I’m interested in re-envisioning our relationship to technology. I’m interested in having mechanical comrades.” I ask him if he wants to build a time machine. “I don’t necessarily want to go back in time,” he says, a little abashed. “But I do think man had a more honest relationship with technology in the 19th century than he does now.”

But, he says, ”Even within the Catastrophone Orchestra there is debate about recording and distributing our music.” Steampunk music, he explains, in its purest form, should be heard live: almost impossible, given the cumbersome nature of the instruments. Calamity also notes that since they don’t use electricity, amplification is difficult. He pauses before looking sideways at me and admitting, “My dream was to use electric eels to amplify the pyrophone, which is very quiet and right now can only be used for solos. But of course electric eels aren’t always electric. You have to threaten or agitate them. I thought we could have two tanks, and toss the eels from one to the other constantly. Salt water is an excellent conduit for electricity.” Unfortunately for Calamity, the other members of the Catastrophone Orchestra are very involved in animal rights. “If you find any less scrupulous steampunks…” Calamity shrugs and smiles.

Calamity’s phone rings, jolting us back into the 21st century. He is excited, he says, to start building another machine. “How much coal?” he asks. “Sweet. Let’s go. The tools are in the car.” He slams his phone shut, reminds me to put him in touch with anyone who doesn’t mind teasing electricity out of eels, and takes off across the park.   •

10/25/06 12:00am

David Langlois shows up late to his gig at Fada. No one seems to mind. David is a slight man with Rastafarian dreadlocks, a Parisian goatee and a disarming smile. When I offer him my hand to shake, he kisses both my cheeks, then starts rummaging through his bags, looking worried. “I lost my thimbles,” he explains, which under normal circumstances would be grounds for correcting his English (“You mean you lost your marbles?”) or smiling wanly and backing away. But David is talking about real thimbles, the Grandmother kind; they are part of his musical instrument.

What David calls his washboard is actually an assortment of household tools bolted together. In a row, attached to the edge of the washboard, are: a fondue pot, inverted (“my grandmother’s” David remembers fondly); a sieve, which sounds like a cymbal when struck; and a pie tin, also turned upside down. “The pie tin sounds better the more you use it,” David explains as he shows me the smooth dents it has developed under the striking of his thimble-tipped fingers. The deeper the dents, he says, the broader the range of notes. Under these rests a wood block, which says “clock” when David strikes it. On one side of the washboard is a flattened trowel, which previously belonged to David’s grandfather. On the other side is a little shelf handy for holding David’s cell phone, his Marlboro lights, and the rest of the instrument: eight thimbles, which David has finally located. He and the rest of the band prepare to play.

David sits down with the instrument on his lap and closes his eyes, as if about to lead a séance. His silver-tipped fingers flutter against the pie tin, then start to tap dance over the fondue pot and wooden block, throwing ratatats, ping pangs and knocks into the air. During solos he arches his back like a cat and scratches at the board with fanatic energy. Members of the audience look up from their dinners. A girl in a black cardigan sits rapt as if in church, while a middle-aged Polish couple begin to giggle and dance. The old woman sitting next to me at the bar, amazingly, has begun to cry. On stage, David has a faint smile as he plays.

He grew up in Paris, where he discovered Bob Marley at the age of ten. Though he couldn’t understand the words Marley was singing, the music affected him so strongly he decided to be a musician. His eyes still light up when he talks about Marley. (‘Get Up, Stand Up’ is only one chord,” he reminds me, excited. “It’s so different from what we play because it’s so simple. But it’s so good.”) Still, he doesn’t call Bob Marley his hero; David doesn’t have any heroes. And don’t make any assumptions about the dreadlocks either.  

“I’m not a hippy,” he insists between sets, throwing a piece of bloody steak between his teeth. He does believe music should have a positive message, though, and he did leave Paris for the Alps while still a teenager, where he was first approached by a washboard player. “I felt insulted,” David tells me, offering me a bite of steak and signaling for another espresso. “I said, ‘Dishes? I am a drummer, why should I play dishes?’” But after seeing the man perform with a full band, David changed his mind about the dishes and decided to give them a try. He found a washboard in an Alpine shop for $10, chose a fondue pot from his grandmother’s kitchen, located the most musical trowel in his grandfather’s tool shed, and was soon performing with his new instrument all over France and Switzerland. “When you are a musician in France, you are respected,” David tells me. “You get paid when you are not working, and you get to take vacation.” David used his vacation time to travel to Senegal every summer where he and local families “adopted one another” and bonded over a shared love of Bob Marley. “I was the only person with a guitar in the village. But they all knew music so well. The children there can master the most complicated rhythms,” David says. “It’s incredible.” Someday, he hopes to return. 

But for now, he’s calling New York City home. After a friend talked up the Brooklyn music scene, David decided to leave France and head to America. Though getting a visa proved very challenging (“you have to get letters of recommendation saying you’re the best at whatever it is you do”), David moved across the Atlantic. Looking for a job without knowing English was problematic but David found an East Village restaurant and live music venue willing to hire him. Peering at David’s resume, the owner asked, “Do you like rock and roll?” “Sure,” said David. “So you like to go fast with dishes?” the owner pressed. “Sure.” “You can be a busboy,” declared the owner. “Cool,” said David, smiling. He had no idea what “busboy” meant. 

 “Going fast with dishes” had nothing to do with music as far as the owner of the café was concerned. David turned in his apron after one week, but during that week he met Stephane Wremble, a formidable gypsy jazz guitarist in the style of Django Reinhardt, who played Sunday brunches at the restaurant. Soon, David became part of Stephane’s Hot Club of New York. Now that David plays seven nights a week, he has had to quit his other gigs, including the drum circles in the park. “I would play so hard in the park all afternoon that my fingers would grow blisters and I wouldn’t even notice,” he said. “At night I couldn’t fit my thimbles on. But that’s New York. There’s no time to rest.”