Steampunk, or the whimsical joy of inclusion and play | Music Feature | Indy Week
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Steampunk, or the whimsical joy of inclusion and play 

Leather and laptops

click to enlarge Do they make Marvelon holsters? Jay Cartwright once led steampunk rock group Lemming Malloy; now he performs pop songs with an accordion. - PHOTO BY WENDY SPITZER
  • Photo by Wendy Spitzer
  • Do they make Marvelon holsters? Jay Cartwright once led steampunk rock group Lemming Malloy; now he performs pop songs with an accordion.

Every week, sisters Klaude and Emmett Davenport host The Clockwork Cabaret, a weekly two-hour radio show from their traveling airship, Calpurnia. Well, at least that's what they do through the magic of radio. They'd prefer that you not know their real names—one works at a local middle school, the other at a hair salon. And they're not sisters, either. The Davenports met about two years ago while spinning records at local goth nights.

"People weren't really joyous and happy," says Klaude. "There's only so long you can take yourself so seriously before you just want to go out and smile and have fun and be ridiculous and listen to varied kinds of music."

With their radio show, that's exactly what they've done. By curating and cultivating an inclusive musical aesthetic, they've given steampunk subculture—largely a visually expressive niche—a wide-ranging sound that continues to expand. Steampunk combines Victorianism, an adventuresome DIY attitude and advanced "steam-powered technology." Drawing inspiration from The Difference Engine, a 1990 science fiction novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, the form offers an alternative history world of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. It is the fantastic place seen in such horrible movies as Wild Wild West and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Emmett appreciates it all: "You're pretending that you live on airships, that you have ray guns, you wear goggles, you're wearing a top hat. It kind of is steeped in the ridiculous."

Klaude and Emmett play off-kilter Americana, rock, blues, electronica and even rap on The Clockwork Cabaret. (Ever hear of Mr. B The Gentleman Rhymer?) The approach has earned them a massive following. While The Clockwork Cabaret is broadcast out of WCOM-FM, 103.5 in Carrboro—a station with a broadcast radius of about five miles—the show is a hit in the online steampunk community. Through iTunes, they have more than 16,000 subscribers.

Appropriately, Durham musician Jay Cartwright first stumbled upon steampunk on the Internet. Cartwright saw a picture of a laptop outfitted with wood, brass and leather—the look of steampunk. "The interesting thing about steampunk is the image that it presents is one that suggests that exploring life, especially exploring science, is an act which opens up new possibilities," he says. "It creates a sense of adventure."

With that in mind, he steampunked his new keytar—a keyboard held like a guitar—and renamed it the Marvelon. The Marvelon was the star of Lemming Malloy, his rock quartet that drew on Victorian themes of power relations. More recently, Cartwright has concentrated on the accordion. The former leader of Eyes to Space and a current member of Oyster Destroyer, The Scene of the Crime Rovers and Triangle Soundpainting Orchestra, he now performs solo, too, covering songs by The Supremes, Radiohead and The Magnetic Fields with an instrument that rose in popularity during Victorian times.

"It's fun to hear how those songs sound arranged on an instrument that's completely mechanical," he says. "So much music is dependent upon electronics and amplification." Even without an actual steampunk band, Cartwright is still juxtaposing distant eras. In his cover tunes, he's striving for an element of timelessness.

Not everyone is comfortable with the steampunk tag—or, more specifically, the prospect of becoming a novelty band. Brooklyn band The Lisps, for instance, recently completed a musical, Futurity, in which a Union soldier from the Civil War writes a science fiction novel featuring steam-powered artificial intelligence. His mentor? The English countess Ada Lovelace, credited with creating the first computer algorithm. Insert genre-specific joke here.

"But," explains Sammy Tunis, who plays Lovelace on the album and is the female vocalist of The Lisps, "before the musical, we'd never ever been considered a steampunk band at all. I mean, we're not."

To their credit, The Lisps are theatrical and folky, but no more steampunk than Neko Case, Charles Ives or Frank Sinatra. Perhaps because so few bands self-identify as steampunk, though, its fans hold the power in defining the boundaries of their own subculture. Tom Waits, for instance, likely doesn't know he's one of steampunk's biggest stars.

César Alvarez, who wrote and stars as the Union soldier in Futurity, fancies the musical in a sort of cultural purgatory. "We are existing in a sparsely populated in-between space between theater and indie rock. This in between-ness is part of the aesthetic of steampunk, to be in between genres and time periods," he says. The Lisps have never fit neatly into one realm, actually. Even though the band is now moving away from a more old-timey sound, there's nothing keeping the steampunk fans from following.

That fluid ideal allows people like the Davenport Sisters to co-opt songs they like. Having no strict rules or guidelines for what is or is not a steampunk song, they foster senses of wonder and fun. "It's just play, really. It's supposed to be jubilant and joyful, and I think that draws a lot of people in," Klaude says. People who wander into a steampunk party in their normal street clothes often seek out future parties bedecked in hats, goggles, and corsets. Steampunk, then, is an excuse to have fun.

And again, it's not just music: Listeners of The Clockwork Cabaret hear funny poetry, fake advertisements and stories about the adventures of the Davenports. The two actually pitched the show as a sort of Prairie Home Companion—just, you know, different. They discuss poultices and liniments and transform a cockroach roaming around the station into the character Edward Carapace. Listeners respond with check-in calls, their own poetry and fan art.

"Seeing how people relate to what we're doing, or how they respond to it, is so positive and friendly," says Emmett. "Sometimes I get a little verklempt."

The Davenport Sisters DJ a 9:30 p.m. show Friday, March 5, at Nightlight in Chapel Hill. Jay Cartwright and The Lisps perform. The evening will also include a puppet cabaret, sideshow acts, games and burlesque performer Meka La Creme. The 9 p.m. show costs $5. The following evening, the sisters DJ The Clockwork Ball at Mansion 462. Tickets are $5-$7 for the 9 p.m. show.

Editor's Note (March 5, 2010): Mansion 462 has postponed all shows this week, including the Saturday one noted above.

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