Steam Powered Giraffe: A Folk-Vaudevillian-Comic-Rock Opera Experience for the Whole Family
(All images via the Official Steam Powered Giraffe website.)
I’m a pretty big fan of the band Steam Powered Giraffe, which I discovered by accident when a friend sent me a video link to their song “Captain Albert Alexander.” The combination of character, music, talent, and storytelling mesmerized me, and I was an instant fan. The band began by busking near Balboa Park in San Diego, and then were signed to perform officially at the San Diego Zoo. From there, the band became an increasingly popular internet phenomenon as videos of their performances spread online. The Honeybee video, one of their first music videos, has almost 5 million shares on YouTube and served as an introduction to the band for many fans. Both Honeybee and Captain Albert Alexander feature a pre-transition version of the robot Rabbit, in case this might cause confusion for newer fans who only know her as a woman.
The band’s own website has a better, more concise explanation of who they are and what they do than I could cobble together:
More than a band. More than a show. Step into the world of Steam Powered Giraffe.
Steam Powered Giraffe is a musical project from San Diego, California. It was formed in 2008 by twin siblings David Michael Bennett and Isabella “Bunny” Bennett. Together, along with performer/artist Samuel Luke and a cast and crew filled with theatrical backgrounds, the group takes on the guise of singing antique automatons and the fictional robotics company that made them.
The quirky act combines comedic sketches, improvised android banter, and original music fused with multimedia visuals, billowing steam effects, and robot pantomime.
From their heartwarming nostalgic melodies to their funky cabaret rock, Steam Powered Giraffe’s songs are memorable, infectious, and as unique as the robots themselves.
More than just a band, Steam Powered Giraffe is an experience that must be seen and heard by the entire family.
And it’s true. I’ve seen three different live shows and have been impressed each time by the consistency, performance quality, and diversity of song choices. I’ve heard a great mix of old favorites, new songs, and fresh takes on older material each time. The shows are purposefully family-friendly but never boring or sanitized. There is entertainment for all ages to be had at a Steam Powered Giraffe concert. I briefly mentioned Steam Powered Giraffe in a longer piece about steampunk, in the section about bands, but I will introduce its members here, as well.
First is The Spine, played by David Michael Bennett. The Spine is a futuristic-style, silver and black robot who plays the guitar, bass, mandolin, and keys for the band. He has a deep baritone and often plays the role of the “straight man” in band-banter with the other robots, which is every bit as entertaining as the outright joking.
Next, we have Rabbit, a steampunk-style robot, mostly made of copper. Rabbit is played by Isabella “Bunny” Bennett and plays the melodica and accordion. Because she was the first of the robots to be created and still contains many of her original Victorian-era parts, Rabbit is more prone to malfunction than the other bots.
Hatchworth is played by Samuel Luke and plays drums, bass, and guitar. Hatchworth is an Art-Deco-style robot, and part of his design contains a cast-iron stove! Hatchworth enjoys the creation of mysterious sandwiches and singing about the troubles that can arise from the wearing of Fancy Shoes.
Also involved in performances are sound engineer Steve Negrete and the Walter Workers. Steve Negrete ensures that the performances go off without a hitch (but always with a Hatch!) and is integrated into the performances via his interactions with the robots as Beebop and Qwerty. The Walter Workers, played by Chelsea and Camille Penyak, are characterized by their pale skin and blue hair, side effects of working with the science of Blue Matter at Walter Robotics.
The Spine did not skimp on his replies to my email interview, and I invite all of you to meet David Michael Bennett and read what he has to say about the band and their newest projects!
Sara Goodwin (TMS): The Honeybee video was massively popular on Youtube – is that still an entry point into learning about the band that all members embrace, or is there a new song or video you consider the best introduction to the band?
David Michael Bennett: Honeybee was definitely one of those videos that traveled around the internet more than other videos we’ve done. It’s fairly old at this point, shows off different band members who are no longer in the group, but we think it still showcases what we are all about.
We still get tons of new fans to this day who say Honeybee was their introduction to the band, and it’s the song and music video that got them hooked. It’s nice to know the song and video have longevity, but there are a few other videos that we hear hook people into being fans. We did a cover song of Rihanna’s “Diamonds” and that is another music video that surged in popularity, and we get lots of fans finding out about us from that one as well. There’s also the video for our song Automatonic Electronic Harmonics, which came out shortly after Honeybee years ago, and with it’s viewer count just a tad behind Honeybee, it’s also a song we hear hooks people.
We’re not sure what the best introduction to the band is ourselves. Some folks see one of our concerts, and that’s the first time they see and hear us, other times they see images and photos of us circulating the internet and that compels them to look into us more, but most often it’s music videos on the Youtubes. Youtube a big factor in whatever success we have with the band, as it showcases our visuals and sounds the best with videos.
TMS: If someone has never heard of your band before, and has no concept of what “Steampunk” or “Cyberpunk” mean, how would you describe Steam Powered Giraffe to a complete nerd-scene noob? (This question will be useful to me as well, as I am working on a paper about what exactly ‘steampunk’ means.)
Bennett: From our collective knowledge in the band, Steampunk is an aesthetic. It’s an aesthetic style that bleeds into many different forms of art, much like art deco, futurism, western, punk, and styles like that. It can encompass anything from literature to music, but is definitely a visual style first and foremost. It’s specific style is “Victorian Science Fiction”. Think Jules Verne or H.G. Wells. It’s about a time that didn’t really exist, much like the “retro future” aesthetic that the 1930s through the 1950s brought about. It’s the Victorian era, where people wore top hats, carried canes, and mustaches, but the Victorian era as if the steam driven technology of the time became the norm for technologies of all sort. We have science fiction movies today that show a fantasy vision of the near future based on our current technologies, well it’s kind of like that, but set in Victorian times and based on Victorian steam driven technology.
More than all that though, it’s now a community of folks who just love making, building, or wearing fun costumes and gadgets, and coming up with backstories for their steampunk characters themselves.
We didn’t intentionally put ourselves in the Steampunk category when we first made the band. We were simply robots existing in the modern era.
However our backstory has the robots first being built in 1896, at first as a way for our characters to encompass a lot of musical genres. We liked the band having a fictional background and being able draw musical inspiration from the decades that the robots would have been performing in those 100 or so years was our aim. We think you can definitely hear some of these influences in some of our more acoustic or folky songs, many of which we think wouldn’t sound out of place at a 1930s world’s fair or something. Steampunk became a thing for us mostly due to the steam driven technology we put into the backstory, having one of the robot characters wear goggles, and the Steampunk crowd “adopting us”. We definitely knew what steampunk was when we made the group, it wasn’t as talked about as much back then, but we kind of just naturally slipped into it because our backstories and the goggles I think. We welcomed it with open arms, and we’ve done quite a few Steampunk conventions and concerts over the years. It’s a fun inventive and artistic community full of people of all ages, and it’s really no different than going to a science fiction convention or comic convention in some regards (which are also a heck of alot of fun), Steampunk is just a lot more “classy” I’d say. Ha.
Luckily for the majority of our audience, none of the robot’s backstories or knowledge of steampunk are important for watching our concerts, listening to our albums, or watching our music videos.
The fiction is there for people who want to dig in deep and become obsessed with it, because it’s fun, but it’s not an “in-crowd” kind of thing. We want everyone to be able to digest our act.
It certainly is weird, but not hard to understand once you figure out the basic: We are pretending to be steam driven amusement-park-like robots who perform music for humans. ;)
TMS: I know each band member has their own favorite and least favorite songs to perform. Which song from SPG’s repertoire is each band member’s favorite, and why? (The why is optional if you don’t have time or don’t know other band member’s reasons.) No pressure. (Steam pun totally intended.)
Bennett: That’s always a hard question, but we do get asked it a lot. I think most musicians and songwriters do.
All of us in the band have always answered the same though, “It’s too difficult to pick your favorite child”. There are certainly songs that each of us our proud of maybe than other songs, but for the most part we like everything we make as every song we make served it’s artistic purpose when we wrote it.
With that said, I personally will always have a soft spot for our song Rex Marksley, as I love the western gunslinger style, old western tv shows, and the idea of a cookie-cutter-perfect do-gooder gunslinger dressed in white patrolling the wild west. It’s been done a ton of times before, but playing in that universe and creating a song in the vein of an old western tv show theme was really fun.
TMS: The Mary Sue is a feminist/LGTBQ-inclusive website, and people new to the fandom might want to know that this is a band that embraces the trans community and encourages their fans to do the same. What would you like to tell new fans about SPG’s experience supporting Isabella “Bunny” Bennett’s transition from male to female?
Bennett: Excellent question. My identical twin Bunny, who I founded this group with, transitioned from male to female a few years ago. You can still see old videos pre-transition of the male version of the robot character Rabbit. It was a big change for the band, but not one that any of us opposed. We all knew of Bunny being transgender and supported her. We all wanted her to be happy, and all of us in the band support the LGTBQ community. Once we figured out the logistics of when we could do it and how it would be done (just for professionalism sake) it really wasn’t an issue making the transition for shows, as far as the band was concerned. We didn’t try and hide it, and our fans gave Bunny tons and tons of support. The change has helped Bunny, and it’s helped fans dealing with the same thing. I think it’s one of those things in these times where if you have some sort of public spotlight, it’s a no-brainer to put yourself out there. Sure there’s the occasional person who won’t support the band for religious or personal beliefs, but we try and share and spread the love, show that stuff like this is alive and well in the world, and that it’s okay to be yourself. This is super important to our younger fans, who I think need to see their peers and people they might look up to including them and making them feel like they are not alone.
I can’t speak for Bunny on her personal journey with her transition, but I can say that it’s been a blessing to her to be able to have the support of the fans through it all. We get lots of emails, messages, and physical fan mail from folks who tell us it means a lot to them that Bunny did her transition publicly and that it was adapted into the show.
I personally cannot wait for the day when stuff like this is commonplace and not taboo. It certainly isn’t taboo for tons of people.
However I’ve seen people who are apprehensive, who might not have anything LGTBQ-related in their lives, I guess it can be scary and strange for those kinds of people, but love is universal I would say, and for the most part, every new generation brings in more people who are more accepting of people. We are all just people after all, and everyone should be able to be themselves, without feeling like an outcast just because of their sexuality, gender, the clothes they wear, the way they wear their hair, or the brand of toothpaste they use.
TMS: So, I’ve been a fan for a couple of years now. I saw you perform at Youmacon 2012, the first concert debuting Hatchworth. It was a great show and we had a blast. How did that show feel to you as performers? Was it a lot different for you, or did the fact that Sam Luke has been a part of the band for a long time make that transition easier? From an audience perspective, it was a very smooth entrance for Hatchworth!
Bennett: Thank you for being a fan and thank you for the compliment on that show! That show was a first for a few things. First we had Samuel Luke stepping up to take over for a robot performer who was no longer in the group, and then we had a new drummer Mike Buxbaum, who was filling in for our other drummer at the time Matthew Smith. It was definitely a scary show for us, but I think all the rehearsal paid off for that one and we made it through. I don’t think we’ve ever had a more difficult show as that one, just because of Sam becoming his own robot “Hatchworth” for the first time.
He has originally joined us for our two summers performing at the San Diego Zoo as our drummer. When we were looking for a replacement robot, he stepped up and said “I think I have what it takes”.
He already knew most of the songs we had done since he was our drummer, and he was also a stellar musician. In fact, he basically learned how to play drums for our shows at the zoo, and normally he only played guitar, bass, and piano.
Now Sam has been with us longer than any other robot in the band other than Bunny or myself, so now we are old chums, and we’ve been honing the act together for a few years. He definitely has proven himself and that first show he did solidified that.
He’s a great asset whose dedication and commitment match-up great with both Bunny and myself.
TMS: The band is often referred to as a steampunk band, but in reality, steampunk is only one of many influences. My best estimation is that SPG is a folk-vaudevillian-comedic-rock opera-theatre experience that might make you laugh and then break your heart in the next breath. How would you best describe the SPG experience? Was I close? Kinda?
Bennett: Oh wow. You hit the nail on the head! Let’s go with that! Haha.
But yes, it’s hard to describe our act. It’s part cartoon characters, part improv, part musical theater, part rock band, and part old timey vaudeville stuff. Basically we took everything we liked about entertainment and wanted to do and stuffed it into one group. The band is a fantastic outlet for any artistic projects we could ever think of. Serious, funny, cool, ridiculous, stupid, it all fits because we force it too. :P
TMS: When you and the band aren’t touring and recording (or sleeping!), I’m told you enjoy playing video games and may have had some background in tabletop D&D. What are some of your favorite games, and do you feel that gaming provides inspiration in some ways?
Bennett: We are all gamers in the band in some forms. Tabletop RPGs, board games, video games, we love it all and our individual interests overlap a bit too where we have played games together on more than one occasion.
Video games are just another form of entertainment. No better or worse than books, movies, theater, or television (or Netflix/Hulu since I don’t know anyone who owns a cable box anymore).
Some games have gotten really great at telling stories and it’s an experience that lasts longer than a book or movie sometimes. You get to interact with the story, sometimes in small ways, and sometimes in larger ways, and that’s unique to video games (and choose your own adventure books). Folks get invested in these characters that they spend 50+ hours interacting with.
Not all games tell great stories, some are just “fun” games, games that you can play with your friends on the couch, or online. But entertainment is entertainment.
For me personally, I try and play all the major triple A titles, as well as notable indie games. I like to see what’s out there and taste different types of games. I can appreciate most games.
As for favorites, I am a sucker for all of the Bioware games (Mass Effect, Dragon Age), Bethesda games (Elder Scrolls, Fallout), Rockstar games (Red Dead Redemption, LA Noire), the Assasin’s Creed Games. I love open world games, and love just getting lost in them, especially when they have awesome cinematic stories as well. But I also appreciate more linear games too.
I think gaming does provide inspiration, in the same way any form of entertainment does. Creativity inspires creativity.
TMS: Outside of the usual concert touring and creating a new album, SPG recently created music for SteamWorld Heist, a video game. What was that like? The game looks really cool, and what I’ve heard of the music sounds great!
Bennett: It was a dream come true for us being able to create music for a video game. We are totally excited to see the finished product, and it’s coming out December 10th on Nintendo 3Ds. We’re also releasing our new album from the game the same day.
It was really a match made in heaven. Image and Form made the game SteamWorld Dig, about steam powered robots, and now their sequel SteamWorld Heist, has Steam Powered Giraffe’s steam powered robots in it!
It was a learning experience for us for sure, as we had never worked with another company before and no one outside of the group with our music. It took a little more than year to hammer everything out on our end, about 20 different iteration of a “main theme song”, but we ended up with music that Image and Form was happy with and we were happy with, and hopefully the songs we’ve made on the album and in the game will introduce us to new fans that might have not heard of us otherwise.
I can’t wait to get my hands on the game! I’ve got my Nintendo 3Ds ready to go!
It’s going to be strange seeing reviews on video gaming websites I frequent, and if they mention our band at all from the game, good or bad, it’s going to be a surreal experience.
Our recreational hobby of video games and our band are overlapping, and it’s been fun.
We’re hoping this game leads to other opportunities for the band in the future, as the more mediums we can get our hands in the better we say!
TMS: The Steam Powered Giraffe fandom isn’t just about the music. There is a webcomic as well, that goes into a lot of the backstory (sorry, The Spine! Back joke) of the characters you all portray on stage. In addition to the comic, what other endeavors are band members involved with that tie in to the fandom? I remember there was a site where fans could watch Bunny draw and learn more about the band, the music, and the characters. Is that still something that SPG does?
Bennett: We like to spread ourselves as thin as possible with everything we do. Haha.
But in all seriousness, we just like to get our hands in lots of different art forms, and most of that is due to the abilities, talents, and interests of the folks in Steam Powered Giraffe.
It’s not a group that’s run creatively by one person. Even our sound engineer for live shows joins in on contributing to the lore, fun, characters, and all that stuff. It’s a group effort. Mostly regulated by Bunny and I, as there always needs to be someone at the top I suppose, making sure things fit together, but for the most part it’s a “family” with open doors as far as the art we produce. We want it to be a place where we can try and make any art from our members an outlet, if it’s possible and works.
We are still working on our webcomic, for sure, and that’s always a fun on-going project. Our albums and comic and anything we might do in the future all tie into the backstory of the band in some way. We definitely have grand plans for the group and always dream big. But for the most part right now, it’s concerts, music videos, albums and the comic.
Interaction with our fan community is a big thing for us. Even before we had a “fan community” people would dress up as their own made-up robot characters and attend our performances.
We see that still to this day, and it’s a lot of fun, for fans and for us! I think being able to involve our fandom in any way we can is fantastic, and we have weekly fan art post on the band social streams as well as “fan bot” posts too.
Furthermore, we have a website called “The Cavalcadium.” This is an official fan community website with forums, that also has donation based service called “The Engineer-eteer Program” that lets fans support Steam Powered Giraffe, and grants them access to our digital discography, behind-the-scenes video blogs, rare recordings, sneak peaks at upcoming albums, and also some live art video streams from Sam and Bunny when they draw.
It’s a service we started a few years ago, has been well received and continues to be used by fans wanting to support the band more than just buying our merchandise. We do everything ourselves and are “home-grown”, and it’s tough to make a living doing art without a giant record company supporting you. But times they are changing and thanks to the internet even small-time robots like us can get our art out to people and let the fans directly support us, with no middle man. It’s been great!
Heck, you can even adopt your very own steam powered giraffe, feed and play with it, and dress it up in unlockable hats, even if you have a free account. I think that’s worth a visit to the site if nothing else. :P
TMS: My own favorite songs would have to be: Brass Goggles, Electricity Is In My Soul, Captain Albert Alexander, Airheart, The Suspender Man, Fancy Shoes, and Fire Fire. Songs by each band member are included in there, and I find that I don’t prefer one of you over the other as a composer. Do you think it’s because you’ve known each other for so long and worked together on this project together for so long that you each just “know” what an SPG song should be like? The songs are so diverse and different and yet there is an undercurrent of style that links everything.
Bennett: I think we do have a good grasp of “what makes a Steam Powered Giraffe song”, if only because we’ve all been living in it’s world for many years. Sam is the newest at making songs for the band, but even he has had years of absorption of the group before he made a song.
A lot of it has to do with harmonies. We inject harmonies into every song, most times three part harmonies, sometimes five, and sometimes just two part harmonies, but they are in every song, and most times they are prominent. We got our start street performing, and acoustic music lends itself to harmonies well. We love harmonies, harmonies sound great, they can take you back to a certain era sometimes, and that’s fascinating. We are all fans of music ourselves, and in the band we all like our own different types of music. I think it helps add to the variety, since our inspiration are so eclectic and wide.
We also like spreading our reach to different kinds of songs all the time, and we don’t necessarily want to make the same songs over and over again. You can probably see this from album to album. One album might be more folk song-oriented, while another might be more rock-oriented. We try and match albums with songs as best as we can, so the album all sounds like it works together, but sometimes it’s loose. We like making songs for lots of different genres, but we are always able to tie it back to the act and make it sound like it belongs there.
I think Sam has only added to the variety, and we love utilizing all three of us for each album.
I think the idea is “if a listener doesn’t like this, maybe they’ll like this other thing”. Having the lead singer change all the time opens us up to a wider audience.
Some people like all of us and all our songs, while other people only like a specific one of us singing and can’t stand the others.
It’s all fine by us, as that’s the intention. Everyone has different tastes, and we hope that each album we put out has at least one song that anyone on planet earth will enjoy.
We definitely try and revisit certain styles of songs at the same time though, because certain styles of music just fit with the band so well.
But don’t be surprised when you hear one track on a future album that’s more heavy metal or even a boy band-like song. We like a good dose of variety.
TMS: Is there anything I’ve missed that you would like current or new fans to know about the band, upcoming performances, CDs and merchandise, etc?
Bennett: It was a pleasure being interviewed by you!
Readers can check out our website www.SteamPoweredGiraffe.com and find more information on the band, upcoming performes, new albums, and all that fun stuff!
Thanks for having me!
Many thanks to David Michael Bennett for taking time out of his busy schedule to thoroughly answer my questions! Also, revisit that definition of steampunk he rattled off—it’s probably one of the best ones I’ve heard yet! If you would like to hear a sample track from their SteamWorld Heist album, check out The Stars below:
Also, have a look at Hold Me, from their new The Vice Quadrant: A Space Opera:
The SteamWorld Heist music, as well as the band’s newest album The Vice Quadrant: A Space Opera are available for purchase from their official website: https://steampoweredgiraffe.com/index.php/music/.
Sara Goodwin has a B.A. in Classical Civilization and an M.A. in Library Science from Indiana University. Once she went on an archaeological dig and found awesome ancient stuff. Sara enjoys a smorgasbord of pan-nerd entertainment such as Renaissance faires, anime conventions, steampunk, and science fiction and fantasy conventions. In her free time, she writes things like fairy tale haiku, fantasy novels, and terrible poetry about being stalked by one-eyed opossums. In her other spare time, she sells nerdware as With a Grain of Salt Designs, Tweets, and Tumbls.
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