October 10, 2011 by Dan Swinhoe
“It’s easier to sell songs about Darwin and boilerplate and Stephenson’s Rocket from under the brim of a bowler. Maybe if we ever feel like we’ve outgrown the Victoriana we’ll do some straight gigs. But then Kiss were rubbish without make up,weren’t they?”
The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing are many, things; Punks, self-proclaimed Raconteurs, Vagabonds, Pornographers, Assassins, but never rubbish. And you’ll be hard to find people to disagree. NME called them the leading lights of Steampunk and the band got a lot of attention for releasing the first commercial wax cylinder (they make vinyl look high-tech) since 1922. “I’d like to say it was a well executed marketing gimmick designed to give us a publicity boost. It really wasn’t though, it was just one of those “wouldn’t it be cool?” ideas.”
Marc Burrows is the bassist of the band, and the one who enjoys doing the interviews. He joined the band in April 2009, drafted in by Andrew O’Neill and Andy Heintz to flesh out an absent rhythm section, along with new drummer Jez Miller. “My love for dressing stupid and jumping up and down, and affection for the Victorian era meant I took to it like a duck to water” he says.
Their debut album, Now That’s What I Call Steampunk! Volume 1 was recorded by December the same year and the idea to include the wax cylinder also came with instructions to build a phonograph to play them on for £20. Marc doesn’t regret the idea (“we’re still getting reviewed off the back of the cylinder”) but is wary of doing it again. “The risk is to become the ‘band that always does the gimmicky stuff’, we’re already enough of a gimmick: we dress in Victoriana and sing about Charles Darwin! It would be awful to become a caricature, because I think under the bowler hats and goggles we do have something to say.”
The cylinders, minus the ones that were broken in the post, are quickly becoming collector’s items and Marc is happy to let them stay as a one-off. But he doesn’t rule out the suggestion of another outdated format being brought back. “If we can think of something equally cool then anything’s a possibility. ATrak? Betamax? A Music box? Let us know.”
Personally, Marc wants to keep it simple. “I’ll be happy to just see a nice 12” version with deluxe artwork. I do hope the ‘build your own’ theme keeps moving though. Could we do ‘build your own CD player’ do you think? “First get hold of an optical laser…”
All of this was done on their own Leather Apron label. “If someone had come along and said, “we’ll pay for this for you, and sort out the distribution, market it, everything” I doubt we’d have said no – but there’s a satisfaction in releasing it ourselves” he explains “there’s no red tape to get through, we know where every penny has come from. We always assumed we’d have to do it ourselves; we really weren’t sure how many people would be interested.” But for now the band are happy enough with what they are doing, and Marc makes the important point that “this way we get complete control.” When asked about taking other Steampunk bands under the wing of Leather Apron records he seems pretty enthusiastic. “Now that’s an idea. It’s been mooted around a few times, the Victorian Steampunk Society suggested something like this last year but nothing really came of it.” But being in charge comes with a lot of rules, and these guys are punks after all. “In the end I think we’re happier being outsiders.”
Are The Men leaders or outsiders? Marc thinks a bit of both. “I think the scene is still so spread that it’s difficult for anyone to be “lead- ing it”. But he does note, “of all the bands that I know of we have the most active online community, and sell pretty well, but then I’ve seen internet discussions of the scene where we’re not mentioned, which hurt.” Marc doesn’t see the other Steampunk bands as a threat, if asked if he sees them as friends or competition he says “Friends, definitely. If there’s pressure it only comes from within the band to be the best version of ourselves.” Maybe it’s this drive that has pushed the band onwards and upwards. Since the album release the band have played shows all over the UK and at the World Steam Expo in the US, and managed to release a Christmas E.P. entitled A Very Steampunk Christmas. “Of the two I think we were collectively more happy with the Christmas EP.” Marc says, “We were a lot more comfortable as a band by this point, when we did the album we hadn’t really played together as a four piece enough.” Marc has a lot of praise for Ben Miller, “If I’m honest the whole thing hangs off Ben, our drummer at the time, who is an experienced enough studio drummer to cover up our inexperience.” He explains that things were different this time round. “With the Christmas EP, recorded way after Ben had left, we really felt we knew what we were doing and wanted to make something that really sounded like ‘us’. We were able to take a lot more time over it, although we still went to the wire.” Marc puts emphasis on the band as a whole. “The E.P. sounds much more like the band as we are, and it was a much more collaborative writing process.” One of the songs from the E.P.,
‘Stille Nacht’, is a Rammstein-esque take on the Christmas classic. The song was recorded live as an instrumental then dubbed with vocals afterwards. “Andy screams so much at the end he nearly passed out.” But Marc is happy with the result. “‘Stille Nacht’ was completely worked out in the rehearsal room, all four of us contributed equally, although I suppose there are some nineteenth century Germans who helped.” In the studio Marc says the recording went smoothly. “The only frustration we had was trying to fit everything in as we didn’t have enough time. I’d have loved a sax part on ‘Ebenezer’ for example.” It’s a rare thing for a band to be brimming with so many different ideas. “With ‘Ebenezer’s Carol’ especially we threw the kitchen sink at it, trying to make it sound like a proper Christmas song. I remember Andrew saying it needed to be “worked on like a jewel”.” But Marc does cheekily admit “Although I suppose I’m slightly biased because ‘Ebenezer’ was mostly mine. But the experience in the studio was quite satisfying. We’re hoping for more time for the next one.”
But before too much focus is put on the E.P., Marc is quick to defend the older record. “I love the album, don’t get me wrong, it’s exactly what it should be, but it was recorded very very quickly. The whole process probably took less than a week, though the mixing was spread over a couple of weekends. We had hardly any money, and even less time.” The album wasn’t completely a group effort either. “The album wasn’t really written as a band either: Andy and Andrew wrote all the songs themselves, and Ben, our old drummer, and myself just fleshed them out when we joined.” Marc astutely says, “Because it was done in such a hurry it was always going to be a bit, well, hurried.”
“We went into the studio for the album not even knowing exactly how many songs we could get done. The idea was just to keep going until we ran out of time: luckily that ran to twelve songs.” They tried to keep the punk ethos as much as they could. “We recorded them all live, the bass, the drums, about 75% of the vocals were all done live, in the same room- which is why everything bleeds onto everything else.”
When Marc looks back he’s happy with what he helped create. “It captures how we sounded at that point, it’s a properly punk album, in places it sounds like someone just left a tape recorder running in the rehearsal room, and I mean that in a good way.”
“On the other hand we’ve evolved into much more of a ‘band’ in the year or so since it was recorded: the band as it is now is a proper fourpiece unit, I’d really like to re-record some of those songs in a radio session or something, because I think we play them a lot better now.” The roots of the band start with Andy and Andrew living together, and a joint interest in music and Victoriana was bound to lead to something. “I don’t know what the first catalyst was but they ended up writing songs toward a stand up show that Andrew was doing. They did a few gigs together, with Andrew on guitar and Andy on saw, sharing the vocals. Most of the first album was written in that period.” Marc knew Andy through stand up and agreed to be part of the rhythm section to open the stand up show. “It went so well we did a few more.”
Ben went onto pastures new and we drafted in Jez, an old mate of Andy’s on drums, who is fitted in perfectly. He had his first rehearsal with us on a Monday, the following Friday we flew to the states to play.”
The critics have been kind to The Men, with both the album and the E.P. getting very favourable reviews in both the Steampunk and mainstream music press. “We honestly weren’t searching for reviews with these records, I wasn’t sure they’d get reviewed at all. But we knew they were great songs, we were very sure of that.” And Marc seems beam about the responses they received. “To have that confirmed is just very gratifying. I think I’m more proud of the reaction to that album than I have been to pretty much anything else I’veever done.” Marc and the rest of the band look set to have plenty to be proud of this year too. More UK dates, another show at the World Steam Expo, a show at the Asylum and possibly the Edinburgh Fringe festival again. A new album is in the works too.
The band are currently seven songs into their semaphore album. “Four of those are ready and we could record tomorrow, the others are in various states of completion as we all write in different ways.” ‘Gin’, the song recently mentioned on their Facebook (complete with the lyrics ‘It’s cleaner than water, it’s cheaper than porter, it’s Gin!’) is still a work in progress. “It exists as a complete demo, is nowhere near finished. Andy wrote the words, and then he and Jez recorded a demo together. Andrew and I have yet to get our mucky hands on it, and I already know the finished version will sound very different.” Marc says this is normal for the band. “The same happened with a song called ‘Doing It For The Whigs’, which I wrote and demoed on my own at home, when we filtered it through Andrew and Andy’s brains it became something quite different.”
If your curious about the subject matter, or worried the band might move along the time-line, have no fear. Brunel, 1832’s election, the seaside, Victorian contraception and of course Gin are just some of the issues explored.
The outfits will be around still, but don’t focus on them too much. “They’re not the be all and end all, but they make us feel more like a gang when we play more straight gigs, and make us feel part of something larger when we play to the Steampunk community.”
Being part of a bigger community isn’t just a Steampunk thing. Marc explains, “We take the ‘punk’ part of ‘Steampunk’ very seriously, and our influences come in a direct lineage from there.” He runs off a list of bands; Ramones, Buzzcocks, Dead Kennedies, The Pistols, The Damned, “and a hundred thousand other dirty fuckers.” Each member has their own taste, Andrew is the metal head, Marc admits he’s an indie kid, Jez is the old school Punk, and Andy was in 90s Goth band Creaming Jesus, but Marc says his taste is the widest of all. But whatever the individual preference, “Punk is the centre of the venn-diagram of the four members.”
As for the long-term future, Marc is pretty unsure, either “See how far we can take this ‘Steampunk’ thing without losing track of what it is” or “fly off to the moon, in a hot air balloon.”