1.- The interviewee
James Richardson Brown is a renowned Steampunk author, jeweler, maker, 3D artist, sculptor and strongman. Creator of ‘The Sydeian Coalition’ steampunk/science fiction series, he has been featured in such places as Oxford University Museum of the History of Science, Wired, BBC, Sky News and many others. In addition, he is one of the main promoters of Steampunk and Steamgoth in the UK and worldwide.
2.- Steampunk and Steamgoth
Dear James, welcoming you to our brief interviews’ series is really exciting. Not only because you are a prominent figure of the international Steampunk scene, but for your involvement in the development of Steamgoth. We have recently published a blog post about this subject entitled ‘Steamgoth in a nutshell’ and would love to go deeper into it. So let’s begin the interview!
Q.- There is no doubt that you have had an outstanding role in the development of the British Steampunk scene since its early days. You hosted the UK’s first steampunk meet-up in 2007, you have written educational articles, and even given demonstrations of Steampunk fashion and sculpture. Would you tell us a bit about the Steampunk scene in UK?
James Richardson-Brown (J).- Steampunk caught on in its modern incarnation as a sub-culture more slowly in the UK than in the US. When I first became interested in the genre there were a mere handful of us attending events that in no way catered to our interests but instead had the kind of open minded attendees who enjoyed what we were doing. The first steampunk meet up I organised really took place when Thomas Willeford and I met at the Whitby goth weekend. As the only two steampunks at the event we went for a tea and jokingly referred to it as a meet up. The next year I organised another meet expecting one or two curious people and received maybe a dozen attendees. The rapid growth of steampunk shocked me greatly, within a few short years we had attendance at the meet of over 100 people, which had to be spread over several tea shops. At this point the meet up had outgrown its initial idea, to spread the genre. The year after this, Thaddeus Tinker and Lady Elsie, who founded the Asylum which is the UKs biggest steampunk festival, turned the Whitby meet up into a full fledged event with entertainment, a market, etc. A much needed evolution!
Steampunk was always likely to elicit a great response in the UK, as much of its historical influence not only harks from there but there is still a huge amount of interest in the Victorian era and the shadows of its former wonders still invade everyday life. It is a simple thing for many who live in the UK to see one or more Victorian achievements near their home. Indeed many people still live in Victorian era houses!
Q.- Besides the above items, your literary works have turned you into the Steamgoth champion. Taking into consideration that some of our readers may not be familiar with this term, would you define it in a few words?
J.- Steamgoth came out of my love of the darker side of the Victorian imagination. Whereas steampunk has much thanks to give to the Victorian love of scientific advancement, steamgoth owes more to the fear that this advancement caused and the twin Victorian obsessions with the occult and death. As a boy I would often be read Victorian ghost stories by my grandmother that fascinated me, this fascination never ended. I found myself reading much into not only the fiction of Victorian horror but also the facts behind it. The rise in scientific knowledge elicited a new kind of horror story that instead of just relying on the paranormal instead included mankinds interference in the occult. Novels such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein laid the foundation for steamgoth in the 19th century. My love of this type of art led my vision of steampunk to be darker than that of many others and I began using the term steamgoth, a wordplay on steampunk and gothic, to describe this fascination. When I was interviewed in 2007 for an article in a magazine, I mentioned my idea and vision of the genre. Unexpectedly others have joined this darker aesthetic vision. It was wonderful to see the article Steamgoth in a nutshell on your own website, I think it will make a wonderful addition to the growth of steamgoth!
Q.- We really like Mike Perschon’s definition of Steampunk as an applied aesthetic; this is, a retrofuturistic, hyper-Victorian, technofantasy look and feel applied to narratives, movies, art, gaming, and costumes among other items. Which elements should shape Steamgoth to grow and evolve as an autonomous movement? Perhaps a different sensibility, distinct values, different archetypes, divergent heroes? There is no doubt that Steampunk provides us with a particular aesthetic approach and it has the capacity to question our way of life, our relationship with technology, our social organization… but could Steamgoth do this with a different perspective?
J.- Yes, I think steamgoth will have its own unique perspective. However I think it has taken quite some time to build the movement of steampunk as it now exists. Steamgoth will of course grow in its own way and far beyond the limited ideas I had when I first used the term. I doubt Jeter when he first used the term steampunk would ever have imagined the size to which the movement would grow. Ideas, especially artistic ones, are like this though, they are sent into the world in a limited way then grow as though they have their own life. I think if steamgoth had only a couple of things to teach us right from its beginnings it would be that beauty is not always obvious, sometimes the most beautiful things are found in the most unlikely places. Also the old idea of memento mori, to remember that we are mortal and have but a short time to live, a time we should use wisely.
Q.- Do think that Steamgoth is becoming more popular? Do you see any trends arising?
J.- I would say that steamgoth is becoming far more popular. The facebook page for the movement (http://www.facebook.com/steamgoth) is growing daily and is slowly becoming a respository of the wonderful work people are doing within the genre. As for arising trends, I think there is still much development yet to occur but I have noticed there are already two main differences in the way people are embracing steamgoth. Firstly, some people are more enamoured with a more dramatic vision whereas others desire a more tongue in cheek “black humour” approach, I think both of these are equally important. Secondly, I think the varying levels of reliance on such subjects as science, occultism, etc. are definite trends, I predict that in the future certain writers, artists, etc. will base their work more within one of these areas and will gain followers who have a more heavy interest in that subject.
Q.- Is there any must-go event anywhere in the world that you would recommend to the Steamgoth aficionados?
J.- There are no regular events which strictly adhere to the steamgoth genre but I would say that they would find themselves welcome at most goth and steampunk events. As the genre grows I have no doubt there will be more events that are self confessed steamgoth events. I recently ran a steamgoth evening and I have to say the feedback was very positive.
Q.- Over the years you have created numerous works, released under the ‘Sydeian Creations’ or the ‘Black Laboratory’ collections depending on their style and inspiration sources. Jewelry pieces are among these creations, which differences Steampunk and Steamgoth jewelry? Materials, techniques, symbolisms…
J.- I think different designers will answer this question in very different ways. I doubt anyone can truly say what is and what is not part of either genre outside of broad guidelines. For me personally it is a question of feeling. When I have an idea for a piece and can see it clearly within my mind I will know instinctively into which category it belongs. I don’t think any particular material or technique is more steamgoth or steampunk. I would however say that inspiration and symbolism differs for me personally at least. If there are elements of memento mori or occultism then that piece is steamgoth in my mind, however if the elements are more to do with engineering or sci-fi then I would think of it as a steampunk piece.
Q.- As jeweler, what challenges do you think Steampunk jewelry designers face? Do you have any piece of advice for them?
J.- As with any genre certain cliches develop, I have often seen very similar designs being created by several jewellers. It is important that as designers we rise above these obvious designs and attempt to continuously find new ways to express ourselves. This also is the answer to one of the main problems that designers currently face, which is imported mass produced jewellery that I have started to see increasingly at steampunk events.
Q.- Is there a place for Steampunk and Steamgoth fine jewelry?
J.- I would say that there definitely is a place for fine jewellery in both sub cultures. I myself have been approached with private commissions and created fine jewellery pieces for events such as weddings, anniversaries, etc. More people are incorporating these genres into their everyday lives, with this change comes a willingness to invest more in the accoutrements that bring their interests to life.
Q.- You can be considered a 3D artist, have you ever thought of designing jewelry with the power of computer aided design techniques?
J.- I have used both 2-D and 3-D CAD systems in the past to design pieces but all my steampunk and steamgoth pieces have been designed using technical drawing. This allows me to feel a deeper connection with the craftsmen of the past whom I so admire.
Q.- We will be presenting our first jewelry piece created through computer design 3D printing before our attendance to this year’s Wave Gotik Treffen in Leipzig. Could you make any prediction regarding technical advances like these and their impact in the jewelry industry?
J.- The jewellery industry has always been a marriage of inconsistencies, incorporating both ancient techniques and new technologies. 3D printing is a fascinating and exciting technology that is allowing designers an unprecedented method of production and prototyping. I think any advance of this sort can only add to the bewildering array of methods used. There are of course bad points to new advancements such as homogenised designs but I think generally these new techniques can complement the ancient skills of our forebears.
Q.- Sir Sydeian Strong is your nom de guerre as Victorian strongman, showcasing traditional feats such as chain tearing, nail driving, steel bending and hammer/axe levering. Obviously these demanding skills require a lot of training, when did you become interested in these disciplines? What is the best of your activity as showman?
J.- I first became interested in physical training when I began martial arts as a boy but I think my first introduction to the world of weight training came from watching Arnold Schwarzenegger movies! However my love of the art of strongman came from seeing the true Victorian wonders of the likes of Sandow, Cyr, Saxon, etc. I recall as a boy reading about some of their feats in a “believe it or not” book. I was astounded and could barely believe these feats were possible. I trained with weights for a number of years until I decided that “if one man can do something, so then can another” and therefore began to train to perform the feats that had amazed me as a boy. It took a lot of reading before I came across the methods that allowed me to train for them but finally I found myself capable of bending steel bars for the first time!
I think the best part of strongman for me has two answers. The feat that seems to be most enjoyed by the audience may be tearing chains, a feat in which I literally pull apart a steel chain with my bare hands. However, my favourite part of the act is always the audience reaction to the feats, its a wonderful gift to entertain and have people truly enjoy your show.
Q.- May we expect new literary works in the near future?
J.- I am currently working on the finishing touches to a card game called “The Heart of Sut” I have been very lucky to work alongside game designer Chris Phillips and wonderful artist Arfon Jones, who previously worked with on the book “The Life of the Air Kraken”. It truly is a very fun game that has been thoroughly enjoyed by people in test matches. I can’t wait to see more people playing it. As for books, I am currently working on a novel, which I hope to release at the end of this year!
Q.- Is there anything else you would like to add?
J.- No, except to thank you for this intriguing interview!!
Disclaimer.- The opinions or statements expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of Decimononic.
3.- Next interviewee!
On the 15th of May we are publishing the interview for G. D. Falksen. Mr. Falksen is an author, lecturer, and MC. He is the author of The Hellfire Chronicles: Blood In The Skies and the Ouroboros Cycle series. His short and serial fiction includes “The Strange Case of Mr. Salad Monday”, “Cinema U”, “An Unfortunate Engagement”, and “The Mask of Tezcatlipoca”. He has appeared as a guest at various events, including New York Comic Con and Montreal Comiccon. He has appeared in The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, the Hartford Courant, Marie Claire Italia, BoingBoing.net, Time Out New York, USA Today, and New York Magazine, and on MTV, NHK, VBS.tv, Space.
Remember that all the published interviews are available for your delight: ‘Steampunk jewelry tonight with…’ the brief interviews series by Decimononic.