I got the chance to interview Jay Cartwright of the new steampunk band Lemming Malloy and talk about all things steamy, marvelous, and musical. More than just a music interview, though, Cartwright also contributes some fascinating thoughts on steampunk in general, the power of music, and individuality (and of course, steampunk keytars).
Lemming Malloy’s debut album Avalauncher takes to the skies this week! Get it here!
Nothing says steampunk like a Marvelon.
In this case, I mean the steampunk modded keytar of the same name, prominently featured on the steampunk band Lemming Malloy’s debut album Avalauncher, and lovingly created and played by frontman Jay Cartwright.
Based out of Chapel Hill, NC, Lemming Malloy is comprised of Cartwright (on the Marvelon), Wendy Spitzer (bass), Joe Mazzitelli (guitar) and Dylan Thurston (drums). Their music is infectious: a rousing concoction of peppy yet complex rhythm, thrumming Marvelon, catchy guitar riffs, and harmonies both unusual and lovely.
Cartwright’s songwriting provides both ample musical and lyrical space, creating a layered whole that satisfies the guy who’s “just here for the music” as well as the one who wants to pore over references to Foucault and F. Scott Fitzgerald. As evidenced in our interview, Cartwright demonstrates he’s a a real song-crafter, one of those who writes from an amazingly rich place.
Lemming Malloy is a welcome and eclectic addition to the music scene here in NC, and certainly a wonderful new voice for steampunk adherents and dabblers alike.
Natania Barron: So, first things first. Who is Lemming Malloy?
Jay Cartwright: We culled the band name from a favorite children’s novel of mine about forest creatures overrun by a cadre of animal Commies. Also, many believe that lemmings run in mobs off cliffs to their deaths in an act of fatal conformance. In actuality, this belief has root in legend and was only captured on film once–by a documentary crew who used trick photography to get the shot they wanted.
The metaphor is that as much as the establishment wants you to believe that lemmings are a mob-ruled conformist species, we all know that ultimately we cannot let them trick us into believing that this is true! The same goes for our own species: HUMANS! All of the above seemed to capture our feelings about the interaction between the group and the individual, the weak and the strong, and authority and the populace.
NB: What’s the background on some of your musical compatriots?
JC: Wendy, Dylan and I all met at UNC Chapel Hill. Dylan and Wendy were both music performance majors. Their background contributes to the tightness and ambitiousness of their playing. The three of us played in the defunct Eyes to Space. Joe was a supportive fan of Eyes to Space, and his recent project Invasion opened for us a number of times. From many conversations with him at shows, it became clear we were quite musically aligned, and from watching Invasion, it was clear he could play! When we formed Lemming Malloy, he was an obvious choice. Wendy is currently heading her own project Felix Obelix, which also features Dylan and I, and she plays in the all-girl-skronk trio Gates of Beauty.
NB: Steampunk certainly extends well beyond the borders of your sound alone. Your costumes, your personas, your instruments–the Marvelon! Tell me all about the Marvelon.
JC: For most, steampunk is a genre born in literature. My primary exposure to steampunk instead was through reading about the efforts of steampunk modders online who were re-fashioning their laptops and CPUs to seem as though they were steam-powered. I played a keytar in my last band but smashed it to pieces at our final show. I knew I wanted to make another one, and since steampunk was on my brain, I fashioned my new keytar to look Victorian. Actually, technically I suppose it’s more Edwardian. Our bassist Wendy nicknamed it the The Marvelon, and I thought that name was hysterical.
NB: So you’re a steampunk band in Chapel Hill, NC. How’d that come about?
JC: First and foremost, for me, a steampunk aesthetic conjures associations with the antebellum US, the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain, and the birth of Marxism leading to the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. My previous band Eyes to Space was a strictly “just-for-fun” act that presented a fairly superficial take on music as a form of expression. We were mostly interested in playing around with musical conventions for the sake of it and playing fun, energetic danceable material. When I began thinking about the direction for a new project, I wanted to form a band that maintained the energy and positive vibe of the old one, yet actually had something to say; a “message” if you will.
The most important message I want to convey is that people are individuals and that all of us, well at least in the Western world, have a lot of control over our lives and our happiness, yet most people do not fully exploit that opportunity. I started thinking about how the late 1800s brought a lot of liberating changes to Western society such as the ebbing of the church as a political force and the solidifying of the scientific method as a means to understand the world around us. There was quite a lot of opportunity present to move towards a more egalitarian and enlightened way of life for all. Unfortunately, the power structure seized upon wealth as a means of maintaining control, and much of the suffering and poverty in the Western world of the present has root in the philosophies and political movements that gelled in the age of steam. The more I thought about it, the message I wanted to convey and the steampunk aesthetic melded more and more, and after that connection was complete, Lemming Malloy was born.
NB: Do you have plans to mod any further instruments?
JC: I’d like to make the accordion more a part of our show at some point (once I streamline the amplification of it), but it’s fairly steampunk as is. I’d like, however to find a wooden (as opposed to plastic) one. Hohner was still making these in the 1950s. Maybe I’ll luck out! Once Joe wins a few more eBay auctions, he should have some surprises in store!
NB: So, what does steampunk mean, in a broad sense, to you?
JC: It means many different things to many different people, so I appreciate your phrasing this question in a personal manner. When examining steampunk mods, I was really puzzled why seeing modern inventions realized in a steampunk sense was so satisfying.
I conclude that this is due to the miraculousness of human innovation before the advances in engineering of first interchangeable parts and second polymerization of plastics. Even lumbering dirigibles or mechanized farm machinery had a very personal feel to them because they were the result of one person’s own creative endeavors as an engineer. Even if a tinkerer used parts he purchased instead of made, those parts were made in turn by a specialized craftsman. It was truly impossible to conceive of one machine as being a duplicate of another. There was a personal connection then between a creator and his invention which simply does not exist today. Also, because so much time was spent forging a physical mass for a practical purpose, its uniqueness, even if due to imperfections, gave every component a sense of charm.
When you see a photograph of the original powered Wright Flyer it’s a very moving experience. Every inch of that plane was fussed over and researched and eventually constructed to perform the miraculous. Seeing a photo of an assembly line Boeing jet obviously just doesn’t exude that degree of emotion and charm. So steampunk to me is an obsession with that feeling – and that ties in very well with our emphasis on the power of uniqueness of the individual – be it do to with how you dress, how you speak, what opinions you form, and what makes you happy. To me, that is the essence of steampunk.
NB: So how does your definition of steampunk then affect your music? Is there something more intimate, more hand-crafted? Does this extend as well, to musical instruments, too?
JC: I would consider our music a success if it leads people to ponder the level of control they have on their lives, and encourage them to be self-actualized individuals. You’re correct that I mean my personal instrument to influence others to affirm individuality. Our lives can be factory processes but not if we work to specialize our constitutions. So good observation!
NB: I’m addicted to your song “House of Cards”. What’s the story behind it?
JC: Thank you for the kind words! I’m glad that you like it. It’s one of our favorites to play. The story behind it has root in the my timing of reading Foucault’s History of Sexuality: Volume I, an Introduction more or less simultaneously as the original Baum classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. That first Oz book is thematically a little bit different from the movie, and much more is suggested about the uselessness of the approval of authority as a means of judging yourself. A main point of the book is that in order for authority to maintain power, it must invent reasons for why it is needed and superior over common people.
History of Sexuality is a very complex book, but one of the main themes in it is that the bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century had no means to justify its superiority due to the diminished importance of being a blue blood of royal stock and the repression of sexuality that so marked the Victorian Era was imposed as an invention to justify their right to wealth and power over the have-nots. The characters in Oz having to wear colored glasses to make the city look green very much reminded me of the imposition that people must confess to priests or psychologists in order to view their own sexuality; and then, like the Oz glasses gave the city a false green hue, the act of vetting your sexuality through others painted it with a sense of shame that is completely artificial.
The lyrics of “House of Cards” contain references to both books and my hope was to tie the themes of both together. Incidentally, both books seem strongly steampunk to me, Baum’s because of the time period when he wrote his novels, and Foucault’s because of its deliberate examination of the Victorian Era. Musically speaking, there are many flourishes gleaned from ragtime in the various melodies – also very steampunk.
NB: Who/what do you cite as your major influences, both musically and otherwise?
JC: I really love old music. I was classically trained on the accordion and have a heavy interest in the folk traditions tied to that instrument, especially the music of Eastern Europe and the British Isles. I also have a soft-spot for Stephen Foster and American saloon tunes of that nature. One heavy influence is a series of songs during the 60s where old-style tunes were re-realized in a modern (at the time) rock style. I’m especially a sucker for “House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals and the Big Brother and Holding Company version on “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. With Lemming Malloy our frame of reference for arrangement is very mid-60s whereas the inspiration for the material itself is closer to music from an earlier period.
NB: As compared to a good deal of steampunk music out there, your music seems a bit more upbeat and, dare I say it, truly infectious! What’s Lemming Malloy’s musical message?
JC: Be an individual! Question authority! Judge yourself on your own terms! Tap into the freedom that society was allowing during the breakdown of institutions during second half of the nineteenth century, yet exist within a possible uchronia where greed for wealth was not able to swoop in to replace that power structure! Embrace inconvenience because that is the source of life’s charm!
NB: You’re about to release your first album. Tell me about what inspired Avalauncher and your vision for the future.
JC: Avalauncher sets up our spiraling outward examination of power relationships. “Sioux Falls, South Dakota”, the second track, is probably the most internal as it deals with self-worth as derived from attractiveness to others. The Great Gatsby was a definite influence when writing that one and hopefully will serve to tie things together as we expand from the micro of human psychology to macro of clashing ideologies on a societal level, and eventually the very boundaries of the physical world that constrict our self-identity, which is where the material for our follow-up EP, already in production, will take us.
Also related to the Avalauncher material, I feel like up to now I haven’t given nearly enough credit to my fellow musicians. We tried to work out arrangement that showcase their musical strengths. Dylan and Wendy have their rhythmic agreement tightened to a tee, and in writing the songs, I always leave lots of room for Joe to solo, because when you have a great guitar player in your band, you really ought to showcase that.
NB: Where can we catch you next?
JC: Our debut show is Friday, August 8th in Chapel Hill at Local 506 on W. Franklin Street. It doubles as the Avalauncher release show. Doors are at 9:00. The Weatherkings, also debuting kick things off, and they’re followed by The Travesties, a new project from the Jett Rink personnel. It should be a great night. We’re so jazzed about it, we worked it out with Local 506 for there to be no cover charge. We’re really excited to have this opportunity to share our music for the first time, so please: come one and all!
NB: Anything you’d like to add?
JC: Everyone out there should tune into the Clockwork Cabaret podcast. Those mysterious Davenports occasionally touch down to earth to share their elegantly steampunk tastes – and you owe it to yourself to listen! And thank you for taking an interest in Lemming Malloy!